Fascism is a disease, a delusion, a toxic worldview. It’s encouraged and manipulated by propaganda. Its characteristics are numerous and to various degrees widespread and long-lasting. At what point their combination in sufficiently extreme degree rises to the level of fascism, as opposed to moderately fascistic tendencies I’m happy to leave to others to decide.
Fascism is not a tendency born into subhuman monsters who threaten the purity of our anti-fascist homeland, as one might suspect when reading posters like “The only good fascist is a dead fascist” at anti-fascist rallies.
Fascism is not easily eliminated and not best eliminated by simply any random opposition to it, even opposition that much resembles it. Eliminating fascism and how best to do it is a reasonable topic of discussion which necessarily involves opposing some tactics as less effective than others. This means that it is possible to oppose an anti-fascist act without being a fascist — although not without getting called a fascist.
Jason Stanley’s new book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them analyzes the elements of fascism in a very valuable way, even if I disagree with some bits of it as a result of the most anti-fascist behavior there is: independent thinking.
Fascism, Stanley tells us, using numerous recent and historical examples, creates a mythic past. Yet if I consider the view of U.S. high school history books found in Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen or Founding Myths by Ray Raphael or other similar books, the fascism of U.S. schools has long extended to much more than pledging allegiance to a flag, and the struggle to teach the truth about the past can be called an anti-fascist struggle.
Fascism, Stanley writes, demands patriarchal families, in large part as a metaphor and training for an authoritarian government. Blind obedience to authority and belief in something larger than yourself are traits shared by religion and fascism, though Stanley does not characterize fascism as religion. Again, this tendency has been around for centuries.
Fascism is Orwellianism, says Stanley. That is, it markets corruption as anti-corruption, irrationality as reason, and suppression as freedom of speech. Its version of anti-corruption is total trust in the most corrupt figures around. Its idea of reason is barbaric bigotry announced as arrived at by reason and evidence and inevitable obvious natural laws. Its conception of free speech is armed rallies. These behaviors are extreme versions of common mainstream practices, but here it’s easier I think to figure out where the fascist line is crossed.
Fascism is anti-intellectualism, anti-education. It substitutes unreality for intelligent observation and deliberation.
Fascism favors hierarchy, racism, and union busting (because in unions people join together across race or other lines, as well as because they make more money).
Fascism adopts a passionate stance of victimhood. “You will not replace us!” they shout at marches in Charlottesville.
Fascism demands so-called law and order, that is: racially biased official abuse and violence. Stanley discusses the rise of U.S. mass incarceration under the regimes of various U.S. presidents from both of the two major parties. Nobody would call everyone involved a fascist, but the fascist tendency is clearly just that: part of what makes up full-blown fascism.
Fascism fears sex and rape and the mixing of the races. Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and wanted innocent black kids in New York murdered for alleged rape not for any sensible reasons, but perfectly in line with this element of fascist propaganda as Stanley describes it.
Stanley’s examples of each of the patterns above come from, among other places, Germany, Italy, and more recently Poland, Hungary, India, Turkey, Russia, Myanmar, and the United States — never Ukraine, I notice, but one sentence on Israel surprisingly made the cut!
Stanley makes a strong case that when Trump says he wants to make America great again, the answer to when was it great is the 1930s. Trump’s model may be Charles Lindbergh, a fan of “America First” and of fascism.
Running through Stanley’s analysis is the idea that fascism divides “us” from “them.” I would add that central to fascism is belief in the power of violence. Of course, both of these tendencies are extremely widespread beyond that constellation of horrors that we take to make up fascism.
At one point in his book, Stanley addresses the question of “having to regard women as equals in the workplace or on the battlefield.” This acceptance that there must be wars, and the old-timey myth that wars take place on battlefields, is in line with the belief in violence that I see as central to fascism, even though no American would call a casual reference to battlefields fascist.
Stanley defends freedom of speech while denouncing people who have been convicted in European countries for the crime of holocaust denial. I agree with the denunciation, but some acknowledgement of the problem such laws are for free speech is in order.
Stanley’s book is in some ways a particular part of the answer to the question plaguing Democrats and pundits for the past nearly two years: “How did Trump win?” So, it makes sense that this book is less heavily marred than many by Russiagate. Yet Russiagate does rear its head. Stanley does not address the problems of unreality, of ridiculous accusations against U.S. journalists, of shouts of “Putin lover!” or of claims of new Pearl Harbors. Instead he claims, without offering any evidence, that the intention of the unnamed schemers (dare I say conspirators) who created Russia TV was to undermine trust in so-called democracy by drowning out “objective truth” with a “cacophony of voices.” Stanley also claims that this has succeeded, for which he offers no evidence and not even a citation of anyone agreeing with him.
When, on the following page, still discussing Russia TV, Stanley gets around to offering an example of this scheme in action, the reader could not be blamed for believing he’s offering an example from Russia TV. Yet, if you check out the show he uses in his example, it’s a show produced by the Family Research Council, an organization dedicated to opposing gay rights. So the example of this show’s host having claimed that climate scientists are promoting homosexuality is actually an example of that network’s central viewpoint, not an example of including numerous viewpoints in order to damage democracy, and not an example from Russia TV at all. Nor is it obvious to me why multiple viewpoints don’t benefit democracy, unless they’re largely slanted toward the sort of fascist propaganda of this example.
Stanley, like virtually every other person on earth, is eager to oppose “conspiracy theories.” He provides some excellent examples of ridiculous and damaging Trumpian and fascistic “conspiracy theories.” But, like everyone else I’ve ever read on the topic, he declines to develop any workable definition of what a “conspiracy theory” is. Dictionaries all define the concept as something similar to this:
“A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.”
But that definition is demonstrably useless. If I suggest that the Democratic National Committee secretly plotted to hurt the primary campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, I’m stating both a dictionary-definition conspiracy theory and the established undisputed facts. And if I suggest that Donald Trump and the Russian government and WikiLeaks secretly plotted to win Trump the election by exposing Democrats’ emails about cheating Sanders out of the nomination, I’m stating a dictionary-definition of a conspiracy theory and, in this case, something for which no public evidence yet exists, but by general media consensus simply not a “conspiracy theory.”
Liberal activists are clapping themselves on the back for having persuaded Facebook and Twitter to ban Alex Jones for being a “conspiracy theorist.” Why they couldn’t ban him for advocating violence is not clear to me. Perhaps it’s related to the extremely widespread acceptance of violence. But once you ban him for believing that sometimes two or more people act together in private, you’ve opened a door to banning anyone else on the same ground.
I think we’d be better off dropping the term “conspiracy theory” entirely, and instead using such distinctions as “speculative” vs. “well-founded” or “false” vs. “true.” These and similar distinctions have done great duty for centuries and are really not at all worn out.
But how do we wear out fascism? Do fascists in elected office not have to make anyone better off to maintain their support? Is it enough to just be fascist? To some extent, that must be true. But pointing out the failure to make anyone better off and what would make them better off can be part of the cure. As with Curing Exceptionalism, curing fascism can begin with understanding how one is manipulated into it, resenting that manipulation, and testing out the benefits of a richer, more encompassing worldview.