14 defining characteristics of fascism: The U.S. in 2012
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”
— Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here. (1935)
In the spring of 2003, ex-corporate executive and political scientist Lawrence W. Britt published an essay in Free Inquiry magazine entitled “Fascism Anyone?” In his work, Britt examined the traits of the two governments that formed the original historical model for fascism, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and five other protofascist regimes that imitated that model, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. He identified 14 characteristics that were common to all of them. These traits have since been widely accepted as the 14 defining characteristics of fascism.
Nearly three generations removed from the horrors of Nazi Germany, all of these regimes are no longer in power, but fascism’s principles can still be found in many nations. History tends to repeat itself because many leaders and nations fail to learn from history, or draw the wrong conclusions. Sadly, historical amnesia is the norm in the world today.
In the U.S., leaders, teachers, media and citizens proudly claim that America is a democratic society with certain freedoms and rights guaranteed to all citizens by the constitution, bill of rights and rule of law. But is that really the case? A close look at the 14 characteristics of fascism in light of what has changed in America in the past few years may raise some questions as to whether or not Americans truly live in a democratic society.
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.
Drive down any street in suburban or small-town America and witness the amount of flags flying, flag stickers on mailboxes, ribbon stickers on vehicles and patriotic tee shirts. Then-Senator Obama was criticized during his 2007 campaign for not wearing the ubiquitous flag lapel pin that many politicians wear. Nearly everyone has heard catchy slogans such as “Freedom isn’t Free,” “God Bless America” and “Support the Troops.” Borderline xenophobia is exemplified when french fries were renamed “freedom fries” in D.C. cafeterias. The fear of “illegals” taking scarce jobs has been written into legislation in states such as Arizona, where failure to carry immigration documents is a crime. Your papers, please?
This characteristic may be the most innocuous one of the 14. Americans have always had a strong sense of patriotic nationalism and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But patriotic symbolism and nationalistic legislation have been taken to a new level in the years since the first Gulf war when the first yellow ribbons were placed on trees.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.
The use of extraordinary rendition, military tribunals instead of public trials, the refusal to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” are good examples of human rights violations. Many were done in secrecy until the information was leaked to the press. Capturing people and imprisoning them without charges is repeatedly called “extraordinary rendition” in the media, simulated drowning is called “waterboarding,” refusing the right to a fair trial a “military tribunal” and torture “enhanced interrogation.” All are good examples of the use of propaganda to make these practices palatable to the American people.
Disdain for human rights in the U.S. has never been more apparent than in recent years. The rights of free speech and assembly obviously do not apply to the over 6700 citizens that have been arrested and the many that have been beaten and pepper-sprayed since the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement began last September.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA), signed into law by President Obama in December 2011, gives the government the power to indefinitely detain, imprison, torture and murder anyone, anywhere if he or she is considered a suspect of anything the US government wants to make up. The detention, imprisonment, torture and murder can occur without the person having been charged and without a trial.
These practices would probably have caused public outrage at any time in U.S. history before the new millennium, but now are accepted by many Americans as necessary tools in the “War on Terror,” (itself a slogan). Ask anyone present at recent OWS demonstrations how “free” they think Americans are now.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The methods of choice—relentless propaganda and disinformation—were usually effective. Often the regimes would incite ‘spontaneous’ acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and ‘terrorists.’ Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.
The most readily identifiable scapegoats for Americans now are Muslims. Saddam Hussein was the ultimate scapegoat. It was easy for the Bush administration to rally the American people behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq by suggesting Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaida, which Bush later denied, and by repeatedly stating that Iraq had WMDs, which were never found.
There is a difference, however, between fascism today and the right-wing ideology that it embodied under Hitler and Mussolini. Modern fascism uses the left-right dialectic to maintain control over a divided populace. American politicians, citizens and media on both sides of the political spectrum continually use scapegoats to shift blame for failures and misdirect anger: liberals, conservatives, socialists, capitalists, bible-thumpers, atheists, blacks, welfare queens, tree-huggers, etc., etc. The list of labels used in name-calling and blaming goes on and on. Meanwhile, few if any real solutions are offered for problems such as unemployment, inflation, corruption on Wall Street and government spending.
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.
The U.S. government spends more on defense than anything else and more than the next 14 largest defense-spending nations combined. When the need for budget cuts are debated, politicians usually take aim at “entitlement” programs and social programs, while expressing concern that “military spending cuts are a risk to our national security.”
The U.S. government has allocated $851 billion for defense spending in fiscal year 2013. Defense spending accounts for more than two-thirds of all discretionary spending and accounts for about 22.4% of all federal spending – more than the allotments for Medicare or Social Security. Military manufacturing increased by 123% between 2000 and 2009 while the rest of the manufacturing sector decreased.
While Americans pay for the military to invade and occupy sovereign nations, millions of Americans lack access to affordable healthcare. The U.S. is the only country in the “developed” world that does not have a tax-payer funded healthcare system. Infrastructure is literally crumbling. Students in other industrial nations are outperforming U.S. students in math, science and reading. Yet all other departments, including Health and Human Services ($71.7 billion), the Department of Education ($69.8 billion), and Housing and Urban Development ($35.3 billion), must operate with the remaining $410 billion of discretionary spending.
5. Rampant sexism. Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.
For years it has been common knowledge that women in the U.S. earn less than their male counterparts in identical positions. Rampant sexism and misogyny, however, has recently received more media attention than ever. Planned Parenthood was labeled an “abortion provider” and defunded by congress in February, despite the fact that only 3% of its patient care expenditures go towards abortion services.
After a female Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, testified in a Democratic congressional hearing regarding whether or not private health care insurance companies should be federally mandated to cover female contraceptives, Rush Limbaugh infamously called her a “prostitute” and a “slut” on national public airwaves. Fluke was earlier denied the right to speak at a larger congressional hearing on the same topic by Rep. Darrell Issa. Ironically, many insurance plans cover erectile dysfunction treatments for men.
Roe v. Wade has yet to be overturned and abortion is still legal, but “Draconian” anti-abortion legislation has chipped away at it due to pressure from fundamentalist Christian and other religious organizations. In 2007 the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003, which bans a medical procedure technically known as “intact dilation and extraction.”
In states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, legislation that forces women to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound performed before being able to legally obtain an abortion was recently passed. While there is a push to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 that defines marriage as “between a man and a woman,” the Respect for Marriage Act of 2011 that would do is under intense scrutiny and has not yet passed. Currently, 41 states do not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
6. A controlled mass media. Under some of the regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite. The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.
Back in 1983, approximately 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the United States. By 2004, ownership of the news media had been concentrated in the hands of just six incredibly powerful media corporations. Today, these six corporate behemoths – Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., CBS Corporation and NBC Universal, control 90% of what we watch, hear and read every single day.
These gigantic media corporations do not exist to objectively tell the truth to the American people. Rather, the primary purpose of their existence is to make money. One cannot reasonably expect these corporations to provide information to the American people that would threaten their relationships with their biggest advertisers in industries such as finance, health insurance, banking, pharmaceuticals or defense.
Furthermore, many of these corporations have direct ties to other industries. NBC’s parent corporation, for example, is GE, which not only is one of the largest defense contractors, but also paid no taxes in 2010. That undoubtedly explains the omission of the no tax story from NBC news outlets.
7. Obsession with national security. Inevitably, a national security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually an instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any constraints. Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting ‘national security,’ and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
Air travelers in the U.S. selected for additional screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the name of national security are given two choices: an x-ray body scan or an “enhanced” pat-down. Some suggest a better way to describe the choices would be “radiation” or “sexual assault.” The obsession with national security since 9/11 has led the U.S. government to spend $8 billion annually on TSA airport security measures, yet no “terrorists” have ever been caught and no “terror plots” have ever been foiled by the TSA.
Americans have accepted such things as a color-coded threat index, secret warrantless wire-tapping, highway checkpoints and video surveillance in public areas as the new way of life since 9/11. The current administration has taken the obsession with national security to a new level with the National Defense Resources Preparedness executive order (EO) issued by President Obama on March 16. This EO allows the government to confiscate private property without due process under the direction of Janet Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security in the event of a “potential threat to the security of the United States.”
8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. Unlike communist regimes, the fascist and protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless by their opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. Propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the ‘godless.’ A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.
There are many examples of America being considered a Christian nation, “one nation under God.” Conservative darling Ann Coulter published a book entitled, Godless Liberals: The Church of Liberalism. Republicans refer to themselves as the “family values” party. Both parties embrace Christian values with their rhetoric, while behaving otherwise with sex scandals and passing legislation enabling Wall Street greed such as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.
Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech endorsing an “absolute” separation between church and state made him want to “throw up.” Legislators are caving in to pressure from religious groups on issues such as abortion and same sex marriage.
In 1996 a school prayer amendment to the constitution was proposed by House Republicans. George W. Bush referred to the war on terrorism as a “crusade” in a speech in 2001. The separation of church and state implied in the constitution with the statement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” has been slowly eroding away. May God bless America.
9. Power of corporations protected. Although the personal life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite saw the corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military production (in developed states), but also as an additional means of social control. Members of the economic elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests, especially in the repression of ‘have-not’ citizens.
The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, in effect, gave corporations the same rights as people by saying that federal restrictions on corporate spending in elections constituted a violation of free speech. Never mind that 80% of Americans opposed the ruling. Corporations are now free to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections and buy politicians.
Wall Street banks crashed the economy in 2008, yet were bailed out with public funds through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). According to the Financial Times, the corporate tax rate in the U.S. reached a ten-year low in 2011. While corporate profits reached an all-time high since the end of World War II in the third quarter of 2011, real workers wages fell by about 2%. In the last three years, 78 corporations had at least one year where they paid no federal income tax at all, while 30 corporations paid not a dime over the entire three years.
Huge corporations such as Lockheed Martin permeate all aspects of American life by performing functions for more than two dozen government agencies from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Lockheed Martin is involved in surveillance and information processing for the CIA, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Pentagon, the Census Bureau, and the Postal Service.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. Since organized labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.
The movement to destroy labor unions and eliminate collective bargaining is something Wisconsinites have become very familiar with since Scott Walker became governor. That movement is taking place nationwide. Legislation similar to Walker’s budget bill was passed in Indiana and Ohio, although in Ohio it was later overturned.
In a speech on August 9, 1960, JFK said, “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor – those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized – do a disservice to the cause of democracy.” Frank Askin, a professor of law and director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers Law School-Newark, states that “the ultimate aim of the right-wing strategy is to allow employers to make a mockery of workers’ right to organize, established by the National Labor Relations Act during the New Deal era.”
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were considered subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal. Universities were tightly controlled; politically unreliable faculty harassed or eliminated. Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent were strongly attacked, silenced, or crushed. To these regimes, art and literature should serve the national interest or they had no right to exist.
A 46-page report compiled by over 60 scientists in 2004 accused the Bush administration of censoring scientific reports for political purposes. The report accused the administration of “suppressing, distorting, or manipulating the work done by scientists at federal agencies” on environmental, agricultural, health and energy issues.
Disdain for science is also evident in the push to give teaching creationism the same weight as teaching evolution in schools. In 2005, policymakers in 19 states were weighing proposals that question the science of evolution. Universities such as UW-Madison are pressured by state legislatures to remove faculty members with undesirable points of view, such as Kevin Barrett in 2006. Funding for NPR, PBS and education is now under attack.
Anyone calling for a new investigation of the events on 9/11 is labeled a “conspiracy theorist” and immediately disregarded – despite the fact that over 220 senior military, intelligence service, law enforcement, and government officials, over 1,500 engineers and architects, over 250 pilots and aviation professionals, over 400 professors, over 300 survivors and family members, over 200 artists, entertainers, and media professionals, and over 400 medical professionals have done so.
Science is embraced when it is used for purposes such as weapons or surveillance technology development, but rejected when it is used to develop alternative energy sources, study the effects of carbon emissions on the planet or question the government’s version of events.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations. The police were often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into trumped-up criminal charges and sometimes used against political opponents of the regime. Fear, and hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse for more police power.
Under the guise of the wars on terror and on drugs, U.S. police forces are almost completely militarized and are allowed to violate the Constitutional rights of the citizenry at will. The U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are now more Americans in jail – more than 6 million – than there were in Stalin’s Gulag. Military weaponry and gear was on full display as police from Los Angeles to New York cracked down on OWS protests. Since September some 6,700 Americans protesting against economic inequality and corporate greed have been arrested. Many were beaten or pepper-sprayed. (See video).
Three provisions of the PATRIOT Act of 2002 were reauthorized by President Obama in 2010, giving law enforcement an expanded ability to gain access to personal financial, travel and communications records and to conduct secret searches. The Federal Restricted Building and Grounds Improvement Act (HR 347) makes protesting in areas where the US President, or anyone protected by the Secret Service may be visiting, a felony punishable with hefty fines and up to 10 years in jail. In a recent Republican Presidential debate, Americans even cheered for the 234 executions in Texas under Governor Rick Perry.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Those in business circles and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources. With the national security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the general population.
Cronies in U.S. government positions commonly award non-competitive contracts to former employers, who in turn, thanks to the Citizens United ruling, can now kick limitless amounts of money back into elections. The lack of competition and oversight leads to corruption.
No-bid, sole source, cost-plus contracts in Iraq were awarded to Halliburton and its subsidiaries while then-Vice-President Cheney, a former board member, held stock options in the corporation. According to a military census, in 2006 there were about 100,000 contractors in Iraq performing security and other logistical functions.
Private contractors are used more now than ever as more and more public functions are being privatized. A Baton Rouge company, Innovative Energy Management (IEM), lacking evacuation experience was paid $500,000 by FEMA to handle the emergency preparation and evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. IEM was a large contributor to President Bush’s campaigns and the Republican National Committee. The Bush-appointed head of FEMA at the time was Michael Brown, an old friend of Bush’s with no experience in disaster management.
Cronyism and corruption continues with the Obama administration and has exploded in the financial sector. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former New York Federal Reserve chairman, has close ties to former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson and to Lawrence Summers. Geithner authored the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 giving banks free reign over derivative trading in energy futures, leading to a spike in gasoline prices.
Summers pocketed $5 million as a managing director of D.E. Shaw, one of the biggest hedge funds in the world, and another $2.7 million for speeches delivered to Wall Street firms that have received government bailout money. This includes $45,000 from Citigroup and $67,500 each from JPMorgan Chase and the now-liquidated Lehman Brothers. Summers is also a leading advocate of banking deregulation.
Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, worked for Citigroup and received more than $7.4 million from the bank from January of 2008 until he entered the Obama administration in 2009. This included a $2.25 million year-end bonus handed him within weeks of his joining the Obama administration. Citigroup has thus far been the beneficiary of $45 billion in cash and over $300 billion in government guarantees of its bad debts.
Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, was paid $3.9 million by a Washington law firm whose major clients include Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the private equity firm Apollo Management. The list of Wall Street cronies in government – David Axelrod, Louis Caldera, David Stevens, Neal Wolin, is seemingly endless. While the TARP bailout was signed into law by the Bush administration, the administration of funds was done at the hands of all of the above.
The result of these reckless policies are plain as day – a new ruling class with $13 trillion of public IOUs added to the national debt. Much of this was paid out in salaries and bonuses and to “make themselves whole” by paying on their bad risks in default. American taxpayers, on the other hand, got rising unemployment, collapsing infrastructure, a steady rise in home foreclosures, inflation and increased levels of economic stress. Bush-Obama policies have benefited those who wield real power in the capitalist world – the financial oligarchs and militarists who prospered from the bailouts and “War on Terror” military spending.
14. Fraudulent elections. Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.
It is difficult to choose where to begin: Bush v. Gore in 2000, Voter ID laws, the swift-boating of John Kerry, the birther movement, portraying Obama as “secret Muslim”, “un-American”, “anti-business”, “socialist”; “Our highest priority is to make Obama a one-term President”, redistricting, denying minorities and college students the right to vote, easily-hacked electronic voting machines, no viable third party candidates, super PACs. It takes no more than a casual observer to know that the U.S. election process is fraudulent. The end result is a choice between two candidates vetted by the banks and corporations with little or no differences in policies.
The 2000 Presidential election may go down in U.S. history as the point of no return to not only fair elections, but also to a representative form of government. It came down to votes in Florida. The race was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in favor of Bush even though Gore won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes. Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush supporter, oversaw the certification process. On November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, Republican protestors pounded on the doors and windows of the building where Miami’s Dade county officials were counting the ballots.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated allegations of voting fraud in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. The Commission found that approximately 54 percent of the 180,000 “spoiled ballots” in Florida were cast by African-Americans, who make up about 11 percent of Florida voters, and are largely registered as Democrats.
In distinguishing democratic governments from the commonly known fascist dictatorships in history, the primary difference that comes to mind for many is that in democracies leaders are fairly elected by the people to represent the people. Many former supporters of Al Gore or supporters of Ron Paul may say that is not the case in America.
Because many concepts in social science, including political science, are subjective in nature, it is impossible to say with certainty that the U.S. has crossed the line from freedom to fascism. A close look at the direction America is heading today with the 14 characteristics of fascism in mind, however, should at least raise some alarm bells.
A true democracy requires a rule of law to uphold freedoms, a constitution to protect liberties, honest elections to choose truly representative leaders, and most importantly, a well-informed public constantly on guard against evils. History has shown what can happen when these things break down.