May 25, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Carl Schmitt, leading exponent of Nazi political thought, would feel at home in today’s GOP
Why does "fascism" still get side-eye from mainstream commentators?
Journalist John Harwood had a piece in CNN Sunday reflecting on an essay published in 2012 that accurately predicted the coming of today’s GOP. “Let’s just say it: the Republicans are the problem” was written by Thomas Mann, who was at the time with the Brookings Institution, along with Norm Ornstein, who is still with the American Enterprise Institute. The Republicans, they said, had become “ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Sound familiar?
I have been teaching a class for a few years, on and off, at Yale and Wesleyan on how to understand American politics. I assign Mann and Ornstein’s essay every time. But I didn’t know some important context Harwood provides, meaning that the essay landed with a thud nine years ago, even among what are now called anti-GOP conservatives.
Hardwood calls on Charlie Dent to comment. He’s a former Republican moderate from Pennsylvania, who is now a talking head for CNN. He told Harwood that, “I thought they overstated things.” He added: “I don’t like where we’re heading, but don’t think it’s inevitable that we get to that terrible place.” William Kristol pooh-poohed Mann and Ornstein’s essay, too. He told Harwood of his feelings at the time. “People like me were thinking, ‘Yeah, there are some kooky people around, but c’mon.’” That was before Donald Trump’s ascent and the consequent demise of his magazine, The Weekly Standard. (Kristol later joined other anti-GOP conservatives to found The Bulwark.)
It doesn’t take genocide to make a fascist. What it takes a particular and particularly coherent worldview in which everyone outside one’s group is the enemy.
Harwood’s piece is good. I encourage you to read it. But I want to make the case for a more prescient essay. It was published in 2004 in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq by The Chronicle Review, an obscure monthly supplement to The Chronicle of Higher Education, itself obscure. I assign it alongside Mann and Ornstein’s essay. But if theirs had little impact, Alan Wolfe’s had none at all. (No one in the United States Congress or the Washington press corps is being asked how they feel about it now.) With all due respect to Mann and Ornstein, I think Wolfe’s is more important, because it gives a name to “where we’re heading,” a name that even John Harwood seems to avoid.
Alan Wolfe is a political scientist and sociologist at Boston College. He is or was the director of its Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. In 2004, he was searching for ways to explain Republican behavior after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the launch of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was, in other words, doing what Harwood did, but instead of looking to pundits like Mann and Ornstein, Wolfe looked way, way back to scholars like himself, this time to Carl Schmitt, who was briefly the leading exponent of fascist political thought. Fascism is “where we’re heading” now, but Wolfe saw the first stirrings of it over 17 years ago.
Here’s the tip jar!
Using Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political as a lens through which to see the politics of the early 2000s, Wolfe wrote that “the most important lesson Schmitt teaches is that the differences between liberals and conservatives are not just over the policies they advocate but also over the meaning of politics itself.” Wolfe goes on to explain that:
Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water’s edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes.
Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency … the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.1
I think Alan Wolfe used the word “conservative” for a couple of reasons. One, because he didn’t feel like being charitable that day. Two, and more likely, “fascist” was not available to him in 2004. I like to think if he were to rewrite this essay, he’d make room for conservatives like Norm Ornstein, or Liz Cheney for that matter, in order to establish the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a liberal democracy in which some things really are above politics, such as the political legitimacy of a rival faction.
“Fascist,” however, continues to get side-eye from mainstream commentators like John Harwood, I think because it so easily evokes images of gas chambers. But as Wolfe makes clear, it doesn’t take genocide to make a fascist. What it takes is a particular and particularly coherent worldview in which everyone outside one’s group is the enemy. As Harwood said, Mann and Ornstein were right. Their diagnosis of the GOP is undeniable. But Alan Wolfe was more right. What’s more, he gave us a vocabulary.
We should use it.
Click here to download a PDF of Alan Wolfe’s essay.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
OMG thank you for this.
What a GREAT piece.
“Fascism is “where we’re heading” now, but Wolfe saw the first stirrings of it over 17 years ago.”
I think I started using that word in 2004. I was a Republican totally opposed to what Bush was doing to Iraq and the human toll it was taking, both Soldier and civilian. When the Baptists and fundys started voicing their support for “pro-life” George W. Bush for re-election I started writing letters to the local papers calling them out on what I saw as hypocrisy. Their reactions were nothing short of fascist. And some were (now former) close friends. But I had no idea it would only get worse.
Dave, in my view baptists of the fundamentalist sort and the rest of the fundys have a kind of religious “faith” vis. belief system that should not be confused with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course they wouldn’t agree since they claim to believe every word in the Bible especially if those words speak of LBGTQ sex as abominations for which those who practice these “abominations” should be stoned to death, etc. The politics of Jesus is far far away from the politics promoted by the GOP.
Excellent! Thank you, John.
Having lived thru Reagan as governor (and the horror of watching him and his handlers/minions heading to DC) I can safely say that if you were my age then, you’d have made all these arguments then too. The Republicans by that time had given up all pretense of serious thought except for ‘hoover all the money, consolidate all the power’. Everything was lies – nothing was defensible from a logical or substantive standpoint. But it was clear they knew all that, and continued on because they also knew that without lies they were nothing. That’s what I was telling anyone who would listen by around 1980. And the lies are the point – they are the touchstones of the movement (and place Republicanism firmly in the line of succession from Mussolini, Hitler, Hirohito, Stalin…) The only thing they can’t pull off is the operatic performance. And don’t bother to suggest Trump’s an exception – he’s just a bad standup comic.
Back in the 80s I was in my twenties living up in the Rust Belt. What an economic nightmare hellscape. And there was nothing I could do about it. I could write a book.
I have lots of friends from Ohio, Michigan, Illinois…and I spent some small time there kinda passin’ thru. There are lots of what appear to be just entirely worn out places (and not just in those states, but many others too). Interestingly (or maybe not) I worked in a small factory in California all thru the 70’s/80’s and thoroughly enjoyed it (tho I am glad I left by the 90’s). So my work experience does not align with the Rust Belt refugees. But I was just lucky, I think. Luck/privilege being pretty interchangeable in my case…
The economy around there in the late 70s thought the mid 80s was really bad. Factories couldn’t compete with Asia but at the same time refused to invest in and upgrade their American facilities and just wanted to offshore everything. Why pay American wages when someone else is willing do the work for pennies on the dollar. Plants were closing everywhere and you literally had to buy your way in to anyplace that paid well. That’s the short version.
Lordy, John – you nail it (almost) every single time. This post is spot on.
This is a real good one, John. Have you emailed Alan Wolfe? You should.