Thinking About Fascism—Part 1
Is Trump a fascist? Is the GOP becoming a fascist party? How can we tell? All your most anxious questions answered
A couple of weeks ago, in response to a brief post devoted to promoting a podcast in which I discussed various dimensions of the populist threat to liberal democracy, a paying subscriber left a comment that inspired today’s item, which ended up being so long that I’ve split it up into two parts. The second half will run on Wednesday.
Here is a shortened, edited, and anonymized version of that comment:
I have a question regarding the F-Word, which you raised when discussing Trump's brand of politics, insofar as it incorporates some elements of fascism. I very much agree with that assessment. I'm curious as to what you think about the larger debate over fascism and its existence or lack thereof within the modern GOP.
Caught me! Using the word “fascism,” I mean. The truth is I don’t use the word a lot in my writing and talking about the subject of this newsletter. There are two main reasons why.
First, because left-leaning critics of the right down through the decades have overused the term to an absurd degree, using it to denigrate and raise alarms about anyone to the right of Barack Obama. Support using military power to defend American interests abroad? Fascist. Express the patriotic sentiment that the United States is a force for good in the world? Fascist! Think current rates of immigration are too high? Fascist!!! Believe violent crime is a problem that requires a strong response by police and prosecutors? FASCIST!!!
This has transformed the term into a multi-purpose political epithet, draining it of precise meaning. Calling a political opponent a fascist has become roughly equivalent to calling someone an asshole. We all know vaguely what it means, but using it doesn’t really clarify anyone’s thinking about precisely what the person did wrong.
The second reason I shy away from using the term is that it’s pretty slippery as a concept. I say that as someone whose political thinking has been shaped at a deep level by Aristotle. Even if you reject the details of his work, you have to admit there’s something elegant and illuminating about Aristotle’s effort to evaluate regime types using two criteria:
1. Who rules
2. To what end
So, if the many (the majority) rules for the sake of the common good, that’s a polity. But if the many rules for the sake of bettering itself at the expense of other groups, that’s a democracy (which Aristotle considered a defective regime-type).
Likewise, if a few rules for the sake of the common good, that’s an aristocracy, while a few ruling for the sake of their own selfish advancement is an oligarchy.
Finally, when one person rules with an eye to the common good, that’s a monarchy, whereas one person ruling for the sake of his own personal betterment is a tyranny.
Fascism is obviously a form of tyranny—a distinctly modern form at the scale of a nation-state. (Aristotle wrote about city-states and empires.) But we have other terms for that: authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and yes, good, old-fashioned tyranny. Are all of these terms interchangeable? Are all dictators fascists? How about all totalitarians? Or does it only work in the other direction, with all fascists being dictators or totalitarians, but not the reverse? And if that’s the case, how do we sort through the various examples and settle on which terms apply to which governments?
This post (in two parts) is my initial stab at answering a set of related (and more specific) questions: What’s distinctive about fascism as a regime type? Is Trump a fascist? And is the contemporary GOP in the process of becoming a fascist party? In advancing tentative answers to these questions, my thinking has been informed by the leading scholars of fascism, as well as by the historically informed analysis found in John Ganz’s Substack newsletter, Unpopular Front, which I plugged in my inaugural post.
It turns out that, just as I was getting to work on this post, Ganz dropped the first of two excellent posts of his own on the related topic of whether Trump-supporting tech-entrepreneur Peter Thiel is a fascist. So those looking for more thinking along these lines should subscribe to Ganz’s newsletter, begin with those posts, and then read through his many illuminating older posts on related subjects. He and I don’t agree on everything, but Ganz is always worth reading and thinking with.
Tyranny, Ancient and Modern
Reading ancient Greek writers (Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle) on tyranny makes it sound like a regime devoted to enabling the tyrant to fulfill his lust for the greatest possible pleasures. Money, power, glory, food, drink, sex—the tyrant is insatiable, a grabber who can’t stop grabbing for more, and more intense, goods.
Modern tyranny isn’t usually like that. It’s ideological, motivated by ideas, and it involves administration on a vast, national scale, which means it requires a movement to gain power and a party to hold it. This also means that however much the tyrant indulges his personal craving for various pleasures, the regime itself is far more ascetic than its ancient analogue. The tyrant needs to exert control, which demands considerable self-control, or at least discipline throughout the ruling party.
That seems to describe authoritarianism in general. What distinguishes an authoritarian regime from a totalitarian one is the extent of control or discipline within the ruling party or clique, and its reach throughout the nation. Does civil society have some measure of autonomy, even if elections never take place, opposition parties are banned or hobbled by the state, or their outcomes are predetermined by the ruling party? Can you go about your life without constant interactions with state functionaries and without fear of transgressing rules imposed from the top and enforced by a federal police force? If so, you probably live in an authoritarian regime, not a totalitarian one.
An authoritarian regime becomes totalitarian when the state and its ruling party and ideology penetrates civil society in its entirety, smothering it, leaving no significant private sector at all. That includes even small meetings in private homes and apartments, which may well be surveilled by the state, along with the postal and electronic mail and other forms of technologically based information sharing. Not only are opposition parties banned and elections (if they are held at all) controlled from the top, but any evidence of dissent is monitored by the secret police and covert informers spread throughout the population. One’s own neighbors become agents of the state, enforcing control at the most local level.
Those who keep quiet and avoid trouble in totalitarian regimes get rewarded with jobs, larger apartments or homes, and other perks, while those who make a nuisance of themselves suffer punishments ranging from lower pay and lack of promotions at work to imprisonment, torture, and execution.
Far Left or Far Right? Communist or Fascist?
That sounds really bad! But is it fascism? It all depends: Is the totalitarian regime organized around an ideology of the far left or the far right? If the answer is the latter, then the regime might be described as fascist. Which means that fascism is one prominent right-wing form of totalitarian government, just as communism is a prominent left-wing form.
How does the far right differ from the far left in power? At the level of ideology and socioeconomic structure, they seem to be very different. The far left champions radical equality and abolishes private property to eliminate the accumulation of wealth by individuals and families. It also embraces a universalistic ethic that seeks likeminded allies around the globe.
The far right, by contrast, champions hierarchies of various kinds (economic, racial, ethnic, religious, gendered) and co-opts wealthy individuals and families from supportive groups, allowing them to maintain their status in return for contributing to the aims of the regime. Intense social cohesion is then achieved and enforced by extreme nationalism, including the belief that one’s own nation is intrinsically superior to others, and mass mobilization using technologically disseminated propaganda.
In practice, the end results are quite similar. Communist and fascist regimes both effectively absorb civil society into the state, deploy secret police, punish enemies of the ruling party, undertake bloody purges, and commit atrocities and genocides. The Soviet Union murdered many thousands of dissidents and sent millions into internal exile in gulags, while also starving to death millions of Ukrainian peasants who stood in the way of Joseph Stalin’s program of forced agricultural modernization. Nazi Germany killed many thousands of political prisoners and sent millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps along with members of other groups who had no place in the exclusionary Aryan order the Third Reich hoped to build.
One additional significant difference has to do with how the two regime-types come to power. Communists usually do so straightforwardly, by building a popular movement around clearly stated ideals and then seizing state power in a revolution, after which opposition parties are repressed and banned.
The fascist version of this process often involves spreading a mixture of straightforward propaganda and outright disinformation throughout civil society in order to produce epistemic confusion. (Hannah Arendt writes about this with unsurpassed insight in The Origins of Totalitarianism.) Fascists also tend to encourage the organization and deployment of paramilitary groups throughout the country that can aid in the seizure of power at multiple levels of society.
Part 2 of this post, which focuses in on Donald Trump and the GOP, will appear on Wednesday.
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