Once, we lived among giants. We had it better and, to say it plainly, Americans had it whiter. Now small men, and even women, pretend to lead us. How can we endure with such mediocrities? Surely all the good not yet gone must soon perish, unless a new generation of heroes rise to save us all. Someone from outside, someone pure, someone who can break the deadlock and turn back time, must come before the last light of the world flickers out. Pick any metric you like. Americans now distrust political opponents more. We understand compromise as a situation where we get more than we give. Politicians disregard conventional norms in the quest for partisan advantage. We used to come together, but now we draw apart. We disregard civility and replace reason with passion.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant all of those things. Spending some time with the nineteenth century makes present fretting sound more than a bit overwrought. They had a war; we have mostly harsh rhetoric. I don’t mean to play Dr. Pangloss here, pretending that in every way we live in the best possible world. Nor shall I argue that every change to the American political scene has turned out for the better. On some points, though not many, I agree with those wringing their hands. But let’s talk history.
For as long as we have left a written record, people have fretted about their decline from an imagined golden age. You can read it on Sumerian tablets. In recent American discourse, we talk polarization: How can we go forward if we can’t agree on anything? Can the country survive these divisions? Something must give. The example of Republican Rome suggests that a strongman or two will come around, with flagrant disregard for constitutional conventions and strictures, and inaugurate a dictatorship.
I have no better a crystal ball than you do; I can’t tell you that we’ve gone down the Roman road past a point of no return. Nor can I find it in myself to feel any deep sympathy for the Roman Republic. People have mourned its death for two thousand years, always convinced that in their times the fall has come again. To still treat it, after all these centuries, as the acme of civic virtue more troubles than impresses me. Why should we measure ourselves so closely against such a long extinct state? We have other paranoid, superstitious, and genocidal regimes we could admire in its stead.
We might do better to ask not if we have followed the example of Antique Rome, staggering toward Caesar and Octavian, so much as that of Weimar Germany. People invoke fascism as a slur all the time, often with little justification. The more sophisticated will sometimes say that it amounts to nothing more than that slur. The academy once leaned in that direction, but in recent decades scholarship suggests that we should take fascism seriously as its own thing. It differs from both the Left and Right, if dramatically more so the Left. Fascists often deploy leftist-influenced rhetoric, but regularly come to power with the more mainstream Right as a coalition partner. Establishment conservatives disdained Hitler and his Nazis as clowns and fanatics, but cooperated in their rise under the premise that they could control the brownshirt hordes. Once in power, the party did all it could to convince the German Right that it had nothing to fear. The German Left? They would soon have camps for that. In the interim, the Nazis had fists, knives, clubs, and bullets. The same conservatives that cooperated in the Nazi party’s rise didn’t mind that outcome much at all.
Among American laypeople, and I count myself as one on this subject, the rise of the Nazi party rarely elicits much thought. The line runs straight from Versailles to hyper-inflation to Hitler, neglecting that the Weimar government beat inflation back long before the Austrian had a place in the government. Now and then one hears about Nazi theatricality, always with the proviso that the speaker’s own nation would never go for such foolishness. That all nations have their forms of political theater, all of them similarly absurd and frequently just as linked to militarism, rarely enters into it. If we admitted that they can occasionally move us, even cynical bloggers ordinarily repulsed by even far more mild expressions of nationalism, then we would have to also admit that the national character we darkly muse upon exists in ourselves as well as strange countries beyond the sea.
Focusing on the theater lets us ignore the violence in the rise of fascist movements, even as we acknowledge the conspicuous violence of fascists in governance. We remember that violence directed at the people the Nazi regime made its enemies: Jews, Slaves, Roma, Sinti, anybody not heterosexual, the list goes on. Somewhere in the final section, you’ll reach the party’s more ordinary political opponents. Given the scale and intensity of the Nazi campaigns to exterminate the more famous victims, one can’t fault the standard narrative for emphasizing them. But during the Nazi party’s rise they spent far more time in street battles with the German Left, largely in the person of Germany’s communist parties. They and they alone could crush the degenerate forces that had betrayed Germany and deprived the nation of its greatness. They alone could undo the humiliations of Versailles and sweep aside the decayed, failed Weimar government.
To some degree, this language naturally rises from any group that has experienced power and then its loss. White male Americans once had almost all the power the a culture could grant. Now we have less, if not very much less. Most of us don’t like it. The resentment of the those forced to share what they once had all to themselves burns hot and nothing attacks one’s privileged identity more thoroughly than equality. Yet that alone doesn’t necessitate a diagnosis of fascism.
What does make for fascism? Robert Paxton, whose Anatomy of Fascism I draw upon for this, suggests setting aside the rhetoric and looking at fascism as a form of political behavior. I endorse that approach a wholeheartedly when discussing American constitutional theories, so I can hardly object now. Paxton eschews a strict definition of fascism on the grounds that historical fascist movements have, despite their reputations, little interest in ideology as such. Thus he looks for what he calls “mobilizing passions” which push people into fascism:
a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions
One can find invocations of crisis in any culture at almost any time, but Paxton means more than rhetorical discontent or polemical fireworks. A crisis, even a real one, doesn’t in itself cross the line. Rather the crisis must demand solutions, at least in the minds of the believers, from beyond the ambit of conventional politics. Those solutions aim toward a restoration, but don’t hearken back to older methods.
Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume
Paxton concerns himself specifically with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe, but doesn’t entirely neglect earlier movements. Another group of people in a major democracy had that sense of crisis well before the World Wars. In his opinion
It may be that the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism is American: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some former confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans in 1867 by the Radical Reconstructionists, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in the eyes of the Klan’s founders, no longer defended their community’s legitimate interests. By adopting a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as by their techniques of intimidation and their conviction that violence was justified in the cause of their group’s destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was arguably a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.
The Klan absolutely had the sense of crisis. They unarguably resorted to means beyond the conventional scope of politics to remedy it. So did the Confederates before them, but the Confederates adopted the forms of a normal state in a way that the Klan could not.
the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it
The Klan’s group, aside the organization and allied movements themselves, came in the form of the white race and the white South. That tradition, like many others, carried over into the South that the Klan made and has important precursors in antebellum thought on Southern distinctiveness. Behavior which one would ordinarily not tolerate, even toward other white men, became just in order to save the race and the South from the horrors of abolition and racial equality. The white South’s obsession with genocidal race wars coming on the heels of abolition may imply the same idea, but exertions on that front looked toward forestalling a future crisis rather than attacking one then present.
the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external
That really speaks for itself, but I can’t let it go without noting that antebellum white Southern writing on sectional strife constantly depicted their section as aggrieved and prostrate. A decade of unprecedented victories that came near to overthrowing the very idea of a free state didn’t change that.
dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences
Paxton consistently uses liberalism in the European sense, entailing not American leftism but rather a strong hostility toward regulation of capitalism.
Here too I see Antebellum as well as Reconstruction antecedents. The enslaving class prided themselves, at least for public consumption and in the hoarier parts of the South, on playing the part of the disinterested country gentleman. Some played it straight into bankruptcy. Few Southern writers could compare the sections in the late Antebellum without reference to the North’s cold, brutal capitalism. The South had genteel paternalism, delivered good and hard with every strike of the lash. With the war lost, they had the realities of “alien” influences in the persons of the freedpeople and the small number of white northerners who came South to join the larger number of white Southerners in the effort to make a new section. From the point of view of the former enslavers, they had fallen very far indeed.
the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent of possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary
While I have seen reference to racial purity in Antebellum writing, it more often comes in abolitionist attacks on the sexual exploitation that slavery facilitated than from white Southerners themselves. The Klan surely sought a purer community, by their own lights. The forced inclusion of freedpeople into the Southern community, however marginally and unequally, sent them rushing for the bedsheets and rope.
the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success
The Klan didn’t just lynch people, though they did plenty of that. They made a production out of it. White southerners, and not a few northerners, would keep right on doing that with great regularity for decades. It took only a few people to murder someone, but plenty would turn out to watch, get their pictures taken, and go home with grisly souvenirs. Any group can romanticize struggle, but fascists really go above and beyond.
the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle
Few Klansmen, at least during Reconstruction, would have signed up for that in so many words. Most probably understood themselves as acting in strict compliance with divine law and, until quite recently, the laws of men and nations. Theories of racial supremacy go back well before Darwin, though. If the Klan didn’t understand themselves as engaged in a Darwinian struggle, then they surely would have recognized a racial struggle for dominance in more Christian and traditionalist terms.
I have not studied the Klan as I have the late Antebellum. My knowledge comes up short in particular with some of Paxton’s points which I have hitherto omitted:
the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny
the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason
I don’t know enough about the early Klan’s internal operation to comment on these either way, though I’d be happy to hear from someone who does. The first point in particular sounds much more twentieth century than nineteenth to me.
What does all of this have to do with us? I don’t know any better now than I did some paragraphs ago where the United States shall go, but we should not pretend fascism could never happen here. It might, in fact, lurk just around the corner. It certainly has before, and come around that corner to achieve almost every item on its agenda. American fascism can happen, has happened before, and has succeeded before. We should not forget this, unless we want to see it again.
An American fascism would not come bedecked in swastikas and goosestepping about. It would draw on traditional elements of the political culture, just as European fascist movements drew on their own backgrounds. The Klan, whatever its incarnation, burned crosses. It declared itself once for traditional Southern values and then for pure Americanism. A fascist movement need not create; it shop for symbolism off the rack as well as any. I would expect American fascism to direct its hatred toward Americans it doesn’t deem white, most conspicuously black Americans but also immigrants, documented or not. It wouldn’t give a stiff-armed salute, but would turn the Pledge of Allegiance from an already troubling habit into a compulsory litmus test of one’s humanity. It would come wrapped in the stars and stripes, probably with some Confederate flags handy too. Where Germans talked about the volk, Americans would talk about patriotism.
Have we crossed the line yet? Do we today have a viable fascist movement? The seeds of one exist everywhere. Paxton’s mobilizing passions could, and probably do, beat in all our hearts from time to time. They come from far too deep in human psychology and the experience of living in modern states for us to ever entirely banish them. Any line we could draw would cut across important precursors. Any future twist of circumstance might leave us with more prosaic, if still horrid, authoritarianism. The United States has had tremendous good luck in that a fascist movement has never quite broken through to control of the national government. But the second Klan did run Indiana and Oregon for a time; it might have done better. Marking the point of no return with confidence can only work in retrospect.
Still, I wrote this because I do have an opinion. I worry the most about the legitimization of political violence. The United States has always had some of that, often much more than we’d like to remember. It has mostly afflicted people we consider outsiders and thus dismiss it as nothing worthy of concern, unless we instead took the time to express our approval. But one doesn’t expect a presidential candidate’s supporters to do much more than maybe behave boorishly toward opponents. We had had more than that this year. We seem poised for more. Where by convention we would expect the candidate to disavow such people, we see the opposite.
Donald Trump has endorsed his supporters roughing up the opposition, promising that he has their backs and if he doesn’t get the nomination he wants then riots may ensue. Violence at Trump events appears more often than one would expect for bad luck or coincidence, even if the candidate didn’t encourage it. His people have paid attention. Trump might not really come through for them, but authoritarians always grant their leaders slack on that front.
We might not have gotten there yet. This might all fall apart in the unlikely, but not impossible, event that Trump loses the Republican Party nomination. It might do the same if, as seems likely, he loses in November. I hope it does. But Trump didn’t invent any of this. His supporters will not evaporate if he loses, but will wait for the next person willing to take them all the way. He has, as I said a few weeks ago, reminded any who forgot that white nationalism can take you far in the United States. The last time the Republican party establishment turned on their base’s chosen man for the presidency, Barry Goldwater, his supporters took over the party over the course of the next decade. Given their remarkable successes, we could end up in a very dark place either way.
Demographics may save us in a country producing fewer and fewer whites, but South Carolina mastered King Numbers for decades. Our luck may hold out this time, but it can’t forever. The last big terrorist attack prompted a tremendous lurch toward authoritarianism, from which we haven’t emerged. We have, literally, as a matter of national policy, tortured people. Another attack could easily put us still further over the edge. So could a sudden economic dislocation. The next guy might have better political skills and sell with a bigger smile, something that usually wins over Americans. For at least a decade and a half, the far more conventional politics of the nation have involved much more constitutional pushing and shoving than usual. Now we have a movement boning up on its street violence.
We have had one before; it won.