“Fascism: a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator”
— The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000
It is a truism in the blogosphere that one more terrorist attack will turn America into a fascist state. People speculate about what fascism in America will look like, or how they might fight it. Others boast that they plan to flee the country ahead of the coming fascist takeover of the United States. One cannot read these posts without a sense of bitter irony, because one thing is clear to those who are watching carefully: The United States of America is already a fascist state.
The United States turned fascist on December 11, 2000. On that day, the Supreme Court essentially appointed George W. Bush president of the United States, stopping the recount of Florida votes, and, hence, the democratic process. The justices of the court then slipped away by night, ashamed of their role in murdering America’s great experiment in democratic rule.
The Supreme Court decision of December 11, 2000 is the modern American equivalent to German President Hindenburg’s swearing in of Hitler as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. By swearing in Hitler as chancellor, Hindenburg set in motion a process which led to the Nazi dictatorship and World War II. In the case of the Nazis, the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933 was the catalyst they needed to cement their grip on power. In the case of Bush and his backers, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 was the catalyst they needed to complete their full takeover of the American government.
When one looks at present-day America and reads plaintive musings about if and when America will turn fascist, it is useful to ask oneself the following question: When do you think the average German realized that he or she was living under a fascist dictatorship? How about the Japanese or Italians of the same period? Do you think that Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo made a public announcement to the effect of, “Dear Citizens: Please be advised that you no longer have any rights or political power. We have taken control of the government. Opposition and resistance are futile and will be punished.”
The fact is, most of the “good” citizens of these countries clung desperately to the notion that it was business as usual long after constitutional government was dead and buried. Sure, they knew that their governments were a little further to the right than normal, but as long as they kept earning money and eating well, they ignored the grim realities of fascism.
It’s easy to understand why: the “good” citizens weren’t members of officially scapegoated groups or political activists, and thus they never felt the iron first of fascism. It’s not like the government just suddenly started rounding up people at random and trucking them off to camps and executing them. No, it was only the “bad ones” who were carted off. It was the John Walker Lindhs, the Jose Padillas, the illegal immigrants and the Muslim Americans of their day who were carted off.
In fact, for the average citizen of Germany, Japan or Italy, it was only when the military adventures of their fascist governments started to go seriously awry did the reality dawn on them. Until then, if anything, they merely felt the stirrings of extreme patriotism and perhaps even satisfaction as their countries expanded outward. Indeed, for many, it was only when their countries lay in ashes did they fully understand what had happened. Only then could they see that a kind of cancer had run wild in their countries and come perilously close to destroying them.
In 2007, the average American is in exactly the same position as the typical German, Japanese or Italian citizen of the early to mid-1930s. Unless you happen to be a Muslim, a left-wing political activist, or a regular reader of left-wing political websites or journals, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s business as usual in the United States of America. You rise in the morning, read the morning paper, commute to work, get a paycheck, hit the ATM and watch the usual shows on television in the evening. Sure, we’re officially “at war” but other than a few news stories and the usual yellow ribbons and bumper stickers, this doesn’t really intrude into our realities.
But while all of us go about our lives like nothing has changed, the Constitution of the United States has been suspended, and with it, the democracy that it enshrines. Sure, Bush has never announced that he has suspended the Constitution. Rather, he has subjected it to a death by a thousand cuts. For, at last count, George W. Bush has appended 139 signing statements to laws passed by Congress, containing challenges to over 750 individual laws. These signing statements amount to 139 written declarations that George W. Bush and his allies consider themselves to be unconstrained by the law of the land and the will of the people. Or, to quote Mr. Bush: “(The Constitution) is just a goddamned piece of paper!”
On top of this, the Bush administration has repeatedly ignored subpoenas asking for information and directed aides not to comply with requests for information. And, more broadly, the Bush administration has made it clear that it will respond neither to the will of the people nor the will of Congress. Thus, in word and deed, the Bush administration is a dictatorship. And a country under the rule of a dictator is, at least by the definition at the start of this article, a fascist country.
Thus, in the last seven years, the United States has gone from a weak democracy, in which the people had weak but nominal control over their government, to a system where the government is under the control of “a unitary executive.” And, of course, “unitary executive” is how you say “fuhrer” in modern American English.
Of course, this is not news to those unfortunate Americans who are presently languishing in military prisons without access to lawyers or due process. But, for most Americans, it seems absurd or even hysterical to declare that we are living in a fascist state. Arguments about signing statements, unitary executive theory or past Supreme Court decisions are mere abstractions and gain little traction.
Perhaps this is because fascism is like pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Indeed, the best way to distinguish pornography from art is not logical but aesthetic. Similarly, I would suggest that the best way to determine if a country is fascist is not intellectual at all, but aesthetic.
Fascism has a style, a language and a mood all its own. When enough of these outward signs of fascism are present, you can reasonably conclude that the country in question is fascist. For this reason, I have put together this short guide to some of the more obvious distinguishing features of fascism.
A Brief Guide to the Aesthetics of Fascism:
–Hypnotized by symbols: Whether it be the swastika of the Nazis, the rising sun of imperial Japan or the fasces of the Italian National Fascist Party, simple, visually striking and endlessly repeated symbols are the “look” of a fascist government. Check out any Bush speaking engagement, from his “mission accomplished” speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Republican National Convention, and you will see him surrounded by the Stars and Stripes. And where Nazi leaders wore swastika armbands, American fascists wear American flag pins on their lapels. Sinclair Lewis observed that, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” The symbols may be different, but if it looks like fascism, it’s probably fascism.
–Impoverished language: Umberto Eco wrote that, “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” George W. Bush’s tortured syntax is perfectly suited to speaking this language. In describing Newspeak, Orwell declared that words will be “not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be.” Bush’s speeches are peppered with words like freedom and democracy, when in fact, he means slavery and tyranny. Moreover, Bush is fond of accusing countries like Iran of illegally interfering in the affairs of other countries, much as Hitler accused other European countries of aggression as his armies overran the continent. The language may be different, but one fact is inescapable: if it sounds like fascism, it’s probably fascism.
–Mood of pervasive fear: In Bush’s America, people rightly believe that you may be subject to violence, harassment, arbitrary arrest or even torture if you challenge authority figures or speak out against the government. Since I started writing articles on political topics I have heard the comment repeated time and again: “You’re going to be put on a list.” Americans of all stripes live in fear of their government and few, if any, would dare question any authority figure, even if faced with the most blatant and unwarranted abuse of power. It is a sad fact that Americans are the only people in the developed world where citizens actively fear their own government. The tools of torture may have changed, but the essential fact remains: if it feels like fascism, it’s probably fascism.
–The nation as homeland: The exaltation of the nation state as a promised land is perhaps the most basic sign of a fascist state. Twenty years ago, it would have been unimaginable to refer to the United States as a “homeland.” The word would have stuck people as both antiquated and overtly totalitarian. Now, it is bandied about freely and we actually have a Department of Homeland Security. The strikingly fascist overtones of the word itself are troubling enough, but more troubling still is the thinking behind the word: America is an island in a hostile sea, surrounded by enemies who we must either vanquish or be vanquished by. Once again, if it sounds like fascism, it’s probably fascism.
At this point, it is clear that America is in the early stages of fascism; it hasn’t yet metastasized into the outright jackbooted fascism of Nazi Germany. But the country is poised like a boulder at the top of a slope, ready to roll into the abyss. In fact, it will take a miracle to keep this from happening. Consider the factors that could easily unleash outright fascism in the United States: the accelerating collapse of the US dollar; the follow-on effects from the subprime loan debacle; soaring energy prices (peak oil); catastrophic weather events caused by global warming; and, of course, the one thing that Bush’s entire foreign policy seems almost guaranteed to bring about: another large-scale terrorist attack on American soil. Any one of these by itself could trigger outright fascism. Combine two or more, and American fascism is 100% certain.
We must realize that the full machinery of outright fascism is already in place. Private security firms like Blackwater are ready and willing to serve as the new Blackshirts. Patriot Act II has been written and provides the full “legal” framework for completely revoking the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and establishing martial law. The Pentagon has established Northcom to organize military operations in the United States and Canada. The Posse Comitatus Act has been gutted to allow the National Guard to serve in police actions all across the country. And detention centers have been built across the land and plans have been laid to intern millions of Americans.
History teaches that there is a point of no return in the evolution of a fascist state. Once that line is crossed, there is no turning back until the country lies in ashes and millions lie dead both inside and outside the country. If you don’t think it could happen in the United States of America, then you don’t remember how easily Americans let themselves be robbed of their precious civil liberties in the aftermath of 9-11.
Thus, a presidential candidate who does not make restoration of constitutional government the centerpiece of his or her campaign should not even be considered. The first and most pressing order of business must be to repeal the Patriot Act in its entirety. Provisions that Democratic lawmakers deem essential to national security can be restored on a piece-by-piece basis as parts of other legislation. The Military Commissions Act of 2006, which suspended habeas corpus, must be repealed. The Department of Homeland Security must be downsized and brought under full and transparent civilian control.
In the longer term, meaningful campaign finance reform and public funding for elections must be enacted in order to put political power back into the hands of the people and to take it out of the hands of the Pentagon and allied industries. Because ultimately, it is the military-industrial complex, working with the electoral support of right-wing religious fundamentalists, that is behind American fascism.
A final note:
The least discussed news story of recent history appeared in the New York Times on February 4, 2006:
“The Army Corps of Engineers has awarded a contract worth up to $385 million for building temporary immigration detention centers to Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary…KBR would build the centers for the Homeland Security Department for an unexpected influx of immigrants, to house people in the event of a natural disaster or for new programs that require additional detention space.”
Since it seems unlikely that cruise ships loaded with illegal immigrants are likely to wash up on American shores any time soon, one has to wonder what they mean by “new programs that require additional detention space”.
For the love of God, IS THIS AMERICA?
About author Chris Rowthorn is an American journalist based in Kyoto, Japan. He has written for the Japan Times and Kansai Time Out.