What We Talk About When We Talk About American Fascism

Social control is both harder and easier in the information age.

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Fascist. The term calls to mind the likes of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco, but it’s more abstract than the rhythm of jackboots. Fascism is a political philosophy based on the importance of national and often racial identity as exemplified and “protected” by a strong central government. Fascism is the enemy of diversity, but not necessarily the enemy of the extant political class, only viewpoints that exist in opposition to a rigorously defined norm. There is no such thing as a fascist republic so, when people talk about the rise of American fascism, they are fundamentally talking about the dissolution of the American political system as imagined by the country’s founding fathers. Fascism has become a looming specter, with Donald Trump heading toward the White House because the idea of making America great again implies a static idea of greatness that doesn’t make intellectual sense in an evolving democracy. It is — whether or not Ronald Reagan intended it to be when he embraced the phrase — fascist language.

Trump is also viewed as a potential fascist because the views of his most ardent supporters seem to lean in that direction, and because his big-fisted rhetoric regularly implies that the rejections of a set of somewhat antiquated capitalist and Judeo-Christian values is unpatriotic and anathema to democracy. Liberals on social media are circulating the term, and analyses of the degree to which Trump actually fits the fascist bill, have been circulating the internet.

There is certainly a debate to be had about the level and authenticity of Trump’s fascist rhetoric. It’s a debate that will take place over the next decade. More immediately, the resurgence of the term poses a more speculative question: What would a modern country like the United States look like if it was to become a fascist state?

Neo-Nazi protestors organized by the National Socialist Movement demonstrate near where the grand opening ceremonies were held for the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center April 19, 2009, in Skokie, Illinois. About 20 protestors greeted those who left the event with white power salutes and chants. 

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Censorship of Social Media

This is perhaps the biggest change a modern state would face in the advent of fascism, so it makes sense to start here. Crucial to both the fascist ethos and its past success is the non-voluntary silencing of dissent to the regime. Because social media has proven to be such an effective means of expressing both dissent and organizing active resistance, sites like Facebook and Twitter would be — in a traditional fascist state — targeted.

This is a tactic that has already been employed to varying degrees, in places like Egypt and Turkey, where it has seen equally varied degrees of success. Banning the internet is hard. In the age of satellites, even a brute force tactic, like cutting off all access within a country’s borders, will not be 100 percent effective. It’s not impossible, of course, but the logistical and political costs of such a maneuver would prove very high indeed. It’s also worth mentioning, to bring this example back into reality, that Trump has made effective use of Twitter for years. Social media allows leaders to access a mass audience, and any good fascist loves a bullhorn. Tweeting is easier in this day and age than organizing a rally. The question is what happens when Twitter capitulates to the demands of the state.

Draconian Immigration Policies

One of the main selling points of fascism is the heightened sense of national identity that often comes along with it. History teaches us that it is, in fact, moments of perceived national crises when fascists are most likely to arise. Think economically despondent Germany in the early 1930s. When fascism seeks to reinforce that national identity, it does so by curbing the rights of minorities, and cementing the primary of the preferred group, usually the (ethnic, religious, etc.) majority.

This one hits a little bit closer to home for Americans, as Trump himself has suggested both a ban on Muslim immigration and a national registry to keep track of all Muslims already living in the country. He has cited as reasons for this the idea that Islam is incompatible with American identity. This is an ahistorical assertion given Thomas Jefferson’s reading habit, and one that seems designed to gin up the enthusiasm of a specific kind of cultural protectionist.

Adolf Hitler and his staff salute the teams during the opening ceremonies of the XI Olympic Games on August 1, 1936 in Berlin, Germany. 

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Religious Cult of Personality

Many fascist leaders have also been hugely charismatic individuals. They build their loyal following, in part because of this charisma, with people becoming drawn to the mythology of their leader, and captivated by his (it’s pretty much always a he) speech. Their followers might proclaim them to be a savior of sorts, supporting them with the kind of zeal one might expect from religious fundamentalists.

Eventually, conditions would become such that one could not safely deny membership in this cult. Herein lies the populist nature of fascism, a populism not unlike the one that propelled Trump to victory. Of course, the difference in the present case is that most Americans do not actually belong to the cult.

The Criminalization of Dissent

This goes beyond simple censorship, and tends to be a later step in the onset of fascism. In this hypothetical scenario, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms would already have been done away with to a large degree, as discussed previously. At this point, other remaining forms of dissent would be targeted by the state. Essentially, any speech or action that can be perceived as going against the centralized narrative must be done away with. Damage would be done here to societal structures many of us take for granted today. A free and adversarial press is one that comes to mind. A fascist cannot tolerate journalists who do not fall in line.

Other, constitutionally protected civil liberties would also be at risk if this scenario ever came to pass, namely those things protected by the First Amendment.

Just today, the President-elect provided an example of what that would look like.

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