Is America Now a Fascist Country?

A Look at the Ten Pillars of Fascist Politics

Holocaust Memorial
Holocaust Memorial in Boston, MA. Photo credit: Yunner / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A country does not have to be fascist or have a fascist government in order to be riddled with fascist politics. This is the scary premise Jason Stanley argues in his recent book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University, is Jeff Schechtman’s guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Stanley reminds us that while 63 million Americans voted for President Donald Trump, a man who taps into America’s worst impulses, historically there is nothing new about the kind of politics he exploits. The attacks on immigrants, the media, cities, elites, and minorities, and the promise to weed out corruption, are all straight out of the fascist playbook.  

Stanley talks to Schechtman about what he believes are the ten pillars of fascist politics: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, and appeals to the heartland. He explains how fascists have consistently used these elements to sow division and gain power.

We are reminded in this conversation that the US is just as susceptible to fascist politics as Europe or anywhere else. Fascism, Stanley explains, is rooted in the struggle for “the national state” — a struggle fueled by a sense of loss for an idyllic past, which all but demands scapegoating of those “responsible” for that loss. It’s about, as Stanley puts it, weaponizing nostalgia.

Another key to fascism, as detailed by Stanley, is that it almost always wins by means of democratic elections. He points out that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels observed that the great joke on democracy is that its very freedoms lead to the victory of its worst enemy.

As Stanley speculates on the future, his greatest fear is that the US is evolving into a one-party state through a perversion of democracy. He singles out candidates like Brian Kemp in Georgia and Kris Kobach in Kansas, who are stoking fear of “others” to create an anti-democratic backlash and who are masters of voter suppression of non-white voters. He then explains the path that runs from voter suppression to the public’s feeling of hopelessness for democracy, and eventually to the collapse of democracy itself.

Stanley’s is a cautionary tale, taken straight from today’s headlines.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I am Jeff Schechtman. The word fascism gets thrown around a lot in the context of Donald Trump. As if he somehow were rich progenitor but the fact is Trump is merely the most contemporary and American exploiter. Right wing nationalist trends, fascist trends, are happening throughout the world. The underlying reasons are many and complex but the response to those reasons and the way in which it portends towards fascism has been pretty consistent.
Fascism is not some abstract idea, but a clear definable set of attitudes that people like Trump or Le Pen or Nigel Farage know how to exploit and magnify. For all of us experiencing it, it’s like a disease. Only if we know and understand the warning signs can we prevent it. And to help us to understand this, I am joined by our guest, Jason Stanley.
Jason Stanley is a Professor of Philosophy at Yale. Before coming to Yale he was a distinguished professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books and papers. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Review and it is my pleasure to welcome Jason Stanley here to talk about how fascism works. The politics of us and them.
Jason Stanley, welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Jason Stanley: Thank you for having me on the program.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the points you make is, and I think it is an important one, is that fascism doesn’t have to win, that it doesn’t have to be pervasive in order for us to be living in an environment where fascism has such a strong pull. Talk about that.
Jason Stanley: There’s many points here related to that. For example, fascism prizes struggle. So fascism reduces political discourse to life or death struggle. Hitler’s book is, of course, called “My Struggle.” Fascism has at its core social Darwinism. So fascism can reduce the political sphere not to a democratic argument between policy positions, but not to the giving and taking of reasons, but rather life and death struggle where it’s personal destruction which is at issue. Then, fascist politics wins. Then people forget the liberal democratic norms that are supposed to guide us in debate and even those who fight fascism end up having to face the reality of struggle. And then when that happens, truth and falsity become less important and one’s just left in a morass of us-versus-them struggle.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little more about the personal aspect of it, because one of the arguments that I’ve seen lately, is that we really don’t have to worry that much because fascism can never really come to America because it’s too large. Because our institutions are too big and too complex and that it’s not capable of being that penetrating.
Jason Stanley: So my book is in the first instance about fascist politics and not fascist government because I think if you look across the world, the governments that have employed, or the people and politicians, that have employed fascist politics have instituted very different governments when they’ve come to power. But fascist politics in and of itself is an incredible danger, and there is no question that we’re witnessing its successes here.
One of its dangers is that it does have an effect on the political system and policies when leaders who employ these tactics come into power. We’re already seeing some very clear indications of stages. For instance, Arendt talks about politicians who prize party over parties. By which she means politicians who prize the victory of their own party over multi-party democracy. There can’t really be a question that the Republican Party in particular is hostile to multi-party democracy. The gerrymandering that’s occurred, the take-over of courts, we have a minority of Americans voted for Republicans for Senate, a minority of Americans voted for the president and yet we’re going to have a hard, not just a right-wing, but a hard-right Supreme Court for generations to come. So we already have this one-party-rule facet and the one-party-rule is overcoming our institutions. Our institutions, the Senate, I mean the Senate is an institution designed to block democracy.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about is that there are certain things that we can look for, that there are these pillars of fascism that in fact are the guide posts along the way. Expand on that a little bit.
Jason Stanley: My book is a ten-part definition of fascist politics. Each chapter is a different investigation into a different aspect of fascist politics. The first chapter, “The Mythic Past,” is about the creation of a myth about a great past where members of the chosen nation reigned supreme. And in fascist politics, you connect nostalgia to that myth. People’s sense of loss which heightens in moments of economic anxiety, or heightens in moments where minorities or sexual minorities or, in the case of men, women gain additional equality. They feel a sense of loss and if you can connect that sense of loss to some mythic idyllic past that you have lost due to liberalism and foreign incursions into your culture then you can weaponize nostalgia. Propaganda, ordinary terms have reverse meanings. The objective news denounces ‘die Lügenpresse’, — the lying presses — Goebbels called it. The news becomes the fake news. Anti-corruption campaigns, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, they all ran anti-corruption campaigns but they’re incredibly corrupt. What is meant there? What is meant is the corruption of the traditional order of the people who should be ruling.
You get attacks on reality itself. A sure sign of the encroachment of fascist politics, of the grip of fascist politics, is the increasing prevalence and uptake of conspiracy theories. My first publication in the New York Times in 2011 was on birtherism because I was aware that’s a worrisome thing when conspiracy theories take off. Reality itself starts to become eroded. Universities, the press, are denounced as advancing liberal ideology. Goebbels says the ordinary ‘Bürger’ will never vote for us unless he is made to fear the communists so we have to create hysterical fear. The Nazis painted the ordinary Social Democratic Party as Marxist. So whenever you find ordinary progressive positions denounced as Marxist or communist then you know that people are employing fascist politics.
Victimhood, that is a very important one. One of the chapters is on victimhood  when the dominant group is meant to feel like a victim. The Heritage Foundation recently sent out a mailing saying “Unless you fight now, we won’t have any more Christian judges in America,” so in moments where fascist politics is ascendant, the most dominant groups in society feel that they are its greatest victims.
The law and order, fascist politics is always a law and order politics. But like the inversion of meaning that is so characteristic of fascist movements, law and order means something different. Jeff Sessions said of Trump, “You can tell by his reaction to the Central Park Five case that he’ll be a law-and-order President.” But Trump said they shouldn’t have been exonerated and they shouldn’t have been paid even if they’re innocent. So what does law and order there mean? It doesn’t mean rectifying injustices, it means the out-group are, by their nature, lawless.
Sexual anxiety is another pillar. It’s always the case that fascist movements paint the out-group as rape threats. They raise hysteria about foreigners as raping the in- group women. We’ve seen this in Myanmar. We see it in India. We see it all across the world. The United States is a long history of all these aspects, with our history of lynching of black men on baseless grounds that they were rape threats to white women. Fascism attacks freedom and the freedom to intermarry is a freedom, gay rights is a freedom, so fascism raises panic about gay rights, about intermarriage, because it solidifies fascist values. Fascism always takes the form of attacks on cities, the real rural values, the heartland, the real America or real Germany are the values of the heartland and the cities are infested with the hated minorities. Hitler talks about how in Vienna, in Austria, there are Jews, Jews, and more Jews. In the United States the word ‘inner city’ is used as a code for a place where black Americans live.
Finally, social Darwinism, the idea that the out group is always lazy and criminal.
Jeff Schechtman: Does history give us any indication of the socio-economic underpinnings that give rise to the perfect storm of these things coming together?
Jason Stanley: We face another time at which there is a reaction against globalization so we have a perfect storm across the world. These far right nationalist movements, these fascist movements are all interlinked; from Israel to Russia to Hungary, Poland, Austria, United States. They’re all linked. India. There is some kind of reaction against globalization, this is true. On the other hand it would be very hard to pin the global reaction to globalization, as it were paradoxically, to a specific economic moment.
I was in Berlin in May and Alternative für Deutschland, the far right German movement, there was a march for Alternative für Deutschland in the streets of Berlin. And a young German who, together with me, was a counter protestor, turned to me and said, “In school, we learned that the Nazis came to power because of economic cataclysm and the Great Depression,” but the economy is great and look, Nazis. Bavaria has been long a place of great economic power and the far right sentiments are very powerful there. Poland, the civic platform in Poland, had increased GDP. Poland’s economy was booming. And yes, they were overcome by a fascist party: Law and Justice. Sixty thousand people marched through the streets of Warsaw chanting pure blood. This is not because of economic anxiety.
Jeff Schechtman: What do we see in terms of the forces and the effectiveness of forces to push back against this? And what has been the most effective historically?
Jason Stanley: The most effective historically? That’s a great question. We’re seeing where Fintan O’Toole has called trial balloons for fascism being floated and there doesn’t seem to be the kind of moral outrage one would hope for in these cases. But I think that we can gain guidance from the poem on the wall of the Holocaust Memorial: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionist and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me but there was no one left to speak for me. First, what one learns from that is the targets of fascist politics. Socialists, labor unions, minorities, those are the targets. The poem correctly instructs us at every stage, look to see who’s targeted: Protect the targets.
Jeff Schechtman: Does fascism move differently or come to be differently in a democratic environment?
Jason Stanley: All fascists, and not all, but fascist movements very often win by democratic elections. Look at Orban, look at Hitler. Fascism campaigns against democracy. Fascism campaigns against multi-party, multi-ethnic democracy representing it as by its nature corrupt. And it exploits the freedoms of democracy. That’s Goebbels comment: “It will be the greatest joke of democracy that its freedoms led the victory of its worst enemy.”
Jeff Schechtman: That exactly seems to be the case. That was really the point, that fascism seems to come more effectively within a democratic environment.
Jason Stanley: Plato warned us of this in book eight. We are literally reliving the history of political philosophy here. Plato’s warning about democracy in book eight of The Republic is that it will lead to a demagogue using freedom of speech to sew fear, representing himself as the people’s protector and seize power and end democracy. It’s why democracy never took root until very recently. Even Rousseau is very clear about this in the Social Contract. He says, “People mock the system I here defend, because they say what a magician with words from Paris or London would just bewitch the masses.” And Rousseau urges us that you cannot have this system unless you have democratic values inculcated by equality, a democratic education system, and most of all equality because the threat is resentment. When you have large inequalities, and here the economy comes in. When you have large inequalities, you breed resentment and resentment is the feeding ground for the fascist flame.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit more about this idea and it’s so pervasive in this, and maybe it’s even at the very core, this mythic past idea.
Jason Stanley: The mythic past is a very powerful engine of the emotion of nostalgia. When you have moments where people feel a loss, especially when the dominant group feels a loss, then you need a vehicle where you can make that concrete, where you can make the feeling of loss concrete. When, for example, feminism arises and pushes for equal rights for women, when oppressed minorities ask for more space in the public domain, that feels to people like a loss. So you need a concrete way of accentuating the feeling of loss, and then you need a mass movement that channels that loss, and the concrete way is the mythic past. You create this image of this wonderful past where the men of the chosen nation have their rightful place as heroes and were given the adulation of society. The women were at home fulfilling typical gender roles and there were no foreigners and the men of the chosen nation dominated the cultural sphere. And you paint this picture and you connect the feeling of loss of the members of the dominant group that comes with encroaching equality and loss of their dominant position, with this very concrete picture of a fictional past where they were adulated and worshiped.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting how language plays such an important role in all of this and the use of language and the code words that become part of this.
Jason Stanley: That’s right. Code words are a part of a lot of politics, of all politics. But one thing we had happen in the United States is our mechanism of code words to signal anti-black racism, kept anti-black racism alive. And so, what we actually faced in the 2016 election was the demise of code words because Mr. Trump actually used fewer code words than other politicians. He just said it, “Mexicans are rapists, and some are fine people,” thereby trying for plausible deniability. But he actually stripped the code words away from many groups. That should teach us something.
The code words were there to satisfy what Tali Mendelberg, the Princeton political scientist, calls “the norm of racial equality.” So her idea is that there was a norm where you couldn’t be openly racist. Remember Lee Atwater’s interview in the 1980s where he said, “Once you could run for office, say n-word, n-word,” you can’t do that anymore. Then by the 1960s you had to used words like busing and state’s rights. Nowadays, you can’t even say that. You have to say “cut taxes” because that will hurt the programs that help minorities. You kept this system of racial code words alive which then was exploited by members of both parties. Clinton demagogued on welfare, promising to end welfare as we know it, thereby appropriating the Republican southern strategy. But it kept code words alive. And then when Mr. Trump ran for office, he could speak without code words and that sounded refreshingly authentic to people.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a cycle? When we look at so many things in politics, certainly American politics, there is a cyclical nature to them. If we look at fascism, are there cyclical trends in the way it evolves?
Jason Stanley: Yes, I think they’re reactions to globalization. As my colleague Tim Snyder has pointed out in his work, the fascist movements, the international fascist, universal fascism in the 1930s was a reaction to globalization. Right now, we’re having a very strong reaction to globalization. In local cases accentuated by economic disparities, but not everywhere. It seems overall it’s a reaction to cosmopolitanism, globalization, loss of what Du Bois called the “Psychological Wages of Whiteness” which you can expand and think of as the psychological wages of national identity. Nationalism is making a comeback. History tells us that it can lay nascent for long periods of time; look at Serbia, look at the former Yugoslavia, then resurge with, quite literally, a vengeance.
Jeff Schechtman: When you look at the current landscape, talk a little about what you see evolving over the next several years.
Jason Stanley: I see, in the United States, a one-party state of all things. If you look at the Republican candidates, there are now open Republican candidates, I mean, there are now Republican candidates running openly, straight forwardly, on platforms of voter suppression, on ways to eliminate our multi-ethnic democracy. The Supreme Court is opposed to multi-ethnic democracy, it’s a hard right Supreme Court that’s going to ensconce the voter suppression measures.
So I see an anti-democratic backlash. The courts are going to be taken over. Brian Kemp in Georgia, the New York Times called him a master of voter suppression, he’s the Republican candidate for governor. Chris Kobach is a Republican candidate for governor in Kansas. His entire political career is due to a conspiracy theory of voter fraud, every bit as fantastical as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
So I see a one party state developing where elections will no longer have any consequence. Where people will feel like there’s no point in going to the polls, because the Supreme Court will just invalidate any progressive legislation. I see massive voter suppression. The minority will be in charge of the government, and people will no longer see much of a point in voting. I see that happening here, you see that happen in Hungary. I am concerned about the levers of power being used to dump money in the hands of oligarchs, which we’re already seeing. We see that across Eastern Europe. Fascist politics is being exploited not now for the purposes of empire, but to cynically to tell people that their racial identity or national identity is priceless and rob their wallets.
I see if things go badly, I see an advent of oligarchy and one-party rule. Can we rescue, can we stop that? Yes, we can, but the courts are going to be a significant deterrent as we go forward.
Jeff Schechtman: Jason Stanley, his book is How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.  Jason, I thank you so much for spending time with us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Jason Stanley: Thank you so much, Jeff, this is a sobering conversation, but necessary.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast, and all the work we do, by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

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8 responses to “Is America Now a Fascist Country?”

  1. Gunther says:

    You can thank the FBI for putting the final nail in the coffin of America for releasing the investigations of the Hillary emails. Then again, the FBI has never been a staunch ally of the Democracy when you look at how it has undermined the rule of law since the day it was formed.

  2. Tom Blanton says:

    correction:

    I think I fear the partisans that SAY I should be more fearful….

  3. Tom Blanton says:

    “So I see a one party state developing where elections will no longer have any consequence.:

    Clearly, this guy has been asleep for the last 50 years.

    And who am I to fear the most? Should it be the so-called “conservatives” with their frowning faces? Or should it be the “liberals/progressives” with their forced smiles?

    Who will drop the most peace bombs? Who will bail out billionaires with the most compassion? Who will operate the largest prison system in the world in the most humane way?

    I think I fear the partisans that I should be more fearful of the “others” in the fight over who controls the Republicrat cults.

  4. Olle Reimers says:

    I am very disappointed with the interviewer who bends over backwards to accommodate the professor´s fascist propaganda.

    More than often, when you here some ultraleft-wing professor describe somebody else´s policies as “fascist” there is a huge risk that this is just where he is coming from. Here, it is so obvious; he evens says it himself: anyone who is opposing the REAL fascism that the George Soros movement is promoting is a fascist.

    Terrible; Jeff Schechtman and Russ Baker!

    • Jiggs Casey says:

      So the “I know you are, but what am I defense?” … .classic Conservative redirect…. You might want to revisit the original definition of Fascism. Start with Umberto Eco’s 14 Tenets of Fascism. He lived it under its founder, Mussolini. … It was absolutely was NEVER a left wing movement. Just because the Nazis have “socialist” in the title doesn’t mean what you think it did 80 years ago. You don’t know what you’re talking about, and you’re not fooling a soul. Rabid nationalism, curtailing press freedoms, jingoist attitude towards foreign policy, idol worship: ALL right wing pillars. Stop posting. You’re awful at this.

  5. James Williamson says:

    You covered a lot of ground (especially related to identity politics), but you avoided, either deliberately or unwittingly, some of the most important aspects of fascism, not only in general, or historically, but also especially as it applies to the US empire’s current state of collapse: our currency-driven wars, the mil-ind-surveillance state (especially since 9/11); the fusion of financial and corporate power with the state; the corporatized media’s propaganda role in furthering the public’s confusion about the true state of the country (especially from major venues like the warmongering New York Times, the Jeff Bezos-beholden Washington Post, the Wall Street-apologizing Wall Street Journal, etc.; the revolving door between the Pentagon and the military, as well as between Wall Street, academia, the media and the government, etc.; and certainly the Federal Reserve’s failing policies that are resulting in more and more economic inequality and disenfranchisement of populations and classes. Time to get real.

  6. Bob Schumacher says:

    Wow lots to chew on there. The two parties definitely work in different ways towards the same goal. The way in which they cradle “dissent” is one way that sets them apart. Trump and, in following the Republican Party, has chosen to aim dissent at groups of people. A tactic used over and over again throughout history. Obama’s attempt to fix or repair the health care industry was at least that, an attempt when no other candidate would do it. Maybe it wasn’t the best solution, but in the end it will be view as, “it got the ball rolling”. We now have Bernie Sanders, eager to roll up his sleeves and swing at the big boys of medicine. The Republicans, and Bill Clinton(as much a moderate as any), have had decades to address the problem and did nothing. If Affordable Health Care is scrapped and a better plan is not implemented, we will be in very sorry shape. If someone comes up with a better plan, Obama will be the one that started it all.
    I can’t decide if I’m more worried about Trump or the party standing behind him. I know that I am not scared of Sanders. I think a lot of the “deep state” is. Trump was elected as much because Hillary Clinton was the other choice as much as anything. Hopefully the Democrats will have the common sense to prop up a candidate without so much baggage next time.

  7. Scott Fulmer says:

    WhoWhatWhy’s commitment to clearing fact from fiction in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and to bringing needed attention to the very real covert activities of intelligence agencies, both on the ground and, in particular, in media, are very important in understanding how, exactly, power is not in the hands of, or in the service of, the public.

    While it is hard to disagree with today’s guest, the fascism described briefly in the interview is somewhat simplistic, given what we know about corporate media and manufactured consent. For example, the Democratic Party’s use of identity politics is every bit as responsible for “birtherism” as Trump. This is not “whataboutism”, but a formula: Republicans scream lies and Democrats mute dissent. “Foilism”?

    Meanwhile, leading scholars have to make money by proving they are smarter than conspiracy theory, but, in so doing, don’t seem to have sympathy for those who long for the days when US white, non-Hispanics had enjoyed an overall declining fatality rate that other minorities still do. It’s the long, missing information, fragmenting a common sense of history, that is the fertile soil for fascism. How come we can’t ask whether the observed rise in black inequality was what Martin Luther King had in mind?

    The poor Indonesians can show us this as well as anyone. They, like Americans, are still grappling with how the crime of genocide, in 1965, could have been facilitated by a post-Dallas reversal of US policy. Then, a generation later, a US President with Indonesian roots rose to power only to skillfully avoid having people see how nice liberals were used by the Ford Foundation to stabilize global capital over social and revolutionary impulse, and hide the coup against publicly responsive government. Even Indonesian Marxists agree that Sukarno’s guided democracy would have been better. The muting of dissent of the birthers was a big plus in helping the new generation, Obama and Geithner, spread the principles of economic inequality that their parents were the fore-runners of. It helped protect Obama’s capacity to implement a fragmented “individual mandate” instead of structuring a single payer agency that would represent this all-inclusive risk pool, or something more like what the popular Huey Long was challenging Roosevelt to do.

    Perhaps I should join a church. At least they “come out and say it” when it comes to niche-marketed totalitarianism.