Part 2: The Architecture of Fascism
Part 3: The Pseudo-Fascist Campaign
Part 4: The Apocalyptic One-Party State
Part 5: Warfare By Other Means
Part 6: Breaking Down the Barriers
One of the gross misconceptions about fascism that persists on both right and left sides of the political aisle is the notion that it can be reduced to a single core ideological principle, much like communism or anarchism, by which we can define it. This is why so many people reach for easy dictionary definitions when trying to deal with it.
But as Robert O. Paxton has demonstrated authoritatively in The Anatomy of Fascism, the mutative nature of fascism makes such definitions nearly impossible, and almost invariably off the mark. Probably the closest we've come to it is Roger Griffin's "palingenetic ultranationalist populism", which represents the traits that remain constant in fascism through all the stages of its development. Paxton himself has noted a similar constant, namely, the fascist insistence that it alone represents the authentic identity of the nation in which it arises.
The resemblance of the conservative movement's ideological underpinnings to these core traits of fascism is in many ways startlingly clear -- but there are also noticeable differences. The ultranationalism and selective populism are unmistakable, but the palingenesis (that is, the aspects of its appeal that are based on the myth of a phoenix-like national rebirth) is somewhat subdued, largely because the ashes from which it is arising -- those of Sept. 11 -- were relatively limited in the scope of their devastation.
Likewise, the claim to represent the authentic national identity is rampant in the conservative movement, ranging from the White House to media figures to the average red-state voter. However, it actually appears throughout the political spectrum -- at significantly lower volumes, certainly, but it nonetheless cannot be said to be a trait unique to the conservative movement.
It is for this and similar reasons that I call it pseudo-fascism: The familial resemblance of fascism's architecture is unmistakable, but it is not fully fleshed out. It is like a hologram, a skeletal outline, of fascism.
Fascism is not a single, readily identifiable principle but a political pathology, best understood (as in psychology) as a constellation of traits, many of which I have already outlined (particularly in Part 2). Taken individually, many of these traits seem innocuous enough, even readily familiar, part of the traditional American political hurly-burly. A few of them are present throughout the political spectrum -- but definitely not all of them.
It is only when taken together in sum does the constellation become clear. And when it comes together, it is fated to take on a life of its own.
Let's consider again the nine "motivating passions" of fascism identified by Paxton:
- 1. -- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
As I already observed in Part 1, this trait has been especially rampant as one of the clarion calls of movement conservatives since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001:
- 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.
The difference in pseudo-fascism -- and this is a significant one -- is that the solutions posed for confronting this crisis have not so far resulted in calls for disposing with democratic institutions. Instead, they have been more in the fashion of gradual erosion of them: chewing away at civil liberties through the Patriot Act and the emergence of the executive power to detain citizens under "enemy combatant" designations. Most notably, there have been anti-democratic campaigns to erode Americans' voter rights closely associated with conservative-movement operatives.
However, as long as they continue to operate, at least outwardly, on the basis of a respect for democracy, this cannot be said to be a genuinely fascist trait on the part of movement conservatism.
- 2. -- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it;
The conservative-movement similarity:
- 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.
This has been especially the case since Sept. 11, as the movement's bandwagon jingoes have quickly and fiercely denounced anyone who had the audacity to wonder about how American policy might have contributed to the root causes of terrorism. They have argued that privacy rights and racial profiling should be willingly sacrificed in the pursuit of national security (in some cases, even defending the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in the process), without presenting a scintilla of evidence that such measures would actually enhance security.
This mode of thought is not altogether absent elsewhere in the political sphere, but it is quite pronounced among movement conservatives.
- 3. -- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;
Again, this is a pronounced tendency among conservatives:
- 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.
This motif is almost utterly absent elsewhere in the political spectrum. While many liberals also gladly participate in the belief that America is primarily a victim in the war on terror, it is a common charge against liberals is that they are "traitors" for even suggesting that America needs to operate within the larger framework of the international community.
- 4. -- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
As I pointed out:
- 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.)
There have been many other iterations of this meme as well, such as Michael Savage's The Threat Within, which argues that the nation's real enemy is liberalism, or Rush Limbaugh's incessant harangues blaming liberals for everything wrong with the country. Pundits like Savage and Michelle Malkin have built careers out of denouncing the threat posed by illegal immigration and have connected it frequently to the terrorist threat.
Obviously, this meme does not appear among liberals in any shape (nor for that matter among any non-movement conservatives, except for the extremists of the racist and Patriot far right). Indeed, it's difficult to even find a liberal mirror to the conservative argument, to wit, that conservatives are at the root of all the nation's ills.
- 5. -- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
Movement conservatives clearly have made use of this meme:
- 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 [see esp. Part 4]. Citizens can join by consent if they like, or they can face exclusion as a consequence.
This "motivating passion" is not entirely absent from liberalism or centrism; the speeches by Democrats like Barak Obama and John Edwards at their national convention likewise stressed themes of national unity. But their argument was clearly an inclusive one -- saying, in essence, that everyone across the political spectrum was an American, and that all of us need to pull together as a nation. The conservative-movement argument, in stark contrast, is not inclusive in the least; the kind of "unity" it promotes is one in which Americans can come together only under the banner of their ideology; otherwise, they will face exclusion. In many instances, this exclusion is cast in terms explicitly threatening violence.
In this instance, the fascist propensities of the conservative movement are particularly clear.
- 6. -- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny;
The conservative-movement similarity:
- 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."
This motif is, however, much less clear in certain regards. The conservative movement not only has highly placed women in media roles (see, e.g., Coulter and Malkin) it also has had women in key positions in the administration (e.g., Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes and Christine Todd Whitman). But even this aspect tends toward a strongly male hierarchy; the movement's female pundits have a notable propensity for attacking women's rights (Coulter has even suggested they not be allowed to vote), while those in key positions are either moved out eventually (as were Hughes and Whitman) or given primarily roles as spokespersons for policies determined by the men in charge of the show (see Rice). Meanwhile, derision of the opposition often deploys rhetoric that expresses an overt hostility to a "feminine" approach, as in Arnold Schwarzenneger's convention speech urging people suffering under the Bush economy not to be "girlie men."
The claims of the exclusiveness of their ideology's ability to "lead America to its destiny," however, have becoming striking in the past year, especially as Bush has defended his approach to the "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq in the framework of the "new American century" envisioned by his top policy advisers, in which the United States dominates global affairs for the foreseeable future. Bush calls this "a calling from beyond the stars." The innate similarity of this style of leadership to the fascist vision of "national destiny" could not be more clear.
- 7. -- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;
This aspect of the fascist appeal is particularly pronounced in the 2004 Bush presidential campaign:
- 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.
Democrats have likewise stressed John Kerry's strength and resolve (largely to counter Bush's claims) but there is a distinct difference: Kerry clearly makes the case that he applies thought, reasoning, facts and logic to reach his conclusion, while Bush's campaign emphasizes his instincts. This is especially underscored by the Bush attacks on Kerry as a "flip-flopper" for having actually used reasoning to change his mind on certain policies; Bush's "stubborn resolve, as well as the overt anti-intellectualism of the way he mangles the language and produces bizarre malapropisms, is contrastingly sold as a virtue.
Of all the similarities to the motivating passions of fascism, this one is the most pronounced and unmistakable.
- 8. -- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;
As I argued earlier:
- 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 suggested there is a kind of beauty to violence, especially in the service of the imposition of American will.
However, this motif is relatively subdued when it comes to the conservative movement. Certainly there is relatively little promotion of an ethos of violence, except when conservative pundits talk reflexively about nuking the enemy or doing away with them altogether. And the Bush administration still pays lip service to the pain and sorrow associated with war, though interestingly enough that concern is only expressed in the context of American servicemen and not Iraqi civilians.
Genuine fascism, in contrast, positively gloried in violence as a domestic solution as well as an international one, advocating the thuggish tactics of SA Brownshirts in silencing the Left. So far there have only been hints of this in the conservative movement. Until it becomes more explicit, this particular fascist passion cannot be said to concretely exist in the current setting.
- 9. -- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.
There are some clear similarities here:
- … [I]n 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.")
There are other ways this trait manifests itself as well. The Bush administration's hostility to international and the international criminal courts was well established even before 9/11, and has become pronounced in the ensuing years. Its contemptuous treatment of the United Nations is consonant with this.
It's important to observe, however, that in the case of the conservative movement, "Darwinian" does not accurately describe their view of the natural world order. Theirs is more of a religious view akin to Manifest Destiny, a belief in American exceptionalism viewed through a prism of apocalyptic fundamentalist Christianity. In the end, the outcome is not remarkably different -- it still describes the world in competitive instead of cooperative terms, and the destructive outcome of putting it into practice is at least as great.
Nonetheless, the conservative movement exhibits many of the attributes of this passion, particularly in its assertion of the right to operate without restraint, justified by the horrors of 9/11. Otherwise, how could we have invaded another nation under false pretenses and in violation of international law?
Now, in reviewing these nine "motivating passions," it's clear that all of them are present, at least in rough form or outline, in the post-2000 conservative movement. But as we've seen, some of these similarities are not altogether clear, either.
All told, of the nine "passions," the presence of five of them is strong and clear, and in the case of two of these there are not even any mitigating factors. In two instances, the presence is mixed and mitigated somewhat, and in two others the similarity is not particularly strong.
There are other lesser, more stylistic similarities to fascism that have been reared their head in the conservative movement as well:
-- A propensity to view the weak with contempt; to associate weakness with femininity; and to excoriate the feminine and glorify the masculine. "Girlie men" was only the tip of the rhetorical iceberg in this regard.
-- A fondness for depicting their enemies and their opposition as animals -- typically either vermin or vicious killers. The most recent iteration of this theme is the new GOP "wolves" commercial, the underlying nature of which Eric Muller recently illustrated nicely. See also, by way of example, the Grover "Projection is My Middle Name" Norquist essay about how nasty liberals were going to be in the 2004 campaign, titled "Cornered Rats Fight Hard."
-- A resulting eliminationist rhetoric advocating the utter exclusion of entire blocs of the electorate, especially immigrants and the gay and lesbian community, as well as, on an even broader scale, liberals generically.
All these similarities are strong enough to make clear that what the conservative movement has become is, in its basic architecture, a kind of precursor to fascism. But the differences are significant enough that it cannot be accurately described as the real thing.
The differences are even clearer in certain other aspects of the historical framework of fascism that have been identified by people like Paxton and Griffin. I briefly described these differences in Part 1:
- -- Its agenda, under the guise of representing mainstream conservatism, is not openly revolutionary.
This is in large part due to the movement's origins in conservatism, which has traditionally been the defender of the status quo. What is noteworthy about the conservative movement, though, is that beneath the conservative mask, its agenda is deeply radical, if in many regards reactionary. This is especially the case in its approach to foreign policy, which seeks to embark the nation for the first time in its history on a unilateralist campaign of world dominance.
It is clear, too, that George Bush and his wrecking have intended a radical makeover of the approach to governance and policy from the start of his administration. This turn is not a product of Sept. 11; the latter, instead, has provided Bush cover for an agenda he intended from his first day in office.
- -- It is not yet a dictatorship.
This difference is related to some extent to the mechanics of how fascism traditionally has acquired power. In the past, fascism arose as a discrete movement that rose to power from the ground up. Contrastingly, in this instance, the mechanics involve a subtle but unmistakable transformation from within an already established force in the political system -- namely, the conservative movement.
However, this movement, unlike fascism, has never openly espoused the virtues of authoritarian dictatorship (though there was Bush's onetime joke that " If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator"). It continues to operate within the framework of a democratic republic.
At the same time, the movement's growing hostility to democratic institutions has been noteworthy -- ranging from real-world manifestations such as the Bush v. Gore decision, which undermined individual voting rights, to Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting program and the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis to the ongoing vote-suppression tactics being used in the current election. This hostility has theoretical underpinning in the conservative movement, particularly noteworthy in Antonin Scalia's discussions of the "tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government" and the need "to combat [this tendency] as effectively as possible".
- -- It does not yet rely on physical violence and campaigns of gross intimidation to obtain power and suppress opposition.
Clearly, there have been hints of such inclinations, ranging from the intimidation of voters in 2000 in Florida to campaign thuggery associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger's California campaign, to minor incidents of violence and intimidation in the current campaign. However, none of this has received explicit encouragement from the movement. What has occurred instead is the gradual creation of an environment where these kinds of thuggish tactics are considered everyday expressions of heated political views. Simultaneously, the environment is such that liberals and other opponents of the movement are responding in kind -- which only stokes the flames higher and justifies in the minds of movement followers their own innately violent responses.
- -- American democracy has not yet reached the genuine stage of crisis required for full-blown fascism to take root.
Paxton makes a special point of the fact that fascism is almost purely a product of the failure of democracy; for this reason, it only appears in formerly democratic states. Nearly every scholar of fascism makes clear that it has only successfully seized power when these democratic states reach real stages of crisis.
There is little doubt that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, first created the conditions under which democracy in America could face a crisis. The eternal war of the "war on terror" created an executive branch with extraordinary powers exceeding those of any previous "wartime president," if only because the war itself was both universal and endless, strangely amorphous, almost mythical, and yet all too real in the deaths it produces. Moreover, it has occurred at a time when the nation is more bitterly and rancorously divided and politically volatile than any time in the memory of most Americans living today. The levels of distrust and conflict exist both on a national scale and the deeply personal one,
The role of a discrete conservative movement in metastasis in this environment has been profound. Nearly all of the rancor and nastiness in the national discourse is closely associated with its rise in the 1990s, particularly under the banner of the propaganda war waged by Rush Limbaugh and his minions, who as I've described at length previously showed no hesitation in adopting ideas and memes straight out of the American far right, building ideological and political bridges with these extremists. The effect was a gravitational pull that dragged the movement further rightward almost naturally. It also introduced a level of eliminationist nastiness previously unseen in mass media.
The resulting milieu is one in which this nastiness has grown rampant on both sides, to the point where it's become indistinguishable who's nastier. Violence has raised its head on both sides of the aisle. And there's no particular end in sight.
In the end, though, we still have not reached an actual state of crisis. The potential is there for one as never before in our history; whether we reach it or not ultimately will depend on us as citizens.
Pseudo fascism has not arisen because of any conspiracy by closet fascists lurking in the conservative movement, but rather by the inexorable pull of the forces latent in the American body politic, combined with an unchecked lust for power and certain historical events of politically earth-shaking moment, all of which have caused it to coalesce in this fashion.
Yet because of the seeming familiarity of so many of its traits, the appearance of a fascist architecture on the political scene does not seem immediately threatening -- especially in the hollow, not fully-fleshed-out form that has manifested itself in the American conservative movement. It's only when we stand back and recognize the larger shape that the danger becomes clear.
Pseudo fascism, as it is now, is still a political pathology, but a manageable one. The real danger comes when the differences begin disappearing, when the barriers begin coming down. To the extent that this occurs, the hologram will begin taking on the real substance of fascism.
To the extent that the nation finds itself in the throes of a real crisis of governance; that we demand utter fealty to the national identity, even at the expense of democratic institutions or democracy itself; that we identify liberalism as the root of all evil in America, as a domestic enemy little distinguishable from those from abroad; that we justify acts of monstrousness by pointing to our own victimhood; that we rely on the "strength" and instincts of our leaders instead of their wisdom and powers of reason; that we allow violence to become part of the political landscape; and that we pursue an insane apocalyptic vision of world domination -- then, to that same extent, we put flesh to the fascist bones and make it real.
Can it happen in America? The truth is this: America is one of the nations in which fascism may yet manifest itself in this era of mass politics. Preventing this from happening hinges on the extent to which Americans themselves stand up to it.
Next: It Can Happen Here
[Note: I originally planned this as a six-part series. It's been expanded by one; next week's is the final installment.]