How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, by Jason Stanley
(book review, or, more accurately, my recommendation of a thought-provoking book I am still reading)
It’s tempting, when a leader panders to ethnic hatred, relies on propaganda and attacks the press as the “enemy of the people”, consolidates power by demanding personal loyalty and threatening all opponents, exhibits excessive cruelty in his policies (like tearing children from the arms of their mothers), defends his actions by constantly attacking enemies he villainizes, rewards loyal cronies by appointing them to key positions they are unqualified for, openly monetizes his office for his own gain, is openly contemptuous of democracy and all law, except when laws can be used against enemies, is compelled to publicly brag at every opportunity… it’s tempting to call such a leader a fascist.
Fascists, it’s true, also despise intellectuals, reasoned debate, media that is not fawning (and party-controlled), anyone in a position to apply reason and demonstrable facts in an argument opposing the leader’s will. Dissent is seen as treason in a fascist, one-party state. Anything not broadcast on the state-run channel is attacked as fake. Fascists do many of the things our Orange Menace does here, it’s true, but is it correct to call Mr. T a fascist?
Jason Stanley, Jewish egghead know-it-all from Yale , son of holocaust survivors, makes an excellent case in his slim, very readable book How Fascism Works. One can quibble, as some historians apparently have, that some of the economic policies of “classical fascism” are not in play in the USA and therefore… blah blah blah, but Mr. Stanley makes a very compelling case that we are dangerously close to becoming a fascist state, certainly as far as our politics goes. He goes through ten characteristics of fascist regimes, focusing on fascist politics, and Trump scores beautifully on each of them. (At the risk of seeming to ape Mr. Trump’s twitter style, I will put each of these characteristics in ALL CAPS)
The philosophy of fascism, if we may call a crude and violent system of coercion like fascism a “philosophy” (Stanley, a philosopher, reasonably takes no position on this) is born in struggle. An eternal, existential struggle is a necessary element of the fascist worldview. Like the titanic struggle Mr. Hitler heroically waged, after realizing the Jews were at the root of all evil, decadence and humiliation in Germany, and then overcoming a million enemies and a thousand obstacles to attain the leadership of Germany in order to finish the struggle against Jews and lead a pure Germany for the next thousand years. Fascism is a philosophy of perpetual heroic war against evil, devious, inhuman enemies that must be eliminated.
Stanley starts with the MYTHIC PAST conjured in every fascist worldview. At one time our nation was great, the myth goes, it had the greatest culture and was glorious and undefeated in war. Then X destroyed that greatness, by treacherously injecting our culture with fatal weakness. To make our country great again, we must destroy X, inoculate our people against the residue of their poison, and eliminate anyone who has sympathy toward X and their repellant ideas.
PROPAGANDA is essential to the rise of a fascist state. Masses have to be convinced of this mythic past and the necessity of a ruthless war to make the nation great again. The only chapter in Hitler’s Mein Kampf that is not the incoherent blathering of a rabid dog (my words, not Stanley’s) is his shrewd, ruthless analysis of propaganda. Stanley quotes historian W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote in a discussion of propaganda in history that once the ideals of historical scholarship, truth and objectivity are bent strictly toward advancing a political goal you have propaganda, not history. This rewriting, or forced forgetting, of fact-based, inquisitive history is a primary aim of totalitarians. History itself must be replaced, in a fascist regime, by propaganda.
Stanley writes “political propaganda uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends.” He gives the example of Nixon’s “war on crime”, a campaign that concealed the racist intent behind Nixon’s selective (it was the blacks, Nixon believed, the goddamned blacks) crime control policies. War, whatever reason it is actually waged for, is always couched in stirring, moral terms. You cannot sell an idea like war without powerful slogans to persuade the public it is morally necessary.
In a commercial, advertising-driven democracy like ours, we are bombarded by a free flow of messages, increasingly so since we began carrying tiny personal computers in our pockets. It is this free flow of ads and other “content” that gives a repressive ideology a chance to flourish (this is not one of Stanley’s points, but follow me here). Stanley quotes Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda and public enlightenment, who famously said “this will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.” Goebbels also shrewdly noted (it should be noted), that the Nazis, if they won their war against Jews, would be regarded as history’s greatest benefactors, if they lost, they’d be remembered as the world’s most notorious criminals. Word, history is written by the victors, in the blood of the vanquished.
Stanley’s third characteristic of fascism is ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. Traditionally intellectuals debate each other based on a great deal of reading, citing other intellectual’s studies, theories and conclusions to bolster their arguments. The free exchange of ideas is essential to intelligent discussion of any problem. Fascists despise this kind of thing. In fact, the first thing they do is round up all the eggheads and kill as many as needed to get the cooperative silence they need to have only the fascist point of view heard.
OK, you can say, if you love Mr. Trump, he’s not anti-intellectual, he’s an extremely stable genius who has read many books, or at least one book, and he uses the best words, unbelievable words, and doesn’t rely on bullying anyone who criticizes him. You get the idea.
The shamelessly intellectual Jason Stanley, to the great annoyance of people who hate criticism of a great man, keeps quoting other sources, as his type (and mine) always seems to do, in support of his conclusions. As no less an authority on fascism than Mr. Hitler himself wrote, in Mein Kampf:
All propaganda should be popular and should adapt its intellectual level to the receptive ability of the least intellectual of those whom it is desired to address. Thus it must sink its mental elevation deeper in proportion to the numbers of the mass whom it has to grip… the receptive ability of the masses is very limited, and their understanding small, on the other hand, they have a great power of forgetting. This being so, all effective propaganda must be confined to a very few points which must be brought out in the form of slogans.
Hitler made it clear that the aim of propaganda is to “replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions” (Stanley’s words). Bingo. Fear of a hoard of illegals who rape, kill, torture, smuggle drugs, hate freedom replaces all reasonable discussion of solutions to a massive refugee crisis that is complicated and difficult to solve.
In terms of “messaging” which of the following resonates more powerfully and is easier to retain as the definitive end of the subject?
“No collusion, no obstruction, complete and total exoneration.”
“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
One fits on a T-shirt (or red baseball cap) the other would require you to read hundreds of pages to even know what the fucking long-winded, lawyerly fuck is even talking about. You choose!
Stanley then moves on to UNREALITY. Language, traditionally used to clarify and elucidate, is co-opted to serve the needs of the fascist ideology. Words are often repurposed to mean the opposite of what they have always meant. For example, sonderbehandlung “special handling” used to indicate the delivery of fragile and precious cargo, was stamped on the papers of stateless Jews on their way to Nazi death camps.
You cannot believe, according to a fascist leader, the things you see with your own eyes, these things are recast in some other, more purposeful, way. Observable facts are rightfully opposed by equally compelling “alternative facts.” Hannah Arendt points out that a “normal” person in Nazi Germany (normal from any traditional notion of morality), where mass-killing of enemies was considered necessary and highly moral, would have been considered abnormal, immoral enough to lawfully execute.
In a society where it is normalized to take crying babies from their mother’s arms and lock the kids in cages you compare to “summer camp”, the person who objects to this admittedly tough but necessary measure, is called hysterical and an enemy of freedom. Unreality becomes the new reality in a fascist state.
As for the famous liberal notion of a “marketplace of ideas” where reason rules and wise opinions vanquish stupid ones, forget that. “…in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion,” notes Stanley. “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a gun.”
HIERARCHY is Stanley’s fifth criterion of a fascist state. Equality of citizens is seen as a ridiculous and destructive myth in fascism, which celebrates strength and despises weakness. The greatest, chosen because of their clear superiority, lead the fascist state, the citizens follow their leader without question, recognizing the leader’s superiority. Like the modern corporation, or any bureaucracy, really, accountability flows in one direction only. Pawns and drones are obliged to obey orders from unaccountable superiors without question, because the person giving the orders is recognized as superior in every sense.
The notion of human equality, is seen under fascism as a vice of the weak, and an affront to nature, which clearly favors the strong over the weak. Fascists consider democratic debate, consensus and compromise related vices of the weak, who try to compensate for the fact that they lack the vision and infallible wisdom of the leader by some warped notion of wisdom residing in the memory and values of a community that is responsible for each other.
One way to make a large mass of burdened people feel better is to assert their innate superiority over another mass of people. Men are superior to women, whites to blacks, agrarians to urbanites, party members to dissenters. This little hierarchical trick has worked beautifully for centuries.
Stanley next discusses the essential fascist trope of VICTIMHOOD. In the fascist worldview the good, blameless people have clearly been victimized by implacable, evil enemies. Justice demands this be redressed. These villains should be hanging from lamp posts, from the unabashed fascist point of view. A victim has every moral right to destroy their longtime abuser.
I couldn’t help but notice this Hitler-in-the-bunker trope in one of our president’s many angry tweets after the Mueller Report (that totally exonerated him) was released (he is, after all, our Victim-in-Chief):
It is finally time to turn the tables and bring justice to some very sick and dangerous people who have committed very serious crimes, perhaps even spying and treason!
LAW AND ORDER, is Stanley’s next chapter (I have not read this chapter or beyond yet, though I will soon). Law and Order, of course, are always things to be selectively applied, to enemies only. Nixon’s henchman John Erlichmann told an interviewer in 1994 that it was impossible to criminalize being black or opposing Nixon or the Vietnam war, but that it was quite possible to make possession of certain drugs a felony under federal law, and that gave the lawless Mr. Nixon an enormous hammer to wield against his many enemies.
The first thing Trump did when he announced his run for president was to summarily criminalize immigrants and asylum seekers, calling them rapists and murderers. Which leads us to Stanley’s next criterion of fascism, sexual anxiety.
SEXUAL ANXIETY is a famous driver of murderous lynch mobs everywhere. Blacks were often accused of raping white women before they were violently removed from prison, often under the watchful eye of local authorities, tortured and killed. One wonders why there were virtually no accusations of black male slaves, left on the plantations down south while most of the able-bodied white men were fighting the Civil War, raping the wives and daughters of their owners. It would be easy to understand their motivation, if such violence had happened.
The absence of stories of black on white rape during the war underscores the fallaciousness of most of the rape allegations in the years after the war. The rape charges routinely used to justify a century of unpunished lynching were the product of the sexual anxiety of the racists who committed these bestial acts and used their own sexual anxieties, and righteous, if irrational, sense of victimhood, to justify them.
Sexual anxiety, or course, is a patriarchal tic, the product of the same hyper-manly “toxic masculinity” that fascist leaders always project. Why is intolerance of homosexuality often part of the fascist mindset? Homophobia, literally a “fear of homosexuals”, always plays a large part in the anxieties of patriarchal types. Who else is scared of somebody else’s sexual preference?
SODOM and GOMORRAH is Stanley’s next chapter. This refers to the common fascist myth that cities, like universities not strictly controlled by the one-party state, are hotbeds of degeneracy, sin and potential violence, while the countryside is where true human decency prevails. Cities that give sanctuary to raping hoards of illegals, tolerate homosexuality and transgender people, worship the false, unnatural ideals of equality and democracy are not reflections of the real values of the people.
The morality of a nation is rooted in its soil, says the fascist myth, the people who live outside of the morally polluted cities are the truly great citizens, denizens of cities are hopelessly corrupt and need to be kept in check, punished.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI is Stanely’s final chapter. It is the logical extension of fascist ideology. Your enemies have been stealing from and undermining the good people for generations, now it is time to turn them into slave laborers. The name of the chapter is taken from the notorious sign that was worked into the top of the iron gates of the Auschwitz death/work camp. It meant “work liberates”. One of the most famous Nazi practical jokes, that slogan.
Vernichtung durch Arbeit (extermination through work); i.e., hard labor until death, was an integral part of the Nazi extermination scheme. Might as well generate capital from the labor of these vicious people you were exterminating, while you worked them to death. The arbeit macht frei myth/lie reinforced the importance of unquestioning work for the benefit of the most important members of society. If work could also liberate by enslaving and working your enemies to death? Win win.
As the child of people whose parents’ entire generation was wiped off the face of the earth by fascists in the space of a few months in 1942, I don’t take any of these signs lightly. The shit all lines up a little bit too symmetrically. All indications are that Trump would love to be a fascist dictator, and that he’s pretty close already, with unquestioned support from a lock-step political party, an ideological mass media megaphone/echo chamber and a sizable part of our population.
If a leader who is openly contemptuous of law, and has always used the courts to avoid any liability for his many dishonest schemes, is not held accountable by the laws that govern democracy, we are already at the end of the joke Goebbels so enjoyed about democracy providing the means to achieve a fascist state. If “politics” are nervously invoked by the timid and divided opposition party who fear strengthening a leader they claim belongs in prison, leaving the decision to the voters a year and a half from now rather than using the law to hold him to account, we are already very close to the end of our long experiment in democracy.
If the law is not enforced against unscrupulous people “too big to indict”, out of fear of electoral or other repercussions, we should just resign ourselves to the inevitable. Line up, get our tattoos, and get into whatever cattle car they send for us to take us wherever they decide we need to end up.
We have laws that can stop these determined, ruthless motherfuckers, there is no good choice but to use them. Now.
Meantime, read Jason Stanley’s book, if you need any further convincing on the need to act.
 I can say this without fear, because I am a Jewish egghead know-it-all from the City College of NY. Fuck off, Nazis.