(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comics, by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart.)
In an era of successful far-right movements consolidating power around the world, we need public intellectuals who can put the frightening politics of the present in historical context. Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House) does just that.
Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, writes brilliantly about fascist politics being used as a means to seize power, citing examples from countries including Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, and the United States. He effectively exposes the mechanisms by which demagogues succeed in mobilizing large numbers of people to embrace intolerance and strongman worship.
Stanley is a clear and insightful writer who presents his analysis in 10 chapters, each of which looks at a different fascist tactic, covering a wide spectrum of fascist ploys.
Some of the most important, and timely, material in this book focuses on racist stratagems used by the far right. In addressing white supremacy, Stanley writes, “White American stereotypes of black Americans as lazy and violent derive from the very beginning of the United States, where those attributes were regularly used to justify the enslavement of America’s black population.” Stanley cites W.E.B. DuBois’ 1935 work, Black Reconstruction in America, which showed that the initial gains of post-Civil War Southern Reconstruction were derailed by Southern whites and their allies living among Northern elites who feared the potential of black and white workers joining together to develop a powerful labor movement.
In charging corruption among newly elected black legislators of that long-ago era, whites again demonized the oppressed black population. DuBois explained:
The south, finally, with almost complete unity, named the negro as the main cause of southern corruption. They said, and reiterated this charge, until it became history: That the cause of dishonesty during reconstruction was the fact that 4,000,000 disenfranchised black laborers, after 250 years of exploitation, had been given a legal right to have some voice in their government, in the kinds of goods they would make and the sort of work they would do, and in the distribution of the wealth they created.
Since Reconstruction, as Stanley shows throughout How Fascism Works, black Americans have continued to be targets of propaganda campaigns aimed at demonizing them. Indeed, as Stanley mentions, Adolf Hitler found inspiration in both the Southern Confederacy and Jim Crow laws. Republican Richard Nixon’s “war on crime” cleverly concealed what Stanley calls “the racist intent behind his administration’s domestic programs.” Evidence for that argument lies in April 1969 diary notes from Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who quoted Nixon as saying, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while appearing not to.”
In 1971, Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States,” and his administration began rigorous enforcement of drug laws. This launched the mass incarceration of people of color that continues to plague the U.S. body politic to this day. In effect, Stanley convincingly argues, right-wing politicians repeatedly describing black Americans as a threat to law and order have encouraged a white national identity that requires a prison-industrial complex to contain the nonwhite “other.”
Regarding the stifling patriarchy predominant in fascist movements, Stanley notes that right-wing groups have always attacked feminists. “If the demagogue is the father of the nation,” he remarks, “then any threat to patriarchal manhood and the family undermines the fascist vision of strength.” And the threat of libidinous males of different ethnic backgrounds is an old fascist trope, whether in the lynching-prone American South, India under the reign of the rightist BJP party, or Donald Trump’s xenophobic speeches referring to Mexican rapists.
How Fascism Works is packed with examples of time-tested fascist strategies that have all-too-obvious parallels with the actions of America’s current Republican regime. Trump ridicules handicapped people, disparages women and anyone else who isn’t a right-wing white male, and attacks transgender rights. He panders to his rural base, as did Hitler, by playing up the dangers of urban centers. Stanley is astute in analyzing the antipathy toward cosmopolitan urbanism which has been a constant in Trump’s never-ending campaigning: “Fascist politics aims its message at the populace outside large cities, to whom it is most flattering. It is especially resonant during times of globalization, when economic power swings to the large urban areas as centers of an emerging global economy, as occurred in the 1930s in Europe. Fascist politics highlights the wrongs of self-sufficiency supposedly at risk by the success of liberal cities culturally and economically.”
Of course, as with most things espoused by our country’s current Oval Office-holder, a lack of any basis in fact for attacks on urban centers need not be a hindrance. So, though crime rates in the United States have declined over the past several decades, and most cities are experiencing wide-scale gentrification, in January 2017 the president-elect fired off a warning about “burning and crime-infested cities of the U.S.”
Given Trump’s troubles with forming coherent sentences, it is convenient for him that one of the core concepts in fascist successes has been a dedication to anti-intellectualism. Universities come under attack, and students and faculty who do not hew rightward are denounced as being feminists or Marxists (the ultimate putdowns for right-wing internet trolls).
Attacks on educators and logical thought go hand-in-glove with the promotion of disinformation and partisan fantasy, whether it’s climate change denial or the ridiculous claim that Hillary Clinton was running a sex-slave operation out of a pizzeria. The willingness of the mass media to repeat such lies just normalizes right-wing insanity. In Stanley’s words, “Allowing every opinion into the public sphere and giving it serious time for consideration, far from resulting in a process that is conducive to knowledge formation via deliberation, destroys its very possibility.”
In How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley has done a commendable job of marshaling well-sourced historical materials on fascism that extend into our current national debacle. Academic histories tend to be much longer and drier, and it to his credit that he has made his book so accessible to lay readers. One caveat: clearly he is being accurate when he labels his subject matter “fascist politics,” but some other words to express that phrase would have been welcome. That minor gripe aside, it is impressive how much valuable insight and information the author packs into his 200 pages.
Unlike many contemporary political books, Stanley doesn’t close with policy recommendations or an attempt at a road map out of the mess we, and many other countries, are in. He makes clear that, in his words, “stark economic inequality creates conditions richly conducive to fascist demagoguery,” but he doesn’t lay out a radical agenda for left-wing movement-building (nor, unlike two other useful books on Trumpism—John Bellamy Foster’s Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce and Henry A. Giroux’s American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism—does he stress the need for a transformation to democratic socialism).
But Stanley also doesn’t pull any punches in attacking the toxic racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant xenophobia that too many middle-of-the-road Americans have been reluctant to confront. His call for practicing solidarity and fighting fascist targeting of refugees, labor unions, and racial, sexual, and religious minorities is more than welcome. So is his encouragement to readers to “take comfort in the histories of progressive social movements, which against long odds and hard struggle have in the past succeeded in the project of eliciting empathy.” ◊