Fascism and the New Right

Aug 30 2010 Published by under Politics

As the years that separate us from European fascism increase, there is an growing tendency to use the term “fascism” in an imprecise way, taking away from it its potency.  In fact, it has become so insipid as to have lost much of its meaning.  Many will hear the word and think “Nazi”, but this is a gross oversimplification, an undue narrowness.  The word “fascism” is at once too broad and too precise, as Umberto Eco has written.

There are good reasons to use this term more carefully, to apply it judiciously.  But to do this, we have to understand what it really means.  The term itself arose out of Italy and described a totalitarian regime that had little else in common with Nazism.  That doesn’t mean it cannot be applied to other political systems.  As Eco has pointed out, many of these systems share common features, or share common ideals or origins.  But recognizing these, especially in the early stages of a movement can be difficult.  It was not so difficult in Nazi Germany, with its explicit inculcation of the entire population beginning at birth, but Nazism is not the only type of fascism.

I’m proceeding from the assumption that all fascism is bad, something to be prevented and fought.  Not everyone will believe this, else fascism would hold little popular appeal.   But I believe it, and I also believe that the New Right in the U.S. represents a fascist risk unlike any we’ve seen since the 1940s, when World War II largely destroyed the proto-fascist movements in the U.S.  Greater even than McCarthyism, the ideology espoused by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and those who hang with them are a threat to American democracy, a fascist movement further evolved than many might think.

Fascism, while populist in a sense, does not have to originate in “the people”.  As Eco noted of Italian Fascism:

The Fascist Party was born boasting that it brought a revolutionary new order; but it was financed by the most conservative among the landowners who expected from it a counter-revolution.

This has certainly been true of the Tea Party movement. While the Tea Party does not clearly resemble Nazism and is not a copy of older fascist movements, it shares with them many of the characteristics of what Eco calls “Ur-Fascism”, the components that go in to the formation and perpetuation of most fascist movements.

Not all fascists have all of the characteristics of Ur-Fascism, but most, when considering the “template”, are recognizable as fascist.  The danger is not in under-applying the term, but in failing to recognize it early.  While Eco’s analysis is certainly not the only thing to say on fascism, it does serve as a valid and useful guide.

Cult of tradition

Americans certainly have a love of tradition, a uniting national identity.  We have our own liturgy in our founding documents.  But this is not cult-like.  Eco describes a traditionalism that is false, in a sense, in that it combined mutually incompatible traditions, creating from them a unifying identity.  Believing in the Bill of Rights, while simultaneously calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment; believing in the Constitutional protection of religion but denying the secular origins of this principle, and creating a false mythology of the Founders as Believers---these create a false, new American tradition.

Rejection of Modernity

Modern ideas, such as the expansion of the term “equality” to explicitly apply to everyone, is rejected out-of-hand as violating fictional traditions.  Rejection of the rights of gays to marry, of women to have equal pay, of Blacks to frequent any business they wish---these would seem to violate our founding principles, but when you create your own fictions, such as the influence of the 10 Commandments on American law, then contradiction is meaningless.  Contradiction only exists when historical truths are acknowledged.  When they become fluid, all bets are off.

Cult of action for action’s sake

The preservation of the 2nd Amendment, in contrast to the destruction of the 14th, fits in well with the current shortage of ammunition in the U.S. The fetishism of firearms, at a time in history where our true state of national security has rendered them moot, is telling.  It not only speaks of a powerlessness felt by the New Right, but serves as an explicit threat to those who would dare disagree with them. Since personal firearms are irrelevant in fighting foreign enemies, their only real use can be the fight against domestic ones.

Disagreement is treason

The New Right knows, cynically, that their ideas cannot stand up to honest analysis, and so demonize those who disagree with them.  It creates a Muslim Non-American of the President; a rampaging horde of immigrants, and tells us that to vote for universal health care is a choice between freedom and tyranny.

This is part and parcel of the fear of diversity, the inherent racism in fascist ideas.  There must always be an “other” and in the case of the New Right, the other is distinctly brown.

Appeal to frustrated middle class

During times of economic uncertainty, someone must be to blame for the decline in what seemed to be endless prosperity.  Despite the fact that wealth in the U.S. has continued to concentrate in the wealthiest, these same wealthy successfully convince the middle class that it is really concentrating among The Others, those who are taking “our” jobs, raising taxes, etc.  Despite the fact that our tax structure favors the rich rather than the middle or lower economic classes, it is the poorest or brownest that must be to blame.  Them, and the bankers, whose names all seem to share some ethic similarities when repeated over and over.

Creation of a shared social identity

The New Right is distinctly envious of ethnic minorities and their shared sense of identity.  Since much of the “redneck” vote lacks such an identity, then they must be united by having been born in the same country.  The are Real Americans, and everyone else, by definition, is not.  Real Americans aren’t afraid of the Confederate Flag.  They aren’t afraid of immigrants.  They aren’t afraid of gays. They aren’t afraid.    Anyone who would object to the Stars and Bars or to anti-gay rhetoric must fail to understand what it is to be a Real American.

Sense of humiliation

Rather than the meme of the Eternal Rich Jew which was common in European fascism, the New Right is humiliated by the underclass who is ruining them economically, by making them pay taxes, by collecting welfare, by funding public schools.  And when One of Them succeeds, perhaps even becoming President, it is because the system has favored them unfairly.

Life as struggle

Mein Kampf spoke of constant struggles.  Eco noted that in Fascist Italy, it was taught that there were always more enemies to fight, that warfare was the default form of existence.  This is how we prove our strength, our superiority.

This fits in well with the Christian Apocalyptic thinking that seems to dovetail so well with the New Right.  It also fits well with the War on Terror, a war that is eternal, because it can never truly be won.

Popular Elitism

When you accept that you are a Real American, you are among the exceptional, the elite.  You are no longer among the weak, the degenerate.  Those who are become worse than the enemy, because the weaken they state from the inside.

Machismo

To succeed in constant war and struggle, and to remove the taint of failure, everyone is a hero, every man a Real Man.  To be a real man, there can be no “deviant” sexual practices, no equality for women, no backing down.

Will of the people through the One

The will of the people is paramount in fascism, but the only way the People can have a united will is to express it through a single voice, a Leader, not through the irrational and fickle exercise of elections and representation.  This can lead to the election of improper leaders who must be dealt with.  If the people were foolish enough to elect a non-American, then this non-American must be de-legitimized and removed.  So-called representatives who don’t act like Real Americans must be impeached and removed before they can consolidate their power through another election.  Congresses and Parliaments are inherently corrupt.

Newspeak

Fascism distorts language.  Suddenly, the lawful payment of lawfully-enacted taxes becomes “oppression” and those who were not born here become “illegals.”  News outlets belonging to the New Right use this new language regularly.  The economic crisis, clearly precipitated by the policies of the right, is now the fault of these “illegal taxes” rather than failed policies of deregulation and destruction of progressive taxation.

Fascism is in some ways quite democratic;  a critical mass of people must believe in it for it to take hold, but once it does, consent of the governed is no longer needed.  The apparatus of the State will take care of obtaining consent, with the help of Real Americans.   Beck, Bachmann, Palin, and others are not Nazis.  Not all fascism is Nazism.  But they are fundamentally un-democratic, believing in the power of a mythical People in the service of a mythical America, one which they have built in the minds of their followers.

This New America is not one I wish to live in, and for it to flourish all we must do is nothing.

44 responses so far

  • Nora Streed says:

    Well done. Thanks.

  • Lee says:

    I had a problem with this article. The title of the blog indicates that it is tied to scientific thought. However, the points that you outline here are moral statements, not physical ones. Moral statements are not falsifiable.

    • James Sweet says:

      Yes, because all bloggers who blog on a certain topic must stick to that topic and that topic only, or else the blog police will come get them and their family in the night.

      Please. It's a BLOG. As you may have noticed, blogs tend to reflect the thoughts and opinions of the blogger in general, despite the nominal topic of the blog. Welcome to 2003.

    • Sam Harris would like a word with you.

    • JM_Shep says:

      It is clear from the title of this particular blog post (as well as the tags listed immediately after the title) that it is about politics. If you didn't want to read about politics from this blogger, don't read the post.

  • palmd says:

    That's a nice distractor, Lee.

    This was quite obviously a political piece, and unless you are a strict adherent of Marx, politics aren't particularly scientific in same same way, say, engineering is.

  • William E. Hammond, Ph.D. European History says:

    Excellent article. This comment comes from one who taught European History for 40 years and did a field in European Intellectual History especially on France. What you have written is also applicable to facism there.

    Giovanni Gentile tried to come up with a rational political system for Italian Facism with his concept of the corporate state applied to Italy but it was an afterthought.

    When Target's CEO gave $100,000 coporate dollars to fund the campaigne of the Minnesota candidate for governor, he stated in his defense that he liked his economic ideas and did not support his racism and anti gay rhetoric. His defense reminded me of the Harvard educated German who was a friend of FDR. He gave the money to start the major Goebbel's newspapers. Ultimately he found the Nazi's were not just silly politicians and had to flee to the USA. The similarities are scary.

  • RC says:

    I've not heard of Glenn Beck until a week ago but fascism on the left is just as real as on the right. Where are the moderates who will protect the environment and cut spending?

    • palmd says:

      "I know you are but what am I?" I'm not sure what you're saying, but you must not live in North America if you haven't heard of Beck.

    • skeptifem says:

      No, its not. You don't understand what fascism is. It doesn't mean totalitarian or 'something vaguely bad', it was a specific movement that you can read about any time you want. Fascism that utilizes leftist rhetoric doesn't make it not fascism- fascism is the extreme right of the political spectrum. Even if the people doing it call it communism (or socialism, in the case of hitler), or whatever. What it actually is cannot be determined by the person in charge, they will use whatever rhetoric is the most useful at the time.

    • Dianne says:

      Cutting spending or, even worse, cutting taxes, is NOT a moderate position. At least in the US. The US's taxes are appallingly low, especially for people with high incomes. I'll vote for any politician who argues for raising taxes as long as they plan to use them for something other than a war or their party fund. And I might buy the party fund if they only spent an aliquot on that.

    • Albatross says:

      If you haven't heard of Glen Beck until a week ago, then you need to go back under your rock and stop commenting on things about which you are woefully ignorant. On the other hand, if you are a disingenuous liar who is simply attempting to take a patronizing and soft approach to disagreement, then by all means continue to post in this manner.

  • Lee says:

    It's not a distractor. As a scientist and skeptic I find this article boring. Your labeling against theirs. Although, you spent a wonderful amount of time in the labeling exercise. Congrats. Way to change the world one reader at a time.

    If you really wanted to add some meat to this conversation, you could try to argue policy. Maybe you could come up with some really awesome questions? Like: How does tax policy affect the middle class economic growth? Is the middle class the driver for the economy as a whole? If equal opportunity exists, would we still see variance in income by groups? Is universal healthcare a right? If so than how much? Which groups are really responsible for the advancement of mankind? Does it matter? Why is nuclear the only energy solution that currently exists that is scalable, and economic, yet we are spending billions on wind/solar/geo?

    Unfortunately, this all will come to a stalemate eventually because most political arguments are not falsifiable ,so it comes down to your worldview vs theirs. Except maybe the energy one, which is very simple from a physicist's standpoint. YAWN!!!!

    ok back to work...If you would like to debate these issues I'd love to continue.

    • skeptifem says:

      If you find it boring you don't know what is at stake. This shit really, really matters. Apathetic people is part of why movements like german fascism succeeded.

      Apathy about politics also means that you don't give a fuck about anyone else, and you should. You could end up on the receiving end of a horrible policy in a split second. Political problems are real issues that can be solved with participation.

      As far as not caring because ___ isn't falsifiable, there is a *lot* you do in day to day life that can be dismissed with the exact same critique. We are lightyears away from understanding behavior in any comprehensive way, yet you are here and are communicating with other people and making choices about how to behave in your life. There isn't an excuse for not giving a damn about the world around you. As a citizen of a developed country (I assume), your government is responsible for all kinds of horror, done on your behalf. Do you not care about the violence done to others? DO SOMETHING. Learn about what is going on in your community and in the world.

    • Stephanie Z says:

      Lee, the most effective definition of a troll I've come across is someone who tells you what you may and may not legitimately talk about. It's rare I see it laid out as blatantly as this.

      Bored people move on. They don't stop to say, "Stop."

    • John McKay says:

      "If you would like to debate these issues I’d love to continue."

      You haven't debated them. You've written two comments saying you think PalMD should have written a different post because you didn't want to read this one. Your comments are non-sequitors in this discussion.

    • Or, perhaps YOU could start your own blog and decide how it should be run. Are you familiar with the phrase "topping from the bottom?"

  • palmd says:

    As a scientist and skeptic I find this article boring.

    That's hardly my problem, but I would suggest that it is not your identity as a "scientist and skeptic" that makes you find it boring, but rather your own difficulty at thinking critically in other fields. Politics is not rendered irrelevant by inability to assign an equation to it.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Value judgements are subjective; claims about human behaviour and the effects of policy (fiscal, military, vote-gathering, etc.) are, in principle, open to empirical inquiry. A fascist could have written a blog post pointing to the same trends and calling on the same supporting evidence, although their emotional response would be quite different to that of palmd.

  • palmd says:

    Yeah, but PalMD says it better, which makes it more true.

  • CW says:

    You're channeling Dave Neiwert with this one.

    Not that that's a bad thing...

  • skeptifem says:

    I forgot who said it, but it was so true. "When fascism returns, it will be called anti-fascism."

    It is exactly what glenn beckians want of the world, but they constantly complain of fascism (socialist fascist marxist blah blah blah). I worry for our country too, there isn't much unification of the left to provide different views. I don't know what to do exactly.

  • Colugo says:

    I hate to be pedantic, but I have to be a stickler for this since it's one of my side areas of interest.

    First, Umberto Eco's writing on fascism, while popular and widely cited by nonspecialists, is not regarded by most contemporary scholars of fascism as mainstream social scientific thinking on the topic.

    Second, whatever else is wrong with them (which is plenty), Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin and the mainline Tea Party movement fail to meet the criteria of fascism as presented by various recognized experts. To be sure, some of the conspiracy theorist and nativist rhetoric found in these circles is creepy and at least reminiscent of fascist rhetoric. But then a lot of things, including some expression found on far left, are reminiscent of certain aspects of fascism.

    Thirdly, there is in fact a right wing group in the United States, besides blatant Nazis and Klansmen, that I would be deem fascistic. It is a segment of the paleoconservative movement that calls itself 'radical traditionalist' (after the fascist intellectual Julius Evola) or sometimes just 'traditionalist' (not to be confused with just any group that calls itself traditionalist). Some are less coy and call themselves white nationalists (white supremacists).

    See the website Alternative Right. Also: VDARE, American Renaissance. Ugly and disturbing stuff.

    How about Dominionists/Reconstructionists - are they fascists? Not exactly, but they're certainly totalitarians like the Iranian mullahs and Stalinists. But Palin and Beck are not Dominionists, at least not openly.

    By the way, Europe itself is chock full of nativist/nationalist parties that make the American Tea Party look liberal in comparison. And they get significant minorities of the vote in elections and attempt to band together in the EU.

    • palmd says:

      You are claiming an authority on the topic I certainly cannot myself claim, and I take you on your word about such things.

      I do think, however, that you are defining fascism far to narrowly. I'm certainly familiar with dominionists and with european neofascist parties, and i don't see why the Tea Partiers are exempt from the label. There is certainly room to disagree, given the long history of the term and its differential application.

      • Colugo says:

        Fair enough. But the historical flexibility of the term is one of the things that make it problematic. For example, if the Tea Party is fascist then major nationalist and religious chauvinist parties all over the world - especially the Third World - must also be fascist, since they share these 'fascistic' traits to at least the same degree. And that's excluding the European neofascist parties, which as I mentioned are generally much worse than the Tea Party.

        These definitional issues aside, I certainly hope that the US economy doesn't get any worse. Because that might spark a severe nativist-populist reaction, perhaps inducing the Tea Party to hybridize with the radical traditionalists/WNs. And that would be scary indeed.

        Some books:

        Sheri Berman: The Primacy of Politics.
        Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: Black Sun.
        Roger Griffin: Fascism and Modernism.
        Stanley Payne: A History of Fascism, 1914-1945.

    • CW says:

      Neiwert calls it Pseudo Fascism.

  • palmd says:

    But Paxton concludes – as did I in the “Rush” essay – that we are not there, at least not yet, saying the nation would “have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization” for such a transformation to occur.

    I think we may have achieved that.

  • Coturnix says:

    I grew up in a country in which we thought "it cannot happen here".

    It happened.

    Be warned, it can happen in USA as well.

  • Bob Calder says:

    Christian Reconstructionists for sure. The extreme Calvinist views of Rushdooney leaven the belief system of most current fundamentalist thought.

    I have no idea to what extent the label of fascism is important. However, the Nazi political philosophy's claims to rescue the character and faith of the Volk and the Stalinist parallels are certainly evident in Beck's rhetoric on Saturday. His rejection of non-Volk are evident in his rejection of immigrants.

    His rejection of scientists' claims (global warming) certainly smacks of placing the common man's understanding at the center of the universe. That's another echo. None of these groups you guys are trying to keep separate are quite nasty enough. But if you sweep them together - fundamentalist, Tea Party, survivalist paranoia, and the new narrative mythology of America, you get something that a charismatic individual could manipulate.

    Does any other group that desires political power make parallel moves? I can't think of any.

  • Jac says:

    Thank you for this article.

    When petulance is flaunted as passion, loudness as sincerity, childishness as innovation and history a place where no mistakes were made, you've got a serious bullying problem to deal with. Sounds very much like the fascism my grandfather and father voluntarily fought against.

  • Nathan Myers says:

    We're in a real pickle when arguing against fascism isn't just promoting motherhood and apple pie.

    • skeptifem says:

      ??Is this supposed to be ironic? Hitler gave out medals to moms for having a lot of children (of the right race, of course). Traditional gender roles were government enforced. Women who were older than 18 took classes on housewifery that the government ran. Fascists promote the hell out of motherhood.

      • Nathan Myers says:

        "Promoting motherhood and apple pie" = "empty demagoguery", conventionally.

        Motherhood is politically favored everywhere there are voters, for the trivial reason that voters have mothers. Politicians have no chance of changing how people feel about their mothers, but hope to benefit in reflection by seeming to be more favorable toward them than their opponent is. Nazi promotion of fertility on an industrial scale was a completely different and almost unrelated phenomenon. Indeed, the Nazis officially sentimentalized fatherhood.

        Going off over individual words doesn't make for good discussion, or good thinking.

        When the U.S. does turn entirely to fascism, what will the thinking person do? It would be better to figure it out early, because whatever it is, it will be easier to do earlier than later.

  • John McKay says:

    David Neiwert's essays on this are definitely worth reading. Defining fascism is an historical debate that isn't going away. If you read a shelf of books on the topic (as I have) and what you will probably come away with is a list of a dozen or so traits and rough rule that if a movement meets eight or more criteria then it can be called fascist. At the top of the list should be: rhetoric of restoring national greatness (with national greatness defined in terms of a mythical state that never existed), action for its own sake, adoration of the military, anti-intellectual populism, and demonization of the traitorous domestic enemy.

    I think your application of Eco's list is spot on with one exception: Sense of Humiliation. The enemies--the humiliators--of the modern right are the vaguely defined "elites" that they rail about, the mainstream media, urban professionals, college professors, latte sippers, Volvo drivers, Northerners. It's classical American anti-intellectualism tied to the Southern and Midwestern resentful inferiority complex. They know that someone is out there looking down on them and they resent that faceless mocker. They try to turn the tables by appropriating the mantle of "real American" for themselves, to say that they deserve to be the elite. But deep inside they know the "elites" won't let them into the club. Stoking these fears and angers for temporary political gain is what the politics of resentment are all about.

    Like Neiwert, I think were seeing pre- or proto-fascism in the angry right. These groups have always been out there, but they have never had this much prominence in the United States. We have never had one of the major parties pandering to them and adopting their pathologies as its platform.

    I guess it's time to reread Hoffstetter's "Paranoid Style in American Politics." It's a good idea to read it every election year.

    PS- I went to Sunday school with David Neiwert. That doesn't give me any extra credibility on this manner, but it's about as close to a claim to fame as I have.

  • Techskeptic says:

    "Since personal firearms are irrelevant in fighting foreign enemies, their only real use can be the fight against domestic ones."

    These guys didn't buy firearms to protect themselves against foreign nations. They bought the firearms and bullets becuase they perceive that there needs to be an uprising against THIS nation.

    Hilariously, these pea shooters are also irrelevent in that battle for the most part.

  • becca says:

    "Those who are become worse than the enemy, because the weaken they state from the inside."
    This is a really interesting point. It might help explain something for me. On NPR, they interviewed a Baptist minister who was at the Glenn Beck event. He spoke about President Obama's Christianity in extremely disapproving tones. At the same time, he seemed to be bragging about how the event was composed of people of many religious faiths (e.g. Jewish Rabbis, Muslim Imams, Catholic Priests...). He noted that he would disagree with many of them, but he seemed to view them as less "the opposition" than Obama.
    In the best of all possible worlds, this could be a reflection of embracing a stew rather than a melting pot model of American diversity (i.e. many components blend together in a harmonious way, but are also still identifiable as themselves vs. homogenization).
    In the Brave New Beckistanian world, I am wary. I fear it may instead be a reflection of savvy manipulators utilizing whatever emotionally compelling buzzwords ("diversity", "freedom", "faith", "tradition") best serve to unite people in one controllable mass (in this case, a mass united against Obama and whatever he can be made to represent).

  • BB says:

    Excellent post.

  • This is incredible!

    The values the New Right promulgates are not only in direct opposition to my personal values, but they also do not seem to be grounded in reality. It looks from the outside like malicious mass delusion.

    What I find particularly alarming is how readily they dehumanize the rest of us. As if there is no common thread of humanity that fosters compassion and unites us all.

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