The current debate about fascism in America has, thus far, centered on the definition. Many publications have been musing in the same direction: “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” (Slate, The New York Times), “Is Donald Trump an Actual Fascist?” (Vanity Fair), “Donald Trump and Fascism: Is He or Isn’t He?” (National Review), etc. People want to know what to call things and that’s understandable, but I’m not sure how useful this exercise is. Fascist is as fascist does, and by the time we can agree on the exact definition it may already be too late.
When I planned to write about ¡No Pasarán!, a new collection about the Spanish Civil War edited by Pete Ayrton, I thought there might be some good lessons in there about fascism. With the Trump campaign improbably continuing and the alt-right Nazi brand on the rise, many of us agree that a solid operational understanding of fascism is increasingly necessary. Whether or not the label applies to our present situation, I’m pretty sure it’s valid when talking about Generalissimo Francisco Franco of the Spanish Falange.
I figured I would outline the historical timeline, cite a couple historical curiosities, draw some ominous connections to the election, get a check, and move on. Instead, I got stuck on a couple anecdotes in one of the pieces, an excerpt of the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga’s book De Gernika a Guernica. The first is from the village of Fuenteguinaldo, and it happened in 1936 but wasn’t revealed publicly for 70 years:
“Apparently, the Falangists asked the priest to draw up a list of all the reds and atheists in the village … They went from house to house looking for them. At nine o’clock at night, they were taken to the prison in Ciudad Rodrigo, and at four o’clock in the morning, were told they were being released, but, at the door of the prison, a truck was waiting and, instead of taking them home, it brought them here to be killed.”
The second comes from the failed coup attempt in 1981:
“I was living in a village in Castille with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. I became friendly with a young socialist who was a local councillor. When I met him one day, he was looking positively distraught. He had just found out that in February of that year, on the night Colonel Tejero burst into Parliament and the tanks came out onto the streets, the local priest had gone straight to the nearest military barracks intending to hand in a list of local men who should be arrested; my friend’s name was at the top of the list.”
Someone puts your name on a list and you disappear. And maybe all the people who care enough to look for you disappear too. And no one hears what happened until everyone you ever knew is dead. That is, if you’ll excuse my language, the fucking bogeyman. It scares the hell out of me.
There’s a danger to thinking about fascism as something other than human, not just because it is people, but because it presents a temptation to dehistoricize. Fascism becomes something existential, a tyrannical tendency somewhere deep in the character of all people or all societies that needs to be restrained but occasionally breaks free to wreak havoc. Once we start down that path it’s not too long before we get to “We’re all a little bit fascist,” and “Was Alexander the Great a fascist?” That is lazy, useless thinking, the kind of “human nature” nonsense that is the first resort of the uninformed and uninterested.
Monsters and ghouls have always been a part of human community as far as I know, but they each emerge under particular circumstances. Think FernGully: The evil spirit Hexxus is freed from a tree (where it’s been imprisoned) when a timber crew chops it down. Ancient Hexxus seeps out with the character — even the name — of modern pollution. The creature is the externalities of industrial production embodied. It moves like oil and smoke. That pollution makes monsters is not a special insight; everyone knows about Godzilla. But moral pollution, of course, yields demons as well. Monsters show up when some scale is stubbornly uneven, when karma is repressed. Toxic waste dumped in the swamp, but graves disturbed too. That we’ve always had evil isn’t a way to avoid understanding the specifics of its incarnations. Thinking about fascism as a bogeyman in this way could be more useful. What kind of monster is it?
Allow me some speculation. Fascism is a nation-shaped monster. It arises alongside the modern state, and though they share sympathies (and weapons) across borders, fascists are nationalists. One of the conflicts that feeds fascism is between 19th-century ideas about the racial character of states and 20th-century pluralist ones. Our global system is supposedly based on something like collective self-determination, but it’s grafted onto a map drawn by colonial violence and pseudo-scientific ideas about Gauls and Teutons. Fascism is a particular combination of Romantic/Victorian ambitions and modern tools that sparks to life as the two eras grind against each other. Frankenstein with the arms of capitalist industry and the heart of a monarchist. Patriotic young Hitler inhaling mustard gas in the trenches, like a panel from the first issue of a comic book.
One of those modern tools is the list. We’ve always indexed information, but our ability to do so grows in qualitative jumps. To round up all your enemies at a national level is an analytics problem, and it’s one we solved under particular circumstances. The quantitative management of populations doesn’t just happen to emerge around slavery, it emerges out of slavery. And the Civil War didn’t break the line: At the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, so-called scientists of the early 20th century kept lists of the genetically (and racially) undesirable. They embarked on sterilization campaigns and lent their expertise to help halt the flow of immigrants. The Nazis infamously used IBM to manage the Holocaust; the Americans (less infamously) also used IBM to manage the Japanese internment camps. When NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute recreated an ERO office in 2014, they called the exhibit “Haunted Files.” Perhaps our filing systems are haunted too.
Modern liberal states have never truly reconciled their racial character with their democratic pretensions. I’m not clear on how such a thing could be possible; where would a truly pluralist state draw its borders and why? Flipping through a history book it’s hard to argue that the nation-state system doesn’t exist for the arbitrarily divided glory of western Europeans. The official line is that we’re supposed to ignore that part, or be sad. But some people don’t want to ignore it and they aren’t sad. Instead they wonder why we have the nice borders that their conquering “ancestors” drew but all these people on the wrong sides. If taking Mexico’s land for white people was illegitimate, then why haven’t we given it back? And if it was legitimate, then what’s wrong with a wall to protect our side from a reversal? The liberal patriots, they say, are lying to themselves; there is no nationalism that is not ethno-nationalism.
The persistence of the fascist bogeyman suggests that they have a point. The beast can skulk in the basement for decades, feeding off the contradictions at the foundation of the pluralist state and its own waste. This is 2016 and we can’t claim that fascism is a birth pang of the global democratic order, an enemy defeated. (Ghosts, zombies, the terminator: monsters so rarely go away when they’re supposed to.) Fascism seems inextricably tied to what we have, like Dorian Gray’s portrait locked in a closet, consolidating ugliness.
Whether or not they could finish off fascism once and for all, liberals usually aren’t tempted to try. I don’t know if that’s because they sense something irradicable there, but liberals have historically found deals to make with their shadow. Spain is one of the more striking examples. When Franco’s insurgents escalated, the rest of the world agreed to stay neutral so as to stall the already foreseen World War II. But the war had already begun: Hitler and Mussolini flouted the agreement, intervening most dramatically with bombing raids. The Soviet Union breached as well, sending weapons to badly armed Madrid. The western democracies, however, stayed neutral. In return, Franco maintained Spain as a non-belligerent when world-wide hostilities broke out. It’s an agreement that lasted into the 80s.
Part of what makes the Spanish Civil War so important for leftists is the sense that it could have gone the other way. There’s an urban legend that infighting among leftists — communists, anarchists, and Trotskyists — caused the Republic’s defeat. ¡No Pasarán! has accounts of this friendly-ish fire, but no one thinks it decisive compared to German and Italian air power or the western arms embargo. Spanish republicans and their study abroad comrades fought bravely, but the bogeyman has an advantage at the insurgency stage. Violence is its thing.
The bogeyman makes a real offer: Delegate to me your capacity for limitless violence and together we will dominate. That they’re able to do it justifies the undertaking, and they are, under some circumstances, able to do it. A willingness to strike first, to drag your enemies from their beds in the middle of the night, to steal their babies, that’s a force multiplier, especially when combined with the right information technology. There is strength in white nationalist unity. Horrifying, despicable, anti-human strength, but strength still. The fascist image is a bundle of sticks or arrows — the fasces, harder to break. And they are.
I think of the 2015 movie Green Room, about a band of punks who get trapped inside a Nazi club and have to try and fight their way out. Joe Cole plays the drummer Reece, and he’s the only one who shows any sort of confidence, preparation, or leadership when it comes to fighting fascists. With his MMA skills he incapacitates a giant skinhead bouncer and directs the gang to make a break for it. He’s not out a club window one moment before two faceless, nameless Nazi henchmen have stabbed him to death. For me this moment illuminates a basic truth about fascist strategy: It does not matter how smart or brave or capable or strong you are. There are two of us, we have knives, and we’re waiting outside the window.
Liberal democracies are constitutionally vulnerable to the bogeyman. We civilians have already delegated our capacity for violence to the military abroad and the police at home. If there’s a threat to law and order, then the forces of law and order will take care of it. We don’t have to worry about protecting our democracy, there are professionals for that. All we have to do is vote for the right people to manage them. But that plan has risks.
America’s founders thought they could write the standing army out by fiat, and they have been proven very wrong. Liberal democracies maintain giant war machines. Within each of these war machines — as in the religious and business communities — there are cults that worship the bogeyman. Members wear tattoos, patches, insignias to identify each other. They recruit. Some of them go to meetings, most probably don’t. I imagine that many of them get fulfillment from their work. Why wouldn’t fascists feel at home in the police, the border patrol, the army? Asking these organizations to maintain anti-fascist vigilance on behalf of the whole population is a fox and henhouse situation.
If Donald Trump is a fascist — as even the liberal media is beginning to agree — and has a non-negligible chance to winning the presidency, what is the contingency plan? If a Trump administration were to flout what’s left of our democratic norms, how would our system protect itself? I don’t know how Trump polls among active-duty military, but the Fraternal Order of Police has already endorsed him. Part of me thinks “Troops loyal to Hillary Clinton,” is a phrase we could get used to fast, but I’m not sure how many of those there are. Are the Vox dot com technocrats expecting a Seal Team 6 bullet to solve the Trump problem if things get too hairy? It seems remarkable that the two 20th-century American politicians we talk about getting closest to fascist takeovers — Huey Long and George Wallace — were both stymied not by the democratic process but by lone gunmen. That’s a bad defense strategy. Thankfully, it’s not the only one available.
Wherever there have been fascists there have also been anti-fascists: Traditionally communists, anarchists, socialists, and some folks who just hate fascists. When left-wing parties have on occasion decided to stand by while fascists targeted liberal governments, anti-fascist elements have still distinguished themselves. Anti-fascism is based on the idea that fascists will use content-neutral liberal norms like freedom of speech and association as a Trojan Horse. By the time the threat seems serious, the knives are already out. Antifa seek to nip the threat in the bud, attacking fascists wherever they’re weak enough to attack. If that means busting up their meetings with baseball bats, then that’s what it means.
In America, we remember the Spanish Civil War mostly through anti-fascist anglophone writers — George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway being the most famous — who decamped for Spain. Unlike fascists and liberals, anti-fascists are internationalists, and no citizenship takes precedence over the struggle. When the call went out for sympathizers to come and defend the Spanish Republic, one young British volunteer, Laurie Lee, called it “the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which may never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass-slaughter closed in.” Comrades of all sorts of nationalities and particular left-wing political views signed up for the motley “International Brigades.” There was and is a purity to this gesture; to go and risk your life alongside your attacked comrades is among the highest imaginable acts of solidarity. “¡No pasarán!” (They will not pass) is an anti-fascist slogan of such power that it’s still in use today, many decades after it turned out to be a lie.
Because pass they did. The righteous rag-tag army was no match for the German and Italian bombers. Spain stands for anti-fascism across borders, but also the catastrophe of its failure. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the War it’s that fascists don’t always lose. The arc of history is not a missile defense system and sometimes righteous solidarity makes for full prison camps.
For years American anti-fascists have been very effective. Up until the Trump campaign, they had largely prevented white nationalists from meeting in public in cities. It usually works something like this: Antifa finds out where the Nazis are planning to meet and they call the hotel or conference center they’re going to use and explain who exactly “American Renaissance” is, and what will happen if the meeting happens (chaos). Most reputable establishments exercise their right to decline Nazi business. This kind of tactic offends the liberal sensibility, but it’s the only choice. The least violent way to oppose fascism is to disrupt them before they feel strong enough to act in an organized way. I fear that window is closing.
I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be elected president, but the fascists who have found a vessel in his campaign have been licking their lips for months straight. Things are going better than they could have hoped and they won this round a long time ago. I have no doubt they’re thinking about how to organize their engorged base in November’s wake. Fascists aren’t democrats and they don’t need a majority.
The bogeyman is in the closet and he’s making so much noise it’s hard to pretend we can’t hear it. We have a choice to make, if not as a country, then as members of this society. We can get out of bed, open the door, and confront the social infection that is fascism. Or we can pull the sheets up over our heads, pretend history ended 25 years ago, and try to get back to sleep. Maybe the noise will stop on its own — it is possible, even likely. But maybe we’ll wake up with our throats slit. There won’t be a different kind of warning.