I was recently teased by a friend that my Substack was “all about Nazis,” which I don’t think is entirely fair, but I have to admit is some truth to it. I’m sorry, but they keep coming up!
I would like very much to move past the “fascism debate,” where various parts of the Left wrangle about what’s the correct terminology to describe Trump’s politics, but it’s one of my contentions that it is not really a theoretical debate, so much as a fair and defensible description of certain political realities. Namely, that there is in the contemporary U.S. a strain of radical right-wing thought and practice that can be meaningfully put in context with the history of European fascism and its precursors. This is certainly not the only or perhaps even the most important context, but it’s a valid and informative one. It is not my intention by referring to this history to cause fits of alarm or engage in propagandistic bombast to titillate my readers. On the contrary, I fear the discussion below might be overly dry and historical for the casual reader. I do understand the label is emotionally fraught and, some might say unavoidably propagandistic, but I believe there’s a point at which it just becomes the right diagnosis for certain things.
Last week there was a remarkable piece entitled “‘Conservatism’ is no Longer Enough” published in The American Mind, a publication put out by the Claremont Institute. This piece is not a product of the neo-Nazi netherworld: the Claremont Institute is the brainchild of four students of Henry Jaffa, a respected and important intellectual conservative figure and the godfather of so-called “West Coast Straussianism.” The author is a fellow at Claremont and a visiting scholar at the conservative Hillsdale College, not some random troll or groyper. Whether or not such an effort can even succeed in principle, Claremont has been at the forefront of attempting to give intellectual cachet and respectability to Trumpism since Michael Anton’s 2016 Flight 93 Election piece, which portrayed Trump’s election as a desperate, last ditch effort to save the country. With that context in mind, let’s take a look at the rhetoric and arguments of the piece, and I’ll try to articulate why I think it should be put in context using fascism and related political movements.
First of all, the visual rhetoric is immediately…striking. The image chosen is a muscular man putting boxing wraps on his hands—already, if just even metaphorically, we are in the realm of violence. This is sort of campy and absurd, but again, that seems to suggest a kinship rather than a distance from fascist kitsch.
Next, lets address the immediate, opening conceit of the piece, “that most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term”:
I don’t just mean the millions of illegal immigrants. Obviously, those foreigners who have bypassed the regular process for entering our country, and probably will never assimilate to our language and culture, are—politically as well as legally—aliens. I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.
This is really quite astonishing. Right off the bat the author has radically divided the American polity into a “true America” and one made up of a kind of second-class citizen, which is not really a part of the national body, but an interloper, a constant alien presence undermining the national project. Usually in the history of fascist rhetoric, that role is given to a minority, which can be ethnically or socially-defined and easily isolated and picked-on for propaganda purposes, but, apparently in a grandiose transport, the author gives the role of alien other to the majority of the U.S. population. The author gives the role of “true Americans” to the “75 million people” who voted for Trump. This paradoxical fusion of, and alternation between, elitism and populism is a fixture of fascist politics: there is always mass that also functions as an elite, in the form of a superior type of racial or national community, and then there are elite formations that function as the true guardians of the entire national community, an avant-garde, a role that the author seems to want to give Claremont.
Only Claremont truly supposedly gets the meaning of the mass Trump phenomenon: he says that MAGA voters are actually Claremont-style conservatives, perhaps just not with the same degree of articulation or self-consciousness. Now it might sound a little delusional and silly to assume this tiny cadre of intellectuals ensconced in a think tank is in touch with the true needs of the American masses, but, once again, delusions of grandeur seem to be something that puts it in proximity with fascist-style politics.
Another thing that’s remarkable about the piece is the explicit rejection of conservatism, both as an appropriate label and as an existing political movement:
“The conservative movement” still matters because if the defenders of America continue to squabble among themselves, the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured. See you in the gulag. On the off chance we can avoid that fate, it will only be if the shrinking number of Americans unite and work together. But we can’t simply mandate that conservatives “set aside” their differences, no matter how urgent it is that they do so. So my goal here is to show why we must all unite around the one, authentic America, the only one which transcends all the factional navel-gazing and pointless conservababble.
The preference is something for muscular and assertive than mere conservatism, but the real issue is that the state of decadence and national illness is so grave that it is no longer possible to adopt a stance of conservation:
Practically speaking, there is almost nothing left to conserve. What is actually required now is a recovery, or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens.
This recognition that the original America is more or less gone sets the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy apart from almost everyone else on the Right. Paradoxically, the organization that has been uniquely devoted to understanding and teaching the principles of the American founding now sees with special clarity why “conserving” that legacy is a dead end. Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.
The author goes on:
The great majority of establishment conservatives who were alarmed and repelled by Trump’s rough manner and disregard for “norms” are almost totally clueless about a basic fact: Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed. It has been like this for a while—and the MAGA voters knew it, while most of the policy wonks and magazine scribblers did not… and still don’t. In almost every case, the political practices, institutions, and even rhetoric governing the United States have become hostile to both liberty and virtue. On top of that, the mainline churches, universities, popular culture, and the corporate world are rotten to the core. What exactly are we trying to conserve?
These themes of pervading national corruption and decadence, and the need for a counter-revolution and a national rebirth put this text firmly in the radical reactionary or fascist ballpark. Here’s the scholar Roger Griffin on such mythopoetics:
The mythic core that forms the basis of my ideal type of generic fascism is the vision of the (perceived) crisis of the nation as betokening the birth pangs of a new order. It crystallizes in the image of the national community, once purged and rejuvenated, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a morally bankrupt state system and the decadent culture associated with it. I was drawn to exploring the heuristic value of this ideal type as a result of noticing recurring references in Fascist texts to the alleged decay of ‘old Italy’ (its senility, decadence, sickness, decline, disintegration, collapse, debilitation, etc.) and the urgent need for its rebirth (reawakening, regeneration, health, revival, rejuvenation, invigoration, etc. in a ‘new’ Italy. Such topoi bear an uncanny resemblance to the slogans of other ‘putative’ fascist movements, such as the Nazis’ cry of ‘Germany awake’, the British Union of Fascists’ campaign for a ‘Greater Britain’, or the Romanian Iron Guard’s call for the appearance of omul nou, the New Man. 1
Like many fascist theoreticians, the author of the Claremont essay puts the condition of America in terms of a “toxin,” a “disease,” a “sickness,” and awaits the appearance of a providential man with the cure: “What is needed, of course, is a statesman who understands both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure.”
There are also hints of the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that fascist propagandists employ: “If you are a zombie or a human rodent (who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Real men and women who love honor and beauty, keep reading.” (Emphasis mine.)
One might object to characterizing this all as “fascist” because of the lack of an explicitly-named racial enemy, but we know from historical experience that fascism does not always require that, especially in its works of propaganda. Mussolini’s fascism was not antisemitic in its original conception, but it became so, in no small part because of the political needs of a closer relationship with Germany. It also imposed a racial order in in its conquest of Ethiopia. Colonel de la Rocque’s Croix de Feu in France was also not antisemitic, a rare exception on the French far right, but it had members who certainly were antisemites and it aligned itself with anti-Jewish groups.
It might also be objected that the author’s references to America’s democratic tradition prevents this text from being truly comparable to fascist ideas. First, I would just note again that the piece opens with the radically anti-democratic conceit of delegitimizing the citizenship of the majority of the country. Second, there are conceptions of “true” and authoritarian democracy that are clearly within the fascist and radical reactionary tradition. The Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt argued in his The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy that the division of the polity into true citizens that have full and equal rights and other groups that do not qualify to be real part of the democratic polity is not incompatible with democracy, but is actually the essence of a true democracy, which requires a homogenous citizenry for political equality to function properly. Equality of all persons is according to him a “liberal” rather than “democratic” idea. You can see something similar in the Claremont author’s idea of democratic equality in the U.S: It’s predicated on the essential homogeneity of the population:
For the first time, the idea of a social compact uniting all the people would form a truly nonpartisan regime.
The great difficulty is that this idea only works if everyone agrees—that is, if everyone “gets it” and acknowledges that we are all fellow citizens (friends, ultimately) and that any temporary majority in power must represent the rights and interests of all.
This is the vital heart of what made American self-government work as long as it did. And it is the repudiation of this idea that animates the progressive, or woke, or “antiracist” agenda that now corrupts our republic, assaults our morality, and suffocates our liberty.
The author makes it clear that these other conceptions are not tolerable in the context of a pluralist society, but are actually threats to the integrity of the American nation. Actually existing pluralism, and its consequent multiplicity of interests and perspectives, is not real democracy but its perversion.
In the U.S. context it also makes sense that the reactionary mind would inevitably mythologize a “truer” version of our republican and democratic traditions as the author does in this piece, because those are the basic symbols of our political tradition, to paraphrase the title of Willmoore Kendall’s book. In the French context, many fascist and para-fascist groups declared fealty to the republican tradition, which is as nearly predominant in that country as it is in our own. This was sometimes out of ideological syncretism, the search for a novel solution to the supposed national crisis, and sometimes just done out of pure political opportunism. Robert Soucy writes in his book French Fascism: The Second Wave:
Some of these groups even explicitly foreswore “fascism” as the foreign product of Germany or Italy, and portrayed themselves as the vanguard of an effort to strengthen the nation against the movements taking place in the other European countries. That temporary position, of course, did not prevent them from collaborating openly with the German occupation when the time came. The nationalism of these groups ultimately viewed the “internal enemy” as the greater evil, more foreign even than the foreign invader.
Let’s take a look at the propaganda calling forth the anti-parliamentary leagues that attacked the French parliament on February 6 1934, a moment that’s often considered a high-water mark of French fascist agitation. There were many appeals to the republican tradition and “liberty”: “What will the outcome be? That is for you to decide. Either we shall see the establishment of a regime based on sectarianism and immorality, or we shall assure the triumph of freedom and integrity…This is a decisive moment: the whole of France is waiting for the capital to speak; Paris will make its voice heard, strong, calm and dignified. Long live Paris! Long live the Republic! Long live France!”2 Or from another poster of that time: “A wholesale purge is being prepared. In the Army, the courts, and at every level of public administration, all those who have exhibited an independent spirit and a patriotic commitment will be ousted. Once again secret dossiers will be compiled. Freedom of opinion will be denied! Do you want to be ruled by a clique? Will you let them crush your liberty?”3
If this is not persuasive yet, I’d also like to draw your attention to another primary source as well. This is excerpted from January 1921 issue of the newspaper Hammer, published by Theodor Fritsch, who “became a cult figure for the [proto-Nazi] volkisch movement and National Socialists.” Here he’s giving the goals of his publication:
I urge you to take some time and read this alongside the Claremont piece. I think it’s really striking both in the similar rhetorical choices and the parallels in the program and intent being laid out, particularly in how Claremont is presented as having a special role in the movement for national restoration.
Let’s take a look at the conclusion of the Claremont essay:
In the meantime, give up on the idea that “conservatives” have anything useful to say. Accept the fact that what we need is a counter-revolution. Learn some useful skills, stay healthy, and get strong. (One of my favorite weightlifting coaches likes to say, “Strong people are harder to kill, and more useful generally.”) Also, read some books, like this one, and this one, or any of these; and consider one of the Institute’s fellowship programs, for yourself or a smart young person you know.
It’s all hands on deck now.
I think it’s clear the author does not think the counter-revolution is entirely metaphorical: he prescribes physical strengthening and some kind of literal combat is the offing. This is not to imply that this is a piece of literal incitement or to panic my readers, but to point that the rhetorical context here is again quite fascist: there’s the image of physical strength, combat, the prospect of killing, etc. which are meant to stir to the reader to consider themselves as combatants in a grave moment of crisis requiring an extraordinary effort: “It’s all hands on deck now.”
One might object that this is not really cause for concern as the Claremont Institute is just a tiny Ivory Tower without much mass reach. True enough, but the fact remains that we have these sorts of political notions being trotted out in an organization that exists to give such things “intellectual” or respectable trappings. Again, this is not the seamy underbelly of the internet: this is part of the world of bourgeois respectability. Neither is this sort of contemplation on the necessity or inevitability of fascist politics limited to the Ivory Tower of Claremont. Let’s look at this exchange on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News:
“I think you make a really solid point about the sadness and the powerlessness that people feel in the face of this. And at some point people are going to say, ‘Why should I follow the rules? Why should I be a good citizen if they don’t have to follow the rules?’” Carlson said. “I mean, things kind of break down at some point, don’t they?”
“They will break down, they are breaking down, Tucker,” Kelly replied. “I have said this before, and I’m telling you I’m worried that I’m right, the right is going to pick a fascist within 10 to 20 years.” Carlson chimed in to say that Kelly’s prediction was “right,” before the guest added that the U.S. has “60, 70 million of us. We’re not a tiny minority, and if we’re going to be all treated like criminals and all subject to every single law, while antifa, Black Lives Matter guys go free and Hunter Biden goes free, then the right’s going to take drastic measures.”
Carlson again cosigned the comments, while Kelly insisted, “It’s about justice, that [Hunter Biden is] never held accountable for it and none of the Bidens are, but you would be, Tucker, and so would I.” Concluding the conversation, Carlson said, “That’s so well put and you’re absolutely right. We’re moving toward actual extremism because they’re undermining the system that kept extremism at bay. I don’t think we can say that enough. I’m so glad that you just said it. Jesse Kelly, thank you.”
Tucker and his guest clearly state here that fascism is a justifiable response to the left, one forced on the right. Carlson, of course, has long been a mouthpiece of mainstream conservatism, and has now taken a more radical turn. When looking at these issues historically, it is important not to reify the difference between traditional conservatives and fascists. Even the parliamentary and republican right in France between the wars greeted the fascist repressions of the left in Germany and Italy with enthusiasm and only grew uncomfortable when Hitler began to turn his repressive apparatus on the right as well, starting in 1934. In his book A History of Fascism in France, Christopher Millington writes about the “porous boundary between conservatism and extremism on the right” and points out how parliamentary deputies often fraternized with and even joined extremist formations.
To return to the subject at hand, I believe the Claremont essay includes a number of the “mobilizing passions” described by Robert Paxton in his Anatomy of Fascism, namely “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions;” “dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influence;” and “the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.” There are also hints of “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, both internal and external;” and “the need for authority of natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.”4
Again, it is not my purpose here to alarm my readers or to write my own sort of anti-fascist propaganda. I just want to continue to argue and, indeed now to insist, it’s a considered and intellectually-serious position to bring these historical episodes into discussions about political phenomena in the present, and not just an intrusion from the realm of cable news hysteria. This contention includes no prediction about the actual strength or ultimate success of these currents. Predictions involve insight into structures and contingent events that in principle we cannot fully know since they are either obscure to us or are in the future. Let’s just face facts, now. Then we can start to argue about how important they are.
Roger Griffin, Fascism: Oxford Readers, pg. 3
Chris Millington and Brian Jenkins, Fascism in France: February 6 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis, pg. 180
Ibid., pg. 181
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, pg. 219