Making Sense of It All, Part 1: Yes, It Has Happened Before
Teri Kanefield provides insightful commentary on the dangerous trend of fascism, as leading Republicans pile on to endorse Trump, examining the risks to democracy and the need for accountability.
Published:January 18, 2024
*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.
By Teri Kanefield
I woke up on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, feeling as if I had just lived through the election of 1824. That was an election that pitted John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson.
Andrew Jackson was a populist, a hothead, a demagogue, an unrepentant enslaver, a slaughterer of Native people, and a speculator willing to profit from theft. John Quincy Adams was a smart, principled, and somewhat awkward intellectual. To complete the comparison to 2016, Adams was a former Secretary of State.
John Quincy Adams, who can write. Andrew Jackson, who can fight. —a slogan from the 1824 presidential election
Jackson came to office riding a wave of populism. A large percentage of white men (the only people who could vote) particularly those along the frontier, saw Jackson as something of a folk hero.
As president, Jackson believed he had the power to decide what was constitutional, not the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court issued a decision he disliked, he just ignored it. He then (in defiance of the Supreme Court) gave us the Trail of Tears. In an act of ignorant vindictiveness, he destroyed the national bank, thereby triggering our first national depression.
Donald Trump enjoyed being compared to Andrew Jackson and even hung a picture of Jackson in the Oval Office. He seemed to relish being photographed in front of it.
Of course, the comparison can’t be taken too far. That would be unfair to Andrew Jackson. Jackson would have never accepted help from a foreign country to win an election. He was a faithful and devoted husband. He wasn’t a coward. The first time Jackson ran for president and lost, he claimed he had lost as a result of a “corrupt bargain” but he didn’t deny that he lost.
When Trump was elected, I was writing my series, The Making of America. The perspective from writing the series enabled me to see immediately that there was a direct line from Andrew Jackson, to the Confederate States of America, to the Ku Klux Klan, and then finally to modern militias and Donald Trump.
I’ve talked about these books many times, but here you have them in digest form.
Part I: History Doesn’t Repeat, But It Often Rhymes (Mark Twain)
The Anatomy of Fascism, by Robert Paxton (2004)
Robert O. Paxton, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, offered the startling conclusion that fascism didn’t begin in Italy; it began in America, with the KKK, which Paxton designates as the world’s first fascist group.
Paxton explains fascism. A few takeaways:
The followers of a fascist leader believe the leader’s instincts are superior to the rational logic used by “elites.” The fascist leaders doesn’t follow the laws. The fascist leader is the law. Even more, the fascist leader embodies the mythic destiny of the nation. The only truth is the word of the Leader. The followers look for a strong authority (always male) culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.
Lies are an integral part of a leadership cult. The leader’s utterances don’t have to be factually true—as long as they advance the group’s agenda.
The agenda always includes consolidating power, so truth is “whatever permits” the Leader to dominate others.
Fascists like uniformity. They like uniforms and or an item of clothing that sets them apart. The Italian fascists had brownshirts. The KKK wore white sheets.
Fascist always feel they are fighting an “enemy” that threatens to obliterate their society. European Fascist were fighting “others” that were stabbing them in the back from within. The KKK fought Black equality, which they, too, believed threatened their society.
Commentary: See how perfectly Paxton described Trumpism in 2004 before Trumpism was a thing?
The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder (2018)
Timothy Snyder, a historian and expert in European authoritarian regimes, offers what is possibly the best book for understanding the rise of worldwide fascism.
Among other things, he explains the fascist method of governing by crisis and spectacle.
The idea comes from Ivan Illyn, the Russian philosopher whose ideas inspire and guide Putin. Ilyin was a Russian nobleman who went into exile after the communist revolution. An admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, he wrote guidelines for Russian leaders who would come to power after the fall of communism. (He died in 1954). Ilyin believed fascism would eventually replace both communism and democracy.
Illyn admired totalitarianism and order. The nation, for him, was like a body, the citizens the cells. Each remained in its place.
Fascism = order.
Democracy & communism = disorder & chaos.
Illyn disliked the middle class, which was always striving for social advancement. He believed this fractured the society and created chaos. He thought the rulers at the top should rule, everyone else must remain in their place. He thus advocated for oligarchy (a government in which a few people hold all the power). The task of government, for Ilyin, is to create stability, which can’t happen with a middle class always trying to lift itself up.
This also means that the task of the oligarchs is to preserve the status quo, which means preserving their own wealth and power.
But you can’t tell the people that, so you tell them a good story. You tell them the oligarchs are “redeemers” who will make the nation great by returning to a mythic time of past greatness. (Make America Great Again is just such a declaration.)
OK, so if leaders don’t govern in the usual sense (devising policy to better the lives of the citizens) what do they do all day? They create crisis and spectacle! When a leader governs by crisis and spectacle, news becomes reality TV. It’s all a show.
The idea behind constant crises is to keep people off balance. The idea is to shock the population and wear people out.
Snyder also has a Youtube series. It’s a great supplement to the book (or even a replacement if you don’t have time to read.) You can find it here.
The series is where, among other things, Snyder defines the term sadopopulism. Snyder explains it this way: 20th century fascists like Hitler and Mussolini wanted power, and were content not to make themselves as rich as kings. Mussolini was happy to wear workman’s clothing.
Their policies also actually helped their supporters. Hitler’s cruel policies enriched ordinary Germans, for example, by giving ethnic Germans the spoils from victims.
21st century fascists, on the other hand, want both wealth and power. This creates a policy-making challenge. When the president of a liberal democracy (like Obama) creates policies, he or she tries to make changes in the best interests of the people, to increase their health and wealth.
Would-be oligarchs, who want to control all the nation’s wealth, can’t do this, because if they create policies that allow the lower and middle classes to rise up, others can challenge their right to all the wealth and resources.
Would-be oligarchs instead follow a 4-part plan:They identify an “enemy” (homeless migrants, minority communities, Democrats, etc.)
They enact policies that create pain in their own supporters
They blame the pain on the “enemies”
They present themselves as the strongmen to fight the enemies.
When the policies that create pain also enrich the ruler, it’s a two-fer. The rulers enrich themselves while creating pain, which they can harness and blame on the “enemies.”
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Ruth Ben Ghiat (2020)
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor at New York University. A few takeaways from her book:
Fascism (the “strongman” form of government) took off after World War I. The war pretty much decimated the old order, the aristocracy, and monarchies. There was an attempt for democracy to take hold, but in a few notable countries, like Italy and Germany, a strongman was able to undermine democracy and take control. Ben-Ghiat tells the stories of quite a few strongmen, including Mussolini, Hitler, Gaddafi, Pinochet, Mobuto, Erdoğan, Putin, Trump, and others.
They share particular traits. For example, they all use their public office to enrich themselves. In fact, after living through the Trump presidency, what’s striking is that no matter which strongman Ben-Ghiat is describing, she could also be describing aspects of Trump. For example:
Sons-in-law also have a prominent role in strongman governance. Mussolini made his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano foreign minister in 1936, used him as “a tool of his personal politics,” and then had Ciano executed for voting in 1943 to remove him from power. Orbán’s son-in-law István Tiborcz, a businessman, has amassed a net worth of over 100 million euros, but the Hungarian government dropped corruption probes initiated by the European Union (EU) against him. Berat Albayrak, accused by multiple foreign governments of illegal activities while serving as Turkish energy minister, is now Erdoğan’s treasury and finance minister. Jared Kushner, a presidential adviser, pursues private Kushner and Trump family financial interests along with his government assignments. (p. 146).
Another trait many of them share is that, when they come to power, it’s with a history of lawbreaking. Another trait they have in common: Strongmen, like gangsters, find ways to create immunity for themselves, allowing their underlings to go to prison for their own crimes. As Ben-Ghiat put it:
From Mussolini onward, making sure you have immunity while those who have done your dirty work go to jail has been an essential strongman skill. (p. 50).
They shroud themselves with deniability. From Ben-Ghiat’s book:
“Make Gobetti’s life difficult,” Mussolini told his prefects, leading to multiple arrests and a savage beating on the street. A weakened Gobetti died in 1926, soon after he went into exile. (p. 100).
Here’s another interesting similarity:
Rallies were the fascist strongman’s favorite form of political theater and Mussolini and Hitler used them as sites of emotional training to create “a violent, lordly, fearless, cruel youth,” ready to do what was necessary for the nation. (p. 104).
This is key: Strongmen come to power with the backing and support of conservatives, who believe the strongman can be used as a vehicle for their own agenda. Germans conservatives thought Hitler would be their tool. In the early thirties, a few powerful conservatives started courting Hitler, thinking he could help them subvert the left’s growing electoral strength. One industrialist thought Hitler could serve as a transition to restoring the German monarchy. Hitler became Chancellor through a backroom deal with powerful conservatives. Later, after fleeing Germany in 1939, conservative industrialist Fritz Thyssen, who helped prop up Hitler said, “I, too, misjudged the political situation at that time.” (Page 31)
Mussolini came to power when the king appointed him prime minister. The king thought he could control Mussolini. (Oops.)
Pinochet was backed by his own military (which was conservative) but he was also propped up by Henry Kissinger and the power of the U.S. From Ben-Ghiat. Notice the “authoritarian bargain”:
Once the ruler is in power, elites strike an “authoritarian bargain” that promises them power and security in return for loyalty to the ruler and toleration of his suspension of rights. Some are true believers, and others fear the consequences of subtracting their support, but those who sign on tend to stick with the leader through gross mismanagement, impeachment, or international humiliation. (p. 14).
Another thing that is striking is the extent to which right-wing America influenced the rise of far-right-wing European parties and dictators across the globe. I knew about how Kissinger propped up Pinochet, but I didn’t know about William F. Buckley until I read Ben-Ghiat’s book: Pinochet could count on the misinformation turned out by the American-Chilean Council he partly funded. Headed by Marvin Leibman and William F. Buckley, the council’s reports downplayed the junta’s violence and emphasized its neoliberal economic policies and its stability. (p. 108).
Ben-Ghiat gives lots of other examples of American conservatives propping up these kinds of dictators worldwide:
Like Kissinger, Trump adviser Roger Stone and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had a history of supporting strongmen that went back to the age of military coups. As part of the lobbying firm Black, Stone, Manafort, and Kelly, worked for Mobutu, Barre, and for Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos during a 1985 election campaign that earned Marcos accusations of fraud. Manafort had transitioned to the new authoritarian age by representing Putin in 2006–2009, and he worked for the pro-Russian Ukranian president, Viktor Yanukovych, for a decade before he became Trump’s presidential campaign manager. (p. 61).
When RT America, Russia’s propaganda station, wanted to expand its influence in the United States, it hired Fox News personalities like Rick Sanchez and Scottie Neil Hughes. This is not a coincidence.
Just as these strongmen come to power with the backing of conservatives, they tend to lose power when they lose the backing of the conservative elites. Part of what ousted Pinochet was that his inflexibility and corruption worried his American backers:
Elliott Abrams, who had served as President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for Latin America, recalled the moment bluntly. Pinochet had “outlived any usefulness he had ever had. Even if you thought he was terrific in 1973, by 1983, it was time for him to go.” (p. 206).
For the record. Pinochet wasn’t terrific in 1973 when he pulled off a military coup that left the legitimate president dead.
But evidently, 10 years later, Pinochet “outlived his usefulness.” Here’s what else Ben Ghiat says:
More personalist rulers are toppled by elites than by popular revolutions, especially in situations of economic or military distress. While they may last longer than other kinds of authoritarians, 80 percent of them are booted out of office eventually. (p. 223).
Remember that most strongmen come to power with criminal backgrounds. People who like strongmen like the fact that they break laws. From Ben-Ghiat, “prosecution plays into the victimhood cult.” Besides, facts don’t bother them. They just say the prosecutors and juries were biased against them and cast themselves as victims.
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us v. Them, Jason Stanley (2018)
One of the notable things Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, does is show that fascist methods have deep roots in America. He spent much time, for example, on the institution of slavery as embodying fascist ideals.
For Stanley, the “most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. Fascism aims to separate a population into “us” and “them.”
Also crucial: Fascism relies on hierarchy. (19th century America was a hierarchy with white men on top and black women on the bottom.)
Among other things, Stanley shows how fascists seek to undermine the legitimacy of mainstream media and universities by demanding equal time for absurd ideas.
Here’s how that works: First the fascist offers a conspiracy theory or fact he knows isn’t true or an absurd idea (for example, “scientific racism”). He then demands equal time. If liberals refuse to give these absurd ideas a platform, the fascists denounce the liberals as hypocrites: “Liberals say they are open-minded, but they shut out any ideas they don’t like.”
If mainstream media or universities do give airtime, the fascists also win because they force everyone to treat fiction like fact, which undermines factuality and delegitimizes liberal universities and mainstream media.
Russian State TV (RT) illustrates how this works. The RT motto is “Question More” and they put forward a range of ideas, from neo-Nazis to the far left. The result is that “objective truth is drowned out in the multitude of voices.”
These tactics “destabilize the kind of shared reality” necessary for democracy. The endgame is to undermine factuality by delegitimizing universities and mainstream media.
When factuality is undermined—when nobody can figure out the truth—people resort to tribalism, which furthers the fascist agenda.
How the South Won the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson (2020)
One of the main takeaways for me from this book is that our current struggle between democracy and oligarchy reaches back to the founding of the nation.
Thomas Jefferson and other founders believed that some people (women, Blacks, etc.) weren’t capable of responsible self-determination. The idea was that if you let them vote, they’ll vote to dominate and take from those who are capable. Removing them from the body politic meant everyone else could be equal.
It was this mindset that Southern leaders like Thomas Jefferson brought to their declaration that “all men are created equal.” Since most white men could not conceive of a world in which men of color had rights equal to theirs—and they certainly didn’t think women did—they believed that the fact white men had equal rights meant that the nation was dedicated to the ideal of human equality.
They believed that allowing women and “others” to participate in politics would lead to chaos, anarchy, and a breakdown of self-governance.
The Plantation System was built on the idea that capable men enslaved (or exerted control over) those who were incapable of responsible self-governance. (Those incapable of responsible self-governance meant all people who were not both white and male.) One of Richardson’s insights is that democracy is always in danger of slipping into oligarchy: As one group of voters consolidate power, they often work to advance their own interests at the expense of others.
We have had several oligarchies and are slipping toward a third.
Before the Civil War, a few plantation owners consolidated power until they controlled all three branches of the federal government.
Oligarchs (and would-be oligarchs) get those lower on the hierarchy to vote for them by presenting them with myths. The plantation oligarchs kept poor whites in line by advancing the following myth:America was built by the yeoman, a self-reliant farmer.
Allowing for universal equality—allowing those supposedly incapable of self-governance to vote—would reduce self-reliant white farmers to subservience because, if given power, the incapable would pass laws allowing them to seize the property of those who can produce.
Poor white men did not achieve actual economic and social equality with society’s leaders, but those leaders did not have to worry about challenges to their privilege. Their lower-class white neighbors got the benefit of believing they were on the same level as rich men, because they shared the same racial identity. They would not revolt, because preserving the distinction between themselves and slaves was more important than seeking political power. So in America, the radical idea that all men were created equal depended on the traditional idea that all men were created unequal and that a few wealthy men should control the government, and therefore the lives, of women and men of color.
Slaveowners thus argued that any attack on slavery was an attack on liberty and democracy.
Lincoln put forward another view of democracy: All men were created equal meant all men, and the function of government was to create equal opportunity for all people.
For a few years after the Civil War, it appeared Lincoln’s view would prevail—but the former Confederates fought back hard. They lost the war but didn’t give up the fight. They argued that a government creating opportunity for Blacks really just meant giving “handouts,” which meant robbing the “capable” of their property and giving it to those incapable.
The former Confederates, partly by means of domestic terrorism (the Ku Klux Klan) rolled back the Civil War advances until they had re-established Jim Crow and a hierarchy.
After the Civil War, the Confederate ideology found a new foothold on the frontier.
The frontier was based on the cowboy myth: A [white] man worked hard, was self-reliant, “tamed” the “savage” land, and didn’t need government help:
The West has its own founding story, separate from that of the East. It begins not with the idea of small farmers pushing back the forests but with frontiersmen Kit Carson and Davy Crockett and the Alamo—brave white men bringing commerce and religion to savage lands.
This was as untrue as the yeoman myth. In fact, most cowboys weren’t white. “Taming” meant plundering, killing, and enslaving. Moreover, federal regulations made westward expansion possible.
The frontier—like the Old South—was based on a hierarchical ordering of people. Richardson offers examples of laws that gave white men dominance over women, Native people, Chinese, and Spanish speakers.
Thus a new hierarchy / oligarchy was created in the West.
The New Deal wiped out the existing oligarchies and created a middle class. Blacks and minority communities, however, were excluded. Women remained mostly subordinate. This started to change in the 1950s and 1960s. The pushback started right away.
What Richardson calls the Movement Conservatives took root in the 1950s, and took over the Republican Party by the 1980s. Movement Conservatives are not traditional conservatives and are not traditional Republicans. The movement’s aim was to smash the New Deal.
Richardson explains that since Reagan, Republicans have conceived of an ‘other’ that is destroying American society and ultimately must be kept from power at all costs. This echoes the South in the 1850s, and the 1890s when ‘others’ were purged from the electorate through lynching and Jim Crow.
(Adding: The New Deal got us out of the Robber Baron oligarchy. Did you know that in the 1970s, we didn’t have any billionaires?)
One of Richardson’s many insights is that Goldwater and Reagan used the same arguments as the plantation owners and western oligarchs. Their argument: There are makers and takers. Takers just want handouts. Giving handouts means taking from those who are self-reliant, thus taking their liberty and destroying democracy. Allowing these unworthy takers power (so the belief goes) will create chaos and the end of democracy and personal liberty. Empowering ‘others,’ therefore, leads to anarchy:
All in the Family ran during the crucial years from 1971 to 1979, the period when the adherents of Movement Conservatism came increasingly to believe that there was a “liberal” conspiracy against America. In 1971, business lawyer Lewis Powell warned the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that socialism was destroying the American system of free enterprise.
Good Americans (according to Movement Conservatives) must destroy the ‘others’ who are trying to destroy America. The ‘others’ include minority communities, liberals, immigrants, and Democrats.
By 2015, the United States was once more tipping dangerously toward oligarchy, with wealth and power becoming dangerously concentrated in a relatively few people:
By 2015, the top 1 percent of American families took home more than 20 percent of income. Wealth distribution was ten times worse than that: the families in the top 1 percent owned as much wealth as the families in the bottom 90 percent.
Richardson offers this formula (similar to Timothy Snyder’s sadopopulism):
construct through language a picture of an “other”
stoke fear and anger
The oligarch’s policies hurt their own voters. Notice the similarities to Snyder’s concept of sadopopulism.) Richardson also says that if the ‘others’ insist on political power, the final resort is to kill them.
(See also these talks in which Prof. Richardson talks about her book, here and here.)
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