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A Better Question Might Be, 'How Is It NOT Fascism?'

Have you ever spoken to someone who lived through a fascist regime? If and when you do, you might be surprised at what you hear. When they get talking, most people who lived through Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal. Videla’s Argentina, Vargas’s Brazil or Bordaberry’s Uruguay paint surprisingly benign pictures of daily life in those places.

Most Americans who’ve lived abroad have, at one time or another, had the experience of talking with a foreign friend who, though never having lived in the US, is pretty well convinced that they understand the cardinal elements of our culture.  Why?

Because for years, that person has consumed a non-stop diet of Hollywood movies and TV programs.

When, after fully acknowledging cinema’s great value as a tool of cultural knowledge, you try and let them know there are many important social realities this medium cannot convey, they often become annoyed or indifferent.

They have their story and they are going to stick with it.

It seems to me that our culture’s relationship to fascism is not all that different than this. 

Over the last sixty or so years, Hollywood has given us constant stream of images about life under authoritarian regimes. As a result, most Americans are generally pretty confident of their ability to not only recognize its basic contours, but also that they would “do the right thing” should the authorities begin pursuing their neighbors for no good reason.  

Of course, this presumes that fascism almost always looks the way Hollywood, with its intense Germanic fixations and penchant for clean morally unambiguous story lines, tells us it does, you know, with armed checkpoints, draconian curfews, dimly-lit streets, grey skies and a complete absence of joy.  

But of course, fascism has never consistently or even predominantly manifested itself in daily life the way Hollywood has told us it does, even in the occupied territories of the Third Reich.

If you have any doubts about this, read the account of life in Nazi-occupied Paris written by Carles Fontseré.  In it, we see an exiled Catalan Republican Anarchist (could there be any human profile any more apt for harassment and extermination by convinced Nazis?) earning a living in the French magazine and publishing industry, regularly interacting—often quite cordially--with German officers while partying and having regular sexual trysts in his off-hours. 

Am I saying occupied Paris (or any other fascist space) was a carnival or that the Nazi regime was not brutal or violent?  Absolutely not. 

Rather, I am suggesting that contrary to what Hollywood has taught us, those who run authoritarian regimes often go to great lengths to preserve most elements of complexly embroidered fabric of “dailyness” in the societies they control. The reason is obvious: to do otherwise is run the risk of provoking overt anger and rebellion from those being manipulated and oppressed.

Do you think most people were reduced to constantly skulking from back street to back alley  or that they stopped going on summer vacation, drinking wine and making love during the Argentine Dirty War? 

On the contrary, at the very time its agents were pulling out fingernails and waterboarding people at the ESMA detention center in Buenos Aires and chucking cement-weighted bodies into the Atlantic from helicopters, the Argentine regime hosted the World Cup of Soccer, one of the world’s great tourist celebrations! 

“A good time was had by all!” That is, all except the tortured and the disappeared.

Well, if Fascism seldom announces itself the way Hollywood taught us it would, if the dimension of its terror and destruction is, almost by design, beyond the ken of the vast majority of the population caught up in their daily concerns, what can we do to combat it?

Most of all we must shift our thinking from the realm of the anecdote and the visually powerful vignette to that of analytical rigor.

Human beings possess an incredibly strong tendency to deny malfeasance among what they consider to be their “own” social group, be it familial or communal or national. And in their drive to deny the sins of their clan, they will avail themselves of whatever materials they can to preserve their sense of moral intactness and/or superiority.

Well, if Fascism seldom announces itself the way Hollywood taught us it would, if the dimension of its terror and destruction is, almost by design, beyond the ken of the vast majority of the population caught up in their daily concerns, what can we do to combat it?

In this context, having an institutionalized vision of authoritarian evil that located far away from one’s own place—both geographically and temporally—is extremely “useful” in psychological terms.

The existence of this widely internalized “distant” vision of evil, which is seen—quite incorrectly—as representing fascism in more or less comprehensive terms, has the effect of placing an absurdly heavy burden of proof upon those wishing to open a discussion about the existence of this social tendency here and now.

When critics allege or even suggest the existence of a type of fascism in today’s America their interlocutors often “refute” the charge by insisting that the accuser demonstrate the existence here and now of ALL known tropes of the “distant” version of the social plague.

When he cannot, they summarily declare our society free of the disease and go back to whatever it was they were doing.

“Yes, I know that habeas corpus is gone, that the officer class in the military is more loyal to the own caste and the Republican party than the Constitution, that there is an incestuous alliance between big business and government, that systemic critiques of the nation’s core foreign policy goals are not tolerated within mainstream political discourse, that spying and informing on innocent citizens is rampant, that there is a small army of intelligence operatives carrying out “patriotic” missions that will never be subject to any public scrutiny never mind public sanction, that clearly illegal acts or torture and domestic espionage have  been retroactively immunized by congress with the full complicity of both parties, that the president is now openly murdering US citizens,  but there are still no jackboots in the streets!

Imagine if your physician worked this way? “Yes, though you have 8 of the 10 attributes associated with this dangerous disease, we’re only going to concentrate on the 2 symptoms you don’t have and give you full medical clearance!"

For those truly interested in pursuing an analytical approach to the question, there are tools available. The historian Robert Paxton has given us a splendid start with his Anatomy of Fascism. In it, he describes fascism as “A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.'' Lawrence Britt has also provided a useful framing device with his succinct “Fourteen Defining Characteristics Of Fascism”.

So the next time you want to bring up the subject of fascism, cut to the quick. Instead of letting your friend lead you on an intellectual scavenger hunt whose only real purpose is to rule out the possibility that the disease might be present among us, put the onus him or her. 

Ask instead how, in the light of Paxton’s and Britt’s definitions, the US isn’t a fascist society?  If nothing else, the results of the conversation are likely to be far more instructive than the usual self-congratulatory avoidance we usually get on the question in these latitudes.

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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