The Invisibility of Fascism in the Postwar United States
— Chris Vials
SINCE THE PUBLICATION of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism in 2007, the American right has cried “fascism” as never before. Tea Party ideologues are not the first rightists to use the word — but they are the first to use it as more than a passing smear, and to invent an elaborate history in which fascism appears as a left-wing, even liberal movement.
Before conservative radio took up this chant, liberals and the left may not have “owned” antifascism, but they defined its terms to a greater degree than any other player on the scene. During the Cold War, even individuals such as Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley assumed fascism to be a right-wing phenomenon.(1)
As a concept, “fascism” was a disruptive memory with uncanny echoes that had a nasty habit of putting the reactionaries on the defensive, from Fr. Charles Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy to Barry Goldwater and George Wallace.(2)
To be sure, Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is filled with factual errors and misrepresents its primary and secondary sources almost to the point of lying.(3) And few people outside Rush Limbaugh radio-land are convinced by Tea Party signs equating Obama and Hitler. But the recent cooptation of the antifascist tradition by the right has had a chilling effect on any intelligent attempt to think about fascism in the present.
It is interesting that the contemporary right feels the need to co-opt antifascism. No one on the left claims that Reagan was “just like” Stalin, nor feels the need to claim that the atrocities of communist governments were somehow “right wing.” Most people to the left are perfectly willing to make the tragic admission that when Stalin committed his murders, he did so using an ideology derived from their own side of the political spectrum.
In the public airwaves, the older common sense that communism was to the left and fascism was to the right has been washed out in a sea of relativism. Perhaps the true death knell of left antifascism isn’t Glenn Beck’s rants, but Jon Stewart’s repeated insistence that contemporary cries of “fascism” are all alike: vacuous, self-serving, even insane.
Fascism After 1945
The group that is perhaps most wary about the improper use of “fascism” are professional historians of the Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco regimes. They insist, correctly, that overuse of the term trivializes its significance. Yet while they don’t agree on most things, the major historians of fascism commonly assert something that might surprise the Jon Stewarts of the world: that is, fascism has been alive and well since 1945.
As Roger Griffin of Oxford wrote in 1993, “as a political ideology capable of spawning new movements [fascism] should be treated as a permanent feature of modern political culture.”(4)
Fascism is not the only direction that authoritarianism can go, nor is it the primary form of “unfreedom” facing the world today. Neoliberal capitalism generates a whole galaxy of constraints in the everyday lives of human beings that need to be much better theorized by the left. But amongst the many political challenges we face, we would do well to remember that the fascist form of repression is still very much alive on both sides of the Atlantic, existing, as always, as a fool’s response to the never-ending contradictions of capitalism. Unfortunately, we still need “the F word.”
When thinking about the survival of fascism after 1945, we must distinguish between two things: first, the continuing existence of fascist or fascist-like movements, and second, the nightmare return of a dictatorial fascist state power. The second is unlikely in the West. An irony-driven consumer culture, a general belief in parliamentary democracy, and the absence of a truly, fear-inspiring political left make a Fourth Reich unlikely for the foreseeable future in Western Europe and the United States.
But it is undeniable that fascist movements continue to exist. This is particularly obvious in Europe, where a number of fringe parties have moved from margin to mainstream in recent decades: the Front National in France, Jörg Haider’s Freiheitspartei in Austria, the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in Italy, the National Front in Britain, the particularly frightening Jobbik party in Hungary (clad in the symbols of the fascist Arrow Cross party from WWII), and most recently the Golden Dawn in Greece.
These groups have done a lot of damage — to immigrant communities and to public life generally — even though they have failed to take the state apparatus in its entirety.
But what about the United States? Certainly there has been a proliferation of small militia, neo-Nazi, white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups in recent years. In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed 1018 active “hate groups” in the United States.(5) While these groups have not cohered into a major, national political party and are not likely to do so in the foreseeable future, they should not be dismissed, as they continue to terrorize and even murder people with frightening regularity.
Far more unsettling are the strands of the proto-fascist right that have had a palpable impact on mainstream politics. As I argue in my forthcoming book Haunted by Hitler, fascist or fascistoid politics have noticeably impacted American history at three critical junctures since 1945.
The first was in the early 1950s, when the political forces aligned around Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities brought together a truly toxic set of discourses that came perilously close to fascism. The second was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the politics of George Wallace’s American Independent Party (the functional equivalent of a fascist organization) were co-opted by the Republicans.
The white-supremacist Wallace pioneered what came to be known as “the southern strategy,” the conscious appeal to white racial anxiety that avoids overtly racist language. The Republicans lifted this from Wallace in the 1968 elections, and have used it, with great success, ever since.
The third moment when American fascism entered the mainstream began in the 1980s and continued through the George W. Bush years, when the Christian right became crucial power brokers in the Republican Party. As I will discuss momentarily, the Christian right — and not the Tea Party — has been the most influential contemporary strand to merit the fascist label.
Mainstreaming and Concealment
The mainstreaming of fascism is more difficult to see in the United States than in Europe, since the most influential American proto-fascists have often been unaware that they’re part of this dark political history, and thus do not make apologies for the undeniable European fascisms of old. For instance, when George Wallace, a World War II veteran, was greeted at his rallies by young counter-protestors who mocked him with yells of “Sieg Heil,” he countered by shouting, “I was fighting the Nazi before you fellows were born.”(6)
Perhaps what conceals American fascism even further, however, is the two-party system. In the parliamentary systems of Europe, the various constituencies of the left and right are able to form their identities, rhetoric, and platforms within autonomous parties that have real political representation. There, the fascist component of the right can separate from pro-business and Christian Democratic strands to appear as a distinct entity in the public sphere.
In the United States, by contrast, fascist elements are typically buried with the Republican Party in organizations and institutions lacking the kind of visibility afforded to a third, fourth, or even fifth party in a parliamentary system.
If the Christian Right, for instance, was able to cohere into a “Christian National Renewal Party” with meaningful chances of representation in Congress, it might be easier to identify and discuss “fascism” as a current in the contemporary United States.
The rantings of Glenn Beck notwithstanding, the opponents of fascism have always been concentrated on the left. Thus the project of identifying fascism would be helped greatly if the left had a clearer sense of the essence of fascist politics, both in the days of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini, and in the ensuing years.
As a scholar who has studied fascism and its manifestations in the United States, the best book I would recommend here is The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), by Columbia University historian Robert Paxton; it synthesizes the politics of the pre-1945 regimes and gives a nice overview of possible warning signs in the 21st century United States.
Yet to this day, historians still radically disagree on the fundamental question: “What is fascism?” The one-sentence definition I’ve been able to synthesize from this debate and from my own research goes something like this: Fascism is a particular form of right-wing politics, finding fullest expression in Italy and Germany from the 1920s to the 1940s, based around militarism, anti-Marxism, a masculine cult of “action,” and a violent, racist, anti-democratic drive for national rebirth.
On this note, it is important to remember that not all right-wing governments — even authoritarian ones — are fascist. Historian Stanley Payne helpfully distinguishes fascism from right-wing “authoritarianism” (although his work obscures fascism’s contemporary relevance in many other regards).
Fascism differs from right-wing authoritarianism in that its key players are not traditional elites, but middle class “upstarts” animated more by visions of national renewal than by strictly economic motives.(7)
Some examples of right-wing authoritarianism might include Pinochet’s Chile, El Salvador in the 1980s, or Engelbert Dolfuss’s Austria in the 1930s. In these cases, oppressive governments emerged under the firm control of established ruling classes which jailed or killed their opponents and suppressed civil liberties without resorting to mass mobilization and fascism’s particular transformation of civil society.
But it should be stressed that in Germany, Italy and Spain, the collaboration between established elites (big business, large landowners, the civil service) and fascists was extensive, and that fascists could not have come to power without the help of these elites. This latter fact has often led leftists into what I call a “puppet master” theory of fascism, wherein fascists are mere puppets who spout populist rhetoric at the behest of their corporate masters.
Fortunately, even as early as the 1930s, leftists in the United States and Europe already developed an alternative to the puppet master theory which has since been upheld by historians in its basic outline (though academic historians rarely acknowledge their debt to the left on this score).
By the late 1930s, the left developed what could be called the “gangster theory,” which runs as follows: capitalists are scared stiff at the prospect of losing political control, thus they enlist the support of gun thugs (the fascists) to help them maintain their rule. The thugs have an agenda of their own, however. They suppress the communists, socialists, and unions, but not on terms dictated by big business. Profits are restored, to be sure, but to the dismay of the capitalists, they no longer call the shots.
Broadly disseminated by the American left, this gangster theory had gone mainstream by the late 1930s, and could be readily found in U.S. popular culture well into the 1950s.(8)
Understanding the Threat
The 21st century left would do well to remember what its forbearers learned a generation ago: Fascists are sometimes bankrolled by the rich, and help to restore profits, but economics and money-making, in and of themselves, bore them.
Their “mobilizing passions,” to lift a phrase from Paxton, are not found in de-regulating, restoring investor confidence, or even returning to “small government.” Rather, their passions are to be found in a rhetoric of God and Country, Father and Family, Warrior and Martyr, Citizen and Patriot, and in an inverse demonology of traitors, degenerates, foreigners and internationalists.
All right-wing politics are about maintaining social hierarchy (the left is more about equality and social leveling). But fascists aim to restore hierarchies through the brutal logic of the nation: they render all domestic elements who don’t fit their idea of “America” as foreign.
To this end, they are drawn to the cathartic pleasure of violence (this is why militarism is their clearest utopian expression). They are also obsessed with a far wider range of social hierarchies than the Milton Friedmans and Rand Pauls of the world.
This is why I see the Christian Right, not the Tea Party, as the closest thing to a major fascist movement in the United States today. The Tea Party is a broad coalition that includes fascist elements (including the Christian Right) and should certainly be of grave concern to any antifascist. Some neo-Nazis and militia groups have been drawn to the Tea Party because its nationalism is predicated on restoring social hierarchy; it is easy to see the movement as a whole going in more militarist directions in the event that historical conditions change and the left becomes a bigger threat.
But presently at least, too many incarnations of the Tea Party are animated by libertarian economic issues like taxes and “privacy” for the whole coalition to be called “fascist.” By contrast, Chris Hedges and Michelle Goldberg identified the Christian Right as the closest functional equivalent of a mainstream fascist movement in the United States (their Bush-era books American Fascists and Kingdom Coming are still essential reading).
While the Christian Right, like the Tea Party, is also a broad coalition, Hedges in particular makes a good case that some of the darkest political currents of the 20th century closely converge at its center: namely, the explicit rejection of democratic pluralism, the desire to restore social hierarchies through a combination of force and spiritual renewal, a cult of the father/warrior, and the eagerness to imagine the violent death of one’s enemies (not to mention a list of foes shared with historical fascism: gays, intellectuals, feminists, leftists, and non-Christian religionists).
Perhaps most disturbing of all, its activists often speak of the “Christian Nation” as the utopian vehicle for realizing all these elements.
Some may disagree with my view of the contemporary scene. That’s fine. The left has always debated the essence and appearance of fascism. My broader point is that we should continue to have this debate. There is still a need for the “F” word in the United States, though it should not be the first word the left reaches for in an emergency.
Capitalism, from its origins in 17th century Europe to the present neoliberal moment, has been very adept at restricting individual and collective freedom, and through a wide variety of means. It does capitalism’s opponents no good to call all of these “fascism.” We must develop a better vocabulary for understanding the loss of democracy wrought by market liberalism. But the “F” word should still have a place in the lexicon, because the thing it names remains one of the threats to the kind of democracy envisioned by the left.
Fascist movements and the ghosts of its movements have proven themselves capable, even in recent years, of getting voters to the polls in decisive ways (the evangelical support for George W. Bush and the continued use of “the southern strategy” come to mind here). Unfortunately, the social dislocations, institutional structures and political identities that brought the nightmares of Hitler and Mussolini to power have still not departed the historical stage.
It would help if American historians and researchers on the left would uncover more of their own (quite extensive) antifascist tradition, so that they could help develop a more self-reflexive awareness of earlier successes — and failures — in naming and combating fascism in the United States and abroad.
- William Buckley, “Riots Pose Dilemma for Conservatives,” Boston Globe, April 19, 1968: 15. At the Republican National Convention in 1984, Reagan exclaimed to the convention: “Go back a few years to the origin of the terms and see where left or right would take us if we continued far enough in either direction. Stalin. Hitler. One would take us to Communist totalitarianism; the other to the totalitarianism of Hitler.”
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- This is a core argument of my forthcoming book, Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press).
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- For example, Goldberg uses a small section from John Diggins’s Mussolini: the View from America (1972) to suggest that American liberals were the supporters of Mussolini. He ignores the remainder of Diggins book, which argued that liberal support was isolated and short-lived, and that the most tenacious support of il Duce came from business and conservatives. Diggins, incidentally, is almost the sole secondary source for Goldberg’s claim that the left supported fascism.
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- Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993), xii. On fascism post-1945, see also Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, 2004), 174-75, 202-205; Stanley Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 516-520.
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- Mark Potok, “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Intelligence Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, 39-58.
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- “Wallace Scorns Nazi Salutes,” Hartford Courant, October 13, 1968, B. To be sure, Wallace did not literally fight Nazis — he flew B-29 missions over Japan.
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- Payne, 129-131.
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- These are key assertions of Chapters 1 and 2 of my forthcoming book, Haunted by Hitler.
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January/February 2014, ATC 168