How should we think about the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump? What trends and concepts are important for understanding them? In How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley attempts to make a scholarly argument that, given the history of fascist tactics, the past three years make up a moment of fascist politics. The book is not intended to reflect and capitalize on popular hysteria about Trump. Whether or not it ultimately distinguishes itself in this way is another matter.
Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale, provides a highly general account of what fascist politics entails. He aims to paint a picture that’s vivid enough to be helpful in identifying fascist moments but abstract enough to be applicable across changing historical conditions, which he says ultimately determine “the regimes [that fascists] enact.”
The book breaks fascism down into 10 political tactics: appeal to a 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 second of these, propaganda, seems to be Stanley’s true area of expertise. Just three years ago, he wrote a book entitled How Propaganda Works. His thesis was that everyone involved in politics engages in propaganda, and that what differentiates good propaganda from bad propaganda is whether it is being used for good or bad ends—to promote liberal democracy or to promote some other “dysfunctional ideology.”
For the other nine tactics, Stanley distinguishes the good from the bad by what he describes vaguely as “understanding the dynamics of power.” He writes, “Oppression is a powerful motivation for action, but the questions of who is wielding it when, under what context and against whom, remain eternally crucial.” This framework is reminiscent of the Bolshevist slogan “Who, whom?” which implied that politics is not about principles but about group struggles for dominance. Among Stanley’s insights about fascism are that it is rooted in nations, not states, and that it builds from a sense of victimhood. At the same time, he writes, “the nationalism that arises from oppression, is not fascist in origin.…despite appearances to the contrary, equality is its goal.” We also read that “fascist politics targets expertise, mocking and devaluing it.” It is easy to see how the Trump phenomenon might fit into Stanley’s working definition of fascist politics.
In fact, it’s too easy.
Stanley relies heavily on evidence from social psychology, a field currently going through an epistemic crisis in which results often fail to replicate. So when he claims that “there already is a strong in-built bias toward forgetting and minimizing problematic acts one’s in-group committed in the past,” or that “those who benefit from inequalities are often burdened by certain illusions that prevent them from recognizing the contingency of their privilege,” it’s hard to know whether he himself is engaging in “manipulative expertise,” a charge he levels at his opponents.
The chapter on the fascist love for the heartland and its concomitant hatred of urbanites closes with survey data: When faced with the question of whether poverty is more often the result of an individual’s lack of effort or of external circumstances, 49 percent of country-dwellers and 37 percent of city-dwellers choose the former, while 46 percent of country-dwellers and 56 percent of city-dwellers choose the latter. Stanley takes this to be “a particularly large gulf” of opinion. But it’s patently not. It’s a small gap. And in making it out to be larger than it is, doesn’t Stanley himself fall into an “us versus them” trap—turning a statistical proclivity into a regional essence, a reason to treat ruralites as “other”?
There is a larger problem with Stanley’s book. It’s that his theories have little to do with fascism. The tactics he describes are common to all political movements, even explicitly anti-fascist ones, and the dangers he perceives in these tactics are precisely what we see in the current “everything is political” culture. Ultimately, Stanley has written a book about politics, not about fascism. He draws on a wide range of examples, allowing in only enough detail to make his argument and eschewing what does not fit. In this way, he makes sure that the political movements he endorses are excluded from the charge of fascism and the political movements he despises are included in the charge.
Stanley sometimes goes to bizarre lengths to associate Trumpism with fascism. In the book’s introduction, he castigates Steve Bannon for his remark about the era to come: “‘It will be as exciting as the 1930s.’ In short, the era when the United States had the most sympathy for fascism.” Here is some of the surrounding context of Bannon’s comment, from a Hollywood Reporter interview: “I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.…Shipyards, ironworks…Conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.” Bannon is clearly referring to Roosevelt-style projects like the Works Progress Administration. Is Stanley calling the progressive hero Roosevelt a fascist? No. But just what he is doing is not quite clear.
Also troubling is Stanley’s analysis of truth and debate. In criticizing the “marketplace of ideas” argument for free speech, he notes that “the utopian assumption is that conversation works by exchange of reasons…until the truth ultimately emerges.” He continues: “But conversation is not just used to communicate information. Conversation is also used to shut out perspectives, raise fears, and heighten prejudice.” Maybe so, but if all we hear in disagreement is these malign purposes we ascribe to our political enemies, we will end up having no conversations at all. He concludes: “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a pistol.” But, of course, it is simply using one pamphlet against another.
Despite all his charges that fascist politics threatens reasoned discourse, Stanley thinks that some beliefs are per se so ridiculous that instead of engaging with the believers in a reasonable way, we should diagnose them and offer psychological theories. So it’s fascist when someone threatens reasoned discourse about your own beliefs, and it is fascist to entertain reasoned discourse about someone else’s beliefs? That’s quite a paradox. And the psychological theories on offer are not particularly coherent. For instance, Stanley writes that “conspiracy theories are effective…because they provide simple explanations for otherwise irrational emotions, such as resentment or xenophobic fear in the face of perceived threats,” but also that “conspiracy theories [are] often so outlandish that they can hardly be expected to be literally believed.” His explanatory theory about their effectiveness requires that they be believed, but his descriptive theory about what they actually are requires that they not be believed. On closer examination, his own theory looks like the outlandish one.
As the book nears its end, Stanley broadens the scope of his “fascism” charge. He writes: “The fascist vision of individual freedom is similar to the libertarian notion of individual rights.…When voters in a democratic society yearn for a CEO as president, they are responding to their own implicit fascist impulses.” This is ridiculous, and the idea of “implicit fascist impulses” that must be constantly searched out, interrogated, and catalogued has itself the feel of totalitarianism—the feel of a Communist “struggle session.” But it’s also a shift from Stanley’s stated purpose of investigating fascist political tactics rather than fascist policies.
How Fascism Works is fascinating because it enacts what it describes: the difficulty of engaging politically without demonizing one’s opponents, without making them out to be fundamentally different from oneself. That its author is clearly sensitive to this difficulty makes its failures all the more evocative. Stanley writes passionately about injustices throughout history, especially injustices that took place in Nazi Germany and those that he perceives to be taking place in the United States today. But it is easy to extend his outline to the movements he takes such great pains to distinguish from fascism. Politics is ugly, and it has the power to make us ugly, too, if we don’t watch very closely. Under a certain interpretation, How Fascism Works manages to show us just how ugly it can get.