HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 11, 2007
From Liberty Street

Steps Toward Fascism

John Turner


Having just read Robert Paxton's stimulating analysis, The Anatomy of Fascism, my mind turns irresistibly to the question of how much the Bush administration has moved the United States towards becoming a fascist nation. It's an issue that need not be discussed in an alarmist manner. America is not now a fascist country and there are strong forces in the fabric of American life that will resist its becoming one. But since there are, clearly, fascist impulses in every democracy, it's just as well, now and then, to take a look at how strong they are.

To do it usefully, however, one must divorce himself from the tendency to use "fascist" as a general smear word. If fascism is not a particular form of social and political organization it becomes useless as a term of analysis. In American popular culture we have gone so far towards turning the word into a bad name, it's not uncommon to hear cryptofascist personalities denounce their liberal opponents as being fascists. While it's true that most sensible people will dislike true fascism, it's not the case that anything they dislike is fascist.

Paxton avoids this semantical problem by using developments in the two genuinely fascist nations of the 20th Century -- Italy and Germany -- as the basis for his definition. It's a valid device for keeping discussion of fascism concentrated on something real. Having gone through the five-stage evolution of fascism in each country, he offers this description -- which considering the complexity of the phenomenon is about as concise as a serious definition can be:

  Fascism may be defined 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.

Comparing Paxton's definition with Republican policies since 2001 reveals troubling overlaps. There clearly has been an effort to purify the nation in accordance with an idealized notion of traditional virtue, and there has been a willingness to sacrifice traditional constitutional protections and civil rights in the interest of combating those deemed to be enemies of the American way. The latter, of course, is always pitched as a necessity of security, accompanied often by the declaration that "9/11 changed everything." But that is a common feature of any fascist move to power. The fascist leader always presents his heavy-handed procedures as means to safeguard the nation. It was Hitler's stock in trade.

Republicans, naturally enough, don't like to be confronted with the comparison. I recall a conversation with a Republican friend a few years ago in which he asked -- aggressively -- "Are you saying that all Republicans are fascists?"

I replied, "No. But I am saying that almost all American fascists are Republicans and they constitute the fastest growing element of the Republican Party."

Paxton warns us, repeatedly, that if we should see fascism attempt a seizure of power in the 21st Century it would certainly not be accompanied by the symbols associated with Hitler or Mussolini. There would be no straight-arm salutes or brown shirts, and there probably would not be any overt racism. It would come on a wave of traditional patriotic symbols, reverence for the flag, declamations of faith in God, romanticism of military heroism. Fascism has a different outward face in each country but, underneath, the suppression of democratic liberties remains the same.

I'm not sure what percentage of the people in any modern democracy live in a persistent fascist mood. In the United States right now it is probably at least a quarter of the population, and the number could be swelled quickly by certain events -- violent attacks from Islamist militants, for example. It is certainly always large enough to present a constant threat to a democratic republic.

Another of Paxton's important themes is that "an essential precondition for the fascist achievement of power is the opening of space brought about by the failure of democracy." Fascism cannot rise up in the presence of a healthy, flourishing democracy. American democracy has been less than robust over the past decade because too many citizens are ignorant of what their government is actually doing, and too many others are resentful because their neighbors don't want to live in accordance with white-bread tastes. There are signs that an adequate majority of American voters are beginning to notice and worry about these weaknesses. We can hope that majority keeps growing and then fascism in America, though always present, will be just a raucous noise coming at us from a few marginal newspapers and television networks. We'll never root it out altogether but we may be able to return it to a subdued impulse in American government.


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