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A Fascist America: How Close Are We?

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The idea that America is turning fascist has been popular on the Left for as long as I can remember: in the 1960s, when antiwar radicals raged against the Machine, this kind of hyperbole dominated campus political discourse and even made its way into the mainstream. When the radical Weather Underground went into ultra-Left meltdown and began issuing incoherent "communiquйs" to an indifferent American public, they invariably signed off by declaring: "Death to the fascist insect pig that preys on the life of the people!"

Such rhetoric, too overheated for American tastes, was quite obviously an exaggeration: America in the 1960s was no more "fascistic" than miniskirts, Hula Hoops, and the rhyming demagoguery of Spiro T. Agnew. Furthermore, we weren't even close to fascism, as the downfall of Richard M. Nixon made all too clear to whatever incipient authoritarians were nurtured at the breast of the GOP.

Back in those halcyon days, America was, in effect, practically immune from the fascist virus that had wreaked such havoc in Europe and Asia in previous decades: there was a kind of innocence, back then, that acted as a vaccine against this dreaded affliction. Fascism - the demonic offspring of war - was practically a stranger to American soil. After all, it had been a century since America had been a battleground, and the sense of invulnerability that is the hallmark of youth permeated our politics and culture. Nothing could hurt us: we were forever young. But as we moved into the new millennium, Americans acquired a sense of their own mortality: an acute awareness that we could be hurt, and badly. That is the legacy of 9/11.

Blessed with a double bulwark against foreign invasion - the Atlantic and Pacific oceans - America hasn't experienced the atomizing effects of large-scale military conflict on its soil since the Civil War. On that occasion, you'll remember, Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," nearly emancipated the U.S. government from the chains of the Constitution by shutting down newspapers, jailing his political opponents, and cutting a swathe of destruction through the South, which was occupied and treated like a conquered province years after Lee surrendered. He was the closest to a dictator that any American president has come - but George W. Bush may well surpass him, given the possibilities that now present themselves.

From the moment the twin towers were hit, the fascist seed began to germinate, to take root and grow. As the first shots of what the neocons call "World War IV" rang out, piercing the post-Cold War calm like a shriek straight out of Hell, the political and cultural climate underwent a huge shift: the country became, for the first time in the modern era, a hothouse conducive to the growth of a genuinely totalitarian tendency in American politics.

The events of 9/11 were an enormous defeat for the U.S., and it is precisely in these circumstances - the traumatic humbling of a power once considered mighty - that the fascist impulse begins to find its first expression. That, at any rate, is the historical experience of Germany, for example, where a defeated military machine regenerated itself on the strength of German resentment and lashed out at Europe once again. The terrible defeat of World War I, and the injustice of the peace, created in Weimar Germany the cradle of National Socialism: but in our own age, where everything is speeded up - by the Internet and the sheer momentum of the knowledge explosion - a single battle, and a single defeat, can have the same Weimarizing effect.

The Republican party's response to 9/11 was to push through the most repressive series of laws since the Alien and Sedition Acts, starting with the "PATRIOT Act" and its successors - making it possible for American citizens to be held without charges, without public evidence, without trial, and giving the federal government unprecedented powers to conduct surveillance of its own citizens. Secondly, Republicans began to typify all opposition to their warmaking and anti-civil liberties agenda as practically tantamount to treason. Congress, thoroughly intimidated, was silent: they supinely voted to give the president a blank check, and he is still filling in the amount...

The intellectual voices of American fascism began to be heard in the land before the first smoke had cleared from the stricken isle of Manhattan, as even some alleged "libertarians" began to advocate giving up traditional civil liberties all Americans once took for granted. "It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes," wrote "libertarian" columnist and Reason magazine contributing editor Cathy Young, "perhaps there are no true libertarians in times of terrorist attacks," she noted, as she defended government spying on Americans and denounced computer encryption technology as "scary." As much as Young's self-conception as a libertarian is the result of a misunderstanding, that infamous "anti-government" sentiment that used to permeate the GOP evaporated overnight. Lew Rockwell trenchantly labeled this phenomenon "red-state fascism," writing:

"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."

This worrisome shift in the ideology and tone of the conservative movement has also been noted by the economist and writer Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury, who points to the "brownshirting" of the American Right as a harbinger of the fascist mentality. I raised the same point in a column, and the discussion was taken up by Scott McConnell, editor of The American Conservative, in a thoughtful essay that appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of that magazine. My good friend Scott sounds a skeptical note:

"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."




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