Several years ago I was fortunate to sit in on a graduate Political Science class at UWM. The entire focus, even the title, of that class was Fascism. After a great deal of reading, research, and discussion, at the end of the semester we still did not have a definition of ‘fascism’. We asked the professor if he could give us a working definition. In essence, his answer was that fascism is “an apparatus that uses existing things to achieve its goals.”
For our purposes, apparatus can be thought of as a complex structure within an organization or system. Existing things can be institutions, organizations, societies, or people individually or as part of a group. A significant method by which these apparatuses insinuate themselves is frequently co-optation: defined by Merriam Webster as a taking over or appropriation of something for a new or different purpose. Robert Paxton, in his classic 1998 paper "The Five Stages of Fascism," suggests that fascism cannot be defined solely by its ideology, since fascism is a complex political phenomenon rather than a relatively coherent body of doctrine and that we should look to processes, not cosmetic features like flags and uniforms, to understand fascism.
The book, It Can’t Happen Here, released in the mid-thirties by renowned American author Sinclair Lewis, shows us how fascism can co-opt almost anything. In his story one of the first ‘things’ to fall was the Rotary, a service organization whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders in order to provide humanitarian service and to advance goodwill and peace around the world. Most people think of Rotary as fairly innocuous, but how they were co-opted was astonishing.
Roger Griffin, in his 1991 book The Nature of Fascism, tells us that Fascists seek to return to the past, to strengthen the nation by resurrecting it. Fascist leaders everywhere convince their followers that their nation had descended from a glorious heritage, hijacked and destroyed by a corrupt elite. Hmm: does Make America Great Again ring a bell?
Back in 2016, I wrote an article for this Newsletter which was a warning about the immanent encroachment of fascism. Now I write to shout, ‘IT IS HERE!’ Some examples:
- The danger of fascism lies in its ability to co-opt legitimate resentments and grievances resulting from perceived inequality and refashion them as hostility towards others. Think of cult-like adherence to conspiracy theories, groups like QAnon, willingness to believe what serious thought and logic would recognize as falsehood. Fascists consider their lies to be at the service of simple absolute truths, which are in fact bigger lies. Fascism at work.
- The methodical co-optation of the departments and agencies of government: DOJ, State, FDA, CDC and many others. All you have to do is read or listen to the news to become aware of what is being done on a daily basis. Fascism at work.
- Behavior of members of the GOP. Perhaps the most recent revealing instance of co-optation is the pseudo-platform from this year’s GOP Convention. Essentially, their political ideology has become to do whatever Trump wants. Fascism at work.
- And Mr. Trump himself. Is anybody fooled into thinking that all of these ‘ideas’ come from him? His singular focus is himself, leaving little time for generating policy. But this stuff has to be coming from somewhere. Mr. Trump, it would seem, is simply a feckless hand-puppet, parroting the propaganda provided by whoever is the puppet master. Again, fascism at work.
Perhaps the insidious nature of what has been happening has not been clear, but do not for one minute underestimate the potential for fascism and autocracy to win. Democracy is on the ropes, dangerously close to being down for the count. But it is not over. Let’s lace up our shoes and gloves, take a deep breath, engage in the battle for the soul of our country, and, by doing the really hard work that is necessary, emerge victorious.