V: Proto-Fascism in America
It's clear by now, I hope, that fascism isn’t something peculiar to Europe, but in fact grew out of an impulse that appears throughout history in many different cultures. This impulse is, as Roger Griffin puts it, "ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation's entire political culture."
We needn't look far to find this impulse at play in the American landscape -- social, religious and political renewal all appear as constant (though perhaps not yet dominant) themes of Republican propaganda now. But it is especially prevalent on the extremist right; indeed, it's probably a definitive trait.
Griffin argues that current-day fascism is "groupuscular" in nature -- that is, it forms out of smallish but virulent, potentially lethal and certainly problematic "organisms":
- After the war the dank conditions for revolutionary nationalism "dried out" to a point where it could no longer form into a single-minded slime mould. Since party-political space was largely closed to it, even in its diminutive versions, it moved increasingly into disparate niches within civic and uncivic space, often assuming a "metapolitical" mode in which it focussed on changing the "cultural hegemony" of the dominant liberal capitalist system. … Where revolutionary nationalism pursued violent tactics they were no longer institutionalised and movement-based, but of a sporadic, anarchic, and terroristic nature. To the uninitiated observer it seemed that where once planets great and small of ultra-nationalist energies had dominated the skies, there now circled an asteroid belt of fragments, mostly invisible to the naked eye.
When we consider some of the other historical traits of fascism, including those it shares with other forms of totalitarianism, then it becomes much easier to identify the political factions that are most clearly proto-fascist -- that is, potentially fascist, if not explicitly so. (As Paxton argues, its latent expression will not necessarily represent its mature form.) Surveying the American scene, it is clear that just such a movement already exists. And in fact, it had already inspired, before 9/11, the most horrendous terrorist attack ever on American soil. It calls itself the "Patriot" movement.
You may have heard that this movement is dead. It isn’t, quite yet. And its potential danger to the American way of life is still very much with us.
Those who have read In God’s Country know that I conclude, in the Afterword, that the Patriot movement represents a genuine proto-fascist element: "a uniquely American kind of fascism." Let's explore this point in a little more detail.
As Griffin suggests, the "groupuscular" form that postwar fascism has taken seems to pose little threat, but it remains latent in the woodwork:
- But the danger of the groupuscular right is not only at the level of the challenge to "cultural hegemony". Its existence as a permanent, practically unsuppressible ingredient of civil and uncivil society also ensures the continued "production" of racists and fanatics. On occasion these are able to subvert democratic, pacifist opposition to globalisation, as has been seen when they have infiltrated the "No Logo" movement with a revolutionary, violent dynamic all too easily exploited by governments to tar all protesters with the same brush. Others choose instead to pursue the path of entryism by joining mainstream reformist parties, thus ensuring that both mainstream conservative parties and neo-populist parties contain a fringe of ideologically "prepared" hard-core extremists. Moreover, while the semi-clandestine groupuscular form now adopted by hard-core activist and metapolitical fascism cannot spawn the uniformed paramilitary cadres of the 1930s, it is ideally suited to breeding lone wolf terrorists and self-styled "political soldiers" in trainers and bomber-jackets dedicated to a tactic of subversion known in Italian as "spontaneism". [Emphasis mine] By reading the rationalised hate that they find on their screens as a revelation they transform their brooding malaise into a sense of mission and turn the servers of their book-marked web groupuscules into their masters.
Griffin identifies this manifestation of fascism not only in Europe but in the United States:
- One of the earliest such acts of terrorism on record harks back to halcyon pre-PC days. When Kohler Gundolf committed the Oktoberfest bombing in 1980 it was initially attributed to a "nutter" working independently of the organised right. Yet it later transpired that he had been a member of the West German groupuscule, Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann. It also emerged at the trial of the "Oklahoma bomber", Timothy McVeigh, that he had been deeply influenced by the USA's thriving groupuscular right subculture. His disaffection with the contemporary state of the nation had been politicised by his exposure to the shadowy revolutionary subculture created by the patriotic militias, rifle clubs and survivalists. In particular, his belief that he had been personally called to do something to break ZOG’s (the so-called Zionist Occupation Government) stranglehold on America had crystallised into a plan on reading The Turner Diaries by William Pierce, head of the National Alliance.
Conservatives have successfully re-airbrushed the Oklahoma City bombing as the act of a single maniac (or two) rather than the piece of right-wing terrorism it was, derived wholly from an ideological stew of venomous hate that has simultaneously been seeping into mainstream conservatism throughout the 1990s and since.
The Patriot movement that inspired Tim McVeigh and his cohorts -- as well as a string of other would-be right-wing terrorists who were involved in some 40-odd other cases in the five years following April 15, 1995 -- indeed is descended almost directly from overtly fascist elements in American politics. Much of its political and "legal" philosophy is derived from the "Posse Comitatus" movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, which itself originated (in the 1960s) from the teachings of renowned anti-Semite William Potter Gale, and further propagated by Mike Beach, a former "Silver Shirt" follower of neo-Nazi ideologue William Dudley Pelley.
Though the Patriot movement is fairly multifaceted, most Americans have a view of it mostly through the media images related to a single facet -- the often pathetic collection of bunglers and fantasists known as the militia movement. Moreover, they’ve been told that the militia movement is dead.
It is, more or less. (And the whys of that, as we will see, are crucial here.) But the Patriot movement -- oh, it’s alive and reasonably well. Let's put it this way: It isn't going away anytime soon.
The militia "movement" was only one strategy in the broad coalition of right-wing extremists who call themselves the "Patriot" movement. What this movement really represents is the attempt of old nationalist, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies to mainstream themselves by stripping away the arguments about race and ethnicity, and focusing almost single-mindedly on their underlying political and legal philosophies -- which all come wrapped up, of course, in the neat little Manichean package of conspiracy theories. In the process, most of their spokesmen carefully eschew race talk or Jew-baiting, but refer instead to "welfare queens" and "international bankers" and the "New World Order".
Forming militias was a strategy mainly aimed at recruiting from the mainstream, particularly among gun owners. It eventually fell prey to disrepute and entropy, for reasons we’ll explore in a bit. However, there are other Patriot strategies that have proved to have greater endurance, particularly "common law courts" and their various permutations, all of which revolve around the idea of "sovereign citizenship," which makes every white Christian male American, essentially, a king unto himself. The movement is, as always, mutable. It includes a number of "constitutionalist" tax-protest movements, as well as certain "home schooling" factions and anti-abortion extremists.
As I explained it in the Afterword of In God’s Country:
- … [T]he Patriots are not Nazis, nor even neo-Nazis. Rather, they are at least the seedbed, if not the realization, of a uniquely American kind of fascism. This is an overused term, its potency diluted by overuse and overstatement. However, there can be little mistaking the nature of the Patriot movement as essentially fascist in the purest sense of the word. The beliefs it embodies fit, with startling clarity, the definition of fascism as it has come to be understood by historians and sociologists: a political movement based in populist ultranationalism and focused on an a core mythic ideal of phoenix-like societal rebirth, attained through a return to "traditional values."
As with previous forms of fascism, its affective power is based on irrational drives and mythical assumptions; its followers find in it an outlet for idealism and self-sacrifice; yet on close inspection, much of its support actually derives from an array of personal material and psychological motivations. It is not merely an accident, either, that the movement and its belief systems are directly descended from earlier manifestations of overt fascism in the Northwest -- notably the Ku Klux Klan, Silver Shirts, the Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nations. Like all these uniquely American fascist groups, the Patriots share a commingling of fundamentalist Christianity with their ethnic and political agenda, driven by a desire to shape America into a "Christian nation."
Griffin, in The Nature of Fascism, appears almost to be describing the Patriot movement two years before it arose, particularly in his description (pp. 36-37) of populist ultra-nationalism, which he says "repudiates both 'traditional' and 'legal/rational' forms of politics in favour of prevalently 'charismatic' ones in which the cohesion and dynamics of movements depends almost exclusively on the capacity of their leaders to inspire loyalty and action ... It tends to be associated with a concept of the nation as a 'higher' racial, historical, spiritual or organic reality which embraces all the members of its ethical community who belong to it."
But by remaining in this "groupuscular" state, the Patriot movement cannot be properly described as full-fledged fascism. Certainly it does not resemble mature fascism in the least. My friend Mark Pitcavage explains:
- … "[T]hough it definitely has nationalistic and volkische elements," the Patriot movement does not meet "the key standard: a corporatist-statist authoritarianism. Indeed, it often seems antithetically opposed to such arrangements (and often believes that this is the arrangement the U.S. government has)."
What this view, while accurate, misses is Paxton's point: Fascism, by nature, is essentially mutative. Italian, German and Spanish fascism all lacked any corporatist-statist leanings in their developmental stages as well -- and indeed could have been described as antithetically opposed to authoritarianism. The wheat bundle which is the central image underlying the word fascismo, after all, suggested a national unity in which all parts had a voice and a role. In the end, this image was a travesty.
A second missing characteristic might be more telling: leadership under a central, authoritarian figure. The lack of such a personage is what leads Chip Berlet to define the Patriot movement as "proto-fascist." Berlet, an analyst at the Cambridge, Mass., think tank Political Research Associates, says: "This is a kind of right-wing populism, which historically has been the seedbed for fascist movements. In other words, if you see fascism as a particularly virulent form of right-wing populism, it makes a lot more sense. It’s missing a couple of things that are necessary for a fascist movement. One is a strong leader. It doesn’t mean they couldn’t get one. But until they get one it isn’t fascism."
Berlet takes little comfort in the difference in terms: "This is one trigger event away from being a fascist movement," he says. "There’s no guarantee it’ll go that way. You would need a very charismatic leader to step forward. But it could happen at any time."
The Patriot movement certainly is in a down cycle, and has been since the end of the 1990s. Its recruitment numbers are way down. Its visibility and level of activity are in stasis, if not decline. But right-wing extremism has always gone in cycles. It never goes away -- it only becomes latent, and resurrects itself when the conditions are right.
And during these down periods, the remaining True Believers tend to become even more radicalized. There is already a spiral of violent behavior associated with Patriot beliefs, particularly among the younger and more paranoid adherents. As Griffin suggests, we can probably expect to see an increase in these "lone wolf" kind of attacks in coming years.
But there is a more significant aspect to the apparent decline of the Patriot movement: Its believers, its thousands of footsoldiers, and its agenda, never went away. These folks didn’t stop believing that Clinton was the anti-Christ or that he intended to enslave us all under the New World Order. They didn’t stop believing it was appropriate to pre-emptively murder "baby killers" or that Jews secretly conspire to control the world.
No, they’re still with us, but they’re not active much in militias anymore. They’ve been absorbed by the Republican Party.
They haven’t changed. But they are changing the party.
Next: Crossing the Lines