How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
by Jason Stanley
Random House, 2018
xix + 218 pages

Jason Stanley, a noted philosopher of language who teaches at Yale, wishes to render to the public a great service. He will tell us how fascism works, and, as the present tense in his title suggests, the topic is of more than historical interest. Fascism threatens us today. By “fascism,” he means “ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf” (p. xiv). He devotes most of his attention in the book to “fascist politics,” rather than the practices of fascist governments once in power, although this distinction is not always strictly maintained. “Fascist politics,” he tells us “includes many distinct strategies: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity” (pp. xiv–xv). In what follows, I’ll try to explain how Stanley works.

Things do not begin well. Writing about Charles Lindbergh, Stanley says that he “parleyed his fame and heroic stature into a leading role in the America First movement, which opposed America’s entry into the war against Nazi Germany…. The America First movement was the public face of pro-fascist sentiment in the United States at that time” (pp. xi–xii). A neat trick—“at that time” apparently means “1939, when Lindbergh’s article appeared,” but the committee was not founded until September 1940. In the lines from the remark I have omitted, Stanley quotes a passage from an article by Lindbergh critical of immigration.

I’ll comment on Stanley’s use of Lindbergh’s article later, but there is a glaring mistake in what he says about the America First Committee (not “movement,” as he has it) Contrary to his suggestion, the group had nothing to do with immigration. Its exclusive interest, as expressed in its four-point program, was keeping America out of World War II. Far from being pro-fascist, the group was an anti-war coalition that included leading Progressives such as Robert LaFollette, Jr., and Gerald Nye; and John T. Flynn, the foremost publicist for the group, opposed war because he feared it would lead to fascism. 

But what about Lindbergh? Stanley says that in the article he “embraced something close to Nazism for America” (p. xii). In the article, Lindbergh certainly embraces what today would be called “white nationalism,” but its principal point is that peace between the Western nations should be preserved. Readers can judge the article for themselves. We thus see how this eminent philosopher reasons: Lindbergh opposed immigration; Lindbergh was a leading spokesman for the America First Committee; therefore, the committee was anti-immigration; and therefore, the committee was profascist.

The book does not improve as we read further. According to Stanley, fascist propaganda embraces a mythic past in which the patriarchal family reigned supreme and women were downgraded. Before examining how he applies this view to America, let’s pause to look at a small sample of how Stanley reads. He quotes the following from the “Hutu Ten Commandments”: “Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious [than Tutsi women] in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?” Immediately after this, he says, “In Hutu power ideology, Hutu women exist only as wives and mothers, entrusted with the sacred responsibility of ensuring Hutu ethnic purity” (p. 10). This is what he gets from a passage that in part praises Hutu women as beautiful and honest secretaries.

With Stanley, you just can’t win. He says: “In the 2016 U.S. election, a video surfaced showing the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump making harshly demeaning comments about women. Mitt Romney … said that Trump’s remarks ‘demean our wives and daughters.’ Paul Ryan … said ‘women are to be championed and revered, not objectified’” (p. 10).

You might expect Stanley to praise Romney and Ryan. Not at all!

Both of these remarks reveal an underlying patriarchal ideology…. These politicians could simply have given voice to the most direct description of the facts, which is that Trump’s remarks demean half our fellow citizens. Instead, Romney’s remark, in language evocative of that used in the Hutu Ten Commandments, describes women exclusively in terms of traditionally subordinate roles in families, as “wives and daughters”—not even as sisters. Paul Ryan’s characterization of women as objects of ‘reverence’ rather than equal respect objectifies women in the same sentence that decries doing so. (pp. 10–11)

I wonder what Orwell would have made of this—but Stanley probably regards him as patriarchal as well.

A few pages later, Stanley discusses a notorious roundup of Jews in a Paris indoor sports arena by the Vichy government. After the roundup, the Jews were shipped to Nazi concentration camps. He quotes the following from a television interview of Marine Le Pen: “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel’d’Hiv [as this roundup is called]…. I think that, generally speaking, if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France” (p. 17). On the next page, he says that in Germany “laws prevent similar denials of the Holocaust” (p. 18). Because Le Pen said that only the officials in power were responsible for the roundup and that they should not be taken to represent France, Stanley regards her as a Holocaust denier. Again, he cannot read.

Sometimes this leading philosopher cannot keep straight what he says from one page to another. We learn in one place that fascists spread conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories function to denigrate and delegitimize their targets, by connecting them, mainly symbolically, to problematic acts. Conspiracy theories do not function like ordinary information; they are, after all, often so outlandish that they can hardly be expected to be literally believed” (p. 58). On the very next page, speaking of the famous conspiracy theory in The Protocols, Stanley says, “The most prominent and influential Nazi leaders, including Hitler and Goebbels, firmly believed this conspiracy theory to be true” (pp. 59–60). In another case of amnesia, he mentions that “Turkey’s Article 301 of its penal code outlaws ‘insulting Turkishness,’ including mentioning the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Such attempts to legislate the erasure of a nation’s past are characteristic of fascist regimes” (p. 17). Later, though, in a discussion of President Erdoğan’s purge of academics suspected of prodemocratic or proleftist sentiments, he refers to “the secular liberal ideals that had been at the center of Turkish civil society, including its education system, since Kemal Atatürk” (p. 52). I wish he were as careful in his account of facts as he is including the proper circumflexes in Turkish names.

Alas, it is not to be. He says that in “fascism, the state is an enemy; it is to be replaced by the nation, which consists of self-sufficient individuals who collectively choose to sacrifice for a common goal of ethnic or religious glorification” (p. 152, emphasis in original). Stanley here ignores a basic, and elementary, distinction between Italian fascism and German Nazism. The latter stressed the party over the state; not so the former. One wonders what Mussolini, who said, “Everything within the State, Nothing against the State, Nothing outside the State,” would have made of Stanley’s comment.

We have not yet plumbed the depths of Stanley’s comment about the fascist attitude to the state. He says that “fascist ideology involves something at least superficially akin to the libertarian ideal of self-sufficiency and freedom from ‘the state’” (p. 152). How insightful—people who wish to live their own lives free from domination are “at least superficially akin” to those who wish to sacrifice for a goal of ethnic glorification, because both oppose “the state.”

I regret to say that Stanley is serious in his comparison of the free market and fascism. He says that though “fascism involves a commitment to group hierarchies of worth that is flatly incompatible with true economic libertarianism, which does not generalize beyond the individual, both philosophies share a common principle by which value is measured. Economic libertarianism is, after all, the Manhattan dinner party face of social Darwinism” (p. 179). Of course he does not cite the well-known criticisms of social Darwinism by Mises and Rothbard, which stress that that competition in the market is a peaceful process of social cooperation, not one of ruthless struggle. On these matters I have written at length elsewhere, so I shall say no more here.

Readers of the book will, long before they are finished, grasp a curious fact. Stanley emphasizes over and over that the key characteristic of fascist politics is that it divides people: it distinguishes “us” from “them.” In doing so, it does not appeal to reasoned discourse but arouses fear through the use of conspiracy theories. It transpires that this is exactly what Stanley himself does.

I have been critical of Stanley, but it is his leftist allies who may prove his undoing. I regret to say that Stanley at two places in the book spells out in full the dreaded “n-word” (pp. 74, 176). Academic careers have been destroyed for this, and the learned disquisition he could no doubt offer on the difference between the “use” and “mention” of a word may not suffice to save him.

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