Fascism In America

When fascism comes to America, what will it look (and feel) like?

Very much like what we have now, because a version of fascism is already here.

I am not the first to worry about the prospect of fascism in America. In 1935, for example, Sinclair Lewis published It Can't Happen Here, which is a fictional account of a fascist take-over of the country. In 2008, Joe Conason published It Can Happen Here. The book's subtitle, Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush, tells all we need to know.

Others have also breached the topic, but these works suffice. Lewis' and Conason's tomes ought to caution against too readily concluding that fascism could happen here. Nevertheless, there are grounds for concern.

Fascism is associated with Hitler's brutal dictatorship in Germany between 1933 and 1945, or Mussolini's milder version in Italy between 1922 and 1943, Franco's in Spain between 1936 and 1975, or a host of lesser-known personalities in various countries at different times.

Fascism is a totalitarian political system, in which an all-powerful central government directs a nation's economy. Virtually no aspect of society is independent of the state, which is a one-party regime, dominated by an omniscient leader. Although heavily influenced by populistic themes, fascist ideology is at once anti-democratic and collectivist.

At first blush, the American variety of fascism is different. For one thing, the traditional institutions associated with government in the United States are still in place. Sadly, however, the primary principles of American governance -- especially limited government, federalism, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and so on -- have been severely compromised.

I am reminded of The Roman Revolution, published in 1939 by the late Ronald Syme. The book covered Roman history from Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C.E. till Augustus' death in 14 C.E. Its main thesis is that the Roman Republic's institutions and processes, which had worked during most of the republican era, had become inadequate for the needs of empire. Without drastically changing the Republic's major institutions, Augustus "revolutionized" the key features of Roman government consistent with his monarchial rule. He did so in ways that went largely unnoticed during his lifetime.

The Roman Revolution was inspired by fascism's emergence in Italy and Germany, which is why it has much to teach Americans today.

Ours has become a system of virtually limitless central governmental power. Whatever one thinks of the IRS and Justice Department scandals -- targeting conservatives and evangelical Christian and orthodox Jewish organizations, spying on AP reporters, and labeling a Fox News journalist a potential felon -- their common theme is that the federal government can do anything it wishes.

Think back to Barack Obama's comment that the main problem with the Constitution is that it is a charter of "negative liberties," because it primarily specifies what government cannot do to people. The Obamians want a charter of "positive liberties"; they want an organic law asserting what government can do to -- oops, sorry -- for people.

Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein -- a czar in the first Obama Administration -- is the co-author with Richard Thaler of Nudge (2009), a book which argues that government should "gently" push people to do what they ought to have the sense to realize they should do.

Thaler and Sunstein's thesis is an exemplar of the "progressive" theory of government, which was a precursor to fascism, as Jonah Goldberg noted in Liberal Fascism (2008). Progressivism is belief in big government. It has two principles: (1) government regulation of the economy and society; and (2) redistribution of private property in the name of social justice.

Progressivism is a harbinger of fascist collectivism. Omnipotent central government, economic regulation -- sometimes known as "crony capitalism" -- redistribution of wealth; all these are consistent with fascism. (Many conflate progressivism with socialism, but the same features apply to fascism.)

How can a variety of democratic theory like progressivism can be a harbinger of fascism, which is obviously totalitarian? The distinction between progressives' notion of democracy and totalitarianism blurs.

No discussion of fascism would be complete without considering ordinary citizens' role. One of the most disturbing books to come out of World War II is They Thought They Were Free (1955), by Milton Mayer, who traveled to Germany in 1952 and interviewed ten ordinary Nazis who lived in west-central Germany. All were anti-Semitic. Two were Alte Kämpfer -- "old fighters" -- who had become Nazis before the Reichstag elections of 1930; the rest joined the party later, typically for opportunistic reasons.

Mayer's "friends" mentioned that the Nazi transmogrification of Germany occurred in a series of small steps, none of which was so wrenching as to produce massive resistance. Had the Nazis moved too swiftly, and made major transformations of Germany, some people -- perhaps enough to make a difference -- might have changed history. (One can't help thinking about Pastor Niemöller's account of how he remained passive during early Nazi outrages, only to discover that, when they came for him, it was too late.)

One is also struck by Mayer's "friends" lack of curiosity about what was going on beyond their narrow sphere of interest. (For a sense of what this mind-set must have been like, get the movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, set in Germany in 1948, and watch the scene where "Chief Judge Dan Haywood" -- Spencer Tracy -- meets "Mr. and Mrs. Halbestadt" -- Ben Wright and Virginia Christine -- a German couple who have been assigned to be his butler and house keeper. The "Halbestadts" beautifully exhibit this mind-set.)

Even though neither uses the term "fascism" -- two slender books present evidence buttressing the assertion that a version of fascism has come to America.

The first is Angelo Codevilla's The Ruling Class (2010), which argues that a relatively small proportion of the populace -- "the ruling class" -- governs the rest of the population, a.k.a. "the country class." The ruling class is America's elite, and their desires dictate what government does.

The second is Nicholas Eberstadt's A Nation of Takers (2012), which claims that a large proportion of the population -- sometimes approaching half -- receives some kind of government benefit. Instead of sturdy self-reliance, we confront the spectacle of a sizable slice of the public "gaming the system" to "qualify" for government benefits for which they might not be entitled.

How do these books buttress the argument that fascism already exists in America? The Ruling Class illustrates how the country is already governed by a tiny slice of the populace, ruling in their own interests. A Nation of Takers shows that, because they are already so dependent on government, millions of ordinary people lack the resources and the inclination to oppose government diktats.

Can anything be done to at least ameliorate fascism's impact? Yes, but, as the barkeep in Irma la Douce, was wont to say, "that's another story."