Students of history inevitably think in terms of periods: the New Deal, McCarthyism, “the Sixties” (1964-1973), the NEP, the purge trials—all have their dates. Weimar, whose cultural excesses made effective propaganda for the Nazis, now seems like the antechamber to Nazism, though surely no Weimar figures perceived their time that way as they were living it. We may pretend to know what lies ahead, feigning certainty to score polemical points, but we never do.
Nonetheless, there are foreshadowings well worth noting. The last weeks of 2004 saw several explicit warnings from the antiwar Right about the coming of an American fascism. Paul Craig Roberts in these pages wrote of the “brownshirting” of American conservatism—a word that might not have surprised had it come from Michael Moore or Michael Lerner. But from a Hoover Institution senior fellow, former assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, and one-time Wall Street Journal editor, it was striking.
Several weeks later, Justin Raimondo, editor of the popular Antiwar.com website, wrote a column headlined, “Today’s Conservatives are Fascists.” Pointing to the justification of torture by conservative legal theorists, widespread support for a militaristic foreign policy, and a retrospective backing of Japanese internment during World War II, Raimondo raised the prospect of “fascism with a democratic face.” His fellow libertarian, Mises Institute president Lew Rockwell, wrote a year-end piece called “The Reality of Red State Fascism,” which claimed that “the most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism. Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state, particularly its military wing.”
I would argue that Rockwell—who makes the most systematic argument of the three—overstates the libertarian component of the 1994 Republican victory, which could just as readily be credited to heartland rejection of the ’60s cultural liberalism that came into office with the Clintons. And it is difficult to imagine any scenario, after 9/11, that would not lead to some expansion of federal power. The United States was suddenly at war, mobilizing to strike at a Taliban government on the other side of the world. The emergence of terrorism as the central security issue had to lead, at the very least, to increased domestic surveillance—of Muslim immigrants especially. War is the health of the state, as the libertarians helpfully remind us, but it doesn’t mean that war leads to fascism.
But Rockwell (and Roberts and Raimondo) is correct in drawing attention to a mood among some conservatives that is at least latently fascist. Rockwell describes a populist Right website that originally rallied for the impeachment of Bill Clinton as “hate-filled … advocating nuclear holocaust and mass bloodshed for more than a year now.” One of the biggest right-wing talk-radio hosts regularly calls for the mass destruction of Arab cities. Letters that come to this magazine from the pro-war Right leave no doubt that their writers would welcome the jailing of dissidents. And of course it’s not just us. When USA Today founder Al Neuharth wrote a column suggesting that American troops be brought home sooner rather than later, he was blown away by letters comparing him to Tokyo Rose and demanding that he be tried as a traitor. That mood, Rockwell notes, dwarfs anything that existed during the Cold War. “It celebrates the shedding of blood, and exhibits a maniacal love of the state. The new ideology of the red-state bourgeoisie seems to actually believe that the US is God marching on earth—not just godlike, but really serving as a proxy for God himself.”
The warnings from these three writers would have been significant even if they had not been complemented by what for me was the most striking straw in the wind. Earlier this month the New York Times published a profile of Fritz Stern, the now retired but still very active professor of history at Columbia University and one of my first and most significant mentors. I met Stern as an undergraduate in the spring of 1974. His lecture course on 20th-century Europe combined intellectual lucidity and passion in a way I had never imagined possible. It led me to graduate school, and if I later became diverted from academia into journalism, it was no fault of his. In grad school, I took his seminars and he sat on my orals and dissertation committee. As was likely the case for many of Stern’s students, I read sections of his books The Politics of Cultural Despair and The Failure of Illiberalism again and again in my early twenties, their phraseology becoming imbedded in my own consciousness.
Stern had emigrated from Germany as a child in 1938 and spent a career exploring how what may have been Europe’s most civilized country could have turned to barbarism. Central to his work was the notion that the readiness to abandon democracy has deep cultural roots in German soil and that many Europeans, not only Germans, yearned for the safeties and certainties of something like fascism well before the emergence of fascist parties. One could not come away from his classes without a sense of the fragility of democratic systems, a deep gratitude for their success in the Anglo-American world, and a wary belief that even here human nature and political circumstance could bring something else to the fore.
He is not a man of the Left. He would have been on the Right side of the spectrum of the Ivy League professoriat—seriously anticommunist, and an open and courageous opponent of university concessions to the “revolutionary students” of 1968. He might have described himself as a conservative social democrat, of the sort that might plausibly gravitate toward neoconservatism. An essay of his in Commentary in the mid-1970s drew my attention to the magazine for the first time.
But he did not go further in that direction, perhaps understanding something about the neocons that I missed at the time. One afternoon in the early 1980s, during a period when I was reading Commentary regularly and was beginning to write for it, he told me, clearly enjoying the pun, that my views had apparently “Kristolized.”
It is impossible to overstate my pleasure at being on the same side of the barricades with him today. That side is, of course, that of the antiwar movement; the side of a conservatism (or liberalism) that finds Bush’s policies reckless and absurd and the neoconservatives who inspire and implement them deluded and dangerous. In the past year, I had seen Stern’s letters to the editor in the Times (“Now the word ‘freedom’ has become a newly invoked justification for the occupation of a country that did not attack us, whose people have not greeted our soldiers as liberators. … The world knows that all manner of traditional rights associated with freedom are threatened in our own country. … The essential element of a democratic society—trust—has been weakened, as secrecy, mendacity and intimidation have become the hallmarks of this administration. … Now ‘freedom’ is being emptied of meaning and reduced to a slogan. But one doesn’t demean the concept without injuring the substance.”) In the profile of him in the Times, he sounds an alarm of the very phenomenon Roberts, Raimondo, and Rockwell are speaking about openly.
To an audience at the Leo Baeck Institute, on the occasion of receiving a prize from Germany’s foreign minister, Stern noted that Hitler had seen himself as “the instrument of providence” and fused his “racial dogma with Germanic Christianity.” This “pseudo–religious transfiguration of politics … largely ensured his success.” The Times’ Chris Hedges asked Stern about the parallels between Germany then and America now. He spoke of national mood—drawing on a lifetime of scholarship that saw fascism coming from below as much as imposed by elites above. “There was a longing in Europe for fascism before the name was ever invented… for a new authoritarianism with some kind of religious orientation and above all a greater communal belongingness. There are some similarities in the mood then and the mood now, although significant differences.”
This is characteristic Stern—measured and precise—but signals to me that the warning from the libertarians ought not be simply dismissed as rhetorical excess. I don’t think there are yet real fascists in the administration, but there is certainly now a constituency for them —hungry to bomb foreigners and smash those Americans who might object. And when there are constituencies, leaders may not be far behind. They could be propelled into power by a populace ever more frustrated that the imperialist war it has supported—generally for the most banal of patriotic reasons—cannot possibly end in victory. And so scapegoats are sought, and if we can’t bomb Arabs into submission, or the French, domestic critics of Bush will serve.
Stern points to the religious (and more explicitly Protestant) component in the rise of Nazism—but I don’t think the proto-fascist mood is strongest among the so-called Christian Right. The critical letters this magazine receives from self-identified evangelical Christians are almost always civil in tone; those from Christian Zionists may quote Scripture about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in ways that are maddeningly nonrational and indisputably pre-Enlightenment—but these are not the letters foaming with a hatred for those with the presumption to oppose George W. Bush’s wars for freedom and democracy. The genuinely devout are perhaps less inclined to see the United States as “God marching on earth.”
Secondly, it is necessary to distinguish between a sudden proliferation of fascist tendencies and an imminent danger. There may be, among some neocons and some more populist right-wingers, unmistakable antidemocratic tendencies. But America hasn’t yet experienced organized street violence against dissenters or a state that is willing—in an unambiguous fashion—to jail its critics. The administration certainly has its far Right ideologues—the Washington Post’s recent profile of Alberto Gonzales, whose memos are literally written for him by Cheney aide David Addington, provides striking evidence. But the Bush administration still seems more embarrassed than proud of its most authoritarian aspects. Gonzales takes some pains to present himself as an opponent of torture; hypocrisy in this realm is perhaps preferable to open contempt for international law and the Bill of Rights.
And yet the very fact that the f-word can be seriously raised in an American context is evidence enough that we have moved into a new period. The invasion of Iraq has put the possibility of the end to American democracy on the table and has empowered groups on the Right that would acquiesce to and in some cases welcome the suppression of core American freedoms. That would be the titanic irony of course, the mother of them all—that a war initiated under the pretense of spreading democracy would lead to its destruction in one of its very birthplaces. But as historians know, history is full of ironies.