Saturday, August 08, 2009
This came to me from my friend Gene Bell-Villada. It was supposd to have been first published on the site Our Future Today, but I couldn't find it there, so I'm simply sharing it here.
Fascist America: Are We There Yet?
By Sara Robinson
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.