When I ask Jason Stanley if the current American government is fascist, he becomes very quiet.
If he thought the American government was fascist, Stanley responds, "I would never say it in an interview," he says. "It would be too dangerous." In other words, by the time the people in power have instituted fascism, it's too late to call it that.
Stanley adds that he does not think the current American government is fascist. But his new book, “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” identifies a range of worrying signs that we are headed in that direction.
A philosophy professor at Yale, and the child of Holocaust survivors, Stanley has been concerned about the rise of conspiratorial fascist politics in the U.S. since at least 2011, when he wrote a New York Times op-ed about how propaganda erodes trust and truth. Bizarre claims that President Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim spy weren't meant to be taken at face value, Stanley argued. Rather, they were designed to undermine trust in anything Obama said, and in democratic politics in general.
Fascist tactics are a range of propaganda tools and methods used to get into power. Once someone gets into power using fascist tactics, however, they may do a range of different things with that power.
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"Fascist politics," Stanley writes in his new book, "replaces reasoned debate with fear and anger. When it is successful, its audience is left with a destabilized sense of loss, and a well of mistrust and anger against those who it has been told are responsible for that loss."
Stanley makes a distinction between fascist politics and tactics and fascist government. Fascist tactics are a range of propaganda tools and methods used to get into power. Once someone gets into power using fascist tactics, however, they may do a range of different things with that power. "So, the feel of life in Italy under Mussolini was very different from the feel of life in Germany under Hitler," Stanley tells me. A candidate using fascist tactics might be a true believer like Hitler, who was personally committed to murdering millions. Or he may, like Mussolini, institute authoritarianism without embracing the full logic of genocide. Or a would-be dictator may simply use fascist tactics to get himself into power and then raid public funds to enrich himself and his family.
The fact that not all fascists are like Hitler, though, doesn't change the fact that fascist tactics are recognizable, consistent and dangerous. And once you use fascist tactics of division and hate to get into power, there is an enormous incentive to continue using those same tactics to maintain control, whatever your personal motivations. If you start out spreading conspiracy theories, like birtherism, you are likely to continue to lie and attack the press once you are in office. If you campaign by evoking a mythic past that has been undermined by foreign elements ("Make America Great Again"), you are probably going to try to maintain power by targeting immigrants and outsiders.
Stanley makes it clear throughout his book that Trump is not a unique figure in U.S. history. On the contrary, fascist tactics have been a staple of American politics practically since American politics have existed.
President Donald Trump uses many fascist tactics. But Stanley makes it clear throughout his book that Trump is not a unique figure in U.S. history. On the contrary, fascist tactics have been a staple of American politics practically since American politics have existed. Hitler himself was inspired by the Confederacy, Jim Crow, and especially by the 1924 Immigration Act, with its race-based immigration exclusions. (Jeff Sessions is also a fan.)
In particular, Stanley tells me, America’s recent history with mass incarceration makes us very vulnerable to fascism. “How Fascism Works” points to the 1996 monograph “Body Count: Moral Poverty...and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs" by William J. Bennett, John J. DiIulio and John P. Walters, which made claims about supposed criminal "superpredators" who would unleash an unstoppable tsunami of youth violence.
The tsunami never materialized, and crime has actually been dropping in the years since “Body Count” was published. But the idea of superpredators has helped to justify the harassment, incarceration and disenfranchisement of millions of people. "We tolerated completely fake news to justify inhumane treatment of our black population," Stanley tells me. "So in a way we were more vulnerable than Germany in the 30s, because we've already had this fascist mechanism in play."
Stanley is also concerned about the demonization of universities and intellectuals. The right, abetted by many more centrist writers at outlets like Quillette, consistently casts the university as a bastion of intolerance and groupthink. But this vision of totalitarian universities is, Stanley says, the opposite of the truth.
"Actually the universities are the place where free speech is freest by far," he says. "Private workplaces are not free, you can get fired for saying anything." The federal government itself has been cracking down on speech in the public sphere, actively prosecuting protestors and journalists.
Universities are under attack by the right, Stanley warns in his book, not because universities are stifling freedom, but because "Fascist politics seeks to undermine the credibility of institutions that harbor independent voices of dissent until they can be replaced by media and universities that reject those voices." The barrage of op-eds against universities, in short, function in much the same way as the president's reiterated bellowing of "FAKE NEWS!" Even when that is not their intention, these arguments erode trust in democracy and ultimately leave the field clear for authoritarianism.
Given America's historical embrace of fascist tactics, and aggressive current policies designed to target even legal immigrants for harassment and denaturalization, the future looks bleak. Still, Stanley says there is cause for hope. "One thing that's important, one thing that makes me less afraid of doing the work I'm doing, is that so many people are doing the work," he says. "I think that continuing to have large bodies of people unafraid to say what the worst case scenario would be, is vital. Because then each of them is safe."
As long as people like Stanley can publish books like “How Fascism Works,” fascism cannot win. Trump and the GOP use fascist tactics, but they have not yet created a fascist government. But to preserve our democracy, we have to point out that danger of fascism now, while we still can.