NEW HAVEN (TNS) — Jason Stanley isn’t calling President Donald Trump a fascist.
The president is no Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, ready to commit genocide or to rule as a dictator.
The case that Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, is making in his new book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, is that Trump, among others, including leaders of Russia, Hungary, India and Turkey, use techniques of far-right nationalism to gain power and to build their popularity.
In his book, which goes on sale Tuesday, Stanley calls these strategies “fascist politics,” and its principles have been practiced in the United States throughout its history, most notably in defending slavery and Jim Crow laws (whose defenders Hitler admired and emulated).
Ultimately, Stanley’s message is about the danger of normalizing fascist politics. He offers as an example his grandmother, Ilse Stanley, who wrote a memoir, The Unforgotten, in 1957 about staying in Berlin until 1939, rescuing hundreds of Jews from a concentration camp by posing as a Nazi social worker.
Ilse Stanley “struggled to convince her neighbors of the truth,” Stanley writes. He quotes from her book:
“A concentration camp, for those on the outside, was a kind of labor camp. There were whispered rumors of people being beaten, even killed. But there was no comprehension of the tragic reality. We were still able to leave the country; we could still live in our homes; we could still worship in our temples; we were in a ghetto, but the majority of our people were still alive.
“For the average Jew, this seemed enough. He didn’t realize that we were all waiting for the end.
“The year was 1937.”
By drawing on an idealistic “mythic past,” demonizing minority groups, intellectuals and those who do not belong to the “heartland,” among other tactics, leaders such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Trump — who rose to the presidency to the surprise even of many Republicans — gain power and then use the same appeals to remain popular, Stanley writes.
But he’s careful to say that those who use fascist politics to gain power do not necessarily go on to rely on fascism as “a ruling system.”
“I’m definitely not calling Trump Hitler,” Stanley said. “Hitler was uniquely Hitler. Fascism does not need to result in a fascist state. Fascism is a way to appeal to what I regard as people’s worst instincts.
“You can maybe use it to enrich yourself. You can use it to enrich your friends. You can use it to do good things, maybe,” Stanley said.
“But ultimately fascism is bad not just for the people it targets, not just for the minority groups. It’s bad for the supporters. It feeds their vanity by lies about their superiority, and when your mind is taken over by myths and lies, you’re not free,” he said.
He gave North Korea as an example of a people who are fed lies and so are not free.
Among the tools of fascist politics are propaganda; using conspiracy theories to alter a sense of reality; supporting a hierarchy in which immigrants, minorities and women are considered less worthy; promoting a sense of victimhood, in which the movement toward equality by minorities is seen as a threat to the majority; portraying those not in the majority as lazy or more likely to commit crime; protecting the myth of the traditional family; and idealizing the “pure” rural countryside as opposed to the “corrupt” cities.
In calling the news media “fake news” and speaking harshly about immigrants, Trump is using the same strategies, even though the consequences may not be as dire, Stanley said.
“People don’t realize that fascism is not some foreign invasion,” he said. “The antecedents for European fascism are here.” They include “slavery and the Jim Crow South and the harsh reaction to the labor movement — the antipathy toward unions — the genocide of the Native Americans, which Hitler greatly admired.”
Fascist politics also included the 1924 Immigration Act, “which Hitler repeatedly praises. It restricts immigration, keeping out nonwhites essentially,” Stanley said. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that the United States “absolutely forbids naturalization of certain defined races, and thus are making a modest start in the direction of something not unlike the conception of the national State.”
In the late 1930s, the aviator Charles Lindbergh led the America First movement, opposing war against Nazi Germany. In his inaugural address, Trump said, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”
Even in modern Germany, a far-right party, Alternativ fur Deutschland, gained the third-largest number of seats in Parliament in 2017, Stanley writes, quoting AfD leader Björn Höcke calling for “a culture of memory that brings us into contact first and foremost with the great achievements of our ancestors,” echoing the Nazi Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s second in command.
“When it does not simply invent a past to weaponize the emotion of nostalgia, fascist politics cherry-picks the past, avoiding anything that would diminish unreflective adulation of the nation’s glory,” Stanley writes.
Stanley said fascist politics arises “when we feel legitimated in horrible things being done to people because … of the racial and ethnic identity and the supposed threat that they pose to our democracy.”
In his book, Stanley points out that Trump’s political career began with a conspiracy theory: that the news media were not covering his claim that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and was an illegitimate president.
He then campaigned on his plan to build a border wall to keep Mexicans from illegally entering the country, saying, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
His politics were fascist, Stanley said, warning that the United States is not immune to going down an authoritarian path. “Because we heroically fought the fascists, people don’t realize that we are vulnerable ourselves,” Stanley said. “The courts can be corrupted. As we see in Eastern Europe, the democratic institutions can go quickly. New laws can be enacted.”
Rather than wanting to eliminate ethnic groups, as Hitler did, “The new version of fascist politics, if you look at Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin or [Recip Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, these authoritarian leaders who indulge in fascist politics … they tend to want to use it to maintain support and win elections,” Stanley said.
“You only need 40 percent of a society to be fanatically devoted to you to retain power,” he said. “That can cow the rest of the population into fear.
“Americans are not special,” Stanley said, despite our belief in American exceptionalism. Once, America’s sin was slavery. Now, we have mass incarceration of black men. There is “intense voter suppression” of minorities and the Voting Rights Act is being gutted, he said.
“Why do you need to … remove the apparatus of democracy?” he asked. “The most effective way to take power nowadays is to make people think voting doesn’t matter, to suppress the vote and to have your supporters be enough of the vote so that you win the vote.”
Stanley isn’t equating conservative politics with fascism.
“There’s different forms of regular conservative politicians; none of them are fascists,” he said. “A democratic society needs conservatives and it needs progressives … but there are extreme threats to democracy on either side”: communism on the left, fascism on the right.
Fascist politics attacks intellectualism and the universities as places where radical ideas are taught that contradict traditional values, Stanley said.
“The key thing to realize is, fascism hates equality, fascism opposes equality … You represent movements of equality as attempts to take over,” he said. So subjects such as women’s studies or ethnic studies are condemned.
“They’re not methods to seeking equality for the fascist because equality is some fantasy. They’re methods to take over. Liberalism is threatening the dominant traditions,” he said.
Victimhood takes over when the majority is told that less capable people are taking their jobs or their status in society. “Think of the president’s comment, ‘Why do we have immigrants only from s---hole countries?’ People don’t realize how close what we’re hearing is” to fascism. “That’s why I had to write the book,” Stanley said.
Fascist politics demonizes those who live in the cities, just as Hitler said Vienna was overrun with foreigners — “Jews, Jews and more Jews” — when he went there from his small hometown, Stanley said. The cities are “dens of iniquity,” he said, and their residents “praise minority groups, they praise homosexuality; the culture they produce is meant to corrode and corrupt us.”
In the United States, Stanley writes, mass incarceration of African Americans and mass shootings have become normalized. Fascism has become normalized in Hungary and Poland, he writes.
“The word ‘fascism’ will always seem extreme,” Stanley said. “Whatever happens here, the word ‘fascism’ will always seem extreme because we normalize. American sympathetic to fascism wouldn’t call themselves fascist because it’s a foreign word.”
But, Stanley warned, “We’ve set ourselves up for fascist politics because more of the … good things of liberalism, like tolerance and education, are only available to people with a lot of money.” Higher education has become unreachable for many and so it is easy to demonize universities and what they teach as “the enemy,” he said.
“We have to deal with the underlying problems of inequity so people are not tempted by fascist politics,” Stanley said. “Whenever people have a lot of anxiety and fear and feel like they’ve lost a lot, you can exploit that.
“We have to make sure to continue to have a multiparty democracy where all voices are represented,” he said. Dehumanizing immigrants and criminals needs to stop.
“I think we need good conservatives to stand up against more extreme elements in their party, just like good progressives need to stand up against extremist elements in their party,” Stanley said. “Some of the denunciation of people for holding views that people disagree with worry me. That exists on both the right and the left.”
He ends his book by writing, “By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons.”
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