The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fascism
Someone understood Hitler and fascism as it was unfolding in Germany. He wrote about it in 1939.
We're heading into an ugly election year. Despite all odds, Donald Trump will be running against Joe Biden. It's a rematch.
He could win.
Someone understood what was going to happen before Trump was even born. He understood Hitler and fascism as it was unfolding in Germany. He also understood how much danger it posed for America.
He wrote about it in 1939, in The Southern Review of all places.
The essay was titled, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle."
His name was Kenneth Burke.
Burke described exactly how fascism works. According to his philosophy, fascists were appealing to the masses for a few simple reasons. It had nothing to do with Hitler or Mussolini's charisma. They weren't that charismatic. They were unhinged and aggressive, unpleasant to be around.
But they offered something nobody else did:
They offered unity.
Here's what Burke had to say:
"Hitler provided a worldview for people who had previously seen the world but piecemeal." Fascists gain power when ordinary people lose trust in their institutions and feel throttled by life. "Are they not then psychologically ready for a rationale, any rationale, if it but offers them some specious universal explanation?" Hitler "was not offering people a rival worldview; rather, he was offering a worldview to people who had no other to pit against it."
Hitler showed us "the power of endless repetition."
He used it all the time.
Hitler didn't simply give powerful speeches. As Burke tells us, Hitler explained in his own writings how he made an effort to "fill his speech[es] with provocative remarks" to trigger his opponents. When they reacted to his insults, his bouncers assaulted them and threw them out.
It made him look like a victim.
Hitler managed to accomplish something that nobody else could. Through identification and consubstantiality, he made his followers feel like they were him. As Burke writes, Hitler achieved a "spontaneous identification between leader and people." He integrated himself with the public so strongly that "the politician does not even present himself as [a] candidate. Somehow, the battle is over already, the decision has been made."
Isabel Wilkerson describes the same process in Caste. When people look at a demagogue, they see themselves. When they listen to a demagogue, they hear themselves. That's the magic trick.
Burke pinpointed the role the economy played in Hitler's rise to power. He managed to trick his audiences into believing they had to achieve dignity before they could build an effective economy. Burke even breaks down the four drivers of Hitler's platform. Here they are:
- Inborn dignity (through racial superiority).
- Scapegoating vulnerable groups.
- Symbolic rebirth.
- A product or solution.
Time and again, Hitler insisted that Germany's problems weren't economic or political. They were ethical and cultural.
They were spiritual.
Hitler blamed Germany's ethical and spiritual collapse on vulnerable groups. He blamed it on Jews. He blamed it on black and brown people. He blamed it on the physically and mentally ill. He blamed it on gypsies. He blamed it on sexual deviants. Germans were desperate for unity. They were so desperate, they were ready to attack any hint of difference.
Hitler understood that.
Throughout his career, Burke returned to Hitler as an example of how a demagogue would twist art, religion, science, literature, and philosophy inside out in order to serve the goals of fascism. He described the conditions that made millions of people so eager to give up their autonomy.
He found America at risk.
Here's what he said: "Our job... is to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle." Burke also said that "unity, if attained on a deceptive basis, by emotional trickeries that shift our criticism from the accurate locus of our trouble, is no unity at all."
For Burke, the real enemy was predatory capitalism. It was the economic system that devalued humans and elevated machines. It was the resulting culture that drove fear and alienation over community.
People like to claim that fascism could never happen in America. Even today, they like to think we beat it, but we didn't. Burke never believed that. Throughout his writing, he made it clear.
America has always had all the pieces of fascism.
We have a history of slavery and ethnic cleansing. We have scapegoated, marginalized groups everywhere. We have religious fanaticism. We have a predatory economic system. We have a desperate sense of loneliness that drives a desire for connection and unity. Time and again, we only find the most vapid, commercialized, parasocial forms of it.
Oh, and we have lots and lots of guns.
Right now, people are desperate.
Things are collapsing.
The economy is collapsing. Our institutions are collapsing. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Our health is collapsing. Our social bonds are collapsing. It's even worse than 1930s Germany, because the planet itself is collapsing. We're not seeing hyperinflation, just endless inflation.
Trump and his far right allies are the only group offering anything close to a cohesive narrative for all of the pain and hardship Americans feel. They know the power of endless repetition. Their narrative is horrific, but it's totalizing. They're convincing Americans that their problems have nothing to do with corporate greed and its destruction. No, it's the weird people.
It's their fault.
That's the unifying narrative Republicans are selling now. They're using Hitler's playbook, all four principles. Their very slogan "Make America Great Again" embodies the ethical and spiritual rebirth that so many Americans are desperate to begin. It's all a lie, but that doesn't matter.
Burke even predicted how Trump would physically relocate his power away from Washington D.C. to his own golf resort, Mar-a-Lago. That's why Trump stayed there. That's why he stored classified documents there. It wasn't total stupidity. It was straight out of fascism's playbook.
Burke called it "geographical materialization." Trump probably couldn't pronounce that word. It doesn't matter.
He understands it.
The Democrats could offer a compelling worldview.
I'm not sure they're doing it.
Anytime Democrats get close to a unifying worldview that accurately centers corporate greed as the root of our problems, including the collapse of our environment, they back off. I guess it scares their billionaire donors, who have no real intention of truly fixing anything. I think a lot of the elite would rather live in a fascist hell with their bags of money than live in a true democracy with an economy that doesn't destroy everything it touches.
A fascist America doesn't really pose a threat to the super rich.
A democratic socialist one does.
The only thing that can beat a unifying worldview offered by fascism is the truth, regardless of how hard it is to hear.
The promise of throwing Trump in jail will satisfy affluent liberals all day long. It won't do anything for the working class. It won't do anything for the millions of Americans out there who can't afford groceries.
People will gladly sacrifice their freedom for security and stability. They'll sacrifice other people's freedom, too. That's the lesson of fascism.
"Everything's fine," isn't a unifying narrative.
It won't work.
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