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Fascist Politics in America
Fascism creeps in slowly at first, gets normalized, and accelerates until it is too strong to defeat. We who value democracy, freedom, and the rule of law must sound the alarm.
Welcome Back to Win-Win Democracy
Writing today, on Memorial Day, I am grateful for the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many Americans — including my wife’s father and uncles — to defend freedom around the world.
World War II, which took the lives of about 3% of the world’s population1, was, to oversimplify, a fight against Japanese imperialism and European fascism, as embodied by Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and their allies. European fascism was defeated in World War II.
Fascist politics — which I’ll define in a moment — remains, however, a threat to liberal democracies2 in many places, including the United States. Indeed, I’ve interrupted our regularly-scheduled program on AI because I’m urgently alarmed by the prominent role of fascist politics in today’s Republican Party.
There is no win-win on this topic, only win. If fascist politics wins, our representative democracy is doomed to disappear. We who value democracy, freedom, and the rule of law must act now to win.
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The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.' — George Orwell (1945)
Much ink has been spilled trying to define fascism.
For an expansive, scholarly, although somewhat difficult-to-read discussion of how to define fascism, I recommend Stanley G. Payne’s book A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, particularly the Introduction, which gives a “a wide-spectrum description that can identify a variety of differing allegedly fascist movements while still setting them apart as a group from other kinds of revolutionary or nationalist movements” and Chapter 15, which gives a sort of reverse engineering (he uses the term “retrodiction” but I had to look that up) of the factors that allowed fascism to arise during the early 20th century in certain European countries but not others.
Since Payne’s discussion is more than most of us need, I turned to Wikipedia, which devotes an entire article to definitions of fascism. Here are two that are particularly concise and informative:
“[F]ascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.” — Roger Griffin, Oxford-Brookes University (1991)
“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.” — Robert Paxton, Columbia University (2004)
Is Trump a Fascist?
I certainly see many elements of Trumpism in these definitions.
Whether Trump and his supporters are (or are becoming) fascists is the subject of debate. David Frum, a former speechwriter for Bush the Younger, argues in the Atlantic article There’s a Word for What Trumpism is Becoming that the events of January 6th were a turning point:
“The Trump movement was always authoritarian and illiberal. It indulged periodically in the rhetoric of violence. Trump himself chafed against the restraints of law. But what the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.”
Similarly, writing in Vox, in the article The F Word: The debate over whether to call Donald Trump a fascist, and why it matters, Dylan Matthews reports:
Is Donald Trump a fascist?
It’s a question I’ve tried to answer a few times in the six-odd years that he has dominated American politics. Back in 2015, no fascism expert would use the word to describe Trump. In October 2020, they were inching closer, but most dismissed the term as likely an exaggeration or distraction.
Matthews checks in again with several leading scholars of fascism on their views on this question. Again, January 6th seems to be the dividing line. As Robert Paxton, author of the second definition above, wrote in 2021 (emphasis mine):
Trump's incitement of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2020 removes my objection to the fascist label. His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary. It is made even more plausible by comparison with a milestone on Europe's road to fascism—an openly fascist demonstration in Paris during the night of February 6, 1934.
But that viewpoint is not universally held. Some scholars, including Stanley Payne, argue, as Matthews puts it, that “Trump’s lack of coherent revolutionary fervor makes him fall short of fascism.”
If you’re interested in this question, including whether or not there are disadvantages to using the “F word”, I encourage you to read Matthews’ article.
As much as I think that Trump deserves to be denigrated, there is a more important question than whether or not he is a fascist:
Does today’s GOP use the tactics of fascism to build authoritarian power that threatens our democracy?
I aim to convince you that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes” and that we must use all appropriate means to prevent their success.
In his excellent book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale professor of philosophy Jason Stanley makes an important distinction between fascist states and fascist tactics (p. 1):
“[M]y interest is in fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power. Once those who employ such tactics come to power, the regimes they enact are in large part determined by particular historical conditions. What occurred in Germany was different from what occurred in Italy. Fascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state, but it is dangerous nonetheless.
Here is Stanley’s list of tactics:
The mythic past
Law and order
Appeals to the heartland
Dismantling of public welfare and unity
Trump, his GOP MAGA supporters, and GOP Trump wannabes like Ron DeSantis, all use these fascist tactics. So, too, do GOP state-level politicians, especially in red or purple states.
We’ll discuss these in some detail, but you can no doubt already recognize some of these tactics in the actions of GOP political leaders throughout the country, from Trump on down.
Leaders intent on building their own power deploy these tactics to:
Divide the population into “us” and “them”
Denigrate and dehumanize “them” to enable using “them” as scapegoats for problems affecting “us,” and to make it acceptable to attack “them”
Shape policy and law to favor “us”
Fascist political tactics are mutually reinforcing, pushing society ever further toward division and strengthening that division. Indeed, as Stanley puts it (p. 5), “the most telling symptom of fascist politics is division.”
My explanation of how fascist tactics work is heavily based on Stanley’s book. I won’t be insulted if you want to skip the rest of this and go read his book now — it is only 200 pages. For those of you remaining, I will follow Stanley’s approach augmented by current examples.
The Mythic Past
Make America Great Again. There you have it: America was once great, but it isn’t now, and I, Donald Trump, am the only one who can make it great again.
What was our glorious past? Oh, you know, when the country was run by upstanding white, Christian men — decent, strong men, from the country’s heartland. Just like traditional fathers who guide their families with a firm hand.
Those halcyon days have been lost because of intellectuals, the elite, liberals, feminism, foreign immigrants diluting our culture, and pandering to calls for equality of the genders and races. But the world isn’t that way: Some people — us — are better than the rest and we deserve to run things.
Sarcasm aside, here’s how Stanley describes it (p. 13):
“The patriarchal family is one ideal that fascist politicians intend to create in society—or return to, as they claim. The patriarchal family is always represented as a central part of the nation’s traditions, diminished, even recently, by the advent of liberalism and cosmopolitanism. But why is patriarchy so strategically central to fascist politics?
In a fascist society, the leader of the nation is analogous to the father in the traditional patriarchal family. The leader is the father of his nation, and his strength and power are the source of his legal authority, just as the strength and power of the father of the family in patriarchy are supposed to be the source of his ultimate moral authority over his children and wife. The leader provides for his nation, just as in the traditional family the father is the provider. The patriarchal father’s authority derives from his strength, and strength is the chief authoritarian value. By representing the nation’s past as one with a patriarchal family structure, fascist politics connects nostalgia to a central organizing hierarchal authoritarian structure, one that finds its purest representation in these norms.”
We can see in this quest to create the mythical past the rationale for the otherwise seemingly irrational nationwide GOP efforts to suppress knowledge of our real history:
Ban teaching of critical race theory, which is nothing more than an attempt to teach us all about our country’s past and its impact on its present.
Ban books that portray other than traditional family structures or that make white children “uncomfortable”.
Portray the Civil War as a battle for states rights and freedom instead of a battle for individual liberty and abolition of slavery.
Dilute teaching of African American history by pushing back on the newly-released AP African American History curriculum.
Stop WOKE. Florida governor Ron DeSantis pushed Florida’s Stop Woke Act (with Woke an acronym for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) to prohibit Florida businesses and public schools from teaching certain concepts to students and employees. In other words, the law prohibits free speech.
The governor’s press release is entitled “Governor Ron DeSantis Signs Legislation to Protect Floridians from Discrimination and Woke Indoctrination”. Protect those Floridians against learning anything that would call the perfection of that glorious mythic past into question.
Stanley summarizes (p. 30):
“Fascist leaders appeal to history to replace the actual historical record with a glorious mythic replacement that, in its specifics, can serve their political ends and their ultimate goal of replacing facts with power.”
Propaganda is (Merriam-Webster) “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”
Let’s look at a few examples.
Consider birtherism, the (false) rumor and conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, hence ineligible to be president, and was a secret Muslim planning to destroy America from within its presidential inner sanctum. This conspiracy theory, though easily disproven, took hold.
Mitt Romney joked on the campaign trail that “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we [he and his wife Ann] were born and raised.” The message: I, a Christian white guy, belong; that Black guy with the odd name doesn’t belong.
Donald Trump picked up the theme and ran with it, dropping innuendo and false accusation whenever possible. His lies reinforced the MAGA mythic past, those good ol’ days when Black people knew their place and wouldn’t dare run for the highest office in the land.
Although Trump didn’t originate birtherism, he deployed it to great effect to send the message that Obama was overturning the traditional order of things.
Draining the Swamp
Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp” slogan, which he peppered everywhere to enthusiastic response, was masterful propaganda. Nearly everyone believes that corruption pervades Washington. A promise to clean it up, something he alone could do, was compelling to many.
The reality? Trump’s administration, including his Cabinet secretaries and closest advisors, is widely believed to be the most corrupt ever. I’ll spare you the long list, but you can find one here.
Propaganda about corruption is a favorite tool of fascist politics. As Stanley describes it (p. 34):
“Fascist movements have been “draining swamps” for generations. Publicizing false charges of corruption while engaging in corrupt practices is typical of fascist politics, and anticorruption campaigns are frequently at the heart of fascist political movements. Fascist politicians characteristically decry corruption in the state they seek to take over, which is bizarre, given that fascist politicians themselves are invariably vastly more corrupt than those they seek to supplant or defeat.”
Even worse are Trump’s attacks on judges who dare get in his way or threaten to hold his personal corruption and his administration’s corruption to account.
Stanley argues that this is typical of the “undemocratic intent behind fascist propaganda” (p. 37):
“Fascist states focus on dismantling the rule of law, with the goal of replacing it with the dictates of individual rulers or party bosses. It is standard in fascist politics for harsh criticisms of an independent judiciary to occur in the form of accusations of bias, a kind of corruption, critiques that are then used to replace independent judges with ones who will cynically employ the law as a means to protect the interests of the ruling party.”
GOP politicians across the country are attacking our universities, accusing them of being hotbeds of liberalism and Marxism, of bias against conservative faculty, and of denying freedom of speech to faculty and students.
Free Speech and Lack of Diversity Attacks
Universities students and, to a lesser extent, faculty, have, at least since the 1960s, been the vanguard of fighting injustice and authoritarianism. Part of the fascist playbook is, therefore, undermining and delegitimizing universities.
David Horowitz is a far right activist who has long been pursuing this agenda, creating multiple organizations like the Individual Rights Foundation, Students for Academic Freedom, and most recently the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In 2002, writing on the website of Students for Academic Freedom, Horowitz explained:
“‘Diversity’ may be one of the contemporary university's most cherished values, but university officials with near universality have interpreted diversity to mean anything but a plurality of viewpoints — arguably the most important diversity of all. What is knowledge if it is thoroughly one-sided, or intellectual freedom if it is only freedom to conform? And what is a "liberal education," if one point of view is for all intents and purposes excluded from the classroom? How can students get a good education, if they are only being told one side of the story? The answer is they can't.”
He goes on to request university administrations to inquire into political bias in hiring of faculty and administrators and selection of commencement speakers, to not tolerate obstruction of campus speakers and meetings, and to ensure that faculty in classrooms welcome diverse viewpoints. And, he requests state legislatures to pursue these goals at their public institutions.
He posits that the problems can be solved without affecting academic freedom “[b]y adding the categories of political and religious affiliation to Title IX and other existing legislation … to redress an intolerable situation involving illegal and unconstitutional hiring methods along with teaching practices that are an abuse of academic freedom.”
This reminds me of a county board of elections hearing that I attended perhaps a decade ago. The room was packed; it was impossible to let everyone speak. So, the chairwoman, a Republican, announced that to be fair she would call on Democrats and Republicans alternately. There were probably ten times more Democrats in the room than Republicans. All the Republicans got to speak but only a small portion of the Democrats were able to speak.
Of course, the “balanced” hearing didn’t reflect people’s opinions. Republican critics of university’s “liberal bias” want this same kind of balance.
Back in 2002, Horowitz and his various organizations were fringe organizations few had even heard of. As reported by the Washington Post, they came to the fore with the Trump administration and its allies, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Indeed, universities are hotbeds of academic freedom. There are many faculty with conservative views, and their right to speak their mind is protected by tenure.
As Stanley explains (p. 50)
“Given the formal protections of academic freedom, universities in the United States host the freest domain of expression of any workplace. In private workplaces in the United States, free speech is a fantasy. Workers are regularly subjected to nondisclosure agreements, forbidding them to speak about various matters. In most workplaces, workers can be fired for political speech on social media. Attacking the only workplaces in a country with genuine free-speech protections using the ideal of free speech is another instance of the familiar Orwellian nature of propaganda.”
The hypocrisy is rich: the faculty tenure system is in place principally to ensure that faculty have the freedom to speak their minds without fear of reprisal. Yet, GOP politicians are working to eliminate or neuter tenure:
GOP legislators in Texas, Ohio, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Iowa have proposed bills to either eliminate tenure or weaken it by requiring periodic review of faculty tenure.
Florida’s Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring public universities to review faculty tenure every five years, justifying that by saying tenure promotes “intellectual orthodoxy”.
In North Carolina, tenure decisions made by the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) administration have been rejected by the political appointees to the university’s board of trustees.
Most visibly, when UNC’s journalism school offered a tenured faculty position to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times author, the board of trustees rejected the tenured appointment, evidently at the behest of Walter Hussman, a conservative who made a $25M pledge. Details are available here and here.
Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick proposed revoking the tenure of any faculty at a public university who teaches critical race theory and abolishing tenure for all newly-hired faculty, regardless of discipline.
and more …
Republicans are not just propagandizing about universities as hotbeds of liberalism and deniers of free speech, they are actively working to take control of public universities.
Ron DeSantis and his education commissioner want to remake Florida’s New College, a small, liberal arts college, into a lookalike of Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a small Christian college that has become the darling of Christian conservatives for its conservative activism. DeSantis replaced 6 of New College’s 13 trustees with strong conservatives; the board of trustees then ousted the College’s president, replacing her with a career politician at more than double her salary. The transition is underway. More details here.
Lest you think that I’m picking on Ron DeSantis and Florida, or that they’re unique, let me relate how the GOP is taking partisan control of the public universities in my home state of North Carolina. Details are available in Report of a Special Committee: Governance, Academic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the University of North Carolina System, chartered by the American Association of University Professors. Here’s a brief synopsis of the political interference changing the character of the university system:
2010: Republicans gained control of both houses of the NC General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Appointees to the university system’s governing bodies went from political moderates with a degree of partisan balance to more uniformly Republican, including Republican lobbyists.
As of 2019, the Daily Tar Heel reported that there are now no self-identified Democrats on the Board of Governors; an analysis of campaign contributions by members of the Board of Governors shows a nearly 10-1 ratio of contributions to Republican candidates and causes compared to Democratic candidates and causes3.
2014: The legislature requested a review of campus centers statewide, which resulted in closing three of them, two led by outspoken critics of state leadership: the Center for Work, Poverty, and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill School of Law and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central University.
Although the stated purpose of the review was cost savings, both centers were funded by private sources, so there was no cost saving. These reviews were completely outside the normal channels for assessing the merit of such centers, bypassing the university administration and faculty.
2015: The Board of Governors forced out system president Tom Ross, despite having publicly praised his performance. No reason was given, but Ross is a Democrat. He was replaced by Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s education secretary; she was pushed out two years later because she was not sufficiently conservative and too independent of the Board.
2016: The General Assembly and outgoing Republican governor stripped the incoming Democratic governor of the power to make any appointments to the governing bodies, leaving the university system completely controlled by the General Assembly.
2017: The Board of Governors prohibited any campus centers from engaging in litigation. This meant that the system’s law schools could no longer provide experiential learning opportunities for their students, nor could they work on behalf of North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens.
2020: The Board of Governors implemented a new policy for appointing chancellors of the university campuses: the system president (appointed by the Board) names two candidates for the position, one of who must be a finalist for the position. In other words, regardless of the outcome of the vetting process used by the university’s academic and administrative leadership, one of the president’s candidates must be a finalist for the job.
2023: The Board of Trustees for the UNC flagship Chapel Hill campus, directed that a new School of Civic Life and Leadership be formed and staffed with faculty representing a spectrum of viewpoints. There was no consultation with the university’s leadership or faculty.
When the head of the accreditation agency for UNC raised questions and concerns about the process, she received what many would consider a threatening letter from six of the seven Republican members of the NC delegation to the House and both of NC’s Republican Senators. Pretty heavy-handed for what was claimed to be an apolitical process.
The bottom line is that North Carolina’s public university system is now run entirely by Republicans who insert themselves directly in the running of the university system.
Florida and North Carolina are harbingers of things to come in other GOP-controlled states.
The pandemic demonstrated vividly how fascist politics denigrates expertise. We saw Republican politicians across the country downplay the expertise of medical and public health officials, replacing it with the blustery statements of political hacks, ivermectin advocates, and a president encouraging top health officials to investigate injection of bleach as a Covid treatment.
When politicians denigrate real experts — like scientists — they are then free to create their own realities that comport with the false reality they are trying to create.
Repeat a lie often enough and it will be believed. I’ll spare you a recitation of the many lies that Trump and his many surrogates created and repeated, which we are still dealing with
Even outlandish conspiracy theories can be effective in creating an alternate reality. Remember Pizzagate, the theory that leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager spelled out coded messages about trafficking children for sex to Democratic congressmen, all run from a Washington pizzeria? When an armed North Carolina man showed up at the pizzeria to free the sex slaves, he was condemned even by the perpetrators of Pizzagate. Their goal wasn’t for the conspiracy theory to be taken seriously as truth but, rather, to plant the subliminal message that Democrats are depraved.
We want to believe that our politics is a “marketplace of ideas”, may the best ideas win. But in fascist politics, words are used to elicit emotion, not to convey information. Stanley explains (p. 76):
“Disagreement requires a shared set of presuppositions about the world. Even dueling requires agreement about the rules. You and I might disagree about whether President Obama’s healthcare plan was good policy. But if you suspect that President Obama was an undercover Muslim spy seeking to destroy the United States, and I do not, our discussion will not be productive. We will not be talking about the costs and benefits of Obama’s health policy, but rather about whether any of his policies mask a devious antidemocratic agenda.
That’s why the many websites and social media posts that promote ridiculous conspiracy theories are so effective. They distract from debate about real issues, replacing such debate with distrust.
Politicians like Trump who speak their mind with neither restraint nor apology come across as authentic because they “tell it like it is”. He lies constantly, but since he is perceived as authentic his supporters believe the lies. His authenticity is enhanced when he targets groups his base dislikes.
In this environment of unreality, he can tell poor white people that he’s helping them by targeting people they resent or hate — Muslims, immigrants, liberals, Blacks — while, in reality, promoting policies like tax cuts for the wealthy that harm those very same poor white people.
Fascist politics argues that there are natural hierarchies for the inherent worth of human beings, such as:
The divine right of kings.
Alexander Stephens’4 1861 Cornerstone Speech: “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
Hitler’s “Aryan Master Race”
Epistle to the Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
These (and many more) hierarchies are justified by appeals to supposed science and/or to religion. Stephens, for example, went on to say “They [northerners] were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”
Since some people are inherently worth more than others, society, under a fascist regime, has no obligation to treat people equally.
Applying Hierarchy in GOP Politics
We are now too “sophisticated” to say out loud that white people are superior to Black people. Instead, our politicians speak in innuendo, at least in public. AP News summarizes the history of GOP racial code in At RNC, GOP echoes racial code of Nixon’s 1968 campaign.
Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy used fear of crime and lawlessness as code to appeal to Southern segregationists. Ronald Reagan complained about “welfare queens.” George Bush (the Elder) used Willie Horton as a euphemism for Black people on crime rampages. Coded appeals to racism continue in the form of states rights and cutting social services, dividing people into “deserving” and “undeserving”, “makers” and “takers”, “hardworking” and “lazy”.
In their embrace of Christian evangelicals, GOP politicians reject feminism, appealing to the “natural” hierarchy that wives should submit to their husbands, and more broadly, that men are capable of determining what is good for women, including making decisions for them on reproductive healthcare.
Appeal to Loss of Hierarchical Status
Why are appeals to hierarchy so powerful in politics? People who hold what used to be dominant positions in society — white, Christian men in ours — see liberal support for equality among people as a threat to their privileged positions.
So, when Donald Trump speaks with pride about his sexual depravity, he’s appealing to other men who are angry that they’re losing their status as breadwinners, family patriarchs, and being superior to those “other people.” These angry men want to feel that they can dominate women and other groups as was typical in the past.
When he says “there are fine people on both sides” in response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, he’s again supporting the whites-better-than-blacks hierarchy and the sense of loss the white supremacists feel.
Stanley explains (p.. 97) how loss of hierarchical status, especially in the context of a nation that was once unrivaled economically and militarily but is no longer, feeds into fascist politics:
“Empires in decline are particularly susceptible to fascist politics because of this sense of loss. It is in the very nature of empire to create a hierarchy; empires legitimize their colonial enterprises by a myth of their own exceptionalism. In the course of decline, the population is easily led to a sense of national humiliation that can be mobilized in fascist politics to serve various purposes.”
Suppose that, like me, you’re a man who grew to adulthood in the 1970s. At that time, the working world in the US was pretty much a man’s world. In 1970, 61.9% of the labor force were men and 38.1% women, with most of the women relegated to traditional women’s roles (teaching, nursing, clerical)5. As more women entered the labor force, by 2015 53.2% of the labor force were men and 46.8% women, with women supervising men commonplace.
A man struggling for career success might feel like a victim, thinking that he’s having such a hard time because those liberals pushing for equality of men and women are taking jobs away from people like him and giving them to women.
Indeed, fascist politicians encourage such men to feel like victims.
Likewise, many white Americans think that racism is a thing of the past, so why are we still helping Blacks at their expense? Fascist politicians will explain that they’re victims of those liberal’s do-gooder civil rights policies; maybe they were needed in the past, but certainly not now.
But, as Stanley explains (p. 103):
“Today, white Americans wildly overestimate the extent of U.S. progress toward racial equality over the past fifty years. Economic inequality between black and white Americans is roughly at the point it was during Reconstruction; for every $100 the average white family has accumulated, the average black family has just $5; and yet, as Jennifer Richeson, Michael Kraus, and Julian Rucker have shown in their 2017 paper, “Americans Misperceive Racial Economic Equality,” white American citizens are widely ignorant of this fact, believing that racial economic inequality has dramatically narrowed.”
Similarly, as reported in the Atlantic article Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination,
“Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants. Of the latter group, six in 10 believe that although America once was a Christian nation, it is no longer.”
This, despite the fact that 71% of American adults identify as Christian and that the Robert’s Court has handed conservative Christians victory after victory.
If you’re a Christian who believes you’re being discriminated against, it is easy to fall into victimhood, especially when being encouraged to do so by fascist politicians.
Victimhood is a powerful emotion, easily manipulated by fascist politicians, as Stanley describes (p. 112):
The fascist leader employs a sense of collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity that is by its nature opposed to the cosmopolitan ethos and individualism of liberal democracy. The group identity can be variously based—on skin color, on religion, on tradition, on ethnic origin. But it is always contrasted with a perceived other against whom the nation is to be defined. Fascist nationalism creates a dangerous “them” to guard against, at times to battle with, to control, in order to restore group dignity.
Law & Order
The specter of widespread criminality is a powerful emotion that politicians exploit even when it is false. During the 2020 campaign, Donald Trump campaigned with claims that the 20 cities with the highest crime rates were all run by Democrats. Be scared, elect him and Republicans, and make America great again. Well, yes, but most cities elect Democratic leaders.6 Unbidden, he sent a “surge” of federal agents into cities to attack crime7.
With all of this talk of crime, you might think that America was overrun by violent crime. In fact, violent crime rates were (and are) near historical lows.
As we discussed earlier, law and order combined with racism has been a major component of Republican politics since at least the time of Nixon.
There is one kind of violent crime that is most effective for targeting “them”: “they” are going to rape your women. During Jim Crow, the vision of white women being raped by oversexed Black men was the justification for many lynchings.
Trump’s 2015 (false) claim of “Mexican rapists” coming across the border was no accident and followed in this tradition. He was playing to sexual anxiety, implying that he and his wall would protect “your” women against this terrible threat.
Republicans across the nation are now building on such anxiety in their systematic attack on LGBTQ people:
Transgender girls are going to rape your daughters in bathrooms at schools
Gays are grooming your children for sexual abuse
Reading books in school about non-traditional family structures (two mommies or two daddies) will make your children gay
Marriage among homosexuals destroys the fabric of society.
Stanley (p. 146) aptly summarizes the situation:
“By employing the politics of sexual anxiety, a political leader represents, albeit indirectly, freedom and equality as threats. The expression of gender identity or sexual preference is an exercise of freedom. By presenting homosexuals or transgender women as a threat to women and children—and, by extension, to men’s ability to protect them—fascist politics impugns the liberal ideal of freedom. A woman’s right to have an abortion is also an exercise of freedom. By representing abortion as a threat to children—and to men’s control over them—fascist politics impugns the liberal ideal of freedom. A person’s right to marry whom they wish is an exercise of freedom; by representing members of one religion, or one race, as a threat because of the possibility of intermarriage is to impugn the liberal ideal of freedom.”
Appeals to the Heartland
In GOP imagery, family farms in the heartland of America are the soul of our nation, with rural communities bastions of individual freedom, independent thinking, and hard work. Never mind that mid-sized family farms have mostly been replaced by agribusiness or that according to the 2020 census, 80% of the US population lives in urban areas.
As Hitler did before him, Trump and other GOP leaders denounce cities as, to use Trump’s words, “hellholes” and “burning and crime-infested inner cities of the US.”
Why? Because such attacks resonate with rural people, and some suburbanites, and most urban voters have already been lost to the Democrats regardless.
Stanley (p. 155) explains:
“Fascist politics aims its message at the populace outside large cities, to whom it is most flattering. It is especially resonant during times of globalization, when economic power swings to the large urban areas as centers of an emerging global economy, as occurred in the 1930s in Europe. Fascist politics highlights the wrongs a globalized economy does to rural areas, adding to it a focus on traditional rural values of self-sufficiency supposedly put at risk by the success of liberal cities culturally and economically.”
Facing the Danger
Our democracy today is extraordinarily fragile. GOP politicians at national and state levels are deploying all of the fascist tactics I have described. Look at the laws being proposed in GOP-controlled states and you’ll see that they are largely the same. The rhetoric is all the same. It is a coordinated effort.
Over the last 40 years, GOP politicians have worked with oligarchs to shape our laws and our justice system to support their program. The effort has gained extraordinary momentum and our political and legal systems are being changed to further accelerate the effort. Gerrymandering has been deployed with ruthless efficiency to give the GOP control of government in states that are fairly evenly divided. Voter suppression efforts at the state level are rampant. Money is now the primary source of power in our political system. We now have a reactionary Supreme Court that supports the march toward the good old days.
Fog by Carl Sandburg
The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.
Fascism comes in on little cat feet. Unlike Sandburg’s fog, it doesn’t move on. Instead, it gets normalized. We now accept from leading GOP politicians a level of lying and manipulation that was previously unthinkable. We accept unthinkable levels of gun violence and attacks on our brothers and sisters based on their sexual preferences and gender identities. We talk of individual freedom but elect male autocrats like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, and other GOP politicians who impose their will on half our population without their agreement and against medical advice.
The first step in fighting to preserve democracy is to sound the alarm. This article is my attempt to sound the alarm with you, many of whom I know to be thoughtful, caring people.
As I said before, there is no win-win about this. And there is no both sides: yes, Democratic politicians have plenty of faults, but only GOP politicians are currently working in a concerted effort to destroy our democracy and replace it with — well, with whatever you want to call it. Fascism. Authoritarian oligarchy. It doesn’t really matter. We must stop it.
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The term liberal democracy has nothing to do with “liberals” or “Democrats”. A liberal democracy is a representative democracy (the people elect representatives, who govern) with protection for individual liberty and property by rule of law. Another term used for this is “Western democracy.”
One might also wonder about campaign contributions from members of the Board of Governors to legislators who helped appoint them.
Stephens was the vice president of the Confederacy.