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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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.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from swastika (DIREKTOR / Wikimedia) and (blickpixel / Pixabay – CC0 1.0).

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