Fascism In America: A Preventable Danger
Above Photo: Flickr/ Stewart MacArthur
Current Causes of Concern
Over the past few months, the possibility of a fascist America has moved from the realm of academic speculation to that of common concern. In August 2017, a coalition of organizations calling themselves “Unite the Right” organized a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the planned removal by the city government of a statute of General Robert E. Lee, leader of the pro-slavery Confederate forces in the Civil War of 1860-65. The resulting confrontation between protestors and counter-protestors culminated tragically when a 20-year old white supremacist named James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his auto into the crowd, sending nineteen people to the hospital and killing 32-year old Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor.
At this writing, “Unite the Right” has requested a permit to hold another rally in Charlottesville. But even without this provocation, there would be growing concern about the resurgence of U.S. organizations with fascist or neo-fascist sympathies and ideas. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-fascist watchdog group, reports a burst of growth on the Far Far Right, with about one thousand hate groups currently active. These organizations come in a variety of brands, ranging from white nationalists and members of the racist Ku Klux Klan to neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, patriot militias, anti-Muslim organizations, militant Christian identity groups, and others.
The advent of Donald Trump as U.S. president seems clearly to have energized these militants. According to the SPLC, “Several new and energetic groups appeared last year that were almost entirely focused on Trump and seemed to live off his candidacy.”  They included Identity Evropa, a campus-oriented group based in California, the Right Stuff, based in New York, American Vanguard, a national group with 12 chapters, and the Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi website that has expanded into real-world activism by starting 31 “clubs.”
The Trump presidency has apparently emboldened these groups, but the President is not a fascist. Or, perhaps I should say, not yet. In order to assess the threat of fascism accurately and to talk meaningfully about effective counter-measures, further analysis is needed.
What Is Fascism?
There are a number of different forms of fascism, but most analysts agree that it involves at least four components:
- Worship of the nation, which is considered to be a cultural and even a biological unit, and which is conceived of as the ultimate source of political and moral authority. Ultra-nationalism of this sort is a form of highly ritualized civil religion that tends to separate groups defined as “the people” from those defined as outsiders. The outsiders are deemed to be aliens without legal rights or sub-humans without a right to life. One gets a strong whiff of this thinking in the recent remark by Fox News consultant Ralph Peters that a preemptive nuclear attack by the United States on North Korea would be justifiable, because it would be worth killing one million Koreans to save one thousand American lives.
- Promotion of the Leader as the embodiment of the nation. The Leader is considered a truer representative of the nation’s interests, values, and needs than legislative or judicial bodies or political parties. He is also regarded as the authoritarian Father of the national family. The “Leadership Principle” (Fuhrerprinzip) reflects as widely shared contempt for politics-as-usual, which many people feel has become inefficient, corrupt, and meaningless. This contempt for legislatures, courts, and procedural niceties implies accepting a need for domination by a strong executive exercising very broad discretionary authority.
- Strengthening and glorification of force and the instruments of force, the armed forces and police. In Germany and Italy before World War II, this meant the creation of totalitarian police states. One can also imagine somewhat “friendlier” forms of fascism. But glorifying the army and police usually connects with intense pride in an aggressive foreign policy aimed at capturing or maintaining global power. It means conducting permanent war abroad, and normalizing a state of permanent wartime emergency at home. Culturally speaking, it also means revering a ruthless image of male strength, efficacy, and protectiveness – a “toughness” that is contrasted favorably to a softness despised as effeminate “weakness.”
- Destruction of the independent labor movement and a radical increase in the power of large businesses and banks. This generally involves organizing a business-government “partnership” with government playing an important coordinating (and sometimes deciding) role in the economy. Mussolini called his new order corporatism, and Hitler called his national socialism. Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism” is not yet a form of fascist economics, but its basic drive – to combine private control of the economy with a higher degree of planning, as in wartime – seems to move in that direction. The political correlative, as in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, is to portray the ruler as an authentic representative of the working class and small bourgeoisie against selfish or unpatriotic business interests.
Looking at these factors, it seems clear that the U.S. as a whole is not a fascist state, although certain trends in its politics and culture are extremely worrying. Most of these trends did not begin with Donald Trump, but were already part of American political culture – for example, the permanent state of war conducted by the President and the military with virtually no Congressional interference. Some, however, are Trumpian: e.g., the blanket ban on immigration from certain Muslim nations, the attack on “fake news” media, and Trump’s encouragement of police to use more force in making arrests. Overtly fascist groups in America are still quite limited in size, probably amounting to less than 10,000 members all told, but what is of great concern is the “iceberg” problem. What is the potential of these groups for growth, especially among discontented sectors of the population? How much of a future threat is fascism in America? To answer this question, one needs to look briefly at the causes of fascism. So long as these causes persist, their possible effects will continue to produce nightmares.
Fascism: Causes and Effects
Fascism arose in Europe in the period between the two world wars in response to crises that were economic, political, and cultural. The Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, who died in one of Mussolini’s prisons, said, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” At the moment, none of these crises are as extreme in America as they were in Europe – but serious problems exist and need attending to, lest the potential for fascism increase even more sharply. Here are a few of them:
- Economic Crisis. Notwithstanding the current economic boom, which mainly benefits the wealthiest Americans, underlying structural problems continue to produce extreme insecurity for the working class, de-industrialization of large areas of the country, deep trans-generational poverty, and startling increases in social inequality. This, after all, is why so many workers in states previously won by Obama rebelled against the Democrats in 2016 and either embraced Donald Trump’s right-wing populism or failed to vote. The “economic nationalism” embraced by Trump and Bannon is designed to turn high levels of worker discontent in the direction of anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-foreign ideology. Unfortunately, not only did Democratic Party leaders fail to recognize the extent of this discontent before the election, more than one year later they have still not proposed social or economic reforms capable of remedying the problem.
- Political Crisis. Again, ignoring obvious problems is dangerous. One notes the decay and disorientation of the American two party system; the growth of intense, narrow partisanship; legislative gridlock; domination of the political system by self-interested lobbies; the effect of the Citizens’ United case on election spending; and a growing disenchantment with democracy among some sectors of the population. Under such circumstances, many people look for a Man on Horseback to unite the nation at home and to put “America First” in foreign relations. Real solutions to problems of political decay and corruption must involve a revival of democracy. But, again, one waits for Donald Trump’s opponents to stop attacking his personality and character long enough to suggest how a more responsive democratic system might be constructed.
- Cultural Crisis. The Pew Foundation reports that its researchers have never before seen such deep divisions between American political groups based on class, race, ethnicity, religion, differing educational levels, and differing cultural values.  An internal cultural war is being fought that raises a real danger of the nation descending into tribalism. On the one side, immigration is seen as a threat to an endangered majority (i.e., white, Christian) culture. On the other, those despised as uneducated or uncivilized racists and sexists are called “deplorables” (arguably, Hillary Clinton’s worst mistake of the 2016 election). Witnessing the growth of a sense of humiliation and resentment among many groups, one cannot help recalling the fascist appeal to people’s wounded pride in the Nazis’ rise to power. We have got to learn, first, to identify real problems, and, second, to talk about them with each other.
What Is to Be Done?
If these are some of the causes of potential fascism, what can be done to eliminate or mitigate them before the fascist movement gets stronger? A key concept here is the existence of systemic problems and the need for systemic solutions. My recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed applies Johan Galtung’s theories of structural and cultural violence to current sociopolitical developments, arguing that we need to abandon “personality politics” in order to start talking about how to transform violence-producing systems. (From a political standpoint, personality politics, which reduces all public policy issues to the single question, “Whom do you trust?” is the essence of fascism.)
In preventing the further growth of American fascism, activities aimed at reducing cultural violence will play an especially important role. Solving economic problems should reduce the displacement of resentment onto cultural targets to some extent, but other sources of cultural insecurity – e.g., challenges to the coherence and stability of the family; changing social and gender roles; challenges to traditional religious beliefs; and new contacts with ethnic “others” – must also be recognized and dealt with. A particularly disturbing development is the rapid rise of a cult of toughness in which concerns for the feelings and fates of other people, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, are written off as forms of unmanly sentimentality. In the United States, racist passions always lurk below the surface like a sort of national id, returning to conscious expression in distorted forms just as Freud suggested in describing the “return of the repressed.” How to deal with sources of cultural violence that exist below the level of consciousness?
Dialogue is a key starting point for this sort of rethinking. The TRANSCEND Method, applied at the local level, suggests the possibility of numerous community-based forums aimed at helping people to talk creatively with others whose views they may consider hateful or dangerous. The point of this sort of conflict-resolving dialogue is not to engage in bargaining or to reach compromises, but to reach a better understanding of the parties’ shared problems and alternative methods of solving them.
My own research in the Greater Washington, DC area suggests that many religious organizations, both liberal and conservative, have strong interests in sponsoring or participating in such dialogues. A forthcoming workshop for clergy, scholars, and active laypeople representing Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist congregations will be facilitated by several of us at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in an effort to help train religious leaders to organize and conduct “inter-tribal” conversations about deeply contested cultural and ethical issues. We will report the results as soon as possible after the event.
 See Southern Poverty Law Center, “Hate Groups, 1999-2016” (“Hate Map”), https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map
 Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report (August 6, 2017), https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2017/stranger-politics
 See https://www.mediaite.com/online/better-a-million-dead-north-koreans-fox-news-strategic-analyst-goes-nuclear/
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from The Prison Notebooks (International Publishers, 1989, 221)
 Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American Public” (June 12, 2014). http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/