Through late 1919 and 1920, Fascism adapted to its electoral defeat by emphasizing the fight against the Marxist Revolutionary Socialists and later Communists that were an extreme threat in Italy at the time. This is how the Blackshirts became prominent. Fascisms presented themselves as the preferable alternative to the Reds. The Reds used violence for revolution, Fascists violence against the Reds (and other opponents). This gave anti-Communists the choice of embracing Fascist violence or fighting them as well.
Fascism had united various disaffected political groupings. An ideology and a movement born out of the rejection of the existing ideologies, whether Marxism, Liberalism or Traditional Conservatism. An anti-movement turned into its own movement.
Fascism’s use of non-dogmatic and moderate Right ideals and extremist methods
The attempt to recruit dissident Leftists failed in 1919. The mainstream Left was highly successful. That scared the Centre and the Right yet neither could provide a clear answer and the Italian parliament was divided and a mess. The perfect opportunity for Fascism to recruit anti-democratic Rightists.
The Fascists doubled down on their anti-Marxism and embraced the emerging anti-Communist discourse with a fight against class struggle and for private property. That allowed them to appeal to the moderate Left; to Social Democrats and Social Liberals, to Centrist Liberal and Capitalists as well as to Conservatives. (Though it even managed to appeal to dissident Communists who rejected mainstream party policy.)
At the same time, they profited from the collapse of Liberalism and the optimism it had been linked to. A desire for order and stability and anti-individualist sentiment combined with the rejection of Communism or Left-wing Socialist as harmful forms of collectivism, is the perfect breeding ground for Fascism in any society.
Fascism managed to successfully promote anti-Marxism and anti-Liberalism, a rejection of class struggle and individualism and a defense of private property, national pride and (certain) traditional morals, all a Reactionary crusade, but while being modern and revolutionary. They could achieve moderately reactionary goals and fight mainstream revolutions while having their own disciplined and ordered revolution.
Fascism moderated its anti-clericalism and embraced cultural Catholicism while remaining a party led by Atheists and Agnostics. It accepted the monarchy while still trying to concentrate most power in the hands of the Fascist leader. It protected private property while increasingly having the state interfere in the economy and it pushed Socially Conservative policies considered mainstream at the time; stricter abortion laws and limits on birth control.
Fascism could attract non-dogmatic reactionaries the same way it could attract non-dogmatic Liberals, Social Democrats, Socialists and Communists, by keeping what worked of each ideology and ditching what didn’t.
While Fascism joined the National bloc for the elections in 1921, that ironically was a coalition with moderate right, syncretic and center-left parties: the Italian Nationalist Association (a party that also had syncretic elements and included both democrats and authoritarians, moderate and revolutionary Nationalists and people who spoke of Italy as a proletarian nation and of National Socialism without any connection German Nazism), a Liberal group and the Social Democratic party (which was actually Social Liberal and Radical). The Fascists did not form a bloc with the Vatican supported Christian Democrats off the Italian People’s Party.
Yet it was in this period that Fascism proclaimed itself Far Right. Yet it had little in common with the Historical Far Right in Italy. While moderating its anti-clericalism, Fascism had little interest in fighting the ‘injustice of the Pope as prisoner in the Vatican’ or opposing the legalization of divorce. They would eventually reach a compromise on the former issue and not rock the boat regarding the latter.
In a way it attracted moderates, yet moderate extremists, or nuanced extremists, or perhaps best said, flexible extremists. Which might just describe Fascism at its core; flexible extremism. This explains both Fascism’s initial broad appeal, its many enemies and why Fascism as a dirty word acquired so many meanings, being thrown around by the Left and eventually the Right.
Fascism has something in common with almost each existing movement and as such each ideology can try to links its opponents to Fascism.
Syncretic movements make for easy insults. Especially if they lose a war. And losing the war (and allying with Nazi Germany) were extremely important in making Fascism the meaningless insult it has become.
While after WWII (or I should say during WWII) Fascism became identified as ultimate evil, before WWII, it was Fundamentalist Reactionaries; Traditionalists on the Far Right and most Marxists on the Far Left who were most opposed to Fascism.
Fascism’s embrace by the Centre
As previously mentioned, anti-Fascism largely started out with Marxists, with Communists and revolutionary Socialists attacking Fascism because it was the ultimate negation of the class struggle. This would lead to Fascism being limped in with Capitalism and Reactionarism across the revolutionary Left, and with Stalinists attacking it and Social Democracy as twin brothers for both de facto embracing moderate Socialism while Social Democracy attacked Stalinism as red Fascism since both supported violence and dictatorship. All these criticisms were correct. Fascism did undermine class struggle in a way similar to Social Democracy, both were revisionists, it did indirectly protect the Capitalists and Reactionaries from the red menace.
Just as how Classical Liberals are right to point out that while they promote individualism and anti-Statism, Fascism and Socialism are both Statist, Reactionaries were right to point out that Fascism was modern and revolutionary. Each assessment of Fascism and its similarity with other ideologies is true but selective and before Fascism was discredited, the fanatics emphasized the differences, with the moderate Right, Left and Centre
The Social Democrats in Germany were unusually anti-Fascist (as well as exceptionally anti-Communist) but many Social Democrats and moderate Leftists could tolerate Fascism or even appreciate it. Not just in Italy but across the world.
Churchill a Progressive Conservative/Classical Liberal/moderate Social Liberal, was a fervent supporter of Mussolini praising him up till 1940, FDR a Progressive Centrist? Social Liberal? Well he was positive about Mussolini till the crisis over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. It would be Ethiopia to first damage Fascism’s reputation in the Western world. Before that, Mussolini was popular in the USA.
The irony is that while Fascism’s methods and form of state are extreme, it ironically uses extreme methods to promote rather pragmatic and sometimes nuanced economic and social policies.
Fascism is neither extremely reactionary, nor extremely progressive. Neither extremely Socialist or extremely Capitalists. It is pragmatists and realists using extreme methods. When they embrace certain Conservative policies.
This in general sounds like an important distinction, extreme Right or extreme Left vs Right or Left (or even Centre-Right and Centre-Left) which happen to be/act extreme.
Fascism was loathsome to those who valued egalitarian or liberal democracy in an absolute sense, but before WWII, fervent democrats in the USA, could view Fascist dictatorship and strategic violence as a lesser evil compared to the Communist threat. Equality wasn’t as absolute a dogma for moderates either.
Since Mussolini was modern and social, neither a Communist or a Reactionary, he was viewed as respectable.