Reader Request Week 2021 #5: American Fascism

Rick asks:

Being a child of the late 20th century, I always thought the USA was somehow immune to fascism, and I’m honestly surprised to discover recently that this isn’t the case. Is this simple naivete, or have things fundamentally changed in American politics?

Well, you know. In 1939 American Nazis held a rally at Madison Square Garden. It was very well attended! And among other things they hung a big damn portrait of George Washington between their swastikas, with full intent:

That giant portrait of George Washington was no afterthought. “One of the things they tried to do was to say that this is what America has always been and this is what the Founding Fathers would have supported,” said Churchwell. Indeed, they referred to Washington as “America’s first fascist.”

And they might have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling World War II and Germany (and Nazism) becoming the enemy. Inconvenient for the American Nazis, that. Set the whole fascist movement back decades in the US.

At least, the part that overtly called itself fascism. But otherwise it still managed. McCarthyism? That was fascism. Jim Crow? Fascism. Definition nerds will quibble about whether America’s long-standing authoritarian, anti-democratic impulses qualify as true fascism, but two things here. One: If it quacks like a duck, etc. Two, let us recall that when actual no-shit fascists were looking at ways to codify their power and to demonize their enemies, including and specifically the Jews, where did they look for useful examples? If your answer is anything other than “Why, at the United States and its systemic suppression of its own minorities over the years,” then, surprise! Here’s a reading list to catch you up.

To be clear, the US is not (directly) responsible for the rise of Nazism and the horrors it perpetrated on the Jewish population of Europe. Hitler was fucking evil, and Europe was not exactly new to anti-semitism in the first half of the 20th century. Hitler would have found a way to get where he wanted to go, and the German nation would have gone along, as it largely did. But this doesn’t change the fact that when the Nazis were looking for pertinent examples for legally disenfranchising parts of its own population, the United States was there for it, with laws that, if not technically fascist in themselves (quibble away, definition nerds!), were certainly proto-fascist.

In a larger sense, the history of the United States is a history of Will to Power, competing neck-to-neck with what we prefer to see as our more noble and democratic Power to the People. What is “Manifest Destiny” if not Deus Vult in mid-18th century dress? Did the US not essentially pick fights with Mexico and Spain for land and political influence? Did it not ignore whatever treaties it made with the Native Americans whenever it felt like it? Did it not rise to prominence on the labor and pain of African slaves, and tear itself apart because the South decided it was better to gamble on a quick war to keep those slaves, than to imagine them as people? And then, having freed those slaves, did the US then not engage in a century-long effort to keep those slaves and their descendants as legally close to a slave state as possible? Did the US not likewise demonize and restrict the rights of Chinese and other Asians? In the end, who benefited from the United States, who still benefits from it, and how was it managed that only they received the vastly largest share of the benefit?

If you know the answers to these questions, and yet still wonder how the United States might not be immune to fascism, the likely problem is that you’re hung up on the word “fascism” rather than the conceptual, social and political elements that allow for fascism. “Fascism” is a brand. Authoritarianism is the substance inside the can. The United States has had all of the ingredients for authoritarianism as long as it’s existed, and we make a fresh batch of it whenever we feel like it.

To go back to World War II, one of its side effects was that for as long as the generation who fought it was the engine of the economy and politically active, overt fascism was more difficult to support in the US — we could manage it if we could, say, argue we were doing it to fight communism or something, but indulging in it purely for its own sake was a bad look. But the generation that fought World War II is mostly dead now, and a lot of their (white) children are of the opinion that maybe fascism got a bad rap — it’s not so bad, it’s just how it was done before that’s the problem. Creeping fascism has been the goal of the US Republican Party for a while now, what with its policy of steadily eroding and ignoring democratic norms, and its strategy of creating economic and informational insecurity to scare poor and working class whites, with the goal of inflaming their systemically-inculcated bias toward racism, for the benefit of the wealthiest of its party members, and to retain power even (especially) as the majority of US citizens have left it and its political interests behind.

And it certainly got a boost in that from Donald Trump! If someone like Mitch McConnell is the GOP’s ego, Trump is its id, a loud, proudly ignorant racist and buffoon who doesn’t give a shit about democracy, admires dictators, was enraged he wasn’t treated as a king, and who ended his presidency with an attempted putsch against his democratically chosen successor. Trump may not have come into the White House as a fascist, but he certainly left as one. His party — with some notable exceptions — gave him aid and comfort in his transformation and in his attempt to overthrow democracy in the United States. Moreover, it is now actively, unapologetically and with full fervor attempting to curtail the ability of United States citizens to participate in the democratic process, in a manner we haven’t seen so openly since the time when the Nazis were looking for a legal model for the persecution of the Jews and everyone else they found inconvenient. That is in fact actual fascism. You could say fascism has captured the GOP, but that ignores that fascism (and specifically, white christianist fascism) was always the plan, from at least Newt Gingrich onward. The Republicans meant to get here. And now they are here.

But again: We have always been here, in one way or another, here in these United States. The greatness of the US, its ability to be an actual force for good, and for hope, and for the democratic model of governance, has always gone hand in hand with its ability to be the worst of nations, and to indulge in authoritarianism, imperialism, bigotry and, yes, fascism. What we work for — what you should be working for, anyway — is to have the better aspects of our nation to be in the fore, so it may be the sort of country that fascism can’t provide: Tolerant, wise, open, diverse and focused on the common weal.

During the Trump administration I would occasionally see on Twitter: “If you were wondering what you would have done in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it’s whatever you are doing now.” That was true! Just remember it’s always been true, in every time, here in the United States. Our nation’s darker nature is always there, and is always waiting for good people to lack conviction and to do nothing. Whatever you’re doing now, that’s what you’re doing to fight that darker nature. Or not. It’s up to you.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

74 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2021 #5: American Fascism”

  1. 1. This is (obviously) a political post, so the Mallet is out. Please be polite to each other and stick to the topic.

    2. Do me a favor and try not to engage in whataboutism here. Certainly the US Democratic party is far from perfect (and indeed in its past it was the one who happily housed the worst part of the American political experience), but at this moment in time there’s one party that stood by and did nothing while its leader tried to overthrow democracy, and is now attempting to curtail voting right all across the US, and guess what? It ain’t the Democrats. So, nah, my dudes. “Both sides” bullshit is gonna get the Mallet.

    3. Likewise, let’s take as read #NotAllRepublicans and #NotAllConservatives, because I know several conservatives and Republicans in my own life who are horrified and embarrassed at the heel turn the GOP has explicitly made these last several years. That said, I do think those Republicans/conservatives should be louder than the rest of us about what’s happened to that party and political movement (and some of them have, which is nice).

    4. But if you are a conservative/Republican who is outraged at me noting that the GOP is an actual fascist, anti-democratic party at this moment in time: I mean, have you tried having it not be fascist and anti-democratic? I would love if you would try that! Thanks in advance for your effort.

  2. Nice! Love the historical synopsis! Also, too, the call to keep being better.

    As a recommendation for folks who aren’t into the whole fascism thing, there’s a YouTube guy by the name of “Beau of the Fifth Column” who is of a similar mindset, and is worth listening to.

  3. An elderly family friend who grew up in 1930s Germany told us around 1990-2000 that he could see clearly how the US was going the same way his childhood Germany did.

  4. I only take issue with your assertions that the US is uniquely wonderful AND uniquely awful.

    I feel like the two great lies of “American Exceptionalism” are that somehow we are exceptionally virtuous or exceptionally vice ridden. Right now we (and China, and at least to the extent they have nukes, Russia) are uniquely positioned to do great damage, but that’s not an aspect of vice and more of simple (amorally evaluated) power. In the 19th Century it was Britain and France, etc. etc.

    Other than that, and that all people have both authoritarians and open minded folks among them (Altermeyer’s research on the authoritarian mindset points us at the universal experience that some people just want a strongman/woman to run everything the “way it should be”.)

  5. You’re actually underselling the situation — it’s not that the US is vulnerable to undemocratic rule, it’s that the United States has never been a democracy, in the sense of having a government in which the will of the people is represented and expressed. The vast majority of Americans have been formally or informally disenfranchised for almost all of American history (eg, women until 1920, Black Americans largely until the 1960s and even up to now). That’s not government “of the people, for the people, and by the people” except perhaps briefly in the modern era.

    We’re not losing our long-standing commitment to democracy: we never had one.

    (And no, the Democrats don’t get a pass. They’re may be doing the right thing right now, but they’re the villains of the post-Civil War reestablishment of Jim Crow, including an actually successful insurrection in Wilmington NC in 1898. They’ve improved since then? Great! Keep working at it.)

  6. Yup. One of the things that I (history major, general lover of history) always find really grating is when someone (typically a politician) says [insert bad, undemocratic/racist/etc thing here] is UnAmerican. No, chances are very high that it’s as American as Apple Pie. And that’s just the problem!

    I try to be cautious about falling for monocausal explanations of thorny problems, but I really think so much of this is explained by Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians, coupled with the way the parties have sorted over the past ~55 years. Reactionaries have always been here, but now they’re concentrated in 1 party and driving that bus.

  7. I can sympathize with the person posting the question to you John. I felt at one point that as a society we overall were moving forward and slowly getting it that we had to treat all with equality and fairness. Sure we stumbled along and had setbacks but overall I felt we were moving forward. Then starting in the 1990’s I started noting people like Atwater and Gingrich and started worrying a bit.

    The feel of the GOP felt more like it was getting nastier and darker as the 90’s ended and the 00’s started up. The next twenty years were a real shit show and utterly depressing that so many millions of people embraced hate, racism, sexism and homophobia in mass.

    Though we see a lot of positivity there just is too much nastiness and embracing and forwarding of inhumane policies. I just don’t know what to make of it anymore.

  8. The first female president of the American Political Science Association said something similar in 1991, arguing “the American experiment” was actually two experiments simultaneously running on parallel tracks, one in democracy, the other in tyranny. Eventually democracy prevailed and banished tyranny, which has always proven the more brittle system due to its manifold injustices. But ideas don’t die, and circumstances change, bringing bad old ideas back to the surface refurbished in new packaging…

  9. Paragon Lost – in part it was a deliberate project. Our esteemed host mentioned Gingrich. Well. Google “Gingrich: Language, a Key Mechanism of Control.” It’s blueprint for the demonization of one’s political adversaries. He didn’t invent that kind of thing, obviously. But he absolutely went all in on it.

    Look at the list under “contrasting” words. Any of that sound familiar?

  10. “Fascism” is a brand

    I found that in particular very helpful/useful.

    Thank you.

  11. The organization and ideological infrastructure predated Gingrich. Rick Pearlstein’s “Before the Storm” does a good job of detailing the grievances given voice in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, and transmitted itself in more and more virulent strains ever since. Trump should not be viewed as sui generis, but merely as the latest variant of nominally “conservative” grievance that can only be fulfilled through the death of its host.

  12. detailing the grievances given voice in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, and transmitted itself in more and more virulent strains ever since

    Grievances which, in turn, had gestated in the resentment of the southern Dixiecrats of the 1940s and 50s. The only states Goldwater won (besides his home state of Arizona) were ex-Confederate states. The modern Republican Party is following in a long American history of limiting power to the acceptable.

  13. “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” – Frank Wilhoit

  14. This is not rocket science.
    A quick-and-easy definition of fascism is “authoritarianism plus xenophobia”. The xenophobia can take various forms: racism, anti-Semitism, tribalism, …
    Several European countries have had fascist regimes. Authoritarianism and xenophobia have been present systematically.
    Trump is blatantly authoritarian. Trump is blatantly xenophobe. Therefore, Trump is fascist. His followers are either fascists themselves, or fascist-fellow-travelers.

  15. I was uncomfortably noting the proto-fascism brewing on the USian right long before Trump made it obvious–but then, I read It Can’t Happen Here back in 1961. (I’m amazed to see a copy of that Dell paperback edition for sale for $69 via AbeBooks. Must check the basement shelves for hidden gold.) The rise of the Tea Party and its metamorphosis into Trumpism was just the froth atop the bubbling cauldron. (I’d better abandon that metaphor right now.) As several posters have already observed, things started to get really nasty back when Gingrich & Co. took off the gloves and went bare-knuckle in the conventional-politics arenas, followed by the rise of the plutocracy-funded fear & rage machine (propaganda mills masquerading as think tanks).

    John’s brand/contents metaphor (fascism on the label, authoritarianism in the can) is apt, though it doesn’t quite address the interesting varieties of programs and interest groups or the body-of-technique/organizing-myth recipe for the varieties of authoritarianism. I try not to be over-alarmed at comparisons between early-1930s Germany and our current situation, but those parallels remain ominous.

  16. John-

    You have written, over the years, a good many very important posts in this blog (“important” in the sense of having the potential to disseminate ideas and illuminate discussion on capital-I important topics far beyond the reach of the blog itself).

    I believe this one claims a spot in the Top Ten of those Important Scalzi Posts, right out of the gate.

    Thank you.

  17. John when are you going to stop posting on trivia and get to the important topics of the day? :D

    Okay, some thoughts:

    1) here in Kalamazoo, 100 or so Proud Boys had an illegal rally (no permit) last August, and many of them drove here in cars with the license plates removed. Totally, flagrantly illegal and we also had 100 police (from 5 jurisdictions I’m told) all dressed up in battle gear and they did nothing to stop the PB, but aided and abetted. How? Made a safe space for the PB to march, and a cordon for their illegal cars. (They did manage to arrest some COUNTER-protestors and one journalist :-/)

    This happened elsewhere, of course, and it absolutely was a training exercise (along with a recruitment exercise) for the 1/6 insurrection, which itself is a training / recruitment exercise for…

    (2) my own feeling is that, despite the occasional feel-good story of someone being won over to the light, you’ve gotta punch Nazis. (e.g., World War II, and also as an example. Also, the partisans – in Belorus, for example. Jews who fought back alongside the Bielski brothers had a 50% survival rate, versus effectively 0% for those who didn’t.

    (3) and you also have to deplatform and censor them. Some speech is violence.

    (4) the essential bottom line is to speak up. i hate that, in my own Jewish family, we have dum dums who voted for Trump (and a few days later celebrating their father’s WWII service, c’mon connect the dots!). But I hate even more the members of my family who are all, “shh! don’t make a scene” when I raise the possibility of confronting them.

    (5) here’s a really good video on how the modern American Nazis (aka alt-right) recruit and convert:

    Thanks for making the space for the discussion, John.

  18. One more thing – I believe it was FDR’s New Deal that really took the wind out of the rising American Nazi movement. Massive unemployment, poverty, and disenfranchisement – as per Germany post WWI – is THE breeding ground for Nazis.

    So if Biden doesn’t massively invest in jobs programs, public infrastructure, public health, etc. – or if his programs are mostly smoke and mirrors – then the Dems will have made it that much more likely we get a full-on fascist regime in 2024.

  19. It’s also about cultural resentment, though. Economic issues only explains so much. I agree it doesn’t help and the Dems should go big (they’ve got 2 years, basically).

    I mean, there was a massive reactionary backlash to the Civil Rights movement. The 1960s were pretty prosperous, were they not? I’ll grant that things got tougher in the 70s with the oil shock/staglation, but the reaction was well underway by that point (Nixon, 2 term President!).

    Obviously we want to make the culture war less salient to people. I just have this nagging feeling like prosperity just doesn’t do what we’d like it to do. Sometimes I think it frees people to vote their (cultural/racial) grievances.

  20. The one thing that really drives my wife crazy is when some commentator, after yet another hate crime/mass shooting/your recent event here, will piously say, “This isn’t who we are.”

    Yes, it is exactly who we are! Maybe not me and hopefully not you, but overall, just look at the history, dude. The list of names goes back way before Trayvon Martin, or even Emmitt Till, for that matter,

    If you voted for Trump, it is DEFINITELY you!

  21. Dr. Ken Hicks –

    Rick Pearlstein’s books are great. I esp. recommend the audiobook of the first one (on the Goldwater years) because the narrator is fantastic.

    However, they’re also infuriating because they show how, generation after generation, the Right pulls exactly the same shit.

  22. Sharp and astute as always, John. I love when you get political. I admit I would do further, and declare the US a fascist democracy. It’s not evenly distributed because our diversity is strength in the face of tyranny, but there is plenty of collusion between the wealthy capitalists and major swathes of the government.

    It’s a benign despotism for enough of “the right people” to evade as much scrutiny as it deserves, but occasionally we have to address the infection with some antiseptic. I guess we’re stuck with it though, for now.

  23. FDR’s New Deal

    I’ll just note that two of the most important parts of the New Deal — unemployment insurance and Social Security — deliberately excluded the vast majority of African-American workers.

  24. “I’ll just note that two of the most important parts of the New Deal — unemployment insurance and Social Security — deliberately excluded the vast majority of African-American workers.”

    Not only that, but modern US Nazism is not driven by “massive unemployment or poverty” either, contrary to commonly accepted beliefs.

    Look back at photos and videos from Trump rallies. Plenty of brand new trucks with expensive accessories. Probably millions of dollars worth of guns. Very few underfed or disenfranchised folks. Almost exclusively middle-income suburban racists, deplorables in comfortable, secure unionized jobs, enraged reactionaries, and the like. Some very wealthy individuals too.

    The myth of white folks voting Republican because they are poor and disenfranchised is just that – a myth. It provides a moral alibi for racist scumbags, and it unfairly paints poor whites as morons voting against their own interest. The sooner we can lay it to rest, the better.

  25. Non Americans from developed countries (myself among them) might argue that America as the land of the free and defender of equality & democracy has always only ever been branding. America talks the talk, is all.

    American has historically been the last on every social justice reform, has the most corrupt and backward election system of all democracies, and has a corporate oligarchy that Russia could only dream of.

    America does the right thing for equality and democracy eventually, but only begrudgingly and after everyone else has done it.

  26. I note that Canada has its own problems, similarly rooted in our own histories. Plural, by intent. From Macdonald’s Residential Schools to the Blue Shirts of Adrien Arcand to Mackenzie King’s bigotries…and we look at their would-be heirs today in several provincial legislatures from coast to coast.

  27. Teri Kanefield is great on this topic. I follow her on Twitter. She says (quoting others; it’s not her own idea) that a third of humanity through history has always been more comfortable with authoritarian governments. So it’s not just the U.S. Every culture through history has had authoritarian tendencies, fueled by that third of people who prefer to be told what to do or do the telling. It’s a constant battle against such tendencies. The war is never won.

  28. @Hillary Rettig: I agree absolutely that Nazis need to be fought.

    I’m still against the idea of punching Nazis. Because that’s doing Gingrich’s work for him.

    Gingrich and his ilk, as noted, have been working for decades to erode the norms of a democratic society. One of the really important norms is that you work to settle problems without violence.

    The Proud Boys and all the other Brownshirt wannabes have been itching to start pounding heads. Der Trumpenfuhrer has been pushing this since at least the 2016 campaign rally where he offered to pay the legal bills for anyone who punched out a protestor.

    One of the last things I want is to open the door even a crack to the idea that it’s acceptable to start punching your political enemies.

  29. I highly recommend the three volume series by Richard J. Evans, and the first book details a lot of what happened in Europe from the 19th century to the 1930s. The set up is largely different than in the US – as the saying goes history doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes – but there are some interesting parallels from 100 years ago to today. However while it’s important to stop authoritarianism in its tracks it’s also important not to make false comparisons. American society whether conservative or liberal is no where close to that barbaric time. Throwing around terms like fascist or communist is just masking real issues and preventing honest communication.

  30. Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” was written in 1935, while Hitler was rising and selling hatred but hadn’t yet started mass murder.

    President Buzz Windrip was a fairly Trumpian character; I haven’t read it in decades, so I don’t remember how much of the similarity was coincidental and how much was because both of them were doing what Fascists do.

  31. And of course the Klan made good fascist soldiers, whether under the 1800s Klan or the 1900s-2000s remake. Not as centralized as German fascists, because they had lots of splinter groups led by people who each wanted to be the Grand Imperial Dragon Wizard or whatever, but they’d still follow a Leader when one was around.

  32. “If you voted for Trump, it is DEFINITELY you!”

    And that’s the bottom line.

    And even now, in the aftermath of one of the worst terrorist attacks on our capitol in centuries and in the midst of increasing instences of racially motivated violence and Jim Crow-style voter suppression, we’ve got well-meaning non-conservative types wagging their fingers at the injured parties for lacking the “grace: to live and let hate.

    If the figurative you has benifited from a heart-to-heart with a hatemonger, that’s wonderful for you.

    If you happen to know a member of a marginalized group who has somehow benifited from extending grace and understanding to someone who either has or would like to harm them or theirs, that’s wonderful for you and for your friend.

    The problem begins when (and I hate, hate, hate to let fly with this right-wing phrase) virtue signaling enters the conversation.

    Similar to the “combat bad speech with good speech” argument/approach, the “turn the other cheek” argument/approach puts the onus on targets and lets their would-be attackers off the hook for their behavior.

    This is what happens when folks put pressure on others to expose their non-reddened cheeks to Trump supporters.

    When someone (and in this case, it happens to be tens of millions of someones) shows us who they are, we believe them.
    To do otherwise could mean our lives.

    Some of us don’t have the luxury of ignoring our eyes and ears.

    Pretending that we’re dealing with fringe elements or treating violent acts like outliers is not something certain folks can afford to do.

    It’s as dangerous as the cop’s assertion that the Atlanta shootings happened because the shooter had a “bad day.”

    The figurative you isn’t morally superior to anyone else because you’ve decided to go bi-partisanship and/or humanity hunting among the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers.

    Ultimately, it’s not just the “you” who voted for Trump, it’s also the “you” who would like everyone to ignore the implications of such a vote.

    It’s the “you” who, whether they intend to or not, handwave hate-crimes and other racially motivated abuses in order to try and bring about an America wherein ugly things get swept under the rug in the name of “moving forward” and “healing.”

    There is something very, very nasty brewing in this country, and while “rising above” it may put some people on higher ground, others will just have a longer fall and a more violent landing.

  33. I want to echo Travis Butler’s statement re: political violence. Absolutely bang on. Fight like hell, but fight smart.

  34. Fatman – Good point and worth remembering, but don’t forget that: (a) they’re not all rich, and (b) their goal is to build a mass movement, which I think will necessitate broadening their membership beyond the “rich conservative ahole” demographic.

    Also, they are benefiting from decades of decline in investment in community, infrastructure, education, etc. So even if poverty isn’t a cause, it’s a corrollary.

  35. Hey everyone, if you haven’t seen Look Who’s Back, I highly recommend it. It’s on the topic under discussion, and equal parts hysterical and chilling.

    Watch till the very last minute.

  36. @Rob in CT: Yeah, exactly – fight smart.

    Let’s face it, Stormtrooper wannabes are probably better at violence – they are and always have been bullies. Going violent is playing to their strengths on their turf.

    When we fight them, play to our strengths.

  37. American has historically been the last on every social justice reform,

    As an American, I’m repeatedly stunned by how remarkably racist Europeans can be and how completely unaware of it they are.

  38. @ Travis Butler:

    “Let’s face it, Stormtrooper wannabes are probably better at violence – they are and always have been bullies.”

    I would emphatically disagree with that.

    Stormtrooper wannabes, at least on the evidence presented thus far, are either obese white trash or pencil-necked incels. They were probably themselves the victims of bullying in the past, hence the ammosexuality and desire for strength in numbers.

    Exhibit A – the Limp Boys. Very effective at violence in a “mob against one” scenario, they typically get their behinds handed to them in a more balanced situation. Cue social media whining, “antifa milkshakes”, etc.

  39. @Fatman: They did a good enough job on January 6, didn’t they?

    Sure, you’ve got a lot of them that are more interested in whining and putting on a display, and have all the athletic ability of a wet noodle. But there are more than enough of the other kind to worry me – the George Zimmermans and Dylan Roofs and Kyle Rittenhouses and Atlanta Spa shooters.

  40. This is why I keep visiting,
    I find John Scalzi’s commentary insightful, and acerbic in equal measure.

  41. Travis Butler –

    I understand your viewpoint – violence is abhorrent. But did you even read my comment? It took violent pushback – not passive resistance or civil disobedience – to defeat the Nazis. Those who tried the last two approaches mostly failed and died.

    I don’t think the historical record supports the nonviolent approach. Three more examples:

    *toward the lead up to the Civil War, even the committed pacifist William Lloyd Garrison eventually supported John Brown, because he saw that appealing to the conscience of slave owners (which he had been doing for decades) wasn’t accomplishing much. Historians now believe that when Brown shot the slave owners at Harper’s Ferry, he freaked out the south so much – shook up its essential sense of safety and security – that he accelerated the war that was necessary to free the slaves. (It started a year later, and it, too, of course, was violent.)

    *I have a friend from South Africa who was active in the anti-apartheid movement. She says that she and some of the other activists who started out as idolizing and espousing Gandhi’s nonviolence (satyagraha) but eventually moved on to Saint Augustine’s doctrine of a “just war.”

    *Some of the US Civil Rights workers are on record as saying that the only reason the federal government worked with the nonviolent wing of the movement (MLK, etc.) was because they were afraid of the threat of the violent wing (Malcolm X, Black Panthers, etc.)

    I could list other examples. (e.g., Indian independence, which also despite the major influence of Gandhi had its violent aspects.)

    As I said, violence is abhorrent. But not to use it to save innocent and vulnerable lives might be construed as an abdication. I feel it’s important to get clear on these things.

    Also, destroying fascist property should be a no-brainer. Someone should have bombed the damned train tracks to Auschwitz.

    If you have historical examples of a different approach working I’d be glad to hear them. For years, for instance, Germany has been working on “denazification” but the number of Nazis is rising there, too.

  42. Okay, so the quibble with facism is that American authoritarians don’t want a centrally managed economy. But they are certainly anti-democratic. They want the power the Nazis had, and some of the trappings, but not the economics. But yes, it’s a quibble.

    The Republicans have recently given up even the pretense of democracy. They suppress voters because they are a minority, and have mostly given up on alleging fraud. It’s rule by the right kind of people: Mostly white, mostly male, mostly Protestant, and entirely selfish.

  43. @Hillary: I think you missed the part where I said ‘political enemies’. Though I didn’t specify I meant domestic enemies, so that’s on me. Most of the time, when I see ‘punching Nazis’, it’s a reference to Richard Spencer and not Captain America, so I was assuming that domestic context.

    I’m absolutely not a pacifist, and I absolutely believe in military intervention when it’s necessary. But it should be performed by the government and subject to democratic checks on the use of force – both for a morality check that what we’re doing is justified, and a sanity/reality check to try and make sure we aren’t making things worse. (c.f. Iraq 2003, to name just one example.)

    This is true on a domestic level as well as an international one. If you allow individuals to go on violent crusades to ‘fix’ what they see as wrong, you get George Zimmerman or Kyle Rittenhouse. Or lynch mobs in the Deep South. Or the January 6 Capitol riots.

    That’s why I think one of the most important norms of a democratic society is that when you are dealing with people inside that society, violence by private individuals is not allowed. That’s why we have laws against assault and vigilante “justice”. Force needs to be subjected to democratic constraints.

    The lid on that cauldron is too shaky already, as shown by the prior examples and many more. We should be working harder to keep it on, not lifting it up to peek inside.

  44. Violence is not the last refuge of the incompetent. It is the last refuge — and I really mean last, after all other rational possibilities have been explored — of competent people who thoroughly understand both its operation and its price. And notice the plural “people” in there, and the implied organization.

    That’s why “punching Nazis” is inappropriate. “Punching Nazis” is impulsive, opportunistic, and individual; it almost always assumes that there’s little personal risk to the puncher. (Whether that absence of risk is due to the number of like-minded cohorts around the puncher or some Shield of Righteousness™ is for another time.) Too, “punching Nazis” is frequently just a substitute for “punching Commies” and “punching Jews.”

    Besides which, subversion is much more effective in the long run when the prospective puncher is outnumbered. And more fun. Plus it doesn’t get any blood on one’s clothing.

    (There should be a sarcasm tag somewhere in there. I was a uniformed element of the conference-room furniture on more than one occasion under Ronald I and George II in particular; I know what fascists look like, even if Article 88 of the UCMJ kept me from saying anything about it at the time.)

  45. I can’t help but wonder how late in the 20th Century our querent was born that this was a surprise. I was shown The Wave at least twice in school after it was originally released. (Though it now occurs to me to wonder if that was due to being geographically close to the event upon which it was based… Perhaps our host can speak to its presence or lack of same in 1980s Southern Californian curricula? Any other GenXers remember seeing it in class?)

  46. Thank you, John, for one of your best essays ever.

    My parents grew up in (and ultimately fled from) the Weimar Republic. They didn’t meet until during WW2, when both of them worked in the OWI (Office of War Information), writing German-language propaganda to be broadcast to German troops and into the Third Reich–so they knew something about propaganda and the media by which it was, and is…um…propagated. I miss them, but I’m glad they’re not here to witness the descent of their adopted, and beloved, country into the same morass they fled in the 1930s.

    A point they made to me (and one that’s been widely written about by others) is that the whole Nazi propaganda machine was unashamedly modeled after American branding, advertising, and media. Josef Goebbels, its boss, studied, emulated, and admired Madison Avenue advertising (and made no secret of that admiration).

    Our country has now become vastly more media-driven (and media-addicted) than either the USA or Germany of the 1930s. It is now much, much easier for an ever smaller number of people to demand (and often command) the often uncritical attention of an ever larger cultural and political base.

    What can be done? Frankly, I don’t have any ideas, beyond perhaps finding ways to encourage both civil discourse–good luck, there–and critical thinking–good luck there, too. Education, obviously–but in the current climate, even that has gotten something of a bad name in some quarters.

    I never thought I’d be grateful that I’m old enough to be (I hope) safely in the grave before it gets all too much worse…but we owe it to our children and grandchildren to do everything we can, and more, to try and reverse this trend.

  47. Accidently hit submit before remarking that this person, in doing this interview, has compromised the prosecution efforts of those bent on bringing insurrectionists to justice.

    The implications of such a monkey wrench can’t be ignored.

  48. John, I consider you akin to a pretty good big box restaurant. Reliably tasty and prolific. Occasionally you pop out a 3 star Michelin post, though.

    This is one of those times.

    I am going to steal this bit, and probably will not credit you for the recipe. Apologies in advance. It is too good to not reuse.

    “Fascism” is a brand. Authoritarianism is the substance inside the can. The United States has had all of the ingredients for authoritarianism as long as it’s existed, and we make a fresh batch of it whenever we feel like it.”

    That is some good juju.

  49. @ Travis:

    “@Fatman: They did a good enough job on January 6, didn’t they?”

    I mean, if a crowd of a few thousand overrunning a handful of campus cops (many of whom stepped aside) is “good enough”, yes.

    Compare and contrast with their cowering in holes during the Biden inauguration, when actual security was deployed.

    Not that I would ever endorse punching. Punching is actually very dangerous and not terribly effective (metacarpal injuries happen even to the most seasoned of boxers).

    @ tc>:

    “Okay, so the quibble with facism is that American authoritarians don’t want a centrally managed economy.”

    Oh, no. They absolutely want a centrally managed economy – they just want to be the ones doing the managing.

    Individual freedoms and free markets are only for the correct sort of people. Vide: libertarianism.

  50. John, thank you for hitting the nail on the head.
    There were many Germans who were very polite to their Jewish neighbors, and smiled when the Gestapo dragged them away.
    There is no excuse for voting R, anyone who does at this point is a fascist, period. We should have no friends and no contact with anyone who is a fascist.
    Recently, a Chinese representative dressed down Antony Blinken on America’s civil rights violations, Blinken later admitted that he was right. America has no room to lecture anyone on human rights, including Germany who cleaned up their act.
    As for violence. The right wing has already committed violence to pursue their ends with no consequences. How long are we going to go online and merely pontificate?

  51. a Chinese representative dressed down Antony Blinken on America’s civil rights violations

    Uh, recognizing American failures does not require us to overlook the horrific things going on in China with, eg, the Uyghurs.

    They did a good enough job on January 6, didn’t they?”

    Actually, they did a terrible job on January 6. If all of those people at the Capitol had had guns and used them, we would have likely witnessed a successful coup, rather than an unsuccessful one.

  52. Trump was/is the result of decades of movement toward authoritarianism in the GOP. We were spared the worst, this time, because he was lazy, fairly stupid, and incompetent at turning the government. Next time it could be someone smarter and more competent who comes to power. Will we recognize the danger then?

  53. @ Hillary Rettig:
    ” the essential bottom line is to speak up”

    We must of course speak up. At every occasion. But let’s not kid ourselves: discussion with fascists and fascist-fellow-travelers is futile. We must speak up on the extremely rare chance the a unicorn is listening – that is to say, someone apt to be persuaded.

    The only way to “manage” fascists is to crush them in election after election, until they die of old age.
    They know this, so they’re working industriously to prevent us from voting.

  54. Hey Travis – thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    But it should be performed by the government and subject to democratic checks on the use of force – both for a morality check that what we’re doing is justified, and a sanity/reality check to try and make sure we aren’t making things worse. (c.f. Iraq 2003, to name just one example.)

    But in every single example I mentioned, the government was either not protecting the citizens from fascism, or was fascist itself.

    If we rely on the govt it has to take prompt, early, decisive action against fascists. So my follow-up question what if they don’t? Or worse, what if they aid and abet?

  55. Looking at Modhi in India and Boris in England, with a horrified glance at Hungary and points east and southeast-

    There is no mystical tide of authoritarianism, but conditions appear to be favorable for the enemies of freedom. (Since I’m an old weatherman, I’ll just shorten this to “Cloudy with a good chance of Evil”).

    Serious question – what is the key ingredient? The loss of personal memories of horror as those who lived through WWII die off? “Economic Anxiety?” Or is it better to think of Fascism/Feudalism as a default setting that a large part of humanity temporarily threw off?

  56. “Actually, they did a terrible job on January 6. If all of those people at the Capitol had had guns and used them, we would have likely witnessed a successful coup, rather than an unsuccessful one.”

    Well, yes, of the half a dozen people killed that day, most of them were the insurrectionists themselves.

    Still, the injuries to dozens of capitol police and their successful entry should give people pause.

    They have a rather vocal and powerful cheering section in congress and in right-wing media and have made it very clear that Jan 6th was just a dry run.

    Next time, they will have guns.

    Hell, the lone wolves already do and are making their…voices heard on particularly “bad [days].”

    I think it’s critical that we not take the Ron Johnson approach when discussing the Jan 6 attack.

  57. @Mary Miller:

    And this is what keeps me up at night.

    My fear is that we’ll spend so much time highlighting the loudest among them (Marjory Taylor Green, Andi Biggs, Jim Jordan, Ron Johnson, Ted Cruz, Lauren Boebert, Josh Hawley etc.) that the smarter, more sociopolitically savvy version of Trump will creep in under our radar.

    Stephen Miller, for example, hosts my nightmares.

  58. @Hillary: I think we’re still failing to connect here.

    The whole thing is predicated on the norms of a democratic society, as I’ve stated over and over. If you’re not living in a democratic society, those norms don’t apply.

    If you are living in a democratic society – governmental authority resting on the consent and participation of the governed, elections, rule of law, etc. – it’s kinda important to keep it that way. So you use the tools of a democratic society.

    Vote, and vote always. If you don’t like the candidates, then vote for the one you hate least, and go to work at the grassroots to get better candidates nominated for the next time around. Vote for local races – they’re the farm team for state and national candidates. In the US, vote for state races – state legislatures control redistricting, and they set the election procedures. Remember to vote downticket – even if the top-ticket person you supported won their race, they won’t be able to accomplish much without support from like-minded elected officials. Get the people you want in power.

    Get your viewpoint out there, and work to get it accepted. Join or form like-minded groups to get your message out – protests, email campaigns, billboards, social media action, whatever. This is important for several reasons:

    It’s key to getting the people you want elected.

    It puts pressure on the elected officials to follow the policies you want. (If a large majority of people contacting a Representative want Policy A, that Representative is going to follow Policy A if they want to be re-elected, taking the cynical point of view.)

    Spreading your viewpoint works on a social level. Social norms reinforced by social pressure are real things; I’m still astonished at how quickly gay marriage was accepted by the public-at-large – the backlash is mean, nasty, and vocal, but it’s still a minority according to every survey I’ve seen. I never expected to see that in my lifetime.

    What if the government doesn’t take action against fascists? Then we make it take action. Organize! Put together groups of supporters too large for elected officials to ignore. Fight the battle of public opinion, and win. Play the long game and the deep game.

    The fascists/reactionaries have been playing the long game and the deep game. Putting their candidates in school board elections to control the curriculum. Getting control of state legislatures, both to control state policy and to control election procedures and redistricting during the next census. Using that control as leverage to influence Congress. Putting together a slate of judicial appointments that will be favorable to their beliefs.

    Fighting that agenda will require at least as much time and work as they put in. But it is doable.

  59. Never forget that fascism is attractive.

    Fascism: I sometimes fear…

    I sometimes fear that
    people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
    worn by grotesques and monsters
    as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

    Fascism arrives as your friend.
    It will restore your honour,
    make you feel proud,
    protect your house,
    give you a job,
    clean up the neighbourhood,
    remind you of how great you once were,
    clear out the venal and the corrupt,
    remove anything you feel is unlike you…

    It doesn’t walk in saying,
    “Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

    Michael Rosen


  60. Hey Travis –

    Nothing I wrote disallows grassroots activism – in fact, I wrote a book on that. :D (Although in my above comments, it’s true that I was focusing on the single tactic of violence, basically arguing that it should be part of the mix.)

    But I do think you’re victim-blaming some, and trivializing how hard social change is, especially in a society that has consolidated power the way ours has. A lot of times you work your heart out, only to have it undercut by some shady backroom dealings.

    All of which is probably why we see riots (“the voice of the unheard,” according to MLK, not, “the voice of those too lazy to take grassroots action.”) And why violence is sometimes necessary.

    Also, violence against the powerless and disenfranchised /= violence against the oppressing powerful.

    On a less apocalyptic note, I’m working right now to try to get some local ordinances changed, and there’s also a lot of vagueness and lack of accountability in the system. Which makes it hard to effect change no matter how hard you work. (Esp. if you’re doing it all volunteer / pro bono, and the opposition is well funded.)

    Peace! Enjoying the dialogue.

  61. @ Doire I get what you are saying here. But we must constantly remind everyone, that the “old days” were horrible. We live in much better days today, diversity has only made our neighborhoods better.
    We must strive to move forward.

  62. “We must strive to move forward.”

    1000, and as we do, there must be accountability every. single. time there is an attempt to drag us back to the bad ole days.

  63. It seems to me that before fascists ask people to play the game of scapegoating and supremacy, they first get the crowd in the mood by getting them riled up.

    Therefore, one of the ways to avoid cheerleading for fascism includes (but is not limited to) responsible use of social media.

    One of my dear friends, with a university degree, believes in elevating social media over traditional “journalism ethics” media. At last I am getting more courageous at hurting her feelings by pointing out that social media that is not verified by ethical media is not to be trusted.

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