Is the U.S. on the Brink of Fascism?

by on August 8, 2009 · 12 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Economy, History, Organizing, War and Peace

Several hundred people on August 6th came to the Tampa suburb of Ybor City to speak with Democratic State Rep. Betty Reed and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, an event that exploded into a near riot. According to local media reports, the larger-than-expected crowd gathered outside the Hillsborough County Children's Board building, where several hundred people, most of whom opposed a government health care plan, began to loudly chant and scuffle with organizers posted at doorways after the auditorium filled to capacity. A freelance videographer was roughed up in an altercation, which damaged his camera equipment and glasses, and at least one man was treated for minor injuries after a scuffle left his shirt partially torn from his body.

Editor: We rarely stray from Ocean Beach into such serious national issues as this. But this timely article by Sara Robinson consolidates a number of thoughts I’ve had lately while watching the Birthers and those people who are intentionally disrupting town hall meetings called to discuss health care reform.  We can’t allow the rays and surf to completely bury our collective heads in the sand while such events occur in other parts of our country. As OBceans, we must remain aware – that’s our nature.

By Sara Robinson / Campaign for America’s Future / Posted August 7, 2009 on AlterNet

All through the dark years of the Bush Administration, progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished, nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation and violence, and the president of the United States seized for himself powers only demanded by history’s worst dictators. With each new outrage, the small handful of us who’d made ourselves experts on right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?

And every time this question got asked, people like Chip Berlet and Dave Neiwert and Fred Clarkson and yours truly would look up from our maps like a parent on a long drive, and smile a wan smile of reassurance. “Wellll…we’re on a bad road, and if we don’t change course, we could end up there soon enough. But there’s also still plenty of time and opportunity to turn back. Watch, but don’t worry. As bad as this looks: no — we are not there yet.”

In tracking the mileage on this trip to perdition, many of us relied on the work of historian Robert Paxton, who is probably the world’s pre-eminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn fascist. In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History, Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist movements isn’t by their rhetoric, their politics, or their aesthetics. Rather, he said, mature democracies turn fascist by a recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most important family resemblance that links all the whole motley collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading of Paxton’s stages, we weren’t there yet. There were certain signs — one in particular — we were keeping an eye out for, and we just weren’t seeing it.

And now we are. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for, it’s suddenly everywhere. It’s odd that I haven’t been asked for quite a while; but if you asked me today, I’d tell you that if we’re not there right now, we’ve certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot and are now looking for a space. Either way, our fascist American future now looms very large in the front windshield — and those of us who value American democracy need to understand how we got here, what’s changing now, and what’s at stake in the very near future if these people are allowed to win — or even hold their ground.

What is fascism?

The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as Paxton points out, “Everybody is somebody else’s fascist.” Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton’s essential definition of the term:

“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.”

Elsewhere, he refines this further as

“a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults 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 restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Jonah Goldberg aside, that’s a basic definition most legitimate scholars in the field can agree on, and the one I’ll be referring to here.

From proto-fascism to the tipping point

According to Paxton, fascism unfolds in five stages. The first two are pretty solidly behind us — and the third should be of particular interest to progressives right now.

In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal (what Roger Griffin calls “palingenesis” — a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes). They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it’s always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture’s traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery.

Fascism only grows in the disturbed soil of a mature democracy in crisis. Paxton suggests that the Ku Klux Klan, which formed in reaction to post-Civil War Reconstruction, may in fact be the first authentically fascist movement in modern times. Almost every major country in Europe sprouted a proto-fascist movement in the wretched years following WWI (when the Klan enjoyed a major resurgence here as well) — but most of them stalled either at this first stage, or the next one.

As Rick Perlstein documented in his two books on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, modern American conservatism was built on these same themes. From “Morning in America” to the Rapture-ready religious right to the white nationalism promoted by the GOP through various gradients of racist groups, it’s easy to trace how American proto-fascism offered redemption from the upheavals of the 1960s by promising to restore the innocence of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America. This vision has been so thoroughly embraced that the entire Republican party now openly defines itself along these lines. At this late stage, it’s blatantly racist, sexist, repressed, exclusionary, and permanently addicted to the politics of fear and rage. Worse: it doesn’t have a moment’s shame about any of it. No apologies, to anyone. These same narrative threads have woven their way through every fascist movement in history.

In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as informal goon squads organized to intimidate farmworkers on behalf of the large landowners. The KKK disenfranchised black sharecroppers and set itself up as the enforcement wing of Jim Crow. The Italian Squadristi and the German Brownshirts made their bones breaking up farmers’ strikes. And these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us.

Paxton wrote that succeeding at the second stage “depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner.” He further noted that Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances: “deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement.”

And more ominously: “The most important variables…are the conservative elites’ willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate.”

That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can’t even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can’t win elections or policy fights, they’re more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity.

When that unholy alliance is made, the third stage — the transition to full-fledged government fascism — begins.

The third stage: being there

All through the Bush years, progressive right-wing watchers refused to call it “fascism” because, though we kept looking, we never saw clear signs of a deliberate, committed institutional partnership forming between America’s conservative elites and its emerging homegrown brownshirt horde. We caught tantalizing signs of brief flirtations — passing political alliances, money passing hands, far-right moonbat talking points flying out of the mouths of “mainstream” conservative leaders. But it was all circumstantial, and fairly transitory. The two sides kept a discreet distance from each other, at least in public. What went on behind closed doors, we could only guess. They certainly didn’t act like a married couple.

Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips’ Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas — the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer — being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans. We’ve seen Armey’s own professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process — and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We’ve seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to “a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress.”

This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America’s conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country’s legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America’s streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won’t do their political or economic bidding.

This is the catalyzing moment at which honest-to-Hitler fascism begins. It’s also our very last chance to stop it.

The fail-safe point

According to Paxton, the forging of this third-stage alliance is the make-or-break moment — and the worst part of it is that by the time you’ve arrived at that point, it’s probably too late to stop it. From here, it escalates, as minor thuggery turns into beatings, killings, and systematic tagging of certain groups for elimination, all directed by people at the very top of the power structure. After Labor Day, when Democratic senators and representatives go back to Washington, the mobs now being created to harass them will remain to run the same tactics — escalated and perfected with each new use — against anyone in town whose color, religion, or politics they don’t like. In some places, they’re already making notes and taking names.

Where’s the danger line? Paxton offers three quick questions that point us straight at it:

1. Are [neo- or protofascisms] becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene?

2. Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities?

3. Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?

By my reckoning, we’re three for three. That’s too close. Way too close.

The Road Ahead

History tells us that once this alliance catalyzes and makes a successful bid for power, there’s no way off this ride. As Dave Neiwert wrote in his recent book, The Eliminationists, “if we can only identify fascism in its mature form-the goose-stepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies-then it will be far too late to stop it.” Paxton (who presciently warned that “An authentic popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black”) agrees that if a corporate/brownshirt alliance gets a toehold — as ours is now scrambling to do — it can very quickly rise to power and destroy the last vestiges of democratic government. Once they start racking up wins, the country will be doomed to take the whole ugly trip through the last two stages, with no turnoffs or pit stops between now and the end.

What awaits us? In stage four, as the duo assumes full control of the country, power struggles emerge between the brownshirt-bred party faithful and the institutions of the conservative elites — church, military, professions, and business. The character of the regime is determined by who gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time. But in neither case will the results resemble the democracy that this alliance overthrew.

Paxton characterizes stage five as “radicalization or entropy.” Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See: Italy)

It’s so easy right now to look at the melee on the right and discount it as pure political theater of the most absurdly ridiculous kind. It’s a freaking puppet show. These people can’t be serious. Sure, they’re angry — but they’re also a minority, out of power and reduced to throwing tantrums. Grown-ups need to worry about them about as much as you’d worry about a furious five-year-old threatening to hold her breath until she turned blue.

Unfortunately, all the noise and bluster actually obscures the danger. These people are as serious as a lynch mob, and have already taken the first steps toward becoming one. And they’re going to walk taller and louder and prouder now that their bumbling efforts at civil disobedience are being committed with the full sanction and support of the country’s most powerful people, who are cynically using them in a last-ditch effort to save their own places of profit and prestige.

We’ve arrived. We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we’re slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return.

How do we pull back? That’s my next post.

Sara Robinson is a Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, and a consulting partner with the Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle. One of the few trained social futurists in North America, she has blogged on authoritarian and extremist movements at Orcinus since 2006, and is a founding member of Group News Blog.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter August 8, 2009 at 2:13 pm

okay, gang, listen up! READ THIS ARTICLE!


mr fresh August 8, 2009 at 2:47 pm
Molly August 8, 2009 at 3:32 pm

I know it’s difficult to think about stuff like this when the sun is out, the surf is up, but goddamn it! this is serious shit! and it effects all of it. This is partly how it started in Nazi Germany – brownshits going around and intimidating honest people to shut up.


jon August 9, 2009 at 7:49 am

Im gonna tell all you fascists you may be surprised
The people in this world are getting organized
Youre bound to lose, you fascists are bound to lose

Race hatred cannot stop us this one thing I know
Your poll tax and jim crow and greed have got to go
Youre bound to lose, you fascists bound to lose

All of you fascists bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose
All of you fascists bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose
Youre bound to lose! you fascists!
Bound to lose

People of every colour marching side by side
Marching cross these fields where a million fascists died
Youre bound to lose, you fascists bound to lose

Im going into this battle, and take my union gun
We’ll end this world of slavery before this battles won
Youre bound to lose, you fascists bound to lose

Words: woody guthrie (1942) – music: billy bragg (1997)

If you’ve never heard this song, you should check out the album and the amazing story behind it. Especially if you’re a Woody Guthrie fan.


mr fresh August 9, 2009 at 10:11 am

here’s a video of this song:


Dave Sparling August 9, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Anyone else wonder what the world would be like now if instead of the American shift to the conservative religious right, it had stayed in the liberal secular phase of the 60’sand 70’s.


mr fresh August 10, 2009 at 10:03 am

here’s paul krugmans take… worth reading on a day when the UT ran an editorial cartoon justifying death threats to congress people who support healthcare reform.


jon August 10, 2009 at 10:20 am

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross” – Sinclair Lewis


john August 10, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Dave Sparling’s question has a depressing story behind it, apparantly San Diego was a bastion of the COINTELPRO debacle, with the SAO or “secret army organization”.
Haven’t heard of COINTELPRO?
If you thought it was gone for good, think again. It is also called organized stalking, gangstalking, community mobbing, etc. It’s going on right here in OB and it’s the reason nobody hangs out in the Dog Beach parking lot (even before the alcohol ban) and why OB is so damn quiet as early as 11 pm. If you didn’t conform, if you spoke out, you were run out of town. We now have stasi police on most blocks in OB, on my block on W Pt Loma I have a pretty good idea who the watch captain goon is and while they change their signals regularly I am hip to their game. I am also pretty certain they use directed energy weapons to sicken and harrass “undesirables” out of their world. There is a basis to believe in some government involvement, in “Operation Weed and Seed” type programs which unabashedly proclaimed they would send DOJ agency personnel to rid neighborhoods of “undesirables” using “any means necessary”.
I have lived in OB since 1983, I thought we’d done a pretty good job of keeping the fundie ideologues at bay. I was wrong. I just discovered this blog and will be happy to discuss this with anyone. Thank you. John, the guy who used to own the big hearse on W. Pt. Loma


Ron August 14, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I have a problem with both parts of Robinson’s series, [see part one at ] which is that although she makes the proper connection between the ‘conservative’ elite wealthy interests and the growing goon groups, she does not also clearly identify the corruption and compromise of high level Democrats by the same anti-democratic corporate interests. I hope she will address this in a third part of her series.

Millions of people who vote Democratic Party and who definitely oppose fascism are going to have to pay attention and draw a line between their loyalty to democracy and their loyalty to elected Democrats (who cannot be counted on to act on principle). Groups like Progressive Democrats of America will need to step up their work to build community level committees to defend democratic rights. And, in turn, all the left groups that are outside of the Democratic Party are going to have to find concrete ways to work with their neighbors who are inside the Democratic Party.

One of the great failures of the democratic opposition to rising fascism in the 1930s in Germany and Spain was inadequate unity and actual infighting amongst ourselves. We don’t need (or want) to stop telling each other how and why we agree or disagree. We do need to support each other’s democratic rights and to work together at the community and broader levels.

By “broader” I mean not merely national. Americans should not hesitate to seek help, and to offer help, and to work with like-minded people in other countries. America is, after all, a global power, and what happens here will impact the whole world. People were afraid, in World War II, what would happen if fascist governments had nuclear weapons. Well, let’s all think about what could happen if America’s nuclear weapons fell into the hands of an openly fascist government. Imagine the only constraints upon American wars of aggression is the ability of people in other countries to fight back because all the anti-war activists in America are rounded up and shot.

We can stop this. One big step is to make sure a real health care reform is voted in, and to clearly defeat the far right in this battle.


Ron August 14, 2009 at 12:32 pm

oops. I meant to say, see part TWO at


TI5000 June 4, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Community mobbing does take place as a fact. There is evidence to support but, well, accumulating the evidence is difficult or really, there is just a lack of will of doing. Most people who claim community mobbing, it really isn’t happening to. You do have to listen to the story and be skeptical. The evidence available requires some ability to piece together and open to having your beliefs shattered. The evidence is there, remember, it just hasn’t gotten to you yet. How is someone to tell you with exception of just telling you a story which sound weird. But that weird story should have something behind it. Something. I read that there are different levels to community mobbing. Most of it you can just ignore and make the doer seem like a jerk and an idiot. On the job, a little difficult. When someone is spreading rumors, isolating you from personal relationships, future prospects, affecting all employment you get, breaking into car and apartment, well, this is criminal. But, criminal is a social description. How comfortable do you feel labeling a police officer a criminal. Most don’t out of just stupidity and loyalty. Some people who are extremely intelligent will say, up holding of a system, no matter how corrupt to a small number of individuals is more important. Rarely do judges get into ‘trouble’, rarely did sexual obsessions of presidents go reported, has a supreme court judge ever been convicted of anything? Well, it is not like things aren’t happening, it is simply society saying, the appearance of the system, upholding that appearance, means more than any small injustices to minor people. Who people can be convinced easily to hate anyway. Plato said, in so many words, that we fight injustices for others because in reality we are fighting for ourselves.


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: