Jason StanleyPhoto by Edwin Tse

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March 23 was a beautiful sunny Saturday in Evanston, and the sunshine streamed through the windows in the gym at the Levy Senior Center (as several hundred people gathered to listen to Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., talk about his most recent book, “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” The free talk was open to the general public and sponsored by several organizations including Refuse Fascism, Chicago Chapter and United for Democracy Now. The local bookstore Bookends & Beginnings had stacks of Prof. Stanley’s books available for purchase.

Prof. Stanley opened his talk by speaking of his parents, both immigrants to the United States. Both suffered through and survived anti-Semitism in Western and Eastern Europe, saddling their son with “difficult emotional baggage.” And yet, he admits, it is precisely that baggage that helped prepare him to write his most recent book.  

Prof. Stanley’s interest is in fascist politics and how fascist tactics are used “to divide a population so one person can seize power.” He was emphatic that the United States is not currently a fascist state, but there are trends here and in other parts of the world that alarm him, and this book is in part a wake-up call.

He wrote it, he said, “in the hope of providing citizens with the critical tools to recognize the difference between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and invidious tactics in fascist politics on the other.”

A point Prof. Stanley made early in his talk was that “fascism is not some foreign thing” in the United States – there were periods in the the nation’s history inspired by fascist sentiment. One example was Charles Lindbergh. The famed aviator was also a leader in the America First movement, a pro-fascist ideology. Other examples are the Immigration Act of 1924, praised by Adolf Hitler, that limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States in the period leading up to World War II; the miscegenation laws in the United States that barred marriage and intimate relationships between people of different races; and the laws and policies that forced Native Americans to give up their traditions and assimilate into mainstream American life. The common thread among these ideologies and policies, all enacted at different times and to prohibit different behavior, is how they separate people into an “us” and a “them.”

Prof. Stanley said, “Democracies encourage different beliefs and points of view in politics and religion. It’s about living together. Fascism is only one group’s ideas about running the country. Fascism is about power. Democracy is about liberty and equality.”

Another core thesis of Prof. Stanley’s book is that both fascism and democracy rest on “the centrality of truth. In a democracy, political equality means being able to speak truth to power without fear. Fascism seeks to replace truth with power.”

The bulk of Prof. Stanley’s talk was spent identifying the 10 tactics he believes underlie fascism. In brief, they are as follows:

1. Appeal to a Mythic Past. This tactic uses authoritarianism, hierarchy, patriarchal gender roles, ethnic purity and struggle to concoct a mythic past. Said Prof. Stanley, “One’s value comes from victory in a struggle and only winners have value. The past is whitewashed into a nostalgia that never was.”

2. Propaganda. Prof. Stanley said, “This tactic wields the political ideal against itself. Common methodologies are to use religious freedom against sexual freedom or to promote anti-corruption campaigns.” Propaganda makes clear “the wrong people are in charge.”

3. Anti-Intellectualism. This tactic discredits and devalues universities, a free press and language. Without education, honest information from sources outside our immediate reach, and a vocabulary with which to converse, an exchange of ideas is impossible.

4. Unreality. This tactic, Prof. Stanley said, “operates like a virus because it undermines your grasp of the truth. When hypotheticals are mentioned in public discourse, they spread just by being repeated. Fascists will argue the entire system is corrupt. When people think the system is corrupt, they gravitate toward the one who lies. The lying demagogue is the one who is believed.”

5. Hierarchy. This tactic believes certain groups are better than others, whether based on sex, sexual identity, religion or ethnic group. Equality is a myth, if not “a sneaky way for the wrong groups to dominate others.”

6. Victimhood. This tactic hinges on the belief that one group is the best (“us”), but they are victims because of rampant abuses by other, lesser groups (“them”). It demonizes any group apart from their own as criminals and stokes fear.  

7. Law and Order. This tactic divides a citizenry into two classes, those who are lawful and follow the rules (“us”) and those who are inherently lawless (“them”). A healthy democracy applies the laws equally, but in a fascist environment, groups outside the mainstream are suspect. One of the primary fears stoked with the law and order tactic is mass rape.

8. Sexual Anxiety. In a patriarchal society, the man runs things. Any outside threat to traditional male roles undermines the fascist vision of strength. A change in economic success [being the provider], any action or person perceived as being sexually deviant, or a fear of “mixing blood lines” will encourage this fear. The fear of mass rape, to which he referred in the law-and-order tactic, plays right into sexual anxiety.

9. Sodom and Gomorrah. In short, this tactic upholds the “real” values of the countryside and despises the values of cities, where lots of different groups mix together. Again, this tactic employs “us” versus “them.”

10. Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”). Taken from the German phrase at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, this tactic believes that only the “good” people have the right work ethic (“us”) and the “out” group is not only criminal, but lazy (“them”). It ties in to the idea that “it’s all about winners and struggles.”

Prof. Stanley said he believes the normalization of fascist speech is already happening in this country. He referred to how “President Trump speaks about Muslims and Central Americans in the same way that precedes mass atrocities in other countries.” Therein lies one of the “fundamental problems” and challenges of democracy: How do you allow free speech if it permits demagoguery?”

These are challenging times. News has become “entertainment” and “spectacle,” and less a trusted source of facts. The real risk, in Prof. Stanley’s opinion, is the normalization of the fascist tactics described above. He states in his book, “What normalization does is transform the morally extraordinary into the ordinary. It makes us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this is the way things have always been.”