Bob Dylan is as much a stand-up comic as he is a poet, and that was especially true at the beginning of his career. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the early Sixties traded equally in overwrought sincerity and impish topical sarcasm. Dylan was a master of both.
One of Dylan’s signature moves was skewering the diffuse paranoia of the time by lending articulation to the logic of a situation. Sometimes opinions seem respectable only because they haven’t been coherently expressed. A great example is Dylan’s “John Birch Paranoid Blues,” in which he dons the persona of a petrified American searching for communists from the comfort of his living room. In his gauzy paranoia, everyone becomes suspect: Eisenhower, Betsy Ross, the mailman. The tensile strength of the very definition of “communist” is itself distended to include, not just people who are definitely not communists, but a sort of spectral force responsible for all of his woes. The TV shocks him. The “reds” did it.
Half a century later, the humor of this muddy, paranoid thinking persists, albeit in reverse political polarity. In the most recent season of the television show Broad City, for example, a character blames subway problems and bad cell phone service on our new post-Trump fascist state. And in a less humorously self-deprecating example, people are actually afraid of their potentially fascist plumbers. The list goes on. The term “fascism” has become completely unmoored from any usefully coherent definition and so diffuse as to be simultaneously everything and nothing. A look. A word. An inclination. A spectral force burrowed inside of the most innocuous day-to-day encounters. To paraphrase Dylan, something deep down in our toilet bowl that “got away.” Or, according to the ur-text of fascist paranoia, the 1941 Harper’s “Who Goes Nazi?” by Dorothy Thompson, the annoying personality quirks of partygoers.
To be fair, “Who Goes Nazi?” is, in many ways, a great essay written by an admirable woman. To say that Dorothy Thompson was ahead of her time would be misleading. She was, of course, but she was also very much of her time—behind it, outflanking it, and surrounding it from all directions at once as a kind of grand journalistic force of nature. In 1939, Time magazine called her one of the most influential women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt. And she had the distinct honor of being the first American journalist to be kicked out of Nazi Germany in 1934. All throughout the Thirties, as one of the few women radio broadcasters in the world, Thompson doggedly tracked the rise of the Nazi party and the disintegration of Germany into a totalitarian fascist state, often in the face of widespread disbelief about the seriousness of the threat that the National Socialists posed to world peace. So if anyone was qualified to write a playful, almost subversively glib article about spotting fascists in the wild, it was Thompson.
The problem with “Who Goes Nazi?” isn’t Thompson’s anti-Nazi bona fides, but the almost mystical sense by which she claims to be able to sense fascism. She begins the essay with an authoritative but conversational conviviality that compels with a sort of world-weary wisdom: “It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.” She’s seen it all and so knows the types, which she takes us through one by one, moving through the fictitious cocktail party with the deft hand of a writer of fiction. Which, of course, this is. The essay isn’t reporting; it’s speculation, a kind of amalgamation of personal experience, imagination, and idiosyncratic perspective projected into a fictional setting. It could have just as easily been a short story or the outline of a novel.
So, to skip the heart of it, who DOES go Nazi? Well, in Thompson’s “macabre parlor game,” it’s all reduced to a matter of personality. And as if that isn’t simple enough, it’s always the people who are the most pleasant to sip cocktails with who successfully resist Nazification: “Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes—you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis. Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.”
That’s partially true, of course. Adherence to fascist ideologies doesn’t have anything to do with race, color, or social condition. But political philosophy is, specifically, a kind of creed, a set of beliefs that define and give meaning to action. And to unmoor political beliefs from politics and instead attach them to things as altogether unrelated as fleeting impressions at a cocktail party is, to understate it, misguided.
Thompson wasn’t the first to muddy the logic of political identity, of course. And she certainly didn’t bring any broad philosophical grounding to her project, like Erich Fromm or Herbert Marcuse did. But “Who Goes Nazi?” is probably the best example, in its popular idiom, of the unmooring of political identity from politics and transposing them instead, usually sloppily, on certain aspects of personality or character. Diluted into a casual insult, the word has been used to describe anything from faith-based government initiatives to national sovereignty to Super Bowl commercials. And if the term simply means “things that I don’t like,” then it doesn’t actually mean much at all.
The lazy solipsism of using the word “fascist” to mean simultaneously anything and nothing is, of course, a major problem when it comes to discourse. It doesn’t help that the actual definition of “fascism” is contentious, more of a field of meaning than a catechism, but that field itself should ideally be partitioned off from concepts such as “jerk” or “conservative” or “farmer” in order to stave off catastrophic semantic drift. To be useful, the definition should be deeply grounded in historical and political specificity, lest we come to believe that what made the Nazis fascist was their rude demeanor or failure to vote for Hillary Clinton.
But the temptation to use “fascist” as a free-floating signifier is easy to understand. Make it into a magic bullet and you no longer have to actually analyze anyone else’s arguments—or vigorously and coherently express your own. You can instead engage in something close to what Thomas Chatterton Williams calls “morality-through-being.” Your enemies are no longer your enemies because they’re fascist, but fascist because they’re your enemies. Because of who they are, not their actual ideologies.
No discussion of clear meaning in political language would be complete without at least a passing reference to Orwell. He was perhaps the first to notice the degradation of the word “fascist” into “a swearword” in his 1944 essay “What is Fascism?” a title that promises an imminently more useful clarity than cocktail party predictions based on casual social observations. Orwell ends his short essay by writing that he’d seen the term applied to “farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bullfighting…Kipling, Gandhi, Chaing Kai-Shek, homosexuality…Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs… .” And yet there did seem to be some hidden meaning buried underneath the wild variety of uses, especially when the word was employed as a talisman to charge an opinion with robust emotional sentiment. He writes that “By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working class…almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.”
Orwell could have been writing a rebuttal to Thompson’s essay, or any number of contemporary versions of “Who Goes Nazi?” When people use the term, it’s usually because “fascist” is weightier than “crypto-jerk,” “creeping boorishness,” or “asshole tendencies.” It’s usually manipulative, and almost always woolly. Its misuse is not, however, fascist.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.