The rise of Christian Fascism in American Politics
President Donald Trump’s selection of Republican Mike Pence as his Vice President struck many as odd, since Pence is a staunch Christian conservative who has a rigid religious ideology, and so he appears as a strange choice when compared to the bellicosity of Trump. Many speculated that Pence served as a necessary character foil to Trump, and was added to the ticket to pick up religious and/or traditional Republican voters. Others have pointed to Pence’s vast network of connections to politicians and wealthy Republican donors to explain his selection.
Both theories have proven true. Pence’s role in the White House is typically eclipsed by Trump’s seemingly perpetual scandals, such as his financial connections and business dealing with foreign governments, not to mention his regular feuds with the media. And recent domestic tragedies, especially the Parkland school massacre that left 17 high school students dead, have captured the nation’s attention and shift attention away from Pence, who prefers to operate behind the scenes and is careful not to outshine Trump. But what Pence is doing in the background is extremely dangerous, so here we attempt to lift the curtain on the unique threats he poses to the country. Meet Mike Pence: Christian fascist.
The first part of this series will begin with an investigation into what fascism is before we can move forward and see its applicability to Pence.
(Please note that the word “fascist” is not thrown around here as a buzzword. Fascism has bled into everyday political discourse for many when they describe those who hold opposing political views, and so for many, its meaning and the ideology behind it may have become watered down. The term “fascist” is not used loosely here, and should not be taken lightly.)
So what is fascism, anyway?
One aspect of fascism everyone tends to agree on is that it is difficult to define, because it is a complex ideology — but ultimately, it is a mass movement or political ideology that is authoritarian in nature, and focuses on promoting nationalism. Noted scholar Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political practice distinctive to the 20th century that arouses popular enthusiasm by sophisticated propaganda techniques for an anti-liberal, anti-socialist, violently exclusionary, expansionist nationalist agenda.”
A brief history of fascism
Fascism emerged after World War I with regimes that rose to power in Nazi Germany and Italy, with the first fascist movement led by Italy’s Benito Mussolini in 1919. This movement was considered fascist because it was authoritarian and nationalist, and it advocated violence during the movement’s struggle for political power. However, there was no rigid ideology embedded into Italian fascism that centered around race or ethnicity, unlike Nazi Germany. Mussolini sought to transform the state into a more totalitarian, corporatist model: Italian corporatism was depicted as the Third Way, between capitalism and communism, but in practice it sided more with the capitalist class than it did with the working class. Mussolini’s fascism saw the expansion of social programs, including women’s suffrage and a message focused on empowerment of workers.
While Italy’s fascist movement was more totalitarian in nature — meaning a centralized, dictatorial government where all individuals and aspects of individual life were subservient to the state — the ideology of Nazism championed by Adolf Hitler in Germany post World War I rejected totalitarianism in favor of the state instead serving as a vessel to promote the survival of the German race above all else. Corporatism was rejected, with intent for the German economy to remain under private control and ownership, although economic objectives were set by the Nazi government. These economic objectives urged the economy to promote German rearmament and to increase efficiency in order to effectively do this.
Nazism championed the rural peasant and working class way of life as a reflection of traditional culture and values of the German race: a closeness to nature, which produced good health and was unencumbered by materialism. Antisemitism was a core of Nazi ideology, where Jews were scapegoated as the cause of economic and societal detriment. By contrast, Mussolini’s fascism identified itself more with modernity rather than traditionalism.
Passions that mobilize fascist movements
Paxton’s 1988 essay, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” lists seven feelings that serve as “mobilizing passions” for fascist movements and fascist regimes:
1. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
2. The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group’s enemies, internal as well as external.
3. Dread of the group’s decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic and cosmopolitan liberalism.
4. Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.
5. An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
6. Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.
7. The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success in a Darwinian struggle [promoting that one’s own group is superior and another group or all other groups are therefore inferior — Hitler’s Nazism and its antisemitism].
Once a fascist regime gains power, the dictatorship imprisons political opponents, it crushes individual rights and liberties, it authorizes unlimited police power for the sake of national unity and forbids workers’ strikes, and it pursues fierce military aggression, Paxton writes.
How fascism exploits in order to emerge
Fascist regimes in the 20th century relied on exploiting huge national crises to gain traction as viable movements, and thus, to eventually rise to power. This is similar to “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Kline. Fascist movements are also best able to gain traction when a country’s people feel that the existing establishment — meaning the existing government and its political parties, as well as existing social institutions like the church, universities, etc. — are incapable or unwilling to deliver meaningful improvements for the national situation. These national crises and what citizens view as government failure to prevent these crises or to change them, then, typically damage national identity, and so it becomes fragile.
In the case of Italy and Germany, the economic and social devastation that resulted from World War I and the Great Depression was successfully exploited. Fascist leaders relied on collaborating with wealthy, conservative elites to gain full-throated power, even in Mussolini’s case, despite his movement being typically considered “left-leaning.” In Germany and especially Italy, willingness of the conservative elite to collaborate with fascist movements largely stemmed from fears of socialist and/or communist revolts and revolution, which they intended to quell at any cost.
Fascism in the present day
The aforementioned political, social, and economic conditions as they currently exist are ripe for exploitation by fascist movements in the United States and in many western countries, including in Europe. Failures of global capitalism due to neoliberalist ideologies have exacerbated income and wealth inequality, and globalization has ushered many jobs overseas where corporations can pay workers cheaper wages in order to make bigger profits. Automation has further eliminated many service sector jobs.
At present, about half of the United States is poor, and only 39 percent of Americans can afford a $1,000 emergency. Wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s and have not risen alongside productivity, which has skyrocketed. As a result, most all Americans are struggling to make ends meet, because they do not receive a wage that allows them to pay rent, buy food, pay for transportation, etc. Wage suppression, along with increasing rent rates, leave tens of thousands homeless. Millions of Americans are uninsured and cannot afford healthcare. American mortality rates are abysmal compared to other developed countries. In Kuwait, about one in 227 die, but in the US, the rate is one per 270. Not much better. After birth, mortality rates are only slightly better than other low to middle income countries. America has the worst maternal death rate out of all other developed countries. There are an estimated 554,000 homeless Americans. 1 out of 6 children are in food insecure households, meaning they do not get enough to eat. More than half of American babies are at risk for malnutrition. Over 44 million Americans hold student loan debt, which totals around $1.4 trillion. The average American household has over $16,000 in credit card debt. The richest 1 percent of Americans now own more than 40 percent of the country’s entire wealth. One out of five American households have zero or negative wealth.
The future looks horrifyingly bleak for most Americans. And most feel that, regardless of who they vote for, their vote ultimately does not change anything, nor are policies being enacted that positively impact their daily lives. Rising presence and popularity of extremist groups, then, comes as no surprise when Americans feel there are no other methods to change their political, social, and economic circumstances.
So where does Mike Pence fit into all of this?
Pence has been a devout and unapologetic member of the Christian right and he identifies as an Evangelical Christian. He is part of a radical Christian movement called “dominionism,” which fuses American patriotism and the Christian faith and seeks to dominate the political landscape as a means of seizing control of the country to enforce militant beliefs, “Christian values,” and purity, among others. In “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” by Chris Hedges, he describes this movement:
This movement, small in number but influential, departs from traditional evangelicalism. Dominionists now control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation’s more than 2,000 religious radio stations, as well as denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Dominionism seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls on the radical church to take political power. It shares many prominent features with classical fascist movements, at least as it is defined by the scholar Robert Paxton, who sees fascism as ‘a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cultures of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restrains goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.’
Hedges elaborates on the movement called “dominionism,” to which Pence belongs:
Dominionism, born out of a theology known as Christian reconstructionism, seeks to politicize faith. It has, like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians. It also has, like fascist movements, an ill-defined and shifting set of beliefs, some of which contradict one another.
The dominionist movement, like all totalitarian movements, seeks to appropriate not only our religious and patriotic language but also our stories, to deny the validity of stories other than their own, to deny that there are other acceptable ways of living and being. There becomes, in their rhetoric, only one way to be a Christian and only one way to be an American.
Dominionism in American politics
But unlike typical fascist movements that happen more suddenly and exploit specific crises to emerge, this wing of Christian fascists has been slowly building and attracting support over the last few decades, and its rise to power has not and will not occur suddenly. Pence has finally emerged as Vice President, and holds the highest political office of any fundamentalist in American history. He seeks to abolish any walls that exist to separate church and state. He seeks to govern as a fascist theocrat and usher in Christian fascism in the second highest political office in the country.
In the next part of this series, we will look closer at ur-fascism, which differs from traditional fascist movements, and we will look closer at dominionism and its quiet rise inside of American politics.
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