Fascism comes in many forms; if Hitler and genocide can be one end of the spectrum, there’s plenty of room for fascism that falls far short of that standard, eschewing pogroms and other forms of mass violence, forms of fascism that include what we are seeing now: a democratic fascism (small “d” referring to democracy in general, as opposed to a capital “D” associated with America’s Democratic Party) empowered by populations, media, and elections that rewards and empowers those willing to feed off division and fear as it overwhelms norms, dissenting minorities, and even the law. As this democratic fascism rises, the losers are the liberal democratic governments that have been dominant since the end of WWII; in effect, it is no longer a question of if, as I posed nearly a year ago, but how fast we will see the unraveling of the post-WWII U.S.-led international order. What we do now will define the West and the world for decades to come, but the growing far left must grow up quickly and act within the clear choices of present reality if we are to have a good chance of stopping democratic fascism from destroying our societies, the West, and the international order as we know it. Here in Part I, we will define our terms so as to effectively set up our larger discussion of the present and the risk it poses for the future in Part II.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 17, 2017
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter: @bfry1981) February 17th, 2017; a condensed, edited version of this article is featured on War Is Boring, and a Kindle edition, a Nook edition, an Apple iTunes iBook edition, and an EPUB edition are available with previously unpublished content; part on defining fascism excerpted for January 1, 2023, article An Urgently Needed Definition of “Fascism” as the West Fights It Anew at Home and Abroad
“American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.”— Henry A. Wallace, 1944, Vice President of the United States 1941-1945
“If it were possible for any nation to fathom another people’s bitter experience through a book, how much easier its future fate would become and how many calamities and mistakes it could avoid. But it is very difficult. There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’
Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1983, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, “Introduction to the Abridgment”)
AMMAN — One can easily go back to the domestic tyranny of Athens’ democracy in ancient Greece, of the will of the demos often trampling over minority rights, to begin a long history of systems that were democratic in that a majority had power and chose leaders or voted on legislation, but with that being the extent of the democracy. In fact, as happens all too often, people—especially when consumed by fear and hate—will choose someone who merely reflects the base instincts of their majority, will use democracy to create a political culture of persecution, intolerance, and even brutalization of those who are not in the majority, will create a system designed to favor and perpetuate the rule of this majority, and will actively suppress those speaking, acting, and organizing against it.
This is a Tocquevillian tyranny of the majority on steroids, a system where only the people in power and those who support them can even approach having the feeling they live in a democracy or that their opinions count in the public square, while everyone who feels differently is made to understand that even expressing their counternarrative, their dissent, their dissatisfaction will carry consequences for their level of freedom, or even their health, up to and including the lethal variety. Such “democracies” exist to empower the majority or the plurality of those supporting the current leader/government/system and only them; the rest of the population is made to feel that they are tolerated at best by the good graces of those in charge and to embrace their second-or-third-class status meekly and enthusiastically, to be deferential to their oppressors’ views and whims, or else…
Such a system uses democracy to destroy it. Such a system embraces limited (and the most salient) forms of democracy, mainly elections and the right of those winning the elections to rule (and in this case, rule uncontested); these elections are often fair in a strict sense, but the party in power is often subtly rigging the system in legal ways to restrict the process of voting so as to favor itself and disenfranchise those not subscribing to its program to enough of a degree as to give that ruling party a substantial advantage; when elections are held in such a system, the deck is already stacked in the ruling groups’ favor, and crude tactics like voter fraud, harsh media censorship, and election-day voter intimidation are cast aside in favor of things like redistricting, restrictions on voter registration, and explicitly partisan oversight of elections, where even subtle voter suppression actions can make differences that decide outcomes. Especially when such parties control the system over time, they are able to stack the courts with judges favorable to their intolerant vision and thus legal challenges to their misrule and abuse of power are stopped by legitimate means, with the very interpretation of what constitutes “abuse” or “illegal acts” watered down in a partisan way so that the legal precedents and judges’ opinions justify the very abuse being questioned, shutting down the courts as any kind of a venue usable by the opposition; this, in effect, makes these courts simply another tool for the ruling party to further its agenda and its consolidation of (and eventual stranglehold on) power.
These systems can also use a—free, even—press to twist and mold public opinion and in ways quite harmful—even fatally so—to democracy; such a press can help bring out the worst in the citizens themselves, something on which the tyrannical majoritarian system is counting; but, perhaps, their citizens may be good enough at bringing out their own worst tendencies without the press fanning the flames, either by themselves or with the help of a charismatic leader, though the three often work in tandem.
Extreme examples of systems today playing these games, or worse, involve Turkey, where both journalists and political leaders critical of President Erdoğan and his party have wound up in jail, and Russia, where journalists and political critics of Putin and his party have wound up dead, up to and including the major leader of Russia’s political opposition, Boris Nemtsov, shot dead in sight of the Kremlin on a major public thoroughfare early in 2015 (sometimes, even when not necessary, these “democracies” favor the crude methods to make their point even more bluntly).
The true spirit of democracy is not merely in holding elections and then allowing the prevailing winners to do whatever they please to whomever they please; it is the recognition that the rules after the election apply equally to winner and loser alike, that the same protections of the basic rights of the winners must needs also apply to the losers, and the winners, while enjoying certain natural advantages electorally from having won the reins of power, will not use the very machinery of government to explicitly entrench and expand those powers in ways that violate the equal application and protections of the law in regards to losers and winners alike. Thus, Lincoln attacked slavery not merely as something inherently morally abominable, but something which allowed an elite to decide among themselves who was worthy of rights and who was not; criticizing both slavery and an anti-immigrant movement, Lincoln wrote in 1855 that
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal .” We now practically read it “ all men are created equal, except negroes .”When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “ all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics .” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty— to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy .
Many of the millions of whites in America, not only in the North, but also in the South, who were against—and voted against—slavery, certainly did not lose this point in their thinking, as their leader Lincoln made sure to reemphasize time and time again. They didn’t need to be black to recognize the poison of discrimination and how it can spread.
And this is why current developments all over the world in democracies that are hardly new are so terrifying: people are increasingly unable to link their own (as conceived in identity terms) plights with the plights of those whom they deem “others” by their identity, with these “others” increasingly seen as the source of whatever problems—real or imagined—are fashionable to discuss.
I despise both hyperbole and conspiracy theories, but make no mistake about it, we live in an era of rising democratic fascism and of the weakening of traditional democracies and the values with which they were established and upheld. And rest assured, I did not come to the use of this term lightly; even a year ago, I would not have even considered using the term “fascist” to describe anything major in American politics, not the Tea Party, not the Republican Party; apart from when the Ku Klux Klan was a major force in American life in the 1920s, and apart from the South during the Jim Crow era, during Reconstruction, and especially during the terrifying vision of government attempted by the so-called “Confederate States of America” during the Civil War and the Antebellum slavery South would this term be widely applicable in America. Yet it is hard to describe what is happening in America, Europe, and elsewhere as anything else but democratic fascism (I’ve been coming across the term “illiberal democracy,” but that’s far too benign-sounding a term for the truly insidious happenings to be discussed herein even if it is broadly accurate; and this is far more than merely a rightward lurch; the Tea Party was a rightward lurch, and this is beyond even that insanity).
There are many reasons for this shift, but the following quote illustrates, if in a slightly oversimplified way, some of the dynamics behind this as far as people and mentalities are concerned:
The following joke circulated in Italy in the 1920s. According to Mussolini, the ideal citizen is intelligent, honest, and Fascist. Unfortunately, no one is perfect, which explains why everyone you meet is either intelligent and Fascist but not honest, honest and Fascist but not intelligent, or honest and intelligent but not Fascist.—Maurice Herlihy and Nir Shavit, The Art of Multiprocessor Programming
Yes, as before, a cadre intelligent people willing to be extremely dishonest are leading a new move towards fascism that wins the hearts and minds of the unintelligent who are honest with their backwards beliefs, leaving a cadre of intelligent, honest, non-fascists to be in the unenviable positions of selling less attractive trusts juxtaposed to often more attractive fascist lies. Sure, there are rich exceptions, but you could do far worse as far as accuracy than categorize most people in politics these days into one of these three categories.
No, it’s not the 1930s, but today, the democracies of the world are collectively facing a cancer of populist, and, yes, democratic fascism that threatens to erase democratic norms, destroy liberal democratic values, and that seeks to remake many of the world’s leading democracies in the image of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its “democracy” that relies on an intolerant majority that understands democracy simply as the gratification of their emotional desires, with dissenters, minorities, and others who don’t agree with them be damned, their complaints of abuse at the hands of the state dismissed and ignored.
Yet terms like democracy and fascism are thrown about quite casually, and not necessarily in a way that is accurate; in fact, I earlier engaged in an exercise in defining the word “terrorism” usefully that amply demonstrates how important it is for a reasonable and universal definition of certain commonly-used-in-our-political-discourse terms to be sounded out so that the terms are spared from being bandied about in a way that virtually anyone can use to make any point, rendering them meaningless and their use pointless.
In his seminal 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell expressed his understanding of how slippery the uses of both “democracy” and “fascism” not only could be, but were when he wrote that
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
Such tendencies that flourished in Orwell’s time still, sadly, flourish today, over 70 years both after Orwell penned those thoughts and after the defeat of fascism in Europe. We shall do our best to avoid such traps in the discussion below by discussing the definitions of both “democracy” and “fascism.”
1.) Defining Democracy
In a pure, technical sense, there are no democracies: every modern national system avoids direct rule by the demos, the people, in favor of a system in which the demos choose from among themselves a number of representatives who by virtue of their election become an elite political class that represents the demos in the government, governs on behalf of the demos,and whom the demos hold accountable in a continuing series of recurring elections in which they can reinstate or replace said elite representatives. In every modern instance of true democratic government, the systems are set up along representative lines in the form of one or some combination of a republic, a constitutional monarchy where the monarch has relatively limited powers, and a parliamentary or a presidential system; the people may occasionally weigh in on referenda, but other than these occasional referenda, their participation is limited to voting for their representatives (sometimes including voting for a national prime minister or president), and the governance is left to these representatives.
Thus, in the pure sense, these systems are not democracies ruled by the demos, but systems in which the demos are ruled by elites chosen with the consent of the demos, with the wider demos consenting to a system in which many of them will choose representatives that lose electoral races or are part of parties not powerful enough to be in power but still consent to abide by the legitimate results and will seek to fight for a different result not through violence but through legal means, most importantly the chance to participate in a future free and fair election where the result can, potentially, be different. Some particularly naïve people—many Bernie Sanders supporters, for example—confuse the concept of a free and fair election with one in which a brand new party or a candidate who wants to engage in a hostile takeover of an existing party is not at any material disadvantage against other candidates and longstanding parties who have accumulated material and human capital resources through many years of efforts and relationships; even in a truly free and fair election, most candidates will not start with an equal chance or equal access to resources, but, rather, their own careers and decisions will determine their starting points in those regards.
Thus, in modern times democracy has come to be understood as a system that has the forms of mass popular input through free and fair and repeated elections of representatives and through effectively equal applications and protections of law and justice for all citizens on an equal basis, regardless of their political or any other affiliations (or something at least approximating this). This functions basically as a promise to both winners and losers: performance will matter and people can punish the winner or reward the loser next time around, with the winner not cheating using its governmental power to stay in power and the loser not losing simply because he cannot access the same power as those already in power; this is not, again, to naively say that winning and being an incumbent doesn’t come with certain natural advantages, but said advantages should not be collectively so powerful as to be insurmountable for an opponent if the people are not satisfied with the performance of said incumbent and/or want change. Thus, again, free and fair does not mean perfect, merely the ability for non-incumbents to compete with a realistic chance of victory if the people are not happy with the current leaders and/or desire change; if people are happy with current leaders, it should, naturally, be far more difficult to defeat them, absent extraordinary circumstances or scandals.
Of course, other ingredients are vital: the American Founding Fathers recognized the massive importance of both freedom of speech and of the press (hence the First Amendment is first), so that the people could have accurate information about the good, bad, and ugly of what their government was doing and make decisions based on such information, not government-controlled propaganda; likewise, a population educated and informed enough was also understood to be vital so that the people could make wise decisions and be able to tell the difference between propaganda and actual news. Modern democracy, then, can be understood to transcend the 1.) necessary but not sufficient mechanism of popular elections and to extend to include among the sufficient conditions: 2.) a justice and law enforcement system that is applied relatively equally and not used as a political tool of self-empowerment and oppression of others by those in power (this necessitates some degree of judicial independence), i.e., “rule of law”, 3.) a free press that can hold all parties accountable and provide an accurate picture of reality to the public, 4.) and a population free to express itself not stupid enough to be manipulated by propaganda and demagogues, that can make at least somewhat informed decisions based on reality (although organized differently, this roughly lines up with the UN General Assembly’s list of the “essential elements” of democracy).
The dire threat to democracy today is not the abolition of elections, then, but the use of elections to empower leaders who—and parties that seek to—use the justice and law enforcement systems as a tool to stay in power, punish opponents, and control or bend the media to its will in a way that either cynically plays on the stupidity of the people to not realize what is happening or, perhaps far worse, that plays on their prejudices and fears to create a popular mentality that is aware of much of this abuse but cares not to speak out against it because those abuses are against despised minorities and, thus, those abuses are not minded by large swaths of voters because they are seen to be benefiting those voters. In such conditions, elections can serve to undermine democracy, strange as it may seem. This new form of democracy is not really democracy in our modern understanding at all, then, but is, instead, democratic fascism; here, elections are simply tools of certain groups of voters and political parties, coalitions, or leaders to legally seize power and then turn the instruments of the state into a spoils system that rewards the winners and the voters who empowered those winners and into a tool of oppression against many who aren’t (or even everyone else who isn’t) on board (including those critical in the press); if this is allowed to happen, it is always with some combination of the ignorance of those voters who buy into the rulers’ propaganda, voters’ tacit approval, or voters’ enthusiastic embrace of a system that explicitly favors them because of their politics (increasingly tied to identity in terms of race, ethnicity, or religion in this day and age) and explicitly discriminates or otherwise punishes those with differing politics (and usually different identities; in some ways, in democratic fascism the words “politics” and “identity” can be interchangeable, though this is common in many systems that are not democratic fascism).
2.) Defining Fascism
Which brings us to a discussion of what we should understand fascism to be…
“Fascism” as a word in English comes into English in the 1920s from the Italian fascismo, describing the movements (maybe gangs is a better word) that would eventually put Mussolini in power in Italy but a word also alluding to the ancient Roman symbol of authority, the fasces. The English definition of “fascism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is mainly twofold: “An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization” and a subdefinition: “(in general use) extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practices;” both are useful, and, especially, the subdefinition is applicable here, but a further, less vague, and more detailed definition is needed for our discussion.
Like “terrorism” and “democracy,” “fascism” as a term can easily become overly and poorly used. Writing in 1944, Orwell noted how “there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist.” Still, even noting the sharp disagreements of the people of his day over who or what was fascist, he noted that “[b]y ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.”
The enthusiastic admirer of Orwell and recently (and very sadly) late Christopher Hitchens, unsurprisingly, echoes some of what his hero had to say, but goes farther; for Hitchens, “[h]istorically, fascism laid great emphasis on glorifying the nation-state and the corporate structure,” is “based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind…[and is] hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons).” He also describes fascism as “bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories,” as “obsessed with real and imagined ‘humiliations’ and thirsty for revenge,” as “chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia),” as “inclined to leader worship,” and as a “threat…to civilization and civilized values;” perhaps Hitchens’ most pithy description is as follows: “[t]he historic essence of Fascism is the most retrograde people using the most revolutionary rhetoric.”
For Rebecca West, writing in 1935, “Fascism…is a headlong flight into fantasy from the necessity for political thought…persons supporting Fascism behave as if man were already in possession of principles which would enable him to deal with all our problems, and as if it were only a question of appointing a dictator to apply them.”
In his preface to the Third Edition of his The Mass Psychology of Fascism, written in 1942, Wilhelm Reich notes that:
In its pure form, fascism is the sum total of all irrational reactions of the average human character. To the narrow-minded sociologist who lacks the courage to recognize the enormous role played by the irrational in human history, the fascist race theory appears as nothing but an imperialistic interest or even a mere “prejudice.” The violence and the ubiquity of these “race prejudices” show their origin from the irrational part of the human character. The race theory is not a creation of fascism. No: fascism is a creation of race hatred and its politically organized expression.
For U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), one of the handful of men who can be said to have been a primary architect of the successful plan to defeat fascism in the 1940s, he felt that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself,” and what stood out for him was that “[t]hat, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.” In other words, when one ruler/party/faction/group considers that it owns the state and that the state’s machinery, power, and largesse exist as personal tools for those in power, when that controlling entity does not feel it needs to share the state, and its machinery, power, and largesse with others different from themselves, we have fascism.
A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.
Wallace notes how American fascism is different from Nazi German fascists in a way that is quite relevant today when we are attempting to discuss democratic fascism:
The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.
For Umberto Eco, whose own childhood took place in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, fascism was something that could be any combination of a number of key elements. Writing in 1995 in an incredibly prescient and far-too-underappreciated essay on what he termed “Ur-Fascism”—that eternal and incoherent fascist current within humanity—the Italian master saw fascism as something that espouses a “cult of tradition” in a way that was “syncretistic” and produced little if anything original (in this, Eco’s fascism resembles the evil forces in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which is described here in The Lord of the Rings in a discussion of the nature of Sauron’s orc minions: “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”). He also saw it as a “rejection of modernism” and, in turn, an embodiment of “irrationalism.” For Eco, fascism values “action for action’s sake” in a sense that despised deliberation and intellectual discourse and the intellectual world in general; building upon this, he also noted how fascism is unable to “withstand analytical criticism” to such a degree that “disagreement is treason.” As a natural follow-up to this, he notes fascism’s hatred of diversity and its “exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference,” that (nascent) fascism’s “first appeal…is an appeal against intruders,” making fascism “racist by definition;” it feeds on “individual or social frustration” in a way that is an “appeal to a frustrated middle class” that is “frightened by the pressure of lower social groups;” Eco feared that “the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.” The psychology of fascism is obsessed with identity, particularly appealing to those lost and confused in a changing and challenging world, and offers them a crude way out based on nationalism (for Orwell, “power-hunger tempered by self-deception”), a nationalism defined by exclusion of “enemies” of the nation; this psychology is based on “the obsession with a plot” against them, domestically and internationally. Those subscribing to such a fascist movement “must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies” but also “be convinced that they can overwhelm” them (leaving them “constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”) With such movements, “pacifism is trafficking with the enemy” and “life is permanent warfare” such that even in victory, there is still a pervasive sense of insecurity, unspoken inferiority, and anxiety. Eco’s fascism is also embodied by a “contempt for the weak” that is crucial for its “popular elitism:” the leaders of the movement convince their mass followers that they are the true elite, even as they thrive by exploiting the weaknesses of their captains and both, in turn, exploit the weaknesses of their mass followers, who feel superior to those not in the movement in a dynamic of trickle-down elitism (“Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on,” as Sinclair Lewis writes in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a man remarkably like Donald Trump becomes president running a campaign remarkably like Trump’s and ends up transforming America into a fascist dictatorship). Here, Eco continues, “everybody is educated to become a hero” in a sense that engenders a constant hero martyr-complex (often literally reached by death or sending “other people to death”). In fascism, Eco also finds a misogynistic, homophobic machismo that addresses its sexual inadequacy through the “ersatz phallic exercise” of “play[ing] with weapons.” He also finds fascism to be based on a “selective populism” that is “qualitative” not “quantitative” in nature; “the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction,” and “[t]here is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Fascism, then, is “against ‘rotten’ parliamentary [i.e.., democratic] governments,” and “[w]herever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.”
Pondering the reality of a fictional German Nazi and Imperial Japanese-occupied America in the 1960s in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, a Nazi defector to Japan’s Pacific States of America defines the fascist system of insanity and its adherents as one explained by:
…something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, I intuit it. But—they are purposelessly cruel… is that it? No, God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans…Something frenzied and demented…
Their view; it is cosmic. Not a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honourable men but of Ehre itself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time…
…They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history.
For long-time New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik,
What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners. That it can appeal to those who do not understand its consequences is doubtless true.
From these writers, thinkers, and leaders, then, like democracy, we can approach a definition of fascism that avoids the pitfall of being too specific but is still meaningful past use as a simple pejorative, thus avoiding Orwell’s trap as well.
For a brief, poetic, and literary understanding of what we may now say about fascism, allow me to satirize Paul’s lovely passage on love from First Corinthians (by far “Saint” Paul’s best work when compared to the rest of his generally contemptible legacy):
Fascism is impatient, fascism is cruel. It is jealous, is pompous, it is inflated,it is rude, it seeks its own interests, it is quick-tempered, it broods over injury, it rejoices over wrongdoing but does not rejoice with the truth. It bears only itself, believes only itself, hopes only itself, endures only itself. Fascism always fails.
Furthermore, fascism is hateful, irrational, fearful, childishly boastful; it thrives and survives on misinformation and disinformation, lies and deceit; it brooks no criticism and is an eternal enemy of intellectual discourse, debate, diversity, inclusion, and being part of the wider world, relies on racism, bigotry, ignorance, misogyny, and brute bullying in all manners of ways, loves cultish leader-worship, lusts after a false imagined past and “tradition,” is corporatist, nationalistic, incoherent, and contradictory, and is all of these things not mildly but intensely; it takes more typical, offensive, intolerant, and reactionary right-wing politics to a far more elevated level, so that even liberals will wistfully miss their old right-wing nemeses with the advent of the new fascism. There may not be a clear line where it is absolutely obvious where one has passed the realm of the more banal, typical right-wing politics into the realm of the far more dreadful (but still banal) and less manageable fascism (democratic or otherwise), but when one is well past that ill-defined line there can be a sickening clarity, a retroactive realization of one’s fetid new surroundings and a sheer terror that there may not be any going back anytime soon.
So that is our understanding of fascism in a general sense; now, we may fuse that with our discussion of democracy into an understanding of fascism’s relatively-cleaned up, ready-for-(network)television, outwardly milder but arguably even more dangerous step-child from a loveless marriage of some 70 years with the American-dominated post-WWII international order: democratic fascism.
3.) Democratic Fascism: A More Presentable Fascism for the Twenty-First Century
Much like Bernie’s Sanders’ “democratic socialism” differs quite markedly from other forms of socialism and is far less “socialist” than many of those, so too is “democratic fascism” markedly different from the fascism and famously fascist governments of the twentieth century. For Eco, even if fascism in Europe experienced a rebirth, it would be shaped by the new circumstances of its birth and will hardly be a repeat “in its original form” of the same fascism that arose before WWII.
And as Henry A. Wallace noted and we previously mentioned, unlike the fascist movements in the past—in particular Germany, Italy, Japan, and in Latin America—fascism in the United States would not use violence as a major vehicle to its power, but would, rather, primarily come to power through using media and twisting the concept of “news.” Of course, Wallace was onto the same truth that Orwell would most masterfully present to the world in his masterpiece 1984 with its concept of Newspeak, a formal language of propaganda, deception, and control: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of [the regime], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In his earlier-cited essay, Eco also identified Orwell’s Newspeak as the final enumerated element of fascism, noting how it makes “use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.” Eco also echoed Wallace when he noted that
Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.
The typical (small-“d”) democratic candidate asks you to vote for her to use the system and improve it to benefit you, the voter; the democratic fascist (and, we may also note, the democratic socialist à la Bernie Sanders) candidate campaigns to go to war with the system, to destroy, that by his virtue and abilities and/or with the power of the people behind him, he will sweep away the bureaucracy, institutions, politicians, laws, rules, and norms that apparently hold us back; there is no love or praise of the system or working within, or even the political party he is trying to hijack; the system, the party, are rotten to the core, there’s nothing to work with, they only have flaws; nothing short of a revolution (or “political revolution”) is required. The democratic fascist (and democratic socialist) needs to take existing legitimate problems and grossly exaggerate their intensity or to completely fabricate problems that do not exist but that play into people’s preconceived notions and prejudices; anger, contempt, and derision are some of the core emotional foundations the democratic fascist’s (and democratic socialist’s) campaign pitch; equal, or ever larger, than any hope for the future is the joy of destroying the existing order and of seeing the elites who have been in control be forced out of power and/or damaged in unconventional ways, so much so that even if the promises of a better future fail, the rest may be enough for the democratic fascist’s supporters to be content with, and continue to support, the new order; they will “feel” better and as if they are “on top” and “in charge” simply by virtue of the discrimination against the groups they despise, which they see as a restoration of “justice” and the natural order even without any true improvement in their own situation; thus, the democratic fascist appeals to the emotions of his supporters, independent of any reality and with plenty of lies and deceit ready to counter reality, a political puddle that will be eagerly lapped up by their followers who have reduced themselves to loyal canines so long as they are emotionally coddled like puppies no matter how irrational their beliefs and perceptions.
Since this democratic fascism combines many elements that can be attributed to fascism, but far fewer of the elements we attribute to democracy, the term fascist democracy is not really applicable in the same way that democratic fascism is; yes, at least some major elements of democracy are present, but are twisted to serve undemocratic ends, with democratic fascists weaponizing the press and with it, in turn, weaponizing the people, who, in turn, weaponize the elections, which, in turn, weaponize the justice and legal system to serve the political empowerment of democratic fascists and the oppression or suppression of their rivals, corrupting all four of the key elements of what we noted defines true democracy; thus, these emerging democratic fascist movements are more fascist than democratic in our vetted understandings of those words.
So democratic fascism, even though it is far less jarring in it relative lack of violence compared to past historical fascist movements, can still amply demonstrate qualities of fascism even if in less overtly threatening ways (because how many things can be more overtly threatening politically than uniformed armed political operatives utilizing violence in their own country for political ends). At the same time, it is harder to stop democratic fascism or even to call it fascism because of its more subtle approach. So even while using democratic means—specifically elections and a free press—for decidedly undemocratic ends, democratic fascism demonstrates how it is a much more of a fascistic phenomenon than a democratic one; after all, some of our thinkers have warned how democratic fascists, especially, can deceive the public into supporting them, using the freedom of the airwaves to disseminate effective lies in a weaponization of information itself that enables them to reach a critical mass of support absent a critical mass of united, intelligent voters, so that, more or less, the democratic fascists can legitimately win an election; from there, they capitalize on their media influence within the free press and the lack of an informed, discerning population to turn the final element of successful democracy—a relatively independent legal and justice system that is generally fairly applied when it comes to politics and adheres to equal application regardless of political affiliation—into a political tool enabling democratic fascists to suppress opposition and/or favor themselves just enough (at least initially) in elections so as to create a one party state supported by a large swath, even a majority, of the voting public (it is important to note here in America that because Republicans blocked so many of Obama’s judicial appointments, Trump will have the opportunity to appoint more federal judges in his first term than any president in the last 40 years); such a program is harder to attack as undemocratic when the government is not rigging votes and not taking over the free press and, instead, allows the appearance of a competitive democracy to still convince a huge portion of the population that this false perception is reality; with enough public support and enough support within a free media, democratic fascists in power may not may not need to entertain the aforementioned overt measures in order for them to maintain power and disadvantage the opposition enough to make that opposition’s ability to win elections—now far less free and fair—extremely difficult or even non-existent, especially when they firmly control the judiciary.
Thus, first with the media, then with the people, then with elections, and, finally, with the legal and justice system, democratic fascists succeed in bending the key components of healthy democracy into supporting the establishment of democratic fascism in a tipping-then-falling domino-like effect.
4.) Spin vs. Lies and the Weaponization of Information in a War on Reality That Fuels Democratic Fascism
It all starts, again à la Wallace, with enough of the free press attacking reality itself.
Which bring us to a discussion of lies vs spin. Spin is a normal part of politics; it is simply how politicians and their supporters, whether in government or the media, try to put their best foot forward in making their case and defending their actions; much like lawyers in a courtroom, then, spin represents an effort to put something forward in the best possible light (or, if they are against someone/something, the worst) in light of the available facts. More often than not, spin is rooted in truth, but is presented selectively in a way that only or mainly includes that which is most favorable to whatever position is being made. Like the situation with lawyers in a courtroom, then, here, the truth is somewhere in between the two positions: even when a lawyer “wins” a case, it is hardly accepted that every point he made was true; it is simply the role of the jurors or the judges to decide who made the better case and weigh the burden of proof into this as well. In many respects, the news media is our courtroom of public opinion, and it is hardly a coincidence that many of the people on TV representing various political people and agendas are lawyers themselves, as is the case of many of the people formally representing political parties and other groups within the government itself. Spin certainly includes false suggestions and distortions, often driven by unfavorable context being deliberately omitted; and lies certainly do get told sometimes in the art of spinning. Spin itself comes from the term “spin room,” which for decades has referred to the area where the press and representatives of politicians would engage with each other after a debate between two or more politicians, and pretty much every representative would tell the press that his or her candidate had won (from that, we have the unintentionally farcical “No Spin Zone” on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show).
Like the line between democracy and democratic fascism, the line between spin and lies is not always clear, and lies are hardly unheard of in politics; but we have clearly entered a new era where, as opposed to spin, we have politicians and their surrogates and supporters, particularly on the right, creating an alternate reality when reality doesn’t match their talking points, an alternate reality based on “alternative facts” (more on that in a bit) and reported as the gospel truth by (usually self-styled) “alternative” media. As a spectacularly salient example, immediately after his first debate with Clinton, Trump himself entered the spin room (an act itself unheard of), and, among other lowlights, Trump denied that he had said something that he had clearly just said during the debate with millions watching and the debate well-recorded for posterity.
Let that single example sink in for a moment.
Reality is not subject to partisanship, so the fervent partisan will create his own reality to suit his own ends. Yes, led by right-wing media outlets at first, and coupled with Trump’s campaign machine later on (which, to be honest, mainly consisted of Trump’s Twitter account and a handful of shameless surrogates), this brazenly-reality-challenging environment was the catalyst of the successful internal democratic fascist coup (aided considerably by Putin, and more on that later), with an alternate universe of “alternative facts” that a huge portion of the electorate—willfully or otherwise—confused with the real universe of just plain ol’ facts; so influenced, that electorate ended up enabling someone like Trump to win an election when never before would an American electorate have chosen him, for, as Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” And in Orwell’s 1984, this concept is taken to an extreme: “…if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past;” thus, there can be little more dangerous to democracy than people uncritically accepting junk fake news news—and I don’t mean a slant or an opinion on the news, but accepting blatant falsehoods and entirely false stories—designed to further a political end.
And now, all that stands in the way of democratic fascism twisting all four main components of democracy in America is the last main pillar of democracy: the legal and justice system not being political tools and not applying the laws to benefit Trump et al. and punish/cower his opponents (Trump is already tweeting and uttering fighting words at the judiciary and intelligence community, neither of which are immune from his considerable influence and Executive authority), a pillar which is likely only to stand if either Trump’s own Republicans stand up to Trump or Democrats manage to start winning again, and neither (let’s be honest here) is likely (just see the horrid newly-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s confirmation vote or check out the DNC race, the strident Bernie Sanders, and left-wing voters). It did not get this way overnight (Republicans especially have been denying reality on a whole host of issues for years, including immigration, gun control, ISIS, Iraq, racism, and climate change), but we are definitely in an era where the facts are far more loosely played with, even if they are stubborn things.
A conversation journalist Ron Suskind had in the summer of 2002 with (it was later revealed) top W. Bush advisor Karl Rove is quite revealing of the mentality that conservatives have when it comes to their adversarial relationship with the media and with the intellectual community:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
To be fair to the George W. Bush Administration, though this mentality should be quite troubling, it was never taken in its eight years to the heights that Trump, his crew, and his supporters collectively have taken us through today, not even a full month into his presidency, and, as I’ve already noted, democratic fascism is, in part, what it is because of how far it takes things, oftentimes times just greatly metastasizing trends that were already both in place and problematic to whole new dimensions.
The Bush Administration didn’t generally outright lie, but it did tend to selectively present the best evidence for its case while deliberately avoiding or downplaying any information that didn’t help said case; this “spin” is not terribly uncommon in politics, as noted, but its heavy use in launching what turned out to be the largest U.S. military intervention since the Vietnam War certainly justifiably raised many eyebrows, to use understatement (more accurately, it was a sharp, sudden military escalation unlike anything before in American history, what Tom Ricks called “the biggest mistake in American history”). Yes, the intelligence assessments did estimate that Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs and Hussein pretended to still have them for his own reasons (explaining why Hillary Clinton and many Democrats voted to authorize to allow Bush to use force if necessary to disarm Saddam Hussein as a tactic to pressure Hussein and were not voting “yes” for “war”), but the credible parts of this intelligence were only based on old information and their estimates were not expressed as certainties; thus, the biggest lies of the George W. Bush Administration were generally lies of omission, of exaggerating the degrees of certainty, or of rationales (though Donald Rumsfeld should get some sort of special recognition for the alternate reality he set up for himself and even seems to have believed in, to boot).
Andrew Sullivan hits the nail right on the head with his hammer in his latest piece on “the end of Western civilization, the collapse of the republic”:
I want to start with Trump’s lies. It’s now a commonplace that Trump and his underlings tell whoppers. Fact-checkers have never had it so good. But all politicians lie. Bill Clinton could barely go a day without some shading or parsing of the truth [much as I love Sullivan, this seems pretty harsh on Clinton]. Richard Nixon was famously tricky. But all the traditional political fibbers nonetheless paid some deference to the truth — even as they were dodging it. They acknowledged a shared reality and bowed to it. They acknowledged the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all. Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality — and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission. That first press conference when Sean Spicer was sent out to lie and fulminate to the press about the inauguration crowd reminded me of some Soviet apparatchik having his loyalty tested to see if he could repeat in public what he knew to be false. It was comical, but also faintly chilling…
…What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent, troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s, and half what it was in 1980. What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address — when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie — along with an ad hominem attack…
…With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind…
…it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago…
…[since] [w]e cannot avoid this surreality all around us.
In discussing Trump’s presidency just a few days into it, The New York Times’s Paul Krugman went into some realistic predictions of how thing will go under Trump (which is badly); his discussion of Trump’s response to these challenges is key:
So how will Mr. Trump handle the bad news of rising unemployment, plunging health coverage, and little if any crime reduction? That’s obvious: He’ll deny reality, the way he always does when it threatens his narcissism. But will his supporters go along with his fantasy? They might. After all, they blocked out the good news from the Obama era.
Yes, Trump likes to say he has “a running war with the media,” which is true (just watch his February 16th, 2017, thus-far-singular first full press conference as president, contrasted with a fact-checked/annotated transcript) and a war in which his close advisor Steve Bannon plays a leading role—and Trump regularly calls information that reveals unflattering truths about him “fake news”—but Trump and his team have an even bigger running war against reality, which sums up the bulk of his war with the media.
I have been following politics since the mid-1990s, and closely since 1998; I’ve never seen a president, let alone a major party nominee, fights basic facts and reality the way I have seen candidate Trump and now President Trump do so, nor have I ever seen a team of top advisors so dedicated to lying and creating an alternate reality. I have lost track of the number of times I have literally heard and seen the president say and/or do something, only hours later, sometimes even less, to hear and see him or one or more of his team flat-out deny what I had just seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, led by several at the top of his inner-circle—the triumvirate of: the former serial purveyor of fake news à la Breitbart and admirer of WWII-fascist/Nazi-associated Italian intellectual Julius Evola, Steve Bannon, now Trump’s Chief Strategist; the circus-level contortionist of truth, master of “alternative facts,” and serial spouter of shameless lies Kellyanne Conway, now Counselor to Trump; the forceful fudger of facts and understudy for his namesake Sean Hannity, Sean Spicer, now our new White House Press Secretary and Communications Director (he is about to lose the latter position)—and followed by a whole host of eager distortionists incredulously given far too much regular television airtime, effectively dumbing down the airwaves. To be sure, some of these people have been on TV and in other media for years, particularly on Fox News and on fringe, extremist outlets; but in the course of a year, they and their outrages have been normalized and mainstreamed in way unprecedented for their kind; the volume of their presence coupled the intensity and shamelessness of their deceits truly is a brave new world that goes far beyond “spin.”
Alex Wong; Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Even among the traditional, far more respectable media outlets not cheerleading for Trump, this election season was plagued by inadequate coverage, frenetic and thoroughly lacking essential context or rigor (or the rigor being misapplied), and saturated with a blithe false-equivalence, with the way the Clinton e-mail server story was handled only being the most salient example out of an entire election season’s worth of examples; combined with misleading or outright fake news, there was a critical mass of media being consumed by Americans that distorted reality just enough—and I mean just enough in an election that came down to less than 38,600 votes in 3 swing states where large numbers of Trump voters there (and nationally) made their decisions to vote for him in the final weeks and month of the election as orchestrated fake news harming Clinton and helping Trump flooded people’s newsfeeds and even overcame the degree of engagement of traditional reality-based news in terms of top stories—to hand Donald Trump the White House through an Electoral College win.
Not only, then, did we have a presidential campaign that trafficked and reveled in fake news and constantly denies both reality and his own indisputable statements and actions, but we now have a president and his administration doing the same, with a truly huge portion of the American electorate accepting this fake news, lying, denying, and deception as reality. Competing against an alternative reality that generally tells voters what they want to hear are candidates that try to be far more honest with voters, who try to guide them to understanding “hard truths,” to quote Hillary Clinton, about problems and what is required to achieve solutions to them, which is about as unfair a fight as one can imagine in a democratic election. As the British historian Simon Schama noted earlier this month, “The indifference about the distinction between truth and lies is the precondition of fascism. When truth perishes so does freedom.”
Continued in Part II: Trump, the Global Movement, Putin’s War on the West, and a Choice for Liberals
© 2017 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, no republication without permission, attributed quotations welcome
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