Fascism. We fought a world war over against fascist regimes in Europe and elsewhere, and yet it’s tentacles are poisoning America. Aside from climate change, fascism is the greatest threat to America today. That’s my view. If fascism was a dance move, it would be the goosestep.
In the 1930s, fascism existed primarily in Europe, although there were pro-fascist groups in America that supported the new order in Italy and Germany. Even though America was mainly staying out of events in Europe, Hollywood was lampooning Nazis with farcical films by The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges. Moe was right.
I studied modern European history and pre- and post- World War II political systems as part of my political science coursework. Authoritarian governments were a centerpiece of the curriculum. I’m no expert on this subject, but I’ve literally done my homework.
Facts and perspective are generally useful, except on social media; the twenty-first century brain drain. Try and have a civil text conversation with someone of very opposite beliefs. On several occasions, I have waded into conversations about our political climate and found myself quickly in an alternate universe of reality. It is amazing the number of closet goose-steppers trolling cyberspace. These are the same people who will paste the Antifa moniker on people of the opposite political persuasion. If you call out fascist leanings in America you are a member of Antifa? That does not make sense.
So, I decided to revisit the world of fascism, since the world, and particularly America, seem more open to the benefits of a strong-armed government. What I found alarming is how right-leaning the world is becoming. Nations that had authoritarian governments, then adopted more democratic forms as the Soviet Union implosion, are tilting back toward anti-democratic governments.
Democracy and fascism do not mix. By its nature, fascism is dictatorial and bypasses freedoms and protections outlined in law and democratic principals. Look at authoritarian leaders in history, would you trust these individuals with powers that supersede the law? After the collapse of the USSR, it was common to hear Russians talk fondly of the old ways. The State was in charge, it made decisions, provided order, national identity, and was predictable. Was life good? That’s a different question, but in the uncertainty of a collapsing state, some missed the reliability of even a repressive society. In a recent survey, about 4 out of 10 Americans, who have a much better life than former Soviet citizens, favor having fewer rights for a stronger government. That survey was conducted prior to the 2020 Presidential election; would the result be the same now?
There have always been strong, centralize governments in history. Monarchies have generally centralized powers for governance, the economy, the military, and even religion. In modern times, the big difference between authoritarian rule and fascism is the personality and will of the leader. Fascism is authoritarian rule, but it is more than that. Fascism revolves around a strong, narcissistic personality that imposes their will on people by convincing them of being their savior and selling them on the myth of returning greatness as a part of nationalism, and the concept of superiority and purity over others. The will of the leader is intent on capturing the will of the people.
The internet, cable television, talk radio and political rallies are great tools in capturing the will of the masses.
Here are some survey results that should raise some eyebrows.
- 4 out of 10 Americans favor authoritarianism (American Survey Research Project)
- 34 percent of American favor the present will of the people over following the Constitution (American Survey Research Project)
- 46 percent of Americans favor a strong leader who ignores Congress and election results (Democracy Fund Voter Study Group)
- 24 percent of Americans believe limiting freedom of the press/media (American Survey Research Project)
- 37 percent of Americans do not favor following treaties signed with Native Americans (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research)
- 32 percent of Americans say immigration is eroding traditional American culture. (American Survey Research Project)
- 29 percent of Americans favor requiring all Muslims (including U.S. citizens) to carry government issued identification to be shown upon request. (American Survey Research Project)
- 38 percent of Americans say immigrants are a threat to public safety. (American Survey Research Project)
I found two books that were particularly helpful in my recent deep dive into fascism.
There is a very good book, On Fascism: 12 Lessons From American History, by Matthew C. McWilliams, that lays out some dark events in America’s past, and recently, that meet the definition of fascism. From slavery to treatment of Native Americans to the Charlottesville White supremacy march, our own dark side has shown.
Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of US and THEM, is a good companion to McWilliam’s book. Minority groups are an easy target for fascism. Immigration, wealth, religion, ethnic customs, all feed the bigots and anti-Semites in their strategy of aligning one group against a threat from “inferior people.”
Stanley begins his book with words from the aviator Charles Lindbergh in a published 1939 essay. See if it sounds familiar.
It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again. This alliance with foreign races means nothing but death to us. It is our turn to guard our heritage from Mongol and Persian and Moor, before we become engulfed in a limitless foreign sea.
It is easy to look around the globe and see many examples of strong-arm governments that came to power crusading on nationalism or Nativism, to correct past wrongs or to minimize other groups as evil or the provocateur of crimes or manipulation of the system for THEM, not US.
Fascism seizes on victimhood, of wrongdoing, of taking what is rightfully ours. Looking back at our own history, Blacks, Chinese, Native Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexicans, suspected Communists, Catholics, Muslims and Jews have felt the boot. Now it is LGBTQ in the crosshairs. Fascism selects a target to raise fears, cries foul and then sets about to dehumanize people in order to make ill treatment, discrimination and crimes defensible.
Interesting how the Black Lives Matter movement is trivialized by countering that all lives matter. All lives do matter, but the history of the Black experience is one of slavery, lynchings, repressed voting, second class citizenship, economic inequality and the systematic prejudice in the application of the law and justice. In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who said the law would give protections to the “colored race” that were not afforded in law to white people. Perhaps white people did not need such a law.
In 2021, the method of authoritarian muscle-flexing is voter restriction and redrawing districts to concentrate election power. Georgia and Florida have passed voter restriction laws, with Texas on the verge of joining them, and Ohio on the on-deck circle with their own proposed legislation. The Wall Street Journal looked at around 1,800 proposed bills from around the country. That’s right, 1,800.
Authoritarians are very cunning in selling their agenda. Division is weaponized. When Hitler rose to power, he carefully developed his strategies to capture the spirit of the German people. Hitler used a romanticized vision of Germany, a victim of WWI, cheated and demoralized by conditions of other countries. He blames others, especially the Jews, demonizing them, while striking at German culture and nationalism to unite and give them pride.
Hitler painted himself as the savior, he alone could rescue Germany. He was smarter and more visionary, he was their voice and would lead them to greatness.
Authoritarian leaders promise unity, purpose, order and greatness. Give your power to them.
According Stanley, authoritarian leaders look to the past for their vision. The Mythic Past was where that nation was derailed, destroyed by others. The purity of the culture was compromised. In the past, the country was vaulted, better than others and it should be rightfully elevated to past glories. This nostalgic and romanticized view is sold to those who want what they are being sold.
Stanley also says the authoritarian leader is looked at as the parochial father of the country as he would be in the family. Calling for a return to traditional values also includes gender traditions and tying faith to actions of the government. Whether these leaders are religious or not, there is tremendous power to be gained from outlawing abortion and aligning support of government with adherence to religious doctrine. Fascism is pro families, just the traditional kind, where men are the hunters and women barefoot and pregnant. There are a number of “experts” who deride modernism and the women’s movement as hurting families and women. In the 1970s there was a strong pushback against women’s lib and the Equal Rights Amendment by many groups including some powerful women.
Stanley outlines a number of movements in right-leaning European countries that are denying culpability of WWII crimes and even making it illegal to suggest it. It is as if WWII never happened. Generations removed from the Holocaust feel no moral responsibility for that history, only their puffed-out rhetoric about returning the country to greatness and rejecting falsehoods forced on them. Weaponizing nostalgia is the term he uses.
According to Stanley, propaganda is used to deceive and mask true intentions behind a veil of obfuscation. Corruption is used as a battering ram to destabilize support for institutions. Claims of governmental corruption is a false flag to shift the moral center to those seeking to collapse confidence in traditional institutions and customs. Dismantling the rule of law by discrediting the legal systems and the fair enforcement of law, is replaced by political rule directed by partisan bosses instead of independent professionals.
Under fascism, not everyone is equal. The rights are reserved for those of purity and worth, the basis for us and them. One group is more equal than others.
Fascism uses the very democratic powers it seeks to subvert as its method to gain power. Fascism claims to be strongly supportive of free speech, assailing universities of not promoting and protecting free speech. Protecting ugly speech is one thing, but using this protection to artfully introduce false and misleading information to influence elections by manipulating opinion and creating distrust is the aim of propagandists.
Education is viewed with the same disdain. Teach what we preach, the fascists say. Critical thinking is discouraged, science is trashed and facts are not absolute. Get rid of the intellectuals and do not value science over faith. Devalue science and education, make up your own facts and get rid of those who think, who question, and who can shoot holes in myths. Take away funding, remove tenure, force curricula that challenge science by force-teach discredited theories and alternatives to proven facts. Use corporate dollars to entice universities to be influenced in teaching and research. Claim bias and lean on officials to include broader views. In authoritarian countries, get rid of the intellectuals who do not tow the government views. Restrict student speech and demonstrations. Stanley correctly surmises, when you have no chance of convincing the intellect, sway the will. Use fear and anger when logic fails.
Discredit the media, attack the reporters when you cannot challenge the message. Restrict access to information. Close transparency. Use only friendly media who will repeat the message without regard for facts.
Make government the enemy as you campaign against the status quo. Blame government for past failures and current problems. Incite hostility toward processes and officials. You want to be the answer, the one who will restore the myth.
It was not until 2018, that Congress successfully passed an anti-lynching bill, after more than 200 were proposed through the years. In 1937, a Gallop Poll found that 43 percent of Southerners were opposed to a federal anti-lynching bill.
Going back to 1938, 54 percent of Americans felt the persecution of Jews in Europe was partially their own fault, and 11 percent felt it was totally their fault. (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research)
In 2014, 42 percent of Americans approved of the government collecting phone and Internet information. (Pew Research)
Is America different today than at other points in history, given the country’s treatment of people of color, different ethnicities, religion, political views and women? White men, particularly white men of wealth, have set the agenda for most of our history and convinced enough followers to vote for, and carry out, many authoritarian policies and actions. Can we say, “that was then, this is now”, and rationalize our history? I do not believe so.
I find it ironic that those who supported Trump’s strong-arm government are quick to call others Antifa. Obama and Biden are often called fascists, and communists, by the same people. That’s interesting. My problem is that I am trying to find logic where none exists. We are a nation that prides itself of following the law and justice being equal for all. Most would say that justice is not equal for all. It is easy to find examples of the system treating white people with money one way, and poor people of color a different way. The reality falls short of our ideals. In a fascist state, it is power over principle. Do not expect the courts or a legislative body to be a balancing force. Once you have tilted the balance toward a strong personality, given up freedoms and okayed the suppression of the “enemy”, you cannot simply change your mind and erase giving up your rights. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts, absolutely. The boot of authoritarianism is not easily removed. Think about World War II for a minute. You do not need to have lived through it to understand the death and destruction. When the Russian soldiers were marching on Berlin, the German civilians were fighting for their lives to survive. It all started with falling for the myth, the romanticism and naivete.
It is not just the enthusiastic followers that allow it to happen, it is the silent and uninvolved. Martin Luther King said “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.