How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us vs. Them has the perfect title. There are many books about increasing authoritarianism and ethnonationalism around the world. We see this happening in Russia, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, the Phillippines, India, Brazil, and here in the United States. This global trend does not imply they all have the same ideology, but they all share similar practices. Stanley is not writing about what fascism is, but about how it works, how it aggregates and consolidates political power.
By focusing on practice rather than ideology, Stanley takes the fire out of those who insist labeling anything fascistic is extremist or who trot out Godwin’s law. Sure as the sunrise, if you mention fascism, someone will bring up Godwin’s Law which states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Mike Godwin, who coined the Internet’s most famous law, took the effort to remind us in a tweet and an op-ed that Godwin’s Law is not intended to stop such comparisons when they are appropriate.
Stanley identifies ten fascistic mechanisms that can be employed to build a movement and gain power. Many are rhetorical such as appealing to a mythical past. For example, “Make America Great Again” elides how not-great America was for many Americans. Propaganda is used to mask the true goals of the group. For example, claiming to run against corruption, to “drain the swamp” while organizing systemic corruption by putting the foxes in charge of the regulatory henhouses. Constant anti-intellectual attacks on the elite and well-educated such as a man with gold-plated toilets ranting about the elites. Creating unreality, regular and repeated lying such as claiming to protect preexisting conditions while joining a lawsuit to declare such protection unconstitutional. Endorsing hierarchy, not in the sense of meritocracy but of natural hierarchies such as White supremacy and increasing racial anxiety about loss of status. Another rhetorical ploy is Victimhood, for example, complaints about reverse racism or how it’s a scary time for boys. Law and Order combines fear-mongering to induce anxiety with promises to fix it. Fear-mongering about Black Americans has already induced Americans to accept the murder of unarmed men and mass incarceration. Sexual Anxiety is another kind of fear-mongering, most recently about LGBTIQ people, with ballot measures and bathroom bills, for example. Another broad fascistic trope is portraying cities as Sodom and Gomorrah. How many times have we heard politicians talk about New York or San Francisco values, but this goes back to our founders who privileged rural states over urban states for fear of the decadence of the cities. The tenth fascist practice is the belief in the worthy and the unworthy, or Arbeit Macht Frei. This includes stereotyping others as lazy and unworthy. Take the example of someone in Houston who receives FEMA money after Hurrican Harvey thinking the Americans in Puerto Rico don’t deserve help. It also includes attacks on labor unions through, for example, right-to-work laws.
How Fascism Works is not about what fascists believe, instead, it analyzes the strategies and practices that empower fascism. This can provide a stronger and more accurate analysis of current events. If you say Trump is a fascist, you can get trapped into debates about economic and political ideology, but if you say Trump uses fascist tactics to gain power, well, there is no doubt about that.
Taking this argument away from policy details and focusing on methods, new patterns emerge that show fascist tactics are used far more broadly than we might think. People who are not fascist may use fascist mechanisms to gain power. It also shows there have been fascistic strategies in play long before Trump. Some even precede fascism as a distinct ideology such as the use of propaganda or anti-intellectualism. What is frightening, though, is that all of these mechanisms are in obvious and sustained use today.