Fascism is defined as “a political system headed by a dictator, in which the government controls business, and labor and opposition is not permitted.” Many people confuse fascism with communism, as both are well-known systems under which the government exercises extreme control over its citizens, but the two are ideologically dissimilar in one important way: While communism ostensibly (if not usually in practice) distributes power evenly among the people with “communal” ownership of resources, fascist societies tend to concentrate power among very few individuals with an emphasis on corporate interests over public.
Such a system inevitably leads to populations mired in poverty with restrictive laws, loss of basic personal freedoms, and no means of escaping debt, let alone accumulating wealth. Many in the United States believe that the country is scarily close to embracing this form of government, and still others believe that it already has. And indeed, there are many well-established aspects of fascist societies that have taken root in the United States, some more recently than others.
10 Intense Nationalism And Demagoguery
Much more than simple pride for one’s country, extreme nationalism is rooted in the notion that one’s individual identity is entirely associated with their national identity—such that individual identity cannot exist separately from that of their nation. Strong emotional ties to one’s nation result from such attitudes, but more often than not, the allegiance gained is to a perverted notion of national identity put forth by politicians or demagogues.
The term “demagogue” is used mostly derisively to refer to a politician who grows their base and amasses power not through the discussion of policy and real solutions to problems but by blatant appeal to fear, xenophobia, and outright ignorance. Of course, history has shown this to be an effective tactic among populations with little understanding of complex political issues but a strong sense of national identity. The fascist totalitarian regimes of World War II began with populist, grassroots movements headed by charismatic leaders who were able to use fears over loss of national identity to quickly amass power.
Obviously, the 2016 US presidential election cycle has demonstrated that demagoguery and appeals to bigotry and a desire to return the country to a mythical state of “greatness” can still gain substantial political points even in the modern day. But appeals to this ideal of “greatness” go nowhere without a contrast—an idea or group that can be pointed to as the problem. This is why campaigns based on intense nationalism will always have an accompanying feature:
9 Demonizing The ‘Other’
Those with even a basic knowledge of modern world history know that the Jewish people bore the brunt of the consequences of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Though non-white races, homosexuals, and ill-defined “gypsies” were persecuted as well, it was the Jews in particular who were singled out as being mostly to blame for Germany’s economic misfortunes and a perceived erosion of German culture. And this—the broad illustration of an easily definable enemy, an “other” that undermines the precious national identity—is an incredibly key component to the development of a fascist society.
It should go without saying that in the US today (though non-whites and gays are still part of the rhetoric), the scapegoated “other” is the Muslim. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslims have been the go-to counterpoint to the American identity. Immediately after the event, and despite decades of complicated US relations with the Middle East, then-president Bush insisted that the attack happened simply because Muslims “hate our freedom.”
Today, mainstream presidential candidates seriously advocate a moratorium on all Muslims entering the country, suggest (also in apparent seriousness) that all of the world’s billions of Muslims know which ones are terrorists, and state that ISIS is the greatest existing threat to the US. This is in spite of the fact that acts of radical Islamic terror overwhelmingly kill other Muslims—between 82 and 97 percent, according to a study by the United States’ own Counterterrorism Center.
This is the type of highly relevant data that is easily buried when the bulk of the public discussion is rooted in fear and irrationality, and the discussion is easily steered in that direction—not by politicians or demagogues themselves but by the corporations that fund and support them in a fascist political structure through use of the media.
8 Corporate Ownership Of Media
It bears noting that the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini took place before the advent of modern mass media, including television, which, along with the Internet, is the means by which the vast majority of Americans consume their information. It can be demonstrably shown that instances of the type of selective reporting noted above are standard in Western media. To illustrate this example, analysis abounds showing that Islamic terrorism is reported on far more extensively in the Western media when it occurs in the Western world. In November 2015, in which three major terror attacks occurred, the one that took place in Paris received roughly 93 percent of the coverage within that month. The other two attacks took place in Beirut and Baghdad.
The reason that so many seemingly disparate media outlets are able to fall in line on such issues is simple: There really isn’t that much disparity. In the United States, six corporations—General Electric, NewsCorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS—own 90 percent of all media in all formats. This is the result of serious consolidation over the last several decades; in 1983, that number was 50.
Thanks the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, such corporations now have the ability to contribute freely to organizations that support political candidates or movements. For a recent example, look no further than Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Dozens of individual media companies (all owned by the above six) have contributed to the campaign, and CNN has come under some fire during the election season for biased reporting on Clinton’s behalf. CNN is owned by Time Warner, a major contributor.
7 Dismantling Of Labor Unions
Key to fascist ideology is state ownership not just of resources but of labor. That being the case, privatized labor unions, which negotiate terms on behalf of workers and prevent abuses by employers, aren’t compatible in any way with a fascist government. After the Italian parliament elections in 1924, in which Benito Mussolini solidified his power, one of his first acts—after declaring other political parties illegal—was to outlaw labor unions and strikes. It was Mussolini who said, “Fascism should rightly be called corporatism, as it is the merger of corporate and government power.”
Labor unions have historically been a rich source of funding for political candidates, and endorsements from important unions could help secure elections, but in recent decades, there has been a dramatic shift in this dynamic. Strong anti-union platforms—particularly within the Republican party—have gotten several high-profile conservative politicians, such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Michigan governor Rick Snyder, reelected in recent years in states with a traditionally strong labor presence.
This is due at least in part to a long-standing and ongoing effort on the part of the US political right to undermine, discredit, and disperse labor unions, and it has achieved a sort of snowballing effect: As unions become less visible, fewer Americans see them as essential, which further precipitates their decline. In the mid-1950s, union representation among wage and salaried worker in the US was around 35 percent. Today, it is less than eight percent.
6 Government Involvement In Religion
Historically, powerful religious institutions haven’t hindered the rise of fascist regimes—quite the opposite, in fact. Mussolini’s regime again provides an easy historical frame of reference for this, as the Roman Catholic Church was (and still is) the most powerful institution in Italy at the time of his rise.
Simply put, the rigid and somewhat archaic moral systems of traditional religious institutions tend to align very well with fascist, authoritarian notions of control. Mussolini was able to avoid coming into conflict with the church by simply adopting many of their official stances (which he likely would have done anyway) on issues such as contraception and divorce. A 1929 agreement between the church and regime known as the Lateran Treaties went so far as to make Roman Catholicism the official state religion.
Although the United States hasn’t gone to this extreme, an alarming 57 percent of Republicans asked in a recent poll believe that the US should, in direct violation of its own constitution, make Christianity its national religion. Demagogues like Donald Trump, a man who has earned that description ten times over in recent months, have always found convenient declarations of renewed religious faith to be an effective, cost-free means of immediately swaying a large portion of the populace. This is particularly true in heavily religious nations like the US.
5 Suspicious Elections
Since rigged elections are a hallmark of fascist regimes, any appearance of impropriety in the US election system, which has generally been considered sound, if inefficient and complicated, sets conspiracy theorists off about the rise of US fascism. From questions about the 2000 US presidential race, in which George W. Bush famously won the election despite losing the popular vote, up to the recent election cycle, in which candidates from both parties have encountered problems during the primaries with vote counts, late ballots, and even their names being left off ballots altogether, the perception of a “rigged system” has been picking up steam among the American public.
Even if elections aren’t directly rigged, the reality is that the old adage that “anyone can be president if they work hard enough” is probably completely untrue, and when it comes to who actually takes office, Americans have far less say than one might think. The presidential primary process, during which candidates are selected by their respective parties, has only been in place since the early 20th century. Before that, candidates were simply chosen in private by the parties.
Much has been made during the 2016 election of delegates and their role in the primary process, but even some delegates, like Curly Hoagland of North Dakota, admit that the process isn’t really designed to give the public as much of a choice as they may perceive:
The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination. That’s the conflict here. The rules are still designed to have a political party choose its nominee at a convention. That’s just the way it is.
If the presidential nominees and eventual winners did indeed represent the collective will of the American public, it would be a remarkable coincidence, as recent genealogy work has provided strong circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Every US president except one (Martin Van Buren) is directly related to the same English king, and the candidate with the most royal genes and chromosomes has won the presidency 100 percent of the time for the last 200 years.
4 Secret Trade Agreements
So-called free trade agreements, such as 1994’s infamous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pact between the US, Mexico, and Canada, have a reliable history of looking out for corporate interests. The newest and one of the most controversial of these, the Transpacific Partnership, or TPP, was finalized in 2016 at the tail end of the Obama administration. Negotiations were conducted in private over five years, and the general public was given no details on its terms until the deal was already done.
One of the main thrusts of the agreement is copyright and patent law, which sounds innocuous enough until you consider that practically every aspect of modern business hinges on this and that all of the changes being implemented benefit corporate interests, not workers. For example, a tightening of patent regulations on medications or surgical procedures will allow practitioners to price these out of the range of lower income patients. Also, corporations will now be allowed to sue governments over lost profits due to regulatory changes, as cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris is doing right now. The tobacco giant is involved in litigation with Uruguay because, by national law, the country requires warning labels on cigarettes, which of course hurts profits. Such lawsuits are now possible because of TPP—which, again, was not approved by voters and was never even up for a vote.
Such secrecy in service of further consolidation of corporate power (and erosion of oversight) is truly problematic. Remember Mussolini’s words about fascism being essentially the merger of corporation and state. And with consolidation of power comes concentration of wealth, which inevitably leads to . . .
3 Extinction Of The Middle Class
While “income equality” has only become a buzzword over the last few years, the fact is that the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has being steadily widening for decades, since the mid-1970s. The middle class is vanishing, not just in economically disadvantaged areas but everywhere. A 2016 Pew Research poll covering three quarters of the population showed that a clear majority of Americans are no longer in the middle class, and the majority of those exiting were not becoming richer but rather joining the lower class, although this was, of course, not always the case.
This is what we would expect to see in a climate in which corporate interests come before any other, and it constitutes a strong argument that, despite a centuries-old culture of American ingenuity and self-reliance, the US has become such a climate. If further evidence were required, one could look to the fact that despite unprecedented mismanagement, misappropriation, and outright greed by Wall Street bankers contributing to an economic crash from which the US economy still hasn’t recovered, the current number of bankers in jail for this conduct stands at one.
This has the effect of creating vast numbers of poor and disenfranchised workers who will literally cling to any meager source of income they can get, which is a perfect fit for a fascist economy, which is ideologically opposed to redistribution of wealth by any means, even to those whose labor produced it. Historically,it has also had the effect of angering, mobilizing, and even radicalizing poor workers—leading to another unmistakable hallmark of the totalitarian regime, which has unfortunately started to show up in the US:
2 Militarized Police
Many Americans can probably remember a time when the sight of local police officers wearing full body armor, carrying military weapons, and riding through the streets in military vehicles would have caused a panic. One might have assumed that an invasion was taking place or perhaps that martial law had been declared for some unthinkable reason. It is highly unfortunate that, after widespread coverage of incidents like the protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the image and idea of US police responding to citizens as the US military would respond to foreign combatants is no longer unthinkable but almost commonplace.
The impetus for this unprecedented buildup of firepower by law enforcement, if not the reasoning behind it, can be traced to the 1990 version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which the US Congress revises and passes yearly. After a rise in drug-related violence in the 1980s, the Department of Defense was allowed to transfer surplus gear to local police departments at its discretion if said equipment was deemed suitable for antidrug activities. This, combined with $35 billion in grants to local law enforcement handed down by Congress after 9/11, has resulted not only with more and more police being armed with weapons of war, but in those weapons’ deployment and use on a regular basis.
That is to say, SWAT team deployments have risen from about 3,000 in 1980 to over 50,000 per year across the US currently, while in 2014, the FBI released data showing violent crime at its lowest level since 1978. The concern, as seen in Ferguson and elsewhere, is that this apparatus is just as effective—if not more so—at crushing dissent than deterring crime.
But for the truest indicator of the potential rise of fascism in the United States, one must look no further than its current political structure and the definition of fascism as set forth by Mussolini himself.
1 Corporate Money Rules Politics
It is a poorly kept secret that Koch Industries, owned by wealthy oilmen Charles and David Koch, wasted absolutely no time in exploiting the 2010 Citizens United ruling in every way possible. The Koch brothers and their small cadre of supremely wealthy donors have invested nearly $1 billion during this election cycle in order to influence the outcome. That’s over double the amount spent by the Republican National Committee in 2012.
Why? Well, according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute, it may be at least partially because Koch Industries is one of the top three polluters in the United States—right up there with ExxonMobil. With all of their formidable investment going to fill the coffers of Republicans (aka the party that’s extremely reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of man-made climate change) it’s not unreasonable to assume that Koch Industries expects a return on its investment in the form of continued lax regulations and impotent policies.
All of this is to say that while the merger of corporation and state in the US is not total, it is not theoretical, either. There are very powerful elements within both the political and corporate worlds that are making diligent progress down this road. In the interest of offering at least one concrete means toward helping to reverse it, perhaps start with overturning Citizens United?