How fascism works

“Fascism” is a word that gets tossed around pretty loosely these days, usually as an epithet to discredit someone else’s politics.

One consequence is that no one really knows what the term means anymore. Liberals see fascism as the culmination of conservative thinking: an authoritarian, nationalist, and racist system of government organized around corporate power. For conservatives, fascism is totalitarianism masquerading as the nanny state.

A new book by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley is the latest attempt to clarify what fascism is and how it functions in the modern world. Stanley focuses on propaganda and rhetoric, so his book is largely about the tropes and narratives that drive fascist politics.

I spoke with him recently about what fascism looks like today, why the destruction of truth is so essential to fascist movements, and whether he thinks it’s accurate to call President Donald Trump a fascist, as some have.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

Almost everyone means something different when they use the word “fascism.” What do you mean by it?

Jason Stanley

I think of fascism as a method of politics. It’s a rhetoric, a way of running for power. Of course, that’s connected to fascist ideology, because fascist ideology centers on power. But I really see fascism as a technique to gain power.

People are always asking, “Is such-and-such politician really a fascist?” Which is really just another way of asking if this person has a particular set of beliefs or an ideology, but again, I don’t really think of a fascist as someone who holds a set of beliefs. They’re using a certain technique to acquire and retain power.

Sean Illing

So fascism isn’t a discrete category — it’s a spectrum? Or a sliding scale?

Jason Stanley

Right. And my book identifies the various techniques that fascists tend to adopt, and shows how someone can be more fascist or less fascist in their politics. The key thing is that fascist politics is about identifying enemies, appealing to the in-group (usually the majority group), and smashing truth and replacing it with power.

Sean Illing

We’ll get into some more of those techniques, but I’m curious why you think fascism is so hard to pin down as an ideology. People on the left see fascism as the endpoint of right-wing reactionary thinking, and people on the right see fascism as nanny-state totalitarianism. Obviously, it can’t be both of these things.

Jason Stanley

I think it’s clearly right-wing. Part of the problem is that “right” and “left” are tricky to talk about, and it’s true that there are dangerous forms of extremism on both sides, but fascism tilts pretty heavily to the right in my view.

If you think about fascism as a sliding scale, ordinary conservative politics is going to find itself somewhere on that scale — which is not to say that it’s fascist at all, any more than ordinary Democratic politics is communist. But just as extreme versions of communism suppress liberty on behalf of radical equality, so too do extreme versions of right-wing politics, namely fascism, suppress liberty in favor of tradition and dominance and power.

Sean Illing

Your specialty is propaganda and rhetoric, and in the book you describe fascism as a collection of tropes and narratives. So what, exactly, is the story fascists are spinning?

Jason Stanley

In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.

This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.

Sean Illing

Why is the destruction of truth, as a shared ideal, so critical to the fascist project?

Jason Stanley

It’s important because truth is the heart of liberal democracy. The two ideals of liberal democracy are liberty and equality. If your belief system is shot through with lies, you’re not free. Nobody thinks of the citizens of North Korea as free, because their actions are controlled by lies.

Truth is required to act freely. Freedom requires knowledge, and in order to act freely in the world, you need to know what the world is and know what you’re doing. You only know what you’re doing if you have access to the truth. So freedom requires truth, and so to smash freedom you must smash truth.

Sean Illing

There’s a great line from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, I think in her book about totalitarianism, where she says that fascists are never content to merely lie; they must transform their lie into a new reality, and they must persuade people to believe in the unreality they’ve created. And if you get people to do that, you can convince them to do anything.

Jason Stanley

I think that’s right. Part of what fascist politics does is get people to disassociate from reality. You get them to sign on to this fantasy version of reality, usually a nationalist narrative about the decline of the country and the need for a strong leader to return it to greatness, and from then on their anchor isn’t the world around them — it’s the leader.

Sean Illing

This is partly why I think of fascism as a kind of anti-politics. I remember reading a quote from Joseph Goebbels, who was the chief propagandist for the Nazis, and he said that what he was doing was more like art than politics. By which he meant their task was to create an alternative mythical reality for Germans that was more exciting and purposeful than the humdrum reality of liberal democratic politics, and that’s why mass media was so essential the rise of Nazism.

Jason Stanley

That’s so interesting. The thing is, people willingly adopt the mythical past. Fascists are always telling a story about a glorious past that’s been lost, and they tap into this nostalgia. So when you fight back against fascism, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back, because the truth is messy and complex and the mythical story is always clear and compelling and entertaining. It’s hard to undercut that with facts.

Sean Illing

This is probably a good time to pivot to the glittering elephant in the room: Donald Trump. Is he a fascist?

Jason Stanley

I make the case in my book that he practices fascist politics. Now, that doesn’t mean his government is a fascist government. For one thing, I think it’s very difficult to say what a fascist government is.

For another thing, I think the current movement of leaders who use these techniques (Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, to name a few) all seek to keep the trappings of democratic institutions, but their goal is to reorient them around their own cult of personality.

Again, I wouldn’t claim — not yet, at least — that Trump is presiding over a fascist government, but he is very clearly using fascist techniques to excite his base and erode liberal democratic institutions, and that’s very troubling.

But the blame there is as much on the Republican Party as it is on Trump, because none of this would matter if they were willing to check Trump. So far, they’ve chosen loyalty to Trump over loyalty to rule of law.

Sean Illing

In the book, you imply that there’s something inherently fascist about American politics, or at the very least that fascism has always been a latent force in America. Can you elaborate on that?

Jason Stanley

Well, the Ku Klux Klan deeply affected Adolf Hitler. He explicitly praised the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the US, as a useful model.

The 1920s and the 1930s was a very fascist time in the United States. You’ve got very patriarchal family values and a politics of resentment aimed at black Americans and other groups as internal threats, and this gets exported to Europe.

So we have a long history of genocide against native peoples and anti-black racism and anti-immigration hysteria, and at the same time there’s a strain of American exceptionalism, which manifests as a kind of mythological history and encourages Americans to think of their own country as a unique force for good.

This doesn’t make America a fascist country, but all of these ingredients are easily channeled into a fascist politics.

Sean Illing

And yet at the same time there are countervailing forces that push us in the opposite direction, and so America exists in this perpetual tension between liberal democracy and reactionary fascism.

Jason Stanley

Absolutely. America is exceptional in good ways as well.

We have an exceptional devotion to liberty and equality, as embodied in our struggle for civil rights and our fight against fascism in World War II. I’m corny about these things, and I believe America has had truly great moments and has made a lot of progress.

But, as you said, the fascist threat is always lurking, and we just have to be aware of it.

Sean Illing

What does your book have to say about the way forward? If we are indeed threatened by fascist movements, both here and abroad, what can citizens and governments do about it?

Jason Stanley

We should heed the warning of the poem on the side of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which says, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not Jewish. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” At a certain point it’s too late.

We learned first from that poem who the targets are. The targets are leftists, minorities, labor unions, and anyone or any institution that isn’t glorified in the fascist narrative. And even if you’re not in any of those groups, you have to protect those who are, and you have to protect them from the very beginning. Simple acts of courage early on will save you impossible acts of courage later.

To be clear, this isn’t alarmist. We’re not on the brink of some fascist takeover. But there are reasons to be concerned, and we should always be on guard — that’s the lesson of history. Our weapons are our high ideals of liberty and equality, and we have to fight to keep those American ideals.

We’re fortunate enough to have liberty and equality baked into our founding ideals. We have a long history of people appealing to those ideals and saying, “We might disagree on a number of things but we agree that truth, liberty, equality are things we stand up for.” So whatever happens, we have to continually double down on those ideals — that’s what will save us.

This article was originally published on September 19, 2018.