The word fascism has been so recklessly thrown around in the past year that quite frankly I cannot judge if it should be totally shoved down the memory hole and forgotten for a generation. The word has the ideological equivalent of a spit-ball in contemporary parlance now.
Meanwhile, we only seen only recently an attempt to precisely define the term after decades of the Left and Libertarian Right throwing it around to describe both Klan members and mainstream politicians. Hell, Alexander Cockburn once wrote “Nor do I think [Patrick Buchanan] is any more of a fascist — in practical terms — than [Madeline] Albright and [Bill] Clinton and [Al] Gore and [Bill] Bradley, with the first three literally with the blood of millions on their hands.” In the interwar period, Joseph Stalin was calling Leon Trotsky a fascist. Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan were all called fascists at one point or another. This politicization of the word’s meaning meant that effectively anyone, everyone, and no one was a fascist.
Things only really firmed up in the aftermath of the Cold War when Professor Robert Paxton began to develop a model based on five stages a society traverses as it becomes a fascist state. They are:
- Intellectual exploration, where disillusionment with popular democracy manifests itself in discussions of lost national vigor
- Rooting, where a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarization, becomes a player on the national stage
- Arrival to power, where conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite the movement to share power
- Exercise of power, where the movement and its charismatic leader control the state in balance with state institutions such as the police and traditional elites such as the clergy and business magnates.
- Radicalization or entropy, where the state either becomes increasingly radical, as did Nazi Germany, or slips into traditional authoritarian rule, as did Fascist Italy.
In his 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism, he closes the book with this chilling point: “Fascism exists at the level of Stage One within all democratic countries—not excluding the United States. “Giving up free institutions,” especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans. We know from tracing its path that fascism does not require a spectacular “march” on some capital to take root; seemingly anodyne decisions to tolerate lawless treatment of national “enemies” is enough.”
Even if we are not at Paxton’s Stage Five yet, the trend he describes have been simmering in the dark recesses of American political culture over the past four decades. Stagflation in the 1970’s created an economic malaise that bred the career of David Duke, whose first electoral bid was in 1975. Jimmy Carter and Paul Volcker added fuel to the fire when they intentionally caused a recession. This in turn emboldened Ronald Reagan to make a speech in August 1980 at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi about “states rights,” a spot less than ten miles away from where three civil rights workers were murdered sixteen years prior for trying to register Black voters.
By the time the Clintons were in the White House, the cottage industry of cranks and kooks who had existed in the nether regions of American media after World War II blossomed into the Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and Fox News infotainment empire that dwarfed the finest days of Hearst. Bush the Dumber was barely able to control the GOP by the time Trent Lott was saying out loud in public America would have been a better place had they elected segregationist Strom Thurmond president in 1948. After Obama was elected, the number of extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and Minuteman Militias went from about 200 nationwide to nearly1400. As Sam Cooke crooned, It’s been a long, a long time comin’.
But let’s just run down the list of the people in the White House who make no bones about their racism.
Donald Trump: Took out an ad in New York newspapers calling for the execution of the Central Park 5 and has never apologized even though the kids were innocent. Seems intent on destroying every social service and resource that people of color depend on for subsistence in a deeply racist economy. Carries on about how much he loves the cops that are killing Black men with such regularity that the slogan Black Lives Matter is taken by the Fraternal Order of Police as a plea for the guillotine.
Stephen Bannon: Trump is a racist in that obnoxious way that defines the behavior of most slimy landlords from New York. Bannon is racist in the way Lenin was a Bolshevik, obsessively preaching on the most graphic, excessive pseudo-scientific pornography about people of color. Abby Martin’s recent profile of Bannon on Empire Files is really essential viewing that will terrify you.
Mike Pence: A hardcore “evangelical Catholic” (is that a thing?) who advocated support for “ex-gay” therapies up to and including electrocuting queer kids.
James Mattis: The most responsible military leader in the chain of command regarding our continued quagmires in the Middle East under Obama, he is a “bomb Iran” breed of hawk who was hatched in that veritable alcove of getting in touch with your feminine side, the Marine Corps.
Ben Carson: When you get past the stupid actions that one would not expect from a neurosurgeon, it turns out the man is a total religious fundamentalist as a member of the Seventh Day Adventists. Simply put, he is bonkers.
Betsy DeVos: After destroying public education in Michigan and Florida, DeVos was tapped to loose a rampage on the wider country. She provides quasi-fascist ideology and her brother, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, provides the muscle behind it.
Jeff Sessions: Named for a Confederate folk hero, the man made his career’s focus the hounding and harassment of Blacks trying to vote. He recently has decreed he is going to implement a series of policies targeting harsher penalties for marijuana, which he equates with heroin, a roundabout way of calling for maximizing the Black and brown populations of the prison system.
Sebastian Gorka: A member of Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian fascist organization that was allied with Hitler during the war. Lovely!
Proffessor Paxton tells me in correspondence “I think we can say that between a fascist regime and the Trump administration there are similarities and differences. The similarities were already apparent during the campaign. Trump et al. employed campaign themes and techniques that recall fascism. The classical fascist movements based their appeal on a diagnosis of decline, caused by internal and external enemies, and remedial only by strong executive measures. Trump and his associates made heavy use of themes of decline, internal enemies, and forceful action, and these continue to be the justification for unlimited executive power. Some other themes that recall fascism include nationalist disdain for any kind of international obligation or institution, placing the alleged needs of the nation above the rule of law, and tolerating violent action against dissenters. Trump and Bannon believe that the executive has unlimited power, derived from “the people,” and that press criticism is treasonous.”
“Alongside these similarities, there is a major difference. The classic fascist regimes set up highly regimented economies, in which business was subordinated to national needs. These corporatist economies included an early form of welfare state, though independent labor power had been crushed. Trump and his associates, including the GOP majority in Congress, want extreme deregulation. Whereas fascists subordinated individual interests to an alleged national community interest, Trump and the GOP want to subordinate community interests to private interests, meaning the interests of the wealthy. Fascist regimes had high, progressive income taxes. The Trump administration’s commitment to deregulation and to market solutions to economic and social problems is altogether opposed to fascist regimentation, with its colored shirts and its obligatory organizations (Hitler Youth etc). Trump and the GOP seem to want to punish the ‘improvident’ poor, whereas the fascists promoted a national community, purged of its dissidents and unassimilable minorities, in where all the ‘real’ members of the ‘volk’ would be taken care of. Fascism was communitarian, Trumpism is individualistic. Using the fascist label in an indiscriminate fashion conceals these basic economic and social goals, and so keeps us from understanding the Trump administration.”