Are We There Yet?

An Essay On The Erosion Of Democracy And The Rise Of A Fascist Movement In The United States

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"I can't help but recall the words of my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, who told us that when we were his age, and he was then close to eighty, we would all be fighting the 'Christian fascists.' He gave us that warning twenty-five years ago, when Pat Robertson and other prominent evangelists began speaking of a new political religion that would direct its efforts at taking control of all major American institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government, so as to transform the United States into a global Christian empire. At the time, it was hard to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously. But fascism, Adams warned, would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance."
    -- Chris Hedges, writing in Harper's Magazine

Back in 1997, I published on this website an essay entitled "The Gathering Darkness: America In The 21st. Century" in which I predicted the ultimate resurgence and eventual takeover of the United States by a fascist authoritarian dictatorship. Most of the reaction to that essay at the time was that I was, in a word, nuts. It can't happen here. We fought a world war to suppress fascism, remember?

I rarely get such a response anymore. Fascism survived its defeat in World War II to mount a comeback, and now, at least a few Americans, those few who are able to think independently of the co-opted corporate media, are beginning to understand the dangers. That is because it is quite clearly apparent to most people that there is something gravely wrong with the American political process. Those on the right, led intellectually by such demagogues as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, are stigmatizing "liberals and progressives" as being the fascists in waiting, pushing a socialist agenda (as if that weren't oxymoronic), believing the largely non-existent left in the United States is capable of such a thing. Those on the left, what few of them remain, are concerned that the increasingly rightward drift of the Republican Party means that eventually that party will be host to, and a sponsor of, fascism in the United States.

Indeed, the signs are ominous. Umberto Eco, the Italian academic, in 1995 wrote an influential essay, entitled "Eternal Fascism," that has become a landmark in the understanding of what constitutes fascism. He wrote that there are several defining characteristics of fascism - read them and decide for yourself how many of them are characteristic of the Tea Party movement. They include:

  • "The Cult of Tradition," combining cultural syncretism with a rejection of modernism.

  • "The Cult of Action for Action's Sake," which dictates that action is of value in itself, and should be taken without intellectual reflection. This, says Eco, is connected with anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, and often manifests in attacks on modern culture and science.

  • "Disagreement Is Treason" - fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action.

  • "Fear of Difference," which fascism seeks to exploit and exacerbate, often in the form of racism or an appeal against foreigners and immigrants.

  • "Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class," fearing economic pressure from the demands and aspirations of lower social groups.

  • "Obsession with a Plot" and the hyping-up of an enemy threat. This often involves an appeal to xenophobia or the identification of an internal security threat. He cites Pat Robertson's book, "The New World Order," as a prominent example of a plot obsession.

  • "Pacifism Is Trafficking with the Enemy" because "Life is Permanent Warfare," there must always be an enemy to fight.

  • "Contempt for the Weak" - although a fascist society is elitist, everybody in the society is educated to become a hero.

  • "Selective Populism" - the people have a common will, which is not delegated to, but interpreted by a leader. This may involve doubt being cast upon a democratic institution, because "it no longer represents the voice of the people".

  • "Newspeak" - fascism employs and promotes an impoverished vocabulary in order to limit critical reasoning.

The world's leading expert on fascism, Robert Paxton, a historian who has made a career of studying numerous fascist movements, both current and historical, has suggested in his definitive work, "The Anatomy of Fascism," that there are certain defining characteristics of fascist movements, and that there is a well-defined path by which they come into being and rise to power. But first, we need to understand what fascism actually is, because it is broadly misunderstood, not least because of the widespread abuse of the term (which, as Paxton notes, most often is used to mean anyone with whom the speaker disagrees). Here is how Paxton has defined fascism since his book was published in 2005, long before the Tea Party movement began. Note its relevance:

    "a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

These movements, he tells us, arise only in a fully mature democracy that is in a state of crisis. This is often, even usually, a result of the obstruction by the ruling elites of the democratic political process in doing the will of the people and meeting their needs when it conflicts with the ruling class' interests, and the resulting frustration and disaffection of the people themselves. Sound familiar? This kind of existential crisis is clearly where the United States is at in the current moment - hardly a surprise, given that the private financing of political campaigns has effectively, over time, legalized political bribery in the U.S., effectively eviscerating the priority of the public interest by elected politicians whenever that interest conflicts with the interests of the economic elites. This trend was recently sealed by the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case in which corporations were handed the right to spend as much money on political campaigns as they like.

Paxton goes on to state that there are five well-defined stages by which fascist movements arise and come to power. Let us examine each in turn and see how the relate to the current political situation in the United States:

1. Nationalist movements and their associated cults arise in rural and lesser-educated parts of a nation, in response to the crisis, and with the objective of effecting a national moral, political and/or economic renewal. These movements gain support by rabble-rousing and place little value on civil liberties, human rights or the moral soundness of methods, as they see the urgency of the national peril as requiring their abandonment in favor of the project of national renovation.

We have clearly seen that in the Tea Party movement and its allied cults (such as the Oath Keepers and the various militia movements such as the Hutaree and the Minutemen, the Birther movement, among many others), which have emerged from the rural and least well-educated portions of the United States. That proto-fascist movements arise in such areas should not be a surprise; first, they are the most disadvantaged economically, and second, they are the least equipped to understand what they are getting themselves into, or the fact that they are often being covertly manipulated as the Tea Party movement is (it is being funded, and therefore controlled, by Charles and David Koch, the owners of Koch Industries, through their financing and control of Americans For Prosperity pseudo-grass-roots movement, often referred to as an "astroturf" group). As regards basic rights, there was not even a peep of protest out of these movements when, first, presidents George W. Bush, and then again, Barack Obama, suspended habeas corpus, the most basic of all civil rights and the foundation of criminal justice in the United States. They positively urged on former vice president Dick Cheney in his campaign to legitimize torture in the interrogation of "terrorism" suspects. Not a whisper of protest arose from the supporters of what is now the Tea Party movement when the Republican Party openly stole the 2004 presidential election by stealing the vote in Ohio. Protest only arises from the Tea Party when they suppose (usually without any foundation in fact whatever) that the Democrats are stealing the election from them. The open racial profiling, illegal under Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, but required of police in Arizona under the infamous "SB-1070" law is universally supported by the Tea Partiers, and when the constitutional conflict is pointed out to them, they simply suggest repeal of the 14th amendment. More than one of their candidates even campaigned on the idea.

At this stage, the proto-fascist movement is almost always dismissed as a collection of paranoid wingnuts who have no idea of how to gain power or what to do with it once they have it. At this stage in pre-Nazi Germany, almost all academics dismissed the National Socialist movement as being ideologically bankrupt, led by wackos and hardly worthy of the time of day. We saw this also with the Tea Party movement, which was widely dismissed as a collection of unorganized, paranoid fruitcakes. But as we saw with Nazism, and are now seeing with the Tea Party movement, these are movements to be taken seriously, because they are potentially very dangerous in their ruthless search for power and control. With the right ideological and political leadership, they can insinuate themselves into power with remarkable swiftness, as happened with the Nazis.

2. The proto-fascist movements then consolidate their influence and rise to a position of power, by making an uneasy alliance with the ruling elites, which try to manipulate and control them for their own ends. The proto-fascists create this alliance this most often by offering themselves up as the "enforcers" of the will of the elites which are exploiting them, becoming their goon squads.

This clearly happened in the elections of 2010 and subsequent events, where the Tea Partiers have been involved in several instances of violence in the campaign leading up to the election of 2010 and the rabid, often violent defense of the Republican evisceration of public worker union rights across the nation, particularly in Wisconsin almost immediately after the election. Of note was an incident where some Tea Partier members who were part of the Rand Paul campaign for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee roughed up a protester, shoving her to the ground, beating her head against a concrete curb, breaking her glasses and giving her a concussion requiring hospitalization. The two Tea Partiers, one of whom was a member of Paul's campaign, have been charged with felony criminal assault. This was widely reported, but it is hardly the only such incident, and was only given token condemnation by the movement itself. The Tea Partiers were also frequently involved in enforcing the "caging lists" that the Republicans had prepared to illegally suppress voting by people who were expected to vote Democratic - a tactic repeatedly ruled illegal by the courts. The Tea Partiers whose candidates were elected on November 2, have threatened even more violence if things don't change in ways they like. In at least one case, a candidate sponsored by the Tea Partiers has promised open revolution if the Tea Party movement doesn't get its way. Meanwhile, the Tea Partiers will have insinuated themselves within the halls of government at the local and state level, making sure (through a variety of means) that election processes are tilted to the conservatives' favor, that complaining or uncompliant local media voices are intimidated and/or shouted down, while compliant national media voices are repeated and promoted endlessly. In this way, the Tea Partiers have managed to do the conservative elites' needed bullying of dissent, being their goons and enforcers, and getting the elites' message out and enforcing it, even as they have been manipulated into thinking it is their own.

3. The third stage is a committed, institutionalized ruling coalition between the proto-fascists and the conservative ruling elites, in which they share power, very uneasily, for a time.

As a consequence of the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party, and the election of numerous Tea Party-approved candidates to national office, we are clearly now at this stage. The Tea Party movement was able to hijack the primary election machinery of the Republican Party in many states, installing their candidates, and in the elections of November, got them elected to a number of seats in Congress, with the cooperation and support of the Republican Party elites. Beginning in January, when the new congress convenes, the influence of the Tea Party movement will clearly be felt. This will be the testing time: Can they govern effectively? If they display the outright nuttery typical of ascendant proto-fascist movements, will that nuttery be kept in check? Will the Republican Party leadership tolerate and control the nuttery? And will the Tea Party members stand for that control?

Nations at this stage are not recognizably fascist to most people within them. This is why this stage is so frequently ignored, even by intellectuals of the left that are sensitized to fascism, as they are frequent victims of it. They will often continue to ignore the movement as ineffective, or dismiss it as being ineffectual or relatively harmless, if deeply annoying. We see this in the United States today in the FBI raids on peace activists, who have violated no law and pose no credible threat to the security of the United States, but who have not recognized their arrests as having been inspired by fascism.

This is the point at which Paxton tells us many, if not most proto-fascist movements either manage to consolidate power and go on to succeed or they die. But it is also, he tells us, the most dangerous for the nation, because the movement is not yet recognizably fascist, yet this stage is the very last opportunity to stop the proto-fascist movement from consolidating its power and becoming openly fascist and broadly repressive. As their more sincere members begin to see and experience the consequences of their extremism as it is put into practice, many will fall away disillusioned, but a hard core will remain. It is this hard, uncompromising ideological core that is the most dangerous element, because they are the most ideologically committed to the enterprise and the least interested in democracy, compromise, dissent and dialogue, all of which they find deeply repugnant. This is not about sound public policy, remember, as much as it is about raw power. Pure and simple. And the committed hard core will do whatever is necessary to seize it and keep it. We saw this in the debt-ceiling debate in late July of 2010, when members of the Tea Party caucus in the U.S. Congress, including the House Republican leadership, was quite willing to put the national treasury's ability to borrow at risk, even destroy the nation's economic future, just to score a victory in their opposition to an increase in federal taxes on the incomes of the extremely rich. It was an extremely risky gambit designed solely to secure power. And unfortunately, it succeeded. Many of the more moderate members of the Tea Party movement were appalled by what they witnessed, and will fall away from the movement as a result of this and similar events. But its hard ideological core will remain, unfazed.

I predict that the Tea Party movement will survive this hurdle and will go on to consolidate power. I believe that, because they have what most proto-fascist movements have historically lacked - covert support from a handful of radical ultra-rich elites (in the form of the Koch brothers and the money of the Koch Industries fortune that is funding it, as well as from other corporate sources) and support within the intelligence community, which is openly concordant with their goals and will likely provide them with support in ways the movement isn't even aware of, and political support from the far right, already well-esconced in political power - from the Bush family among others, which has a long history of supporting fascist movements.

4. The fourth stage is a stage of power struggles, during which the traditional conservative elites, inside and outside of the political system, struggle to regain their grip on power, while the ideological core of the fascist movement struggles to gain uncontested control by displacing and suppressing them.

We will know we are in this stage when we see formerly supportive church groups, the military, business organizations and professional societies struggling to push back the fascist movement and reconstitute the power of the traditional ruling elites. But when we get to this point, Paxton tells us it is already too late. The game is already over. The levers of power are already in the hands of the fascists, and they will not brook dissent - they will ruthlessly do whatever is necessary, legal or illegal, to suppress dissent and consolidate their control. Drunk on power, refusing to acknowledge their failures, fascist leaders at this point will try to "redeem the national honor" (read: distract attention from their failures and their repression) in some spectacular way, usually by military adventurism. It is at this point that most people will finally begin to realize just what has happened to them, but by now nothing can be done - it is already way too late. This is when a nation is recognizably fascist, both to its own citizens and to the rest of the world.

5. The fifth and final stage of a fascist takeover is what Paxton calls "radicalization or entropy." This takes one of two forms: if the military adventurism results in a spectacular military success, the nationalist urge fomented by the fascists becomes a fervent, blindly radical nationalist patriotism that results in military belligerency seeking empire and foreign domination of "the lesser" (as happened in Hitler's push for "lebensraum," the Holocaust and widespread enslavement of people in the conquered lands), or if the militarist adventurism is defeated and/or proves unsustainable, the fascist movement begins to crumble from within of its own internal contradictions and eventually degrades into incoherence until it is overthrown or the now largely defenseless and demoralized nation itself is overrun by foreign armies seeking to stamp out the fascist menace (as happened to Mussolini's Italy).

When a fascist regime is in place, it is still not always immediately obvious that the regime is indeed truly fascist. And that is where another political scientist, Lawrence W. Britt, comes in. Writing in Free Inquiry Magazine (Vol. 23, No. 2), he has published the results of a study he has done of seven fascist regimes, and the characteristics that made them recognizably fascist. Those regimes that he studied were Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. He has correlated fourteen characteristics, common to them all, that define them as fascist regimes:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. Whether it becomes a political faux paus for a politician to not be seen wearing a flag pin on one's lapel, or not be conducting chants of the Pledge of Allegiance at campaign rallies, or always appear with a flag (or preferably several) in the background, or forbidding even the mere suggestion that perhaps more spending on the military is not in the national interest, there is always a patriotic fervor that becomes almost religiously sacrosanct. Woe be unto he who does not pay obiesance to it, too.

2. A disdain for human rights and civil liberties. One of the most prominent features of fascist regimes is that they will often pay lip service to freedom and liberty, while honoring human rights mostly in the breach, in the name of improving security and streamlining governance. Whenever human rights are seen as hindering the objectives of oligarchies and ruling elites, they are simply swept aside as expedient in the "current emergency."

3. Identification of scapegoats and enemies as a unifying cause. It has often been said that conservatism cannot exist for long in the absence of a scapegoat, but that is even more true of fascist regimes. When the people begin to bridle under the yoke of a fascist government, the result will always be that the regime will resort to what Hermann Goering suggested was the easiest way to control a restive population: "voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the will of the leaders. All that is necessary is to declare the country under attack, and denounce the pacifists for putting the nation in danger. It works the same in any country." We saw this in the "Great Red Scare" of the 1950's in the U.S., and we saw it again after 9/11, where it was used to force repressive measures on the public that just weeks before they would never have tolerated. It is a universal feature of fascist regimes needing to control restive populations.

4. The supremacy and universality of an avid, aggressive militarism. It seems to be that fascist minds seem bent on glory, leading the nation into imperial glory, with themselves at the helm, getting the credit, of course. As a consequence, they are always tightly in league with a military-industrial complex, of the very kind of which Eisenhower warned about, always seeking an excuse to go to war, to demonstrate the national supremacy by military means. The military itself becomes an expression of nationalism and a symbol of the nation-state. Disproportionate resources will always be devoted to the military, regardless of how urgent the needs of the people.

5. Rampant sexism. These regimes always view women as second-class citizens, little more than property of their husbands and fathers. Similarly, they view sexual minorities as either deviants or defectives, unworthy of equal rights. These views are inevitably encoded in draconian laws that support the doctrines of the dominant conservative religion, to the exclusion of the rights of the disadvantaged, with the doctrines of the religion serving as cover, and "moral renovation" as the excuse.

6. A tightly-controlled mass media. Under some fascist regimes, the media is directly controlled, and strictly so. Under others, it may nominally be independent, mostly for purposes of appearances, but it will always practice strict self-censorship if it is not censored directly. Methods of control will vary, such as licensing, controlled access to resources, economic pressure, and appeals to patriotism. When necessary, threats will be applied. But the net result is that the message in the media will represent the message the regime wants to get across.

7. An unrelenting obsession with national security. The national security apparatus falls under the direct control of the regime, and is used to persecute political enemies, with the justification being that they are accused lack of patriotism or even treason. The national security apparatus becomes the principal means of repression, and it is always operated beyond accountability and restraint. Its activities are justified in the name of fighting "the enemy" and questioning its activites is repressed as anti-patriotic or even seditious.

8. Religion and the ruling elite become closely intertwined. Whatever the dominant religion of the country, non-believers are inevitably denounced as godless nihilists, bent on moral depravation and hedonism. Religious entanglement with the regime means that the church itself becomes a means of repression, and is a tool, willingly or unwillingly. The regime portrays itself as a devout defender of the religion, and the religion defends the state in the name of order and moral renovation. The moral squalor of the regime gets swept under the rug and is ignored by the church.

9. The power of corporations are carefully protected, and the distinction between corporate and government leadership is blurred. The ruling elites view corporations not just as a means of securing production for war, but also as a means of social control. Poor people have few options, and when corporations suppress wages, the ability of the working classes to resist repression, either by government or employer, is greatly diminished, and this, of course, suits the agenda of the state brilliantly. Leadership of corporations and government pass back and forth ("revolving door") with no attention paid to conflicts of interest.

10. The power of organized labor is suppressed or eliminated. Seen as another possible threat to the regime, labor unions are severely restricted or eliminated, as they represent the threat of organization outside the control of the ruling elites. And because this also suits corporate cronies' agenda, the corporate allies of the regime are all too eager to cooperate.

11. Disdain for and repression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectualism and the creative freedom of thought represented by the arts are anathema to fascist regimes. And because intellectual freedom represents the threat of subversion, universities become tightly controlled, and intellectual freedom and free inquiry are repressed. Unreliable faculty are fired or disappeared. Student organizations are infiltrated and are controlled or subverted. In the mind of these elites, literature and the arts should serve the national interest, as the ruling elites define it, or they have no right to exist.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Police are glorified, and granted almost unchecked power, leading to rampant abuse of basic, fundamental rights of the people. Such violations are rarely, if ever punished. Prison populations swell to overflowing, and torture becomes commonplace, even the norm. The usual "normal" crimes and political crimes become conflated and are punished the same. Hatred of criminals and fear of crime is promoted endlessly, as a means of justifying ever more draconian police power.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely - with corporate leadership using their connections with government to enrich themselves, and the ruling elites using corporations to enhance their own power and financial status, often by looting public resources and openly accepting bribes. With the media under tight control, the corruption is not well understood or appreciated by the general population.

14. Fraudulent elections. The pretense of democratic façade is often, even usually carefully maintained, but as Josef Stalin noted, it doesn't matter who votes, what matters is who counts the votes. As a result, both elections and plebescites are usually fraudulent, with a wide variety of methods employed to control the outcomes of elections and plebescites, by controlling the election machinery, the access to the polls, the party political machinery, or all of the above.

Does any of this sound familiar? It is still too early to tell which direction the United States will take if the fascist movement now vying for control manages to get that far. Indeed, as I write this in the summer of 2011, we are still clearly at stage three, with the Tea Partiers beginning to win elections on the Republican ticket. But all indications are that the radicals within the Republican Party and the Tea Partiers are clearly struggling to consolidate power against the traditional conservative ruling elites, and they are quite likely to seize power and maintain it, leading to stages four and five. My prediction is that at stage four, the U.S. will seek military adventurism - indeed, it is already showing evidence of doing so - but I suspect that the rest of the world will begin to resist in ways that the United States does not expect - as Latin Americans are already doing.

But of one thing I am certain. If the U.S. progresses to stage four, as I fully expect it will, the United States will become one of the most ruthlessly, brutally authoritarian fascist dictatorships the world has ever seen. Its covert behavior already clearly shows that its ruling elites have zero respect for human rights, the rule of law, a sense of justice. That reality has become legend around the world, even though Americans themselves are largely unaware of what has been done in their names and still believe naïvely in their beloved American exeptionalism. But the existing proto-fascist movement, the Tea Partiers, to the extent they are aware of it, have clearly demonstrated that they have no interest whatever in apologizing for American brutality abroad. Dozens of brutal, far-right fascist regimes installed and propped up by the United States, supplying and training extremely repressive and vicious, brutal police and military regimes, throwing human rights activists under the bus (sometimes quite literally), torturing and killing with abandon, all go on even now, with the Tea Partiers not feeling the least bit apologetic. All this suggests that what Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua once said, is true: "If the United States ever does at home what it does abroad, it will be the most repressive nation on earth." I fear that he is right. America will soon do at home what it has long done abroad. And in consequence, I fear that America is in for some truly dark, dark times.

For those wishing to know more about the causes and results of the collapse of the American empire, here are some resources:

Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from by following the links here):

The Anatomy Of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton, is the definitive study of fascism - the political theory, how it is recognized, the methods by which it rises to power, how it is best fought. This book is considered by scholars to be the definitive, classic work on fascism, and it is the book which inspired this essay.

The Beast Reawakens: Fascism's Resurgence from Hitler's Spymasters to Today's Neo-Nazi Groups and Right-Wing Extremists by Martin A. Lee is an expose of how fascism didn't die at the end of World War II, it simply went underground, to reorganize, learn from its mistakes, and become resurgent. It is a good study in how fascism survives periods of suppression to slowly work its way back into positions of influence and rise once again as a political movement.

The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America by Kimberly Blaker, is a truly frightening expose about how the Christian right, in league with unregulated commercial enterprise, is rapidly eroding both the separation of church and state, and the concept that one of the principal functions of government is the regulation of the excesses of business. It shows how each is using the other for its own ends - none of which are democratic in any sense.

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