This is an interview I did with Brian Fogarty, a recently retired sociologist from St. Catherine University with a specialty in fascist movements. He is the author of the 2009 book Fascism: Why Not Here?, which examines the telltale signs of the development of fascism historically and in present-day America.
1. From your study of fascist movements, what are some of the “hallmarks” of how they develop, or the warning signs that we should be looking out for?
First, you’ve correctly put the focus on the “movement,” rather than on an already-in-place regime. Many people think of fascism as an oppressive government, as if some existing administration suddenly is led by a bad guy at the top. Fascism arises from below, from a segment of the populace that has become convinced that there is no hope for the future under the present set of institutions and laws.
That said, the first telltale sign is a discrediting of the government–not simply of the administration, but of the institutions of government itself. This is only exacerbated by bad government in the form of extreme partisanship, wastefulness, gridlock, and the like. Another sign is a decline in the value of reason. When people are able to make irrational, self-contradictory, and clearly baseless claims and get away with them, we’re in trouble. Anything can be true and anything can be possible. And I think scapegoating on a large scale is a third warning. Although we always seem to have some real or imagined threat to keep us behaving ourselves–the Cold War, the War on Drugs, gangs and crime waves–sometimes one of these threats carries us away into flights of hysteria, and the Islamic Terrorist is today’s bogeyman.
2. Are there parallels between modern day America and the Weimar Republic in Germany?
When I wrote the book, I thought there could be such parallels if the right historical circumstances came along. Now they have come along: renewed terror attacks, failure of an ill-considered military adventure, rise of an internal and external threat to security, a dose of racism, and a hopelessly partisan government unable to enact useful policy. Add to this a few political opportunists willing to ride this wave of unease and encourage the hotheads, and we’ve got a problem.
By the way, Hitler’s National Socialists were a minority party when he was made Chancellor in a coalition government–the other, “mainstream” politicians thought they could control him, much as the Republicans thought they could control the Tea Party movement. Now that error has come home.
3. What role do things like nativism and xenophobia play in allowing fascism to develop?
American exceptionalism–the belief that we are a unique nation among all the nations of the world–combines both of these, I think. Our cultural beliefs and values include a sense that this nation was formed in a way different from others (and this is pretty much true, by the way), and that we are somehow destined to lead the rest of the world. Therefore, when we drop a bomb on a house in Afghanistan we assume it’s justified, because, well, it must be. The Germans had the same sense of exceptionalism, because they only achieved nationhood in 1871, by combining the dozens of German principalities and duchies into the nation we know as Germany under the Kaiser. They had a name for this sense: Sonderweg–the “special way”–and they thought it justified their belief that they should lead the community of nations.
4. Let’s talk about the underlying psychology that allows fascism to develop. We have a great many studies that show that political conservatives are much more attuned to fear and to external threats than others. What role does a heightened sense of fear promote violent reactions to the perceived roots of that fear and do you think this plays a significant role in allowing fascism to develop?
It really is all about fear, isn’t it? But people don’t turn their fear into violence by themselves; they need the pooled emotional resources of others. Whether it’s ISIS or the Tea Party or the Klan or whoever, the promise of being part of something larger–something so important that one’s own interests or even one’s own life is less important than the larger goal–this is what makes it possible for people to endorse what they wouldn’t think of endorsing on their own. It’s what makes people abandon all reason and make the leap into violence or oppression. And today, the ability to pool those resources is much greater than it was in the 1930s. Hitler had film and radio; today we have social networking and global media.
I think religion is simply one form of group identity that can galvanize people into action. Such identity can come from race. It can be tribal membership. It can be gender or class. But religion is more powerful than the others because it comes with already-worked-out tenets of belief and rituals, which bind members together. All the other forms have to invent these things. National identity worked pretty well as a binding force for centuries, but it seems that it’s becoming a weaker and weaker form of identity.
6. Donald Trump has called for a ban on all Muslim immigration and tourism, a position that a recent poll found is supported by 65% of Republicans. What role does the rise of charismatic demagogues playing on the people’s fear have in the development of fascism?
For one thing, they give permission to their listeners to abandon reason and follow their emotion: “If Trump can say these things, then they may be wrong, they may be irrational, but I’m not the only person feeling this way. And moreover, lots of other people feel the same way.” A powerful speaker can validate a point of view. It’s liberating. On a more pragmatic level, a demagogue’s skill lies in weaving together a disparate collection of fears, hopes, and beliefs into an apparently cohesive system of thought. And the thread that is used usually is some deeper cultural value or belief–racism, xenophobia, etc.
By the way, I read Katherine Parker’s piece from the Washington Post today, and immediately began to worry that maybe I wasn’t direct enough in answering your questions–that perhaps I should have mentioned Trump, the Republicans, etc. by name and shouted RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, IT’S HERE! or something. But I also discuss in the last chapter of the book a few reasons why it hasn’t happened here: mostly, our presidential system (as opposed to a parliamentary system) tends to marginalize fringe ideas, such that they don’t develop a permanent party apparatus and long-term following. Our system tends to be an “equilibrium-seeking” one. Further, we are a diverse enough people that we really don’t share an ancient folk identity as the Germans did, and that should help. So there’s hope that the ship will right itself before it’s too late.
Interesting. A followup to your last paragraph, then: Given that Trump is leading the Republican race by a wide margin and that his advocacy of policies quite literally borrowed from the Third Reich in recent weeks has only boosted his popularity, is it still clear that the two-party system is a strong enough barrier to fascism happening here? When nearly two-thirds of likely Republican voters favor such policies less than a year before an election, I don’t know how secure I feel with that as our principle protection if one of the two parties is captured by those ideas.
Whether the two-party system is strong enough will depend, I think, on whether the Republicans have enough real statesmen to withdraw support of Trump and concede the election. Of course, this will leave an embittered third of their party out in the cold to threaten everybody’s re-election in the midterm. But I think it’s possible for the party to change its tone and actually recapture the white male ignoramus vote by 2018 if they work at it.
One more thing occurs to me, which is that we still have almost a year to go. What if another major terrorist attack happens, especially in this country? I think that might well be enough to push us over the edge. Do you think that’s a reasonable fear?
Yes. And it’s fairly certain that more homegrown terrorists will emerge. Still, I think the key is in the grownups of the GOP and the Democrats forming a Grand Coalition to create a calming unified voice. After all, much of the hysteria is inflamed by partisan attacks.