How Fascism Works: Book Review

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018), Jason Stanley. This book was a warning about fascism: “essentially the danger of rhetoric that encourages fear and anger as a means to foment ethnic and religious division” (L 92). The power of fascist tactics has impacted developed countries in both the US and Europe, even in Sweden and Germany. Immigration and fear of losing dominant culture are a key element. Ditto developing countries like Brazil and India. “When you legitimize yourself entirely by inventing enemies, the truth ceases to matter, normal restraints of civilization and decency cease to matter, the checks and balances of normal politics cease to matter” (L 136). Stanley’s father and grandmother fled Germany in 1939, so he had firsthand experience.

ICE and Border Protection were created by the Homeland Security Act of 2003, when safety was valued over liberty. Tech giants like Facebook benefit from clashes of hostile groups. Attacks on expertise and science become common, like the response to Covid, many calling it a hoax, “principle” over expertise, even blaming immigrants with the virus. “From the Civil War … the US has fought against white Christian nationalism” (L 226).

Introduction. Lindbergh was something of a proto-Nazi before World War II, admiring Hitler and promoting “America First.” The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted migration, especially Jews and nonwhites. Trump revived “America First” and pushed banning immigrants. Far-right nationalism ruled in Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, and Turkey. Stanley emphasized the fascist tactics to gain power. “Fascist politics includes many distinct strategies: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. … The dangers of fascist politics come from the particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population. By excluding these groups, it limits the capacity for empathy among other citizens, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion. … The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into an ‘us’ and a ‘them’” (p. 4).

A mythic past creates a vision for now, distorting reality. Propaganda and anti-intellectualism crated this past and attack institutions that challenge their ideas like education systems. This creates unreality, conspiracy theories, and “fake news.” A “hierarchy of human worth” creates divisions, victimhood, need for law and order, and us (lawful, hardworking, virtuous) versus them (lazy, lawless, parasites). An interesting point was that Hitler was inspired by the Confederacy and Jim Crow.

Chapter 1: The Mythic Past. The mythic past was glory, conquest, and the basis for a nation’s identity. This was lost, according to propaganda, by liberal cosmopolitanism and “universal values” like respect for all humans. “Traditions” survived in small towns and rural areas in general, where fascists emphasized “uniformity” (which could be ethnic or religious). The emphasis was on authoritarianism, hierarchy, purity, and struggle.

The family controlled by the father was one ideal, with the leader the analogous father of the country. Authoritarian strength was a key value. Military service was man’s role, motherhood for the woman—part of national traditions. They stressed anti-immigration of “them,” abhorred homosexuality, maintained control of state media, extreme gender politics including banning abortion. One neo-Nazi claimed that women traditionally were considered property in Europe except for Jewish cultures and gypsies. The glorious past was the heroic Aryan race in Germany and the Hindu in India. Confederal generals were honored with statues as heroes in the South. Buddhists in Myanmar against the Muslim Rohingya. White resentment became a Republican trope, including white victimization for considering the brutality of slavery.

Truth should be critical in a liberal democracy. The psychology literature considers collective memory including the motivation to forget. A key element if in-group wrongs against out-groups. Whites had a strong bias to forget and minimize the past brutality against Indians. It was less when the victimizers were called Europeans. Ditto slavery. To white Southerners reconstruction meant corruption that was eliminated only when white retook complete control.

Chapter 2: Propaganda. “The role of political propaganda is to conceal politicians’ or political movements’ clearly problematic goals by masking them with ideals that are widely accepted. … Political propaganda uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends” (p. 34). Nixon used “law and order” for a racist agenda. Accusing enemies of corruption is standard, while using corrupt practices. “Corruption was in fact the central organizing principle of the Third Reich” (p. 35).

“To many white Americans, President Obama must have been corrupt, because his very occupation of the White House was a kind of corruption of the traditional order” (p. 37). Fascists dismantle the rule of law, replaced by rulers or party bosses, claiming protecting freedom. Plato argued that democracy was a self-undermining system with ideals leading to its failure. Note than Athens executed Socrates. Freedom of speech (which is supposed to facilitate public policy discourse) can be used to subvert the speech of others. It’s irrational over rational, emotion over intellect.

Chapter 3: Anti-Intellectual. Fascists attack education, expertise, and science, ending intelligent debate or any other perspective. “There remains only power and tribal identity. … There is only one legitimate viewpoint” (p. 46). Any institutions that have independent voices of dissent are put down, like universities; leftists are accused to be enemies of free speech. Employees are required to sign nondisclosure agreements. Various specialties are deemed “Marxist indoctrination” or other forms of “anti-truth.” Current examples would be gender studies or Middle Eastern studies. Universities can be repurposed into ideological weapons. Myths can be considered fact and education can promote national traditions and indoctrination. On the other hand, the idea of a “Great Books” curriculum emphasizes white Europeans.

Rush Limbaugh “denounced the four corners of deceit: government, academia, science, and media” (p. 61). According the Mein Kampf : “all propaganda should be popular and should adapt its intellectual level to the receptive ability of the least intellectual. … Effective propaganda must be confined to very few points which must be brought out in the form of slogans. … Reasoning does not attract, emotion does” (p. 64). Emphasize irrational fears. Steve Bannon emphasized: “drain the swamp, lock her up, build a wall. … Pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls” (p. 65).

Chapter 4: Unreality. Power replaces truth, usually conspiracy theories against out-groups or help for the in-group. They may be outlandish but create suspicion especially of the media. An infamous example was The Protocols of Zion, claiming be a Jewish manual for world domination, including democracy, capitalism, and communism. Several conspiracies were made against Hillary Clinton. George Soros was a frequent target. John Stuart Mill believed that knowledge comes out of arguments, which is debatable in a fascist context. Preliminary suppositions are required, which assumes mutual respect. Trump lied and voters found him authentic, “speaking his mind.” Voters may favor systems favoring them, rather than democracy. Politicians use coded language, especially racist intent like the “Southern strategy.”

Chapter 5: Hierarchy. Max Weber (1864-1920): “The fates of human beings are not equal. … He who is more favored feels the never ceasing need to look upon his position as in some way ‘legitimate.’ Upon his advantage being ‘deserved,’ and the other’s disadvantage being brought about by the latter’s ‘fault.’ That the purely accidental causes of the difference may be ever so obvious make no difference” (p. 88). The idea of “liberal citizenship” with equality under the law has been long in coming.

“Fascist ideology … imposes hierarchies of power and dominance. … Social Dominance Theory studies these delusions under the name of ‘legitimation myths. … Human societies tend to organize as group-based social hierarchies” (p. 88). The hierarchies are facts according to fascism: it’s men over women, the “chosen nation” or others. Some of the Confederate speeches agree with this point: Alexander Stephens Cornerstone Speech denounced liberty and equality and stated that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. … The Cornerstone Speech makes vivid the characteristically fascist logic that liberal democratic principles are in conflict with nature and must be therefore abandoned” (p. 90). Those that disagreed with racial inferiority were “fanatics.” This was the “aristocratic principle in nature.”

“Trump … spoke of their disdain for supposedly undeserving recipients of US governmental largesse in the form of healthcare. … Trump exploited the lengthy history of ranking Americans into a hierarchy or worth by race, the deserving versus the undeserving. … Hardworking versus lazy” (p. 93). A critique of liberal ideals: it ignores differences in power. Thus, political freedom is an illusion, but assumes that some group must lead and dominate. The dominators can adopt their own myth of superiority, and claim “victimhood” by those that oppose this perspective.

Chapter 6: Victimhood. “45% of Trump’s supporters believe that whites are the most discriminated-against racial group in America; 54% believe Christians are the most persecuted religious group. … Increased representation of members of traditional minority groups is experienced by dominant groups as threatened … (leading to) dominant group feelings of victimhood at the prospect of sharing power equally with minorities” (p. 103). The Zionist movement increased anti-Semitism.

In colonialism, the imperial nation typically presents itself as the bearer of universal ideals. British colonists in Kenya presented Christianity as the universal ideal and the many local tribal religions as primitive and savage. … The Black Lives Matter movement … is hardly intended as a repudiation of the value of white lives. … The point is to call attention to a failure of equal respect. … Black lives matter too. … At the core of fascism is loyalty to tribe, ethnic identity, religion, tradition or nation. … It is nationalism in the service of domination. … Rectifying unjust inequalities will always bring pain to those who benefited from such injustices” (p. 106).

Loss of dominance is manipulated as victimhood. White nationalists claim no racism against blacks, but against whites. Affirmative action is given as an example but ignores individual merit. Fascism emphasizes a patriarchal society, where success means working hard. Failure means humiliation. “Nationalism is at the core of fascism … The sense of collective victimhood to create group identity.

Chapter 7: Law and Order. Politically, law and order for black men meant they were expected to be criminal, consistent with the out group considered lawless. Germany practiced the same with Jews. German Jews in the 1930s were hard to convince they were in danger. Trump talked about “criminal aliens.” Psychology called it “linguistic intergroup bias” lead to “them.” Civil rights protests became riots. Arrests and imprisonment increase the crime rate. Of course, historically blacks were considered lazy, violent, and disease ridden. Manipulative expertise included “super-predator theory.”

Chapter 8: Sexual Anxiety, which is the threat that women in traditional families would be raped—by the “inferior blood” of the out group. Hitler claimed Jews conspired for black soldiers to rape white women to destroy the white race, with a similar perspective from the KKK. Ida B. Wells noted the lynching of black men in the South. Buddhists claim Muslim sex predators in Myanmar. The “Bathroom Bills” illustrate that anxiety extending to transsexuals. “In a male-centered gender hierarchy, where it is assumed that men are better than women and the masculinity is superior to femininity, there is no greater perceived threat than the existence of trans women” (p. 145). Add that to the list of perceived enemies: “Muslim immigrants, left-wing liberal elite, and George Soros” (p. 147). Abortion also was considered an exercise in freedom that women shouldn’t have.

Chapter 9: Sodom and Gomorrah. “Pure German values were rural values, realized peasant life; the cities, by contrast, were sites of racial defilement” (p. 152). Urban/rural differences on immigration. Rural support increases for anti-immigration and hardline security. Rural voters claimed Democrats were inflicting their values on small towns, while taxing them and benefiting cities. Farmers were hard working, urbanites were lazy. “The perception was mythical. … It is the metro areas that are the ’economic engine, generating tax dollars that flow outward to every corner of the state” (p. 157). Rising crime was an issue in 2016, although crime rates were falling. Trump called cities “sites of carnage and blight. … Ghettos filled with black people. … You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street” (p. 159).

“Fascist ideology rejects pluralism and tolerance. In fascist politics, everyone in the chosen nation shares a religion and a way of life, a set of customs” (p. 160). Rural life is self-sufficient and not dependent on the state. The state becomes the enemy, replace by sacrificing leader supporting these values. Rural residents are more likely to think poor people lack the effort rather than subject to difficult circumstances beyond their control. Jews in particular were parasites. The solution was to force them into hard labor.

10. Arbeit Macht Frei. The state supports members of the “chosen nation” in times of crisis: us, not them; because they are lazy and cannot be trusted. “In Nazi ideology, Jews were lazy, corrupt criminals who spent their time scheming to take the money of hardworking Aryans” (p. 167). White American’s attitude toward “welfare” is based on their view of minorities as lazy, although the majority of welfare recipients are white. Hard work versus laziness also relates to law-abiding versus criminal.

The US has a history of policies that promote stereotypes, including policing and incarceration (1 in 17 for whites, 1 in 3 for blacks). Also “redlining” for housing, a New Deal program. Under Kennedy, antipoverty programs and job training included anticrime measures. Nixon dumped these for law and order and punitive crime measures. Trump eliminated much of what was left of social welfare and increased jail time.

Unions were to be dismantled in Fascist countries because they gave power to workers and whites could join with blacks. They could be unified by class rather than race or religion. Hitler attacked unions based on his claim that Jews were leaders. Fascists promote economic inequality. High union membership equates with low-income inequality (Denmark, Finland, Sweden). Visa versa: US, Mexico, Turkey. Right to work laws made labor unions difficult to form. It started in Texas in the 1940s. This was associated with white racial hierarchy. Fascism is like Social Darwinism where success is based on “free market capitalism,” succeed by struggle and merit. Too bad about the disabled. People only have a right to compete, the principle of achievement. Freedom is connected to wealth (and thus virtue). Related to that was workplaces based on hierarchy.

A universal welfare system believes in the value of each citizen, unites people through caring, rather than dividing them into classes that can be exploited. Nazis: there is no strife, because all groups would be run by the Fuhrer Principle: us are good, them are bad and undeserving.

Epilogue. “Judgments of normality are affected both by what people think is statistically normal and what they think is ideally normal. Trump’s continuing behavior—actions and speech that used to be considered remarkable … are coming to be seen as more normal” (p. 198). The scary part is people normalizing the unthinkable. Included are mass shootings, mass incarceration, poor treatment of immigrants. Seemingly normalizing fascist ideology, targeting refugees, feminism, labor unions, racial, religious, and sexual minorities.