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Jason Stanley: There is no question that Mr. Trump is very high on the scale of fascism when it comes to his rhetoric.
MH: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan. Today, I think it’s time we talk about the F-word — Fascism. How worried should we be about the rise of fascism, and fascists, across the West but especially, especially, here in the United States, in an age of Trump? In an age of disregard for the law, for the facts, for the truth, for democracy itself?
JS: The lies have the function first of establishing your power over reality. You’re showing off to your supporters. ‘Who cares about the truth? I’m the guy.’ In conditions where people think everybody is lying, the person who openly lies is viewed as the most authentic candidate.
MH: That’s my guest today, Professor Jason Stanley, Yale University philosopher and author of the much-discussed recent book “How Fascism Works.” So, on today’s show, Donald Trump and the debate over fascism.
Fear-mongering about immigrants and people of color. Turning a blind eye towards and even inciting political violence from the far right. An overt embrace of white nationalism. Dismissing the legitimacy of judges, the media, the rule of law, even the constitution. Is it really any surprise that so many people these days are worried about a seeming drift towards fascism, yes, fascism, in the United States? Yes, I know. The word gets thrown around a lot, and sometimes carelessly. But in the case of Donald Trump, it’s way past time we talked in blunt terms about what we’re actually dealing with and where we’re heading. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Donald J. Trump: Nobody disobeys my orders.
MH: That was Trump responding to the Mueller report which says some of his staff tried to prevent him from obstructing justice by refusing to follow his diktats. “Nobody disobeys my orders.” Who talks like that? Or remember when Trump said he wished his people, i.e. Americans, were more like Kim Jong Un’s people, the poor citizens of North Korea.
DJT: He’s the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.
MH: In recent weeks, we’ve seen more and more evidence of Trump’s authoritarian, nationalistic and yes, maybe, fascistic tendencies. He’s bashed and smeared the free press, again, at a rally in Wisconsin.
DJT: Fake news. They’re fake. They are fake. They are fakers.
[Crowd chants “CNN sucks! CNN sucks!”]
DJT: I’ll tell you what sucks. Their ratings suck because people don’t believe them anymore.
MH: He made one inflammatory and false claim after another, including literally accusing his political opponents of killing babies.
DJT: The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby. I don’t think so.
MH: He’s been trying to run roughshod over Congress, a co-equal branch of government tasked with holding him to account.
Brianna Keilar: He’s trying to stop former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying. He’s refusing to release his taxes.
Newscaster: President Trump is going to court to try to block subpoenas for his financial records.
Brianna Keilar: Even telling a former White House official to ignore a subpoena.
MH: He’s retweeted fans of his suggesting that he be allowed to have an extra two years in office, God forbid, to compensate for the two years he supposedly lost as a result of the Mueller investigation. Yeah, screw those constitutionally-mandated term limits. In fact, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said over the weekend that she worries he won’t leave office next year without contesting the 2020 election result. It’s something I’ve written about before, something we have to take seriously, and even something Trump’s own former lawyer Michael Cohen said in front of Congress in February.
Michael Cohen: I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power. And this is why I agreed to appear before you today.
MH: But perhaps, for me, worst of all, most shockingly of all, the president of the United States spent last Saturday morning retweeting white nationalist conspiracy theorists and apologists for Nazis. Hate-filled nutcases like Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars. Infowars, the site that said 9/11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened, that the government makes frogs gay, I kid you not. And also retweeting nutcases like Lauren Southern, the Canadian far-right activist who has said this:
Lauren Southern: There was actually Jewish organization that backed up and egged on people to start the Canadian Nazi party because they wanted more like kind of, hate crimes to point out.
MH: That’s one of the far-right people who Trump retweeted and whose free speech he was so keen to defend. This is who Trump is!
MH: So, the big question then is: is the president of the United States your garden variety racist, nationalist, authoritarian, or is he something much, much worse? Much, much darker? Is he part of a fascist revival, both here in the U.S. and across the wider west? Is he making moves straight out of a fascist playbook? Well, I for one happen to think he kinda is, but what do I know? I’m just a journalist and commentator. It’s not like I’m some sort of historian or scholar of fascism. But you know who is? Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale, and author of the recent book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us And Them.”
Jason, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
JS: It’s wonderful to be here.
MH: Let’s start by defining our terms because people throw around all sorts of words when we talk about a subject like this. You are the author of an acclaimed recent book on fascism. How do you define fascism? What is it?
JS: So fascism is a philosophy based on social Darwinism. Think of Hitler’s book, the title is “My Struggle.” So, what he means by that is that value comes from winning in a struggle. Now, we’re familiar with non-fascist varieties of this think of Ayn Rand and economic libertarianism. You only have value if you’re a winner but fascism moves the individualist philosophy of libertarianism to the group and says, some groups have more value than others because of a glorious military past and great civilizational achievements.
MH: Is there a kind of — we live in a social media age. Everyone wants everything digestible. You’re an academic at Yale, but I’m going to ask you this question. Is there a kind of checklist of criteria, of factors that you have to kind of tick off before you can say this person, this party, this government, this country is fascist?
JS: There are. I break it down into ten points and I can go over those if you want.
MH: Give us the ten, if you can, off the top of your head.
JS: So the first is a mythic past. All conservatism involves looking back with rose-colored glasses. But fascist movements are a particular kind of looking back. You look back, your empire lost to liberalism and global weakness and you claim that in the past, your ethnic group was the greatest civilizational force the world has ever known.
MH: Mythic past.
JS: Two, propaganda. Things mean their opposite. Somebody runs against someone else, calling them corrupt, saying the system is corrupt when they’re obviously much more corrupt than what they’re running against.
JS: Number three, anti-intellectuals. Universities are attacked as bastions of leftist indoctrination. The marxists are running the universities.
MH: Number four.
JS: Number four, unreality. Democratic deliberation breaks down. You see conspiracy theories like birtherism on the rise. Number five, hierarchy. People say, you know equality is a myth. We’ve got to look at reality and see —
MH: Some people are better than others.
JS: Some people are better than others. Whites have just proven themselves civilizationally. Men just have different roles. Six, victimhood. The dominant group is under threat from immigrants and minority groups that are seeking to take away their dominant role. Number seven, how are they victims? The men of the minority group are criminals. They violate law and order. In fascist discourse, law and order just means the out-group men are violations of law and order by their nature. What kind of crimes do the out-group men do? They’re rapists. Number eight is sexual anxiety and also gay, LGBTQ attacks, transgender ideology. So, those are under attack. Chapter nine is called Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities are dens of iniquity. Crime runs rampant in the cities. Chapter two —
JS: Chicago. Chapter two of Mein Kampf in “My Time in Vienna” and it’s about how Vienna is overrun with foreigners and Jews, Jews, and more Jews. The real people come from the countryside. That’s where the real values are. Chapter 10, the final chapter is called “Arbeit Macht Frei”. That was emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz. What it means is work shall make you free. And underlying this is the social Darwinist philosophy that what you gives you value is hard work. And the idea in fascism is that certain groups just are hard workers and other groups are lazy. For instance, the Nazis regarded Jews as lazy which is why the gates of Auschwitz said work shall make you free.
MH: Thank you for that. So now, you don’t have to buy Jason Stanley’s book. You’ve got the — No, I’m kidding. Buy the book. It’s a great book, but now we’ve gone through that. Now, me and the people at home listening to this will hear all of those 10 things and say, “Hmm, that sounds very familiar.” So, I’ve got to ask you the $64,000 question. Is Donald Trump then, according to this 10 criteria that you lay out, a fascist?
JS: So when you say a fascist, you could be talking about different things. There is no question that Mr. Trump is very high on the scale of fascism when it comes to his rhetoric. Now, some people would say historically fascist movements were explicitly anti-democratic in a manner that Trump is not and indeed no American politician is. You wouldn’t have American politicians explicitly attacking democracy as Hitler did. But as Bertolt Brecht said in 1942, if fascism comes to the United States it will do so under the name of democracy. The democratic vocabulary in the United States is linked to our nationalist identity. I think Mr. Trump is very anti-democratic, but he’s not going to call for the end of democracy because it runs counter to his kind of nationalism.
MH: So, you said you’re not a historian when you talk about propaganda ideology. Some historians of fascism have argued that it’s unhelpful to call Trump a fascist and in doing so it reduces the word to a kind of a generic sweeping slur divorced from historical context. What do you say to them?
JS: Excellent. So, historians of fascism, some of them focus on the economic structure of states that call themselves fascist. My book doesn’t do that. It’s about fascist ideology and rhetoric. So, my first point is I will defend my history to the end on the overlap between the rhetoric we find in classic fascist movements and now. It’s ahistorical to think that fascism always means just bad. Stalin is not a fascist. But Stalin was bad and there were fascist movements that didn’t result in the Holocaust. We get this discussion with every concept. In art history, people will say impressionism is something you can only use for that certain several decade period. My response is so what? There are paintings that look exactly like impressionism today.
MH: So it’s kind of a reverse purity test. So, so Robert Paxton of Columbia, who you know wrote the book “The Anatomy of Fascism.” He’s an expert on fascism. He’s often quoted on the whole issue of Trump and fascism because he’s a critic of using that word in relation to Trump. He says the pre-war fascists in Europe “were in favor of totally overthrowing the existing Constitution, which was usually democratic, perceived as weak. This was wildly popular. We are not in that position today,” he says. But when I read that and I just heard you say it, isn’t that kind of naive in the sense that Trump’s obviously not going to say let’s get rid of the Constitution.
JS: It’s ahistorical. Paxton is a European historian and may not understand that the Constitution for us functions as a kind of holy mythic past. That’s part of our mythic past.
MH: Yes, good point.
JS: No other country fetishizes the Constitution like we do.
MH: I can assure you that’s true.
JS: It’s part of our ultra-nationalism. If you’re an American historian, you would say wow, look at this weird hyper-nationalist rhetoric that no politician can avoid mentioning.
MH: That’s a good point. And the other thing I just thought as I was going through your list. One thing you didn’t mention, unless I missed it, was violence because a lot of people talk about fascism and violence. What’s the relationship there?
JS: Beautiful. So, I would say that the two things that differentiate mid-20th century fascist movements from the current moment I would say are extrajudicial political violence, number one and number two, the motivation to use these tactics to disapproving it, by not explicitly disapproving it. That’s how it works. You just say, there were fine people on both sides. You don’t explicitly disapprove of people who might take the —
MH: Well, Trump explicitly approved it. It was during the campaign. He said I’ll pay your legal bills if you knock the crap out of those people, of his protesters.
JS: Precisely, that’s classic fascist rhetoric. With Mr. Trump or Prime Minister Orbán, we don’t often find explicit violent reprisals. We should worry about that changing.
MH: And that can change fast if the conditions move. What’s interesting about the violence point is when you went through your kind of, ten factors and ten criteria, almost all of them in some shape or form, you know, talking about the nature of work versus, you know, scroungers and cheats and some of the stuff about sexual anxiety, anti-intellectualism, you could argue that all of that applies to the Republican party and the conservative modern U.S. conservative movement as a whole. And Peter Beinart, who you know well, journalist, top critic of Donald Trump, he reviewed your book in The New York Times and one of the criticisms he made of you is can’t you apply a lot of the stuff you apply to Trump and say this is fascism to just mainstream conservatism?
JS: Yeah, the reason that’s an unfair criticism is that fascism is a continuous scale. So, every right wing political movement, fascism is on the farthest of the right. It’s going to overlap with it in certain ways. Social conservatism praises the rural countrysides. So, there’s going to be overlaps, but nobody should say Bernie Sanders is like Hugo Chavez because he overlaps with him on certain points.
MH: So just to just to drill down a bit more George W. Bush, two-term Republican president, very nationalist in his own way, launched the war on terror, Islamophobic in his own way, not domestically but abroad in terms of the enemy. He was a very conservative president. He was a very authoritarian president, brought in the Patriot Act, etcetera, etcetera. Take George Bush put him next to Donald Trump. When you apply the terminology of fascism, what is the difference between Bush and Trump?
JS: So, let me say a difference between my book and the crisis of democracy literature, which I largely can’t stand. The crisis of democracy literature acts like the United States was a stable liberal democracy until Trump. My book is the opposite of that. My book says look at all the fascist elements in our society.
MH: We’ve been building up to this.
JS: — Enabled the symptoms.
MH: I’m in your camp.
JS: Oh, yeah, I know you are. So this country, nine percent of the world’s prison population come from the 42 million Black Americans. I believe the only time history has ever repeated that was during the Holocaust. The Iraq war is a monstrous crime. When you have imperialism and you have grand failures of imperialism like the Iraq War, it leads to politicians who talk about the loss of empire and the tragedy of loss of empire. What you’re describing is the fascist script.
MH: So is it fair to say that what we’re talking about is more of a continuum, a spectrum?
JS: It’s a continuum and a spectrum but that’s not what I’m saying now. What I’m saying now is if you look at the Bush administration, you should have then been scared of the advent of fascism.
MH: It’s interesting because we had Naomi Wolf on the show a few months ago talking about Kavanaugh and we talked about some of this stuff as well. And Naomi’s point and people criticized her a lot at the time, I remember, she wrote a book about steps towards American fascism, I remember during or towards the end of the Bush presidency and a lot of that stuff does look very prescient now. At the time she was pilloried for it, but what you’re saying is actually they were laying the groundwork wittingly or unwittingly for a Trump.
JS: Right, so the empire point has been made in detail by Greg Grandin who had a piece during the campaign in The Nation called “It’s the Empire, Stupid.” Another factor that you find in Cesaire and other, in many theorists is if you vilify people elsewhere in a war, that’s always going to come back domestically and they’ll be vilified here. And the final point, probably the basis of my work is mass incarceration in the United States. Look at the Clintons. Look at the 90s when violent crime was rapidly dropping, criminologists knew this and yet did super predator theory and a host of horrific fascist tactics directed against our Black population.
MH: So, in terms of the historical precedents, in terms of where this stuff came from, you mentioned kind of, Paxton and Europe, when we talk about fascism in America, we’re not talking about some sort of foreign or European import. You believe, don’t you, that fascism in America has American underpinnings and American lineage?
JS: Yes, and no one would use the word fascism because it’s un-American to use the word fascism. It’s a foreign word. So, you wouldn’t use some fancy Eurotrash word to describe an American ideology. You would use American fascism is in common familiar tropes, as Sinclair Lewis said long ago.
MH: Yeah, didn’t Hitler also look towards U.S. treatment of Black folks?
JS: Absolutely, in my book “How Fascism Works,” I sketch this. Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” when he’s talking about the nation that he wants to build to replace it with a state, his model is the United States.
MH: A lot of people don’t realize that.
JS: So, he says the United States is creating a racial culture and a racial nation based around whites. He talks about the 1924 immigration act. But yes, he’s very influenced by the Antebellum South. His aim in Ukraine is to enslave the Ukrainian population and place them on large plantations owned by German citizens.
MH: What is the overlap between white nationalism, what we call white nationalism and what we call fascism? We’ve talked about overlaps. What’s the overlap there? Are they two distinct ideologies, or are they inextricably intertwined?
JS: It’s a great question. And I thought you were going to ask me this question. I get a little worried when people talk about white nationalism in the global context because it gives Israel a free pass because real white nationalists hate Jews. Now, they’re fine with, as Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto said —
MH: The New Zealand shooter.
JS: These New Zealand shooter’s manifesto says, Jews are fine as long as they stay in Israel. But we also have Hindu nationalism. So, fascism always involves something like white nationalism, but it doesn’t need to be white nationalism.
MH: It can be a Modi or a Netanyahu.
MH: Yeah, that’s a good point. But there is the overlap.
JS: Unquestionably and each of these instances of nationalism is going to take a particular structural form. So, if you want to look at Islamophobia, you have to talk about the Crusades. You have to talk about, you know, certain historical tropes. When you’re talking about Western European anti-Semitism you’re talking about globalists.
MH: The problem is political debate in the U.S. I find, it’s always year zero. You can’t go back to, you can’t even go back beyond 9/11, let alone the Crusades. That’s a very ambitious idea that people would go back and talk about history. Can you be a fascist without being a racist?
JS: Not on my definition of fascism. When you’re describing social reality, you’re introducing terms that you’re saying these are interesting ways to cut the world. So, the relationship with particular moments and historical time is always going to be vexed when you’re a philosopher making generalizations. So, you might say Mussolini didn’t have racism as central to his fascism, but everybody else did. So, I think, in my view of fascism —
MH: He was clearly racist separate to the fact that it wasn’t central to his mission. Just on the socio-economic side of this debate, a lot of fascists historically have been deeply skeptical, I think it’s fair to say of capitalism, of free markets —
JS: Some fascists.
MH: Okay, so let’s get into that. Right now, for example across Europe, you see what’s interesting is the fascist parties, the right-wing populist parties, by the way, what’s your take on the word populist?
JS: It’s vacuous and meaningless.
MH: Okay, good. So, some of these right-wing nativist, what are called populist parties, neo-fascist parties, the Marine Le Pen’s of this world, even the Geert Wilderses, Golden Dawn in Greece, they make lots of left-wing noises on the economy. They talk what public ownership, they talk about, you know, fair trade, they talk about wages. Even Donald Trump when he was running for president made some left noises about the economy and standing up to global elites. Although he’s governed as a conventional conservative in terms of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for corporations. How much does economics figure into the appeal and rise of fascism?
JS: Right, so my book is about, my book cleverly evades the question in some sense because it’s about politics and ideology. But it relates to it because ideology involves economic ideology. And one economic ideology is private businesses. So it’s absolutely true that there’s one historical side of fascism that sort of connects to we will get the chosen people of the nation help so they can raise traditional families and Father Coughlin in the United States, for instance. But insofar as there’s mechanisms like that, they’re geared just towards the chosen group, chosen racial group. On the other hand, Hitler was very, very clear about taking a different path, Hitler and Putin and Russia. The idea there — like Hitler in his speech to the industrialists in 1932 says look, you all run your companies like little fascist states. Our state is going to be like a corporation. We’ll let you do your thing and our state will be run by me. So, Nazi Germany had a thriving economic capitalist base. Russia doesn’t have the kind of state-run, you know, it’s just has oligarchs and a boss.
MH: I liked your point about the welfare for the chosen people because even when Donald Trump, we were being told by some on the left, you know, some people in the kind of, Bernie movement were saying, oh look Trump is saying similar stuff to Bernie. I wanted to tear my hair out and say no, Bernie’s offering this to everyone. Trump only wants is for “white working-class voters.” That’s why he always had the word white in front of working-class voters. He’s not interested in Black or Hispanic working-class voters.
JS: The terms that we’re seeing — It’s very important to read Black Reconstruction by W.E.B Dubois because I mean, he has a chapter in there called “A Poor White” and talks about the white worker. This is embedded in the history of the United States this kind of idea that the hard laborers who work hard, they’re the white workers. That’s our history.
MH: And just, we’ve talked a lot on this show and I’ve written a lot about this subject as well, about the whole debate about what drives these people towards authoritarian figures like Trump or Le Pen. Is it economic insecurity? Or is it racial resentment? The answer people always give to this, it’s both, which I find a lazy answer. But where do you kind of place more of the —
JS: One thing I am a historian of is the literature of fascism and you know, Wilhelm Reich’s book is great on this. I mean, he talks about — I mean, the material interests of many supporters of Trump run clearly counter to a lot of their ideological interests. Jonathan Metzl has a new book about this about how much whites suffer from enacting racist policies that are clearly not in their health interests, in their educational interests. Wilhelm Reich is good to read on this because he gives a psychoanalytic framework. I mean, it’s not just racism. It’s also patriarchy, machismo, a bunch of cultural factors are big time.
MH: This idea, there’s a lot of people you hear say, oh, well, if the economy tanks, then he’ll lose his working-class base. But it’s BS, the idea that you know, these people are coming out, looking at their pocketbooks and checkbooks. They like him because he is this charismatic authoritarian figure who’s going to give them their country back.
JS: Arlie Hochschild wrote a whole book about this. The whole book “Strangers In Our Own Land” is about how people willingly destroy their own homes to enact policies that they believe will hurt Black people more than them. So, it’s historically ignorant.
MH: Kick down, kiss up. Just before we finish and wrap up, you say what worries me is how we go forward, how we deal with this phenomenon. It’s one thing to identify obviously, that’s important, not being in denial about the “fascist threat” that we face, but you noted in a recent interview with Vox that “when you fight back against fascism, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back because the truth is messy and complex and the mythical story is always clear and compelling and entertaining. It’s hard to undercut with the facts.” Trump, more than any other politician I’ve come across in my lifetime, seems uniquely resistant to being undercut with facts.
JS: Yeah, he’s immune. I mean, there’s no kompromat on him. How could there be? It’s all out in the open. It’s remarkable sociologically what he’s done. You know, Arendt talks about this. These are again, the classic tropes, fascist politicians, leaders replace news by spectacle and so it’s all about spectacle. I have nothing — I’m a philosopher and I stick to my areas of expertise in my public work and making prognoses about the future and how to do activist movement building is not in the purview of my academic work.
MH: We talk about Trump being a liar, dishonest. The Washington Post fact-check has him up to, I think 9,000 falsehoods, lies, etcetera. We have a big debate about calling him a liar, which I find absurd, he’s blatantly a liar.
MH: But it’s much worse than that, isn’t it? When you read what people like Bannon and people around them are saying? This is not just lying to try and get away with something. This is a deliberate fascist tactic to undermine the very idea of truth, reason, independent facts—
JS: Yeah, the lies have the function first, of establishing your power over reality. You’re showing off to your supporters. Who cares about the truth? I’m the guy. Secondly, you spread hysteria about your opponents. So, you undermine the mainstream media to suggest that everyone is lying. In conditions where people think everyone is lying, the person who openly lies is viewed as the most authentic candidate.
MH: Last question, are you optimistic about the future in terms of defeating these fascist movements both at home and abroad? Or are you pessimistic based on your study of the subject?
JS: My whole life in the United States, I mean, I’ve lived through mass incarceration in the 90s where fellow citizens of mine were living in militarized neighborhoods, being arrested en masse, through the Iraq War, the financial crisis. I don’t know what people mean when they ask a question like, I mean, we need to go back and deal with the structural issues that enable what we see now.
MH: But are we going to? That’s my question. Do you see something in the politics says, okay, Trump, the silver lining of Trump maybe is that people have woken up to these underlying issues.
JS: I’m a philosophy professor who sticks to his area of expertise. So, I don’t answer questions like that.
MH: As someone who was a student of philosophy professors, I can tell you how frustrating that is to hear. Thank you, Jason Stanley for an excellent conversation. Appreciate it.
JS: Thank you. It was great.
MH: That was Jason Stanley sounding the alarm bell about the return of fascism and the use of, at minimum, fascist rhetoric by this president. And you don’t have to believe that Donald Trump is a card-carrying fascist, a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini — and on a side note, Trump has quoted Mussolini and kept a book of Hitler speeches by his bedside table. You don’t have to believe he’s a literal reincarnation of fascist dictators to recognize that he is taking us down a very dark, ultra-authoritarian and violent path. Some of you may not want to call it fascism, but whatever you call it, make sure you stand up against it. As 2020 approaches, it’s only going to get worse.
That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review. It helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much! See you next week.