Jason Stanley on How Fascism Works
In an era of successful far-right movements consolidating power around the world, we need public intellectuals who can put the frightening politics of the present in historical context. Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them does just that.
Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale, writes brilliantly about fascist politics being used as a means to seize power, citing examples from countries including Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, and the US. He effectively exposes the mechanisms by which demagogues succeed in mobilizing large numbers of people to embrace intolerance and strongman worship.
Stanley is a clear and insightful writer who presents his analysis in ten chapters which each look at a different fascist tactic, covering a wide spectrum of ploys.
Some of the most important, and timely, material in the book focuses on racist tactics used by the far right. In addressing white supremacy, Stanley writes, “White American stereotypes of black Americans as lazy and violent derive from the very beginning of the United States, where those attributes were regularly used to justify the enslavement of America’s black population.” Stanley cites W.E.B. DuBois’s 1935 work Black Reconstruction in America, which showed that the initial gains of post-Civil War southern reconstruction were derailed by southern whites and their allies among Northern elites who feared the potential of black and white workers joining together to develop a powerful labor movement.
In charging corruption among newly-elected black legislators, whites again demonized the oppressed black population. DuBois explained:
The south, finally, with almost complete unity, named the negroas the main cause of southern corruption. They said, and reiterated this charge, until it became history: That the cause of dishonesty during reconstruction was the fact that 4,000,000 disenfranchised black laborers, after 250 years of exploitation, had been given a legal right to have some voice in their government, in the kinds of goods they would make and the sort of work they would do, and in the distribution of the wealth they created.
Since reconstruction, as Stanley shows throughout How Fascism Works, black Americans have continued to be targets of propaganda campaigns of demonization familiar to students of world history. Indeed, as Stanley mentions, Adolph Hitler found inspiration in both the Confederacy and Jim Crow laws. Richard Nixon’s “war on crime” cleverly concealed what Stanley calls “the racist intent behind his administration’s domestic programs.” Evidence for that argument lies in April 1969 diary notes from Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who quoted Nixon as saying, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while appearing not to.”
In 1971, Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States,” and his administration began rigorous enforcement of drug laws. This launched the mass incarceration of people of color that continues to plague the US body politic to this day. In effect, Stanley convincingly argues, right-wing politicians repeatedly describing black Americans as a threat to law and order have encouraged a white national identity that requires a prison-industrial complex to contain the nonwhite other.
Regarding the stifling patriarchy predominant in fascist movements, Stanley notes that right-wing groups have always attacked feminists. Stanley writes, “If the demagogue is the father of the nation, then any threat to patriarchal manhood and the family undermines the fascist vision of strength.” And the threat of libidinous males of different ethnic backgrounds is an old fascist trope, whether in the lynching-prone American south, India under the reign of the rightist BJP party, or Donald Trump’s xenophobic speeches referring to Mexican rapists and killers.
How Fascism Works is packed with examples of time-tested fascist strategies that have all too obvious parallels with the actions of the current Republican regime. Trump ridicules handicapped people, disparages women and anyone else who isn’t a right-wing white male, and attacks transgender rights. He panders to his rural base, as did Hitler, by playing up the dangers of urban centers. Stanley is astute in analyzing the antipathy to cosmopolitan urbanism which has been a constant in Trump’s never-ending campaigning: “Fascist politics aims its message at the populace outside large cities, to whom it is most flattering. It is especially resonant during times of globalization, when economic power swings to the large urban areas as centers of an emerging global economy, as occurred in the 1930s in Europe. Fascist politics highlights the wrongs of self-sufficiency supposedly at risk by the success of liberal cities culturally and economically.”
Of course, as with most things espoused by our current president, a lack of any basis in fact for attacks on urban centers need not be a hindrance. So, though crime rates in the US have declined in the past several decades and most cities are experiencing widescale gentrification, in January 2017 the president-elect fired off a warning about “burning and crime-infested cities of the US.”
Given Trump’s troubles with forming coherent sentences, it is convenient for him that one of the core concepts in fascist successes has been a dedication to anti-intellectualism. Universities come under attack, and students and faculty who do not hew rightward are denounced as being feminists or Marxists (the ultimate put-downs for right-wing internet trolls).
Attacks on educators and logical thought go hand-in-glove with the promotion of disinformation and fantasy, whether climate change denial or the claim that Hillary Clinton was running a sex slave operation out of a pizzeria. The willingness of the mass media to repeat such lies just normalizes right-wing insanity. In Stanley’s words, “Allowing every opinion into the public sphere and giving it serious time for consideration, far from resulting in a process that is conducive to knowledge formation via deliberation, destroys its very possibility.”
In How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley has done a commendable job of marshaling well-sourced historical materials on fascism that extend into our current national debacle. Academic histories tend to be much longer and drier, and it to his credit that he has made his book so accessible to lay readers. One caveat: clearly he is being accurate when he labels his subject matter “fascist politics,” but some alternative phrase to denote that concept would have been welcome. That minor gripe aside, it is impressive how much valuable insight and information Stanley packs into 200 pages.
Unlike many contemporary political books, Stanley doesn’t close with policy recommendations or an attempt at a road map out of the mess we, and many other countries, are in. He makes clear that, in his words, “stark economic inequality creates conditions richly conducive to fascist demagoguery,” but he doesn’t lay out a radical agenda for left-wing movement building (nor, unlike two other useful books on Trumpism, John Bellamy Foster’s Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce and Henry A. Giroux’s American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, does he stress the need for a transformation to democratic socialism).
But Stanley also doesn’t pull any punches in attacking the toxic racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant xenophobia that too many middle-of-the-road Americans have been reluctant to confront. His call for practicing solidarity and fighting fascist targeting of refugees, labor unions, and racial, sexual, and religious minorities is more than welcome, as is his encouraging readers to “take comfort in the histories of progressive social movements, which against long odds and hard struggle have in the past succeeded in the project of eliciting empathy.”
This review originally appeared in January Magazine