Is the US on the Brink of Fascism?
by: Sara Robinson
THERE ARE DANGEROUS currents running through America's politics
and the way we confront them is crucial.
All through the dark years of the Bush Administration,
progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished,
nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation
and violence, and the president of the United States seized for
himself powers only demanded by history's worst dictators. With each
new outrage, the small handful of us who'd made ourselves experts on
right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried
readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we
And every time this question got asked, people like Chip Berlet
and Dave Neiwert and Fred Clarkson and yours truly would look up from
our maps like a parent on a long drive, and smile a wan smile of
reassurance. "Wellll...we're on a bad road, and if we don't change
course, we could end up there soon enough. But there's also still
plenty of time and opportunity to turn back. Watch, but don't worry.
As bad as this looks: no -- we are not there yet."
In tracking the mileage on this trip to perdition, many of us
relied on the work of historian Robert Paxton, who is probably the
world's pre-eminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn
fascist. In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History,
Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist
movements isn't by their rhetoric, their politics, or their
aesthetics. Rather, he said, mature democracies turn fascist by a
recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most
important family resemblance that links all the whole motley
collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading
of Paxton's stages, we weren't there yet. There were certain signs --
one in particular -- we were keeping an eye out for, and we just
weren't seeing it.
And now we are. In fact, if you know what you're looking for, it's
suddenly everywhere. It's odd that I haven't been asked for quite a
while; but if you asked me today, I'd tell you that if we're not there
right now, we've certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot
and are now looking for a space. Either way, our fascist American
future now looms very large in the front windshield -- and those of us
who value American democracy need to understand how we got here,
what's changing now, and what's at stake in the very near future if
these people are allowed to win -- or even hold their ground.
What Is Fascism?
The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for
so long that, as Paxton points out, "Everybody is somebody else's
fascist." Given that, I always like to start these conversations by
revisiting Paxton's essential definition of the term:
"Fascism is a system of political authority and social order
intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in
which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and
Elsewhere, he refines this further as:
"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."
Jonah Goldberg aside, that's a basic definition most legitimate
scholars in the field can agree on, and the one I'll be referring to
From Proto-Fascism to the Tipping Point
According to Paxton, fascism unfolds in five stages. The first two
are pretty solidly behind us -- and the third should be of particular
interest to progressives right now.
In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind
of nationalist renewal (what Roger Griffin calls "palingenesis" -- a
phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes). They come together to restore a
broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and
purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the
organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it's
always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by
resurrecting the culture's traditional myths and values, and purging
society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who
are blamed for their current misery.
Fascism only grows in the disturbed soil of a mature democracy in
crisis. Paxton suggests that the Ku Klux Klan, which formed in
reaction to post-Civil War Reconstruction, may in fact be the first
authentically fascist movement in modern times. Almost every major
country in Europe sprouted a proto-fascist movement in the wretched
years following WWI (when the Klan enjoyed a major resurgence here as
well) -- but most of them stalled either at this first stage, or the
As Rick Perlstein documented in his two books on Barry Goldwater
and Richard Nixon, modern American conservatism was built on these
same themes. From "Morning in America" to the Rapture-ready religious
right to the white nationalism promoted by the GOP through various
gradients of racist groups, it's easy to trace how American
proto-fascism offered redemption from the upheavals of the 1960s by
promising to restore the innocence of a traditional, white, Christian,
male-dominated America. This vision has been so thoroughly embraced
that the entire Republican party now openly defines itself along these
lines. At this late stage, it's blatantly racist, sexist, repressed,
exclusionary, and permanently addicted to the politics of fear and
rage. Worse: it doesn't have a moment's shame about any of it. No
apologies, to anyone. These same narrative threads have woven their
way through every fascist movement in history.
In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real
political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power.
Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came
from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of
them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as
informal goon squads organized to intimidate farmworkers on behalf of
the large landowners. The KKK disenfranchised black sharecroppers and
set itself up as the enforcement wing of Jim Crow. The Italian
Squadristi and the German Brownshirts made their bones breaking up
farmers' strikes [and their bones]. And these days, GOP-sanctioned
anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers
in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and
otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic
training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to
intimidate the rest of us.
Paxton wrote that succeeding at the second stage "depends on
certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal
state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or
humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to
power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a
growing Left as a legitimate governing partner." He further noted that
Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances:
"deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the
polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt
threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under
control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing
Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and
who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further
And more ominously: "The most important variables...are the
conservative elites' willingness to work with the fascists (along with
a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the
depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate."
That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our
Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP
has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series
of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership
can't even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized
and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power,
their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with
an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow
American democracy by force. If they can't win elections or policy
fights, they're more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize
power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity.
When that unholy alliance is made, the third stage -- the
transition to full-fledged government fascism -- begins.
The Third Stage: Being There
All through the Bush years, progressive right-wing watchers
refused to call it "fascism" because, though we kept looking, we never
saw clear signs of a deliberate, committed institutional partnership
forming between America's conservative elites and its emerging
homegrown brownshirt horde. We caught tantalizing signs of brief
flirtations -- passing political alliances, money passing hands,
far-right moonbat talking points flying out of the mouths of
"mainstream" conservative leaders. But it was all circumstantial, and
fairly transitory. The two sides kept a discreet distance from each
other, at least in public. What went on behind closed doors, we could
only guess. They certainly didn't act like a married couple.
Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the
Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups
like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips' Americans for
Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther
fracas -- the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it
out of the pages of the National Enquirer -- being openly ratified by
Congressional Republicans. We've seen Armey's own
professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs
conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic
governing process -- and the film of public officials being terrorized
and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts
to leave the building. We've seen Republican House Minority Leader
John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and
looking forward to "a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress."
This is the sign we were waiting for -- the one that tells us that
yes, kids: we are there now. America's conservative elites have openly
thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs.
They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their
enforcement arm on America's streets, sanctioning the physical
harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials
who won't do their political or economic bidding.
This is the catalyzing moment at which honest-to-Hitler fascism
begins. It's also our very last chance to stop it.
The Fail-Safe Point
According to Paxton, the forging of this third-stage alliance is
the make-or-break moment -- and the worst part of it is that by the
time you've arrived at that point, it's probably too late to stop it.
From here, it escalates, as minor thuggery turns into beatings,
killings, and systematic tagging of certain groups for elimination,
all directed by people at the very top of the power structure. After
Labor Day, when Democratic senators and representatives go back to
Washington, the mobs now being created to harass them will remain to
run the same tactics -- escalated and perfected with each new use --
against anyone in town whose color, religion, or politics they don't
like. In some places, they're already making notes and taking names.
Where's the danger line? Paxton offers three quick questions that
point us straight at it:
1. Are [neo- or protofascisms] becoming rooted as parties that
represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on
the political scene?
2. Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of
blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities?
3. Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the
control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be
tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?
By my reckoning, we're three for three. That's too close. Way too close.
The Road Ahead
History tells us that once this alliance catalyzes and makes a
successful bid for power, there's no way off this ride. As Dave
Neiwert wrote in his recent book, The Eliminationists, "if we can only
identify fascism in its mature form—the goose-stepping brownshirts,
the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass
rallies—then it will be far too late to stop it." Paxton (who
presciently warned that "An authentic popular fascism in the United
States would be pious and anti-Black") agrees that if a
corporate/brownshirt alliance gets a toehold -- as ours is now
scrambling to do -- it can very quickly rise to power and destroy the
last vestiges of democratic government. Once they start racking up
wins, the country will be doomed to take the whole ugly trip through
the last two stages, with no turnoffs or pit stops between now and the
What awaits us? In stage four, as the duo assumes full control of
the country, power struggles emerge between the brownshirt-bred party
faithful and the institutions of the conservative elites -- church,
military, professions, and business. The character of the regime is
determined by who gets the upper hand. If the party members (who
gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police
state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under
control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military
regime can re-emerge over time. But in neither case will the results
resemble the democracy that this alliance overthrew.
Paxton characterizes stage five as "radicalization or entropy."
Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military
victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for
expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the
absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets
lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See:
It's so easy right now to look at the melee on the right and
discount it as pure political theater of the most absurdly ridiculous
kind. It's a freaking puppet show. These people can't be serious.
Sure, they're angry -- but they're also a minority, out of power and
reduced to throwing tantrums. Grown-ups need to worry about them about
as much as you'd worry about a furious five-year-old threatening to
hold her breath until she turned blue.
Unfortunately, all the noise and bluster actually obscures the
danger. These people are as serious as a lynch mob, and have already
taken the first steps toward becoming one. And they're going to walk
taller and louder and prouder now that their bumbling efforts at civil
disobedience are being committed with the full sanction and support of
the country's most powerful people, who are cynically using them in a
last-ditch effort to save their own places of profit and prestige.
We've arrived. We are now parked on the exact spot where our best
experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the
conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their
noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country
is another day we're slowly creeping across the final line beyond
which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return.
How do we pull back? That's my next post.
Sara Robinson is a Fellow at the Campaign for America's Future,
and a consulting partner with the Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle.