The Specter of Fascism

by , March 10, 2005

A specter is haunting post-9/11 America – the specter of fascism. Lew Rockwell calls it “red-state fascism,” former Treasury official and conservative economist Paul Craig Roberts refers to “the brownshirting of the conservative movement,” and Scott McConnell, editor of The American Conservative, while demurring that the rise of a homegrown authoritarian regime is somewhat problematic, also sees a potential problem and sounds a warning. All these writers, however, pose the threat as emanating exclusively from the American Right: it comes, avers Roberts, from

“Bush’s conservative supporters [who] want no debate. They want no facts, no analysis. They want to denounce and demonize the enemies that the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Savages of talk radio assure them are everywhere at work destroying their great and noble country.”

These aren’t conservatives, he argues, they’re “Jacobins determined to use government power to impose their will at home and abroad.” But the original Jacobins, referring to those bloody French revolutionaries who sent thousands to the guillotine and enthroned “Reason” in the place that the Church had once stood, were men (and women) of the Left. While it may be that a conservative Republican president is leading a systematic assault on what’s left of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, his predecessor in this regard was a liberal Democrat by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The point is that there is ample precedent for all this, not only in the modern history of this country but on the Left side of the political spectrum. So before all you liberals – who have been writing me, praising my recent column on the subject of the threat of fascism from the Right – get too smug and full of yourselves, remember that the witch-hunting dissent-crushers of the neoconservative Right, who have thrown the traditional conservative distrust of government power and centralization out the window, have their antecedents on the Rooseveltian Left. Before the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Michael Savages there was Walter Winchell (a gossip columnist who smeared [.pdf] the antiwar movement as agents of Hitler: note here the casually approving reference to “enemy aliens” being rounded up), the pundit Dorothy Thompson (who labeled antiwar conservatives “Vichy Fascists,”) and Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” the famous cartoonist and author of such ever popular children’s books as And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, The Butter Battle Book, and The Cat in the Hat.

Geisel, who died in 1991, didn’t confine himself to the whimsical. He lent his whimsy to political causes, all of them left-wing. As the house cartoonist of the Communist Party-controlled PM, a daily newspaper published in New York City, his vicious barbs were aimed at the America First Committee and revolved around the idea that the biggest antiwar movement in U.S. history was a “fifth column.” A scurrilous and untrue charge, surpassed in viciousness only by the ugly racist caricatures of Japanese and Japanese-Americans that Geisel also specialized in. In every such cartoon churned out by this Commie hack, Japanese are depicted as uniformly bucktoothed treacherous creatures who barely seem human.

In this little gem of demagoguery, a horde of West Coast Japanese-Americans swarms over hills marked “California,” “Oregon,” and “Washington,” passing by a booth labeled “Honorable Fifth Column” where each one is handed a package labeled “TNT.” The caption reads: “Waiting for the Signal From Home.” This filth saw print a week before President Roosevelt ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.

That Suzanne Fields, a supposedly “conservative” pundit, is praising the racist, authoritarian wartime cartoons of Geisel in her Townhall.com column, while an authentic conservative like Paul Craig Roberts is bounced from the same stable of pundits, is an about-face of historic – and tragic – proportions.

The mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, long regarded as a prime example of wartime hysteria run amok – an act of injustice for which the U.S. government has officially apologized and paid compensation to the surviving victims – is now being revived by the pro-war Right as a positive lesson for today: notably, by Michelle Malkin in her historically ignorant polemic, In Defense of Internment, and Daniel Pipes, whose call for rounding up Muslim Americans and placing them in concentration camps was inspired by Malkin’s “revisionist” evaluation of the Japanese internment.

That many conservatives are dredging up this history, not in order to condemn Roosevelt but to praise him, is ominous on several levels. To begin with, if we look at the extent of Roosevelt’s program of wartime repression – not only the internment of “enemy aliens,” but also censorship, banning of Socialist and other antiwar periodicals, extensive covert surveillance of anti-interventionist organizations and individual dissenters, and a campaign of demonization that extended to antiwar activists on the Right as well as the Left, one has to wonder if we are looking at our own future.

But even more ominous is that there doesn’t seem to be as much opposition this time around: if history is repeating itself, then it is doing so with the nearly full cooperation of both major political parties. As the U.S. government rounded up thousands of Muslims and “foreigners” and insisted on the right to hold American citizens without charges indefinitely, the Left was intimidated into silence and Congress, with but a single dissent, gave the president a blank check to respond to 9/11 in any way he and his advisors saw fit.

There is plenty of precedent on the Left for precisely the same methods now being utilized by the red-state fascists of Bush’s GOP. McCarthyism was preceded by a left-wing witch-hunt against isolationists, and the America First Committee was pilloried by the “save Russia” (and England) crowd as a “Nazi Fifth Column” with the same disregard for facts and logic exhibited by such post-9/11 would-be police state commissars as David Horowitz, whose “discoverthenetwork.org” database of “anti-American” subversives lists me alongside a cavalcade of “totalitarian radicals” (Mohammed Atta) and “anti-American radicals” (who else but Katrina vanden Heuvel!), “moderate leftists” (well, he had to get Dan Rather in there somewhere) and “affective leftists” (Phil Donahue), as well as plain old garden-variety “leftists.” As an exemplar of this last category, we are offered Harold Ickes, a former assistant chief of staff to President Clinton, whose father, Harold L. Ickes, was Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior – and a vocal critic of Roosevelt’s internment policy, who denounced the “relocation centers” as “fancy-named concentration camps.”

Bush baffles the old-fashioned conservatives among his supporters – and enrages his Democratic detractors – by often invoking the shade of Franklin Roosevelt, hardly a Republican icon. But the neocons understand and approve. It wasn’t for nothing that Republicans of the 1930s hated “That Man in the White House.” They thought he was trying to make himself into a dictator, and the court-packing incident convinced a lot of Midwestern progressives that they were right. In any case, Roosevelt got his wish in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and a crackdown on dissent ensued.

No wonder a president reviled by the Old Right as a usurper and a militarist with a program differing only in degree from that of Italy’s Fascist Party has been elevated to the pantheon of red-state fascist heroes, along with Lincoln, Truman, and, of course, Winston Churchill (who was among Mussolini’s early admirers).

At a farcical “sedition trial” that ended in a mistrial, Roosevelt’s Justice Department accused some 30-odd isolationists, mostly small-time operators and individual cranks, of engaging in an ideological “conspiracy” against the United States. Directly collaborating with the Feds was a battalion of far-left private investigators and anti-“subversive” outfits with names like the “Friends of Democracy,” who specialized in smearing the president’s enemies, zeroing in on the activities of the America First Committee, which was effectively mobilizing the vast majority of Americans who opposed intervention in the European war right up until Pearl Harbor. They were, in short, the David Horowitzes of the 1930s, who were called left-wingers back then, and these days are considered to be on the “Right.”

The neoconservative doctrine of Big Government at home and Empire abroad has attracted a wide spectrum of support, what amounts to the contemporary equivalent of the “Popular Front” of the 1930s that supported the big-spending New Deal at home while campaigning tirelessly for war abroad. Forget the “Left” and “Right” labels, for a moment, however, and look at the program: a budding police state coupled with a worldwide military mobilization for war. They’re marketing it as “conservatism” these days, but that’s just the packaging: when you open up the wrapper, you get the same authoritarianism that characterized the darkest days of World War II: state-worship, leader-worship, the militarization of the economy, and intolerance of any and all dissent, all of it constantly reinforced by a ceaseless barrage of government-inspired (and government-subsidized) propaganda.

I had to laugh when I saw Horowitz’s new “database,” with its juxtapositioning of Mohammed Atta’s photo up there with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jimmy Carter, and Mumia Abu Jamal. You can’t get much more buffoonish than that. It’s not clear where I fit in Horowitz’s demonology, but I’m sure he’ll come up with a new category, some appropriately libelous epithet to describe the growing number of authentic conservatives and libertarians who see Horowitz and his fellow neocons for what they are: fascists of the second mobilization.

The red-state fascists have borrowed the old National Socialist memes of lockstep ideological conformity on the home front and perpetual war abroad, minus the anti-Semitism. Expressions of devotion to “freedom” are reserved for far-off places like Lebanon, Russia, and Iraq. Here in America, however, it’s a far different story for this administration and its supporters: here we get the obscenely named “PATRIOT Act.”

What poses a particular danger is that American liberals, as well as neoconservatives, can hark back to elements of their own ideological traditions in support of a distinctly American authoritarianism. This is why there has been almost no opposition in Congress to what is essentially a bipartisan policy of Big Government and endless war.

We hear much about the wonders of the so-called “Beirut Spring,” but when will we have a Washington Spring? Never, I fear. Winter is fastening rather than loosening its grip, at least metaphorically. Not that there isn’t a reaction brewing to all this out in the American heartland, both red state and blue – but that’s a subject for another column.

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