No, It’s Not Fascism
Recently Whole Foods CEO John Mackey raised eyebrows when he referred to the Affordable Care Act as “fascist economics,” a comment for which he later expressed regret. Mackey wasn’t the first person to use that word, of course. Indeed, over the past four years, it’s been more common to hear people on the right describe President Obama’s policies as “fascistic” than as “communist,” although some seem to use the terms interchangeably, which is ironic considering that the two systems once fought a bitter war against each other. Michael Ledeen, though, reminds his fellow conservatives of what fascism actually means:
There are many varieties of fascism, but the principal elements are:
- A single party dictatorship, headed by a charismatic leader.
- A politics of enthusiasm, involving the masses in ritual public celebration, and direct exchanges between the leader and his followers en masse.
- Hypernationalism, or, in the Nazi case, racism, based on the claim that the nation or race is unique, superior, and entitled to play a major role in world affairs.
- The aforementioned “corporate state” in which private property is legitimate, but the state dictates its proper use.
Fascism was created by the generation that fought, and died in historically unprecedented numbers, in the First World War. It was very much a war ideology: the post-war world, they insisted, must not be governed by the effete and corrupt ruling classes of the past, but by those who had demonstrated courage and virtue in the trenches. The elevation of war heroes to national leadership was seen as a guarantee that future generations would be shaped by the best the nation (or, in the case of the Third Reich, the race) could offer, and they vowed to fight, and destroy, those who had opposed the war, and sapped the nation’s virility thereafter.
As they extended their control over their countries, the fascists bragged of having created a new polity, a totalitarian state that controlled everything and everybody. Fascists’ heroic virtues were incarnated in a charismatic leader. Mussolini’s mass appeal was remarkable — you can see it in the monster crowds that gathered under his balcony in Piazza Venezia — as was Hitler’s, and that of others, from Romania to Spain (the charismatic leader there was not Franco, but Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange). It was common to speak of such leaders as “men of destiny,” world-historical individuals who had imposed their will on history and would reshape the world.
It’s hard to imagine our current leaders speaking in this sort of language. The very idea of bringing war heroes to domestic power is anathema to them. President Obama ran on a promise to end our involvement in Middle East wars, and, in his Second Inaugural Address, boasted of fulfilling his pledge. Fascists don’t change the world by “leading from behind.” They take charge in front of the troops.
Nor is there much in the way of hypernationalism in our current crop of leaders. We’ve rarely had much in the way of traditional nationalism in America; we’re patriots, we celebrate the American dream, but we don’t believe in a unique “people” or “race,” destined to impose its will on the rest of the world.
No doubt there are American political activists who would like their side to totally dominate the country’s affairs, as we can hear in recent calls for Obama to “destroy” the Republican Party once and for all. But it is hard to imagine a mass movement in this country based on an open call for a totalitarian state.
Charismatic leaders are not unique to fascism, and we have had many political leaders, including Obama, who are inspirational orators and who produce crowd behavior — such as the “jumpers” who rallied to Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign — that is reminiscent of the fascist masses. But we are a long way from the cult of personality that dominated Italy and Germany in the fascist epoch.
Ledeen is, of course, correct. Conservatives who accuse Obama of “fascism” typically latch on to one element, his public charisma and the fact that, even after four years of a weak economy, long term unemployment and disappointments about unmet campaign promises, he still remains highly popular, most especially among his core supporters. But, that’s not fascism. We’ve had President’s like that — FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan — and they weren’t fascists either. When conservatives apply the label of fascism to things such as this, they demonstrate not only that they are being highly, indeed irrationally, partisan, but they’re also insulting the memory of the people who have actually lived and suffered under fascist regimes. Applying to simple political disagreements in a democratic republic displays a detachment from reality that should cause one to doubt anything else the user has to say.