Fascism Comes to America
(Chicago University Press, 2022)
I had hoped that the semi-eclipse of Trump as a central actor in US politics, together with the tedium of the apparently endless hearings on the January 6 riot, would have put an end to the public-intellectual fretting about The Donald as a reincarnation of Hitler or Mussolini. The rebirth of the Evil Empire in the form of the Russia-Ukraine war seemed to have displaced concern over the crisis of democracy back to the East, where the liberal order is newly threatened by Russian and Chinese autocracy, if not the Communism of yore. But just last September the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, wearing his Political Thinker hat, weighed in on the importance of calling Trump a fascist. In the New York Review of Books relatively serious commentators Mark Danner and Fintan O’Toole just can’t get over the “failed coup” at the Capitol, more impressed as they are by the attempt than by the failure.
So I was primed to read Bruce Kuklick’s new book, Fascism Comes to America: A Century of Obsession in Politics and Culture. I wasn’t disappointed: it is a stimulating and even delightful book, filled with American political wackiness as it traces the use of “fascist” as an insult (or, occasionally, term of praise) over the last hundred years. For those of us caught up in present-day political discourse, one of the book’s main virtues is its reminder that what may seem to us new departures in stupidity and craziness are actually par for the American course. Franklin Roosevelt called Wendell Willkie a fascist, and was called one himself by many. Not only did Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana identify FDR as a “greater threat to American democracy than Hitler or […] Mussolini” but Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s daughter, announced that his initials stood for “Führer, Duce, Roosevelt.” The US Communist Party had attacked Roosevelt in his first term as a “social fascist,” though for the two years of the Hitler-Stalin alliance it denounced him as an interventionist before switching to praising him as a leader of the global anti-fascist popular front.
An interesting sidelight is shed on American racism in this context. Kuklick suggests that a low opinion of Italians (already manifested at the end of the nineteenth century, we might remember, in limitations on Italian immigration) contributed to the displacement of the term “fascism” from its origin in Italy to the Nazi regime. “When Roosevelt consulted with his attorney general, Francis Biddle, about measures of repression to take against the Japanese and Germans in 1942, the President told Biddle not to stew about the Italians: ‘They are a lot of opera singers.’” In Hollywood movies of the time, too, enemy Italians are typically figures of fun compared to the “evil Krauts and Japs.” Racism is a complex thing: as Kuklick observes, it is “astonishing that the ‘Oriental’ Japanese were depicted” in popular culture—but also in such actions as internment—“as intellectually more prepossessing than the European Italians.” In a special twist, “African-American troops fought the Italian fascists” during the war “while white US soldiers engaged Japan.”
While regaling the reader with a rich tapestry of political chicanery and idiocy, Kuklick uses his story to suggest an account of the development of US political ideology since the 1920s. Central is the transformation of earlier elite laissez-faire liberalism and progressivism into “welfare liberalism” in the course of the 1940s. Basic to this was the New Deal’s acceptance of the need for government intervention into private-property capitalism, even while stressing the importance of “individual freedom” from government control. The elevation of what was to be called the “vital center” established the essence of American democracy as distinct from both the “left” and “right” of European politics, opposed thus to both socialism/communism and fascism. While during the war these were generally taken as noncomparable endpoints of the political spectrum, the Cold War reshaped the spectrum into a circle on which the foreign ideologies could approach each other, with concepts like “totalitarianism” potentially linking them as variants of antidemocratic politics.
The sixties, and the Vietnam War in particular, had an interesting effect on this spectrum. Fought against Communism, the war (like other US interventions abroad) exhibited liberal democracy as a vicious enemy to poor people across the seas who only wanted to be left alone to decide their own destiny. Unlike the fascists of World War II, in Kuklick’s words, “communists had not tried to take over the world but […] opposed colonialism or imperialism.” There may have been problems with communism, Kuklick reminds us, but its leaders seemingly “wished for a more just social order.” Seen in this light it was American liberalism itself—“corporate liberalism,” as we called it in SDS—that approached fascism on the spectrum of political behavior, just as the contemporaneous defenders of the Jim Crow order in the South seemed appropriately tagged as fascists (a comparison Kuklick does not discuss). With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “communist” nearly vanished as a term of political opprobrium outside of the Neanderthal wing of the Republican Party.1 “Fascism” became for all practical purposes the sole repository of antidemocratic evil.
Partly, Kuklick argues, “fascism” can play this role because it saves Americans the trouble of examining the history of democracy in the US: “The notion of fascism distances US citizens from their own past.” Examined carefully, the fabled foundation of the Republic turns out to have been a matter of a small upper class seeking a political form that would “provide for the input of the vulgar while preventing the excesses that accompanied democracy.” Calling Trump a fascist threat to democracy avoids confronting the nature of the system that developed from those beginnings and the social dynamics to which its changing shape tries to respond. “The worries about fascism,” Kuklick suggests, “indicate Americans’ not wanting to confront democracy’s quandaries. Such problems are dispelled by blaming them on some overseas monster.”
However true, such thoughts do not add up to the complete pointlessness Kuklick ascribes to the attempt to shed light on current affairs by comparing them to fascism as an historical phenomenon. A historical study like Robert O. Paxton’s outstanding The Anatomy of Fascism suggests elements of political reality to look for to evaluate the utility of such comparisons.2 It doesn’t seem unreasonable, for instance, to point out similarities between the two fascist regimes of the past, Italy and Germany, and such contemporary governments as BJP-ruled India, with its racist-like contrast of Hindutva with the foreign element identified in Muslims, its use of paramilitary violence, and its striving for accelerated national economic development; and Israel, given its racist self-definition as a state of one homogeneous people, its apartheid-style social regulation, its extrajudicial violence against internal enemies, its exaltation of military force and police, and its expansionism. The differences are also easy to enumerate. After all, the present is not the past (and even in the past, only two nations saw fascism come to power).
Analogies between present and past can aid in working out the anatomy of today’s political developments. But both the similarities and differences to be discerned, for instance, between Trumpism and National Socialism—the shared harping on a lost greatness to be regained under the leadership of a charismatic individual, on the one side, Trump’s resistance to expansionism and military adventurism, on the other—are of interest because they testify to general developmental trends of contemporary capitalism. Thus Rooseveltian democracy shared with Hitlerian fascism a novel large-scale intervention of the state into economic affairs, including the use of military force to reorganize the international economy in the interests of one state or another. On the other hand, the current limits capitalism’s evolution has placed on economic development make it hard for politicians to seek mass support by holding out an exciting future. It’s too late to promise, as Hitler did, cars and television sets for all. What we want now is medical care, food, housing, and maybe even the preservation of the earth as a place to live. Economic nationalism, to which nation-based states are driven as companies compete for shares of a global product rising at lower rates than it used to, is hard to pursue in a world of transnational capital, where a Chinese corporation builds a factory in Mexico to supply Ford and General Motors with car wheels while a Taiwanese company’s factories in China supply the iPhones that have made Apple the highest-capitalization US company.
As part of an early stage of these developments, fascism still seems useful to learn about, though Kuklick may be right to urge us to commit the F-word to to the same historical dustbin as the N-word. Even he seems to understand why his advice is unlikely to be taken. As he says in the conclusion of his entertaining and thought-provoking book, the fact that “fascist” has come to mean little more than the expression of contempt doesn’t mean the contempt is baseless. “People may be warranted in their contempt, even if they cannot articulate the reasons for it or are ignorant of them.”
- Among leftists and even liberals, a one-time Stalinist like Angela Davis, who endorsed the Berlin Wall and the crushing of the Prague Spring, can be celebrated as a prison abolitionist and freedom fighter.
- Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: A.A. Knopf, 2004).