Say “fascism” to anyone you meet, and you will conjure images of coal-scuttle helmets, of Nazi boot-heels clicking in terrible unison down Berlin streets during dark days that only a few remaining among the living remember. Each day, members of the generation that heard those heels for themselves go into the ground, taking with them whispered words of warning. I saw it for myself, they whisper before they pass. See this tattooed number? See this scar? It happened. It was real.
Say “fascism” to anyone you meet, and you will be greeted with the boilerplate response of the blithely overconfident: such a thing cannot happen here. This is the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave. Ours is a nation of laws, of checks and balances, of righteousness and decency. Our laws and traditions stand as a bulwark against the rise of totalitarian madness. It cannot happen here. Thus we are indoctrinated into the school of our own assumed greatness.
“We must disenthrall ourselves,” said Abraham Lincoln, and so we must, because it can happen here. It is already happening. All the parroted recitations of grade school civics cannot erase the fact that a new order is rising. Call it “secret fascism” or “smiley-faced fascism.” Call it a quiet dictatorship. Call it what you like, but it is here with us in America today, and it is growing.
To be sure, there are no coal-scuttle helmets lined in ranks down our broad avenues, no Tonton Macoute savaging dissidents, no Khmer Rouge slaughtering intellectuals and herding citizens from cities to die by the millions on roads littered with skulls. The core strength of our new fascism is that it speaks softly. It does not present itself in such an obvious way that those who subsist on the dogmas of our greatness can point and say there, there it is, I see it.
This new fascism is not fed only by lies, though to be sure the lies are there in preposterous abundance. This new fascism is fed by myths, our myths, the myths by which we rock ourselves to sleep. This new fascism is in truth an elemental fascism, reborn today by a confluence of events; the diligent work of the few, in combination with the passivity of the many, have brought forth this new order.
The writer Umberto Eco, in a 1995 essay titled “Ur-Fascism,” delineated several core elements that have existed in one form or another in every fascist state in history: “Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten, because it does not represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader. Doctrine outstrips reason, and science is always suspect. The national identity is provided by the nation’s enemies. Argument is tantamount to treason. Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear. Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of ‘the people’ in the grand opera that is the state.”
Take these one at a time.
“Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten, because it does not represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader.”
George W. Bush has all but gelded Congress in recent months, attaching so-called “signing statements” to a variety of laws, which state that the president may act beyond the laws whenever he so chooses. The United States, fashioned as a republic, has as its voice the congressional body. This is all but finished. To cement his victory over the parliamentary system, Bush has put forth one Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, a man who believes in the ultimate power of the one leader over the many. The gelded congress does not appear able to keep this man from the high court, thus rendering the balancing branches of government into a satellite system of the Executive.
“Doctrine outstrips reason, and science is always suspect.”
The supremacy of religious fundamentalism within and without government carries this banner before all others. What is reason in the face of the zealot’s faith? Science has become a watered-down vessel for Intelligent Design, and the incontrovertible truths of empirical data are slapped aside. Spencer Tracy, in the film “Inherit the Wind,” bellows the warning here: “Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, backward, through the glorious ages of that sixteenth century, when bigots burned the man who dared to bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind.”
“The national identity is provided by the nation’s enemies.”
This has been with us for generations now. Our nation defined ourselves through a comparison to the Nazis, to the Imperial Japanese, and then through decades of comparison to Communism. Terrorism has supplanted all of these, hammered into place on a Tuesday in September by the actions of madmen. We are not them, all is justified in the struggle against them, and so we are defined.
“Argument is tantamount to treason.”
All one need do to see this in action is spend some hours with the Fox News channel. Freedom fries. Why do you hate America? You are with us or you are with the terrorists. Watch what you say.
“Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear.”
The manipulation of this population by fear has been ham-fisted, to be sure, but has also been cruelly effective. We do not want the evidence to be a mushroom cloud. Weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda in Iraq. Nuclear designs in Iran. Plastic sheeting and duct tape. Orange alert. Argument becomes tantamount to treason simply because everyone has been made to feel fear at all times. A frightened populace is easily governed, and governs itself; this lesson was well-learned in the duck-and-cover days of the Cold War. Those lessons have been masterfully applied once again. Today, the citizenry polices itself, and the herd moves as one body. Even the surveillance of innocent citizens by the state is brushed off as a necessary evil. Remember: you are being watched.
“Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of ‘the people’ in the grand opera that is the state.”
Once, we lived by the glorious simplicity of the vote. Casting a ballot was the single most patriotic duty a citizen could perform, an affirmation of all we held dear and true. Today, we live in the nation of the vanishing voter. Power has been so far removed from the people by those with money and influence that most see voting as a waste of time. Add to this the growing control of the implements of voting and vote-counting by partisan corporations, and the rule of We the People is left in ashes.
We must disenthrall ourselves from the idea that our institutions, our traditions, the barriers that protect us from absolute and authoritarian powers, cannot be broken down. They are being dismantled a brick at a time. The separation of powers has already been annihilated. It is a whispered fascism, not yet marching down your street or pounding upon your door in the dead of night. But it is here, and it is laying deep roots. We must listen beyond the whispered fascism of today to the shouted fascism of tomorrow. We must look beyond the lies and the myths, beyond the dogmas by which we sleep.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. William Rivers Pitt