By Karma Bennett
Fascism Isn’t Synonymous with Tyranny (What Fascism Isn’t)
To many Americans, fascism is just another word for tyranny. This is because American history is taught as the triumph of capitalist American democracy against all forms of tyranny or revolution. Americans against the Nazis, Americans against the communists, America against the terrorists. But fascism is something more specific, a particular powder keg of values. Let’s talk about the psychology that separates the fascist from your standard authoritarian. There are several factors that intermingle to produce this particular stew.
WTF Is Fascism?
Nationalism and Nostalgia
Fascism is symptomatic of an empire in decline. Fascism always comes with a potent mixture of entitlement and nostalgia. The Italians were nostalgic for the glory days of the Roman Empire. The Third Reich was a yearning for a return to the success of German imperialism in the Second Reich.
MAGA is in this same tradition. MAGA isn’t about moving forward into a great American future, it’s about going backwards, to the prosperity and domination they were promised when they said the Pledge of Allegiance. Understanding this is key to the emotional underpinnings that drive this movement. It’s not a coincidence that fascism comes to fading empires. People are more likely to turn to xenophobia and savagery when the future they inherit can’t compare with the mythology they were promised. At the heart of every fascist is someone who wonders why we can’t just go back to the “good old days.”
Frightened of a changing world, the American fascist wants to return to the mythical American Dream, and fantasies of working men with pension plans, two-car garages and enough money to raise a family. They’ve been fooled into thinking minorities and elites are the reason this dream is broken, and since those people aren’t “true Americans” they seek to free us of their influence…by imprisoning, deporting or executing them.
Return to Tribalism
When the nation-state is threatened, people don’t abandon their nationalistic identities. But when facing scarcity, they become tribal — they must protect their own, but they still identify their country as their “tribe.” If they can’t achieve the American Dream in a society where everyone has equal rights, then they will reject equal rights. It is a closing of ranks, ever reducing the number of people who have rights from the false belief that this will allow those who remain to return to plenty.
Appeals to “equal rights” are useless on the fascist, who believes that you have to fuck people over to survive. They were promised an American dream, feel entitled to it, and think that it means that someone else must suffer in the process. Some of them see violence as a temporary, unpleasant necessity to “purify the nation.” Others believe in the myth of social Darwinism, and view liberal ideas about fairness as naive. They come to see prosperity as a zero-sum game, believing that progress for the underprivileged will take away from their own chances for success.
Yearning for Daddy (the Cult of Personality)
It’s critical to understand that fascism is driven by fear. The fascist sees their empire crumbling, and the truth of this creates a valid fear that is easily exploited by psychopaths who want to raid the coffers and seize power. Fascists elevate strength above all other features because of their primal terror of being victimized.
The misogynist fears gay men will treat him the way he treats women. Likewise, the fascist believes if minorities are empowered they will resort to the brutal tactics of the fascist.
In Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff’s research suggests that people view the world through metaphorical frames. Our first exposure to political ideology is through the metaphorical frame of the family. Progressives want the country run with “nurturant parent” values: nurturing, listening, providing — while conservatives prefer a “strict father” archetype — punishing, testing, rewarding. Lefties want to take care of the poor, conservatives want to teach them discipline, force them to straighten up and fly right. Lakoff says,
“In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right…When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth.”
Combine this erroneous philosophy with the fear of a changing society and you get an audience that is primed for violence. Trumpsters lashed out from a primal, infantile longing for this father figure who will protect them. They are irrational because they are desperate. Like a helpless toddler, they want a big strong bully to save them from the societal changes they are powerless to stop.
Fascists are drawn to a showman who tells them he has a solution that will bring the nation to its former glory. Their leader is both disciplinarian and protector. Every president fills this role, but the fascist leader is an insurgent who comes from outside the political establishment. Fascism is in reaction to the failure of the state to provide for the people.
It’s not that the fascist leader is attractive or glamorous. The best training for a fascist leader isn’t to be a lawyer, it’s to be a used car salesman. The leader offers easy solutions. They use simple, superlative language. Bureaucracy? Regulation? The fascist is suspicious of any policy that takes a book’s worth of text. Fascists don’t unite around a policy or economic plan. Rather their infantile fear drives them to entrust their future to a leader who promises a new golden age, using whatever might is necessary. This leader must captivate the people or they won’t fall for the snake oil of scape-goating immigrants and minorities. “I am your voice, I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order,” Trump said, reassuring his followers that he is the big strong daddy they’re seeking. In return, his followers proclaim him the “God Emperor.”
The Violence Is the Point
Only now that we understand the infantile fear that drives the fascist do we arrive at authoritarianism. To the fascist, it’s OK that their leader is a bully. They believe he must be mean and strong in order to protect them. Masculinity and cruelty are praised because they must be strong before their adversaries.
When Trump supporters assaulted or murdered protesters, many were horrified. But to his nascent fascist supporters, violence is a feature, not a bug. They are angry, and they feel violence is necessary and called for. It doesn’t bother them when he hints second Amendment advocates should murder journalists because they don’t fear the weapon of tyranny will be turned back on them. They think he’s protecting them from a harsh world.
Fascists Always Have a Scapegoat
The infantile longing of the fascist is expressed through an equally infantile longing for purity. Like the child who has just been potty-trained, the fascist is obsessed with cleansing. Nazis used terminology for their scapegoats such as “vermin,” “parasites” or “poisonous weeds.” Trump threatened that asylum-seekers would bring “large-scale crime and disease” and that they would “pour into and infest our country.”
At last we come to the racism. It is not simply that Trumpsters are racist. Most Americans are racist, as our society teaches racism from birth. Even those who purport to fight racism still benefit from the privileges of a racist system. Trumpsters embrace racism as the “secret truth” that life is just an endless battle of tribal warfare.
Because fascists fear their culture is being threatened, they’re hostile to those they perceive as not fitting the nationalist fantasy (e.g. immigrants, queer people, drug users, African-Americans, etc.). Under the pressures of real economic hardship, the fascist believes the problem can be solved by getting rid of some undesirable group.
The rise of Trump was directly linked to his desire to deport millions of immigrants and his promise to ban Muslims from entering the country. Thus it seemed at first that Trumpism represented “fascism light,” because they only sought to get rid of minorities through non-murderous ways.
But after deporting all the asylum-seekers doesn’t cure America’s economic woes, will fascism cease? Or will they next target minorities and dissidents who were born here? Once a state has determined to spurn its own citizens, there is no “away” to send them to. The next step is for them to be imprisoned or murdered. Because fascism cures nothing, the quest for purity is a downward spiral that ends in genocide.
Action over Intellect
Once the actions of Trumpsters are viewed through the lens of fear of change and fantasies of the mythic past, the rest of the symptoms of fascism come into focus.
For example, their distrust of intellectuals. In a working society, intellectuals can be trusted. But when society is failing, people will look at all expertise with skepticism. “A new study” always seems to contradict last week’s study. So fascists don’t trust studies. They don’t respect the authority of scientists or professors.
Historically both Mussolini and Hitler were fans of action for action’s sake. In Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism,” he says “Fascism desires an active man, one engaged in activity with all his energies: it desires a man conscious of the difficulties that exist in action and ready to face them.” The spirit of think-first-ask-questions-later doesn’t align with quiet study and contemplation.
As fascism scholar Robert Paxton said,“It’s…the aggressive style, the assertion of strength and the image presented of somebody who’s not going to be bothered by little things like the rule of law or political correctness or being polite, and will actually get things done.”
They stereotype the intellectual as a bogeyman sitting in his ivory tower, with his cushy taxpayer-paid job, making new rules the nationalist must follow. This is why MAGgots react to well-researched discourse with trolling. What is rooted in fear and rage doesn’t end with rationality.
Now the other attributes of fascism fit in like pieces in a puzzle. Of course Trump attempted to disdain or control the media, as total trust in the leader means no voices of opposition can be tolerated. Of course they glorify the police and military, as these are the real-life bullies who actualize the ethnic cleansing. Of course domestic terrorists are celebrated, because in a world of might makes right, strength is the only value that matters. Of course those who worship strength would embrace sexism, as toxic masculinity elevates the same violent rhetoric. Of course there is rampant cronyism and corruption because fascism only takes hold when the state is vulnerable to collapse. Of course they challenge the legitimacy of elections; they’ve abandoned their agency to the simplistic promises of their bully-protector.
In the face of their savagery, it’s easy to claim that fascists are all psychopaths. But psychopaths are a small percentage of the population; the prevalence of authoritarianism reveals a more dire truth. Rather, the psychopath is the ultimate ideal of the fascist: one who has crushed all feelings of sympathy, one who responds to weakness with brutality, one who strikes without hesitation. Displays of caring and concern will be treated as signs of weakness. The fascist views their own natural human decency with shame. Thus their own violent rhetoric is yet another form of projection. They can never entirely crush their humanity, so they will resort to increasing atrocity to deny those feelings. As Trump would say: sad.