May 26, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
If you’re willing to say anything for power, that’s fascism—even, or especially, if you do not mean it
GOP elites are not just playing along.
I got a response from a concerned reader and citizen yesterday that I’d like to discuss today. It was in reaction to Tuesday’s piece about Alan Wolfe, the political scientist and sociologist who seemed to predict, in 2004, the Republicans’ turn toward fascism. He wrote in an obscure supplement to an obscure journal only niche readers saw, but reading this 17-year-old essay is like reading a profile of Republican Party in 2021.
In my piece, I said the pundit corps still seems to hesitate using the word “fascism” even after all we’ve seen. I said that’s probably because it calls to mind images of gas chambers. It doesn’t take genocide to make a fascist, though. As Wolfe made so clear, all it takes is a totalizing worldview in which everyone in the out-group is the enemy.
To which my concerned citizen pointed out something worth dwelling on: “Hesitancy to call the GOP ‘fascist’ is justified in many minds because so many GOP elites aver that they are simply giving lip-service to MAGA and don’t really believe in it.”
Fascism is usually seen to be something extraordinary, but it’s not. It would have been familiar to the founders. It’s what happens when literally nothing matters more than power.
This can break a few ways, but our primary focus should be on the pundit and press corps. It isn’t normal people who hesitate speaking truthfully. It is the professionals invested in their reputations for being neutral and respectable. They need access to the opinions of GOP elites. They have an interest in seeing elites as merely playing along.
But playing along is not the same thing as being innocent of the damage being done. Think about it. If it’s true that Republican elites are just saying what Donald Trump supporters want them to say—for instance, that there are “questions” about the 2020 election—why are they saying it? It’s not out of fear. These are very wealthy and influential people. They’re virtually untouchable. So it’s about ambition, greed and appetite. When you’re willing to say anything for power, that’s a fascist thing to do.
I like how Editorial Board member Lindsay Beyerstein put it. In her latest piece, she located one of the key features of fascism that even Alan Wolfe overlooks: tautology. “If Republicans can be said to believe anything, it’s that Republicans, and only Republicans, deserve to rule. They are locked in a circular thought-pattern that begins and ends with Democratic illegitimacy. Democrats don’t deserve power, so when they win they must have cheated, and hence Democratic power is illegitimate, and so on.”
Put another way, the Republicans are good because they are good while the Democrats are bad because they are bad. You are right! It doesn’t make any sense! But consider this—it’s not supposed to make sense. Or, to the extent that it does make sense, it makes sense only if you are part of the in-group, which grows increasingly hostile to the out-group due to the out-group’s intolerable insistence that the in-group make sense.
It’s easy to dismiss bullshit like this but that’s Lindsay’s (and philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s) point: don’t. We’re not talking about mere “political spin” here. We’re talking about titanic, reality-bending lies in which 2 + 2 = 5 if that’s what needs to be said in the amoral pursuit of power. Importantly, the lies became, for the Republicans, The Truth such that speaking truthfully puts you on the other side of the GOP, thus deepening a totalizing worldview in which everyone in the out-group is the enemy. It does not matter if GOP elites don’t mean it. They are participating in GOP fascism.
Again, none of this requires death camps. All it takes is for one of the major political parties to detach itself from the shared norms, values and institutions that make up American political culture so that these same norms, values and institutions come to be seen as intolerably oppressive to the rights and privileges of one of the major political parties. Fascism is usually seen to be something extraordinary, but it’s not. It should be familiar. It’s what happens when literally nothing matters more than power.
I like to think our founders would have recognized what’s happening to the GOP. They would have used other words to describe it, obviously, like “tyranny” and “despotism.” But otherwise, they would have recognized fascism as a reason for creating a system of government resistant to individuals and factions that had come to believe that literally nothing matters more than power. As Alan Wolfe said, “our tradition owes more to Montesquieu than to Machiavelli.” Our tradition is quintessentially liberal in that some things, like the freedom of speech and religion, really are more important.
Our liberal tradition, I would add, is inhospitable to individuals and factions whose future depends on never-ending partisan conflict. The Republican leadership may sense this. That’s why they are behaving as if time is running out. Joe Biden is as popular as Donald Trump was unpopular. Meanwhile, never-ending partisan conflict is driving people who care about other things into the arms of the Democrats. It’s as if the Republicans can feel, if not exactly see, in the coming midterms what Alan Wolfe had hoped for the country’s future: “We will … be deciding not only who wins, but whether we will treat pluralism as good, disagreement as virtuous, politics as rule bound, fairness as possible, opposition as necessary, and government as limited.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.