The genocide of racial, sexual and religious minorities may not currently be underway in this country, but the fascist politics and rhetoric that always precede such atrocities have already taken root.
So argues Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley in his new book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us And Them, a study of the historic signs of fascist politics and their current manifestations in contemporary political movements in Hungary, Poland, Myanmar, and the United States.
On a recent episode of WNHH Radio’s “Kica’s Corner” program with host Kica Matos, Stanley identified the ten theoretical and strategic pillars of fascist politics. He then pointed out one by one how those telltale signs are visible in the politics of President Donald Trump as well as in other nationalist authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
“The current moment is very personal to me,” Stanley said as he described some of the motivation behind writing this book.
Both of his parents fled the Holocaust as fascist politics and its lethal anti-Semitism spread across Germany and Poland in the 1930s and 1940s.
His mother’s 15 aunts, uncles and cousins were all killed by the German Wehrmacht in the first few months of Hitler’s invasion of eastern Poland in 1941. She survived the war in a Siberian labor camp before emigrating to the United States under the sponsorship of the family of New York U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall.
His father’s mother, Ilse Stanley, was an actress from Berlin who managed to save over 400 Jews who had been imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen experimental concentration camp before she too managed to emigrate to the United States.
But How Fascism Works is not the story of his own family’s encounters with and chance survival of past fascist governments. Instead, as Stanley described it, the book is, like the recent work of his colleague Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a Rosetta Stone for identifying the hallmarks of fascist politics, and for understanding how best to resist said politics before it turns a previously democratic government into a genocidal, one-party state.
The 10 Characteristics Of Fascist Politics
“All fascist movements are based on hypernationalism,” Stanley said. He said that hypernationalism may be racially, ethnically, or religiously based, and that it is always patriarchal and always anti-gay. The end goal of fascist politics, he said, is for an authoritarian leader or party to seize power and maintain power for as long as possible by altering reality to fit their warped vision of the world.
Stanley identified ten characteristics that define fascist political movements. “I observe all ten pillars in the United States today,” he said.
1. A mythic past. “Fascism always promises to return us to a mythic past,” Stanley said. For Hitler, that meant returning to the past of the Holy Roman Empire, when Germans ruled over non-Germans; for Mussolini, that meant the Roman Empire itself.
This past is a place where the patriarchy rules supreme, where in-group men are warriors and in-group women are mothers and wives. This past is mythic, Stanley said: it is fake. It never really was, except in the words of fascist politicians.
2. Propaganda. Stanley said fascist politicians always revert to anti-corruption campaigns, even when they themselves are transparently corrupt. He said the Nazis were among the most corrupt regimes in history, plundering the wealth and property of European Jews, and yet still waged a merciless propaganda campaign that promised to rid the continent of corruption supposedly introduced by Jews.
Trump branded Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” and promised to “drain the swamp,” despite his long history of underhanded business and political dealings. Vladimir Putin, the same time that he is reviving mid-20th century Russian fascist thinker Ivan Ilyin, consistently lambasts the European Union as fascist.
3. Anti-intellectualism. “The enemy of fascism is equality,” Stanley said. He said universities are continually attacked by fascist politicians as hotbeds of cultural and political Marxism. He said these politicians uphold a mythical “common man” as always knowing what is right, and deride women and racial and sexual minorities who seek basic equality as in fact seeking political and cultural domination.
4. Hierarchy. As opposed to liberal democracies, which are based on freedom and equality, fascism enshrines a dominant group’s traditions as the unequivocal rule.
5. Victimhood. Throughout fascist politics, the dominant group always portrays itself as victims. Stanley said the Nazis said they were the victims of the minority Jews. He said that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held an international conference on the persecution of Jews in October 2017, during which he declared that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world.
6. Unreality. Fascist politicians rely on conspiracy theories instead of facts to justify their calls for power. “When ‘Birtherism’ came,” Stanley said, “everyone should have been terrified.”
7. Law and order. The fascist politician promises a regime of law and order not to punish actual criminals, but to criminalize “out groups” like racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. “Right now,” Stanley said, “we’re seeing criminality being written into immigration status” in the United States. He said fascist politicians thrive on launching purportedly specific attacks against certain segments of a population, like “criminal” immigrants or Jews, and then broadening that definition to include the entire group.
8. Sexual anxiety. Stanley said the fascist politician always foments panic around the threat of rape perpetrated by out-group men against in-group women. “The particular threat is rape,” he said, “and then you create fear among people by talking about rape, and then you try to attack people’s diminished sense of traditional manlihood by fomenting fear about sexuality.”
9. Sodom and Gomorrah. Fascist politicians always locate virtue in the countryside and in small towns, and never in cities with their mixtures of people, races, “decadence” and permissiveness.
10. Arbeit macht frei. Fascist politicians identify out groups as lazy, attack welfare systems and labor organizers, and promote the idea that the group on top is hard working, the groups on the bottom are lazy and drains on the state and should be forced to work, ideally for free.
Stanley said these traits are not necessarily new to American history by way of the Trump administration. This country is founded on fascist policy put in practice as applied to Native Americans and African slaves, he said. After all, Hitler greatly admired the U.S.’s Immigration Act of 1924, which specifically excluded immigrants based on race and nationality of origin.
But that doesn’t make the Trump presidency’s politics, rhetoric, and policies any less alarming, he said.
“History tells us that, when a group is treated horrifically, it’s always preceded by the ways that immigrants are currently being discussed,” he said. Even though Trump does not yet denounce democratic processes like free and open elections, his administration does detain migrants and separate children from their families; it does openly denounce the media and intellectuals at “enemies of the state;” and it does unabashedly support authoritarian rulers throughout the world.
The only adequate resistance, Stanley said, is to defend institutions like objective journalism and even the FBI as established protectors of truth, justice and equality.
“The ordinary citizen has to stand up and loudly confront people who engage in this sort of fascist rhetoric and not be afraid,” he said. “Those millions of acts of individual bravery, if we can stitch together, will save us.”
“Democracy is not a voting system,” he continued. “Democracy is a set of values of equal respect and liberty. And you cannot have equal respect and liberty survive in fascist moments.”
Click on the audio player below to listen to the full interview.