Fascism Scholar Says U.S. Is 'Losing Its Democratic Status'

Sep 6, 2020

Since it was first popularized by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, fascism, and accusations of it, have been a common theme in American political discourse.

Voices on the left warned of fascism in the form of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; conservatives have accused liberals of actually being the ones to embrace the far-right ideology.

Historians have noted similarities between Donald Trump and Mussolini since before the 2016 election. Some of the racial justice protesters this summer have said they are fighting fascism in the form of President Trump. And the presence of antifa — anti-fascist — protesters at some demonstrations has upped attention to the word.

But what is and isn't fascist isn't even agreed upon by scholars.

Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, offers one perspective on the word. He defines fascism as "a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of humiliation brought on by supposed communists, Marxists and minorities and immigrants who are supposedly posing a threat to the character and the history of a nation."

Stanley, who is the author of the 2018 book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, tells NPR's All Things Considered: "The leader proposes that only he can solve it and all of his political opponents are enemies or traitors."

Stanley says recent global events, including the pandemic and the protests, have substantiated his concern about how fascist rhetoric is showing up in politics and policies around the world.


Interview Highlights

On what has changed between when he first wrote the book in 2018 and now

Well if someone described to you, "Here's country X. The leader of country X claims that he is going to remain in power for many years beyond what is legal. He sends federal forces in to quell largely peaceful protests for racial justice in his country. His attorney general seems dedicated to him over the rule of law. The major political party that controls the courts and most of the government has, as their entire platform, devotion to him."

What would you think about that country? Where would you think the direction of that country was headed? I would think that country was losing its democratic status, especially when it had a history of voter suppression and the highest incarceration rate in the world as background conditions.

On how conspiracy theories can be used as fascist tactics

Conspiracy theories destroy an information space. The goal — fascism is based on a friend-enemy distinction, so you're either with them or against them. The enemy is the enemy of civilization. What it does is it destroys the information space. It makes you think that even if your guys are corrupt and lying, it is because [the leader is] facing a mysterious cabal that is controlling things that are trying to foment a race war. This is the basis of the Ku Klux Klan ideology.

And even when they seem respectable they're really being controlled by the Marxists and the minorities. And so that makes you think that your opposition is not legitimate and there's no debating them because they're really in a conspiracy to hide a pedophilic sex ring and advance the interests of Marxism. And so what we find is not just a conspiracy theory but a conspiracy theory that echoes the worst aspects of European history and American history.

On what gives him hope

[The U.S.] is the home of anti-fascist resistance — not just our soldiers in World War II but our intellectuals and journalists and nonviolent protest movements and revolutionaries here who have confronted our own racial history that so influenced Hitler. So we have the seeds in this country of the evils that were the foundation of many anti-democratic regimes, but we also have the flowers that stopped them.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer and a day to celebrate American workers, so a little later, we'll give you two views about the issues confronting American workers, one from a prominent labor leader and another from an organizer.

But first, we want to take another look at the raucous political moment we're in as a country. For months now, protests have been on the rise, and often in the course of them, fascism will be invoked. Demonstrators who oppose President Trump will say he is a fascist, or at least behaving like one. There are protesters who identify themselves as antifascist. And by now, you might have heard President Trump say they are really the ones who are fascist.

So we thought this would be a good time to revisit this term and ask, what does it really mean? And is this a term we should even be using when talking about politics in a democracy? We called Jason Stanley for this. He is a professor of philosophy and author of the book "How Fascism Works: The Politics Of Us And Them." It first came out in September, 2018, but it's been reissued with a new preface because he says that global events have only substantiated his concern about how fascist rhetoric is showing up in politics and policies around the world.

Professor Stanley, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JASON STANLEY: Thanks. It's great to be on my favorite show.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you for that. As we mentioned, the book first came out in 2018. But in your new preface, you offer a pretty grim picture of the path we're on as a country. You even go so far as to say, quote, "our democratic culture is on life support." What makes you believe this more now than when you first wrote the book? What's changed?

STANLEY: Well, if you sat down, and you just thought, here's country X. You are - someone described to you, here's country X. The leader of country X claims that he's going to remain in power for many years beyond what is legal. He sends federal forces in to quell largely peaceful protests for racial justice in his country. His attorney general seems dedicated to him over the rule of law. His - the major political party that controls the courts and most of the government has as their entire platform devotion to him.

What would you think about that country? What would you think the direction - where would you think the direction of that country was headed? I would think that country was losing its democratic status, especially when it had a history of voter suppression and the largest - the highest incarceration rate in the world as background conditions.

MARTIN: So let's take a step back now and define our terms here. You describe some events and circumstances. Can I just ask you to define terms? Like, what's the essence of fascism?

STANLEY: Fascism is a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of humiliation brought on by supposed communists, Marxists and minorities and immigrants who are supposedly posing a threat to the character and the history of the nation. The leader proposes that only he can solve it, and all of his political opponents are enemies and traitors.

MARTIN: As we said, we don't have - we can only just scratch the surface here, but I want to dig into a couple of the other tenets of fascism that you point out in the book. You say that another core tenet is conspiracy theories, and you write that conspiracy theories do not function like ordinary information. Their function is rather to raise general suspicion about the credibility and decency of their targets.

So we know that there are conspiracy movements that support President Trump like QAnon. We know that he is prone to conspiracy theories himself, and he certainly isn't inclined to even criticize them. But this may be undignified and seem even a bit stupid. But why is this fascist? Why do you think this matters?

STANLEY: Conspiracy theories destroy an information space. The goal of fascism is based on a friend-enemy distinction. So you're either with them or against them. The enemy is the enemy of civilization. What it does is it destroys the information space. It makes you think that even if your guy is corrupt and lying, it's because he's facing a mysterious cabal that is controlling things, that is trying to foment a race war. This is the basis of the Ku Klux Klan ideology.

And even when they seem respectable, they're really being controlled by the Marxists and the minorities. And so that makes you think that your opposition is not legitimate. And there's no debating them because they're really in a conspiracy to hide a pedophilic sex ring and advance the interests of Marxism. And so what we find is not just a conspiracy theory but a conspiracy theory that echoes the worst aspects of European history and American history.

MARTIN: Another aspect of fascism that you write about is law and order - something we've been hearing a lot about lately. It's a very big theme of the president and his supporters' ad buys right now. And you write that to describe someone as a criminal is both to mark that person with a terrifying, permanent character trait and simultaneously to place the person outside the circle of us. They are criminals. We make mistakes.

And I'm going to ask you if you would explain why this is important, particularly because there has been violence at these protests. Along with peaceful protest, there has been violence in some places at some times, and so it is frightening to - so could explain why you think this crosses the line - when it crosses the line?

STANLEY: So the calling card of fascism is lawlessness in the name of law and order. You have to ask yourself, when the president has the RNC at the White House, the convention, and his acceptance speech in violation of the Hatch Act on television, you know, that's a violation of law and order. But yet there's a vocabulary of law and order.

So there has been property damage. There has been a tiny bit of violence, although by far, the greater violence has been far-right violence. The vice president had a moving testimony to a murdered police officer, but the police officer was murdered by a far-right activist. So there's a tremendous amount of far-right violence. Trump's supporters went through Portland in a caravan shooting paintballs in a clear attempt to intimidate the counterprotesters.

So protests in favor of Black Lives Matter have been largely peaceful. It is a longstanding American tactic to represent protests for racial justice as riots. I mean, I grew up in America, and I - it took me decades to learn that, you know, what happened in Detroit and Harlem and Watts were protests about police violence because they had been misrepresented. Their actual nature had been misrepresented to me.

One window into this is thinking about the Hong Kong protests. The Hong Kong protests were much more violent than anything we've seen here. Protesters had Molotov cocktails. They destroyed a train station. And yet the American press, the Republicans, did not represent them as riots. They rightly saw the violent aspects as protesters losing control of some elements of the protest.

But you know who denounced the protests as riots? You know who obscured their political nature and just called them riots? The Chinese government. This administration is representing these protests like the Chinese government represented democracy protests - as merely riots. And the fact is, there's been some property damage. There's condemnation of that property damage by political leaders. But the vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, and the violence against the protesters has been the worst kind of violence - has been state violence. When the state practices violence against its citizens who are protesting, that is the most concerning type of violence. That's authoritarian violence.

MARTIN: As a scholar of fascism, as a student of history, what do you want people to think about as they head into election season? And I'm particularly interested in what you say to people who say to what you just said, look, I don't like the tweeting, but the president's been good for the economy? I don't like the tweeting, but he's taken overdue steps toward reining in China, or who say he's appointed pro-life judges, and that's what's important to me.

STANLEY: I would say that democracy should be the unifying lifeblood of our country. The Democratic Party appointed a centrist as their standard bearer. This person is regards Republican - Joe Biden regards Republicans as a legitimate opposition. When you say it's this issue and nothing else, you're giving up on democracy, really, because democracy is about compromise. Democracy is about living with people with fundamentally different values and recognizing that their difference in value is not a threat to you but is the lifeblood of our country.

And when you have a leader that won't compromise, that promises deliver on one issue and one issue alone, that's not a democratic leader. And when you lose democracy, you're going to lose control eventually even of the issue you care about.

MARTIN: Given that you are a scholar of history - in fact, some of the worst moments of history and something that you're deeply engaged in - is there anything that gives you hope right now?

STANLEY: Yes. This is the home of antifascist resistance - not just our soldiers in World War II, but our intellectuals and journalists and non-violent protest movements and revolutionaries here who have confronted our own racial history that so influenced Hitler. So we have the seeds in this country of the evils that were the foundation of many anti-democratic regimes. But we also have the flowers that stopped them.

MARTIN: Jason Stanley's a professor of philosophy at Yale University. His book, "How Fascism Works: The Politics Of Us And Them," is out now in paperback with a new preface.

Professor Stanley, thanks so much for talking with us.

STANLEY: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF NON PHIXION'S "THEY GOT..." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.