It has always seemed to me that Americans view Nazism almost as some kind of strange European virus that afflicted only the Germans, and only for a brief period -- this by way of rationalizing that It Couldn't Happen Here. But it also seems clear to me this is wrong; that the Germans were ordinary, ostensibly civilized people like the rest of us. And that what went wrong in them could someday go wrong in us too. (...) So if it could happen to the Germans, it could happen to us, particularly to the extent that we remain in denial about it. But how are we to tell if it is happening, since it seems to happen so gradually that the populace scarcely recognizes it? It's worthwhile to begin by examining the historical record, because there, at least, we can get a reasonably clear picture of just what fascism really was and is.
In a historical sense, fascism is maybe best understood as an extreme reaction against socialism and communism; in its early years it was essentially defined as "extremist anti-communism." There were very few attempts to systematize the ideology of fascism, though some existed (see, e.g. Giovanni Gentile's 1932 text, The Philosophical Basis of Fascism). But its spirit was better expressed in an inchoate rant like Mein Kampf. It was explicitly anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and corporatist, and it endorsed violence as a chief means to its ends. It was also, obviously, authoritarian, but claiming that it was oriented toward "socialism" is just crudely ahistorical, if not outrageously revisionist. Socialists, let's not forget, were among the first people imprisoned and "liquidated" by the Nazi regime. (...)
The consensus (and debate) since the early 1990s has tended to revolve around the work of Oxford professor Roger Griffin, who lectures on the History of Ideas at the school. His 1991 text, The Nature of Fascism, is considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject. (...) ''Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.
Certainly any definition that stresses the style, policies or organisation of interwar fascist regimes (...) makes contemporary fascism dwindle to practically microscopic insignificance.'' But... If fascism is defined in terms of a core ideology of ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation's entire political culture, then the picture changes. The features so firmly associated with it in the popular historical imagination cease to be definitional. Instead they can be seen as external and time-bound manifestations of the central ideological driving force that is its only permanent feature: the war against the decadence of society and the struggle for national rebirth. If we think of fascism in these terms, a much clearer picture of it emerges. For one thing, we can recognize its antecedents throughout history, while also perceiving how the forces of industrialization and modernization reshape these ancient impulses into the thoroughly modern creature that fascism is. More to the point, we get a much clearer picture of the actual presence of latent fascist forces at work around the world.
Griffin's definition tends to confirm the characterization of Islamic fundamentalists as "Islamofascists," but makes clear that there is one important difference: while fascism has typically sought to achieve "national rebirth" by fusing a mythologized notion of "traditional values" with modernist idealism, Islamists are irrevocably antimodern in their worldview. (...)
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Nothing could better describe the Bush administration's approach to governance, particularly to waging war, than as one in which "thought and reason are subordinated to the promptings of the historic destiny of the group." And the Bush Doctrine, boiled down, ultimately bases its morality on a belief in the superiority of American values, and argues for waging war essentially as a "triumph of the strongest community."
This is not to argue that the Bush Doctrine is fascist per se -- but rather, that it has enough elements in it to appeal strongly to the right-wing extremists who are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream GOP fold. It plays out in such manifestations as its utter disregard -- indeed, clear contempt -- for the United Nations and multilateralism generally, a stance that resonates deeply with the John Bircher crowd. And an environment in which extremist memes are encouraged by mainstream conservatives suggests that an alliance is taking shape between the sectors.
Likewise, the Bush administration and its supporters, particularly those in the "transmitter" crowd -- Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, Fox News, the Free Republic -- have begun deploying the very same "mobilizing passions" in recent weeks in countering antiwar protesters that Paxton identifies as comprising the animating forces behind fascism. Again, these kinds of appeal clearly resonate with the proto-fascist Patriot element that have been increasingly finding common cause with the Bush regime. (...)
Again, the purpose of the above exercise is not to demonstrate that mainstream conservatism is necessarily becoming fascist (though that is a possibility), but rather to demonstrate how it is becoming hospitable to fascist motifs, especially as it resorts to strong-arm tactics from its footsoldiers to intimidate the political opposition. This underscores the real danger, which is the increasing empowerment of the extremist bloc, particularly as it has been blending, as we shall see, into the mainstream GOP. The increasing nastiness of the debate over Bush's war-making program seems to be fertile territory for this trend. More than anything, the exercise underscores just to what extent fascism itself is made of things that are very familiar to us, and in themselves seem relatively innocuous, perhaps even benign. More to the point, this very familiarity is what makes it possible. When they coalesce in such a crucible as wartime or a civil crisis, they become something beyond that simple reckoning.
Can fascism still happen in America? (Robert O.) Paxton leaves little doubt that the answer to this must be affirmative: ...Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion. That suggests its spatial and temporal limits: no authentic fascism before the emergence of a massively enfranchised and politically active citizenry. In order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty -- for better or for worse. (...)
In the 1930s, the ascendant liberalism of FDR effectively squeezed the life out of the nascent fascist elements in the U.S. This was particularly true because FDR openly shared power with the Right, appointing noted Republicans to his Cabinet and maintaining a firm coalition with arch-conservative Southern Democrats. The mainstream right thus had no incentive to form a power-sharing coalition with fascism. At the same time, liberalism gained a significant power base in rural America through the many programs of the New Deal aimed at bolstering the agricultural sector. This too may have been a critical factor in fascism's failure.
Proto-fascism in America
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It's clear by now, I hope, that fascism isn't something peculiar to Europe, but in fact grew out of an impulse that appears throughout history in many different cultures. This impulse is, as Roger Griffin puts it, "ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation's entire political culture.
We needn't look far to find this impulse at play in the American landscape -- social, religious and political renewal all appear as constant (though perhaps not yet dominant) themes of Republican propaganda now. But it is especially prevalent on the extremist right; indeed, it's probably a definitive trait. (...) There is already a spiral of violent behavior associated with Patriot beliefs, particularly among the younger and more paranoid adherents. As Griffin suggests, we can probably expect to see an increase in these "lone wolf" kind of attacks in coming years. But there is a more significant aspect to the apparent decline of the Patriot movement: Its believers, its thousands of footsoldiers, and its agenda, never went away. These folks didn't stop believing that Clinton was the anti-Christ or that he intended to enslave us all under the New World Order. They didn't stop believing it was appropriate to pre-emptively murder "baby killers" or that Jews secretly conspire to control the world. No, they're still with us, but they're not active much in militias anymore. They've been absorbed by the Republican Party. They haven't changed. But they are changing the party.
Crossing the line.
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The line between right-wing extremists and "the conservative movement" has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable. (...) I first covered neo-Nazis in Idaho beginning in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then, even in a reactionary Republican state full of John Birchers, it was relatively easy (though not always so) to distinguish between the mainstream conservatives and the far right. But that all changed during the 1990s. (...)
To the far right, Clinton embodied the totalitarian threat of the New World Order, a slimy leader in the conspiracy to enslave all mankind. To conservatives, he was simply an unanswerable political threat for whom no level of invective could be too vicious. Moreover, he was the last barrier to their complete control of every branch of the federal government. These interests coalesced as the far right became an echo chamber for attacks on Clinton that would then migrate into the mainstream, ultimately reaching their apex in Clinton's impeachment.
Ideas and agendas began floating from one sector to the other in increasing volume around 1994. I noticed it first in the amazing amount of crossover between militia types and the anti-Clinton vitriol out of D.C. that eventually built into the impeachment fiasco. In fact, it was clear that what I was seeing was that the far right was being used as an echo chamber to test out various right-wing issues and find out which ones resonated (this was especially the case with Clinton conspiracies). Then if it got traction, the issue would find its way out into the mainstream.....
This crossover is facilitated by figures I call "transmitters" -- ostensibly mainstream conservatives who seem to cull ideas that often have their origins on the far right, strip them of any obviously pernicious content, and present them as "conservative" arguments. These transmitters work across a variety of fields. In religion, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are the best-known examples, though many others belong in the same category. In politics, the classic example is Patrick Buchanan, while his counterpart in the field of conservative activism is Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.
In the media, Rush Limbaugh is the most prominent instance, and Michael Savage is a close second, but there are others who have joined the parade noticeably in the past few years: Andrew Sullivan, for instance, and of course Ann Coulter. On the Internet, the largest single transmitter of right-wing extremism is FreeRepublic.com, whose followers -- known as "Freepers" -- have engaged in some of the more outrageous acts of thuggery against their liberal targets. And finally, there's Fox News, which bills itself as "fair and balanced," but which in fact is a virtual data center for transmitting extremist material into the mainstream. (...)
Bush and his cohorts have not the least compunction about allying themselves with the thuggish and potentially violent component of the extremist elements that have now been subsumed by the Republican Party. This became abundantly clear in the 2000 election, and particularly in the post-election fight in Florida. Don Black's Stormfront people were there providing bodies for the pro-Bush protests, and his Web site proudly announced their participation. (...) Bush and his GOP cohorts continued to make a whole host of other gestures to other extremist components: attacking affirmative action, kneecapping the United Nations, and gutting hate-crimes laws.
The result was that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists came to identify politically with George W. Bush more than any other mainstream Republican politician in memory. This was embodied by the endorsement of Bush's candidacy by a range of white supremacists, including David Duke, Don Black and Matthew Hale of the World Church of the Creator. This identification even cropped up in odd places like the bizarre neo-Nazi flyers that passed around in Elma, Washington, in November 2000 that proclaimed Bush their group's "supreme commander." (...)
Thus, even though the Patriot movement never even came close to achieving any kind of actual power -- outside of a handful of legislators in a smattering of Western states -- the absorption of its followers into mainstream conservatism successfully brought a wide range of extremists together under the banner of Republican politics, embodied in the defense of the agenda of President Bush and in the hatred of all forms of liberalism. Then, after Sept. 11, the attacks on liberalism became enmeshed with a virulent strain of jingoism that at first blamed liberals for the attacks, then accused them of treasonous behavior for questioning Bush's war plans. Now we're seeing a broad-based campaign of hatred against liberals -- particularly antiwar dissenters -- that serves two purposes: it commingles mainstream pro-Bush forces in direct contact, and open alliance with, a number of people with extremist beliefs; and it gives the extremist element of Patriot footsoldiers who turned Republican in 2000 an increasingly important role in the mainstream party. (...)
More important is the effect that the absorption has had on the larger Republican Party. Just as the Southern Strategy changed the very nature of the GOP from within, so has this more recent absorption of an extremist element transformed its basic nature. Now, positions that at one time would have been considered unthinkable for Republicans -- unilateralist foreign policy, contempt for the United Nations and international law, a willingness to use war as a first resort, a visceral hatred of even the hint of liberalism -- are positions it touts prominently. (...)
It is mainstream conservatism that demonstrably has undergone the most dramatic change in this cauldron: It seems to increasingly view the Left as an unacceptable governing partner. And in doing so, it has effectively ended a longtime power-sharing contract between liberals and conservatives in America. It has become common for conservatives to openly reject any hint of liberalism, and to demonize liberals as a caustic and ultimately unacceptable force in society. The impetus for these attacks comes from the hectoring likes of Rush Limbaugh and the truly noxious Ann Coulter, Fox News and the Free Republic. They are all people who take extremist ideas and dress them in mainstream clothing, straddling both sectors, and transmitting information between them. I call them "transmitters."
The transmission belt
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Richard Mark: "Hitler was more moral than Clinton," intoned the nice-looking, dark-haired man in the three-piece suit. "He had fewer girlfriends." The audience laughed and applauded, loudly. (...) The similarities between Mack's 1994 sentiments and the hyperbole directed at Clinton in 1998 are not accidental. Rather, they offer a stark example of the way the far right's ideas, rhetoric and issues feed into the mainstream -- and in the process, exert a gravitational pull that draws the nation's agenda increasingly rightward. For that matter, much of the conservative anti-Clinton paroxysm could be traced directly to some of the smears that circulated first in militia and white-supremacist circles. (...)
This is how the Patriot movement pulls the national debate towards its own agenda. Regardless of how far-fetched or provably false their claims or ideas might be, they stay alive in the everything-fits conspiracist mindset of the far right. The ideas that have a long-term resonance are transmitted to the mainstream, stripped of their racial or religious origins -- which often is the swamps of supremacist Christian Identity belief -- by being presented as purely "political" claims or conjecture. As the ideas gain more traction in the mainstream, the far right's agenda becomes realized incrementally. (...)
The rhetoric once common among the militia had become indistinguishable from that bandied about on Rush Limbaugh's radio program or, for that matter, on Fox News cable gabfests or MSNBC's Hardball. The migration of the accusations against Clinton from the far right to the mainstream was instructive, because it indicated how more deeply enmeshed conservatives became during the 1990s with genuine extremists.