As we witness the American slide into fascism, it’s tempting to draw parallels to Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany is the fascist government that Americans are most familiar with — we study World War II and the Holocaust over and over again in school. Of course, everyone is now familiar with Godwin’s Law, which has led to a backlash against making Nazi comparisons.
But even Holocaust scholars admit that Nazi comparisons aren’t always wrong, and it’s important to learn the lessons of Nazi Germany. What’s crucial to realize, however, is that Nazi Germany was a distinctly German form of fascism that grew out of German culture. American fascism will have similarities, but it has not been transplanted from another country — it is a product of American culture. While we can make comparisons between Trump and authoritarian rulers like Hitler, Mussolini, Chavez, or Pol Pot, we must recognize the differences, as well. American fascism will be unique.
American fascism is grown out of reality TV culture. Many authoritarian regimes deal in spectacle. Sarah Kendzior is an expert on Uzbek authoritarianism and wrote a piece on the “spectacular” dictator Islam Karimov. Kendzior’s description of the authoritarian rulers of Central Asia lends perfectly to America under Donald Trump: “The nation becomes a brand; the dictator, a brand ambassador; the people, a captive audience.” Trump sold reality TV fascism to a national audience hungry for drama.
The way Trump talks about important appointments like reality TV competitions serves to distract from larger issues and drive a specific narrative. Trump paraded candidates through the Trump Tower past press cameras and went to a highly publicized dinner with Mitt Romney when weighing him for Secretary of State. He reportedly summoned both final candidates for the Supreme Court to D.C., intending to reveal one at the last minute. After he said Gorsuch’s name, Trump gleefully asked the nation if they were surprised.
American fascism will be Evangelical. Many fascist movements use religion, and that connection will be especially strong in American fascism, which has grown out of the Evangelical movement of the South. Fascist movements tend to use the predominant religion in the area as a form of control, and no religious movement is more potent in America than Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is itself authoritarian and obsessed with primacy, making it a religion that lends itself to fascism. American Christofascism has roots in the Great Depression, when preachers like Gerald B. Winrod and Gerald L.K. Smith (of the original America First) fused nationalism and Christianity, and continued through the John Birch society and the Moral Majority.
American fascism will be replete with irony and memes. To understand the connection between internet/meme culture and modern American fascism, read this piece on 4chan and its role in Trump’s rise. Fascism has long had a sick sense of humor. Fascist enemies must be dehumanized and cruelty against them must be not only normalized, but embraced. Humor can be an effective part of that process. In 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre seemed to prophesy modern internet troll culture in his essay Anti-Semite and Jew, saying:
Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.
Fascist ideas are simplistic and lend themselves well to memes. Irony promotes detachment and jokes focus on a fetishization of cruelty. People who excuse the jokes of modern-day Nazis as “just jokes” get it backwards. Fascist jokes don’t mean the fascists aren’t serious about committing harm — it means they will laugh while they commit harm. As the German Nazis wore swastika armbands, modern American Nazis put frog emojis in their Twitter usernames.
American fascism is new, and it’s developing. This is only a preliminary description of the nature of American fascism. Years from now, entire books will be written on the subject. The unique features of American fascism do not make it less fascist. Don’t be heartened that Trump’s supporters aren’t heiling (mostly). American fascism combines the nationalism, illiberalism, bigotry, and violence of Hitler or Mussolini with unique aspects of American culture that have made the United States the most potent cultural force the world has ever seen. America’s main export is its culture and time will tell whether American fascism follows suit.
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