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Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley during a campaign rally on September 21, 2018, in Springfield, Missouri. | Charlie Riedel/AP

A conversation with Yale’s Jason Stanley about the latent pathologies in American politics.

The word “fascism” has been tossed around so much over the last four years that it’s hard to know what it even means anymore.

But after Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, after the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 that has left a specter of violence hanging over American politics, the debate over the “F word” feels much more urgent.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale and the author of How Fascism Works (2018). It’s one of the most influential books on the topic in recent memory. And strange as it is, we don’t really have scholarly consensus on the meaning of fascism. It’s a slippery term, and trying to apply it in different contexts is tricky.

Stanley has a somewhat controversial view. Fascism is often regarded as an ideology or a regime type. Stanley says it’s a way of doing politics, a way of seizing power that feeds on a very particular style of propaganda. That may sound like an academic distinction, but it’s not. For Stanley, if we only think of fascism as a type of government or a coherent set of beliefs, then we’re likely to recognize it after it has already transformed our political system. The goal, he says, is to catch fascism “before it becomes a regime.”

I wanted to talk through all this with Stanley, especially now. Trump isn’t president anymore, but the cultural conditions that made his brand of fascist politics possible are still with us — and so are the dangers.

This is not one of those conversations that pretends to offer solutions for all the problems it diagnoses. Like every democracy, America will always have a latent form of fascism, and Stanley’s very honest about that. But this is an attempt to understand what happened over the last four years, how we got here, and what might come next. Ultimately, this isn’t just a conversation about fascism — it’s a conversation about the latent pathologies in democratic cultures.

You can hear our entire conversation in the week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Sean Illing

The conventional view of fascism is that it’s either an ideology or a type of government, but you see it a little differently, right?

Jason Stanley

It’s not helpful to think of fascism as a regime type and it’s not helpful to think of it as a set of coherent beliefs. Fascism is usually a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by immigrants, minorities, and leftists. Fascism takes many different forms in different countries, however. The Ku Klux Klan in the United States has long been regarded as the first functionally fascist organization by scholars like Robert O. Paxton.

I prefer to talk about fascist forces following Toni Morrison in a speech she gave at Howard University called “Racism and Fascism” in 1995. And what she says is that the United States has often preferred fascist solutions to its political problems. Now, what does she mean by that? Well, in that speech, she’s discussing the incarceration system that the United States had developed post-Nixon, after the civil rights movement, essentially to disenfranchise Black citizens. And the “fascist forces” were basically a system that relied on a massive militarized police for enforcement.

Sean Illing

She’s describing a “fascist system” that exists within a larger democratic system.

Jason Stanley

You can have a regime that’s a democracy and economic system that’s capitalist, but if you have massive racial injustice and massive inequality, then you’re going to have fascist social and political forces. You’re going to need a militarized police force to deal with potential uprisings from its impoverished minority neighborhoods that protect its fancy neighborhoods.

So we need to think about fascist social and political movements and fascist tactics, and then all of the background conditions that make these tactics effective. And that’s when you have to worry about a fascist leader emerging who has a kind of relationship with his followers where he can tell them that the minorities are rising up against you, that the immigrants are flooding the gates, that the elites have failed you — and that’s how the leader creates a bond with his supporters.

When this dynamic emerges, that’s when you have to worry about the formation of an actual fascist regime.

Sean Illing

The racism component is easy enough to understand, since fascism feeds on us-them tribalism, but why is nostalgia so central to every fascist movement?

Jason Stanley

If you have a dominant group that feels it was robbed of a glorious past, that feels it has to be ashamed of its glorious past, that is often the source of the most committed fascist movements. Nostalgia is an emotion. If you’re feeling anxious and somebody can convince you that your anxiety and fear and instability is due to the fact that you’ve lost something, that something was taken from you, and that you once got respect for, say, just being a white guy or just being a Hindu man, that’s powerful.

During Black Reconstruction, the famous sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois called this the psychological wages of whiteness. He was describing this extra wage you got just for being white in America, the sense that you were special and legitimate, and that was tied to this belief that you were constantly surrounded by illegitimate citizens. That conjures up a sense of loss and anxiety and a belief in a prideful past that had disappeared. And the fascist leader promises to restore that past, to restore that pride.

Sean Illing

That’s what makes Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan such a perfect distillation of the fascist pitch. Your colleague at Yale, Timothy Snyder, calls this “the politics of eternity,” and it’s worth describing because it captures the toxic power of nostalgia.

Politics is supposed to be about striving for better policies today so that our lives can be improved tomorrow, but Trump reverses this. He anchors his discourse to a mythological past, so that voters are thinking less about the future and more about what they think they lost. It wasn’t about passing legislation or improving lives. Instead, he defined problems in such a way that they could never be solved. We can’t go back in time. We can’t retrieve some lost golden age. So his voters were always condemned to live in disappointment, which keeps that wheel of resentment spinning.

Jason Stanley

Jonathan Metzl’s book Dying of Whiteness is really good on this idea that people crave to see their opponents punished in fascist politics. Timothy Snyder calls this sadopopulism. States like West Virginia or Kansas or Tennessee, to take just a few examples, reject billions of dollars from the federal government to expand Medicaid. They cut taxes for the wealthy to destroy their public schools. All of this harms the very white people who are voting. And they’re doing it, interview after interview shows, because they believe that Medicaid expansion would help Black people, or what they consider the undeserved.

So this kind of politics, that revenge and retribution for stealing your past, is far more important than material benefits to yourself. This is the heart of fascist politics.

Sean Illing

It’s the ultimate fascist hoodwink, right? You inflame grievances while at the same time reinforcing the conditions that brought about those grievances in the first place.

Jason Stanley

Absolutely.

Sean Illing

You’ve always emphasized that “smashing” the truth is a fundamental goal of fascism. Most totalitarian ideologies are about compelling people to believe the same truth, but fascism makes truth an irrelevant category altogether.

Jason Stanley

Fascism is about will. That’s why it’s incorrect to think of it as an ideology or a set of beliefs. It’s about power and will. And power and will is this guy’s will versus everything else. And what truth does is level power. Someone with less power can point out that someone with more power is lying and the person with more power who’s lying will be humiliated. But if you destroy truth and make it just about power, that can’t happen. The extraordinary attack on truth we’ve seen is an object lesson in how to do this.

If you represent your opponent as a fundamental enemy, then truth doesn’t matter. If I’m on the battlefield and my enemy who wants to kill me says something true, it’s irrelevant — they’re trying to kill me. If they are saying something’s true, it’s just because it’s part of a greater mission to kill me. If my leader lies, well, he’s lying to protect me. So truth and falsity become irrelevant in a politics based around what the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt called the “friend-enemy distinction.”

Sean Illing

Why do you think it’s so important to call Trump a fascist?

Jason Stanley

I do think it’s important. People focus on what’s in his heart. I don’t care about that. I care about what he’s doing. And he is creating a fascist social and political movement with himself as the leader. And I don’t care if in his heart he’s just doing it for power. That is what fascists will often do. When you see what’s happening as the creation of a fascist social and political movement, then you expect certain things to happen, you expect political violence, you would expect naked attempts to steal an election. So we must take Trump literally.

People tried to dismiss Trump as a clown, but that frame didn’t help at all. In fact, it wildly misled people. Trump was no clown. If you viewed him as a clown, you saw the destruction of the government and the constant rotating of people through positions as just incompetence. If you view him as a fascist, you saw it as a way to keep him and his most loyal people in power.

Sean Illing

Has your view of fascism changed in any significant way over the last four years?

Jason Stanley

Well, I think it’s changed. My 2018 book was based internationally. So I was looking at India, Hungary, a bunch of different countries where we’re seeing fascist social and political movements led by leaders who are taking over their democracies. I’ve learned a lot from the objections from colleagues like Samuel Moyn and Corey Robin, who pushed back against calling all of this fascism.

Sean Illing

How so?

Jason Stanley

The objection to the fascism charge is often people saying, “Look, really the problem is neoliberalism, it’s the billionaire class, it’s the oligarchy. And by calling it fascism, you’re letting them off the hook.” I go back to this idea drawn from the Black Radical Tradition that we’re seeing fascist solutions to political problems. Oligarchy plus racial division will lead to militarized police forces that enforce mass detention on minorities and opponents to preserve the oligarchy. So it’s important to talk about institutions and structure as fascist, and that’s more important than thinking about fascist governments or regimes.

Sean Illing

Why is democracy the mother of fascism? Why, in other words, has fascism only ever emerged out of democratic societies?

Jason Stanley

My 2015 book, How Propaganda Works, is about this. Democratic political philosophy since John Rawls has focused on redistribution. In my book, I try to argue that the central problem of democratic political philosophy, dating back to Plato, is how democracy leads to tyranny. Dating back to Plato, the issue with democracy was its stability in the face of free speech. Democracy requires freedom. So anyone can vie for office, including, as Plato warns us, a tyrant.

Democracy forces us to allow anyone to seek power. So it allows into the space of politics people who seek only personal power. And then freedom of speech allows them to do whatever they want. Plato warns us that democracy will lead immediately to tyranny. Someone who should never be in politics in the first place will come in with an appetite for power, spread fear of foreigners or internal enemies, represent himself as the only protector and then seize power and never give it up.

I think of fascism as the modern version of the demagogue Plato warned us about so long ago.

Sean Illing

Trump is out of our immediate political orbit now, but the conditions that made him possible persist. And if fascism is this attempt to turn democratic politics into something deeply primal and tribalistic, how do we slay that monster without becoming it?

Jason Stanley

First of all, there are the long-term strategies focusing on inequality and our education system. As long as we have this catastrophic banking and finance system and somebody can come along and say, “Look at how badly the elites are ruling you, look at how they betrayed you,” we’re in trouble.

The Republicans are trying to set the Democrats up for that already. They’re trying to get them to do less, to not come through for people and to just come through for business. So then they can say, “Look at the elites betraying you again.” You have to address education. People must know what the sources of inequality are or they will fall for myths that a fascist leader can exploit.

We have to deal with racial inequality. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Societies will look back at us, historians will look back at us and say, “That society was regarded as a leading democracy, and yet they had the highest incarceration rate in the world?” Many Black Americans have families incarcerated for incredible amounts of time. As long as that happens, there’s always going to be revolutions and uprisings. And as long as there are those revolutions and uprisings, it’s going to empower a demagogic leader who’s going to say, “I’m going to deal with those uprisings. I’m going to be harsh.”

We also have to address rural poverty. Government has to address the real-time problems of the base of any potential fascist movement. There will always be would-be fascist supporters. We can’t do anything about that. We just have to reduce their numbers by education, by making people understand what they’re supporting. We have to lessen this fear that other people’s liberties come at the expense of your liberty.

Sean Illing

That’s all good and worthwhile, but you’re mostly talking about big, long-term solutions. What the hell do we do right now, in this moment, to turn things around?

Jason Stanley

Right now we need accountability. We have to send a message that you can’t get away with overthrowing an election. If you don’t send that message of accountability, you’re simply urging people on, you’re simply opening the gates. And secondly, in what I would describe as the medium-term, we have to restore norms of truth, respect for the truth. We have to return things to the time when a politician caught lying would receive some kind of public humiliation.

Sean Illing

And if we don’t or can’t do those things, what might the next fascist wave look like? Can we stop it?

Jason Stanley

It will be hard to stop given what Trump has already shown is possible. Trump has shown that you can get people like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

And let’s be clear about who Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are. I may be a Yale professor, but I went to a public school in Syracuse, New York, at a state university. I didn’t meet Ivy League grads until I was in grad school. They were very intimidating to me. Ted Cruz is my age, went to Princeton. And when I was cleaning the floors of bus stations to put myself through college, he went to Princeton, was a top debater, and then went to Harvard Law School. Josh Hawley went to Stanford and then Yale Law School. These are not just the elite. These are the elite of the elite of the elite. And they are destroying our democracy. They have joined this movement, and enough oligarchical elites have seen that they can use this movement.

But in a year or two, can the Democrats possibly deflate this movement? It’s going to be extremely difficult. We have people who have watched what Trump has managed to do, who are extremely good at this kind of politics, like Tucker Carlson, who I think is a likely future president.

Sean Illing

Oh man, I’m going to pass over that Carlson prediction and instead just ask: What do you think the biggest lesson people like Cruz or Hawley or Carlson will have learned from the past four years?

Jason Stanley

That there are no restraints, no punishments, no accountability. That you can go much farther than you ever thought possible in seizing power in the United States.

Author: Sean Illing

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