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‘Who Goes Nazi’ Now?

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,” [1] 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 [2]. The list goes on [3]. 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 [4] government initiatives to national sovereignty [5] to Super Bowl commercials [6]. 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 [7] 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.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "‘Who Goes Nazi’ Now?"

#1 Comment By Bob Roberts On October 12, 2017 @ 4:01 am

In addition to Bob Dylan’s John Birch song, there was the Chad Mitchell Trio’s amusing “John Birch Society Song”; not sure which was written first, but both appeared in the early ’60s.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2017 @ 4:13 am

“Its misuse is not, however, fascist.”

Laughing — maybe.

#3 Comment By connecticut farmer On October 12, 2017 @ 8:39 am

“Fascist”, like “equality”, is one of those words which is tossed about by people who are never asked to define with precision exactly what is meant by those words. Another example of what happens when the superficially educated assume the leavers of power.

#4 Comment By KingP On October 12, 2017 @ 9:54 am

Oh, I think there is still a useful and coherent definition of fascism, although it does require a bit of research after which the identification of its symptoms in the modern socio-political landscape can be quite sobering/scary.

Simply put, the classic Italian flavor of fascism espouses extreme nationalism with more than a hint of xenophobia. Great emphasis is placed on military strength (at the expense of diplomacy) along with an often ill-defined desire to reclaim a long-lost honor or dignity once associated with national identity. Irredentism is also a big deal, a longing to “reclaim what is rightly ours.”

Racism or racialism is not a necessary component but care is taken to identify true “patriots” while simultaneously demonizing various enemies of the state – both internal and external – seeking to destroy a united collective.

Capitalist activity is not discouraged, provided that economic activities are consistent with an autocratic agenda. Profits are often sacrificed in the service of providing an abundance of wartime materiel and populist propaganda. The concept of a “free” press is considered decadent, since all media (and artistic effort in general) should simply serve as messaging tools for the regime. Symbolism and display are considered key in creating a pseudo-religious and ritualistic approach to civic behavior.

Do I think there is a conscious effort to create and American fascio? Probably not. But I do find it alarming that there is apparently an sizeable and quite enthusiastic audience for this kind of thing.

#5 Comment By Robert Charron On October 12, 2017 @ 11:01 am

I believe that the hyper nationalists of this fair land would be prime candidates for “going Nazi.” Which does not give me comfort.

#6 Comment By beware the meek On October 12, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

The people who “go Nazi” are the same people who “go Communist” or “go PC” or “go” other things. Conformists. As long as they think they’re doing what most others do or find acceptable, or those they emulate, they’ll do almost anything, from Rosie the Riveter to making human lampshades and from getting a college degree to getting an abortion.

#7 Comment By TheIdiot On October 12, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

KingP (the one from Youngstown??) says:
Do I think there is a conscious effort to create and American fascio? Probably not. But I do find it alarming that there is apparently an sizeable and quite enthusiastic audience for this kind of thing.

Who do you put in this audience? Based on your description, both disgruntled sides could be called fascist. ‘Who Goes Nazi Now?’ Indeed!

#8 Comment By Howlvis On October 12, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

What KingP said.

#9 Comment By Leslie Jacobs On October 12, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

Do you think the author of this statement should be regarded as a fascist or a racist?

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.

Well, was this guy a fascist?

Who do you think this was who wrote this?

It was in fact written by Abraham Lincoln. THE race hero of the present media circus in America. Go look it up. I am sure that you can find the precise occasion.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

I am not sure I buy the press by some here that the key is nationalism.

Fascism can just as easily manifest itself in an ideology.

#11 Comment By KingP On October 12, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

– TheIdiot:

It’s not my description, just a Cliffnotes drivethru referencing a little Bakunin, Evola and even a bit of Il Duce himself. I’m very much a “don’t listen to me, go read it yourself” kind of guy.

#12 Comment By Tyro On October 14, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi.

This strikes me as wrong. The nice, go-along-to-get-along person who doesn’t want to make waves is the exact person who will be ok with his neighbors being carted away in boxcars. And totally fine with appropriating his farm land because, “well, what can you do? And I have a family to support.”

#13 Comment By polistra On October 15, 2017 @ 2:54 am

Isms are irrelevant. The important question is Who Goes Radical? And the answer to that question is well defined.

1. Adolescents are temporary radicals because Nature compels them to rebel against Mama and find a new herd. Leaders can weaponize this natural tendency, but it doesn’t last.

2. Adults become radicals when they do all the right things to get respect and status, and then get nothing… or even worse, get some respect and status and then lose it for no apparent reason. Bingo! Permanent radical.

The LOSS is what counts. The NEGATIVE DELTA creates rebellion.

When you start out poor and hopeless and remain poor, no radicalization.

#14 Comment By Tyro On October 15, 2017 @ 10:41 am

The question Thomas asked in 1941 was relevant for the time, but it wasn’t until after the war that we understood what the “correct” question was.

“Who goes Nazi” is a vaguely interesting question if you want to know who makes up the party leadership. But the existence of the Nazi party was much less of a problem than the fact that the Nazi party came to power and people followed their orders.

Asking yourself, “who would become a Nazi?” among the people you know doesn’t tell us anything about dangers we face in society because after WWII, it was clear that the horror the Nazis created was not a result of a few frustrated angry intellectuals, but the actions of the wide “respectable” rank and file people of Germany.

I really don’t care what drives people to be Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller or Kellyane Conway or Richard Spencer. I’m more interested in why your average engineer or schoolteacher will pull the level for an obvious dangerous lunatic as long as he has an “R” after his name and while they’ll mindlessly follow along with his bad ideas. Because they were the people perfectly happy to let the Nazis do what they did.

#15 Comment By David Naas On October 16, 2017 @ 10:53 am

The bow in Orwell’s direction is welcome.
And there’s Eric Hoffer’s dissection of The True Believer.
As for who goes “fascist”, may I remark the spectacle of “aitifa” black-shirted goon squads choosing who they shall assault for differing politics recalls Mussolini’s squadrismo more than anything to date. (Certainly more so than the polo-shirted tiki-torch bearing weekend preppie Nazis of Charlottesville infamy.)

#16 Comment By John R On October 16, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

Those who throw the terms ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ around are rarely able to define them with any amount of coherence or accuracy. To them, it just means ‘everything bad’. When asked to define such words, they simply use more labels, such as ‘racist’, ‘white supremacist’ ‘bigot’, or ‘xenophobe. They will ever actually debate the actual merits of their own ideology, or the drawbacks of their opponents’. If you’re not with them, then you’re the enemy (a Sith axiom).