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The End of Fascism

Megan McArdle calls for an extension of Godwin’s Law that would put an end to “using the word fascist to apply to the current, or indeed previous, administration.”

How is this helpful?  Has clarifying the distinction between fascism and socialism really added to most peoples’ understanding of what the Obama administration is doing?  All this does is drag the specter of Hitler into the conversation.  And the problem with Hitler was not his industrial policy–I mean, okay, fine, Hitler’s industrial policy bad, right, but I could forgive him for that, you know?  The thing that really bothers me about Hitler was the genocide.  And I’m about as sure as I can be that Obama has no plans to round up millions of people, put them in camps, and find various creative ways to torture them to death.

I agree with her conclusion but not her argument.

Last things first: The Final Solution was possible because Nazi Germany was a fascist state and therefore no one dared question Hitler’s orders.  Genocide is, however, not a necessary outgrowth of fascist ideology nor have most genocides been carried out by fascist governments. Benito Mussolini, the Founding Fascist (if you will) wasn’t a mass murderer and Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Omar al-Bashir aren’t fascists. The genocide was what made Hitler evil, not what made him a fascist.

With that out of the way, I completely agree that dubbing American presidents and their policies fascist is not a helpful way to advance the debate.   See, for example, my previous decisions of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and the Obama cult of personality.  While there may be aspects of the Bush or Obama policies that have something akin with Communism or Nazism or Fascism or whathaveyou, those terms have so much extraneous baggage that the discussion invariably strays from the actual thing being criticized.  [As Dave Schuler points out in the comments, there's a name for this: "poisoning the well."]

We should be careful here to differentiate name-calling from the actual substantive argument.  It’s a very different thing to argue that bringing up the idea of nationalizing health care makes you a Marxist/Socialist/Communist than to argue that enacting a given policy will naturally lead down a road to ever-more-powerful government.   So, Friedrick Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a different than Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism or even Al Franken’s Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Plus we really need a way of talking about the contrasting economic strategies. Using words as brickbats may have political advantages but it certainly poisons the well. I doubt we’ll be able to stop the tactic because it’s effective but, since we need to be able to discuss the underlying issues, we’ll just need to grow thicker skins.

    Look, Franklin Roosevelt was obviously a fascist in its American manifestation. You only need consider the National Recovery Administration to recognize that. However, saying that doesn’t mean I think he was genocidal or an expansionist nationalist. To think that is to confuse the politics of Germany, Italy, and Russia with that of the United States.

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  2. James,

    To bolster part of your post (or perhaps to simply restate it): part of what people misunderstand is that the racial elements of Hitler’s politics (and that led to the Final Solution) weren’t an outgrowth of fascism, but rather of Hitler’s own theories about different groups of people. Your ref to El Duce underscores this.

    This observation is not a defense of fascism (lest anyone find themselves confused) but rather the fact that really most people don’t really know what fascism is except that it is associated with Hitler, and therefore conflate everything Hitler with all things fascist.

    Indeed, Nazism was “fascism plus.”

    One thing is for sure, most people who deploy these terms really don’t know what they means except that they now for sure that they are bad, bad things.

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  3. Floyd says:

    So the spirit of Neville Chamberlain comes back with an intranational twist?
    Marxism is a crime in and of itself, with or without internment camps or gas ovens.
    The deprivation of liberty and the grinding of the soul to powder is atrocity, As is the grinding poverty which is the inevitable result of “national socialism”.
    While I agree that hyperbole makes for poor dialog,appeasement through incredulous naivete, or toady reluctance is worse.At some point it becomes necessary to call a spade a spade.
    Assuming newspeak allows such terminology.

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  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    One need only review the actions of this administration to see what they are attempting. To assume good will is naive at best. This man has already violated his oath of office. The Constitution does not give the power to the executive to lend money to private industry, force a merger between an American corporation and a foreign entity or levy a tax on specific individuals after the fact. But then what can you expect from a candidate who’s first executive experience is that of President of the United States? (I forgot he was editor of the Harvard Law review).

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  5. Pug says:

    ..levy a tax on specific individuals after the fact.

    Get your facts straight. The House, not Obama, passed the tax bill and it languishes in the Senate. No tax has been passed on any specific group after the fact and none will be. It was grandstanding to please the howling mob and the Republicans went along with it.

    The Right has gone off the deep end after only a couple months. They’re hurling around terms like fascist, socialist, Nazi and appeaser. It debases their argument. Melodrama like Floyd’s comment above is everywhere.

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  6. Anderson says:

    Most of the trouble with defining fascism comes from the fact that Mussolini, the “original” fascist, was very different from Hitler. Mussolini never had anything like Hitler’s authority or power. I mean, good god, the man left power when the “fascist counci” voted him out and the king fired him. One can scarcely imagine what a parallel in Hitler’s Germany would’ve been.

    Frankly, I think “fascism” was a figment of Mussolini’s imagination, a fig leaf for his power grab.

    “National Socialism” is what Hitler’s party called itself, and despite the wiggle room given for dweebs like Jonah Goldberg, it’s a better word for Hitler and for the political order sought by his admirers. “National” for the emphasis on the volk and racist-militarist policy; “socialism” for the level of state control. (Recall the common point that the USSR was the Union of Soviet *Socialist* Republics — Communism was a goal, at least until Stalin redefined Communism as his personal rule.)

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  7. Floyd says:

    Pug;
    Touch’e Mr.Chamberlain!

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  8. Steve Verdon says:

    I prefer the terms statist or authoritarian. Both still have negative conotations, but don’t carry the genocidal baggage fascist does.

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  9. steve s says:

    The Right has gone off the deep end after only a couple months. They’re hurling around terms like fascist, socialist, Nazi and appeaser. It debases their argument. Melodrama like Floyd’s comment above is everywhere.
    Posted by Pug | March 31, 2009 | 10:12 am | Permalink

    They were going off the deep end quite a while before that. ACORN. Birth Certificate. Seekrit Mooslim. Michelle Obama is a radical black panther. Hillary Killled Vince Foster. John Kerry’s purple hearts were fake….

    Although yeah, they do seem to have gotten worse lately. Glenn Beck’s on Fox News saying that Obama’s going to set up concentration camps.

    Fortunately, America is rejecting the Tard Party.

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  10. DC Loser says:

    Cute graphic trying to get around Godwin’s Law.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    Cute graphic trying to get around Godwin’s Law.

    The graphic illustrates what I’m arguing against.

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  12. Bithead says:

    Genocide is, however, not a necessary outgrowth of fascist ideology nor have most genocides been carried out by fascist governments.

    I’m not sure I accept that, James. I’m left to Lord Acton’s point absolute power and it’s effects. Hitler fell to that behavior because given his absolute power, he COULD do that; there wasn’t anything stopping him.

    Look, Franklin Roosevelt was obviously a fascist in its American manifestation.

    Correct; And the implications for Obama, and indeed the whole of the Democrat party, who so often tries to use FDR as a symbol, are frightening at least.

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  13. sam says:

    Correct; And the implications for Obama, and indeed the whole of the Democrat party, who so often tries to use FDR as a symbol, are frightening at least.

    Ah Christ, man up Bit. These unending public displays of the vapors are beginning to make you look silly.

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  14. The other f-bomb…

    THE OTHER F-BOMB…. Just two months after the inauguration, so many conservatives throw around “fascism” and “fascist” to describe the White House, I already feel more or less desensitized. After seeing David Henderson join the club, Megan McArdle…

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  15. Steve Verdon says:

    steve s,

    I think you need to brush up on Jane’s Law: The party in power is smug and arrogant. The party out of power is always insane. The Democrats and their followers were nuts when Bush was President (or at least most of his Presidency). I’m sure if we wandered over to a few of the Lefty sites we could find amble evidence of people invoking Hitler, genocide, and fascism to Bush/Cheney.

    Oh just for old time’s sake: Chimperor!

    This idea that your side is the paragon of rationality and righteousness is just…well…stoopid.

    Correct; And the implications for Obama, and indeed the whole of the Democrat party, who so often tries to use FDR as a symbol, are frightening at least.

    Heh, I’m not sure Dave is going to be happy with this connection given that Obama, et. al. have indeed worked hard to make.

    So to sum up:

    Henderson is right on the facts, but wrong because Megan’s sensibilities were offended?

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  16. Anderson says:

    Look, Franklin Roosevelt was obviously a fascist in its American manifestation.

    Good lord, man, I’ve never seen you write anything downright stupid before.

    A fascist? On what definition of the word?

    FDR enacted his program through Congress; was elected and re-elected through fair, contested elections; submitted to the rule of law; and in every other respect was about as non-fascist as it’s possible to be. Fascists do not abandon pet programs because a court tells them to.

    You might as well say that Hitler was “a Republican in its German manifestation.” That would be grossly unfair to the GOP, but it would make about as much sense.

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  17. steve says:

    If you want to create a useful rule, require that anyone who uses the term fascist be required to define it. Would love to see Dave’s definition and how to apply that to FDR.

    Steve

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  18. anjin-san says:

    Good lord, man, I’ve never seen you write anything downright stupid before.

    You must not be looking very hard.

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  19. Bithead says:

    Ah Christ, man up Bit. These unending public displays of the vapors are beginning to make you look silly.

    And your constant avoidance of the truth of the matter started making you look silly some time ago.

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  20. Bithead says:

    Heh, I’m not sure Dave is going to be happy with this connection given that Obama, et. al. have indeed worked hard to make.

    Yeah, well….

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  21. anjin-san says:

    And your constant avoidance of the truth of the matter started making you look silly some time ago.

    Yea dude. Don’t you know that the truth is whatever Michelle Malkin says it is? Bitsy-Doody is simply passing her truth along to us. Don’t blame the messenger.

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  22. D says:

    Bit appears to be one of those wacked out Republicans who either: (1) missed the grammar part of their education (“Democrat” versus “Democratic” for an adjective); or (2) purposely and intentionally engages in using the Rush Limbaugh approved smear of the DemocratIC Party.

    Once you see that, you can basically write off anything they have to say because they are either too stupid to understand basic grammar or they are just smearing all Democrats and have no open mind.

    Darryl

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  23. Bithead says:

    Yea dude. Don’t you know that the truth is whatever Michelle Malkin says it is? Bitsy-Doody is simply passing her truth along to us. Don’t blame the messenger.

    No. Say rather if you are for something, it’s sufficient cause to consider it toxic.

    Bit appears to be one of those wacked out Republicans who either: (1) missed the grammar part of their education (“Democrat” versus “Democratic” for an adjective);

    Aha. The Suffix police are getting nervous, I see.

    Perhaps what’s gotten by you…(And I wonder about the omission being by intent) members of the Democrat party are certainly Democrats… but if the forcing down out throats all this spending, while the vast majority don’t support it is of any indication they hardly qualify as ‘democratic’. there’s a difference you see. Apparently that distiction makes the members of that party nervous. As it should.

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  24. D says:

    Wow. And good at deflection, too. No wonder the Republicans lost their collective rears in the election. No substance, no ideas, no nothing.

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