How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

Jason Stanley is a philosophy professor at Yale. He previously published a book called How Propaganda Works. His new book is a guidebook to fascism. He doesn’t spend much time on its history. His purpose is to explain how fascism and similar approaches to politics work.

The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them”, based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and no “them”, and supported by a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or “social justice”, and are out to destroy our culture … and make “us” weak. “We” are industrious and law-abiding … “they” are lazy, perverse, corrupt and decadent [188].

Among the mechanisms Stanley cites are: the idea that some kinds of people are inherently better than others; the creation of a mythic past; the widespread use of propaganda; the promotion of conspiracy theories; the use of contradictory statements to demonstrate power and obscure reality; anti-intellectualism; encouraging feelings of victimhood among the majority population; the celebration of law and order and military might; and respect for “traditional family values”.

Stanley doesn’t spend much time on the economic aspects of fascism, except for fascism’s general opposition to labor unions. Perhaps it’s enough to say that fascist leaders are authoritarians and wield extraordinary power over economic affairs. One possible problem with the book is that his use of contemporary examples may suggest that there is no significant difference between fascism and contemporary conservatism (or whatever we should call the reactionary politics of today’s Republican Party). His point, however, is that contemporary “conservatives”, in particular the current occupant of the White House, exhibit behavior that matches many of the distinctive behaviors of history’s best-known fascists.

Finally, one aspect of fascism that sets it apart is what Stanley calls the “Führer Principle”:

The father, in fascist ideology, is the leader of the family; the CEO is the leader of the business; the authoritarian leader is the father or CEO of the state. When voters in a democratic society yearn for a CEO as president, they are responding to their own implicit fascist impulses.

The pull of fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies human existence, gives us an object, a “them” whose supposed [defects highlight] our own virtue and discipline, encourages us t oidentify with a forceful leader who helps usmakese sense of the world, whose bluntness regarding the “undeserving” people in the world is refreshing…. If the CEO is tough-talking and cares little for democratic institutions, even denigrates them, so much the better. Fascist politics preys on the human frailty that makes our own suffering seem bearable if we know that those we look down upon are being made to suffer more [183].

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Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change….

More at Whereof One Can Speak.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Our President

Putin is a thug who has his opponents and critics jailed and murdered. He annexed Crimea. He interferes in elections, contributes to war crimes and has stolen millions, probably billions, from the Russian people. This is him arriving at a ceremony in France attended by our president and foreign leaders.

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Meanwhile, the global, man-made phenomenon that our president says is a hoax gets worse every year. Among the results: California has never had such terrible fires.

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Your Free, Zero-Calorie Post-Midterm Election Update

If you watched news reports on Tuesday night, you may have gotten the impression that the Democrats had a somewhat disappointing election. You may have gotten the same impression if you read reactions from some of our best-known journalists on Wednesday morning. Quoting Dan Rather:

I’ve noticed some confusion about how elections work. People vote on (and now often before) Election Day. And those votes are counted. All of them. Sometimes it takes a while. Then, and only then, you know who won.

From Jennifer Rubin’s “Three Days Later, Hey, the Republicans Really Did Get Clobbered”:

It turns out the 2018 midterm elections were pretty much a rout. Counting all the votes makes all the difference in the world.

In the House, as of this writing, the Democratic gains are up to 30 with about five more races still to be called — in which Democrats are leading. A gain of 35 seats would be the largest House pickup for Democrats since the first post-Watergate midterm election in 1974.

The Democrats picked up seven governorships, with Stacey Abrams, as of now, still fighting to make it to a runoff in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum trailing by 0.4 percentage points, enough to trigger a recount in Florida.

In the Senate, Democrats may not quite have pulled off an inside straight, but they had two aces — in Nevada and Arizona. With 26 seats to defend, many in red states, it now looks as if their losses will be small. Democrats won in Nevada and are now poised to pick up a seat in Arizona. In the latter, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema surged into the lead as additional Maricopa County ballots were counted.

Meanwhile, Democrats have an outside chance to hold on to Florida. There, Republican Gov. Rick Scott leads by only 0.2 percentage points over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. If Sinema and Nelson win, Republicans, in a year with the most favorable map in recent history, would pick up only a net of one seat (52 to 48); if Sinema wins but Nelson doesn’t, Republicans would only eke out a net gain of two seats (53 to 47). That’s simply remarkable considering they had to defend incumbents in the following states Trump won, in some cases by double digits: Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Montana, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. As conservative Quin Hillyer put it, one would reasonably expect “Republicans on this map, in this economy . . .  [to gain] at least five seats, with six or seven more likely than three or four.”

Simply because Trump [and other observers] did not see all these losses on Election Night does not make them any less real or consequential for Republicans. Put differently, outside the deepest-red enclaves, Republicans took a beating up and down the ballot.

… States also passed ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, to expand voting [and Medicaid] access and to legalize marijuana; you have to wonder whether Trump and his ilk realize they are in retreat politically and policy-wise.

From her “The Real ‘Real’ America”:

For over two years, Trump and his Fox News helpmates have perpetrated the fraud that only they are the voice of “the people.” That’s what authoritarian regimes and their followers always say. Trump spent two years talking almost exclusively to and for his core group. Sure enough, he can get them out to vote in Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina. But they aren’t a majority of voters nationwide; not even close. His demagoguery, lies, cruelty and incompetence — what his supporters ignore or even relish (he’s our liar!) — the majority, a large majority, of equally real Americans despises.

The 2018 midterm elections are a reminder that presidents and parties have to talk to the whole country. The midterms are also a lesson that victimology only goes so far.

There are true victims in America — opioid addicts, gun victims, sexual assault survivors, cancer patients, victims of police misconduct, children without stable homes. The 70-year-old white male in the top 10 percent of income earners isn’t a victim, no matter what Sean Hannity tells him. You’re not a victim if someone tells you “Happy Holidays” or you hear a “Press 2 for Spanish” option on the phone. You’re not a victim if more and more Americans don’t “look like you”; looking like you has never been a qualification for citizenship. You’re not a victim if gays marry or transgender kids get to use the restroom of their choice at school. The price of living — the requirement of living — in a diverse democracy is tolerance, self-discipline, civility and a minimal amount of civic comprehension.

If Tuesday was about anything, it was a restatement that no American is more real than another. Yes, the majority of Americans are decent, tolerant, fair-minded people, and no one should sink into self-pity and grievance based on their inability to dominate the culture, economy and politics. We are all in this together; we deserve leaders who understand that.

Ballots are still being counted from California to Florida despite Republican efforts to interfere. The Five Thirty Eight site now projects the Democrats will have gained 37 seats in the House. That’s enough to begin restoring sanity when the new Congress convenes in January.

The “Caravan” That Made It All the Way to Pittsburgh (8 Days)

If you’re wondering how it happened, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic explains how the president’s hysterical response to a group of Central Americans seeking asylum in the US led to eleven people being murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It’s a sad but familiar example of how right-wing nonsense is spread through the usual channels and then poisons the reality-based media as well:

Much of the mainstream press abetted Trump’s effort to make the midterm election a referendum on the caravan. Popular news podcasts devoted entire episodes to the caravan. It remained on the front pages of major media websites. It was an overwhelming topic of conversation on cable news, where Trumpists freely spread disinformation about the threat the migrants posed, while news anchors displayed exasperation over their false claims, only to invite them back on the next day’s newscast to do it all over again.

In reality, the caravan was thousands of miles and weeks away from the U.S. border, shrinking in size, and unlikely to reach the U.S. before the election. If the migrants reach the U.S., they have the right under U.S. law to apply for asylum at a port of entry. If their claims are not accepted, they will be turned away. There is no national emergency, there is no ominous threat. There is only a group of desperate people looking for a better life, who have a right to request asylum in the United States, and have no right to stay if their claims are rejected. Trump is reportedly aware that his claims about the caravan are false. An administration official told the Daily Beast simply, “it doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate … this is the play.” The “play” was to demonize vulnerable people with falsehoods in order to frighten Trump’s base to the polls.

Nevertheless, some took the claims of the president and his allies seriously. On Saturday morning, Shabbat morning, a gunman walked into  the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people. The massacre capped off a week of terrorism, in which one man mailed bombs to nearly a dozen Trump critics, and another killed two black people in a grocery store after failing to force his way into a black church

Prior to committing the Tree of Life massacre, the shooter, who blamed Jews for the caravan of “invaders” and who raged about it on social media, made it clear that he was furious [with] a Jewish group that helps resettle refugees in the United States. He shared posts on … a social-media site, expressing alarm at the sight of “massive human caravans of young men from Honduras and El Salvador invading America thru our unsecured southern border.” And then he wrote, “[the Jewish group] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in”.

Mr. Serwer points out that “the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture’.” He concludes:

The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread, and that his followers chose to amplify.

As for those who aided the president in his propaganda campaign, who enabled him to prey on racist fears to fabricate a national emergency, those who said to themselves, “This is the play”? Every single one of them bears some responsibility for what followed. Their condemnations of anti-Semitism are meaningless. Their thoughts and prayers are worthless. Their condolences are irrelevant. They can never undo what they have done, and what they have done will never be forgotten.  

Note: Two days after this latest massacre, the same right-wingers are portraying the “caravan” as a major threat to America.

Help put a stop to this. Vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in next week’s election.