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Could Fascism Happen in the US?
by Pete Dolack
It is not uncommon to hear the term “fascist” used to describe the political conditions of the United States under the current Bush administration. Indeed, roundups of Muslim and Middle Eastern men, harsh new laws circumscribing civil liberties, draconian new spying systems, the rush to launch wars and a mass media tightly controlled by a small circle of corporate interests are plenty scary, with more such measures undoubtedly on the way if Bush is re-elected. The mainstream political “opposition,” the Democratic Party, has been unable or unwilling to put up any kind of fight. Except for a very few individuals, Democrats meekly bleat “me too” as they vote for repressive personalities and laws.
We must not mistake form for substance. We are living in a sham democracy with some components of a police state, but this is far from fascism. Conditions in the United States could be far worse than they are now, and those who glibly describe present-day American society as “fascist” are obscuring the truly frightening reality of what genuine fascism would be—at its most basic level, a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business.
Fascism has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements. Many people argue that these fascist characteristics are already present, but that analysis neglects the crucial component of extreme violence against the domestic population.
Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. Even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them.
It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism. Some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain. Working people beginning to withdraw their consent, beginning to seriously challenge the economic status quo, is one “crisis” that can bring on fascism. An inability to maintain or expand profits, as can occur during a steep decline in the “business cycle,” is another such “crisis.” Massive corporate subsidies and the funding of gigantic projects, such as military buildups and monumental buildings, are used to combat stagnating or declining profits.
If the crisis is severe enough, the level of subsidies and projects required can be achieved only against the will of working people, for it is from them that the necessary money will come, in the form of reduced wages and benefits, increased working hours and the speeding-up and intensification of their work. Fascism overcomes resistance through force.
As dangerous as the Bush administration has become, the economic elite of the United States, the “ruling class,” is certainly in no danger. Quite the contrary, it is the very security and control they feel that enable them to offer one harsh, repressive measure after another. The “hard-liners” of the ruling class, the Republican Party, are far more confident than the portion of the ruling class that is willing to compromise, i.e. who politically organize themselves through the Democratic Party. The economic elite, who control all levers of government with ever-diminishing resistance, have an iron grip on the country. Why should they go through the trouble of instituting fascism, with the chaos that would entail, when they already dominate the country? The very fact of their dominance and the haughty manner in which their government servants in the Bush administration and Congress carry out their will, brushing aside dissent with a flick of the wrist and a burst of vituperative propaganda, makes it unlikely the ruling class would want to gamble on fascism.
This is not as paradoxical as it may sound. A vicious right-wing dominance helps prevent a much more extreme right-wing movement, whereas a lessening of right-wing dominance makes the economic elite less comfortable, theoretically increasing the chances of a militarized extreme right-wing takeover. If reality were as simple as this basic sketch, it would be difficult to feel much optimism for the future.
Of course reality is much more complex. Historical experience, cultural and national differences and, most importantly, the ability of all working people, blue-collar and white-collar, to resist and form united defenses are crucial. The potentiality of real fascism in the US is low, but it most certainly is not zero.
Potential forms of fascism in the US
Times change, and storm troopers fomenting extreme violence across the country would have very little appeal for Americans. The model of storm troops playing a dominant role, developed in 1920s Italy and perfected in 1930s Germany, is out of date, anyway, as the 1970s experiences of Chile and Argentina demonstrate. Storm troops, now known as “death squads,” play a role, but the decisive role is played by the military, which also directly terrorizes society during the pre-takeover instability. This is the model that began to develop in 1930s Spain. This model, however, would seem to be unworkable in the United States of the early 21st century because its military has no history of unrest and is highly disciplined, unquestionably following the orders of civilians. A military junta would seem unthinkable.
How then could fascism be implemented? It surely would be wrapped in old-fashioned American populism. It is likely it would be pegged to an emergency (perhaps a future “war on terrorism”?). It would require a ruthless clique that believes its dominance is right and natural and is ready to ram it down everyone’s throat. It may require a figure around whom a cult of personality can be or has been built; this figure would more likely be a cultish leader created and installed by the economic elite than a figure who took early control of a movement in the manner of Hitler or Mussolini.
[T]he US government has the infrastructure in place for martial law, and the military has practiced it.
It seems likely that if fascism were to be instituted, it would be through a declaration of martial law. In fact, the US government has the infrastructure in place for martial law, and the military has practiced it. The military would be the decisive element and would seem to be the logical agency from the standpoint of the ruling class.
The attempted fascist coup of the 1930s
An attempt at instituting fascism in the United States would not be without precedent. In Roosevelt’s first year as president, a group of bankers and industrialists, backed by financing from DuPont, General Motors and Morgan Bank, hatched a scheme to institute fascism. Wall Street bond salesman Gerald McGuire approached retired Marine general Smedley Butler with an offer for him to be the fascist leader and deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt to either take orders from businessmen or be forced from office by an army of 500,000 veterans. Their arms were to be supplied by Remington, a DuPont subsidiary. Butler declined, informed Roosevelt and the plan was defused by leaking it to the press. No one was punished.
The infrastructure for dictatorship
The ideas for declaring martial law in the event of widespread dissent gained ground in California when Ronald Reagan was governor there, and blossomed when Reagan became president. These plans center on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), known by most Americans as the agency that deals with natural disasters such as hurricanes. That, however, represents only a small portion of FEMA’s operations. It is the agency that will administer martial law and it has created a mobile and underground governing system.
Lt. Col. Oliver North, in 1984, helped draft a plan to impose martial law as the National Security Council’s liaison to FEMA. The plan included suspending the Constitution, appointing military commanders and turning over control of government to FEMA in the event of “crises” that included “widespread internal dissent” and “national opposition to a US military invasion abroad,” according to a 1987 Knight-Ridder report.
A 1993 Cox News Service report found that FEMA’s budget for its secret programs was 12 times what it spent on disaster relief. This report is something of a coverup itself since it only discusses “preparation for nuclear war” and never addresses the verboten topic of martial law. The report refers only once to unspecified “national-security programs.”
During summer 2002, FEMA, now being subsumed under the new Department of Homeland Security, began seeking contractors to build “temporary cities” in remote areas. FEMA says these cities would be for people fleeing weapons of mass destruction, but later that summer Attorney General John Ashcroft said he seeks to create internment camps for US citizens deemed undefined “enemy combatants.”
In July 2002, a Bush appointee to the US Civil Rights Commission declared that Arab-Americans could be rounded up and sent to internment camps. The official, Peter Kirasnow, said if a future terrorist attack “come[s] from the same ethnic group that attacked the World Trade Center, you can forget about civil rights,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
The military and police have had plenty of practice. From the late 1960s, the US Army, national guards and police departments have coordinated efforts in “Garden Plot,” a series of “war games” in which martial law is imposed, political opponents rounded up and dissent crushed. At a 1969 conference held in conjunction with one of these “war games,” Nixon’s Deputy Attorney General Charles O’Brien declared that “anything goes. A civil disturbance anywhere in this state is an attack on the state itself.” In 1984, FEMA began “Rex-84” with the Department of Defense, national exercises to practice making mass arrests and detentions in anticipation of “civil disturbances, major demonstrations.”
These scenarios by no means constitute the only threat. Although opposition seems to have stalled it for now, the Emergency Health Powers Act, a “model law” proposed for adoption by all 50 states, would grant state governors the power to declare a “health emergency” that would allow them to decree mandatory vaccinations, quarantines, forcible seizures of hospitals and destruction of “contaminated” property, even buildings, without consent. Anyone who refused to take a vaccination or medication under this law would be forcibly removed to an internment camp. This “model law” was prepared at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a thoroughly politicized part of the federal government.
No discussion of takeovers would be complete without taking into account the Christian right, which would without doubt form a solid portion of any social base for fascistic clampdowns. The economic elite and the Christian right experience considerable tension and it is doubtful many among the economic elite believe in the Christian right’s social program, but they are happy to give it some of what it wants because it thereby buys its loyal support. The Christian right would expect to play a significant role in a right-wing takeover, much as the Catholic Church did in Franco’s Spain, but some of the more extreme elements would prefer a direct religious dictatorship.
…a Bush appointee to the US Civil Rights Commission declared that Arab-Americans could be rounded up and sent to internment camps.
Christian Coalition leader Pat Robertson, in his books, admits he wants democracy to be replaced by a theological dictatorship. In separate works, he declares, “Perfect government comes from God and is controlled by God” and “there must be a police force ... capable of bringing swift and sure punishment upon those who rebel against society.” A 1986 New York magazine interview left no doubt what he means. Terming people who do not meet his definition of “Christian” as “termites,” Robertson said, “The termites are in charge now, and that is not the way it ought to be, and the time has arrived for a godly fumigation.”
He is far from alone in his thinking. Randall Terry, another prominent Christian right leader, tells followers, “I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good. ... We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country.” Christian extremists have no chance of taking power themselves, but would certainly provide critical support for any right-wing dictatorship, a situation amply signaled by the Bush administration’s eagerness to take up some of their agenda.
Winning over the middle class
The Bush administration or a future administration would need a social base to implement a system as draconian as fascism, under whatever guise. In the fascist takeovers of the 20th century, the middle class usually proved decisive; the elites at the top were for fascism, while blue-collar workers and people in the lower economic ranks were anti-fascist. When middle-class groups could be swayed to fascism, as happened most clearly in Germany but also elsewhere, the scales were tipped. In the United States of today, the middle class is huge and perhaps would be the decisive element in a contemplation of a fascist-style takeover.
Economic uncertainty underlies the psyche of most American middle-class men and women. This is hardly unique to the US. Fascist propagandists skillfully played on these fears during the crises leading to the fascist coups of the past. Much of the middle class becomes fearful of losing its ability to maintain its lifestyle. This is layered over a fear of falling into or returning to the ranks of the blue-collar realm. People in this position can be susceptible to populist-sounding demagoguery. The white-collar worker does not think of him or herself as a “worker,” a term usually meant for the blue-collar wage earner, but what is the nonexecutive office employee other than a “worker?”
These conditions apply even if the Bush administration or a future government wanted to implement “merely” an authoritarian regime with reduced constitutional rights and somewhat selective roundups of undesirable minorities and political dissidents—in other words, a harsh right-wing regime that is beyond what has been experienced in the United States by Americans who are not African-American or Native American, but less severe than outright fascism. The repeatedly used scare tactics of sudden undefined “terror alerts” accompanied by non-stop breathless corporate-media reports hyping the terror color of the day, the rush to start new wars, and policies that can lead only to increased economic instability seem as if designed to, at a minimum, tighten the political screws.
Instituting an authoritarian regime would be much easier than instituting a totalitarian system such as fascism. The martial-law infrastructure is well suited for authoritarianism and ruling-class representatives are quite prepared to use other means. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in March 2003, declared: “The Constitution just sets minimums. Most of the rights you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires.” Scalia added that in wartime, “protections will be ratcheted right down to the constitutional minimum. I won’t let it go beyond the constitutional minimum.” This is consistent with the ideology of “strict constructionism” promoted by right-wing leaders under which only those few rights explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights are valid and everything else is illegal. An authoritarian right-wing dictatorship thus would not necessarily require a formal suspension of the Constitution. Under fascism, however, there would be no such debate. The Constitution would be abolished and the will of corporate elites would be applied with deadly force.
Fascism is never inevitable, but resistance requires working people, regardless of color, uniting for their common defense and overcoming racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, anti-Semitism, immigrant bashing and other exploitable social ills.
Pete Dolack is a member of the Brooklyn Greens in New York State as well as an activist, poet and essayist.
[28 aug 04]