An exploration of how democratic societies can, over a very short period of time, slip into fascism. Establishing the ten pillar of fascism, this books makes it soberingly clear how the things we see in the politics of Poland, Hungary, India, Myanmar, and yes, the United States, should cause us to sit up and think deeply about the normalization of what we are witnessing. Fascism is no longer something that happens "out there," and we need the willingness and wisdom to recognize it.
The targeting of enemies—minorites, liberals, secularists, leftists, urban naxals, intellectuals, assorted protestors—is not driven by a calculus of ordinary politics… When you legitimize yourself entirely by inventing enemies, the truth ceases to matter, normal restraints of civilization and decency cease to matter, the checks and balances of normal politics cease to matter
Fascist politics exploits crises to advance its ideological agenda. Trump called the virus “the Chinese virus” in part because that’s where it originated. But the reason he sticks to this label in the face of criticism is to reframe debate around nationalist conflict (and day from the incompetence of his administration.)
Fascist politics invokes a our mythic past tragically destroyed. Depending on how the nation is defined, the mythic past may be religiously pure, racially pure, culturally pure, or all of the above. But there is a common structure to all fascist mythologizing. In all fascist mythic pasts, an extreme version of the patriarchal family reigns supreme, even just a few generations ago. Further back in time, the mythic past was a time of glory of the nation, with wars of conquest led by patriotic generals, its armies filled with it countrymen, able-bodied, loyal warriors who wives were at home raising the next generation. In the present, these myths become the basis of the nation’s identity under fascist politics.
In the 2016 US election, a video surfaced showing the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump making harshly demeaning comments about women. Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, said that Trump’s remarks “demean our wives and daughters.” Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, said, “women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.” Both of these remarks reveal an underlying patriarchal ideology that is typical of much of US Republican Party policy. These politicians could simply have given voice to the most direct description of the facts, which is that Trump’s remarks demean half of our fellow citizens. Instead, Roment’s remark, in language evocative of that used in the Hutu Ten Commandments, describes women exclusively in terms of traditional subordinate roles in families, as “wives and daughters”—not even as sisters. Paul Ryan’s characterization of women as objects of “reverence” rather than equal respect objectifies women tin the same sentence that decries doing so.
In fascist politics, myths of a patriarchal past, threatened by encroaching liberal ideals and all that they entail, function to create a sense of panic at the loss of hierarchal status, both for men and for the dominate group’s ability to protect its purity and status from foreign encroachment.
In order to honestly debate what out country should do, what policies it should adopt, we need a common basis of reality, including our own past. History in a liberal democracy must be faithful to the norm of truth, yielding an accurate vision of the past, rather than a history provided for political reasons. Fascist politics, by contrast, characteristically contains within it a demand to mythologize the past, creating a version of national heritage that is a weapon for political gain.
Fascist movements have been “draining swamps” for generations. Publicizing false charges of corruption while engaging in corrupt practices is typical of fascist politics, and anticorruption campaigns are frequently at the heart of fascist political movements. Fascist politicians characteristically decry corruption in the state they seek to take over, which is bizarre, given that that fascist politicians themselves are invariably vastly more corrupt than those they seek to supplant or defeat. …
… Corruption, to the fascist politician, is really about the corruption of purity rather than of law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of traditional order.
To many white Americans, President Obama must have been corrupt, because his very occupation of the White House was a kind of corruption of the traditional order. When women attain potions of political power usually reserved for men—or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or “cosmopolitans” profit or even share the public goods of democracy, such as healthcare—that is perceived as corruption. Fascist politicians know their supporters will turn a blind eye to their own, true corruption since in their own case it is just a matter os embers of the chosen nation taking what is rightfully theirs.
The recent rapid transition of certain apparently successful democratic states, such as Hungary and Poland, to nondemocratic rule has made this tactic of undermining the independent judiciary saint, as both countries introduced laws to replace independent judges with party loyalists soon after antidemocratic regimes took power. Officially, the justification was that prior practices of judiciary neutrality were a mask for bias against the ruling party. In the name of rooting our corruption and supposed bias, fascist politicians attack and diminish the institutions that might otherwise check their power.
The liberty involved in the leisurely life of the Southern planter was intimately bound up with the doctrine of white racial superiority. Under these structural conditions, the very notion of liberty in the South was predicated on its perversion in the practice of slavery.We find this inversion in much of the rhetoric of “state’s rights,” a phrase used to defend the liberty of US status in the South from federal intervention. But the federal intervention that is most associated with the call for “state’s rights” is the elimination os slavery, and subsequently Jim Crow laws restriction the right to vote for black citizens. The liberty that many whites in Southern states sought by calling for “state’s rights” was the freedom to restrict the liberties of their fellow black citizens.
In Mein Kampf, after excoriating parliamentary democracy, Hitler praises “true Germanic Democracy,” with “free choice of the Leader, along with his obligation to assume entire responsibility for all he does and causes to be done.” What Hitler here describes is absolute rule by a leader, after an initial democratic vote. There is no suggestion is Hitler’s description of what he calls “true Germanic Democracy” that the leader must subject himself to a subsequent election. (Hitler is here also drawing on the mythic past, when medieval German kings were elected for life.) Whatever this system is, it is not recognizably democracy.
In book 8 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that people are not naturally led to self-governance but rather seek a strong leader to follow. Democracy, by permitting freedom of speech, open the door for a demagogue to exploit the people’s need for a strongman; the strongman will use this freedom to prey on people’s resentments and fears. Once the strongman seizes power, he will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny. In short, book 8 of The Republic argues that democracy is a self-undermining system whose very ideals lead to its own demise.
The chief reason we have free speech in democracy is to facilitate public discourse about policy on the part of citizens and their representatives. But the kind of debate where one shrieks insults at another, not to mention engages in physical violence and then denounces protest as an attack on speech, is not the relevant kind of public discourse that free speech rights are meant to protect. The kind of Speech Jeremy Joseph Christian wished to engage in destroys the possibility of, rather than facilitates, public discourse.
Fascist politics seek to undermine public discourse by attacking and devaluing education, expertise, and language. Intelligent debate is impossible without an education with access to different perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When education, expertise, and linguistic distinctions are undermined, there remains only power and tribal identity.
Fascist politics seeks to undermine the credibility of institutions that harbor independent voices of dissent until they can be replaced by media and universities that reject those voices. One typical method is to level accusations of hypocrisy. Right now, a contemporary right-wing campaign is charging universities with hypocrisy on the issue of free speech. Universities, they say, claim to hold free speech in the highest regard but suppress any voices that don’t lean left by allowing protests against them on campus. Most recently, critics of campus social justice movements have found an effective method of turning themselves into victims of protest. They contend that protesters mean to deny them their own free speech.
Given the formal protections of academic freedom, universities in the United States host the freest domain of expression of any workplace. In private workplaces in the US, free speech is a fantasy. Workers are regularly subjected to nondisclosure agreements, forbidding them to speak about various matters. In most work places, workers can be fired for political speech on social media. Attacking the only workplaces in a country with genuine free-speech protections using the ideal of free speech is another instance of the familiar Orwellian nature of propaganda.
In fascist ideology, the goal of general education in the schools and universities is to instill pride in the mythic past; fascist education extols academic disciplines that reinforce hierarchal norms and nation tradition. For the fascist, schools and universities are there to indoctrinate national or racial pride, conveying for example (where nationalism is radicalized) the glorious achievements of the dominant race.
In fascist ideology, the products of intellectual life that it supports—culture, civilization, and art—are solely productions of members of the chosen nation.
The far-right American radio host Rush Limbaugh has, on his popular radio show, denounced “the four corners of deceit: government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” Limbaugh, here, provides a perfect example of how fascist politics targets expertise, mocking and devaluing it. In liberal democracy, political leader are supposed to consult with those they represent, as well as with experts and scientists who can accurately explain the demands fo reality on policy.
Fascist leaders are instead “men of action” with no use for consultation or deliberation. In his 1941 essay “The Rebirth of European Man,” the French fascist Pierre Drieu la Rochelle writes, “It is a type of man who rejects culture… It is a man who does not believe in ideas, and hence rejects doctrines. It is a man who only believes in acts and carries out these acts in line with a nebulous myth.” Once universities and experts have been delegitimized, fascist politicians are free to create their own realities, shaped by their own individual will. Limbaugh has been attacking science for many years, proclaiming that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists.” In the current moment in US politics, when climate science is mocked and derided by Trump and his administration, we see the triumph of disparagement of scientific expertise.
By rejecting the value of expertise, fascist politicians also remove any requirement for sophisticated debate. Reality is always more complex than our means of representing it. Scientific language requires ever more complex terminology, to make distinctions that would be invisible without tit. Social reality is at least as complex as the reality of physics. IN a healthy liberal democracy, a public language with a rich and varied vocabulary to make distinctions is a vital democratic institution. Without it, healthy public discourse is impossible. Fascist politics seeks to degrade and debase the language of politics; racist politics thereby seeks to mask reality.
It is a core tenet of fascist politics that the goal of oratory should not be to convince the intellect, but to sway the will. The anonymous author of an article in a 1925 Italian fascist magazine writes, “The mysticism of Fascism is the proof of its triumph. Reasoning does not attract, emotion does.” In Mein Kampf, in a chapter entitled “The Struggles in the Early Days: The Role of the Orator,” Hitler writes that it is a gross misunderstanding to dismiss simple language as stupid. Throughout Mein Kampf, Hitler is clear that the aim of propaganda is to replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions. In a February 2018 interview, Steve Bannon said, “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall…This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”
Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual, or perhaps a political party. Regular or repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space. A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence. By replacing the world with a person, fascist politics makes us unable to assess arguments by a common standard.
The last of defining conspiracy theories presents different issues. The philosopher Giulia Napolitano has suggested that we could think of conspiracy theories as “aimed” at some out-group, and in the service of some in-group. Conspiracy theories function to degenerate and delegitimize their targets, by connecting them, mainly symbolically, to problematic acts. Conspiracy theories do not function like ordinary information; they are, after all, often so outlandish that they can hardly be expected to be literally believed. Their function is rather to raise general suspicion about the creditability and the decency of their targets.
Conspiracy theories are a critical mechanism used to delegitimize the mainstream media, which fascist politicians accuse of bias for failing to cover false conspiracies.
Disagreement require a shared set of presuppositions about the world. Even dueling requires agreements about the rules. You and I might disagree about whether President Obama’s healthcare plan was good policy. But if you suspect President Obama was an undercover Muslim spy seeking to destroy the United States, and I do not, our discussion will not be productive. We will not be talking about the costs and benefits of Obama’s health policy, but rather whether any of his policies mask a devious antidemocratic agenda.
What happens when conspiracy theories become the coin of politics, and mainstream media and educational institutions are discredited, is that citizens no longer have a common reality that can serve a s a background for democratic deliberation. In such a situation, citizens have no choice but to look for markers to follow other than truth or reliability. What happens in such cases, as we see across the world, is that citizens look to politics for tribal identifications, for addressing personal grievances, and for entertainment. When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity. Fascist politics transforms the news from a conduit of information and reasoned debate into a spectacle with the strongman as the star.
In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump repeatedly and openly lied, and openly flouted long-sacrosanct liberal norms. The U.S. mainstream media dutifully reportedly his many lies. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, followed liberal norms of equal respect; her one violation of these norms, which occurred when she called some of the supporters of her opponent “deplorables,” was endlessly thrown back in her face. And yet again and again, Americans found Trump to be the more authentic candidate. By giving voice to shocking sentiments that were presumed to be unsuitable for public discourse, Trump was taken to be speaking his mind. This is how, by exhibiting classic demagogic behavior, a politician can come to be seen as the more authentic candidate, even when he is manifestly dishonest.
In Federalist Paper No 10, James Madison argued that the United States had to take the form of a representative democracy and seek to elect leaders who best represented the values of democracy. An election campaign is supposed to present candidates seeking to show that they have the common interests of all citizens at heart. Two factors have eroded the protections that representative democracy is supposed to provide. First, candidates must raise huge sums to run for office (even more so since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court). As a result, they represent the interests of their large donors. However, because it is a democracy, they must also try to make the case that they represent the common interest. They must pretend that the best interests of the multinational corporations that fund their campaigns are also the common interest.
Second, some voters do not share democratic values, and politicians must appeal to them as well. When large inequalities exist, the problem is aggravated. Some voters are simply more attracted to a system that favors their own particular religion, race, gender, or birth position. The resentment that flows from unmet expectations can be redirected against minority groups seems as not sharing dominant traditions; good that go to them are represented by demagogic politicians, in a zero-sum way, as taking goods away from majority groups. Some voters see such groups, rather than the behavior of economic elites, as responsible for their unmet expectations. Candidates must attract these voters while appearing not to flout democratic values. As a result, many politicians use coded language to exploit resentment, as in the Republican Party’s “Souther strategy” in order to avoid the charge of excluding the perspectives of opposing groups.
Tactics like these are not a secret, and for these reasons, U.S. politics has appeared insincere to many voters. And they are sick of it—they crave principled, honest politicians. They want politicians to tell it like it is. And they will seek such candidates even in the absence of a clear set of values they share.
But how can politicians signal that they are not hypocritical, especially when voters have grown accustomed to what seems, for both real and contrived reasons, to be a deep stratum of hypocrisy.
One way for candidates to address widespread disgust with hypocrisy is to represent themselves as champions of democratic values. In a democratic cultures such candidates would theoretically be the most attractive. However, this is not a promising strategy in certain political climates. It is difficult to represent oneself as genuinely representing the common interest in an environment of general distrust. It does not appeal to voters who reject democratic values, such as racial and gender equality, or those who simply deny that inequalities exist. And there will be fierce competition for voters who support democratic values between candidates representing themselves as their champions.
But there is a way a politician could appear to be sincere without having to vie against other candidates pursuing the sam strategy: by standing for division and conflict without apology. Such a candidate might openly said with Christians over Muslims and atheists, or native-born Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks, or the rich over the poor. They might openly and brazenly lie. In short, one could signal authenticity by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values.
The important point is that dramatic inequality poses a mortal danger to the shared reality required for a healthy liberal democracy. These who benefit from inequalities are often burdened by certain illusions that prevent them from recognizing the contingency of their privilege. When inequalities grow particularly stark, these illusions tend to metastasize. What dictator, king, or emperor has not suspected that he was chosen by the gods for his role? What colonial power has not entertained delusions of its ethnic superiority, or the superiority of its religion, culture, and way of life, superiority that supposedly justifies its imperial expansion and conquests? In the antebellum American South, whites believed that slavery was a great gift to those who were enslaved. The harshness of Southern planters to enslaved persons who sought to flee or rebel was in no small part due to their conviction that such behavior revealed a lack of gratitude.
When pressed by journalists to justify a distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” Americans who use such vocabulary reach in the first instance for the language of “hardworking” vs “lazy” rather than for the language of racial distinction. But this hardly justifies the division of fellow citizens into such categories. First, in the United States, racism has often taken the form of associating blackness with laziness. Such language has always been code for division by racial hierarchy. Second, it betrays confusion about the concept of liberal democracy to measure worthiness by a supposed capacity for hard work. It is no part of liberal democratic theory that basic equal respect is won by hard work. The idea behind liberal democracy is that all of us are equally deserving of the basic goods of society.
Both left-wing and right-wing critiques of liberalism focus on the fact that liberal ideals ignore differences in power. Leftist critics argue that by doing so, liberal ideals entrench preexisting inequalities. Rightists critics argue that by ignoring differences in power, liberalism makes dominant groups susceptible to having their privilege stsus overturned by force, and therefor unjust, “power sharing.”
In “Why Now? It’s the Empire, Stupid,” a June 2016 article in The Nation, the NYU historian Greg Grandin argues that Donald Trump’s politics is effective in the context of 2016 because it comes at a time of decline for the American Empire. We are witnessing the passion of an era after the end of the Cold War in which the Untied States reigned supreme in the world as the only remaining superpower. In the article, he argues that an empire gives rise among its citizens to a comforting myth of superiority, thereby concealing the various social and structural problems that otherwise would lead to political difficulties. With its demise, the citizens of a once powerful empire must confront the fact that their exceptionalism was a myth. Grandin writes that beginning in 2008—about when Barack Obama won the presidential election—“the safety valve of the empire closed, gummed up by the catastrophic war in Iraq combined with the 2008 financial crisis…Because Obama came to power in the ruins of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, empire [was] no longer able to dilute the passions, satisfy the interests, and unify the divisions.
In fascist politics, the opposing notions of equality and discrimination get mixed up with each other. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 made the newly emancipated black Americans of the South into U.S. citizens and protected their civil rights. It was passed by the Senate and the House on March 14th, 1866. Later that month, President Andrew Jackson vetoed the Civil Rights Act, on the grounds that “this law establishes for the security of the colored race safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race.” As W.E.B. Du Bois notes, Johnson perceived minimal safeguards at the start of a path forward toward future black equality as “discrimination against the white race.”
Forty-five percent of Donald Trump’s supporters believe that whites are the most discriminated-against racial group in America; 54 percent of Trump’s supporters believe that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in America. There is a crucial distinction, of course, between feelings of resentment and oppression and genuine inequality and discrimination.
There is a long history of social psychological research about the fact that increased representation of members of traditional minority groups is experienced by dominant groups as threatening in various ways.
A great deal of recent attention has been paid in the United States to the fact that around 2050, the United States will become a “majority-minority” country, meaning that whites will no longer be a majority of Americans.
In a 2014 study, psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson found that simply making salient the impending national shirt to a “majority-minority” country significantly increase poetical unaffiliated white Americans’ support for right-wing policies.
Summarizing this research in a forthcoming review article, Maurren Craig, Julian Rucker, and Jennifer Richeson write, “This growing body of work finds clear evidence that White Americans (i.e., the current racial majority) experience the impending ‘majority-minority’ shift as a threat to their dominant (social, economic, political, and cultural) status.” This feeling of threat can be marshaled politically as support for right-wing movements. This dialect is far from native to the United States; it is rather a general feature of group psychology. The exploitation of the feeling of victimization by dominant groups at the prospect of sharing citizenship and power with minorities is a universal element of contemporary international fascist politics.
The case is similar with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States today. Its opponents try to represent the slogan as the illiberal nationalist claim that only black lives matter. But the slogan is hardly intended as a repudiation of the value of white lives in the United States. Rather, it intends to point our that in the United States, white lives have been taken to matter more than other lives. The point of the slogan Black Lives Matter is to call attention to a failure of equal respect. In its content, it means, “Black lives matter too.”
The difference between the nationalism motivated by oppression and nationalism for the sake of domination is clear when one reflects upon their respective relationships with equality.
If I gre up in a country in which my religious holidays were the national holidays, it would feel like marginalization to have my children grow up in a more egalitarian country in which their religious holidays and traditions are just one of many. If I grew up in a society in which every character in the movies I see and the television programs I watch looked like me, it would feel like marginalization to see the occasional protagonist who does not. I would start to feel my culture is no longer “for me.” If I grew up seeing men as heroes and women as passive objects who worship them, it would feel like oppression to be robbed of my felt birthright by having to regard women as equals in the workplace or on the battlefield. Rectifying unjust inequalities will always bring pain to those who benefited from such injustices. The pain will inevitably be experienced by some as oppression.
Nationalism is at the core of fascism. The fascist leader employs a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity that is by its nature opposes to the cosmopolitan ethos and individualism of liberal democracy. The group identity can be variously based—on skin color, on religion, on tradition, on ethnic origin. But it is always contrasted with a perceived other against whom the nation is defined. Fascist nationalism creates a dangerous “them” to guard against, as times to battle with, in order to restore group identity.
A healthy democratic state is governed by laws that treat all citizens equally and justly, supported by bonds of mutual respect between people, including those tasked with policing them. Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless. In fascist politics, women who do not fit traditional gender roles, non-whites, homosexuals, immigrants, “decadent cosmopolitan,” those who do not have the dominant religion, are in their very existence violations of law and order.
In fascist politics, the opposing notions of equality and discrimination get mixed up with each other.
If someone we regard as one of “us” does something bad—for example, steals a chocolate bar—we tend to describe the action concretely. In other words, if my friend Daniel steals a chocolate bar, I will tend to characterize what he did as “stealing a chocolate bar.” On the other hand, if someone we regard as one of “them” does the same thing, we tend to describe the action more abstractly, by imputing bad character traits to the person committing it. If Jerome, who is regraded as one of “them,” steals a chocolate bar, he is much more likely to be described as a thief or criminal.
The reverse is true of good actions. If someone we regard as one of “us” does a good deed, we will be inclines to explain what happened by attributing it to good character traits of the person in question. Daniel’s giving a child a chocolate bar is described as an instance of “Daniel’s generosity.” Jerome’s giving a child a chocolate bar is described in concrete terms: “That guy just gave that boy a chocolate bar.”
The misrepresentation of political protests as riots was a factor in the election campaign of Donal Trump. Trump, whose campaign had strong echoes of Nixon’s. Nixon, hoever, campaigned at a time of rising rates of violent crime. Trump’s successful “law and order” campaign took place under the condition of some of the lowest rates of violent crime in U.S. history.
When a community has a particularly high crime rate, there is clearly a social problem requiring empathy and understanding, and an urgent need for policies that address underlying structural causes. The more important question is then: What is the source of widespread lack of empathy for this group?
Fascist propaganda does not, of course, merely present members of targeted groups as criminals. To ensure the right kind of moral panic about these groups, its members are represented as particular kinds of threats to the fascist nation—most important, and most typical, a threat to its purity. Consequently, fascist politics also emphasizes one kind of crime. The basic threat that fascist propaganda uses to raise fear is that members of the targeted group will rape members of the chosen nation, thereby polluting its “blood.” The threat of mass rape is simultaneously intended as a threat to the patriarchal norms of the fascist state, to the “manhood’ of the nation.
In an an article for The New York Times on September 26, 2017, Caitlin Dickerson wrote abut what happened in the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho, where three refugee boys, aged seven, ten, and fourteen, were accused of some kind of sexual activity with a five-year-old American girl. Immediately after the incident, Facebook groups formed about it, with links to articles on the Internet claiming “that the little girl had been Gand raped at knifepoint, that perpetrators were Syrian refugees and that their fathers had celebrated with them afterward by giving them high fives.” Soon thereafter, the article on the Drudge Report, one of the most visited sites on the Internet, screamed “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugess’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.” The articles were all false… Nevertheless, the fake news stories created a wave of intimidating harassment against public officials in Twin Falls, and a storm of outrage against refugees in the community. In short, they created a wave of moral panic about the sexual danger refugees posed for American white girls, a panic that has yet to subside.
By employing the politics of sexual anxiety. A political leader represents, albeit indirectly, freedom and equality as threats. The expression of gender identity or sexual preference is an exercise of freedom. BY presenting homosexuals and transgender women as a threat to women and children—and, by extension, to men’s ability to protect them—fascist politics impugns the liberal idea of freedom. A women’s right to have an abortion is also an exercise of freedom. By representing abortion as a threat to children—and to men’s control over them—fascist politics impugns the liberal idea fo freedom. A person’s right to marry whom they choose is an exercise of freedom; by representing members of one religion, or one race, as a threat because of the possibility of intermarriage is to impugn the liberal idea of freedom.
A June 2017 Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation survey of almost seventeen hundred Americans found that “attitudes toward immigrants form one of the widest gulfs between U.S. cities and rural communities.” Forty-two percent of rural residents in the poll agreed with the statement “Immigrants are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” Only 16 percent of urban residents agreed with this characterization of immigrants as burdensome. The poll suggests that the politics of rural versus urban is a promising avenue for sowing division from demagogically minded U.S. politicians, particularly around the topic of immigration.
The pervasive sense that city dwellers in Minnesota were living off the taxes of the hardworking rural populations of Minnesota was a powerful force in the Minnesota Republican triumph in 2014. (“We pay taxes too,” Cordon quotes a rural Minnesota resident as saying, “but we see a lot of our tax dal’s going to urban development in the metro area. We’d like to see some of that share. We’d like to have nice roads too.”) And yet, as is typical in politics that exacerbates the rural-urban divide during times of globalization, the perception was mythical—in Minnesota, as in many places in the globalized economy, it is the metro areas that are “the state’s economic engine, generating tax dollars that flow outward to every corner of the state.”
In fascist ideology, the rural life is guided by an ethos of self-sufficiency, which breeds strength. In rural communities, one does not need to depend on the state, unlike the “parasites” in the city.
In fascism, the state is an enemy; it is to be replaced by the nation, which consists of self-sufficient individuals who collectively chose to sacrifice for a common goal of ethnic or religious glorification.
In fascist ideology, in times of crises and need, the state reserves support for members of the chosen nation, for “us” and not “them.” The justification is invariably because “they” are lazy, lack a work ethic, and cannot be trusted with state funds and because “they” are criminal and seek only to live off state largesse. In fascist politics, “they can be cured of laziness and thievery by hard labor. This is why the gates of Auschwitz had emblazoned on them the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei—work shall set you free.
There is a large amount of social scientific work on white American support for “welfare” programs (a somewhat ill-defined category, in point of fact). Most often American opposition to welfare is represented as a manifestation of a commitment to individualism, of support and desire for nurturing an ethic of self-sufficiency. And yet a dominate theme emerging from research on white Americans’ attitude toward welfare is that the single largest predictor of white Americans’ attitude toward programs described as “welfare” is their attitude toward the judgement that black people are lazy.
Many white Americans hold false beliefs about who is poor. There is widespread ignorance of the fact that the majority of those who benefit from welfare programs are white.
Traumatized, penniless refugees coming en masse across borders require state aid and support before entering labor markets. They require such support to learn the language and, initially at least, for shelter, food, and job training. By subjecting members of a despised minority to brutal treatment and then sending them as refugees across borders into other countries, fascist movements can create an apparent reality underlying their claims members of that group are lazy and dependent on state aid or petty crime.
White American stereotypes of black Americans as lazy and violent derive from the very beginning of the United States, where these attributes were regularly used to justify the enslavement of America’s black population. After slavery, these stereotypes were used to justify the equally brutal practice of convict leasing, whereby large portions of the black population of the formerly antebellum South were arrested for petty crimes and leased to iron, stell, and coal companies for hard labor, often with fatal consequences. The mechanisms underlying the racialized mass incarceration of black Americans are part of a long tradition of justifying stereotypes of this population as lazy—that is, unable, because supposedly unwilling, to gain employment.
Fascist politics is most effective under conditions of stark economic inequality. Research shows that a proliferation of labor unions is the best antidote to the development of such conditions. As the Harvard political scientist Archon Fung points out, “many societies that have low levels of inequalities also have high participation in labor unions.”
Groups are ordered, in fascism, by their capacity to achieve, to rise above others, in labor and war. Hitler decries liberal democracy because it embodies a contrary value system, one that grants worth independently of victory in a natural, meritocratic struggle.
All human institutions are flawed to some degree or other, social welfare systems and labor unions among them. But when critiquing the flaws of any institution, it is important to ask what would be lost in their absence. Jointly mobilizing for better conditions for everyone brings us together in ways that enable us to recognize a common humanity despite difference in appearance, ethnicity, religion, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender. Sadly, humans must continually be reminded that we are black or white, gender nonconforming or conforming, woman or man, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or atheist, we all need a weekend off, food to eat, and time and support to care for our aging parents. Flawed as institutions and policies that give us our democratic ethos may be, a liberal democratic society without them risks collapse.
Some may complain about overreaction in the arguments I make, or object that contemporary examples are not sufficiently extreme to juxtapose against the crimes of history. But the threat of the normalization of the fascist myth is real. It is tempting to think of “normal” as benign; when things are normal, there is no need for alarm. However, both history and psychology show that our judgements about normality can’t always be trusted. In “Part Statistical, Part Evaluative,” a 2017 paper in the journal Cognition, the Yae philosopher Joshua Knobe and his Yale psychology colleague Adam Bear demonstrate that judgments of normality are affects both by what people think is statistically normal and what think is ideally normal, that is, healthy and proper (for example, hours a day of watching television). In an article for The New York Times Sunday review, they apply their conclusions to our judgements about the social world, finding that President Trump’s continuing behavior—actions and speech that used to be considered remarkable—have real and disturbing consequences: “These actions are not simply coming to be regarded as more typical; they are coming to be seen as more normal. As a result, they will come to be seen as less bad and hence less worthy of outrage.”
Knobe and Bear’s work provides a basis for a phenomenon that those who lived through transitions from democracy to fascism regular emphasize from personal experience and with great alarm: the tendencies of populations to normalize the once unthinkable. This is a central theme of my grandmother Ilse Stanley’s 1957 memoir, The Unforgotten. … In her book she recounts the disparity between the extremes she witnessed in the concentration camp and the denials of the seriousness of the situation, its normalization, by the Jewish community of Berlin. She struggled to convince her neighbors of the truth:
“A concentration camp for those on the outside, was a kind of labor camp. There were whispered rumors of people being beaten, even killed. But there was no comprehension of the tragic reality. We were still able to ;eave the country; we could still live in our homes; we could still worship in our temples; we were in a Ghetto, but the majority of our people were still alive. For the average Jew, this seemed enough. He didn’t realize we were all waiting for the end.
The year was 1937.”
What normalization does is transform the morally extraordinary into the ordinary. It makes us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this the way things have always been. By contrast, the word “fascist” has acquired a feeling the extreme, like crying wolf. Normalization of fascist ideology, by definition, would make charges of “fascism” seem like an overreaction, even in societies whose norms are transforming along these worrisome lines.