But it's not concentration camps or killing fields that define fascism.
Yale philosopher Jason Stanley offers an updated and somewhat expansive definition of fascism. He contends that fascism isn't so much an ideology as a technique.
I think of fascism as a method of politics. It’s a rhetoric, a way of running for power. Of course, that’s connected to fascist ideology, because fascist ideology centers on power. But I really see fascism as a technique to gain power.
People are always asking, “Is such-and-such politician really a fascist?” Which is really just another way of asking if this person has a particular set of beliefs or an ideology, but again, I don’t really think of a fascist as someone who holds a set of beliefs. They’re using a certain technique to acquire and retain power.
Stanley rejects the right wing claim that fascism is at the heart of nanny-state liberalism.
If you think about fascism as a sliding scale, ordinary conservative politics is going to find itself somewhere on that scale — which is not to say that it’s fascist at all, any more than ordinary Democratic politics is communist. But just as extreme versions of communism suppress liberty on behalf of radical equality, so too do extreme versions of right-wing politics, namely fascism, suppress liberty in favor of tradition and dominance and power.
Calling George Orwell. Calling Mr. Orwell.
In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.
This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.
The Ultimate Weapon - the Destruction of Truth
It’s important because truth is the heart of liberal democracy. The two ideals of liberal democracy are liberty and equality. If your belief system is shot through with lies, you’re not free. Nobody thinks of the citizens of North Korea as free, because their actions are controlled by lies.
Truth is required to act freely. Freedom requires knowledge, and in order to act freely in the world, you need to know what the world is and know what you’re doing. You only know what you’re doing if you have access to the truth. So freedom requires truth, and so to smash freedom you must smash truth.
Does This Sound Familiar?
Part of what fascist politics does is get people to disassociate from reality. You get them to sign on to this fantasy version of reality, usually a nationalist narrative about the decline of the country and the need for a strong leader to return it to greatness, and from then on their anchor isn’t the world around them — it’s the leader.
... I think the current movement of leaders who use these techniques (Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, to name a few) all seek to keep the trappings of democratic institutions, but their goal is to reorient them around their own cult of personality.
Again, I wouldn’t claim — not yet, at least — that Trump is presiding over a fascist government, but he is very clearly using fascist techniques to excite his base and erode liberal democratic institutions, and that’s very troubling.
But the blame there is as much on the Republican Party as it is on Trump, because none of this would matter if they were willing to check Trump. So far, they’ve chosen loyalty to Trump over loyalty to rule of law.
Stanley's Call for Action.
We should heed the warning of the poem on the side of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which says, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not Jewish. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” At a certain point it’s too late.
We learned first from that poem who the targets are. The targets are leftists, minorities, labor unions, and anyone or any institution that isn’t glorified in the fascist narrative. And even if you’re not in any of those groups, you have to protect those who are, and you have to protect them from the very beginning. Simple acts of courage early on will save you impossible acts of courage later.