Editor’s note: Bloomberg reporter Ryan Donmoyer wanted readers to know the context in which he wondered whether tea party members “parallel” Nazis. Below is the full thread in which the quote occurred.
Aug 6, 2009, 8:16pm
Fistfights in Tampa at a townhall:
Aug 7, 2009, 8:08am
You know, at the risk of violating Godwin’s law, is anyone starting to see parallels here between the teabaggers and their tactics and the rise of the Brownshirts? Esp. Now that it’s getting violent? Reminds me of the Beer Hall fracases of the 1920s.
Aug 7, 2009, 10:16am
Calm down– as someone who shouted down pro-war Johnson administration officials in the 1960s, I see this as pretty routine stuff. Not so long ago, many college administrators didn’t even let “subversive” speakers on campus. Politics ain’t beanbag…
Aug 7, 2009, 10:59am
I’m always extremely reluctant to deploy the “F” word. But this essay is a good one on which to hang a discussion, I think. Most usefully, it points out that fascism is a variety of coalition politics; and that elements for that coalition are visible on the horizon.
Fascist America: Are We There Yet?
Sara Robinson’s picture
August 6, 2009 – 1:23am ET
All through the dark years of the Bush Administration, progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished, nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation and violence, and the president of the United States seized for himself powers only demanded by history’s worst dictators. With each new outrage, the small handful of us who’d made ourselves experts on right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?
And every time this question got asked, people like Chip Berlet and Dave Neiwert and Fred Clarkson and yours truly would look up from our maps like a parent on a long drive, and smile a wan smile of reassurance. “Wellll…we’re on a bad road, and if we don’t change course, we could end up there soon enough. But there’s also still plenty of time and opportunity to turn back. Watch, but don’t worry. As bad as this looks: no — we are not there yet.”
In tracking the mileage on this trip to perdition, many of us relied on the work of historian Robert Paxton, who is probably the world’s pre-eminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn fascist. In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History, Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist movements isn’t by their rhetoric, their politics, or their aesthetics. Rather, he said,
mature democracies turn fascist by a recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most important family resemblance that links all the whole motley collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading of Paxton’s stages, we weren’t there yet. There were certain signs — one in particular — we were
keeping an eye out for, and we just weren’t seeing it.
And now we are. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for, it’s suddenly everywhere. It’s odd that I haven’t been asked for quite a while; but if you asked me today, I’d tell you that if we’re not there right now, we’ve certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot and are now looking for a space. Either way, our fascist American
future now looms very large in the front windshield — and those of us who value American democracy need to understand how we got here, what’s changing now, and what’s at stake in the very near future if these people are allowed to win — or even hold their ground.
What is fascism?
The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as Paxton points out, “Everybody is somebody else’s fascist.” Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton’s essential definition of the term:
“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.”
Elsewhere, he refines this further as
“a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Jonah Goldberg aside, that’s a basic definition most legitimate scholars in the field can agree on, and the one I’ll be referring to here.
From proto-fascism to the tipping point
According to Paxton, fascism unfolds in five stages. The first two are pretty solidly behind us — and the third should be of particular interest to progressives right now.
In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal (what Roger Griffin calls “palingenesis” — a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes). They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it’s always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture’s traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery.
Fascism only grows in the disturbed soil of a mature democracy in crisis. Paxton suggests that the Ku Klux Klan, which formed in reaction to post-Civil War Reconstruction, may in fact be the first authentically fascist movement in modern times. Almost every major country in Europe sprouted a proto-fascist movement in the wretched years following WWI (when the Klan enjoyed a major resurgence here as
well) — but most of them stalled either at this first stage, or the next one.
As Rick Perlstein documented in his two books on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, modern American conservatism was built on these same themes. From “Morning in America” to the Rapture-ready religious right to the white nationalism promoted by the GOP through various gradients of racist groups, it’s easy to trace how American proto-fascism offered redemption from the upheavals of the 1960s by promising to
restore the innocence of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America. This vision has been so thoroughly embraced that the entire Republican party now openly defines itself along these lines. At this late stage, it’s blatantly racist, sexist, repressed, exclusionary, and permanently addicted to the politics of fear and rage. Worse: it doesn’t have a moment’s shame about any of it. No apologies, to anyone. These same narrative threads have woven their way through every fascist movement in history.
In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as informal goon squads organized to intimidate farmworkers on behalf of the large landowners. The KKK disenfranchised black sharecroppers and set itself up as the enforcement wing of Jim Crow. The Italian Squadristi and the German Brownshirts made their bones breaking up farmers’ strikes. And these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups
make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us.
Paxton wrote that succeeding at the second stage “depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner.” He further noted that Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances: “deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement.”
And more ominously: “The most important variables…are the conservative elites’ willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate.”
That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can’t even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and
ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can’t win elections or policy fights, they’re more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize
power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity.
When that unholy alliance is made, the third stage — the transition to full-fledged government fascism — begins.
The third stage: being there
All through the Bush years, progressive right-wing watchers refused to call it “fascism” because, though we kept looking, we never saw clear signs of a deliberate, committed institutional partnership forming between America’s conservative elites and its emerging homegrown brownshirt horde. We caught tantalizing signs of brief flirtations — passing political alliances, money passing hands, far-right moonbat
talking points flying out of the mouths of “mainstream” conservative leaders. But it was all circumstantial, and fairly transitory. The two sides kept a discreet …
Aug 7, 2009, 11:01am
Mike–the point being, people shouting down pro-LBJ officials in the 1960s weren’t in any meaningful way part of the Democratic coalition (by 1972 it becomes a little more complicated), and certainly were not deployed in any conscious fashion in the electoral leaders by that coalition’s leaders. That’s the key analytical difference.
Aug 7, 2009, 11:10am
Just read this quickly, but I think the whole premise is wrong, wrong, wrong. This is not Europe in the 1930s — which was Paxton’s reference point and that of nearly every theoretician of fascism. Is there a movement of any size or credibility which advocates doing away with the First Amendment, regular elections, or even has a whisper of a hope of founding a fascistic third party that would amount to anything? Is there anyone who’s advocating another aggressive war? Rick, you of all people, ought to recognize right-wing, anti-liberal backlash populism when it rears its gruesome head once again. Let’s not emulate idiots like Jonah Goldberg who substitute inappropriate labels for good analysis.
Aug 7, 2009, 11:41am
Michael, can you say this as a comment on the thread?
Aug 7, 2009, 12:20pm
Fascism was a historical phenomenon. That’s why I don’t like the way the word is used today. Fascists wanted a big all-powerful state that would both reach down into people’s lives at the most intimate level and support the( racially pure) masses economically through jobs, public works, and so on. That doesn’t have much relation to what american rightwingers want. They want a tiny defunded state that would use its diminished power and authority mostly for war, border patrol, prisons, repression of dirty effing hippies etc. but would leave ordinary citizens to sink or swim. Unlike the German or Italian fascists, today’s US rightwingers have nothing concrete to offer people. Just the pleasures of racism and selfishness and fear.
Aug 7, 2009, 12:19pm
I thought I did that…
Aug 7, 2009, 12:26pm
Roger Griffin and Robert Paxton don’t either of them identify state-corporate economics as an essential component of generic fascism. The Ku Klux Klan didn’t want to create an economically pervasive state, for example and nor did Augusto Pinochet.
Aug 7, 2009, 12:35pm
How does Robinson figure that the second stage, which she defines as:
“In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power.” has already happened? When exactly did the fascists seize their seat at the table of power in the U.S.?
Having said that, I’ve always thought it’s positively bizarre that Roger Griffin’s term for the nationalist renewal is PALINgenesis. Really, what are the odds of that?
Aug 7, 2009, 12:41pm
I mean on Sarah’s blog post.
Aug 7, 2009, 12:43pm
I think people should put all of this in a bit of context. I know the line from the DNC and blogosphere (which has been very effective!) is these are “mobs” that are “shouting down” and intimidating folks, and that’s clear true up to a point. But I also have to say, I’ve covered zoning variance hearings on Chicago’s north side that devolved into shouting matches and nearly came to blows.
Aug 7, 2009, 1:43pm
I agree, this was not a model of analytical rigor. I’m not sure what I was supposed to think was so impressive about this. Rick, can you elaborate on this piece’s virtues, that Mike and I missed?
Aug 7, 2009, 1:51pm
So you’re saying that contemporary right-wingers are worse than fascists, because they won’t even give regular people efficient and timely transportation infrastructure? That really is going out on a limb. It would make a great Nation column: “The Nazis–At Least They Gave Us the Autobahn!”
Aug 7, 2009, 2:14pm
Oh come on, that isn’t what i said. Obviously big-govt fascists are more dangerous than small-govt reactionaries. My point was that fascists had the wherewithal to be truly popular — they offered (racially vetted) people material benefits, that was one of the things Germans and italians liked about them. I don’t see american reactionaries making the same offer. that is (one reason) why I don’t see them as today’s equivalent to the Nazis and Italian fascists. Who were, I guess i need to say this, incomparably evil. The Devil BUYS your soul.
Aug 7, 2009, 3:34pm
I’d also say that the fascist and National Socialist right had an intellectual heft that the contemporary American right lacks. I’d much rather read Heidegger, Junger, Schmitt, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound etc. than Limbaugh, Coulter, Beck, Mark Steyn, etc.
This is not to say, of course, that fascism is better than the contemporary right. Quite the reverse: part of what made fascism so absolutely evil was how ambitious and far-reaching it was, which partially explains its intellectual appeal.
Aug 7, 2009, 4:34pm
There’s a pretty fine line here. I agree with your term “effective” — it’s been interesting to watch the number of incoming links to these stories at places like Memorandum. It started out as something that the conservative blogs seemed to pretty thrilled about, and now it’s liberal blogs driving the attention by about a 3:1 margin. For me, it’s not been the most intellectually honest moment in the history of the liberal blogosphere but, oh well, it’s an Important Time, and I certainly think people’s hearts are in the right place and I’ve enjoyed standing mostly on the sidelines and watching it unfold.
But I think we’re almost at the point where we’re actually the ones driving this story and giving these people a mouthpiece. Too much has been made of the fact that this is a LOUD, OBNOXIOUS group of people and too little of the fact that it’s a SMALL group of people, albeit larger than what we seem to be able to muster up at these events.
Just to repeat myself: I think the left-o-sphere has been fairly effective at fighting this one to a draw. When Blanche F’in Lincoln calls the protesters “un-American” — even if she has to retract it later — that’s a sign they might not be having the effect they were hoping to have. Nobody likes to feel insulted or intimidated, especially not U.S. Congressmen, and they certainly don’t want to feel that nobody is listening to them. But there should probably be some reflection now on whether it’s time to pull back a little. The economic numbers today were really good, the polls seem to be
stabilizing a bit; I’m feeling pretty good about health care, like 80/20 good.
Aug 7, 2009, 4:57pm
When Nate Silver feels good . . I feel good.
Aug 7, 2009, 5:05pm
yo tambien- now enjoy your weekends
Aug 7, 2009, 5:59pm
The issue here is, and always has been, from an organizing perspective, whether the Blue Dogs are going to come back from August and say “my constituents are angry, I can’t support this bill.” I’d give 2:1 on that taking place with at least a dozen blue dogs. By that measure, the pushback has been insufficient.
Aug 9, 2009, 8:45pm
I’m not saying these guys are capital F-fascists, but they don’t want limited government. Their desired end looks more like a corporate state than a rugged individualist paradise.
The rank and file wants a state that will reach into the intimate of citizens when it comes to sex, reproductive freedom, censorship, and rampant incarceration in the name of law and order. They want their “limited” government to identify itself as a Christian nation and they want Christian churches to wield major influence on public life.
They hate unions, they hate intellectuals, and they hate gays. They idealize guns and the traditional family.
The financiers (e.g., the pharmaceutical and insurance industries) very much want a corporate state. What is healthcare reform without a public option, if not the largest expansion of the corporate state in our lifetime? Without a public option, we’re going to see “reform” that involves the government subsidizing the insurance companies’
crappy product and forcing everyone to buy it.
The whole movement expects America to be “strong” on defense, meaning heavily militarized. A strategy which guarantees big government, big spending, and big influence of defense companies over national policy. All classic Fascist desiderate.
As a rhetorical matter, it’s confusing to liken any contemporary group to Fascists because the comparison has been used so freely that calling someone a fascist is just another way of calling them evil or authoritarian.
Aug 9, 2009, 9:14pm
They want a deficit driven militarist/heterosexist/herrenvolk state. Because remember: They also don’t want to pay any taxes. That’s the limited government part. But they want their grandparents to have Medicare. It’s not exactly a coherent world view.
Aug 10, 2009, 7:37am
I’ll say it for a second time, then I’ll stop: We should split into two. Live and let live. As MacGillis reminded us yesterday, the founders never imagined a country so large anyway.
The only catch I didn’t mention the other day is sports, but I think the two nations would simply have to agree by treaty that all sports, pro and college, will just continue as before.
Aug 10, 2009, 9:49am
but all the good music came from the South– surely, you don’t want to leave us with nothing but polka, Gershwin, and A Prairie Home Companion?
Aug 10, 2009, 10:04am
C’mon Mike–we now have Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Dixie can keep the fucking museums and tombstones. We’ve got the recordings now….
Aug 10, 2009, 10:18am
But it took a lot of suffering (and interracial sex) to create all that great music. We Northerners just ripped it off…
Aug 10, 2009, 10:41am
Ok, we ripped off their music. They repaid us with Jesse Helms, Tom Delay, and George W. Bush, among too many others. How about if we keep the interracial sex and just call it square?
Aug 10, 2009, 11:20am
Hey, is the boy from Hibbing chopped liver?
Aug 10, 2009, 11:33am
As he wrote in his HS yearbook: “I want to be in the band of Little Richard.” Just another Dixie wannabee….and his mentor, Woody G, was from OK…
Aug 10, 2009, 12:20pm
OK, OK, you win.
On a related note, check out this winger video:
Note that Harvard, Yale, Princeton are considered eminent. So this isn’t coming from the Palin know-nothings.
Aug 10, 2009, 11:04am
yes, but now there are lots of black people in the north, so we can still have all that great music etc. the south served its cultural purpose and can now be left to go its own way, like they say they want to do. We can check back in fifty years and see who’s better off.