Tag Archives: fascism

Where We Are

I’d planned to introduce today’s post with a rundown of what we’ve narrowly escaped OR what comes next after a disappointing midterm. I still don’t know where the results will land us, but it is obviously neither a rout nor the Blue Wave I’d hoped to see.

The good news, as Heather Cox Richardson reminded us yesterday, is that many more Americans today are concerned about our democracy, and determined to reclaim it, than were even paying attention to it in 2016. As she pointed out, we see new organizations, new connections, new voters, and new efforts to remake the country better than it has ever been.

And new efforts to prevent a rightwing populist takeover.

In last Sunday’s New York Times book review, two recent books exploring the decline of democracy investigated “the F word”–fascism

As the review noted, the use of that epithet used to be reserved for extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. No longer. Even mild-mannered Joe Biden has admitted what virtually any person familiar with politics and political history can see: the Republican “MAGA philosophy” is–if not full-on–at least “semi-fascism.”

If we look at the 1920sand ’30s versions of fascism, some things are different but other elements are frighteningly similar.  As the reviewer noted, anti-democratic ultranationalism — one definition of fascism — looks different today, but overall,  MAGA Republicanism “employs many of the rhetorical tropes of traditional fascist politics.” Those tropes include a focus on racial purity, a proud anti-intellectualism, and especially the invocation of “a mythic past and appeals to blood and soil.”

The two books focused specifically upon fascism that were reviewed by the Times were “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them” by Jason Stanley, and “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Both authors emphasized the importance of “alternative facts”–invocation of a mythical past, and the absence of a shared factual reality.

The invocation of the past is politically strategic. “It is never the actual past that is fetishized,” Stanley writes. He notes that monuments to the Confederacy were erected long after the Civil War ended in part as propaganda to whitewash the horrors of slavery. Fascists, both authors suggest, want to destabilize the shared sense of reality that is necessary for democratic dialogue. They seek to create what one might call an air of QAnon-like unreality, in which elected officials and government institutions are targets of bizarre claims — including, for instance, that they are covers for child sex-trafficking rings.

And of course–as we have seen in the most recent electoral cycle–there is a constant drumbeat of “othering”–an insistence of the dramatic differences between “us” and “them.”

The classic debate between liberty and equality is distorted by fascists, who see equality as a denial of a natural law whereby some people are inherently more deserving of power than others. For fascists, democracy makes unequal people equal, and tries to equate “them” with “us.” Fascist rhetoric is designed to divide citizens into two distinct classes: the sons and daughters of the soil, who are the true citizens of the nation, and the “other” — the foreign, the rabble, the lawless.

 I know my constant insistence on the importance of civic literacy can seem tiresome–the carping of an academic convinced of the supreme importance of her area of “expertise.” But a citizenry unfamiliar with the history of their country and unacquainted with the most basic premises of its system of government is uniquely vulnerable to the distortions that turn one American against another.

Just one example: Voters who don’t understand why the Founders separated Church from State are easy targets for revisionists who deny both the history that impelled that separation and the fact that the language of the First Amendment was intended to erect it. They are receptive to the fascist claim that their God has made them the rightful custodians of the country.

The philosopher Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Give The Man Points For Honesty

The morphing of America’s conservative movement into something much darker has been going on for a long time. I still recall my youngest son’s response, over twenty years ago, to a colleague who’d invited him to join the local branch of the Federalist Society.  He declined, explaining that he didn’t look good in brown shirts…

Even then, the trajectory was clear.  Today, the fascists are coming out of the closet.

Last week, The Federalist published an essay that was certainly forthright: it was titled “We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservative.” Here’s the lede:

Why? Because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach. Conservatives have long defined their politics in terms of what they wish to conserve or preserve — individual rights, family values, religious freedom, and so on. Conservatives, we are told, want to preserve the rich traditions and civilizational achievements of the past, pass them on to the next generation, and defend them from the left. In America, conservatives and classical liberals alike rightly believe an ascendent left wants to dismantle our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia. The task of conservatives, going back many decades now, has been to stop them.

A “woke dystopia” is presumably a country that extends those “individual rights and freedoms” to citizens who were previously denied them. The author is rather clearly horrified by the prospect of allowing women and LGBTQ+ citizens to participate in society on an equal basis.

After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.

The rest of the essay is a call to abandon notions of limited government (which is not the same thing as small government, a distinction which seems to elude the author) in favor of acquiring and weaponizing the power of the state to “stop the Left.” The author wants  the Right to use the power of government as “an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.”

And how would that instrument be deployed?

To stop the disintegration of the family might require reversing the travesty of no-fault divorce, combined with generous subsidies for families with small children. Conservatives need not shy away from making these arguments because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.

In other contexts, wielding government power will mean a dramatic expansion of the criminal code. It will not be enough, for example, to reach an accommodation with the abortion regime, to agree on “reasonable limits” on when unborn human life can be snuffed out with impunity. As Abraham Lincoln once said of slavery, we must become all one thing or all the other. The Dobbs decision was in a sense the end of the beginning of the pro-life cause. Now comes the real fight, in state houses across the country, to outlaw completely the barbaric practice of killing the unborn….

Drag Queen Story Hour should be outlawed; that parents who take their kids to drag shows should be arrested and charged with child abuse; that doctors who perform so-called “gender-affirming” interventions should be thrown in prison and have their medical licenses revoked; and that teachers who expose their students to sexually explicit material should not just be fired but be criminally prosecuted.

There’s much more, but the cited paragraphs are illustrative. The message is unmistakable: government should be used as a weapon against anyone who differs from the author’s theocratic/nationalistic/paternalistic worldview.

The author is not some rogue essayist invited by the magazine to provoke a discussion; his name isJohn Daniel Davidson and he is a senior editor at The Federalist. 

Actual conservatives–including Bill Kristol– have responded negatively. As one blogger wrote:

Davidson’s “restorationists” could probably be better described as “revanchists,” as they not only want to restore lost territory but also to “retaliate” against those who have torn apart the glorious world he imagines we once had.

It’s an explicitly authoritarian vision. The word “democracy” never once appears in the essay, and references to the concept only refer to events in the past…

Once in power, the revanchists should forget all about the (alleged) conservative idea of “small government” and instead learn to love Big (Brother) Government, inserting it deeply into private life.

Dobbs was just the beginning.

The blogger went on to compare Davidson’s explicit goals to the elements of fascism, and to confirm the fit.

In eight days, Americans will either vote Blue–or vote to buy brown shirts.







I Love Tom Nichols…..

I recently signed up for Peacefield, a newsletter by Atlantic writer Tom Nichols. The name Peacefield is evidently a reference to something that escapes me–but Nichols is my kind of writer: he doesn’t mince words, and he respects language.

And words were the subject of this particular newsletter.

Nichols began by relating his debates with a fellow faculty member during his time as an academic. ( At the time, his colleague was far to the left of him.)

We’d run through a whole lexicon of political insults, but my favorite moment was a day when I exclaimed “Bolshevik!” and he barked “Hun!” and the two of us broke up in a prolonged fit of laughter….

We enjoyed these jousts, in part because we understood the words we were using and knew when we meant them and when we were kidding. We argued over who had the better policies, and over whose view of human nature and the right order of society should prevail. But I didn’t think he was a Communist and he didn’t think I was a Nazi.

Now we use these terms all day long and no one knows what they mean.

Nichols is frustrated by “how much of our public discourse is short-circuited by people who don’t understand basic terminology.”

I share that frustration. It is impossible to have a genuine, productive debate or discussion with someone who is using words that don’t mean what that person thinks they mean. Human communication is difficult even when the parties to a discussion both use language precisely; it’s impossible when one party simply uses terminology as an insulting–and  inaccurate– label.

In the linked article, Nichols gives “quick and dirty” definitions to terms that are often used indiscriminately–for example, Liberal Democracy.

What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.

More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.

What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.

Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”

He goes through an entire political lexicon, defining what various terms mean, and especially what they don’t mean. For example, after  defining “Authoritarianism,” he explains what it isn’t.

Any rules you don’t like. Any laws you don’t like. Any election that you didn’t like. Anything that inconveniences or annoys you. Anything that limits you doing whatever you want, whenever you want, in any way that you want. Paying your taxes, obeying speed limits, or wearing a mask in a store are not “authoritarianism.”

He also offers a snarky explanation of libertarianism, and  particularly good definitions of Capitalism and Socialism. And he reminds us that precision in language matters– that everything you don’t like isn’t necessarily fascism or socialism.

The term I wish more people would think about—and this is why I wrote a book about it—is illiberal democracy, because that’s where we’re headed. This is what happens when everything about liberal democracy—tolerance, trust, secular government, the rule of law, political equality—gets hollowed out and all people remember is the word democracy.

And of course, once you dump all that other stuff, democracy means “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters.”

As Nichols notes, this is what we’re seeing now in places like Turkey and Hungary. All that matters is winning elections.

The danger here is not that Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or others are fascists. They’re not, and unlikely to be, since they lack the infrastructure, mass party, ideology, and absolute cult of personality that we saw in the 1930s. (Trump is far too stupid to be an effective fascist, but he definitely has a cult of personality. Still, the Trump Cult is small potatoes compared with what Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini built. Trump is more like a Mickey Mouse version of Juan Perón.)

The danger Nichols sees is the very real possibility that the extremists will destroy the guardrails of democracy–those democratic “norms” that seem to be eroding in real time.

And as he reminds us, the first step is debasing the language.


Defining Moderation

Remember our prior discussions of the Overton Window?The Overton window is the name given to the range of policies that are considered politically acceptable by the mainstream population at a particular time. It’s named (duh!) for someone named Overton, who noted that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that range.

The rightward movement of the Overton Window over the past few decades explains why the hand-wringing of the “chattering classes” over the disappearance of “moderation” is so misplaced.

I have noted previously that in 1980, when I ran for Congress as a Republican, I was frequently accused of being much too conservative. My political philosophy hasn’t changed (although my position on a couple of issues has, shall we say, “matured” as I became more informed about those issues)–and now I am routinely accused of being a pinko/socialist/commie.

My experience is anything but unique. I basically stood still; the Overton Window moved. Significantly.

As the GOP moved from center-right to radical right to semi-fascist, the definition of “moderation” moved with it. America has never had a true leftwing party of the type typical in Europe, but today, anything “left” of insane is labeled either moderate or “librul.” That makes these tiresome screeds about the lack of moderation dangerously misleading.

As Peter Dreir recently wrote at Talking Points Memo,(behind the TPM paywall),

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times described how the infrastructure bill was passed: “After months of negotiation among President Biden, Democrats and a group of moderate Republicans to forge a compromise, the Senate voted 69 to 30 in favor of the legislation.”

The Times then listed the “ten centrist senators” — five Republicans and five Democrats — who worked to craft the bill: Republicans Rob Portman (OH), Bill Cassidy (LA), Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mitt Romney (UT) and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen (NH) Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV), Mark Warner (VA), and Sinema.

But by what stretch of the imagination are Cassidy, Portman, Romney, Collins and Murkowski “moderate” or “centrist” Republicans? None of them are even close to the “center” of America’s ideological spectrum. They all have opposed raising taxes on the wealthy, toughening environmental standards, expanding voting rights, adopting background checks for gun sales and limiting the sale of military-style assault weapons, and other measures that, according to polls, are overwhelmingly popular with the American public.

As the essay points out, there is no longer any overlap between America’s two major parties. There may be some overlap among voters, but not among elected officials.

What we have experienced is what political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization.” Over the past decades, as the scholarly literature and survey research make abundantly clear, Republicans have moved far, far to the right, while Democrats have moved slightly to the left.

Finding a center point between the far right and the center-left may be “splitting the difference,” but only in an alternate universe can it be considered “moderation.”

When I became politically active, people like Michael Gerson were considered quite conservative. But Gerson stopped well short of crazy, and he has been a clear-eyed critic of the GOP’s descent into suicidal politics.  Gerson recently considered the spectacle of DeSantis and Abbot, who have been playing to the populist base of today’s Republican Party.

These governors are attempting, of course, to take refuge in principle — the traditional right not to have cloth next to your face, or the sacred right to spread nasty infections to your neighbors. But such “rights” talk is misapplied in this context. The duty to protect public health during a pandemic is, by nature, an aggregate commitment. Success or failure is measured only in a total sum. Incompetence in this area is a fundamental miscarriage of governing. Knowingly taking actions that undermine public health is properly called sabotage, as surely as putting anthrax in the water supply….

The problem for the Republican Party is that one of the central demands of a key interest group is now an act of sociopathic insanity. Some of the most basic measures of public health have suddenly become the political equivalent of gun confiscation. It’s as if the activist wing of the GOP decided that municipal trash pickup is a dangerous socialist experiment. Or chlorine in public pools is an antifa plot. There can be no absolute political right to undermine the health and safety of your community. Or else community has no meaning.

If “moderation” means finding middle ground between sociopathic insanity and common sense, language has lost any ability to inform or communicate. When presumably serious commentators misuse such terminology, it just makes it more difficult to cure–or even understand– our manifest political dysfunctions.


McConnell And Asymmetric Polarization

I have previously made my opinion of Mitch McConnell very clear–he has been far more destructive of American constitutional governance than Trump.

America actually lucked out with Trump–a self-engrossed buffoon too incompetent, too ignorant, and too mentally-ill to do the permanent damage to which he aspired. McConnell, on the other hand, understands government and how to manipulate the arcane rules of the Senate to achieve truly evil results.

In the wake of the Georgia special election that allowed the Democrats to take control of the Senate, Jennifer Senior wrote a column for the New York Times that echoed my own reaction:

So tell me, Mitch, in these, your final hours as Senate majority leader: Were the judges and the tax cuts worth it?

Were they worth the sacking of the Capitol? The annexation of the Republican Party by the paranoiacs and the delusional? The degradation, possibly irremediable, of democracy itself?

Those close to him say that Mitch McConnell has his eye on his legacy, now more than ever. But I wonder whether he already understands, in some back bay of his brain where the gears haven’t been ground to nubs, that history will not treat him well.

Senior points out that McConnell plays the “long game,” and that he never does anything unless it serves his personal interests.

He’s methodical in his scheming, awaiting his spoils with the patience of a cat. So if hitching his wagon to a sub-literate mob boss with a fondness for white supremacists and a penchant for conspiracy theories and a sociopath’s smirking disregard for the truth meant getting those tax cuts and those conservative judges … hey, that’s the cost of doing business, right?

Suddenly, incomprehensible as it must seem to him, McConnell is being out-eviled from the right. And that reality is finally beginning to dawn on the media outlets that have aspired to “fairness” by framing contemporary politics with a patently false equivalence–ignoring the fact that the GOP has been moving to the right much, much faster (and much, much farther) than the Democrats have moved to the left, in what political scientists term “asymmetrical polarization.”

(Actually, the Democrats are simply returning to their previous position(s) after also moving right in a misconceived effort to out-Republican the GOP. See, among other things, Bill Clinton and welfare reform…)

Senior writes that, chief among the reasons for this state of affairs is  that the G.O.P. has run what she calls “a decades-long campaign to delegitimize government. Run against it long enough, and eventually you have a party that wants to burn the system to the ground.”

What really struck me about Senior’s column was her recitation of things I hadn’t previously known about McConnell–what you might call philosophical U-Turns if you are gullible enough to believe that McConnell ever genuinely embraced a moral agenda. She notes that he had “a youthful fling” with the civil rights movement, before enthusiastically embracing Nixon’s southern strategy, and that he was once pro-choice (!).

Those of us who follow public policy already knew that McConnell had joined the majority of Congressional Republicans in abandoning the GOP’s purported concern over deficits in favor of tax breaks for the rich and subsidies for favored businesses. And then…

When preserving power prerogatives overtook his party’s concerns about the former Soviet Union? No problem. McConnell refused to hear out warnings about Russian interference until weeks before the 2016 election (at which point he buried them), and he refused to consider bipartisan legislation that would attempt to curb foreign meddling until he earned himself the moniker “Moscow Mitch.”

When his party went from free trade to nativist populism, powered by xenophobia and racist resentment? Not a problem. He’d side with the populists, including their dangerous Dear Leader, until his workplace was overrun, five people were dead and the Constitution itself was among the critically injured.

Norman J. Ornstein, as usual, is analytically spot-on, describing McConnell and the radical Republicans who followed and then eclipsed him in perfidy as embracing an “ends-justify-the-means philosophy” in which winning is more important than governing.

It’s true that American politics is polarized. It is demonstrably not true that the Democrats have gone far to the left. It may look that way to the casual observer because, next to today’s semi-fascist GOP, sanity looks “left.”

We are looking through an Overton Window. It needs to shift.