My copy of Jason Stanley’s excellent, short book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is on its way back to the library. While reading it I wrote about the book in some detail HERE. Before I turn it in for others to read (noting that free public libraries are one of the great institutions of democracy) I’d like to share some additional notes, which follow his ten points of fascist politics.
MYTHIC PAST: We once were great, then we were weakened by our eternal enemies, we will struggle to become great again.
PROPAGANDA: if you can control the information and the spin that the public gets, the battle for public opinion is largely won. Stanley wrote the book a couple of years ago, so he doesn’t give the following example (but I can):
An investigation reveals troubling evidence of wrongdoing by the president. The president hires a new Attorney General to take control of the situation, which is threatening to spiral out of control for the president. The new A.G. does not release the fully redacted summary of the report that is given to him by the investigator. Instead the new A.G. announces that since the investigator “punted” and didn’t make a charging decision (for reasons the A.G. conveniently ignores) he has been forced to make the hard call on the mass of evidence contained in the report. That call is “no collusion, no obstruction”.
“No collusion, no obstruction” is the only news the public has until a month later, when the A.G. releases the redacted report and the investigator’s own summaries. By then, most Americans believe the president has been completely and totally (or at least largely) exonerated by a nothing-burger investigation. Even though there is a massive trove of evidence that looks very incriminating to the president.
Even though the last lines of the Report say if the investigator could have exonerated the president in the face of the weighty evidence against, he would have exonerated him. He could not exonerate him. No matter.
Propaganda is always simple, nuance is hard and tricky. Who are you going to believe, someone who confidently says “I never lie” or a person who writes 448 dense pages of legalese examining the evidence behind that assertion in excruciating detail?
ANTI-INTELLECTUAL: rigorous intellectual debate tends not to support fascist politics or the policies of fascism. Everywhere fascism triumphs intellectuals and open debate have been removed from the public sphere. Stanley writes (of the removal of certain books and subjects from university curricula):
The priorities here make sense when one realizes that in antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the workforce without bargaining power and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces. Conservative figures pour huge sums into the project of advancing right-wing goals in education. For example, the Charles Koch Foundation, just one of the conservative foundations in the United States funded by right-wing oligarchs, alone spent $100 million to support projects largely devoted to conservative ideology at around 350 colleges and universities according to some sources.
Throughout Mein Kampf, Hitler is clear that the aim of propaganda is to replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions.
UNREALITY: believe half of what you see, none of what you hear, and everything the leader says. There are facts and there are also, more importantly “alternative facts”.
This disorienting storm of falsity, and distortion of language itself, is a deliberate tactic of fascist politics. Stanley discusses the liberal concept of “the marketplace of ideas” where good arguments will, through the use of reason and persuasion, drive out bad arguments. At least that’s the theory.
The argument for the “marketplace of ideas” presupposes that words are used only in their “descriptive, logical or semantic sense.” But in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion.
and of special, sickening relevance to our current political situation:
…citizens look to politics for tribal identification, for addressing personal grievance, and for entertainment. When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity. Fascist politics transforms the news from a conduit of information and reasoned debate into a spectacle with the strongman as the star.
HIERARCHY: This applies to groups as much as to individuals in fascist politics, which, as Stanley’s title conjures, divides the world into us (good) and them (bad). Members of the inferior “them” groups are the ones citizens of the superior “us” group may freely take out their frustrations on.
In the day to day politics of fascism, on a personal level, loyalty to the leader is the most important element to rising in the fascist “meritocracy”.
VICTIMHOOD: Stanley begins the chapter describing President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Johnson vetoed it on the ground that
“this law establishes for the security of the colored race safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government have ever provided for the white race.” As W.E.B. Du Bois notes, Johnson perceived minimal safeguards at the start of a path toward future black equality as “discrimination against the white race.”
The fascist in group is always the fully justified, righteous victim of the angry out group.
LAW and ORDER: This slogan stands in for the idea that law will be used to preserve and protect the desired order.
A healthy democratic state is governed by laws that treat all citizens equally and justly, supported by bonds of mutual respect between people, including those tasked with policing them. Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless.
Stanley focuses on the explosion American incarceration where people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced. Law and Order is a slogan that resonates much stronger than “we are afraid, as Jefferson was, of the righteous rage of a race on whose neck we have kept our foot for centuries.” Nixon exploited this powerful, racially charged euphemism in his presidential campaigns (his “southern strategy”) as have virtually all right-wing politicians since.
SEXUAL ANXIETY: Fascist politics is patriarchal, with the strongman leader as the hyper-masculine father of the nation. Demonizing anyone who deviates from this vision of mythic order is a common element of fascist politics.
SODOM AND GOMORRAH: cities, which tend to be places where diverse populations live and work, and differences are tolerated, even embraced, are seen in fascist politics in stark contrast to the country, where the mythic national purity they extoll still prevails. Stanley cites a few counter-factual lines from one of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches:
“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever. You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.” And yet during this time, cities in the United States were enjoying their lowest rates of crime in generations and record low unemployment. Trump’s rhetoric about cities makes sense in the context of a more general fascist politics, in which cities are seen as centers of disease and pestilence, containing squalid ghettos filled with despised minority groups living off the work of others.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI: “Work Will Set You Free” was the false promise on the gates of places like Auschwitz where slave laborers were routinely worked to death. Hard work is a trait of “us”, laziness and parasitism are traits of “them”. It is not a stretch to argue, in a fascist society, that vicious, life-sapping parasites should be worked to death.
Stanley spends some time laying out the fascist hostility to organized labor. In labor unions workers of various races, backgrounds, genders, sexual and political orientations have common goals: better working conditions, fair pay. These shared goals tend to unite working people who fascists seek to keep apart, exploiting their differences to create the hierarchic caste system necessary for a fascist regime.
Mr. Hitler again, from Mein Kampf, calling the kettle black in the way of fascist leaders everywhere, projecting on to their enemies exactly what they are doing:
“[The Jew] is gradually assuming leadership of the trades-union movement– all the easier because what matters to him is not so much genuine removal of social evils as the formation of a blindly obedient fighting force in industry for the purpose of destroying national economic independence”
Stanley demonstrates that fascist politics is more effective under conditions of stark economic inequality.
I note that while the many of the wealthy captains of Germany industry were initially alarmed and horrified by Hitler’s rise, as many of their counterparts here in America were by Trump’s ascendance, they soon found their profits rising, their wealth greatly enhanced and their privileges well-protected. The most unscrupulous of the German businessmen availed themselves of Hitler’s generous offer of very low cost slave labor. The SS charged $1 a day for death camp prisoners who could, literally, be worked to death making products for Germany.
It has long appeared to me that slave labor (as long as their slavery can be kept secret) is the ultimate dream of corporate bottom-liners. Corporate employers in Nazi Germany had the perfect situation, hard working very low cost employees who spent their nights in death camps and, obviously, no labor unions. Hitler abolished them shortly after taking office, after allowing organized labor a last May Day parade in 1933 — he outlawed collective bargaining and the right to strike.
This rascal we have now as president, I have to say, seems to check every box of fascist politics. He is not alone, as the party he has seized leadership of has been steadily heading this way for the last few decades. Hard to blame them, really. The vast privileges of the inheritors of immense intergenerational wealth are threatened by the notion of things like a social safety net, a commitment to pursuing our common goals (like preventing the destruction of our biosphere) and fulfilling the basic human needs of citizens great and small. The exponents of fascist politics, a politics of division, have expertly used people like Mitch McConnell and Mr. Trump while enlisting widespread support for otherwise unpopular policies that only help the already powerful.
God bless these United States, man.