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What Actions are Shared to All Fascist Movements?

December 21st, 2016, 3:17pm by Sam Wang


Today’s leisure reading is Robert Paxton’s essay The Five Stages of Fascism (downloadable PDF). It’s a followup to my previous post on Umberto Eco’s essay on fascism.

According to Paxton (link to biography), even though fascist movements had varying stated goals, the shared elements lay in what they actually did.

He lists the following five steps. The links go to events in 2016 that approximate Paxton’s steps.

  1. Intellectual exploration, where disillusionment with popular democracy manifests itself in discussions of lost national vigor;
  2. Rooting, where a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarization, becomes a player on the national stage;
  3. Arrival to power, where conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite the movement to share power;
  4. Exercise of power, where the movement and its charismatic leader control the state in balance with state institutions such as the police and traditional elites such as the clergy and business magnates; and
  5. Radicalization or entropy, where the state either becomes increasingly radical, as did Nazi Germany, or slips into traditional authoritarian rule, as did Fascist Italy.

He also says that only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy progressed through all five of these stages.

An argument can be made that in its own way, filtered through its election mechanisms, the U.S. is approximately at stage 3 of this process. Starting decades ago, a radical wing of the Republican Party went through step 2. This wing coalesced in fall 2016, early in the primary season. If you are among those who agree with this, then the next question for you is how to slow or prevent the fourth step.

Update: Paxton himself thinks it is a stretch to call Trump’s movement fascist. Instead, he suggests that “self-indulgent demagoguery on behalf of oligarchy” would be more accurate, though less catchy:

Donald Trump is a special case altogether. Superficially, he seems to have borrowed a number of fascist themes for his presidential campaign: xenophobia, racial prejudice, fear of national weakness and decline, aggressiveness in foreign policy, a readiness to suspend the rule of law to deal with supposed emergencies. His hectoring tone, mastery of crowds, and the skill with which he uses the latest communications technologies also are reminiscent of Mussolini and Hitler.

And yet these qualities are at most derivative of fascist themes and styles; the underlying ideological substance is very different, with the entitlements of wealth playing a greater role than fascist regimes generally tolerated. Trump’s embrace of these themes and styles is most likely a matter of tactical expediency – a decision taken with little or no thought about their ugly history. Trump is evidently altogether insensitive to the echoes his words and oratorical style evoke, which should not be surprising, given his apparent insensitivity to the impact of every other insult that he hurls.

It seems to me that by Paxton’s own reasoning, it’s too early to make a judgment, since we have not had enough time to see the actions of a Trump Administration. But I take his point that style and actions are different, and one should not be led astray. As commenter Emigre suggests, “we will know whether a Stage 4 is imminent when the military and police follow the lead of the Border Patrol Agents and align their interests with those of Trump and his allies.”

Tags: 2016 Election · Politics · U.S. Institutions

23 Comments so far ↓

  • Erik Johnson

    Governing by executive order… what are you talking about? The only president in the last 36 years to issue fewer executive orders than Obama is Bush 41, and he only got 1 term, so extrapolating his 166 out to two terms he beats Obama by a mile. Bush 43 did issue less in his second term than either Obama term, but his aggregate is still well higher. To wit:

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/orders.php

    Get informed, people.
    This is why we can’t have nice things.

    • Sam Wang

      A plot of the data puts it in perspective:

      Lowest rate of executive orders since President William McKinley.

    • LondonYoung

      Belated note – DACA was not even created via executive order, it is a directive to the AG on how to conduct prosecutorial discretion. So, I certainly had my head up a personal sphincter there. It is within the president’s power to choose not to enforce the law and, as Arizona v. U.S. showed, to block states from enforcing their own overlapping laws.

      I have taken Erik Johnson’s advice and gotten informed.

      I just hope we are as comfortable with these rules under a President Trump as we were under President Obama.

  • Paul Rosenberg

    Constitutional Hardball is very good, but IMHO suffers from excessive “even-handedness”. Tushnet starts presents examples of hardball from both sides, but also argues that it ultimate comes from effort to change constitutional orders, which clearly comes from the right, and has done so since at least Reagan, if not Nixon.

    Further problem is that right seems to have no idea what vision of constitutional order it’s pushing *for*, since it changes dramatically according to which party holds the White House. OTOH the New Deal constitutional order was quite robust & coherent, as well as being born out of a compelling necessity, which gave it a legitimacy the right has never come close to matching.

    Just a taste of my critical comments–but I agree wholeheartedly that it’s a landmark analysis & I’m glad you’ll be posting it.

  • EMMartin

    Paxton may not know all he needs to know about Trump. There have been stories in reputable media about a claim in Ivana’s post-divorce book that Trump kept a book of Hitler speeches at his bedside during their marriage. Apparently, he was asked about that at some point and, despite some dancing around, didn’t deny a Hitler book was there. And, then, there’s his paternal family history.
    As the Republican Party has lost its mind, many centrist pundits and editorial writers have equated those who identified the authoritarian/fascist movement in the Republican Party as having the same of lack of ‘civility’ as what was spewing from talk radio and Fox News. So, people who wanted to warn about what was happening in the Republican Party were just disregarded. I wonder if the pundits and editorial writers see it now?

  • David P

    Sir, The Democrats are entitled by law to another shot at Trump in four years. It is not that long, and if Trump does the bad job you are expecting him to do he will be easy to defeat in round 2.

    I believe the manner in which this topic is being handled in anti-Trump intellectual circles is becoming hysterical bordering on irresponsible. Roughly half the voting public no longer believes the other half has any legitimacy for numerous reasons.

    This kind of shallow and superficial commentary about fascism, which, quite frankly, I am shocked to find coming from a man of your stature and accomplishment, adds fuel to that fire.

    • Sam Wang

      I would in fact be delighted to be wrong about these concerns.

      My current view is that it is a priority to act as citizens to make sure I am wrong. But it cannot wait four years, or even two years. If there is a true threat to institutions, then it is irresponsible to wait an entire election cycle.

      There are many ways to act within the system of checks and balances. I view it as a healthy part of democracy to protect that system, and to use it to protect individual and group rights. To me, this is a responsible and a positive thing to do for one’s country.

    • David P

      I would just point that Trump using the established powers of the presidency in ways you and your peers with very advanced learning disagree with is not evidence of latent fascism. If, for example, Trump starts talking about suspending the midterm elections or a need for for lebensraum in Mexico, then launching a discussion of fascism will make sense. Until then, all of this talk about fascism and authoritarianism just seems premature and excessive. Thank for printing my remark. I respect your views, and you always give me something to think about.

    • Sam Wang

      You have a misapprehension about my intent. I am not talking about policy outcomes that disagree with my preference. For example, doing away with the Affordable Care Act or Medicare is a policy preference, part of the give-and-take of politics. That’s not my point at all. I am talking about deeper problems that cross party lines – problems with American institutions. My concern is patriotic, not partisan.

      Your examples are clear, but you picked them to be extreme in order to discredit my concerns. I do not think they will happen soon, though a single terrorist attack could change things. More immediate threats include suppression of individual criticism, or of the news media. De-legitimization of the opposition party is also an offense that moves in the direction of fascism. To me, these seem like real threats.

      Broadly, I think Umberto Eco’s checklist is a reasonable reference for things to watch out for.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Newt Gingrich, who is on the transition team, just floated the idea of Trump using the presidential pardon power to compel the military to carry out illegal orders: he’d issue the pardon and the order at the same time. He’s talking about dismantling the safeguard that keeps the President from simply ordering the military to kill anyone he likes.

    • Matt McIrvin

      He will not be easy to defeat if he uses the power of the state to destroy opposition media and opposition politicians. He’s already willing to lash out at critics by name, and encourage his followers to attack them, in ways that people about to become President (from either party) are traditionally loath to do. Reagan and the Bushes were generally careful to be good sports about people criticizing them or making fun of them. Trump is not; in this way he’s closer to Nixon, and probably has even less of a sense of the limits of his power.

      I expect much of any crackdown to come in the form of emergency measures following a terrorist attack, since terrorist attacks of some notoriety are almost certain to happen sooner or later.

    • Kalil

      Another major focus of Sam’s work has been voting disparities – gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc. Now that the Republicans control all the levers of federal power, we can expect that to get much worse. See: the recent actions of the GOP legislature in NC for an example (seizing control of election boards, reworking the system for judicial selection, etc). It’s too simplistic to divide elections into ‘free’ and ‘unfair’, there’s some very real grey area in the middle, but it’s pretty clear we’re going to be shifting farther in the ‘unfair’ direction favoring the Republicans in the next four years. So we may /not/ have that chance you’re so optimistic about…

  • Kimberly Dick

    I would say that right now the most critical avenue in preventing lasting damage is information. If Trump and the Republican party are allowed to take control of information presented to the people, either through exploitation of the media’s biases or more overt means, then it will become exceedingly difficult to organize sufficient opposition and later to vote them out of office.

  • Emigre

    In a very recent commentary Paxton characterizes Trump’s ideological substance as quite different from fascism:
    “Donald Trump is a special case altogether. Superficially, he seems to have borrowed a number of fascist themes for his presidential campaign: xenophobia, racial prejudice, fear of national weakness and decline, aggressiveness in foreign policy, a readiness to suspend the rule of law to deal with supposed emergencies. His hectoring tone, mastery of crowds, and the skill with which he uses the latest communications technologies also are reminiscent of Mussolini and Hitler.
    And yet these qualities are at most derivative of fascist themes and styles; the underlying ideological substance is very different, with the entitlements of wealth playing a greater role than fascist regimes generally tolerated. Trump’s embrace of these themes and styles is most likely a matter of tactical expediency – a decision taken with little or no thought about their ugly history. Trump is evidently altogether insensitive to the echoes his words and oratorical style evoke, which should not be surprising, given his apparent insensitivity to the impact of every other insult that he hurls. ”
    https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/is-fascism-back-by-robert-o–paxton-2016-01

    We will know whether a Stage 4 is imminent when the military and police follow the lead of the Border Patrol Agents and align their interests with those of Trump and his allies.

    • Jeremiah

      Trump is also downplaying the vitriolic rhetoric on his “victory tour” and even seems embarrassed by the continuing ferocity of the rank and file despite the fact he won. He is surprised that they still want to “build that wall” and “lock her up.” after he has achieved “his” goal of being elected such is the narcissism of the man.

    • Sam Wang

      Thank you – great catch.

    • KnaveRupe

      Well, the Fraternal Order of Police already endorsed him in the election, so I don’t expect to see the “Blue LIves Matter” crowd offering much resistance to the guy who is going to let them brutalize the negroes with impunity.

      I fully expect to see the blueshirts out in force come January.

    • Kalil

      I would argue that the FBI intervening the week before the election to hinder Trump’s opponent, and the stacking of his cabinet with military personnel would indicate that stage 4 is well under way.

  • LondonYoung

    The authoritarian threat is not limited to fascism. For even more leisurely reading try “The Road to Serfdom – in Cartoons!”

    Obama’s choice to govern via executive orders (take DACA for example) did not feel much like American democracy. Nor did eliminating the filibuster for presidential appointments.

    In terms of preventing the fourth step – should we ask which is more threatening to our democracy: the congress , the judiciary, or the executive? After all, someone has to govern.

    In Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy I feel it was the executive that grew too powerful. I don’t think a few 10′s of thousands of presidential votes in swing states should determine the status of millions of immigrants absent input from the legislature – yet here we are.

    • Sam Wang

      Doesn’t blocking nominees en masse merit a counter-response? That was the stated policy of Senator Mitch McConnell (R).

      Governing via executive orders…undesirable, but I think that coin has two sides as well. What would be the better response to lack of any legislation from Congress? Acquiescence?

      The basic problem is deadlock. My own view is that any Democratic President is viewed as illegitimate by the Republican Party. Democrats do that too, but to a lesser degree. For example, the response to HRC’s popular-vote win has been rather muted. And there was legislation during George W. Bush’s presidency.

      Broadly, the last 20 years have been a time of escalation. Both sides escalate, but the war was started in the 1990s by the Gingrich wing of the Republican Party. I recommend to you an article, Constitutional Hardball, by Mark Tushnet. I will post that later.

    • LondonYoung

      Yeah, I agree that when prez and congress are at odds something *has* got to give. I am wondering out loud if it is bad for us that the executive usually prevails. I don’t know.

      On Hillary’s first-past-the-post win – I think the dems would be a lot less muted if she had actually won a majority. The electoral college looks good when nobody gets a majority and there is no run-off. The only time someone won a majority but not the office was Tilden in 1876 and he was, in fact, robbed.

  • Gold Star for Robot Boy

    I’d say the only reason America has yet to reach the fourth stage is because Trump isn’t yet acting president.

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