In August 2009, I wrote a piece titled Fascist America: Are We There Yet? that sparked much discussion on both the left and right ends of the blogosphere. In it, I argued that — according to the best scholarship on how fascist regimes emerge — America was on a path that was running much too close to the fail-safe point beyond which no previous democracy has ever been able to turn back from a full-on fascist state. I also noted that the then-emerging Tea Party had a lot of proto-fascist hallmarks, and that it had the potential to become a clear and present danger to the future of our democracy if it ever got enough traction to start winning elections in a big way.
On the first anniversary of that article, Jonah Goldberg — the right’s revisionist-in-chief on the subject of fascism — actually used an entire National Review column to taunt me about what he characterized as a failure of prediction. Where’s that fascist state you promised? he hooted.
It’s funny he should ask. Because this coming election may, in fact, be a critical turning point on that road.
The Fascist America series of three articles (the other two are here and here) was built out of Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism — a landmark work of scholarship that lays out that specific conditions and prognosis of fascism as a political form. Paxton defined fascism as:
…a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Paxton laid out the five basic lifecycle stages of successful fascist movements. In the first stage, a mature industrial state facing some kind of crisis breeds a new, rural movement that’s based on nationalist renewal. This movement invariably rejects reason and glorifies raw emotion, promises to restore lost national pride, co-opts the nation’s traditional myths for its own purposes, and insists that the country must be purged of the toxic influence of outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery.
(Sound familiar yet?)
In the second stage, the movement takes root, turns into a real political party, and seizes a seat at the table. Success at this stage, Paxton writes, “depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner.”
(Paging the Party of No….)
In the face of this deadlock, the corporate elites forge an alliance with rural nationalists, creating an unholy marriage that, if it continues, will soon breed a fascist state. And, of course, this is precisely what’s happening now between the Koch Brothers, the oil companies, Americans for Prosperity, and the Tea Party.
The majority of history’s would-be fascist movements have died right at this stage — almost always because of the basic authoritarian ineptitude of their leadership, which ensured that they’d never gain anything more than a small and temporary handful of seats at the political table. The successful fascisms, on the other hand, were the ones that held together and to gained enough political leverage that capturing their governments became inevitable. And once that happened, there was no turning back, because they now had the political power and street muscle to silence any opposition. (Fascist parties almost never enjoy majority support at any stage — but being a minority faction is only a problem in a functioning democracy. It’s no problem at all if you’re willing to use force to get your way.)
According to Paxton, there are three quick questions that let you know you’ve crossed that fail-safe line beyond which an emerging fascist regime has too much power to be stopped:
1. Are [neo- or protofascisms] becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene?
2. Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities?
3. Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?
If the answer to all three is “yes,” you’re probably on for the rest of the ride, which can run for at least a decade or two before it burns through.
A year ago, I noted that we were already three for three on these questions. Now, the “yes” answers are far more resounding. With over 70 Tea Party candidates running for major state and federal offices on the ballot this November, it’s fair to say that the 2010 election is shaping up as a national referendum on the Tea Party’s future viability. And if they succeed at winning enough of these races, it may very well be the last vote on the subject we ever get.
There are only a few ways this plays out. A few scenarios:
1. The Tea Party is rejected outright by the voters on November 2. A handful of their candidates do win their races; and for the next few years, the Democrats have a grand time pointing out their sheer wingnuttitude, bolstering a compelling case against electing any more of them in the future. The party begins to lose momentum, and in a few years is defunct.
2. The Tea Party elects a credible number of these 70-odd candidates — enough to make a solid showing and establish its political bona fides, but not enough to get anything serious done. If this happens, progressives need to work fast and hard. If this right-wing tide continues to build as we head into the 2012 election, we’ll still be cruising straight into a fascist future — just not quite yet. There’s time to stop it, but the momentum is not on our side — and stopping it only gets harder with every passing week.
3. A solid majority of the Tea Party candidates win their races, cementing the movement’s lock on the GOP and turning it into a genuine political power in this country. They’ve already promised us that if they take either house of Congress, the next two years will be a lurid nightmare of hearings, trials, impeachments, and character assassinations against progressives. (Which could, in the end, backfire on the GOP as badly as the Clinton impeachment did. We can hope.) Similar scorched-earth harassment awaits officials at every other level of government, too. And casual violence against immigrants, gays, and progressives may escalate as the Tea Party brownshirts become bolder, confident that at least some authorities will either back them up or look the other way.
In this scenario, the fail-safe point — the point beyond which no country has ever turned back from the full fascist nightmare — may well be behind us when we wake up on November 3. From there, the rest will play out in agonizing slow motion; and the character of the rest of this decade will hinge almost entirely on whether the corporatists, the militarists, or the theocrats ultimately get the upper hand in the emerging regime.
Really? Are you serious?
It’s fair to wonder if the Tea Party deserves to be taken this seriously. After all, there’s always been this faction in US politics — the 10-12% rightwing authoritarian hard core that fueled McCarthyism and the Bircher movement and the Moral Majority; that voted for Goldwater and then George Wallace and even put KKK leader David Duke into office for a time. The far right has always been with us. It’s one of the constants in our political landscape.
But they’ve always been a fringe movement, and it’s mostly kept to itself. What’s different now is that all the crazy ideas of the radical right — climate and evolution denialism, banning contraception, sovereign citizenship, End Times theology, white nationalism, all of it — have been catalyzed by the magic of the Internet and widespread economic disaster into one coherent mass subculture that, according to a Wall Street Journal poll released yesterday, has attracted a full 35% of the country’s likely voters. According to Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, the Tea Parties are a broad movement that brings together several preexisting formations on the political right:
– Economic libertarians who worry about big government collectivist tyranny
– Christian Right Conservatives who oppose liberal government social policies
– Right-wing apocalyptic Christians who fear a Satanic New World Order
– Nebulous conspiracy theorists who fear a secular New World Order
– Nationalistic ultra-patriots concerned that US sovereignty is eroding
– Xenophobic anti-immigrant white nationalists who worry about preserving the “real” America.
This unification of right-wing forces around radical far-right ideas has never happened on anything like this scale in modern American history. And it’s why we need to recognize the Tea Party as something unique under the political sun — and seriously evaluate the future that awaits us if it becomes any more powerful.
That future is a painful thing to contemplate. I’ve been called an alarmist for even daring to use the F-word to describe the situation we’re facing. But that’s one of the universal hallmarks of fascism: by the time everybody finally wakes up and realizes that they’re in it, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Here’s how Milton Mayer described his experience of this as the Nazi thrall descended in Germany:
In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’
And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic.
And yet the day comes when it’s all too clear, Mayer writes — and on that day, it’s too late to stand up.
Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.
There are only a few days left before the election. Whatever you do between now and then will be a small matter — a matter of making a few phone calls, of knocking on some doors, of following up with friends. And yet any compromise now could be the one we will remember with breaking hearts five years from now, when the country we knew is gone, and our future has been seized by people who represent the worst of everything we are.
Be the one who sees where this is taking us. Be the one who stands while you still can. The future these people have in mind for us is one that dozens of countries have already lived through; and all of them will carry the scars for centuries. It’s not fascism yet; but if the Tea Party manages to get its hands on the levers of power, it will be.