Why fascism? Why now?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how fascism is rising, but not nearly enough about why.

Week after week, I find myself chronicling the signs of a rising fascism, both in the United States and around the world: the January 6 insurrection (and the attempts to write it off as no big deal), the parallel Bolsonaro riot in Brazil, Governor Abbott’s offer to pardon a conservative for murdering a liberal protester, increasing state violence in India (“politicians are learning that violence can yield political dividends in a country deeply polarized along religious lines”), refusal to accept that electoral defeat can be legitimate, defense of treason if it supports your cause (“Jake Teixeira is white, male, christian, and antiwar. That makes him an enemy to the Biden regime. … Ask yourself who is the real enemy?”), the increasingly cynical abuse of right-wing political and judicial power, combined with a reflexive tolerance for right-wing corruption in high places. And so on. [1]

Examples of rising fascist tendencies easily draw attention and produce fear for the future. But much less attention gets focused on the deeper question: Why is this happening now? Fascism has never been completely stamped out, but for decades it was a fringe phenomenon. By and large, losing parties admitted their defeats, tacked back to the center, and tried to regain majority support rather than disenfranchise the voters who rejected them. Elected officials distanced themselves from violence, treason, and blatantly corrupt allies.

What changed? It can’t just be the fault of one bad leader. How, for example, could Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin be causing a drift towards fascism in Europe or South America or India or Israel?

Recently I happened across two essays that address this question in different ways: science fiction author David Brin’s “Isaac Asimov, Karl Marx, & the Hari Seldon Paradox” and Umair Haque’s “The Truth About Our Civilization’s Fascism Problem Is Even Worse Than You Think“. I don’t intend to broadly endorse either author (especially Haque, who in general seems far too negative and fatalistic for me), but both have insights that strike me as important.

The post-war “miracle”. For both Haque and Brin, the key question isn’t why fascism is rising now, but how it got pushed to the fringe for decades after World War II. Haque explains it like this:

Consider the founding of modern Europe. Its entire idea was to prevent the far right ever rising again. Modern Europe, rebuilt in the ashes of the war, did something remarkable, that led to what later observers like me would call the European Miracle. It took the relatively small amount of investment that America gave it — which was all it had — and used that in a way that was fundamentally new in human history. Instead of spending it on arms, or giving it to elites, it used it rewrite constitutions which guaranteed everything from healthcare to education to transport as basic, fundamental, universal rights.

This was the point of Keynes’ magisterial insight into why the War had happened. Germans, declining into sudden poverty, destabilized by debt, had undergone a political implosion. Economic ruin had had political consequences. The consequences of “the peace” as Keynes said — the peace of World War I, which had been designed to keep Germany impoverished. Fascism erupted as a result. And so after the Second World War, Europe did something bold, unprecedented, and remarkable in all of human history — it offered its citizens these cutting edge social contracts, rich in rights for all, built institutions to enact them, from pension systems to high speed trains, and then formed a political union on top of that, to make sure that peace, this time, remained.

Fascism, in Haque’s view, is a political technique for gathering up the misery of the masses and focusing it on scapegoats rather than solutions. The primary promise of the fascist leader is revenge, which will solve the problems of his followers through some magical process of subtraction rather than addition. Throwing rocks through the windows of Jewish businesses or preventing trans kids from getting gender-affirming care will somehow make your own life better. Break up the families of migrants seeking asylum, and somehow your own inability to care for your sick wife or send your children to college will not hurt so much.

America and England both had fascist movements in the 1930s, but they didn’t catch on like Germany’s. Maybe that was because — even in the depths of the Depression — neither country had Germany-level misery. Neither country experienced quite the sense of failure and loss of hope that made Hitler seem like a compelling way forward.

But Brin points to something else that happened in 1930s America: the New Deal, which confounded Karl Marx’ prediction of ever-increasing dominance by wealthy capitalists, inevitably leading to a revolutionary explosion.

Karl Marx never imagined that scions of wealth – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his circle – would be persuaded to buy off the workers, by leveling the field and inviting them to share in a strong Middle Class, whose children would then (as recommended by Adam Smith) be able to compete fairly with scions of the rich. 

It was a stunning (if way-incomplete) act of intelligence and resilience that changed America’s path and thus the world’s.

Brin, recalling the lessons of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, invokes the Seldon Paradox: “Accurate psychohistorical predictions, once made known, set into effect psychohistorical forces that falsify the prediction.” In this case, American plutocrats like “that smart crook, Joseph Kennedy” took Marx’ predictions seriously and tried to head them off. Brin quotes Kennedy: “I’d rather be taxed half my wealth so the poor and workers are calm and happy than lose it all to revolution.”

Kennedy’s view was far from universal among the American rich, but it did split the forces of plutocracy, enabling the creation of an American safety net.

Post-war Europe took the lesson further, as Haque describes:

What do Europeans enjoy, still, even though it’s teetering now, that Americans don’t? All those rich, sophisticated social contracts, one supposes, which guarantee them everything from high speed transport to cutting edge healthcare.

But there’s more than that. All that creates — or did for a very long time — a feeling that doesn’t exist in America. A sense of community. A kind of peace, which you can readily see in the absence of gun massacres in Europe, even though, yes, there are guns, if not quite so many. Stronger social bonds and ties — Europeans still have friends, and in America, friendship itself has become a luxury. All that matters.

The short description of what Europe achieved is public happiness.

Fascism is born of rage, fear, despair, which drives people into the arms of demagogues, who blame all those woes on hated subhumans, “others” — and so the truest antidote we know of to all that is human happiness itself.

Revenge, not hope. That observation explains one of the great mysteries of current American politics: why the GOP has no governing program. The party has a clear constituency: the non-college White working class, particularly in rural areas. So why are there no plans to do anything for them?

Think about it: expanding Medicaid to save not just the families of the working poor, but rural hospital systems as well; bringing broadband internet to rural areas; raising the minimum wage; shoring up community colleges — those are all Democratic goals that Republicans do their best to block.

It’s not that Republicans have no proposals. The red-state legislatures they control are buzzing with activity: loosening gun laws, taking away women’s bodily autonomy, banning accurate accounts of racism from schools, defunding libraries, and making trans youth invisible, just to name a few.

But how exactly does that help anybody?

Or take that frequent Trump claim that “They’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.” Who is after you? How did Trump ever stand in their way? Even a sympathetic NY Post columnist has no answer for that. He spins conspiracy theories of how the Deep State has been out to get Trump from the beginning, but what does any of that have to do with the “you” in Trump’s statement?

What Trump offered “you” was revenge. Those people you hate: the Muslims, the queers, the immigrants, the Blacks, the educated “elite”, and so on. He demeaned them, insulted them, made them suffer. He “owned the libs” and made them hopping mad in ways that you never could have managed on your own..

But he never did anything to improve your life, because that was never the point. It would, in fact, have been counterproductive, because MAGAism needs your misery. If you felt more secure, more hopeful, more capable of dealing with a changing world, then you wouldn’t need revenge any more. And you wouldn’t need Trump.

Beyond the Seldon Paradox. So what happened to public happiness? Now we bounce back to Brin, who quotes a corollary to the Seldon Paradox: After people adjust to dire predictions and cause them to fail, the next generation stops taking the predictions seriously. And then they come true.

In other words, what we are seeing now… a massive, worldwide oligarchic putsch to discredit the very same Rooseveltean social compact that saved their caste and allowed them to become rich… but that led to them surrounding themselves with sycophants who murmur flattering notions of inherent superiority and dreams of harems. Would-be lords, never allowing themselves to realize that yacht has sailed.

In other words: Marx? Who listens to Marx any more? All his nonsense predictions turned out to be laughably false.

So sometime in the 1970s, the plutocratic counter-revolution began. One turning point was the infamous Powell Memo, written in 1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The American system of free enterprise, he wrote, was under broad attack from socialist thinkers, and business leaders had been responding with “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem”. Powell outlined a multi-faceted program to create a new intellectual climate in America, one more favorable to corporate power and the influence of big money.

Within ten years, Ronald Reagan was president, and the United States had embarked on an era of ever-lower taxes on the rich, restrictions on corporate regulation, and union-busting.

And that was the end of the great American middle class. From 1940 through 1980, income growth among the rich had lagged behind the larger public, but after the Reagan Revolution it rapidly made up the difference.

Then and now. A decline in human happiness and hope can lead to a Marxist revolution. (That was one possibility in Weimar Germany as well.) But it also creates opportunities for fascist scapegoating.

So if you don’t feel as successful as your parents were at the same age, and you see even worse prospects waiting for your children, whose fault is that? Maybe it’s the Jews. Maybe it’s the November criminals who stabbed your valiant German soldiers in the back at Versailles. Maybe it’s the decadent culture of big cities like Berlin: the gays, the transvestites, the young people dancing to that African “monkey music” from America.

If only we had a leader strong enough to make them pay.

See the resemblance?

Lessons. So where does that leave us? What lessons can we draw? One lesson is to keep our own resentment tightly focused on the people who deserve it. Working class Americans who see little hope for their children are not our enemies, even if they vote for our enemies. We shouldn’t want revenge on them, we should want them to have better prospects, so that they lose their own need for revenge.

Us against Them is the fascist conversation. We can’t let ourselves be drawn into it.

Our salvation will not come through their misery. Quite the reverse. If we are to be saved, it will have to be through happiness — everyone’s happiness.

And if we’re lucky, maybe some rebel faction of smart plutocrats will come to see the same thing.

[1] Some want to argue about whether to call this worldwide movement “fascism”. I’ve explained why I do, but if you’d rather reserve the word for Hitler, Mussolini, et al, that’s fine. Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro are certainly not identical to Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, but I would say that 20th-century fascism differs in some particulars from 21st-century fascism, not that they are completely different animals.

The important thing is that the lack of a word doesn’t lead to an inability to discuss the phenomenon, in the fashion of Orwell’s Newspeak. Simply referring to Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, Modi, et al as “authoritarians” (as Tom Nichols does) is not nearly specific enough. Any general who stages a successful coup is an authoritarian. But an anti-democratic movement that anoints one segment of the citizenry as the “real” or “true” citizens, and scapegoats the “unreal” or “false” citizens as the cause of all the nation’s problems, justifying discrimination and even violence against them — that’s something more than just “authoritarianism”.

In short, I’d be content to use some other word to carry on a discussion with someone who wants Hitler to be unique. But that word has to capture the full evil of the phenomenon, without diluting it by including anyone who finds democratic governance inefficient.

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  • Brian Miller  On April 17, 2023 at 11:37 am

    Here’s a suggestion for a good word to use – it is perhaps a little too complex, but it uses the other side’s vernacular. Anti-woke.

  • lori wheeler  On April 17, 2023 at 12:03 pm

    Thought you might find this artic

  • HAT  On April 17, 2023 at 12:07 pm

    And here’s Theodor Adorno: “The bourgeoisie would rather commit suicide than change.”

  • timbartik  On April 17, 2023 at 12:29 pm

    You might find of interest this substack column from Noah Smith. Point 5 is that starting a few years back, inequality trends have plateaued or even begun to slightly decline. https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/five-big-trends-that-have-changed

    You can peruse some of the underlying data at https://realtimeinequality.org/

  • donquixote99  On April 17, 2023 at 5:36 pm

    A large faction can be described as Nationalist Christians. I suppose it would be wrong to shorten that to Nat Cs.

  • reverendsax  On April 17, 2023 at 6:14 pm

    This is really helpful. Now we need Democratic candidates for all offices to point out these simple truths so that everyone hears them over and over.

  • Sharon Herrick  On April 18, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    I look forward to The Sift every week for insightful, informed commentary. I especially appreciate the impeded references which assure me that this isn’t just someone spouting his opinion. Thank you for your research and attention to truth.Please keep writing as I share your ideas with my children and friends.

  • Kim Cooper  On April 19, 2023 at 6:52 am

    Great article Doug! Do you usually read Umair Haque? He had an especially great article a while ago called “Why Didn’t America Become Part of the Modern World?” It talks about how Europe instituted all those things you mentioned, like health care. Have you read it? It’s not there anymore because he deleted it, I have no idea why. I have a copy if you haven’t read it and would like to.
    Sacellum theory talks about how we forget lessons we learned as soon as most of the people who lived through it have died. Roughly 80 years. So, every 80 years or so, we kinda start over. It’s been that long now, so we are forgetting what we learned from WWII.

    • Eric L  On April 19, 2023 at 12:17 pm

      I believe Peter Turchin had a similar theory about cycles of violence. Plausible, but there are a few things I don’t think fit. One, why is this also happening in Brazil and India (indeed moreso there) when WWII wasn’t as big a part of their history. The other is that I would expect that kind of radicalization to disproportionately be seen among the young, rather than those raised by WWII vets. Do you see this differently?

  • John Kallio  On April 19, 2023 at 9:50 am

    The cause of fascism is easy to identify: upgrade to technology.

    Every time the world develops new technology – strife and fascism rise.

    1400’s. Printing Press. Dark Ages + Renissiace
    Mid 1800’s. Telegraph. Civil War.
    1900’s. Radio / Television WW1 &WW2
    Present Day: Internet

    Any time there is a huge change in the level of communication technology – there is massive social upheaval.

    The internet is the most powerful form of communication ever devised. No one is immune to its effects. Even the smartest person in the world (Elon Musk?) can fall victim to it.

    Fascism is a result of feeling powerless vs. change. So you scapegoat a group of people. Modern technology makes it very easy to feel powerless. Its easy to blame others.

    • Eric L  On April 19, 2023 at 12:33 pm

      Bingo. I’d quibble that usually when I see this theory the printing press is credited for the protestant reformation and the subsequent wars, but otherwise…

      Some ways social media specifically is changing things:

      1. Declining mental health. Yes, this could have lots of causes but the evidence is quite strong that social media is bad for us, and it’s plausible that some political movements are yet another symptom of that. Jon Haidt has a good summary of the evidence on this.

      2. It is the golden age of get-a-load-of-this-a-hole. Those sorts of posts are among the most likely political posts to go viral. Some social media accounts like LibsOfTikTok only do this. (In the early days of the blogosphere the term “nutpicking” was invented for this practice, but this has only gotten more prevalent.) This feeds into scapegoating. It also amplifies radical voices, with people opposed to them ironically playing a large role in that amplification. This makes fringe views seem more common than they are, while also convincing everyone they are under attack by extremists, and need to fight back desperately.

      3. And all the ways previous technologies did. New radical voices get a hearing, and it takes a while for new norms to develop around how new media should be expected to be used and how to know who to ignore and who to pay attention to.

      • Schnark  On April 19, 2023 at 6:57 pm

        Interested in your point 2.
        But I’ve noticed mainstream forums shutting down discussion of anything remotely controversial in an effort to appease advertising revenue. This redirects interested folks, like me?, to remoter corners of the web where we are not moderated by sane intelligent input, but subject to lots of nut nut conspiracy crap.
        Or otherwise where do folk go to debate, and does it matter?

      • donquixote99  On April 19, 2023 at 7:08 pm

        Depends on what you think ‘debate’ is, and what you hope to achieve. I think debate is, basically, a performance argument. Performance because it has an audience, which is what makes it different from ordinary interpersonal argument. Debates should have rules and norms of civility and honesty and decorum, to maximize the chance that the audience will get good information out of them and make better decisions. Debate, note, is not about convincing the guy on the other side, who after all is the champion of an opposing faction and honor bound to be convinced of nothing. It’s about convincing the audience.

        I think blogs that attract a large readership can be great places for debate.

      • Schnark  On April 19, 2023 at 7:20 pm

        Hmm, I’m half with you, but I also think debate is about working out my own thoughts and not everyone wants to clutter up someone else’s blog.
        I’m happy to find a good dose of sense here.

      • Eric L  On April 21, 2023 at 5:06 pm


        If you are interested in my point #2 you might be interested in this NY Times article that makes a similar point toward the end:

        Also see this paper titled “Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media”


        I wouldn’t call this “debate” as the thing I’m referring to is talking *about* the people you disagree with rather than trying to talk *to* them.

        This reminds me of another problem with the internet, though not specific to social media. The potentially uncommitted and persuadable audience that donquixote99 are basically invisible in an online discussion, while the most stubborn are quite visible and remain in the argument after everyone else has quit. This can make for a frustrating experience that frequently leaves participants convinced that nothing is accomplished in such arguments, even though it’s entirely possible there were people reading the argument who found some points compelling. This pushes people towards authoritarian attitudes — there is no good in talking out our differences; people just need to be told the discussion is over and it’s time to shut up, right?

        So we should be debating more IRL. But I still prefer blog comment sections out of (pre-social-media) habit. Your could also try one of the Reddit communities specifically created for debate (e.g. r/changemyview) if you want to make a hobby of it.

  • Josh  On April 24, 2023 at 9:33 am

    We cannot stop criticizing ourselves. Self-restraint, self-criticism are defining characteristics of the liberal movement such that if they are jettisoned, it ceases to be a liberal movement.

    The MAGA right remains an immediate danger to American democracy. They do not see reason and demonstrate a cult-like affinity for Trump. But the emotional landscape that drives this is built on often valid criticism of left-wing extremism that they see moderate liberals largely allow to go without comment or criticism. It gives them a weapon, perhaps the only legitimate weapon, for their arsenal. A weapon that, not coincidentally, is the one DeSantis is trying to wrestle away from Trump, leaving him only his personal grievances and distasteful lurching toward full-blown Christian Nationalism.

    Being gracious and accepting and encouraging of diversity is great. But we cannot allow casual denigration of white people or men in left-wing public discourse, and we cannot allow discrimination against white people and men in law and regulation. On a personal note, I believe it is dangerous to hate yourself, to hate the indelible parts of your identity, and to encourage others to hate you. It’s a strange modern taken on blood libel that relies on the accused to punish themselves. These effects are real, and they are not descried at all by moderates, and that’s the most disturbing thing. Because it means you think it’s okay, or it doesn’t matter, or the people standing up against it are wrong or misguided. It means this is what you want. And that may not be as immediate a threat as Trump, but it’s a real threat that needs to be stopped. Just as MAGA coopted the GOP, I see the possibility that the Woke will coopt the DNC, and have in fact made strides in that direction.

    • donquixote99  On April 24, 2023 at 9:55 am

      Beware of getting into a trick bag of hating a whole side of the political spectrum because some of them seem to hate you. Your post boils down to 1. Some on ‘the left’ seem to hate whites/males. 2.’The left’ should put a stop to it! But some on the right seem to hate blacks and Jews, and the right does not put a stop to that. The thing I judge is the leadership. On which side is hate promoted, exploited, and encouraged?

  • reverendsax  On April 24, 2023 at 10:03 am

    I wondered if anyone here watched the series “Babylon Berlin,” which depicts low end cultural life in 1929. I didn’t understand Tillich’s book, “The Socialist Decision” until I watched this. He was struggling with a Christian socialist answer to the problems of Germany then, and ultimately left when Hitler rose to power. There are 100 reasons in the series for the rise of Hitler and Nazism. The bourgeois middle class either didn’t see it coming or was in denial of the rising anger at Versailles, the loss of national identity, and the economic angst that hit with the depression.


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