In “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” Yale professor of philosophy Jason Stanley explains the mechanics, strategies and tactics within fascism. In America, labeling a group or a person as “fascist” is typically considered an overreaction. America is the strongest democracy in the world, and fascism could never happen here! Stanley explains otherwise.
According to Stanley, fascist politics includes rhetoric that “encourages fear and anger as a means to foment ethnic and religious division.” The goal is to target ideological enemies and remove restraints in combating them. Fascism dehumanizes segments of the population, trying to reduce empathy and justify inhumane treatment of them. Truth, civility and decency cease to matter. The goal is to turn rhetoric into reality. Fascist politics works to create or solidify ethnic, religious or racial distinctions. Fascism uses crises as anti-democratic opportunities.
Fascist politicians typically come to power through a democratic election, but after being elected, the new leader rules society absolutely, demanding loyalty to him and to his ethnic identity. This authoritarian leader speaks on behalf of the country and aims to separate society into “us” versus “them.”
“We” are everything virtuous. We are the makers: hardworking, industrious and exceptional. “They” are lazy, exploiting government handouts; they are the takers. They are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted. They take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. They believe in liberalism and social justice, both of which will destroy our culture.
Fascist politics includes many strategies, including the creation of a mythical past. This mythical past includes purity of religion, race and/or culture. It was a time of glory, lost due to “humiliation brought on by globalism and liberal cosmopolitanism.” Values such as equality made the nation weak. Inventing a glorious past requires deleting inconvenient realities. Past sins are erased. History is cherry-picked.
Propaganda is an important tool of fascist politics. “Political propaganda uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends,” Stanley writes. The term “draining the swamp” is a common theme in fascist movements; the false charges of corruption hide that the party is, at the same time, engaging in even greater corruption. Propaganda works best when confined to a few points brought out in slogans and simple language. It generates anger and resentment and gets people to the polls.
Anti-intellectualism is a common theme of fascist politicians, who attack and devalue education and expertise to undermine public discourse. They denounce teaching perspectives that don’t fully support their culture. On his radio program, Rush Limbaugh once famously stated, “The four corners of deceit are government, academia, science and media,” and he continued, “Science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists.” Fascist leaders are “men of action” with no use for deliberation or consultation. Hmmm.
Stanley writes that “unreality” is an important fascist goal — to cast reality into doubt. In that state, what is true cannot be agreed upon. The goal is to break down reality and remove the ability to assess arguments by a common standard. Reasoned debate is replaced by fear and anger. According to Stanley, “regular and repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space.” A common tactic is the use of conspiracy theories, which work to denigrate, delegitimize, impugn and malign their targets, to raise suspicion about credibility and decency. Conspiracy theories are the calling card of fascists, and help them delegitimize mainstream media. Reasoned debate is impossible when one side is basing their beliefs on conspiracy theories. Use of coded language becomes common. Dramatic inequality drives people’s willingness to believe conspiracy theories.
Fascists believe that nature imposes hierarchies that are totally inconsistent with equality. Hierarches are standard within fascism — most importantly, “us” over “them.” Fascists believe that natural hierarchies of worth exist. Groups that historically have benefited from being at the top of the hierarchy can feel victimized by equality. Fascist politicians play to this.
Stanley writes that white Americans vastly overestimate progress toward racial equality in America over the past 50 years. Even though white men still have most of the power in America, many feel victimized. Reducing inequality often leads to those who had benefited under it now feeling persecuted for their loss of advantage. Fascist leaders exploit feelings of victimization to obscure their attempts at victimizing others. “Nationalism is at the core of fascism. The fascist leader employs a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity.” A constant danger exists because of “them,” including immigrants and those from other races, religions or political parties.
A healthy democracy has laws to treat citizens equally and justly. This is opposed to fascist law and order, which seeks to divide people into two classes: “us” who are law-abiding and “them” who are lawless. They are criminals; we make mistakes. We protest; they riot. Whites who are addicted to opiates are ill; Black people struggling with drug problems are opium addicts and criminals. By describing minorities as a threat to law and order, American fascists build white national identity that needs protection from non-whites. Stanley also describes how fascist politics comes with a type of sexual anxiety, where minorities are a threat to pure blood.
Urban centers are where evil happens, including homosexuality, race mixing and other alleged sins. In the fascist’s imagination, true values and pure blood are only found in rural communities. Also in fascism is the belief that the state is the enemy that needs to be replaced by “the nation,” which consists of self-sufficient individuals. The nation includes hard workers and lacks welfare. There is no redistribution of wealth to the “undeserving.” Fascists readily attack labor unions, for unions create bonds between those of different religions and races; they definitely don’t want poor white workers aligning with poor black workers.
Stanley writes that “the mechanisms of fascist politics build upon and support each other.” Fascism not only makes us tolerate what was once unthinkable; it makes us believe as if this was always the way things have been. Stanley reports that fascist politicians are in power in Poland, Hungary, Brazil and India, and that fascism is rising in Sweden, France, Germany and, yes, the United States. Stanley gives many examples of Donald Trump’s fascist behaviors, such as publicly and explicitly insulting immigrant groups and banning Muslims. “Make America Great Again” and “America First” are fascist slogans. Birtherism was a fascist conspiracy theory. Trump openly and brazenly lies. His open rejection of democratic values is viewed as political bravery by his base.
Stanley reports Republicans are successfully deploying fascist strategies more and more often because, he chillingly writes, “fascist politics preys on the human frailty that makes our own suffering seem bearable if we know that those we look down upon are being made to suffer more.”
Stanley urges us to reject fascist myths and to continue to civilly engage our fellow Americans, knowing that while we all are flawed, none of us are demons.
Read more of the Jun 8-14, 2022 issue.