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.