Fascist America: Is This Election the Next Turn?
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In August 2009, I wrote a piece titled Fascist America: Are We There Yet? that sparked much discussion on both the left and right ends of the blogosphere. In it, I argued that -- according to the best scholarship on how fascist regimes emerge -- America was on a path that was running much too close to the fail-safe point beyond which no previous democracy has ever been able to turn back from a full-on fascist state. I also noted that the then-emerging Tea Party had a lot of proto-fascist hallmarks, and that it had the potential to become a clear and present danger to the future of our democracy if it ever got enough traction to start winning elections in a big way.
On the first anniversary of that article, Jonah Goldberg -- the right's revisionist-in-chief on the subject of fascism -- actually used an entire National Review column to taunt me about what he characterized as a failure of prediction. Where's that fascist state you promised? he hooted.
It's funny he should ask. Because this coming election may, in fact, be a critical turning point on that road.
The Fascist America series of three articles (the other two are here and here) was built out of Robert Paxton's Anatomy of Fascism -- a landmark work of scholarship that lays out that specific conditions and prognosis of fascism as a political form. Paxton defined fascism 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.
Paxton laid out the five basic lifecycle stages of successful fascist movements. In the first stage, a mature industrial state facing some kind of crisis breeds a new, rural movement that's based on nationalist renewal. This movement invariably rejects reason and glorifies raw emotion, promises to restore lost national pride, co-opts the nation's traditional myths for its own purposes, and insists that the country must be purged of the toxic influence of outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery.
(Sound familiar yet?)
In the second stage, the movement takes root, turns into a real political party, and seizes a seat at the table. Success at this stage, Paxton writes, "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."
(Paging the Party of No....)
In the face of this deadlock, the corporate elites forge an alliance with rural nationalists, creating an unholy marriage that, if it continues, will soon breed a fascist state. And, of course, this is precisely what's happening now between the Koch Brothers, the oil companies, Americans for Prosperity, and the Tea Party.
The majority of history's would-be fascist movements have died right at this stage -- almost always because of the basic authoritarian ineptitude of their leadership, which ensured that they'd never gain anything more than a small and temporary handful of seats at the political table. The successful fascisms, on the other hand, were the ones that held together and to gained enough political leverage that capturing their governments became inevitable. And once that happened, there was no turning back, because they now had the political power and street muscle to silence any opposition. (Fascist parties almost never enjoy majority support at any stage -- but being a minority faction is only a problem in a functioning democracy. It's no problem at all if you're willing to use force to get your way.)