Is America Undergoing a Fascist Collapse?
What Americans Still Haven’t Learned About How Democracies
Here’s what happened in America today. The President (after admiring one of the world’s dictators) announced that he would build camps in which to imprison little children forcibly separated from their parents.
Perhaps that makes your blood run cold. Or maybe not. Don’t worry — that’ll happen by the end of this essay, I promise.
Here is the textbook definition of a concentration camp: “a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc.” But funnily, foolishly, and strangely, American media, never noted for its intelligence or bravery, started referring to these as “tent cities” and “prison camps”. They are no such thing. Here we have one of the bona fide, genuine, historical red alert indicators of a fascist collapse — the rise of concentration camps. Are there others? I know — it’s a scary word. A thing no one wants to be. And yet, hiding from reality is no way to escape it. So let’s consider the (other) key indicators of a democracy collapsing into fascism, one by one — and you be the judge.
There is rhetorical dehumanization — the scapegoating of minorities, the vulnerable, immigrants, and anyone different. But not just by anyone — by the heads of political parties, by those in charge of institutions, by the head of state himself.
But dehumanization is not just a rhetorical maneuver. It is also an act — which we call the erosion or stripping away of basic human rights. When a nation puts kids separated from their parents in cages, is that an act of dehumanization, of denying the most basic rights to the most vulnerable people? If it isn’t — would you like it to happen to your kids?
There is the building of parallel, often militarized, institutions. What should be a Department of Immigration becomes something more like a Gestapo. What should be a Border Patrol becomes something more like a Stasi. When uniformed immigration policemen are raiding entire towns, and separating kids from parents, would you say that such institutions have already visibly been constructed?
There is the infiltration of institutions by supremacists, extremists, and nationalists. Right up to the very top of a society’s power structures. Who then use those power structures to spread propaganda and misinformation, to attack the rule of law, to thwart all opposition by any means necessary, to spread hate, spite, fear, and rage. But wasn’t that the last two years in American history?
Then there is the delegitimization of democratic institutions, at home and abroad. When the press is attacked as an enemy, when government posts are left unfilled, when the rule of law is obviously flouted at every turn, when nepotism and favoritism reign, then democracy itself is delegitimized.
There is the proud shaking of hands with other demagogues, authoritarians, and despots — but the angry, vehement, bitter rejection of constitutionally free nations. When a President scorns France, Germany, and Britain — but admires Russia, North Korea, and Turkey, would you say that meets such a bar?
There are appeals to purity, to a declining country’s dwindling prosperity belonging only to a “real” person, who is pure of blood or tribe or soil — which means, of course, others are not people at all. And so plans for policies like “denaturalization”, or the stripping away of citizenship, which mark the point of no return for a democracy, begin.
And there is the idea that the leader himself is the greatest and strongest one of all, above and beyond criticism — as are his underlings. That he does not need to obey norms, rules, or codes — but can transgress them, violate them, flout them. Should he be criticized, the response is not reason, logic, or argument — but fury, rage, propaganda, and vendetta.
Would you say all those are already visible in America today? Not just sometimes — but, at this point, multiple times a day? Again, you are the judge.
But we haven’t gotten to the meat of the issue yet. The above are just dry political indicators of fascist collapse. But they don’t get to the root of what fascism really is, what it means in a historical, philosophical, and psychological sense.
I am going to put it very simply. Fascism is the opposite of all that we should hold closest of all as civilized, enlightened, and reasoned people. It is just that simple — and just that lethal. Why?
The fundamental fascist belief is that some people are born better than others — but in a perverse way. Two key words. Born, better. Let’s start with the first. Not “better” as in “going to cure cancer” or “going to write a great book”, but better as in more vicious, ruthless, and cruel — more capable of dominating the weak. Born — domination is in the blood, and hence, the weak are impure, biologically, genetically, racially, tribally. And so those two words, “born better”, rule out democracy, civilization, reason, justice, and freedom (not to mention humanity, but I digress).
Now. Fascism was born from Nietzscheanism for precisely this reason, because the thrust of his philosophy was that the strong must dominate the weak, to prove that they are the most powerful, because power is the sole end of life, the only thing a human being can “will”, and therefore, the only just society is one in which the weak are abused, ruined, discarded, perhaps even enslaved, ruined, ravaged, and murdered, by the most willfully inhumane.
So the fascist society — which can’t be a democracy, remember — becomes one giant authoritarian exercise is seeing just who these people that are “born better” really are. Who among them is the most cunning, vicious, and ruthless predators of all, the Nietzschean uberman, who can dominate the weak the most savagely? It usually begins like this: can they exploit the weak, the alien, the immigrant, the foreigner, the disabled? Take their wealth and belongings? Kick and punch them down? But it’s a contest now. Who will go further? Soon enough, there is someone willing to put the weak in ghettoes. Then to split up families. Then to put children in camps. And then the unthinkable happens.
That is how good people are made bad, just as they were in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or the Rwandan genocide. All these are examples of fascism, too, though we don’t often think of them that way.
Now. Already you probably rebel a little, and think I am very, very wrong. That is because American thinking has taught you for too long that, yes, obivously, some people are born better than others. How else would society work? Isn’t that what the point of life is? First, of course, it was whites over blacks. Then it was men over women. Then it was rich over poor. Then it was urban over rural, professional over working class. Or maybe it was all these at once, and it still is.
That is why the Nazis looked to America— yes, really — for inspiration, for orientation, for guidance, about how to put their foolish ideas into practice. Because the fundamental belief that they held was already at work, long before they held, in this country that would later defeat them. And yet it tells us how ironic, how complex, and strange history is — and how little we understand it, too.
To be a civilized, enlightened, reasoned person begins with precisely the opposite belief. No one is born better than anyone else, and none of us are born to be predators. Not a single one of us. I do not know if you will be tomorrow’s Einstein, and you do not know if I will be tomorrow’s Jonas Salk — yet neither of those are any more inherently worthy, really, than a humble nurse or teacher or carpenter, all of whom are necessary for Einsteins and Salks to come to be at all. Hence, we must respect one another, invest in one another, bond with one another, do the hard work of coexisting with one another. America has never really arrived at this point, if you ask me — not fully. And that is why it was so easy for it to have the fascist collapse it is having now — if that, is by now, you believe it may just be having one.
Here is what I think. While Americans have some sense things are going badly wrong, because, among other reasons, their media, intellectuals, and thinkers refuse to name things for what they are, I also think they don’t quite understand: America is now beginning to undergo a classic fascist collapse. The kind that they will teach in the history books of the future, if it goes on even for another year or two. Concentration camps are one sign. But the others are there, too. And yet the biggest sign of all isn’t a social indicator, but a fatally mistaken idea. One which I bet you yourself still even probably believe a little bit, deep down: some people are born better than others. Once a society believes that, even if it doesn’t know it, democracy collapsing into fascism is only ever a demagogue away.
Ah, you see? Remember when I said I’d make your blood run cold?
June 2018 (N.B. This is a bit dated, but it's the same problem.