Fascist. Totalitarian. Authoritarian. These words continue to appear more frequently in American and international media, amplified by the looming US 2020 election. As with many socio-political terms, such as “Left”, “Right”, “Far-Left”, “Far-Right”, “Moderate”, “Centrist”, usage and meanings are shorthand, usually lack historic context, their meaning shaped by individuals’ political beliefs and media exposure in today’s digital information age.

Among the many recent and not so recent books that investigate American politics, I’ve found two, How Fascism Works, by Jason Stanley, and How The South Won The Civil War, by Heather Cox Richardson, that provide much-needed background to help understand the historical and current context for these words that matter. The authors’ perspectives draw from different disciplines, but both are anchored in the power and impact of narrative, particularly the role of war and violence.

How Fascism Works (2018, Random House) is sub-titled The Politics of Us and Them.  Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor whose work includes How Propaganda Works and Language and Context, is from a family of Holocaust survivors. His grandmother, Ilse Stanley, worked undercover in Germany to help hundreds of Jews escape from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. She wrote a memoir, The Unforgiven, which the author credits as an inspiration for his own work.

He notes in the introduction, “I have chosen the label of ‘fascism’ for ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” The book is organized in ten chapters presenting the strategies and tactics of fascist politics, which the author states, reflect how regimes, successful in taking over democracies are significantly determined by particular historical and cultural conditions.

The first chapter title, “The Mythic Past”, captures the foundational nature of fascist narratives, varied by particular cultures and sub-cultures, that call for restoration of the nation. But Stanley makes clear that, in this mythic framework, “nation” does not equate with “state”. Nation, as the author notes, citing Hitler and Mussolini, as well as present day leaders, such as India’s Modi, Hungary’s Orban, and Donald Trump, evokes nostalgia for a time when the “Us”—a racial, religious, ethnic sub-culture, or gender—were the core, the rightful leaders and owners of others; the “true” nation of a particular geography, resources, and government. That is, until an “Other” took over, corrupted or threatened the hierarchical purity of that nation. Stanley quotes Mussolini in a 1922 speech which demonstrates the intentional nature of fascist myth making:

“We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality…. Our myth is the nation, the greatness of the nation. And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything.”

Stanley elaborates on key elements of the appeal to “our” traditions that include gender roles of patriarchy, one “true” religious faith, and oppression by “Them” which contextualizes the actual oppressors as victims.  He describes the common structure of a fascist mythic past as the time when “…an extreme version of the patriarchal family reigns supreme, even just a few generations ago.”

These and other fascist tactics are illustrated by past and current ultranationalist regimes. For example, Stanley cites the Nazis’ Rosenberg, Goebbels and Himmler’s use of the German “volkisch” (ethnic, national) movement as an influence on India’s current Modi-led government which leverages the “Hindutva” (the Originals of India) movement to attack Muslims and Christians as decadent.  He uses another example of how the Myanmar Buddhist majority has been mobilized for genocidal attacks on the country’s Rohingya Muslims, destroying cultural landmarks and seeking to erase their centuries-old Muslim presence in the country.

Using America’s recent history, Stanley contrasts W.E.B. Dubois’ 1935 Black Reconstruction recounting of the brief post-Civil War period with popular “Lost Cause” mythic narratives, often framed by academic historians and popular media, which propagate a past that obscures how that myth benefits ruling political and financial elites.  These narratives translate into actions that cross national and cultural borders: Hitler admired the United States Jim Crow era as a model for law-making against Germany’s Jews, and Henry Ford, in the same post-WWI era, heavily promoted The Protocols of Zion, a core anti-Semitic tract of a global Jewish conspiracy.

The author then deconstructs the other components of fascist politics such as propaganda: anti-intellectualism denigrating the expertise of elites; leveraging fear with law and order to combat crime, particularly rape and murder by the “Other.” The interwoven messaging builds on the foundation of myth making to create an atmosphere of institutional chaos and unreality (e.g. claims of fake news and alternative facts, vacuities such as, “many people say…”).  This atmosphere amplifies feelings of instability and fear that rationalizes solutions remedied only by a strong leader who is one of “Us”. That leader is therefore justified in using oppression and violence against the opposition—“Them” (foreign or domestic)—on behalf of the hard-working, responsible members of the victimized true nation.

In his epilogue, Stanley presents what he concludes are the most significant threats posed by fascist politics to democratic governance, particularly in the United States:

“…the threat of the normalization of the fascist myth is real. It is tempting to   think of  ‘normal’ as benign; when things are normal there is no need for   alarm. However, both history and psychology show that our judgments (sic) about normality can’t always be trusted.”

He concludes:

“Those who employ fascist political tactics have varying goals…Since I am an American, I must note that one goal appears to be to use fascist tactics, hypocritically waving the banner of nationalism in front of white middle-class and working people in order to funnel the state’s spoils into the hands of oligarchs… By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage with  one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding. But none of us demons.”

Stanley’s analysis, rooted in a philosophy of shared humanity, provides a deeper look beyond the common American connection of fascist politics to post-WWI Germany and Italy. He provides valuable context of today’s global versions, including America’s, for understanding where democracies are vulnerable. What’s becoming increasingly evident is that America is not exceptional. Stanley’s description of fascist politics aligns with America’s history, as How the South Won the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2020) documents.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College. The subtitle of her latest book, Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, captures the core of what she sees as central to the story of America:

“America began with a great paradox: the same men who came up with the radical idea of constructing a nation on the principle of equality also owned slaves, thought Indians were savages and considered women inferior. This apparent contradiction was not a flaw, though; it was a key feature.”

America’s founders, she notes, believed that “all men are created equal” did not include everyone: only men like themselves; white, Anglo, educated and wealth-privileged.  Such men needed to be in charge of the “lesser people” whose inferiority of mind and property required them to be governed, to have no role in the body politic. And, with that structurally in place through the original Constitution, everyone within the nation would be appropriately equal.

“The very men who adhered most vigorously to the Enlightenment concept that all men are created equal held slaves. Indeed their new, radical concept of freedom depended on slavery, for slavery permanently removed the underclass from any hope of influencing government.”

Richardson connects the impact of this founding paradox to core American narratives that continue to the present day: the idea that property rights and economic wealth determine human value; the religious tradition of the white Christian patriarchal family as natural law. In these narratives, Richardson sees the outcomes as often determined by both physical and emotional violence that at times secures the elite’s side of the paradox versus progress toward the aspirations of all.

As her book’s title suggests, Richardson sees the Civil War as a pivotal moment in this continuing paradox, a fight rooted in economic power of the few (oligarchs) which enables that minority to shape American government at all levels. She cites leaders of the Confederacy such as its Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, whose Cornerstone Speech affirmed the inferiority and innate “savage” nature of Blacks to justify slavery and the South’s economic separation.  Among other factors, the early success of the rebellion reflected the wealthy plantation-owner economy’s use of racial division they created between poor Southern whites and black slaves.  And that exploitation didn’t end with the Civil War, despite the brief Reconstruction period. She posits that, because of Andrew Johnson, the readmission of Southern leaders to Congressional power and local governments’ enacting Jim Crow laws (including in the North) allowed the expansion of the oligarchy to the western territories.  The rapid growth of those western territories into states with Federal representation reflected the Constitution’s foundational “all men are created equal” paradox.  That, in turn, guaranteed political power to a numerical minority of the national population, which continues to this day.

Richardson’s exploration of America’s history parallels Stanley’s deconstruction of fascism. However, her work puts more emphasis on the underlying economic impacts (who benefits versus who pays) of the American narratives. She traces the pioneer image of the East’s Anglo “yeoman farmer” patriarch after the Revolution conquering the wilderness as contributing to the rise of the South’s plantation economy.  In the post-Civil War Western version of that image the heroic cowboy conquers the Indian “savages”, protecting the women in his life and taming the harsh landscape for civilization.  Richardson cites historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s claim that America’s democracy was continually reinvented in the West as common working men banded together to push back against the repressive Federal government of the Eastern elite.  Of course this “rugged individualism” myth ignores the roles played by the Federal government and corporate financiers such as the use of US military against Native Americans and financing of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Her work highlights the role played by popular media over the decades in continuing these myths to the present day, connecting the cowboy image of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in the political arena reflecting movie, television, and now digital media male heroes such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. The portrayal of women reinforces the traditional family trope noted in Stanley’s work. Blacks and other people of color have been cast, until fairly recently, as villains, savage murderous threats, and criminal actors against the nation. The result:

“The idea that government should stand behind western individualism and self-reliance took over American culture, bolstering the position of wealthy white men across the country.”

Richardson sums up the conflict between America’s hierarchical society ruled by an unelected wealthy minority versus a true democracy of all as being the legacy of the country’s Anglo-European feudal origins.  And so, to the present moment when we’re confronting America’s version of fascism and oligarchy versus people’s continuing aspirations in George Washington’s “Great Experiment.”  The ultimate question she poses from that paradox is can “…a government based on the idea that human beings had the right to determine their own fate” endure?  Richardson believes our history has kept the question open. I think Jason Stanley would agree.

Bob Shea

Bob’s checkered past includes being: a drug program outreach worker; director of a non-profit documentary media center; co-founder, producer/director of a video production company, a TV news videographer/editor. For twenty years he worked in a variety of communications for a multi-national corporation. For the past ten years, he taught at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Communication. Shea is current president and Board member of Water for South Sudan, a 15 year old 501(3c) INGO. His personal essays, and features stories and reviews have been published in Fourth Genre, Consequence and regional magazines. He has an MFA from Bennington College.

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