by Tony Wyman
There’s never been a time in human history where fascism took hold in a nation unless there existed in the population a strong sense of injustice, social or ethnic tension, or anxiety over a declining or stagnant economy. Never has fascism found purchase in a nation experiencing times when the economy was sound, when plentiful jobs were providing workers with growing paychecks, when the people were united by shared values and a belief that the nation’s governing system worked equally for all, regardless of class, politics, race or religion.
Unfortunately, it is the former climate, not the latter, that exists in America today.
All across the nation, particularly in regions that voted for Donald Trump for president, Americans feel like “the system” is aligned against them, that “deep state” operatives are working for the wealthy elite against the middle- and working-classes, that brown-skinned foreigners, either from Mexico or Muslim nations, are trying to enter the country in unsustainable numbers to take jobs from white Americans and to forever change the culture of the country, that foreign nations are playing us for fools and taking advantage or our generosity and naivety.
Discouraged by past leaders, who failed to stem the flow of immigrants into the country while doing little to nothing to improve the stagnating economic future of people whose skills don’t fit in the country’s new information economy, Red America turned to a man who promised to take the country back to a time when things were simpler, when the economy was based on manufacturing, when immigrants were few, when white privilege was a birthright, rather than a vestige of the past.
Following the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, the tenure of the country’s first black president, and the rising influence of grievance-peddling social media outlets stoking envy, anxiety, fear and hate among disaffected people, Americans were more primed for the emergence of fascism in mainstream politics than ever before.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of neo-Nazi and anti-Muslim hate groups in America is up 18% since Mr. Trump’s election. White supremacist recruiting on college campuses was up 258% in 2017. And murders by white supremacists more than doubled that year.
The Rise of American Fascism
The rise of these groups was enhanced by two factors. First, Donald Trump’s political campaign was designed specifically to appeal to the fears, prejudices and anxiety of white America. It touched on all the points that fascist and white supremacist groups have peddled for years to their followers.
Rarely, if ever, did Mr. Trump speak in uplifting terms during his campaign, instead focusing on terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and other dark concerns to rally his supporters. Conservative columnist Reed Galen called Mr. Trump’s speech at the Republican convention a “a fear-fueled acid trip.”
The Atlantic said Mr. Trump not only alarmed his followers by pointing to concrete concerns, but also by suggesting to them that there was something secret, something hidden and dangerous that was going on behind the scenes that only he could stop.
“This is the way fear works, according to social scientists,” the magazine wrote. “It makes people hold more tightly to what they have and regard the unfamiliar more warily. It makes them want to be protected. The fear reaction is a universal one to which everyone is susceptible. It might even be the only way Trump could win.”
The second thing is the ongoing propaganda campaign by Russia to divide the United States and to bolster far-right fascist groups in our country.
This effort by Moscow to influence America’s political environment isn’t new. In fact, Russia campaigned against Ronald Reagan in 1984, planting false stories in the media, including one that, under Reagan, the CIA was plotting to give nuclear weapons to South Africa in a bid to shore up apartheid. But what made their efforts more successful in 2016 than they were in 1984 was the power of social media and their effective exploitation of the medium.
In past efforts to reach large numbers of Americans, the Soviets had to go through established media outlets like newspapers and magazines that have editors who act as gatekeepers for the news they publish. Unlike today where anyone with access to the Internet can create a publication and reach a broad audience, the KGB in 1984 had to get past experienced news people to reach their audience.
But with the Internet, it is now very easy to reach an audience without any gatekeepers filtering content to ensure information reaching readers is true. Using sites established to push a far-right agenda, the Russians filled the web with stories that distorted the truth or outright fabricated information designed to harm the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and push a pro-Trump agenda.
In the last weeks of the election, Russian bots sent out more than 3.8 million pro-Trump or anti-Clinton tweets, many of which that were retweeted by Americans sympathetic to the message delivered by Moscow.
Now, nearly two years after the election, the Russians have focused their effort on supporting fascist groups. And, in return, American fascists, like avowed racist David Duke, look to Russia for inspiration. Mr. Duke, a former Republican state legislator in Louisiana and presidential candidate in the Democratic Party, views Russia as “the key to white survival.” Fascist white supremacist Richard Spencer, the spouse of Russian Nina Kouprianova, the translator of books written by Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin, said the “Kremlin stands as the most powerful white power in the world.”
What these Russian-backed fascist groups are promoting is, essentially, ethno-nationalism that targets groups, such as liberals, immigrants, foreigners and racial and religious minorities, as scapegoats for the ills these groups believe have befallen America.
Ethno-nationalism is the belief that nations are defined by a shared language, culture, ethnicity, religion and heritage, and anyone who doesn’t fit into those shared characteristics doesn’t belong in and is a threat to the nation.
So, with the rise of these fascist groups in America, is the country in any danger of becoming a fascist dictatorship?
Many pundits have discounted the possibility, suggesting the institutions of our nation and our Constitution would prevent fascism from taking hold. Tyler Cowen, writing for Politico, suggested the government is simply too big and complex for fascists to take control.
“American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.”
But, Umair Haque, in an article “Fascism is Rising in America Because America Doesn’t Understand Fascism,” suggests our institutions are too disjointed and impotent to stop the rise of fascism”
“If strong institutions work, fascism is suffocated. Only when there is an absence, a void, of institutions, and the order, prosperity, and growth that they create, can it arise. So the rise of fascism tells us in the strongest terms possible that institutions don’t work anymore—fascism rising is their ultimate failure. That is what we see in America today: an institutional vacuum. Nothing works anymore, does it? Not the law, the media, politics, capitalism, democracy. That is precisely what gave fascism the room, space, fuel, freedom to arise.
Placing our faith in precisely the broken institutions that let fascism rise to then stop it is the truest kind of folly. Hoping for those weakened, corroded institutions to stop fascism is like hoping that a broken dam will hold back the flood that has already hit the village. It says that we don’t really understand our plight or predicament at all. That we are out of step with time itself, out of history, seeing everything backwards.”
So, if Mr. Cowen is wrong and Mr. Haque is correct, how can we spot when our nation is dangerously susceptible to fascism?
14 Characteristics of Fascism
Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher and best-selling author of seven novels, created a list of 14 characteristics that he shared in an article he wrote for the New York Review of Books. When we review his list written in 1995 and ask ourselves if the characteristics he described are present today in America, the answer is shockingly affirmative.
1. The worship of tradition. Traditionalism is the maintenance or return to traditional values, particularly as a means to resist or stop change. The Trump campaign and the resulting presidency has been steeped in traditionalism, particularly in the idea of making America great again by returning to traditional values that existed in the past when America was not as heavily influenced by foreign cultures, as it is now.
2. The rejection of modernism. Modernism is the movement that arose from the industrialization of western nations during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In addition to supporting rationalism, the belief that opinions and behaviors should be based on reason and knowledge, rather than on religious beliefs or emotional response, modernism rejected traditionalism and the old ways of looking at things.
3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation,” said Mr. Eco, presaging the Trump presidency. Throughout Mr. Trump’s time in office, he has taken action numerous times without consulting his advisors, often catching them by surprise. Perhaps the best example of this was his decision to accept an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without first discussing the meeting with his foreign affairs team.
4. Disagreement is treason. No president enjoys the endless stream of disagreement directed their way by political opponents, but none have reacted to it the way President Trump has. His response to the criticism of former CIA Director John Brennan is well-known, but prior to that dust-up, there were other examples of the president equating dissent with treason.
For example, when Democrats chose to remain seated when he walked onto the floor of the House, Mr. Trump described their silence as “treason.” He said, “They were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘treasonous.’ I mean, Yeah, I guess why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean they certainly didn’t seem to love our country that much.”
5. Fear of difference. When President Trump speaks about immigrants entering the country illegally, he not only mentions the economic impact large numbers of people from another country will have on the host, he also highlights nationalist fears that the welcoming nation’s culture will be forever changed. “I just think it is changing the culture, I think it is a very negative thing for Europe,” Mr. Trump said, following a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. “I know it is politically not necessarily correct to say that, but I will say it and I will say it loud.”
6. Appeal to social frustration. Appealing to the frustration of a group losing status, either through economic decline or social relevance, is a characteristic of a fascist. The Economist wrote about this in April 2018 when it covered a study by the National Academy of Sciences that determined white, Christian and male voters turned to Mr. Trump, not because of anger over how things went for them during the Obama Administration, but, rather, out of fear for what they believed was coming for them: the loss of social status in a rapidly browning America.
“It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,’’ said University of Pennsylvania Political Science and Communications Prof. Diana C. Mutz, author of the study. “It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”
7. The obsession with a plot. In Mr. Trump’s case, the plot is America is under siege. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia,” wrote Mr. Eco. Who is besieging America, in Mr. Trump’s view? Immigrants, of course. “As you know, we’re under siege. You understand that. But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever. You watch,” the president said last year at a conference held by the Faith and Freedom.
He described immigrants as “a significant threat to national security and public safety,” capable of committing “acts of terror or criminal conduct” and posing a “clear and present danger to the interests of the United States,” in a presidential directive he released less than a week after becoming president.
8. The humiliation by the wealth and force of their enemies. Powerful elites are aligned against the president, according to the Trump team, and they are using their wealth and influence to prevent the president from serving the country the way he wants to. The president alters his attacks on his enemies, first accusing them of unfairly using their wealth and power to attempt to thwart his efforts to “make America great again,” and then ridiculing them for being too weak and powerless to stand against him.
“The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade,” the president tweeted. “I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas.”
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. In Mr. Trump’s view, the best way to deal with an enemy is by threatening war. Anything short of that is appeasement.
In all caps, following his politically disastrous meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where even many of the president’s most passionate supporters accused him of going too soft on the Russian, Mr. Trump tweeted this threat in response to an Iranian provocation, “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
10. Contempt for the weak. Many of the lowest moments in the president’s campaign and time in office have been when he’s used his position as a candidate and as president to mock others for their disabilities, physical appearance, intelligence or financial situation.
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. Mr. Eco described this as a “cult of the hero.”
In Mr. Trump’s world, those who support or agree with him aren’t just allies, they are great heroes of the cause, sacrificing themselves, if necessary to support the president’s agenda. They are “true patriots,” giving their all for their leader and his agenda.
12. Machismo and weaponry. Fascists have, historically, shown a real disdain for women, viewing them as weak and exploitable and they have also shown intolerance for anyone practicing non-traditional sexual roles, such as homosexuality or, even, chastity.
The president’s abuse of women, something about which he was recording bragging about with friends prior to his presidency, and his habit of attacking female foes based on their appearance, is well-documented.
13. Selective populism. Mr. Eco described this as a “selected group of citizens” being used by the leader as being “presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Mr. Trump uses his supporters for this purpose, while also referring to unnamed groups as being representative of the people, as a whole.
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. George Orwell, author of “1984,” knew that dictators controlled their populations by controlling the use of language, limiting the ability of the people to express complex thoughts or practicing critical thinking by limiting the words available to express ideas the government didn’t want the people to consider.
Nazi school books taught young students only limited words in order to restrict their ability to use complex concepts and employ critical reasoning. Mr. Trump uses the same strategy with his supporters, dumbing down his vocabulary to the point where he employs only simple words that express simple concepts.
What Could Trigger It?
If we are facing the possibility of a growing fascist movement in America, what could trigger it? Surely, the president’s inclinations, even if supported by numbers of powerful backers, isn’t enough to overthrow two centuries of democratic rule, replacing it with a form of government foreign to American shores?
America’s Fascist Past
Most Americans are familiar with the idea of America as a fascist state thanks to novels fictionalizing the subject. Two authors, a generation apart, wrote novels creating hypothetical situations where fascists took control of the United States.
Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” was the story of fictional Nazi “Buzz” Windrip, who defeats President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 following a campaign that readers will recognize as very similar to the one Mr. Trump ran in 2016. Full of fear mongering, unrealistic promises about creating an economic boom, and appeals to traditional American values and patriotism, Mr. Windrip defeats FDR in the novel and leads the country away from democracy.
In his 2004 book, “The Plot Against America,” novelist Philip Roth creates an America where FDR is again defeated, this time in 1940, by real-life Nazi, aviator, and anti-semite, Charles Lindbergh. In Mr. Roth’s book, President Lindbergh, a member of the America First Party, blames Jewish immigrants for the country’s problems, turning the country against them while building sympathy for Germany’s Hitler and his anti-semitic movement.
But the country’s flirtation with Nazism existed between the two world wars. In February 1939, New York City’s Madison Square Garden was packed with 22,000 uniformed American Nazis listened to speeches celebrating Hitler and fascism.
“My fellow Christian Americans,” boomed James Wheeler-Hill, the national secretary of the Bund, before descending into a tirade blaming the news and movie industries of being “in the hands of the Jews” and turning the country against traditional American values.
The movement grew throughout the country until World War Two started, forcing Nazis to go quiet while the country battled Hitler. But their threat persisted to the point where the US War Department warned “An American Fascist seeking power would not proclaim that he is a Fascist. Fascism always camouflages its plans and purposes . . . It would work under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-Americanism’”
This is likely how a fascist would rise to power today. He wouldn’t proclaim his fascism, but would, instead, wrap his hateful ideas in the American flag, posing as a “super-patriot” or “super-American” defending traditional American ideals and culture.
And, he would wait for a catastrophe, especially one that could be blamed on an enemy like Muslims or a group opposed to the fascist in power.
Imagine, if you will, a fascist in power on 9/11 instead of President George W. Bush. Imagine how different things would have been if the president standing on the rubble in Manhattan chose to blame all Muslims for the attack, if he had inflamed the emotions of the American people that day and turned them against Muslims living in this country, against the politicians who defended their right to live peacefully amongst us, against those in the media trying to report the truth about the attacks.
Imagine how different that day would have been, how different the country would have been in the months and years that followed. Imagine how easily we would have followed the leadership of a president calling us forward in righteous rage, demanding of us changes in our laws so the guilty could be punished for their crimes. Imagine how easily we would have given in and allowed ourselves to be led anywhere our president told us we needed to go.
That is how a fascism could take control in America today.