As the years that separate us from European fascism increase, there is an growing tendency to use the term “fascism” in an imprecise way, taking away from it its potency. In fact, it has become so insipid as to have lost much of its meaning. Many will hear the word and think “Nazi”, but this is a gross oversimplification, an undue narrowness. The word “fascism” is at once too broad and too precise, as Umberto Eco has written.
There are good reasons to use this term more carefully, to apply it judiciously. But to do this, we have to understand what it really means. The term itself arose out of Italy and described a totalitarian regime that had little else in common with Nazism. That doesn’t mean it cannot be applied to other political systems. As Eco has pointed out, many of these systems share common features, or share common ideals or origins. But recognizing these, especially in the early stages of a movement can be difficult. It was not so difficult in Nazi Germany, with its explicit inculcation of the entire population beginning at birth, but Nazism is not the only type of fascism.
I’m proceeding from the assumption that all fascism is bad, something to be prevented and fought. Not everyone will believe this, else fascism would hold little popular appeal. But I believe it, and I also believe that the New Right in the U.S. represents a fascist risk unlike any we’ve seen since the 1940s, when World War II largely destroyed the proto-fascist movements in the U.S. Greater even than McCarthyism, the ideology espoused by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and those who hang with them are a threat to American democracy, a fascist movement further evolved than many might think.
Fascism, while populist in a sense, does not have to originate in “the people”. As Eco noted of Italian Fascism:
The Fascist Party was born boasting that it brought a revolutionary new order; but it was financed by the most conservative among the landowners who expected from it a counter-revolution.
This has certainly been true of the Tea Party movement. While the Tea Party does not clearly resemble Nazism and is not a copy of older fascist movements, it shares with them many of the characteristics of what Eco calls “Ur-Fascism”, the components that go in to the formation and perpetuation of most fascist movements.
Not all fascists have all of the characteristics of Ur-Fascism, but most, when considering the “template”, are recognizable as fascist. The danger is not in under-applying the term, but in failing to recognize it early. While Eco’s analysis is certainly not the only thing to say on fascism, it does serve as a valid and useful guide.
Cult of tradition
Americans certainly have a love of tradition, a uniting national identity. We have our own liturgy in our founding documents. But this is not cult-like. Eco describes a traditionalism that is false, in a sense, in that it combined mutually incompatible traditions, creating from them a unifying identity. Believing in the Bill of Rights, while simultaneously calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment; believing in the Constitutional protection of religion but denying the secular origins of this principle, and creating a false mythology of the Founders as Believers—these create a false, new American tradition.
Rejection of Modernity
Modern ideas, such as the expansion of the term “equality” to explicitly apply to everyone, is rejected out-of-hand as violating fictional traditions. Rejection of the rights of gays to marry, of women to have equal pay, of Blacks to frequent any business they wish—these would seem to violate our founding principles, but when you create your own fictions, such as the influence of the 10 Commandments on American law, then contradiction is meaningless. Contradiction only exists when historical truths are acknowledged. When they become fluid, all bets are off.
Cult of action for action’s sake
The preservation of the 2nd Amendment, in contrast to the destruction of the 14th, fits in well with the current shortage of ammunition in the U.S. The fetishism of firearms, at a time in history where our true state of national security has rendered them moot, is telling. It not only speaks of a powerlessness felt by the New Right, but serves as an explicit threat to those who would dare disagree with them. Since personal firearms are irrelevant in fighting foreign enemies, their only real use can be the fight against domestic ones.
Disagreement is treason
The New Right knows, cynically, that their ideas cannot stand up to honest analysis, and so demonize those who disagree with them. It creates a Muslim Non-American of the President; a rampaging horde of immigrants, and tells us that to vote for universal health care is a choice between freedom and tyranny.
This is part and parcel of the fear of diversity, the inherent racism in fascist ideas. There must always be an “other” and in the case of the New Right, the other is distinctly brown.
Appeal to frustrated middle class
During times of economic uncertainty, someone must be to blame for the decline in what seemed to be endless prosperity. Despite the fact that wealth in the U.S. has continued to concentrate in the wealthiest, these same wealthy successfully convince the middle class that it is really concentrating among The Others, those who are taking “our” jobs, raising taxes, etc. Despite the fact that our tax structure favors the rich rather than the middle or lower economic classes, it is the poorest or brownest that must be to blame. Them, and the bankers, whose names all seem to share some ethic similarities when repeated over and over.
Creation of a shared social identity
The New Right is distinctly envious of ethnic minorities and their shared sense of identity. Since much of the “redneck” vote lacks such an identity, then they must be united by having been born in the same country. The are Real Americans, and everyone else, by definition, is not. Real Americans aren’t afraid of the Confederate Flag. They aren’t afraid of immigrants. They aren’t afraid of gays. They aren’t afraid. Anyone who would object to the Stars and Bars or to anti-gay rhetoric must fail to understand what it is to be a Real American.
Sense of humiliation
Rather than the meme of the Eternal Rich Jew which was common in European fascism, the New Right is humiliated by the underclass who is ruining them economically, by making them pay taxes, by collecting welfare, by funding public schools. And when One of Them succeeds, perhaps even becoming President, it is because the system has favored them unfairly.
Life as struggle
Mein Kampf spoke of constant struggles. Eco noted that in Fascist Italy, it was taught that there were always more enemies to fight, that warfare was the default form of existence. This is how we prove our strength, our superiority.
This fits in well with the Christian Apocalyptic thinking that seems to dovetail so well with the New Right. It also fits well with the War on Terror, a war that is eternal, because it can never truly be won.
When you accept that you are a Real American, you are among the exceptional, the elite. You are no longer among the weak, the degenerate. Those who are become worse than the enemy, because the weaken they state from the inside.
To succeed in constant war and struggle, and to remove the taint of failure, everyone is a hero, every man a Real Man. To be a real man, there can be no “deviant” sexual practices, no equality for women, no backing down.
Will of the people through the One
The will of the people is paramount in fascism, but the only way the People can have a united will is to express it through a single voice, a Leader, not through the irrational and fickle exercise of elections and representation. This can lead to the election of improper leaders who must be dealt with. If the people were foolish enough to elect a non-American, then this non-American must be de-legitimized and removed. So-called representatives who don’t act like Real Americans must be impeached and removed before they can consolidate their power through another election. Congresses and Parliaments are inherently corrupt.
Fascism distorts language. Suddenly, the lawful payment of lawfully-enacted taxes becomes “oppression” and those who were not born here become “illegals.” News outlets belonging to the New Right use this new language regularly. The economic crisis, clearly precipitated by the policies of the right, is now the fault of these “illegal taxes” rather than failed policies of deregulation and destruction of progressive taxation.
Fascism is in some ways quite democratic; a critical mass of people must believe in it for it to take hold, but once it does, consent of the governed is no longer needed. The apparatus of the State will take care of obtaining consent, with the help of Real Americans. Beck, Bachmann, Palin, and others are not Nazis. Not all fascism is Nazism. But they are fundamentally un-democratic, believing in the power of a mythical People in the service of a mythical America, one which they have built in the minds of their followers.
This New America is not one I wish to live in, and for it to flourish all we must do is nothing.