Thursday, August 20, 2009

Anti-Healthcare Protests: Why They Are Not Fascist

It is not only Republican lies and hysteria about healthcare reform that deserve to be condemned. Our own side has committed its own share of alarmism with talk of "Brownshirt tactics." In particular, I am belatedly responding to Sarah Robinson's claim at Orcinus that Republicans have gone full-on fascist over healthcare. Taking historian Robert Paxton as her source, Robinson argues that the Republican party has gone fascist because we are no longer seeing any daylight between conservative elites and the right-wing mob.
All through the Bush years, progressive right-wing watchers refused to call it "fascism" because, though we kept looking, we never saw clear signs of a deliberate, committed institutional partnership forming between America's conservative elites and its emerging homegrown brownshirt horde. . . . America's conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs.
The fact that "brownshirt thugs" have not engaged in any actual violence so far, certainly nothing on the scale that, say southern racists deployed against Civil Rights workers in the 1950's and '60's is less important to Robinson than that conservatives have openly aligned themself with them.

I see several problems with this analysis. For one thing, while it is true that both Mussolini and Hitler came into power by forming an uneasy alliance with the conservatives, it is also true that, contrary to the common Marxist analysis of the day, it was not the conservatives who were using the fascists to achieve their goals. It was the fascists who were using the conservatives. Granted, one may argue today that the GOP has been taken hostage by its wingnut base, and that sane conservatives have little choice but either to join the Democrats or to go along for the ride. But I see no evidence that the truly insane members of the GOP have the sophistication to manipulate the conservative elite. The manipulating lies over healthcare looks pretty one-sided to me.

The tactical differences between (German and Italian) conservatives and their fascist counterparts are also significant. Both parties shared many goals such as crushing the left, ending strikes, and restoring national greatness. But fascists did two things that should scare the hell out of any right-thinking conservative (and did alarm German and Italian conservatives). They whipped up the ugly passions of the mob, and they used street thugs and mob violence to achieve their goals. Now obviously the leaders of the GOP and their allies in Fox News and talk radio are showing themselves eminently willing to whip up the ugly passions of the mob. But so far I see no evidence, none whatever, that they are willing to condone actual violence and street thuggery. Some have even gone so far as to condemn taking guns to protests (especially while carrying signs urging some human sacrifices to the tree of liberty). Granted, telling armed men that Obama wants to kill your grandmother is the sort of thing that tends to invite violence. But so far I have every reason to expect that if any violence did break out, conservative elites would take alarm and seek to reign it in.

And finally, Robinson, following Paxton, strains too hard for paralells, trying to force today's situation to match intra-war Germany and Italy. (Mussolini's Blackshirts broke up a farmworker's strike. Republican nativists threaten Mexican farmworkers. This is starting to look almost Goldberg-esque). I prefer to take a broader and more general definition of fascism and see how well today's Republican party fits. This conservative historian offers a fairly decent definition of fascism, "a paramilitary party that has taken over the state and claimed an effective monopoly of political activity."* Or, aspirationally, a paramilitary party seeking to take over the state and claim an effective monopoly on political activity. That is something sufficiently alien and odious to our American political tradition that any open attempt would arouse intense resistence and rejection.

Can it happen here? Has it? Robinson quotes Paxton as suggesting that it has, that the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan was the first authentically fascist movement. Was the Klan "a paramilitary party . . . claim[ing] an effective monopoly on political activity"?

Well, the Democratic Party during the Reconstruction clearly did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the Republican Party and sought (successfully) to make the South a one-party state. Whether the Democrats would have accepted a rival party that was not associated with the hated North and did not advocate racial equality is an open guess.

Could the Klan be considered a paramilitary adjunct of the Democratic Party? Well, it was paramilitary in the sense that it used violence and intimidation, and an adjunct of the Democratic Party in the sense that it wanted to (and ultimately did) suppress the Republicans. But the Klan was neither paramilitary nor an adjunct to anyone in the sense that it had no hierarchical command structure and was not really under anyone's control. Also, the Klan differed from Mussolini's Blackshirts or Hitler's Brownshirts in that it basically dissolved once it achieved its goal. While Mussolini and Hitler, once in power, set up organized secret police to take the place of their street thugs, Southern Democrats, once in power, did not maintain it with a paramilitary, unless one counts ad hoc lynch mobs even less organized than the Klan.

So, what about Republicans? Does the latest outburst of hysteria make them "a paramilitary party . . . claim[ing] an effective monopoly on political activity"? Only by stretching those terms beyond any reasonable definition. Yet at the same time, it has just enough tendancies in that direction to be disturbing.

It has been apparent since 1992 that Republicans are not willing to accept any Democratic President as legitimate. Bill Clinton was a junkfood-eating Arkansas hillbilly who belonged to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council that sought to attract votes by bringing the Democratic Party toward the center. Yet throughout his term of office, Republicans denounced him as a wild-eyed radical, invented talk radio and Fox as weapons against him, dug constantly into his tiniest indiscretions, and ultimately impeached him over a blow job. Howard Dean was denounced as a deranged radical in the 2004 primaries until Democrats became so alarmed that they chose the presumably more electable John Kerry -- only to see the hostility almost seemlessly transfer. For 16 years, Republicans have been working themselves into a frenzy of hatred of Hillary Clinton in preparation for the day she ran for President. Yet the moment it became clear that Obama would be the nominee, they once again promptly and seemlessly transferred their hostility, actually discovering a belated respect for Hillary.

This is linked to the belief that only conservatives are "real Americans" and the quest for a permanent Republican majority. Yet a true one-party system would never be tolerated in the United States. The words permanent Republican majority make the point clear -- Democrats will be tolerated and allowed to run for office at all levels, so long as they do not exercise any actual power.

As for a paramilitary party, that, too, is completely unacceptable in this country (the Ku Klux Klan notwithstanding). Crowds at town halls who shout down the speakers and spout outrageous lies not paramilitary -- they are neither violent nor have a command structure.

That leaves the militia movement, which is once again reemerging. Now obviously the militia movement is not a paramilitary arm of the Republican Party. In fact, in the 1990's, in could plausibly deny being partisan. It got its first stirrings under the senior Bush, who alarmed them with talk of the "new world order" and offended them by fighting the Gulf War through the UN instead of unilaterally. The Ruby Ridge incident took place under Bush's watch. The destruction of the Branch Davidians at Waco was genuinely shocking. And the Clinton Administration really was seeking gun control measures. In short, the militias could claim to be upset over more than just having a Democrat in the White House. And the demise of the militia movement could be attributed at least as much to 9-11 as to the election of Bush Junior.

But the return of the militias coinciding exactly with the election of a Democrat, together with the absence of any proposed gun control legislation or anything else that could reasonably be taken as provocation makes their real agenda clear. They are angry that a Democrat won the Presidency and cannot accept him as legitimate. Now, obviously this does not make the militia movement a paramilitary adjunct of the Republican party, as opposed to independent individuals who think that a Democrat in the White House is reason enough to prepare for armed resistence. But when Fox and talk radio keep spouting, and Republican leaders keep implicitly endorsing, outrageous paranoid lies that inflame and encourage militia types, it gets harder and harder to deny a certain indirect collusion.

That being said, the militias have never used violence and intimidation to sway the outcome of an election, which makes them unlike Blackshirts, Brownshirts, or the Klan. It is also no doubt true that in case Republicans achieve Karl Rove's goal of a permanent majority, the militias will go away, rather than serve as their paramilitary arm. To the extent Republicans dream of a one-party dictatorship, it is a soft dictatorship on the Mexican model, not the totalitarian variety.

In short, calling Republicans fascists is both false and dangerous. But Republican behavior in the healthcare debate is also dangerous and alarming. My next post will discuss what I see as the real danger.
*To this s/he adds militaristic policy, the abrogation of the procedures of liberal democracy, the actual militarization of society, the successful penetration of the state into the everyday life of the individual, and a very significant degree of actual state regulatory control over the economy. But right now I am less interested in what fascists do once in power that how they seek to get there.

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