It's The FASCISM, Stupid!

August 26th, 2009

On August 7, Sara Robinson wrote a very throrough, very frightening diary at Orcinus, Fascist America: Are We There Yet? She began:

All through the dark years of the Bush Administration, progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished, nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation and violence, and the president of the United States seized for himself powers only demanded by history’s worst dictators. With each new outrage, the small handful of us who’d made ourselves experts on right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?

Previously, the answer had been  “As bad as this looks: no — we are not there yet.”.  Now, though…

In tracking the mileage on this trip to perdition, many of us relied on the work of historian Robert Paxton, who is probably the world’s pre-eminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn fascist. In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History [pdf], Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist movements isn’t by their rhetoric, their politics, or their aesthetics. Rather, he said, mature democracies turn fascist by a recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most important family resemblance that links all the whole motley collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading of Paxton’s stages, we weren’t there yet. There were certain signs — one in particular — we were keeping an eye out for, and we just weren’t seeing it.And now we are. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for, it’s suddenly everywhere.

Paul Rosenberg :: It’s The FASCISM, Stupid! Before going any further, we need to be clear about what we’re talking about. Here’s Paxton’s essential definition of the term:

“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.”

But the real essence of Paxton’s contribution is his detailed seeing through the variety of diverse national variants, and understanding fascism as the culmination of a developmental process.

On the first point, Paxtpn’s paper notes:

each national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture, but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity.

On the second point, Robinson goes on to explain:

According to Paxton, fascism unfolds in five stages. The first two are pretty solidly behind us — and the third should be of particular interest to progressives right now.In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal (what Roger Griffin calls “palingenesis” — a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes). They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it’s always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture’s traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery….

In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as informal goon squads organized to intimidate farmworkers on behalf of the large landowners. The KKK disenfranchised black sharecroppers and set itself up as the enforcement wing of Jim Crow. The Italian Squadristi and the German Brownshirts made their bones breaking up farmers’ strikes. And these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us.

Paxton wrote that succeeding at the second stage “depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner.” He further noted that Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances: “deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement.”

And more ominously: “The most important variables…are the conservative elites’ willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate.”

That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can’t even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can’t win elections or policy fights, they’re more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity.

In my previous diaries today, I’ve made mention of the fact that conservatives/Republicans have been quite willing to break the rules for some time now, so they have plenty of practice, as well as the inclination, to go gleefully skiing down that old slippery slope:

When that unholy alliance is made, the third stage — the transition to full-fledged government fascism — begins.

And that’s where we are today.  The fleeting signs of the past are over and done with:

Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips’ Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas — the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer — being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans. We’ve seen Armey’s own professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process — and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We’ve seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to “a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress.”This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America’s conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country’s legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America’s streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won’t do their political or economic bidding.

I would argue that we actually have been here before.  It was called “McCarthyism.”  Much of the same dynamic was present.  The difference was that the legacy of the New Deal was simply far too well entrenched, and the top echelon of the Republican Party was only passively along for the ride-they weren’t actively pushing it, they were wink-wink, nod-nodding with McCarthy and a few others.  But the widespread air of intimidation was actually far stronger then than it is today.  This gets back to my point about why this period of American history is so different, in a way that liberals and Democrats have never really come to terms with.

The difference could be successfully paved over, due to the enduring strength of the New Deal coalition, at least through 1968.  But after that came the long, deeply anomalous period of divided government,  during which a mandateless rightwing movement shoved our country far to the right, even as the populace at large become substantially more liberal on matters like racial tolerance, women’s roles in society, and gay rights, and generally remained predominantly liberal on issues overall.

What’s most chilling now is the sharply increased level of disconnect between the intensity of what’s happening in the streets in terms of the corporate elite/GOP leadership/mob thuggery alliance and more-clueless-than-thou Obama Administration.  The utter and complete disconnect coming from the White House right now is chillingly reminiscent of the deer-in-the-headlights center-left types during the fading days of the Weimar Republic.  This is perhaps the most cutting irony:  the fascist teabaggers, birthers and deathers carrying signs equating Obama with Hitler, when in actuality the figures he actually resembles are the centrist appeasers whose vacillation and denial paved the way for Hitler to take over.

One more point needs to be made here. One thing the Right has today that it didn’t have back in McCarthy’s day is the organized anti-choice movement.  And the importance of that cannot be underestimated. Back on August 3, Amanda Marcotte wrote a column “Birthers and Anti-Choicers: One and the Same?” in which she underscored the commonalities, which all trace back to the underlying nature of movement conservatism, on its evolutionary path toward outright fascism:

Is it fair to compare anti-choice nuttery to birther conspiracy theories?  Well, of course.  First of all, there’s a great deal of overlap between birthers and anti-choicers.  Certainly, politicians think both groups are one and the same people.  James Inhofe, one of the most outspoken and aggressive anti-choicers in the Senate, obviously believes his base wants to hear about how birthers have a “point” [1], even though it takes roughly two sentences and a quick perusal of the Constitution to point that this is impossible.  But maybe he’s reading the same data I am, that shows that 63% of Republicans are “pro-life” [2]and 58% are somewhere on the birther scale. [3]  And just as anti-choice sentiment is strongest in the South and Midwest, birtherism is as well.With that in mind, I made a list of aspects of movement conservatism that you’re probably learning about the birther movement that you would have known already if you had followed the anti-choice movement closely.

Truth is considered a mere obstacle between them and their goals.  For ordinary Americans struggling to understand the birthers, the most frustrating thing about them must be their utter contempt for evidence, reality, or any form of inconvenient truth.  No matter how many times birthers are shown pictures of Obama’s birth certificate, no matter how many times they’re reminded that Obama is a citizen both through his birth geography and his mother’s citizenship, no matter how many people call them cranks—they do not care.  Reality is unimportant, compared to what they believe….

Everything’s a conspiracy.  Unable to face up to the fact that doctors provide abortions for the mundane reason that female patients ask for them, anti-choicers have concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory about how abortion is an “industry” based around tricking women into getting abortions for profit. Like all conspiracy theorists, they take evidence against the theory as if it were evidence that the network of conspirators is vast.  So, if you Jane Blogger point out that Planned Parenthood is a non-profit that helps patients avoid abortion through contraception, the anti-choicer will assume you’re part of the conspiracy and argue that contraception is part of the abortion conspiracy [9].

The birther conspiracy theory works the same way—pointing out evidence and logical arguments only expands the size and scope of the conspiracy in the minds of birthers.   In fact the “Obama faked his birth certificate and was born outside of the U.S.” theory apparently erupted in part from an earlier conspiracy theory over Obama’s middle name [10].  With birthers, as with anti-choicers, more evidence of reality just gets them further into the thick of imagining even more complex and strange conspiracies.  And just as the anti-choicers have moved on to concocting theories about how Planned Parenthood is part of a child sex ring that they’re covering up, I suspect the birther thing may grow in ways that are frightening in their complexity and lack of touch with reality.

And Obama said he could put an end to the culture wars!  Have them all over for tea!

Source: Open Left

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