Friday, February 25, 2005

The fascination with fascism

I suppose that, after winning a couple of way-cool Koufaxes for two different essays involving fascism, it'd be fair for people to ask if I have kind of a, you know, thing about the subject.

Well: yeah, I do. Pretty obviously. After all, besides the two essays, my first book (In God's Country) was explicitly about the proto-fascist element in America; and both Death on the Fourth of July and Strawberry Days are varying explorations of the fascist impulse in America.

Though I've often been accused of being "obsessed" with the subject, there's also a perfectly rational reason for my interest: Beginning in the late 1970s, as a fourth-generation Idahoan working in the northern Panhandle, I was confronted with the presence of genuine American fascists in my own back yard. And dealing with them in real life is a lot different than what it's like in the movies. Eventually, you also have to confront their humanity.

In the movies, white supremacists are pretty easily identifiable. They have shaven heads, wear lots of leather and tatoos, and preferably have a few chains hanging from various clothing and body parts. They are barely able to speak, other than flinging hateful verbal turds at everyone in their general vicinity. They have a crazed, skittering gleam in the one eye that doesn't wander. In other words, they are demons.

In real life, they are humans. There are a few skinheads who dress and act like the stereotype, but only a few. Most white supremacists dress like normal people. They hold normal jobs. They live in normal neighborhoods, and have seemingly normal kids. The only way you'll ever know they're not normal is if you get close enough to them that they open up, or they somehow otherwise let slip the nature of their beliefs.

Harmon Leon at SF Weekly recently discovered this, in an amusingly on-target piece in which he went undercover and posed as a potential recruit for a white-power outfit:
"Right this way," she answers with a perky smile, not taking my meaning and leading me past dining, joyful families right to the table of three white supremacists -- and a baby. I'm actually taken aback. They look normal: a guy with short hair and a button-down shirt; his wife, who wears glasses and looks like a soccer mom; their baby; and a dumpy blond college girl. The white supremacists are already eating their appetizers; they have frowns on their faces.

"Glad to see that you made it," says unsmiling Kevin, a guy who works as a computer software technician. The normality isn't just dumbfounding; it's disturbing. Maybe the joke's on me. Maybe they're not as extreme as I imagined!

I find myself apologizing to the haters.

"There's nothing I hate more than traffic," I present as an excuse. "Except, of course, the Jews." Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), they agree.

There's initial nervousness all around; they try to feel me out, yet, at the same time, they also try to impress me with the merits of their hate group. I, meanwhile, ponder whether my fork will work as a weapon in a situation of self-defense.

"Can we get a menu?" the white supremacist soccer mom asks the bubbly waiter.

... Now I see it. This is what happens to skinheads when they grow up, have kids, and move to the suburbs. They become fatherly, respectable, racist white supremacists, the kind you'd wave to at the company picnic.

"What were you expecting?' asks Kevin about my preconception of the evening.

I ponder for a moment. I was looking for depth, and this is all I got, and this is very simple: Hate groups hate. That's exactly what they do, in a cultlike way, expanding their ranks by preying on the lonely and isolated. There's no great intellectual explanation for it.

"This was different, a lot different than I was expecting," I say.

Fascism does not come with brownshirts, stormtroopers and grandiloquent displays of power. Those are what happens when it's too late.

It comes with a job and a home in the suburbs. It disguises itself in a surface reasonableness that's easily scratched to find the festering hatred and fear boiling beneath. I was struck, in fact, by how much the white supremacists I met and interviewed and dealt with were like people I grew up around: proud, hard-working, but not very succesful; a little ignorant, a little gullible, but sincere in believing they were doing the right thing. Primed, in other words, for an appeal based in the politics of resentment.

Faced with this reality, it became a point of interest to me to understand fascism itself and its underlying psychology. It is not a typical "ism" in that its ideology is indistinct at best; it is, as I've often discussed, better understood as a cultural and political pathology, which like psychological pathologies comprises not a single core principle but a constellation of traits, beliefs, and behaviors. Fascism happens first on a personal level. Followers are not "brainwashed" -- they join avidly, of their own accord.

Fascists have always been with us in America, at least since the days of the old Klan. But they have only briefly ever threatened to take political control of the nation. Mostly they have been relegated to the fringes. The danger comes when conditions create enough people susceptible to their appeal. Those conditions are in turn created by the behavior of both political leaders and the mass media in promulgating in the mainstream ideas, motifs, and symbols that originated with fascist extremists.

Seeing the "normal" face of fascism, and studying its historical antecedents, made me realize how easily it can insinuate itself in a democratic society, especially one facing a crisis. This was driven home for me, incidentally, by a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, which was as emotional an experience as I've ever had at a museum. A portion of the displays emphasized the roles of ordinary people, everyday Germans, in making mass genocide possible. Comparing these Germans to my everyday Idaho fascists, I realized how few steps are involved, in fact, in making these little monsters, in shifting from resentful conservatism to eliminationist fascism.

This is largely a product of the everyday nature of so many of the traits that form stars in the constellation of fascist pathology -- that, and the fact that fascism always clothes itself in the colors and iconography of the "true" national identity it claims to genuinely represent. Fascism always looks normal on the surface, even though its essentially totalitarian stench can never be disguised.

I've been arguing that as the conservative movement morphed into a discrete force consumed with the acquisition of power by any means necessary, it has, almost by virtue of the very forces into which it has begun tapping, taken on increasingly fascist traits. The result has been a movement that replicates the appearance of fascism but lacks its black core of violence -- a simulacrum, if you will, of fascism.

It seems that I haven't been alone in recognizing the acquisition of these traits. In recent weeks, a number of traditional conservatives and libertarians have been chiming in from different quarters, observing some of the same similarities.

The problem is that some of them are wrong, at least in the conclusions they draw. In some cases, their bad analysis only creates a gross misunderstanding of the dynamic currently in play. And some of them, frankly, are not in the best positions to be accusing others of cozying up to fascists.

Interestingly enough, the charges seem primarily to be coming from the self-described "paleo-conservatives" -- a faction of the conservative movement constituted both of genuinely traditional conservatives and some of its more ideologically extreme characters.

The first salvo, from Paul Craig Roberts, was reasonable enough, picking primarily on how far from genuine conservatism the Bush administration has wandered, particularly on its adventurist foreign policy and its profligate deficit spending, and noting that Bush's army of defenders had developed a decidedly vicious nature:
There is nothing conservative about these positions. To label them conservative is to make the same error as labeling the 1930s German Brownshirts conservative.

American liberals called the Brownshirts "conservative," because the Brownshirts were obviously not liberal. They were ignorant, violent, delusional, and they worshipped a man of no known distinction. Brownshirts’ delusions were protected by an emotional force field. Adulation of power and force prevented Brownshirts from recognizing implications for their country of their reckless doctrines.

Like Brownshirts, the new conservatives take personally any criticism of their leader and his policies. To be a critic is to be an enemy. I went overnight from being an object of conservative adulation to one of derision when I wrote that the US invasion of Iraq was a "strategic blunder."

Roberts, it's worth noting, does not conclude that Bush or the neoconservatives are fascist; a careful reading reveals that he only observes the familial likenesses inherent in the landscape -- that is, among the rank and file, the ordinary "movement conservatives" whose adulation is being stoked by those at the top.

Instead, that conclusion was voiced by Lew Rockwell in his piece, "The Reality of Red-State Fascism," which offers the following take:
I'm actually not surprised at this. It has been building for some time. If you follow hate-filled sites such as Free Republic, you know that the populist right in this country has been advocating nuclear holocaust and mass bloodshed for more than a year now. The militarism and nationalism dwarfs anything I saw at any point during the Cold War. It celebrates the shedding of blood, and exhibits a maniacal love of the state. The new ideology of the red-state bourgeoisie seems to actually believe that the US is God marching on earth – not just godlike, but really serving as a proxy for God himself.

... In short, what we have alive in the US is an updated and Americanized fascism. Why fascist? Because it is not leftist in the sense of egalitarian or redistributionist. It has no real beef with business. It doesn't sympathize with the downtrodden, labor, or the poor. It is for all the core institutions of bourgeois life in America: family, faith, and flag. But it sees the state as the central organizing principle of society, views public institutions as the most essential means by which all these institutions are protected and advanced, and adores the head of state as a godlike figure who knows better than anyone else what the country and world's needs, and has a special connection to the Creator that permits him to discern the best means to bring it about.

The American right today has managed to be solidly anti-leftist while adopting an ideology – even without knowing it or being entirely conscious of the change – that is also frighteningly anti-liberty. This reality turns out to be very difficult for libertarians to understand or accept. For a long time, we've tended to see the primary threat to liberty as coming from the left, from the socialists who sought to control the economy from the center. But we must also remember that the sweep of history shows that there are two main dangers to liberty, one that comes from the left and the other that comes from the right. Europe and Latin America have long faced the latter threat, but its reality is only now hitting us fully.

Rockwell's argument is compelling, if for no other reason than that he limns the aspects of the modern conservative movement that most strikingly resemble classic fascism. However, he fails to take into account the differences between classic fascists and today's conservatives, and for the time being they are substantial enough to at least seriously undermine the argument. There are, as I explained in "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism," many such differences, but the most obvious of these is the lack of the dark heart of fascism: an overt aesthetic of violence, as well as the widespread use of violence and intimidation as a political tactic.

Following shortly in Rockwell's footsteps was "libertarian" Justin Raimondo of, who weighed in with a piece titled, "Today's Conservatives are Fascists," which carries Rockwell's identification of the neoconservatives particularly as "fascist" even further, though Raimondo seems to have only a tenuous grasp of the concept, other than that it's a kind of catch-all term for totalitarianism. See, for instance, this passage:
Casting aside all that Frankfurt School Marxist nonsense about fascism as the "enraged bourgeoisie," and rejecting the terminological prissiness of those who insist on fascism as a very specific mode of economic organization, I would build on the definition of Communism proffered by the late Susan Sontag, who famously called the Soviet system "fascism with a human face."

Surely "fascism with a 'democratic' face" sums up the Bushian "global democratic revolution" just as accurately and succinctly ...

Raimondo seems to be defining fascism according to another definition that hinges on an unclear conception of the term itself; it becomes, in essence, a vague circular definition that gets commingled with Soviet Stalinism. Not exactly coherent logic.

But then, this doesn't surprise me. Raimondo has a history of incoherence and, more importantly, a taste for conspiracism. Back when Bill Clinton was president, Raimondo established a track record of promoting apocalyptic pre-Y2K New World Order conspiracy theories that were very similar in nature to what we were seeing promoted by far-right militiamen and Freemen, as well as white supremacists.

Then, when he and his allies were called out on this, Raimondo responded by attacking anti-fascist organizations, something he continues to do today.

In reality, many members of the so-called "paleo-conservative" faction that is now eager to label neoconservatives "fascists" were themselves closely aligned, both ideologically and financially, with the most active strain of genuine proto-fascism active in America today. Many of these same critics were eager, in the 1990s, to attack efforts to rein in the anti-government extremism that ran rampant in the "Patriot"/militia movement, and were quick defend extremists like the Montana Freemen. Even Rockwell, in his essay, noted this:
The 1994 revolution failed of course, in part because the anti-government opposition was intimidated into silence by the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995. The establishment somehow managed to pin the violent act of an ex-military man on the right-wing libertarianism of the American bourgeoisie. It was said by every important public official at that time that to be anti-government was to give aid and support to militias, secessionists, and other domestic terrorists. It was a classic intimidation campaign but, combined with a GOP leadership that never had any intention to change DC, it worked to shut down the opposition.

This is, of course, pure balderdash. No one was accused of being an extremist supporter of militias merely for being anti-government; hell, half of today's conservative pundit class comprises people who made careers by being "anti-government" in the 1990s (calling Rush Limbaugh). The only serious accusations of such support were accompanied by actual evidence.

People like Rockwell and Raimondo were criticized, justifiably, for trading in far-right "New World Order" and various anti-Clinton conspiracy theories. Perhaps they're sore -- again, justifiably -- for being singled out, since by the time the impeachment drama had played out, a whole cable division of allegedly mainstream conservative pundits had repeated the same theories for national consumption, with scarcely an eyebrow raised. Still, it's hard to have much sympathy for people who supported the work of "thinkers" like the late Sam Francis, the late neo-Confederate who had a habit of writing for white-supremacist organs like the Occidental Review. It's similarly hard to take seriously their cries of "fascist."

The same is true of another key "paleo-con" figure, Patrick Buchanan. His dalliances with extremists have ranged from his work in the 1980s as a former Nixon operative helping a Nazi-riddled "special interest" group attack the efforts of the Office of Special Intelligence to bring old Nazis to justice to his long association with Larry Pratt, one of the first advocates of the militia movement.

Still, the most sensible iteration of the paleo-conservative concern about the seemingly fascist proclivities of the conservative movement came in a Scott McConnell piece in Buchanan's American Conservative magazine titled "Hunger for Dictatorship", which touches on many of the same points I've discussed here:
But Rockwell (and Roberts and Raimondo) is correct in drawing attention to a mood among some conservatives that is at least latently fascist. Rockwell describes a populist Right website that originally rallied for the impeachment of Bill Clinton as "hate-filled ... advocating nuclear holocaust and mass bloodshed for more than a year now." One of the biggest right-wing talk-radio hosts regularly calls for the mass destruction of Arab cities. Letters that come to this magazine from the pro-war Right leave no doubt that their writers would welcome the jailing of dissidents. And of course it's not just us. When USA Today founder Al Neuharth wrote a column suggesting that American troops be brought home sooner rather than later, he was blown away by letters comparing him to Tokyo Rose and demanding that he be tried as a traitor. That mood, Rockwell notes, dwarfs anything that existed during the Cold War. "It celebrates the shedding of blood, and exhibits a maniacal love of the state. The new ideology of the red-state bourgeoisie seems to actually believe that the US is God marching on earth—not just godlike, but really serving as a proxy for God himself."

McConnell goes on to draw extensively from remarks by the famed scholar Fritz Stern (whose remarks I've likewise noted carefully). But he draws, I think, some important lines, and realizes some important distinctions:
Secondly, it is necessary to distinguish between a sudden proliferation of fascist tendencies and an imminent danger. There may be, among some neocons and some more populist right-wingers, unmistakable antidemocratic tendencies. But America hasn’t yet experienced organized street violence against dissenters or a state that is willing—in an unambiguous fashion—to jail its critics. The administration certainly has its far Right ideologues—the Washington Post’s recent profile of Alberto Gonzales, whose memos are literally written for him by Cheney aide David Addington, provides striking evidence. But the Bush administration still seems more embarrassed than proud of its most authoritarian aspects. Gonzales takes some pains to present himself as an opponent of torture; hypocrisy in this realm is perhaps preferable to open contempt for international law and the Bill of Rights.

McConnell identifies exactly what is wrong with the arguments of Rockwell and Raimondo that Bush and the neoconservatives are themselves fascists. They mistake a proliferation of traits for an actual manifestation, without taking into account the key differences.

What all of them miss, importantly, is the role of movement leaders -- particularly Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, and the neocons -- in encouraging these proto-fascist traits. There is no evidence that they're doing so because they themselves are actually proto-fascists; rather, I think it remains clear that these people are pro-corporate crony capitalists, and the evidence strongly suggests that they're indulging this style of politics for the sake of shoring up their numbers and securing their political base. The strongest evidence for this is the ongoing minuet the Bush administration dances with the neo-Confederate faction that now rules the South.

In other words, "movement conservatives" are being molded into a mindset that increasingly resembles classic fascism, but it's being done by leaders who mostly find this mindset convenient and readily manipulable. Unfortunately, the history of fascism is such that the arrogant corporatist belief that they contain these forces is not well grounded.

What's important to understand is the real dynamic: A growing populist "movement" is being encouraged increasingly to adopt attitudes that, taken together, become increasingly fascist. Greater numbers of individuals are being conditioned to think alike, and more importantly, to accept an increasingly vicious response to dissent. This does not mean that genuine fascism has arrived as a real political force in America; but it does mean the groundwork is being created for just such a nightmare, by irresponsible politicians tapping into terrible forces beyond their ability to control.

If even "paleo-conservatives" can see this, there's hope of stopping it. But I think we need to begin with a clear understanding of who, what, and why the fascists are.

The latent fascists who are the biggest problem right now are not Republican leaders. It is their oxyconned, Foxcized, Freeped-out, fanatic army of followers, comprising ordinary people, who pose the long-term problem. Drawing them back from the abyss is the real challenge that confronts us.

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