All through the dark years of the Bush Administration, progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished, nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation and violence, and the president of the United States seized for himself powers only demanded by history’s worst dictators. With each new outrage, the small handful of us who’d made ourselves experts on right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?
And every time this question got asked, people like Chip Berlet and Dave Neiwert and Fred Clarkson and yours truly would look up from our maps like a parent on a long drive, and smile a wan smile of reassurance. “Wellll…we’re on a bad road, and if we don’t change course, we could end up there soon enough. But there’s also still plenty of time and opportunity to turn back. Watch, but don’t worry. As bad as this looks: no — we are not there yet.”
In tracking the mileage on this trip to perdition, many of us relied on the work of historian Robert Paxton, who is probably the world’s pre-eminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn fascist. In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History, Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist movements isn’t by their rhetoric, their politics, or their aesthetics. Rather, he said, mature democracies turn fascist by a recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most important family resemblance that links all the whole motley collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading of Paxton’s stages, we weren’t there yet. There were certain signs — one in particular — we were keeping an eye out for, and we just weren’t seeing it.
And now we are. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for, it’s suddenly everywhere. It’s odd that I haven’t been asked for quite a while; but if you asked me today, I’d tell you that if we’re not there right now, we’ve certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot and are now looking for a space. Either way, our fascist American future now looms very large in the front windshield — and those of us who value American democracy need to understand how we got here, what’s changing now, and what’s at stake in the very near future if these people are allowed to win — or even hold their ground.
What is fascism?
The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as Paxton points out, “Everybody is somebody else’s fascist.” Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton’s essential definition of the term:
“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.”
Elsewhere, he refines this further 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.”
Jonah Goldberg aside, that’s a basic definition most legitimate scholars in the field can agree on, and the one I’ll be referring to here.
From proto-fascism to the tipping point
According to Paxton, fascism unfolds in five stages. The first two are pretty solidly behind us — and the third should be of particular interest to progressives right now.
In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal (what Roger Griffin calls “palingenesis” — a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes). They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it’s always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture’s traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery.
Fascism only grows in the disturbed soil of a mature democracy in crisis. Paxton suggests that the Ku Klux Klan, which formed in reaction to post-Civil War Reconstruction, may in fact be the first authentically fascist movement in modern times. Almost every major country in Europe sprouted a proto-fascist movement in the wretched years following WWI (when the Klan enjoyed a major resurgence here as well) — but most of them stalled either at this first stage, or the next one.
As Rick Perlstein documented in his two books on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, modern American conservatism was built on these same themes. From “Morning in America” to the Rapture-ready religious right to the white nationalism promoted by the GOP through various gradients of racist groups, it’s easy to trace how American proto-fascism offered redemption from the upheavals of the 1960s by promising to restore the innocence of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America. This vision has been so thoroughly embraced that the entire Republican party now openly defines itself along these lines. At this late stage, it’s blatantly racist, sexist, repressed, exclusionary, and permanently addicted to the politics of fear and rage. Worse: it doesn’t have a moment’s shame about any of it. No apologies, to anyone. These same narrative threads have woven their way through every fascist movement in history.
In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as informal goon squads organized to intimidate farmworkers on behalf of the large landowners. The KKK disenfranchised black sharecroppers and set itself up as the enforcement wing of Jim Crow. The Italian Squadristi and the German Brownshirts made their bones breaking up farmers’ strikes. And these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us.
Paxton wrote that succeeding at the second stage “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.” He further noted that Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances: “deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement.”
And more ominously: “The most important variables…are the conservative elites’ willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate.”
That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can’t even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can’t win elections or policy fights, they’re more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity.
When that unholy alliance is made, the third stage — the transition to full-fledged government fascism — begins.
The third stage: being there
All through the Bush years, progressive right-wing watchers refused to call it “fascism” because, though we kept looking, we never saw clear signs of a deliberate, committed institutional partnership forming between America’s conservative elites and its emerging homegrown brownshirt horde. We caught tantalizing signs of brief flirtations — passing political alliances, money passing hands, far-right moonbat talking points flying out of the mouths of “mainstream” conservative leaders. But it was all circumstantial, and fairly transitory. The two sides kept a discreet distance from each other, at least in public. What went on behind closed doors, we could only guess. They certainly didn’t act like a married couple.
Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips’ Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas — the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer — being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans. We’ve seen Armey’s own professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process — and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We’ve seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to “a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress.”
This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America’s conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country’s legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America’s streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won’t do their political or economic bidding.
This is the catalyzing moment at which honest-to-Hitler fascism begins. It’s also our very last chance to stop it.
The fail-safe point
According to Paxton, the forging of this third-stage alliance is the make-or-break moment — and the worst part of it is that by the time you’ve arrived at that point, it’s probably too late to stop it. From here, it escalates, as minor thuggery turns into beatings, killings, and systematic tagging of certain groups for elimination, all directed by people at the very top of the power structure. After Labor Day, when Democratic senators and representatives go back to Washington, the mobs now being created to harass them will remain to run the same tactics — escalated and perfected with each new use — against anyone in town whose color, religion, or politics they don’t like. In some places, they’re already making notes and taking names.
Where’s the danger line? Paxton offers three quick questions that point us straight at it:
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?
By my reckoning, we’re three for three. That’s too close. Way too close.
The Road Ahead
History tells us that once this alliance catalyzes and makes a successful bid for power, there’s no way off this ride. As Dave Neiwert wrote in his recent book, The Eliminationists, “if we can only identify fascism in its mature form—the goose-stepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies—then it will be far too late to stop it.” Paxton (who presciently warned that “An authentic popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black”) agrees that if a corporate/brownshirt alliance gets a toehold — as ours is now scrambling to do — it can very quickly rise to power and destroy the last vestiges of democratic government. Once they start racking up wins, the country will be doomed to take the whole ugly trip through the last two stages, with no turnoffs or pit stops between now and the end.
What awaits us? In stage four, as the duo assumes full control of the country, power struggles emerge between the brownshirt-bred party faithful and the institutions of the conservative elites — church, military, professions, and business. The character of the regime is determined by who gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time. But in neither case will the results resemble the democracy that this alliance overthrew.
Paxton characterizes stage five as “radicalization or entropy.” Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See: Italy)
It’s so easy right now to look at the melee on the right and discount it as pure political theater of the most absurdly ridiculous kind. It’s a freaking puppet show. These people can’t be serious. Sure, they’re angry — but they’re also a minority, out of power and reduced to throwing tantrums. Grown-ups need to worry about them about as much as you’d worry about a furious five-year-old threatening to hold her breath until she turned blue.
Unfortunately, all the noise and bluster actually obscures the danger. These people are as serious as a lynch mob, and have already taken the first steps toward becoming one. And they’re going to walk taller and louder and prouder now that their bumbling efforts at civil disobedience are being committed with the full sanction and support of the country’s most powerful people, who are cynically using them in a last-ditch effort to save their own places of profit and prestige.
We’ve arrived. We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we’re slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return.
How do we pull back? That’s my next post.
Tip o’ the hat to Chip Berlet and Steven Martin for their research help and encouragement.
Read the rest of the series: