Part 1: The Morphing of the Conservative Movement
When trying to make sense of the seemingly inextricable political morass into which we've descended, one of the real keys to understanding our situation is realizing that conservatism and the "conservative movement" are in fact two entirely different things.
Conservatism, like liberalism, is not a dogmatic philosophy, but rather a style of thought, an approach to politics or life in general. It stresses the status quo and traditional values, and is typified by a resistance to change. Likewise, liberalism is not relegated to a discrete "movement" but rather describes a general politics that comprises many disparate concerns.
The "conservative movement," however, is a decidedly dogmatic political movement that demands obeisance to its main tenets (and exiles those who dissent) and a distinctly defined agenda. Movement followers proudly announce their membership. (In contrast, there is no "liberal movement" worth speaking of -- just a hodgepodge of loosely associated interests.) Importantly enough, their raison d'etre has transformed from the extenuation of their "conservative" impulses into the Machiavellian acquisition of power, usually through any means necessary.
The presence of this discrete movement, in fact, is something that nearly everyone who follows the contours of the political landscape is well aware of. Recall, for instance, the recent New York Times piece outlining the work of a fellow named Rob Stein, who has carefully examined the structure of the movement and its effectiveness:
- The presentation itself, a collection of about 40 slides titled "The Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix," essentially makes the case that a handful of families -- Scaife, Bradley, Olin, Coors and others -- laid the foundation for a $300 million network of policy centers, advocacy groups and media outlets that now wield great influence over the national agenda. The network, as Stein diagrams it, includes scores of powerful organizations -- most of them with bland names like the State Policy Network and the Leadership Institute -- that he says train young leaders and lawmakers and promote policy ideas on the national and local level. These groups are, in turn, linked to a massive message apparatus, into which Stein lumps everything from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to Pat Robertson's "700 Club." And all of this, he contends, is underwritten by some 200 "anchor donors." "This is perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system," he said.
When movements like this take shape and gain real power -- and especially when they consolidate complete control of the reins power, as the conservative movement has done in the past four years -- they often take on a real life of their own, mutating into entirely separate entities that often bear little resemblance to their root values. In the process, they almost always become travesties of their original impulses.
Certainly, one only needs review the current state of affairs to recognize that the "conservative movement" -- especially as embodied by the Bush administration -- has wandered far astray from its original values. Just how "conservative" is it, after all, to run up record budget deficits? To make the nation bleed jobs? To invade another nation under false pretenses? To run roughshod over states' rights? To impose a radical unilateralist approach to foreign policy? To undermine privacy rights and the constitutional balance of power? To quanitifably worsen the environment, while ignoring the realities of global warming? To grotesquely mishandle the defense of our national borders?
Mind you, it is not merely liberals who have observed this transformation. It includes a number of longtime conservatives who remain true to their principles as well.
The "conservative movement," in the course of this mutation, has become something entirely new, a fresh political entity quite unlike we've ever seen before in our history, but one that at the same time seems somehow familiar, as though we have seen something like it.
What's become clear as this election year has progressed -- and especially in the wake of the Republican National Convention -- is the actual shape of this fresh beast.
Call it Pseudo Fascism. Or, if you like, Fascism Lite. Happy-Face Fascism. Postmodern Fascism. But there is little doubt anymore why the shape of the "conservative movement" in the 21st century is so familiar and disturbing: Its architecture, its entire structure, has morphed into a not-so-faint hologram of 20th-century fascism.
It is not genuine fascism, even though it bears many of the basic traits of that movement. It lacks certain key elements that would make it genuinely so:
-- Its agenda, under the guise of representing mainstream conservatism, is not openly revolutionary.
-- It is not yet a dictatorship.
-- It does not yet rely on physical violence and campaigns of gross intimidation to obtain power and suppress opposition.
-- American democracy has not yet reached the genuine stage of crisis required for full-blown fascism to take root.
Without these facets, the current phenomenon cannot properly be labeled "fascism." But what is so deeply disturbing about the current state of the conservative movement is that it has otherwise plainly adopted not only many of the cosmetic traits of fascism, its larger architecture -- derived from its core impulses -- now almost exactly replicates that by which fascists came to power in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and '30s.
It is in this sense that I call it Pseudo Fascism. Unlike the genuine article, it presents itself under a normative, rather than a revolutionary, guise; and rather than openly exulting in violence, it pays lip service to law and order. Moreover, even in the areas where it resembles real fascism, the similarities are often more familial than exact. It is, in essence, less virulent and less violent, and thus more likely to gain broad acceptance within a longtime stable democratic system like that of the United States.
And even in the key areas of difference, it is not difficult to discern that those dissimilarities are gradually shrinking, and in danger of disappearing.
That this is happening should not be a great surprise. After all, as I've already explored in great detail, the mainstream conservative movement has increasingly had contact with the genuine American proto-fascists of the extremist right over the past decade or more, particularly in the trafficking of ideas, agendas and the memes that propel them.
As I warned then, the danger was one of a kind of political gravitational pull: The more extremist ideology crept into the mainstream, the more it would transform the nature of the mainstream. The model of this effect is the Southern Strategy; initially deployed by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, its long-term effect was to transform the GOP from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Strom Thurmond, from a bastion of progressivity on race to the home of neo-Confederates who argue for modern secession and a return to white supremacism.
The final morph into Pseudo Fascism occurred under the dynamic under which the "conservative movement" operated after taking control of all three estates of American government in 2000. By seizing the presidency through means perceived by nearly half the nation at the time as illegitimate, conservative-movement ideologues were forced to govern without anything approaching a popular mandate. But rather than responding by moderating their approach to governance, the Bush administration instead acted as though it had won in a landslide, and proceeded to follow an openly radical course:
-- Instituting a massive transfer of the tax burden from the upper class to the middle, an approach that deepened the nation's economic malaise.
-- Appointing radical right-wingers to key positions in the nation's court system; shifting the emphasis in national security from terrorism to missile defense, a policy that left us vulnerable to the Sept. 11 attacks.
-- Instituting, in the wake of those attacks, the radical "Bush Doctrine" of unilateralist pre-emption.
-- Further using the attacks to undermine civil liberties under the Patriot Act and creating a policy of incarcerating citizens indefinitely as "enemy combatants".
-- Invading another nation by raising the false specter of the "imminent threat" of weapons of mass destruction.
-- Allowing intelligence officials to run amok, violating the Geneva Convention in interrogations at Bagram, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
-- Fighting, for clearly political reasons, every effort to have a thorough examination of the causes of the 9/11 security failures.
-- Moreover, at every step of nearly every policy it has pursued, the administration has erected obstacles to transparency, making clear it intends to operate in utter secrecy whenever possible.
The radical course followed by the Bush administration was, in fact, guaranteed to further divide the nation rather than unify it in a time of need. Moreover, the administration clearly proved itself wrong on so many major counts -- the economy, the pre-Sept. 11 handling of the terrorist threat, the rationale for war, the postwar occupation of Iraq -- that under normal circumstances, their competence above all should have come into serious question.
Maintaining power and instituting their agenda in this kind of milieu meant, for the conservative movement, a forced reliance on sheer bluff: projecting "strength and resolve" while simulatenously attacking their political opponents as weak and vacillating. To pull this bluff off, it required the assistance of a compliant press eager to appear "patriotic," and it received it in spades.
Mostly, it has succeeded in doing this by a constant barrage of emotion-driven appeals to the nation's fears in the post-9/11 environment:
-- Calling 9/11 "the day that changed everything," the Bush regime and its conservative-movement supporters have consistently projected a sense of overwhelming national crisis that requires reaching beyond traditional solutions and instituting a number of clearly radical steps.
-- Conservatives have continually stressed the primacy of Americanness, a group identity to which we are obligated, as "patriots," to subordinate all kinds of civil rights and free speech.
-- They have consistently emphasized the nation's victimhood in the 9/11 attacks -- and attacked any suggestion of a more nuanced view as "unpatriotic" -- and have further argued consistently that the 9/11 attacks justify nearly any action, regardless of legal or moral limits (see, e.g., Abu Ghraib), against America's enemies.
-- A favorite conservative theme is a dread of national decline under the corrosive effects of liberalism, often identifying it with equally dreaded alien influences. (See, e.g, Sean Hannity's bestselling screed, Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism.)
-- They have consistently argued for a closer integration of a purer American community under the aegeis of "national unity." However, this unity is not a natural one reached by compromise; rather, it can only be achieved by a complete subsumation of American politics by the conservative movement, creating essentially a one-party state. Citizens can join by consent if they like, or they can face exclusion as a consequence.
-- While denouncing their opponents -- especially Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry -- as "weak on terror," conservatives have consistently portrayed George W. Bush as the only person capable of making the nation not only secure from terrorists, but the dominant political and cultural force in the world, a role often portrayed in terms of a national destiny as the "beacon of democracy."
-- Most of all, they have stressed Bush's superiority as a president because of his reliance on his instincts and "resolve" and his marked refusal to engage in abstract reasoning.
-- At times, conservatives have even trod into arguing in favor of a war ethos (see, for instance the popular bumper sticker: "War Has Never Solved Anything, Except for Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism and Communism"); at other times -- as in all the talk about "shock and awe" in the Iraq invasion -- they have even suggested there is a kind of beauty to violence, especially in the service of the imposition of American will.
-- Finally, in defending the administration's actions -- particularly in invading Iraq under the pretense of a nonexistent "imminent threat," and for encouraging conditions that led to international-law violations at Abu Ghraib -- many conservatives have simply dismissed the critics by invoking 9/11 and the larger right, by sheer virtue of our national military power, to dominate other nations and individuals with no restraint. (The conservative movement's chief mouthpiece, Rush Limbaugh, was especially noteworthy in this regard, dismissing the Abu Ghraib as similar to fraternity hazing, and responding to a report that Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi had summarily executed six insurgents: "Good. Hubba-hubba.")
All of these appeals have come wrapped in the twin themes that are central to the appeal of the conservative movement:
-- An insistence that the movement represents the only "real Americans."
-- Pervasive expressions of contempt for the weak.
These latter traits, in particular, expose the underpinnings of the "conservative movement" for their genuinely corrosive and divisive nature.
But does all this add up to fascism?
Not in its fullest sense. But it does replicate, in nearly every regard, the architecture of fascism in its second stage of growth -- the stage at which, in the past, it has obtained power.
All that is needed for a full manifestation of American fascism, at this point, is for a genuine crisis of democracy to erupt. And if that occurs, it is almost inevitable that the differences between fascism and pseudo-fascism will vanish.
Next: The Architecture of Fascism
[Cross-posted at The American Street.]