American Fascism: No Longer Misleading

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Pastors pray with Trump in Nevada, October 2016 (Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP)

W.J. Astore

Five years ago, I wrote an article to suggest “American fascism” was a misleading concept.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism: 

“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.”

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

Here we are, in 2018, and the idea of American fascism no longer seems as misleading as it did to me in 2013.  For his followers, Donald Trump is a messiah-like dictator.  There’s even a movie making the rounds (“The Trump Prophecy“) about how Trump’s election in 2016 was an act of God.  Meanwhile, the American justice system is increasingly partisan, increasingly captive to the political right, even as it remains favorably predisposed to the powerful.  Our votes are increasingly suppressed: polling stations are closed in minority neighborhoods; onerous voter ID laws work to restrict voting by the “wrong” kind of people; early voting is being curtailed; voting rolls are being purged; and gerrymandering is widespread.  All of these steps are designed to protect one party in particular: the Republican.

To return to Paxton’s definition in the light of 2018:  Trump ran on a platform of American decline.  He sees himself and his followers as victims; nationalist militarism is growing in popularity; democratic liberties are being eroded (whoever thought children would be separated from parents at the border and put into what are effectively concentration camps?).

Ethical and legal restraints still exist on the worst of this behavior, but for how long?

Fascism, Norman Mailer wrote, is “a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”  Nowadays we call these lies “fake news” or “alternative facts.”  Whatever you call them, they feed what Mailer called “an insidious, insipid sickness” in society that “demands a violent far-reaching purgative.”

That’s where all of Trump’s lies may be leading us: to violent purges internally and violent surges externally.  It’s a grim vision, one that no longer seems as far-fetched to me as it did in 2013.

14 thoughts on “American Fascism: No Longer Misleading

  1. Well put.

    Something that always worries me about faith in formal legal restraints – so say Trump does something absolutely, obviously, overtly against the Constitution. Declares an election he loses invalid or whatever. What happens then? Who physically steps up to stop a President who abuses power, while declaring that it is his Constitutional right to do so? Who physically goes into the Oval Office to eject/arrest him? Where do they put him?

    There still exists, among wise and educated Americans, an interesting assumption: That if you walk up to DJT and hand him an official, legal letter saying he is no longer President any more, he’ll just shrug and head back to his tower New York City.

    I’m not sure the apocalyptic rhetoric his people have adopted allows that. Isn’t the first, essential rule of a successful con-man to never admit the existence of the con? Would Trump initiate a domestic conflict if he thought it served his interests, would keep him in power? And if he did, who would stand in his way?

    I for one hold out hope that the military would refuse any order that might bring it into conflict with American citizens. I also suspect that the average American (even hardcore right-wingers) is frankly too lazy to actually engage in political violence. I think part of Trump’s essential ‘deal’ with his backers is that they can just leave the politics to him, and go about their lives.

    Militias though, and other hardcore elements, do worry me. If they start to act as an unofficial wing of the Trumpist movement, then you have a recipe for the kind of violence that so often accompanies fascism.

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  2. Chris Hedges has written an excellent book on this subject: American Fascists – the Christian Right and the War on America (2006). In a recent series of interviews on the Jimmy Dore youtube show (October 16, 2018), Late Stage Capitalism Is Killing America w/Chris Hedges (part 3) he said of even worse things waiting in the wings than just the shamelessly exploitative, boorish oligarch Donald Trump:

    “[Vice President Mike Pence] comes out of our most authentically fascist movement, which is the Christian right. And I speak as a seminary graduate. I’m not a new atheist. And they are fascist. You don’t have to go to Harvard Divinity School as I did to figure out that Jesus didn’t come to make you rich. Jesus did not fuse the language and iconography of the state with that of religion in order to sacralize imperialism and capitalism. And of course, it’s a form of magical thinking. It’s Magic Jesus: There’s nothing wrong with the system. I’ve just got to believe more and give more money to my mega-church pastor whose already a multi-millionaire for ‘seed faith’ and a prayer cloth and then Jesus will come down and I’ll be rich, too.”

    Looking at the above picture showing those “religious” fakers “laying hands” on the dissolute Donald Trump, reminded me of some verse I composed twelve years ago after reading Mr Hedges’ fine book, along with another by Kevin Phillips, entitled American Theocracy – the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006):

    Left Behind by Jesus

    Jesus loves the rich, you know
    Ask them, they will tell you so

    Help the poor? Why that’s a crime!
    Best to work them overtime

    Off the books, though, lest they say
    That you owe them extra pay

    Jesus loves those tax cuts, too
    Just for some, though, not for you

    See a poor kid that’s a clerk?
    Send him to Iraq to work

    Jesus loves the army, see?
    Just the place for you and me

    Not the rich, though, they don’t serve
    What a thought! What perfect nerve!

    If you think this life’s a pain
    Wait till Jesus comes again

    Then on Armageddon Day
    He will take the rich away

    Sure, you thought that you’d go, too,
    Not that you’d get one last screw

    Just like your retirement
    That the rich already spent

    Jesus with the winners goes
    Losers, though, just get the hose

    What on earth would make you think
    That your Lord’s shit doesn’t stink?

    After all he left you here
    With the rich, so never fear

    They’ll upon your poor life piss
    In the next life and in this

    Jesus loves the rich, so there!
    Don’t complain it isn’t fair

    Jesus said to help themselves
    Then he’d help them stock their shelves

    So they did and he did, too
    What has this to do with you?

    Jesus loves the rich just fine
    Why’d you think he pours their wine?

    Jesus votes Republican
    Ask them: they’ll say “He’s the One!”

    Still a few loose coins around
    That the rich have not yet found

    Gotta go now, never mind
    If you end up left behind

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

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      1. I’ll have to give that, some thought, Bill. In the meantime, I have another verse composition that I mostly wrote at about the same time as the above: this one as part of my epic narrative poem, Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave:

        Boobie Theology

        The Christians, Jews, and Muslims found
        A way to test their wits
        These Boobies hung themselves on poles
        Or threw themselves in pits
        To slash and stab and stone themselves
        In atavistic fits

        Domestic quarrels such as these
        Have seldom led to peace
        But only to more arguments
        Which somehow never cease
        Until divorce brings happiness
        Or martyrdom’s release

        The concept of the single “gawd”
        Leaves little more to mock
        Yet charlatans consider it
        Their tawdry trade and stock:
        No worse idea ever crept
        From underneath a rock

        The dabbler in theology
        Ties thinking up in knots
        And ends up “proving” theories with
        Those Rorschach ink-stain blots
        A schizophrenic exercise
        In complicating plots

        Mistaking recrudescence for
        “Awakening” sublime
        The Boobie brain has failed so let’s
        Just stumble back in time
        And live two thousand years ago
        In darkness, plague, and grime

        The priests and kings would love it, though.
        They always have and will.
        If science hadn’t come along,
        We’d live in darkness still
        Enslaved to kings and priests intent
        On feeding us their swill

        The frightened ones need pity but
        That doesn’t make them king
        With autocratic power to
        Dictate the tune we sing
        The choir has many voices and
        Each one deserves to ring

        So let us hear no more of “spooks”
        Somewhere “up in the sky”
        Not singular, not plural, not
        A girl and not a guy;
        And certainly not “sacred” which
        Means only: Don’t ask “why?”

        Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2006-2017

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  3. An article in the New York Times, April 9, 1944, by Henry A. Wallace VP of the USA.
    What is a fascist?
    A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.

    The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.

    If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States.

    American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguer.

    But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice.

    The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy.
    https://truthout.org/articles/the-dangers-of-american-fascism/
    ***************************************************
    Given the above President Agent Orange has all the characteristics VP Wallace noted. He has without a doubt poisoned the channels of public information. As Wallace wrote: “With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.”

    Prejudice never was extinguished in America, it went underground and was whispered. President Agent Orange has provided his followers with a loud voice and in turn made civility a weakness.

    I suspect one reason President Agent Orange has went easy on Saudi Arabia is the possibility of Saudi money helping to keep him financially afloat one way or another.

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    1. We’re finding out how hard it is to keep a democracy when our leaders prefer lies to truth and power to principle. So we have climate change as a hoax, the Chinese as intervening in our elections against Trump, the media as the enemy of the people, the Democrats as a mob out to devastate and destroy America, and so on.

      Reality is being killed as it’s smothered by lies, and a new reality is being created that favors fascism. That may be Trump’s largest legacy, along with setting the planet up for failure by dismissing climate change.

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      1. Life is strange, WJAstore. Just weeks before your post on fascism, I was clowning around on the internet and found a YouTube entitled: “Ten reasons why Hitler was an idiot”. You probably know most of them; Operation Barbarosa, his cancelling of jet engines for fighters, etc. Most fascinating to me though, which few above have touched on, is what I call a “Fascist Mentality”. It can show up in a priest or important CEO; well respected in the community, but “something’s wrong” with them.
        History tells us the 2 most infamous fascists, Hitler & Mussolini, had outrageous tempers, never took responsibility for their own mistakes, searched for a fall guy instead of correcting the problem, may it be social or military. In short, wasted time.
        Many of your commenters bring up money & riches as a goal of fascists, but with the exception Goering, I don’t think that was, or is, the ultimate goal.
        It is power & control over other human beings, regardless of colour or religion. So with that in mind, British and European aristocrats and nobility have just as much to answer for as starving Germans after WWI.

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        1. Power and control is EXACTLY it. We all live, wherever we are, ‘claimed’ by a State. A social entity that persists by successfully claiming for itself the “right” to use violence against anyone within territory it controls. Elites, those with disproportionate access to mechanisms of power within a hierarchical organization like a State, invest time and energy in controlling these mechanisms to secure their petty interests.

          Sociopathic con-men like Trump and Mussolini and Hitler are drawn to the State like moths to flame. It represents a vehicle that, if they can seize control, allows them to pursue their own particular interests like any other Elite. Glory and wealth and all that are part of the package, but power is the true objective, because power often precedes both wealth and glory.

          Trump doesn’t believe in anything other than what makes him feel special. Same as Hitler. Their type seeks power and control because the end is self-justifying. There’s something – relative to the rest of us – fundamentally broken in their ego, that makes them unwilling or incapable of accepting the reality of other people’s personal experiences. Other people exist to be their tools, and they change allegiances at the drop of a hat. Note how both went through alliances and staff at a prodigious rate – before settling on a group of yes-men who were more interested in fighting other Elites over access to the Fuhrer (whichever one).

          As far as I’m concerned, Trump is Hitler with an American paint job. They are of the same type. Opportunistic, combative, self-obsessed, fond of denigrating opponents. When they speak to their supporters, you can SEE the palpable connection between authoritarian and audience. The Trump/Hitler type seeks to make a personal connection to a given audience by speaking their ‘language’, in a way that lets them in on the ‘joke’, so to speak. Part of why Trump likes rallies and Twitter is that both are conducive to this sort of performance. Plus, it lets him bypass the mainstream media’s filters, and make their tendency to represent an extremely limited set of perspectives another weapon in his narrative arsenal.

          There’s an annoying tendency in our society to speak of Hitler as if he’s unique – he’s not, and never was. Racial nationalism is like a dormant infection in Western Civilization. It emerges at times of structural instability, and can rapidly take on a life of its own if not swiftly opposed. Unfortunately, the mass of white suburban Americans who can’t perceive that their way of living isn’t universal, that no god or hero is standing by to intervene, are failing to recognize the magnitude of the threat to America – and the world.

          Somehow, humanity – well, America at least – has evolved such that our version of Hitler has at his personal disposal thousands of nuclear weapons. Hitler with nukes is basically humanity’s nightmare. And we’re living it!

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  4. I have lived overseas since 2010 and seen what the “war on terror” has wrought. Instead of a war on illegitimacy, a war on idiocy or a war on bad food, we had a war on terror. Now we have created a huge terror network and sanctified state terrorism. Of course the chickens come home to roost. There has always been a left and a right in politics. Maybe the issue is who we are a spiritual beings. Maybe that is the place to start. Maybe our interpretation of the gospel. Maybe it’s the hidden agenda which is sneaking up on just people minding their own business. Maybe the people creating extremist events should be stopped. We have empowered gays, minorities and so forth but not figured out what it is that our country does, and how we are who we are; it finally dawned on me that the real problem is empowerment. We have people waiting for jobs; we have people interested in getting hired. We don’t have enough people starting new businesses because entire segments of the population simply are not trained to a competent level to conduct business affairs in an appropriate manner; that is why they need to be hired. Our country must take training people seriously–then we would have real opportunities not just crummy jobs.

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  5. Hitler called upon all Germans to support his fascism, while picking out helpless minorities (Jews, the handicapped, etc.) as targets for the wrath of the vast majority. What is strange to me in modern America is that the hard right is not by any means the majority of Americans and under the call for liberty we are throwing out our philosophical inheritance.

    When libertarians call for everyone to be armed, it is a rejection of society and a return to the idea of all against all. Far from this being something to leave behind as barbaric, it is thought to be the highest good with each individual deciding unilaterally what is a threat to him/her and acting on it, Stand Your Ground actually putting it into law.

    It is exactly this problem of each deciding on his own what is a threat that bothered Thomas Hobbes and many others back in the 1600’s, 400 years ago. The solution (Hobbes’ Leviathan) was felt to be the voluntary surrender of this dangerously risky individual right by all individuals collectively to a sovereign who would decide on whether or not a threat to any individual existed, removing the passion that clouds the minds of every one of us when we feel under threat. Hence come the laws and the police and the end of pre-emptive attack on one’s fellow man. Hence comes innocent until proven guilty. It could only come about with the trust that each person would place in authority in the hope of greater security and a life without need for personal arms….in other words domestic tranquility.

    The gun movement is anti-social, not just a bizarre concept for making America great again, but of throwing the whole concept of Western civilization away, estranging every individual from every other to make each person judge and executioner.

    How can anyone not see this? Why is not a single word said about this? Is it possible that nobody in the media is even aware of what took place in the antecedent culture of Europe that America’s founders hoped to build upon? To me this is the perfect example of how ignorance of history dooms people to repeating it. A gun for everyone is the recipe for lives that are nasty, brutish and short and fear of the other rules going out in public. It is the characteristic irrationality of the ignorant who in their rage and feeling of impotence yearn to throw a wrench into the works, Trump being that wrench.

    For the sake of America, let’s show the man in oval office what we, the majority, think of him on November 6. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.

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  6. Whenever the subject of Fascism arises, I always refer back to the following two paragraphs from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

    “… It greatly confuses the issue to assume … that social status is determined solely by income. Economically, no doubt, there are only two classes, the rich and the poor, but socially there is a whole hierarchy of classes, and the manners and traditions learned by each class in childhood are not only very different but – and this is the essential point – generally persist from birth to death [emphasis added]. Hence the anomalous individuals that you find in every class of society. … you find petty shopkeepers whose income is far lower than that of the bricklayer and who, nevertheless, consider themselves (and are considered) the bricklayer’s social superiors; you find board-school boys running Indian provinces and public school men touting vacuum cleaners. If social stratification corresponded precisely to economic stratification, the public-school man would assume a cockney accent the day his income dropped below £200 a year. But does he? On the contrary, he immediately becomes twenty times more Public School than before. He clings [emphasis added] to the Old School Tie as to a life-line. And even the [“H”-less] millionaire, though sometimes he goes to an elocutionist and learns a B.B.C accent, seldom succeeds in disguising himself as completely as he would like to. It is in fact very difficult to escape from the class into which you have been born [emphasis added].

    As prosperity declines, social anomalies grow commoner. You don’t get more [“H”-less] millionaires, but you do get more and more public-school men touting vacuum cleaners and more and more small shopkeepers driven into the workhouse. Large sections of the middle class are being gradually proletarianized; but the important point is that they do not, at any rate in the first generation, adopt the proletarian outlook. Here am I, for instance, with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. Which class do I belong to? Economically, I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie. And supposing I had to take sides, whom should I side with: the upper class which is trying to squeeze me out of existence, or the working class whose manners are not my manners? It is probable that I personally would side with the working class. But what about the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who are in approximately the same position? And what about that far larger class, running into millions this time – the office-workers and the black-coated employees of all kinds – whose traditions are less definitely middle class but who certainly would not thank you if you called them proletarians? All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realize it? When the pinch came nearly all of them would side with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies. It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready made Fascist Party. [emphasis added]

    Hard not to have Fascism when squeezing the middle and working classes economically downward results in them reliably turning on those even worse off than themselves; those with perhaps a different skin color or religion or accent; those with whom they ought to combine forces in their joint self-interest against the parasitic corporate oligarchy ruthlessly pressing down on them from above. Instead, the sliced-and-diced social demographics reliably vote the One Percent’s plantation overseers (the two right-wing political factions of the Property Party) into even more power so that they might further enrich the tiny transnational cabal of vampire parasites who own and operate national “governments” like McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. As with so much else that he wrote, George Orwell got right to the heart of the matter — the perversity of human societies.

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  7. Michael Murry, I have Black next door neighbor, who like me is a retired Boomer. He worked in the aero-space industry a union man here in central Indiana. He helped break the color barrier. He has told me stories of finding racist graffiti and even nooses hung in the rest rooms, where he worked. His anger is still evident all these years later.

    We have both concluded that the clever part to slavery and Jim Crow, was that no matter how low the white proles were economically, socially and culturally, the “system” guaranteed that racially they were a step above any others including Native Americans, Asians, Blacks or Hispanics.

    A few years ago I read a book, Don’t Make No Waves – Don’t Back No Losers by Milt Rakove about Mayor Daley the elder and the Chicago Machine. A part of his book mentioned the vetting process. which selected candidates and appointees to political office. A racially diverse group of candidates could be selected but they had to understand the “establishment”, i.e., corporate America had to be protected from progressive or radical ideas.

    I had my doubts about Obama before he was elected. Obama was not going to be a Progressive by any means. Obama would be the articulate version of Bush the Younger. Obama and his appointees spent 8 years making certain Wall Street could continue their Steroid Capitalist course.

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  8. Leaving no doubt that violence against the press in the USA has President Agent Orange’s approval we have this from a rally in Missoula, MT.:

    “We endorsed Greg very early. But I heard that he body-slammed a reporter. This was the day of the election or just before, and I thought ‘Oh, this is terrible! He’s going to lose the election.’”

    Trump continued: “And then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him.’ And it did.”

    The line prompted another massive cheer from the Montana crowd.

    The US president finished his account of the physical assault by saying of Gianforte: “He’s a great guy. Tough cookie.”
    ******************************
    Coming on the heels of the likely Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi and President Agent Orange’s attempt to provide cover for the Saudi’s, can we now expect some armed and dangerous Trumpter’s threatening our Media here???

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    1. I’ve done a little research on “victim” Jamal Khashoggi, and find out he (wasn’t) the great Western Media champion claimed him to be. (In Arabic he was a great supporter of Palestinians!) Rest In Pieces; you also liked bribes – from both sides. So I doubt Agent Orange will be too hard on our already flaccid press. (Where’s ‘Stormy’ when we need her?)
      Bone saws & black cars aside, I predict today the Dems will win in November. The “Deplorable’s” who had so much hope in AO have been bitterly let down. He just used them: cares more about murderers & money, as does our Congress.
      Now is coming the cynically funny part: They’re still alive, but have to face facts they’re practically all on Israeli & Saudi payoffs. Our enormous subsidies to Israel & oil contracts with SA have made them rich, but impoverished Americans.
      So it doesn’t matter; Dems or Reps. WE WANT OUR COUNTRY BACK! Making shoes or repairing them, etc. The Dems may win, but they better PRODUCE improvement!

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