From Rick Perlstein, The American Prospect <[email protected]>
Subject The Infernal Triangle: American Fascism
Date January 24, 2024 1:04 PM
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American Fascism

Author and scholar John Ganz on how Europe's interwar period informs
the present

When Timothy Snyder's slim volume On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the
Twentieth Century

****was rocketing up the best-seller charts in 2017, I noticed an
interesting fact: The most illuminating analysts of America's
frightening recent political turn were turning out to be scholars
specializing in Europe. When Snyder
Ruth Ben-Ghiat , or Richard

noticed phenomena in America's past or present that resembled
something in the right-wing movements they studied in Germany, Italy, or
elsewhere, they just said so-blithely indifferent to what every
graduate student in American history learns, and what

**New York Times**reporters shout from the rooftops
that America is supposed to be "exceptional

The most interesting voice thinking about the connections between
interwar Europe and the present-day U.S. happens to be a scholar of
both. John Ganz's forthcoming book When the Clock Broke

****illuminates the exceedingly odd politics of the U.S. in
1992-including some haunting harbingers of America's Trumpian turn.
The most fascinating posts on his Substack Unpopular Front
are deeply learned perambulations
through the 20th-century European right. Their most important lesson:
Fascism is always less simple than we think it is.

"We have this image in our heads-and this is really hard to get out of
people's heads-of the fascist rise to power that comes from fascist
propaganda," Ganz explains. The stereotype is thugs marching into the
seat of government with truncheons, then marching out having seized
state power. "It is much more political than that. It has much more to
do with negotiations between established political factions and elites
... None of these movements were destined to succeed. There was a lot of
luck, and there were a lot of contingencies."

Most fascist parties and movements-Ganz knows their names, and repeats
them often, as a reminder of that contingency-never seized any power.
They were footnotes. That's an important insight to address to
observers who cite the sheer ridiculousness
, abundant incompetence
and outright insanity
Donald Trump's movement, and have a hard time placing it in the same
universe with the movement that almost conquered Europe. After all, if
Hitler's little gang of beer hall brawlers had failed to achieve
power, they surely would have looked precisely as ridiculous as all
that. As Ganz puts it, "Everything kind of looks farcical until it

The brawlers are never really the engine of the thing anyway. Ganz
explained how Hitler and Mussolini used their more violent elements to
destabilize and intimidate, while they took power through the more
normal political channels of forming coalitions in parliament and
ascending into leadership roles.

"The constitutional system in Italy always remained intact," even when
Mussolini became dictator, Ganz notes. "There was still the king, there
was still a constitutional monarchy; he was prime minister. The fascist
state kind of superimposed itself on that." There was, for a time, even
a robust parliamentary opposition: "Antonio Gramsci, head of the Italian
Communist Party, famously was elected to parliament

**after**Mussolini rose to power."

At least as important to the story are the "responsible conservatives"
who made their peace with the strongman, believing he could be
controlled. Like Germany's Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, architect
of the 1933 coalition that made Hitler chancellor, who said: "In two
months, we'll have pushed Hitler so far into the corner that he'll
squeal." Or the guy who said in 2015, "You know how to make America
great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell." That would be one Lindsey
Graham, who later decided he liked Trump just fine, once he started

The conceit is similar to what Bill Clinton felt about allowing China
into the World Trade Organization
: If you
bring a radical outlier within the political system, they will act
rationally and moderate their worst impulses. Mainstream conservatives
in Italy and Germany repeatedly claimed Mussolini and Hitler would turn
out to be responsible actors, once they occupied positions of
responsibility. American elites followed suit with the absurd refrain,
on occasions when Trump managed to act normal for 15 seconds: "He became
president of the United States in that moment, period."

That was CNN's Van Jones, when Trump paid tribute to a military widow
in his first address to a joint session of Congress. Venerable pundit
Karen Tumulty still thinks this a reasonable thing to believe. As she
wrote in The Washington Post

a few weeks back, "In 2016, it was still possible to believe that Trump
would grow and change under the weightiness of the office."

The 1991 documentary Trump: What's the Deal?
for free online by its producers when Trump announced his presidential
campaign-had already revealed him to be exactly as he would be in
2016. The best line-I quoted it in what I believe was the first piece
evaluate whether Trump was a fascist (not yet, I concluded then)-came
from architect Der Scutt. He said that if you want to calculate the
truth of one of Donald Trump's claims: "Divide by two, then divide by
four, and you're closer to the answer." It also documents his feral
racism and consequence-free consorting with criminals in pursuit of his

[link removed]

There were Karen Tumultys back in the day, too. A 2015 book by historian
Despina Stratigakos, Hitler at Home
demonstrates publications around the world dutifully passing on der
Führer's carefully cultivated image as an amiable country squire of
whom we could expect reasonable things, in features like this one

that ran in The New York Times 11 days before the 1939 blitzkrieg

****of Poland: "High up on his favorite mountain he finds time for
politics, solitude and frequent official parties ..."

It sounds crazy that sophisticated people could be that naïve, that
late in the game. But listen now to the reports from the World Economic
Forum in Davos: "U.S. industry leaders seem overwhelmingly nonplussed
with a second Trump term, while foreign chief executives are terrified."
Replied one of the nonplussed: "I'm not sure Europeans understand how
weak executive orders are. We have a justice system ... it won't be
the end of the world." Another pronounced Trump "all bark and no bite,"
with his tossing aside the 2020 election returns mere bloviation. And
besides, "many of his policies were right."

Call it #vonPapenism. #vonPapenism über alles.

One surprise I took away from my conversation with Ganz is that, in a
certain respect, Trump is

**plus fasciste que les fascistes**: that is, more incautiously
thugocratic than his European antecedents, at least in the beginning of
their rises.

"The heads of these movements had to be very careful about how they
would use the fascist paramilitaries, and make this implicit promise to
the elite that they could be contained," Ganz says. "It was always
something they needed in their back pocket, right? But sometimes it felt
like those people were giving [Hitler and Mussolini] more problems than
they were worth."

But Trump always thought differently. After Charlottesville, he called
the thugs "fine people." Asked about the Proud Boys in a 2020
presidential debate, he said: "Stand back and stand by." I'd always
worried that utterances like these were harbingers of things to come. I
suspected that Trump never

****criticized supporters willing to commit violence on his behalf
because that willingness might eventually become useful to him. I saw
him as playing politics with something far more than votes: that thugs
were valuable currency to keep in his back pocket, to send forth
whenever that was what it took to keep power.

Then, on January 6th, he did.

For the briefest moment, the von Papens of the Republican congressional
caucus considered cutting him loose. Then they thought better of it. Now
that Trump calls his thugs "hostages," few Republicans seem even to
consider expressing alarm. Some have even turned it into a MAGA term of
"This movement between goons and conservative allies," Ganz notes, is
"something I saw a lot with Trump."

OUR CONVERSATION SHIFTED TO THE GROUND of political theory. Ganz points
out that a book that won a lot of respect for its explanatory power in
the European context, Dylan Riley's The Civic Foundations of Fascism
in Europe
has been deployed in the American context by

**critics** of the idea that "fascism" is a relevant category here and
now. "[Riley's] theory," Ganz explains, "is that, in a society where
the political establishment is weak and cannot get consensus behind it,
but there is a highly developed civil society-where there are a lot of
pressure groups-you can expect something like fascism, as those groups
make demands on the political system that it cannot satisfy. And these

**idiot fucks** ..."

One of the things I love about Ganz is that he gives it with the bark

"... look at that and say, 'Well, there's no civil society left in
the United States, so that doesn't work anymore.'"

They mean that nobody shows up to Kiwanis Club meetings these days; that
they bowl alone . They are
wrong, because they neglect the civil society spaces right-wingers

**do** abundantly show up for. Like services at churches
Trump is venerated like an earthly manifestation of the godhead; like
gun groups; like Moms for Liberty chapters; like militias and

And boy, do

**they**make demands.

There are two ways to think about the failed, weak political
establishment, abetted by the sclerosis-inducing nature of our
constitutional system. One might think about the state's failure to
deliver the things it used to: adequate physical infrastructure, an
economy that provides meaningful work with the kind of protections
against firing that powerful unions provide, a safety net to smooth out
its rough edges, and increasing moves (Medicare, Medicaid) toward
affordable health care. The right sometimes claims they don't

**want**the government to accomplish these things, but they grew quite
excited when Trump promised that he alone could restore, provide, or
preserve them.

The other way to think of it involves things people in groups like these
demand that

**no**government can deliver: a Christian theocracy many Americans
wrongly believe to be their birthright; protection from demographic
change; return to a prelapsarian time when America was supposed to have
been "great."

[link removed]

Any way you slice it, the perceived absence of responsive government,
the presence of groups positioned to clamor for response, and then
government's failure to respond,

**does things**out in the world.

"This cluster of demands coming from civil society being put on a very
weak political establishment is a basic sociological formula for
fascism," as Ganz summarizes Riley's paradigm.

"And I think that's what, basically, we have in the United States: a
very weak political establishment, but a civil society underneath it
that's looking for a kind of expression. And the expression that
it's taking is pathological ... It's demanding a dictator. Because
the party system is unable to answer the demands they have."

In describing how that longing has historically been expressed, he
introduced to me an idea that blew my mind a little. It was articulated
during a political crisis in France in the late Third Republic that
culminated in a failed march on the Chambre des Députés on the night
of February 6, 1934, leaving 16 dead. In correspondence

between Ganz and the great historian of fascism Robert Paxton the day
after the riots at the U.S. Capitol, both agreed that day bore "a
spookily close parallel" to January 6th.

What the right-wing populist marchers were demanding in 1934 Paris was
"republic by plebiscite." Meaning: a

**true**sounding of the French people's desires, to get around a
corrupt parliamentary system "dominated by Jews, and special interests,
and the Masons." That's the part that blew my mind-because I
immediately recognized something like it as a constant during the 70
years or so of right-wing politics in the U.S. that I've studied,
since the days of Joe McCarthy: conservatives' faith that a true

****sounding of the will of the

**American** people would put paid to the foreign intrusion of
liberalism for good.

Like the kind of letters George Gallup received
in the early
1950s: "If you took a true poll of the American people ... you would
find them over 95 percent for Senator McCarthy."

Or Phyllis Schlafly's tract A Choice Not an Echo
which argued that if the Republicans would only nominate a true
conservative he would win in a landslide, but the only reason that
didn't happen was that a few "New York kingmakers" (Mr. Gallup
pre-eminent among them, as it happened) manipulated things behind the
scenes to make that impossible.

Or the 84 percent of Tea Party adherents who said their views "generally
reflect the views of most Americans."

Or when Mike Lindell, in his campaign for RNC chairman in 2023, said,
"This country is 70 percent red. If you remove all the garbage and all
the corruption and everything. It's 70 percent red, and it's getting
redder all the way."

And, of course, on January 6th.

Various aspects
of fascism

have been always present

****on the American right. (In 1981, the virulently and explicitly
racist and antisemitic magazine The Spotlight
had many times the
circulation of any other publication on the right.) They remained
contained or undeveloped. With Trump, they burst forth in full flower.
The fantasy of the Republican plebiscite-the notion that the

**true nation**is already with them were it not for the deep state's
depredations-was at the essence of the demand at the Capitol on
January 6, 2021. "If the government is no longer for the people, it is
your duty to overthrow that government and reinstate a new government,
for the people," as a 1/6 terrorist named Christopher Alberts, convicted
of bringing a handgun to the Capitol, roused the mob that day.

It is a point I'll keep repeating: The most important thing for
journalists to cover in this presidential election is not how many

**votes** Donald Trump gets, either in the popular total or the
Electoral College. To those subsumed inside his cult of personality, the
conclusion is already foregone: If you took a true poll of the American
people, swept aside the garbage and the corruption of the kingmakers in
the media and the deep state (not to mention all those Democratic
officials desperate to do

**anything** to cover up their pedophilic cult)-

**obviously**Donald Trump represents the views of most Americans, and is
the only legitimate representative of "the people." The question is how
many will be willing to take up arms for this belief, should the people
whose job it is to count the votes come up with the "wrong" answer.

Will that be fascism? I'll quote Jeff Sharlet from our previous
interview. "One of the mistakes people make is they say, 'Well, this
doesn't look like European fascism in 1936.' Well, because it's
American fascism in 2024."


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