Has The Threat of American Fascism Been Defeated?
Two of the columnists I pay attention to both recently addressed a topic I have also been pondering lately.
Are we now safe from an American version of fascism? Are American politics and governance stabilizing and less vulnerable to a far-right take-over? Or are we in our own version of Germany’s Weimar Republic, that is pre-Nazi Germany, with a democracy that is not nearly so safe or secure as we would like to think?
Tom Friedman and Ross Douthat both came at these questions this week from their own particular angles, Friedman’s more liberal and economic, Douthat’s more conservative and cultural. Here’s Friedman: “I hoped that once Joe Biden took charge my anxiety over how close we came to losing our democracy would soon fade. It hasn’t.”
Douthat explicitly raises the specter of Weimar, referencing the excellent series, “Babylon to Berlin,” which is set in Berlin in the Weimar era (available on Netflix). Here’s Douthat’s opening: “’I’ve said this before. And I’m telling you, I worry that I’m right. The right is going to pick a fascist within 10 to 20 years.’ That’s a quote from Jesse Kelly, a pugnacious right-wing talking head, on Tucker Carlson’s show last week.” (To underscore, this is not Douthat’s prediction. He’s quoting someone asserting it on Fox TV.)
Is our flirtation with an American variety of fascism over? Has it been beat back? Can we relax?
Neither Friedman nor Douthat think so.
Friedman argues that it all depends on whether Biden and the Democrats succeed and deliver on promises in ways that change the on-the-ground conditions for Americans, especially those left behind in recent decades. He argues for fueling entrepreneurs and for a government that “enables the private sector to deliver public goods.” Friedman: “The government makes new technologies more cost effective, and the private sector, spurred by ever-stronger standards, ‘makes them ubiquitous.'”
Empowering capitalism — Friedman’s hope — probably is not what the left-wing of the Democratic Party has in mind. Is it what Biden has in mind? His new infra-structure plan will be revealing on this score.
Douthat, for his part, considers the ways in which America in the 20’s resembles Germany a century ago. Two parallels are the extremes on both ends were stronger than the center. And information increasing morphed into propaganda. But he also notes the differences, including, this one: our economy, while wounded, is not nearly so weak or desperate as the German one of that era. Moreover, the right-leaning German military and industrial establishment, which Hitler coopted, does not have a parallel, with a few exceptions, in contemporary America.
To the latter point, both Friedman and Douthat agree that the current Trump dominated GOP, which Friedman terms “a dumpster fire,” is more likely to flame out than to rise up. Here’s Douthat: “Under Weimar’s conditions, the right’s radicalization threatened, and eventually delivered, the outright destruction of German liberalism and the German left. (And then much, much more destruction beyond that.)
“But under contemporary American conditions, further right-wing radicalization seem more likely to be a suicide weapon — a way for a weakened movement to instigate a period of crisis, maybe, but one that would probably only hasten its marginalization and defeat.” I hope that is right.
All that said, it remains a dangerous time, and we are foolish if we think we are out of the woods regarding some version of American fascism or authoritarianism.
As I’ve recently written here — and in agreement with Friedman — we need the Biden administration to succeed. It’s a fine balance. Biden has to go big enough to make a real difference, but without ceding to a “take-no-prisoners” agenda on the part of the left, particularly on culture war issues.
As for Douthat and Weimar, someone said “history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes.” An American fascism, which has long been a strain in our society and politics, would not look just like Hitler and the Nazis. It would look more like Trump with his distinctively American blend of hucksterism, scapegoating and the politics of resentment.
Remember that though Biden won the popular vote by some 8 million votes, if Trump had gotten a little more than another 40,000 votes in several states, it would have made the difference for him in gaining an electoral college win and second term. That’s a worrisome — no, terrifying — margin.