The idea that America is turning fascist has been popular on the Left for as long as I can remember: in the 1960s, when antiwar radicals raged against the Machine, this kind of hyperbole dominated campus political discourse and even made its way into the mainstream. When the radical Symbionese Liberation Army went into ultra-Left meltdown and began issuing incoherent “communiqués” to an indifferent American public, they invariably signed off by declaring: “Death to the fascist insect pig that preys on the life of the people!”
Such rhetoric, too overheated for American tastes, was quite obviously an exaggeration: America in the 1960s was no more “fascistic” than miniskirts, Hula Hoops, and the rhyming demagoguery of Spiro T. Agnew. Furthermore, we weren’t even close to fascism, as the downfall of Richard M. Nixon made all too clear to whatever incipient authoritarians were nurtured at the breast of the GOP.
Back in those halcyon days, America was, in effect, practically immune from the fascist virus that had wreaked such havoc in Europe and Asia in previous decades: there was a kind of innocence, back then, that acted as a vaccine against this dreaded affliction. Fascism the demonic offspring of war was practically a stranger to American soil. After all, it had been a century since America had been a battleground, and the sense of invulnerability that is the hallmark of youth permeated our politics and culture. Nothing could hurt us: we were forever young. But as we moved into the new millennium, Americans acquired a sense of their own mortality: an acute awareness that we could be hurt, and badly. That is the legacy of 9/11.
Blessed with a double bulwark against foreign invasion the Atlantic and Pacific oceans America hasn’t experienced the atomizing effects of large-scale military conflict on its soil since the Civil War. On that occasion, you’ll remember, Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” nearly emancipated the U.S. government from the chains of the Constitution by shutting down newspapers, jailing his political opponents, and cutting a swathe of destruction through the South, which was occupied and treated like a conquered province years after Lee surrendered. He was the closest to a dictator that any American president has come but George W. Bush may well surpass him, given the possibilities that now present themselves.
From the moment the twin towers were hit, the fascist seed began to germinate, to take root and grow. As the first shots of what the neocons call “World War IV” rang out, piercing the post-Cold War calm like a shriek straight out of Hell, the political and cultural climate underwent a huge shift: the country became, for the first time in the modern era, a hothouse conducive to the growth of a genuinely totalitarian tendency in American politics.
The events of 9/11 were an enormous defeat for the U.S., and it is precisely in these circumstances the traumatic humbling of a power once considered mighty that the fascist impulse begins to find its first expression. That, at any rate, is the historical experience of Germany, for example, where a defeated military machine regenerated itself on the strength of German resentment and lashed out at Europe once again. The terrible defeat of World War I, and the injustice of the peace, created in Weimar Germany the cradle of National Socialism: but in our own age, where everything is speeded up by the Internet and the sheer momentum of the knowledge explosion a single battle, and a single defeat, can have the same Weimarizing effect.
The Republican Party’s response to 9/11 was to push through the most repressive series of laws since the Alien and Sedition Acts, starting with the “PATRIOT Act” and its successors making it possible for American citizens to be held without charges, without public evidence, without trial, and giving the federal government unprecedented powers to conduct surveillance of its own citizens. Secondly, Republicans began to typify all opposition to their warmaking and anti-civil liberties agenda as practically tantamount to treason. Congress, thoroughly intimidated, was silent: they supinely voted to give the president a blank check, and he is still filling in the amount
The intellectual voices of American fascism began to be heard in the land before the first smoke had cleared from the stricken isle of Manhattan, as even some alleged “libertarians” began to advocate giving up traditional civil liberties all Americans once took for granted. “It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes,” wrote “libertarian” columnist and Reason magazine contributing editor Cathy Young, “perhaps there are no true libertarians in times of terrorist attacks,” she noted, as she defended government spying on Americans and denounced computer encryption technology as “scary.” As much as Young’s self-conception as a libertarian is the result of a misunderstanding, that infamous “anti-government” sentiment that used to permeate the GOP evaporated overnight. Lew Rockwell trenchantly labeled this phenomenon “red-state fascism,” writing:
“The most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism. Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state, particularly its military wing.”
This worrisome shift in the ideology and tone of the conservative movement has also been noted by the economist and writer Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury, who points to the “brownshirting” of the American Right as a harbinger of the fascist mentality. I raised the same point in a column, and the discussion was taken up by Scott McConnell, editor of The American Conservative, in a thoughtful essay that appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of that magazine. My good friend Scott sounds a skeptical note:
“It is difficult to imagine any scenario, after 9/11, that would not lead to some expansion of federal power. The United States was suddenly at war, mobilizing to strike at a Taliban government on the other side of the world. The emergence of terrorism as the central security issue had to lead, at the very least, to increased domestic surveillance of Muslim immigrants especially. War is the health of the state, as the libertarians helpfully remind us, but it doesn’t mean that war leads to fascism.”
All this is certainly true, as far as it goes: but what if the war takes place, not in distant Afghanistan, but on American soil? That, I contend, is the crucial circumstance that makes the present situation unique. Yes, war is the health of the State but a war fought down the block, instead of on the other side of the world, means the total victory of State power over individual liberty as an imminent possibility. To paraphrase McConnell, it is difficult to imagine any scenario, after another 9/11, that would not lead to what we might call fascism.
William Lind, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation and a prominent writer on military strategy, argues that what he calls “cultural Marxism” is a much greater and more immediate danger than militaristic fascism, and that, in any case, the real problem is “abstract nationalism,” the concept of “the state as an ideal.” This ideal, however, died amid the destruction wrought by World War I, and is not about to be resurrected. And yet
Lind raises the possibility, at the end of his piece, that his argument is highly conditional:
“There is one not unlikely event that could bring, if not fascism, then a nationalist statism that would destroy American liberty: a terrorist event that caused mass casualties, not the 3,000 dead of 9/11, but 30,000 dead or 300,000 dead. We will devote some thought to that possibility in a future column.”
If “everything changed” on the foreign policy front in the wake of 9/11, then the domestic consequences of 9/11 II are bound to have a similarly transformative effect. If our response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was to launch a decades-long war to implant democracy throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world, what will we do when the battlefield shifts back to the continental U.S.? I shudder to think about it.
The legal, ideological, and political elements that go into the making of a genuinely fascist regime in America are already in place: all that is required is some catalytic event, one that needn’t even be on the scale of 9/11, but still dramatic enough to give real impetus to the creation of a police state in this country.
The legal foundation is already to be found in the arguments made by the president’s lawyers in asserting their “right” to commit torture and other war crimes, under the “constitutional” aegis of the chief executive’s wartime powers. In time of war, the president’s lawyers argue, our commander-in-chief has the power to immunize himself and his underlings against legal prosecution: they transcend the law, and are put beyond the judgement of the people’s representatives by presidential edict. Theoretically, according to the militarist interpretation of the Constitution, there is no power the president may not assume in wartime, because his decisions are “unreviewable.” On account of military necessity, according to this doctrine, we have to admit the possibility that the Constitution might itself be suspended and martial law declared the minute war touches American soil.
It wouldn’t take much. There already exists, in the neoconized Republican Party, a mass-based movement that fervently believes in a strong central State and a foreign policy of perpetual war. The brownshirting of the American conservative movement, as Paul Craig Roberts stingingly characterized the ugly transformation of the American Right, is so far along that the president can propose the biggest expansion of federal power and spending since the Great Society with nary a peep from the former enthusiasts of “smaller government.”
While the Newt Gingrich Republicans of the early 1990s were never really libertarians in any but a rhetorical sense Newt himself has always been a hopelessly statist neocon the great difference today is that the neocons are coming out with an openly authoritarian program. David Frum and Richard Perle, in their book An End to Evil, advocate establishing an Orwellian government database and comprehensive electronic surveillance system that not only keeps constant track of the whereabouts of everyone in the country, but also stores a dossier, complete with their religious and political affiliations. If anyone had brought such a proposal to the table in the pre-9/11 era, they would have been laughed out of town and mercilessly ridiculed for the rest of their lives. But today, the neocon tag-team of Frum and Perle not only gets away with it, but these strutting martinets are lauded by the same “conservatives” who used to rail against “Big Government.”
The label “neoconservative” has always been unsatisfactory, in part because the neocon ideology of rampant militarism, super-centralism, and unrestrained statism is necessarily at war with the libertarian aspects of authentic conservatism (the sort of conservatism that, say, Frank S. Meyer or Russell Kirk would find recognizable). Let’s start calling things by their right names: these aren’t neoconservatives. What we are witnessing is the rebirth of fascism in 21st century America, a movement motivated by the three principles of classical fascist ideology:
1) The idealization of the State as the embodiment of an all-powerful national will or spirit;
2) The leader principle, which personifies the national will in the holder of a political office (whether democratically elected or otherwise is largely a matter of style), and
3) The doctrine of militarism, which bases an entire legal and economic system on war and preparations for war.
Of these three, militarism really is the fountainhead, the first principle and necessary precondition that gives rise to the others. The militarist openly declares that life is conflict, and that the doctrine of economic and political liberalism which holds that there is no necessary conflict of interests among men is wrong. Peace is cowardice, and the values of prosperity, pleasure, and living life for its own sake are evidence of mindless hedonism and even decadence. Life is not to be lived for its own sake: it must be risked to have meaning, and, if necessary, sacrificed in the name of a “higher” (i.e., abstract) value. That “higher” value is not only defined by the State, it is the State: in war, the soldier’s life is risked on behalf of government interests, by government personnel, on behalf of expanding government power.
These beliefs are at the core of the fascist mentality, but there are other aspects of this question too many to go into here. Since fascism is a form of extreme nationalism, every country has its own unique variety, with idiosyncrasies that could only have arisen in a particular locality. In one country, religion will play a prominent role, in others a more secular strategy is pursued: but the question of imminent danger, and the seizure of power as an “emergency” measure to prevent some larger catastrophe, is a common theme of fascist coups everywhere, and in America it is playing out no differently.
While Pinochet pointed to the imminent danger of a Communist revolution as did Hitler the neo-fascists of our time and place cite the omnipresent threat of a terrorist attack in the U.S. This is a permanent rationale for an ever escalating series of draconian measures fated to go far beyond the “PATRIOT Act” or anything yet imagined.
Already the intellectual and political ground is being prepared for censorship. The conservative campaign to discredit the “mainstream” media, and challenge its status as a watchdog over government actions, could easily go in an unfortunate direction if Bin Laden succeeds in his vow to take the fight to American shores. Well, since they’re lying, anyway, why not shut them down? After all, this is a “national emergency,” and “they’re not antiwar, they’re on the other side.”
The neoconservative movement represents the quintessence of fascism, as expressed by some of its intellectual spokesmen, such as Christopher Hitchens, who infamously hailed the Afghan war as having succeeded in “bombing a country back out of the Stone Age.” This belief in the purifying power of violence its magical, transformative quality is the real emotional axis of evil that motivates the War Party. This is especially true when it comes to those thuggish ex-leftists of Hitchens’ ilk who found shelter in the neoconservatives’ many mansions when the roof fell in on their old Marxist digs. Neocon ideologue Stephen Schwartz defends a regime notorious for torturing dissidents, shutting out all political opposition, and arresting thousands on account of their political and religious convictions in Uzbekistan. How far are such people from rationalizing the same sort of regime in the U.S.?
At least one prominent neocon has made the case for censorship, in the name of maintaining “morality” but now, it seems to me, the “national security” rationalization will do just as well, if not better.
McConnell is right that we are not yet in the grip of a fully developed fascist system, and the conservative movement is far from thoroughly neoconized. But we are a single terrorist incident away from all that: a bomb placed in a mall or on the Golden Gate Bridge, or a biological attack of some kind, could sweep away the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and two centuries of legal, political, and cultural traditions all of it wiped out in a single instant, by means of a single act that would tip the balance and push us into the abyss of post-Constitutional history.
The trap is readied, baited, and waiting to be sprung. Whether the American people will fall into it when the time comes: that is the nightmare that haunts the dreams of patriots.