It has become a staple of antagonistic political discourse in this country to accuse one’s opponents of fascism. Bush and his right wing allies talked about “Islamofascism” as a diagnosis of the Islamic fundamentalism that they sought to defeat. Hardly a day goes by that President Obama is not accused of being simultaneously fascist and socialist (just like Hitler’s National Socialism!). On the other hand, many on the American left have been concerned since the reaction to the 9/11 attacks about the emergence of a fascist mind-set on the American right.
Has this wildly divergent use of the term made it impossible to think clearly about it? Have we so debauched the label as to render it useless?
Let’s begin with the historical record. The only cases of full-blown fascism were in Germany and Italy, where avowedly fascist movements actually held power for years in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism came to power in Italy in the early 1920s as a result of a mass movement that overwhelmed that country’s new and fragile democratic institutions, and forced the installation of Benito Mussolini in power. Nazism came to power in Germany in the early 1930s as a result of a mass movement that enabled Adolf Hitler to surge to electoral victory in 1933, when the National Socialists (Nazis) became the largest single party, and Hitler became Chancellor.
What do Italian Fascism and German Nazism have in common? First, they were mass movements supported by a large part of their respective societies. Second, they arose in modern, industrial societies rather than more traditional ones. Third, they took advantage of democratic institutions that were novel, weak, and subject to challenge. Fourth, they arose in a context of political and economic crisis. Fifth, they articulated the anxieties of the precarious middle class, people who had achieved a minimal level of security and comfort, and who feared losing it. Sixth, they were radically nationalistic, portraying themselves as defending the true Nation from internal and external enemies (e.g., Jews, the Great Powers) that sought to destroy it. Seventh, seeing their movements as embodying the Nation, they were unconstrained by democratic institutions and laws, and prone to violence against all who opposed them. Finally, both movements crystallized around a charismatic leader who could channel the anxieties and fears of the masses.
Other countries, including the United States, have had avowedly Fascist or Nazi movements (e.g., the Neo-Nazis in the US), but in no other case have those movements gained control of the state. Indeed, they have almost universally remained as fringe movements. Mature democracies up to now have not fallen prey to a Fascist takeover, because they can address crises without breaking their democratic institutions, and can thereby marginalize the Fascists.
Now the question is whether we can see the same characteristics in contemporary political movements that do not see themselves as Fascists, and may indeed portray themselves as anti-Fascists. Are we at risk for a takeover by Fascism by another name?
Let’s start with the Left. There are certainly elements of the American Left that would proudly accept the supposedly pejorative label “Socialist” and many that are severely critical of our existing democratic institutions, but there is no significant part of the Left that fits the criteria for Fascism. The Democratic Party and Barack Obama aren’t even leftist, much less Socialist. Only in the fevered minds of the hard-core Right could Obama be seen as a Fascist.
How about the hard-core Right? Do they meet the criteria? The American Right certainly has mass support (even if they lost the 2006 and 2008 elections), but it may be going too far to call it a mass movement. But within the broad current of the Right, there are elements that have the cohesion and energy to qualify as movements, such as the Religious Right and the new “Tea Party” movement that has lately been at the center of raucous and disruptive congressional “town meetings.”
We are of course the quintessential modern industrial society, similar to those in which Fascism came to power. And while American democratic institutions have long been characterized by a high degree of stability and legitimacy (they are scarcely “novel and weak,” as I characterized the democratic institutions of Italy and Germany in the interwar years), popular support for such democratic institutions as Congress and parties is low and has been declining. This lack of confidence in democratic institutions is particularly marked on the Far Right.
We certainly find ourselves in a political and economic crisis. In this crisis, the Far Right is particularly strong among the lower middle and working classes, especially whites, especially Southerners, whose fears and grievances seem to be well articulated by the Far Right. It is in this sector that we find particularly strong antagonism to racial and ethnic minorities, gays, and feminists, who are often seen as threatening the American Way of Life. Most of these people are deeply distressed at their own troubles and what they see as the decline of their country. They are not themselves Fascists, but can be fertile ground for Fascist leaders.
Radical, aggressive nationalism is a salient feature of the Far Right in America, seeing the US as a uniquely virtuous society, and justifying foreign interventions to defend our security, exclusion of immigrants from undesirable countries, and rejection of foreign models for such problems as health care.
While the Far Right is militant about the constitutional right to bear arms, and while there have been isolated incidents of political violence by sympathizers of the Far Right, it cannot be said thus far that this movement has resorted to violence. There is a great deal of rhetoric about being prepared to defend themselves, and the country, against its enemies. The potential for large-scale violence is there if they see themselves as under attack.
Finally, the American Far Right has not yet found a galvanizing, charismatic leader who could both mobilize them and attract more adherents. Sarah Palin shows some of the spark that would be needed for this role, but her recent pouting display in resigning as governor cannot be helpful.
In short, we confront a movement that is still a minority (even in the Deep South), but which displays most of the characteristics of the classic Fascist movements. It does not define itself as Fascist, but it is in the same genus. It is very far indeed from true conservatism. It is also very far from taking power, but so was Adolf Hitler, in 1929.
It is up to us to defend and improve our democracy more effectively than the Germans of 80 years ago. This implies not only vigilance and willingness to do political battle, but as important, a willingness to acknowledge and respond to the real concerns of honest conservatives who might otherwise be seduced by Rush Limbaugh and his colleagues.