GUEST WORDS--The word fascism has been widely bandied about during the current US presidential campaign, especially in negative campaigning against Donald Trump, the likely Republic candidate. Trump has been compared to Juan Peron and Benito Mussolini because of his flamboyant personal style and his racist comments. Those labeling him a fascist or neo-fascist point to his rampant bigotry against immigrants in general, and Muslims and Mexicans in particular, through proposed entry bans, wholesale roundups, mass expulsions, border walls, and labeling Federal judges as biased because of their ancestry.
This is certainly part of what has constituted fascism in the past, and they also have precedents in American history, such as the Palmer Raids in the early 1920s, the incarceration of Japanese Americans at the beginning of WWII, and mass expulsions of Bracero program workers in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But, we need to remember that history is definitely much better at helping us understand the present than accurately predicting the future. So what do our history books tell us about Mr. Trump, other Presidential candidates, such as Hillary Clinton, and the prospects for fascism in the United States?
In the past, fascism, as it appeared in Italy, Spain, and Germany, was far more than anti-immigrant nativism and bigotry against religious minorities emanating from street thugs. In the 1930s it was a top down answer to deep political and economic crises at the national and global levels. It strengthened the executive function of government at the expense of its legislative and judicial functions. It also included intense patriotism, glorification of an idyllic past and intense state and street opposition to organized labor, liberals, socialists, and communists. Its program has also always included preparation for and pursuit of aggressive foreign wars, which is why some analysts surprisingly focus on Hillary Clinton’s militarism as another fascist danger in the United States.
In terms of actual American precedents for fascism, we need look no further than the World War I administration of President Woodrow Wilson, the former Democratic governor of New Jersey. After his 1916 election as an anti-war candidate, he not only led the United States into “the war to end all wars,” but also successfully promoted three draconian bills through Congress: the Espionage Act, Sabotage Act, and Alien Act. These laws banned open opposition to US participation in WWI and to military conscription. As a result, many critics of the war were sent to jail and not released until the 1920s. Some of these provisions remain on the books, and the Obama Administration has frequently used the Espionage Act to prosecute government whistle blowers.
President Wilson also promoted anti-Black racism by barring Blacks from entering the front door of the White House. He then hosted a White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s pro-KKK movie, The Birth of a Nation, a key step in the nationwide revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the late teens and early 1920s. Wilson also used the Justice Department’s affiliate, the American Protective League, to set up a massive domestic spying operation, as well as to bombard the American public with pro-war, pro-conscription propaganda through his Committee for Public Information.
Since the US has already had one serious brush with fascism, several renowned novelists have imagined what a fascist United States would look. This is why Sinclair Lewis wrote his book about US fascism, It Can’t Happen Here, in 1936, when memories of WWI were still fresh. Later Phillip Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle (1958), which imagined the U.S. occupied by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Most recently, in 2005, Phillip Roth wrote The Plot Against America. He carefully researched fascistic trends of the 1930s and devised a plot in which Charles Lindberg was elected President in 1942 and then signed anti-intervention peace treaties with both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. While Roth’s fascist U.S. did not have a domestic Holocaust, it did have anti-Jewish pogroms.
So, this brings us the second decade of the 21st Century and the obvious question asked by Sinclair Lewis 80 years ago: Could it happen here? My answer is yes, and it could happen if either candidate becomes the next US president, a thesis that might surprise many readers.
Pre-Conditions of Fascism already underway
Based on historical patterns, many pre-conditions for fascism are already present.
- War: Our troubled planet already is reeling with military conflicts, and they are drawing in the current super-powers, China, Russia, Europe, and the USA. Other countries, like Japan, are re-arming, and many countries, like Germany and France, have growing nativist and anti-refugees movements. In this climate, it is easy to imagine many scenarios of extreme racism and military escalation drawing in many more countries, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia into Syria.
- Economic Crisis: While we do not yet have a global depression, many key countries are economically stumbling. China, Russia, Japan, most of Europe, South Africa, and Brazil are all suffering from economic stagnation or recession, including rising unemployment. In all of these countries, and many more, much deeper economic and political crises are either already present or knocking at the door.
- Weak Recovery: In the US, the “recovery” is the weakest since WWII. Since the Great Recession of 2008-9, it has failed to take off even through the Federal Reserve Bank has kept interest rates at historically low levels and pumped over $4 trillion into the economy through Quantitative Easing.
- Security State: In the US the trappings of a strong and increasingly authoritarian executive function of government are already in place. It is called the Security State. The NSA collects details on all telecommunications, and the US Post Office scans all mail. Furthermore, in the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush and Obama administrations have whittled away at many civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
- Nativism: As anti-immigrant and anti-refugee nativist movements and policies grow in Europe, they also have their counterpart in the United States. It is not only Trump’s rants about Mexicans and Muslims, but also the government’s creation of enormous barriers to political asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq, as well as the Obama Administration’s record levels of incarcerating and deporting immigrants and refugees fleeing to the United States.
- Police Surveillance: These trends are also visible at the local level through police department SWAT teams, police intelligence divisions, and fusion centers whose purpose is to monitor potential terrorism. It includes the LAPD’s Suspicious Activities Reports, whose vague terrorism indicators include people taking photos of public buildings and overheard conversations about public officials.
- Corporatism: Another historical feature is extensive collusion between corporations, finance, and government. This was not only obvious in “too big to fail,” a Federal government program that pumped $13 trillion in public bailout money into the banking system according to Bloomberg News, but also the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute the Wall Street executives who played a leading role in the financial collapse of 2008-9.
- Militarism: A final component that intertwines with the security state is the warfare state. The total US military and security budget has exceeded $1 trillion per year for the entire decade, when all military-related categories are included. Part of this warfare state is active participation in many military conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia), but also local training and US military bases in nearly 200 countries.
With so much already in place, and with so many pre-conditions emerging, based on historical models, what should we expect? As the cliché goes, the answer is complicated, but it clearly depends on how rapidly the Federal government moves on foreign wars, economic austerity, surveillance, and mass deportations. If they get little push back, trends might proceed slowly. But, grassroots movements, like Black Lives Matter, already exist, and opposition to economic austerity, militarism, racism, nativism, police violence, and spying and surveillance, is likely to grow.
The larger and more successful these movements, the greater the chance of authoritarian responses, such as those during WWI and the Cold War. We also know that fascist regimes have used street thugs, like those attacking counter-demonstrators and minorities at Trump rallies, and when they could not find or rouse them, they simply turned to Plan B, using cops as agent provocateurs and vigilantes.
One scholar of potential fascism in the United States, Bertam Gross, in Friendly Fascism, argued that American fascism would have traits not found in Germany and Italy. For example, elections could be retained, such as in Iran. In this case, a Council of Experts vets all candidates for the Iranian Parliament and Presidency. While Iran does have political diversity and a high-level of voting, the approved candidates range from the far right to the center right. How different would this be from the upcoming Presidential election in the United States, featuring a closeted white nationalist, Republican candidate, Donald Trump facing off against a center-right military hawk, Democrat Hillary Clinton?
Bracing for the Presidential election
If there is a take-way from the discussion, it is that the term fascism needs to be grounded in historical analysis, and that it should not be restricted to one Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. At this point deepening global military and economic crisis could easily converge and draw in the United States with responses that would include some or all features of fascism.
This is why the November election is, of course, important, but why it is incorrect to claim that a Trump victory ushers in fascism, while a Clinton victory blocks it. Independent of either candidate, the basic trends and the basic government institutions are already in place. After all, fascism cannot be reduced to a blowhard or military hawk winning a presidential election or a group of street thugs rushing the podium, grabbing the microphone, and then using the trappings of power to plunder the economy, attack the public, and scapegoat minority groups. Fascism utilizes all the institutions of the public and private sectors, including the military, the police, the spy agencies, the courts, and the media, to resolve a deep economic and political crisis.
But, we also know from the historical record that fascist regimes do not exist in a political vacuum. Their freedom of action is limited because of foreign and domestic opposition. The Third Reich collapsed after 13 years when the Allied armies converged on Berlin in the summer of 1945. Mussolini might have been victorious in the 1920s, but the Italian partisans executed him and then hung him by his heals 20 years later at a gas station in Milan.
So, if you are following this Presidential election closely and harbor legitimate concerns about fascist trends in the United States going into high gear after January 2017, then you need to pay close attention to and support the many types of opposition movements. These include organizations addressing civil rights, civil liberties, privacy and surveillance, climate change, economic inequality, health access, education access, police violence, military spending, foreign wars, and much more. They might be drowned out by election news until November, but they are here to stay, and their political role can become extremely important.
They, just as much as any regime in Washington, will determine the long-term historical outcome of this election.
(Victor Rothman lives in Los Angeles. He can be reached at [email protected].)