There are two misconceptions about fascism that must be laid to rest. The first is that fascism is the name of German and Italian regimes that are part of the dark history of Europe in the twentieth century. The second is that the appeal of fascism is due to the evil in human nature. I argue that unless we understand fascism as a radical form of nationalism that springs from the human love for the true, the good, and the beautiful, we will fail to recognize it as the perennial danger of political life in democratic societies.
We are so conditioned by our Christian heritage to think of human beings as evil, greedy, and selfish that we overlook the extent to which they hunger for selfless devotion to something bigger and better than themselves—something to be proud of, something to give life purpose and meaning, something grand enough to live and die for. Fascism satisfies that need. At the heart of fascism is a rabid, radical, bold, and shameless nationalism that identifies the nation with all that is good—not just for the individual but for the world and for all humanity. This radical nationalism valorizes militancy, struggle, and death for the nation. Fascism is not for sissies. It is not soft or comfortable; it is not free or easy. It demands hardship, toil, death, and self-sacrifice.
This dream of national greatness is attainable only if the nation acts as a single body with a single purpose. This organic vision of the nation augments the enormity, horror, and ubiquity of the enemy—not just the external enemy, which is par for the course, but the internal enemy, which is far more dangerous. If the nation is to triumph, if it is to achieve its grand purpose, it must remove all obstacles in the path of its triumph.
Political philosopher Kenneth Minogue has compared the nationalist dream to Sleeping Beauty. The radical nationalist regards his beloved nation as lovely, pure, and perfect but comatose. She cannot be awakened unless the malevolent fiends responsible for her plight are destroyed. So, who put her to sleep in the first place? The answer is a plethora of enemies and scapegoats, such as wicked aristocrats, greedy capitalists, Jews, communists, terrorists, or the “ethnic vote,” as Jacques Parizeau said after the referendum on the separation of Quebec from Canada was defeated in 1995. Radical nationalism is an endless struggle to defeat the enemies of the nation. Only then can Sleeping Beauty be awakened. Only then can she realize her full potential and attain her world-historical destiny. Only then can her radiance light up the world. The trouble is that in the process of destroying her endless array of enemies, Sleeping Beauty starts to look more and more like Frankenstein’s monster.
In defeating Hitler in World War II, the Americans believed that they had defeated fascism. But fascism is not that easy to defeat. On the contrary, American exceptionalism—the idea that America is an exceptional nation that is unlike any other, a city on the hill, a Zion that will light up the world—is very susceptible to the allure of nationalism. American exceptionalism was harmless when Americans such as Thomas Paine described America as a refuge from the tyrannies of the old world—a safe haven for mankind. But in recent years, American neoconservatives have radicalized American exceptionalism and wedded it to a radical nationalism. For these radicals, it is not enough for America to be a refuge for mankind or to keep tyranny at bay. America must defeat tyranny in every corner of the globe. It must resort to aggressive war (called “preemptive strikes”) to topple every tyranny and replace it with free democratic government. America has a duty to free people wherever they happen to live, and not only from tyranny but from terror, violence, and evil in general. As George W. Bush put it, “we are going to rout out terror wherever it may exist.” This strident radicalization of American exceptionalism came to be known as the “Bush Doctrine.”
In 1973, Irving Kristol, the father of neoconservatism, was tepid toward nationalism, but in 1993 he declared that nationalism was one of the “three pillars” of neoconservatism along with religion and economic growth. Kristol understood the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism. The latter is love for one’s country as it is and a willingness to defend it against foreign aggression. In contrast, nationalism is love of one’s nation as it will be once it has exterminated all its enemies, become totally unified, and achieved its grand purpose or world-historical destiny. As Kristol explains: “patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness. . . . Neoconservatives believe . . . that the goals of American foreign policy must go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of ‘national security.’ It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny . . . not a myopic national security” (Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative, p. xiii).
In other words, Kristol repudiates a modest patriotism in favor of a radical nationalism. To be fair, radical nationalism is not simply a quest for world dominance; it identifies the interests of the nation with the good of humanity. In Of Paradise and Power, neoconservative writer Robert Kagan states bluntly that what is good for America is good for the world. It follows that in the pursuit of its own greatness, America can topple governments and invade countries with impunity because the rules that apply to the rest of the world do not apply to a special nation with a world-historical destiny.
The essence of American fascism is an alliance of this radical nationalism with religion. This is a very potent combination, because it is even easier to destroy the enemies of the nation when they are defined as evil and godless. If we keep thinking of fascism as an historical phenomenon that belongs to Italians and Germans, we will fail to recognize the symptoms when they manifest themselves in our own backyard. American fascism does not look exactly like German or Italian fascism. It is much more attractive, especially to Americans. It is wrapped in the American flag and bears the cross of Jesus.
John McCain and Sarah Palin represent the newest faces of American fascism. Like everything American, the face of American fascism is stylish and dashing. With her Valentino clothes, Sarah Palin combined the wholesomeness of motherhood with the glamour of a beauty queen and the fanaticism of the Christian Right. John McCain was the war hero with all the scars of battle. His favorite slogan in the presidential campaign of 2008 was “Stand up and defend our country from its enemies! Stand up and fight! Fight! Fight with me, my friends.” His message was devotion to the nation and struggle against its enemies—external and internal.
In the 2008 campaign, McCain and Palin relied heavily on innuendoes regarding the treachery of their political opponent. Robo-calls informed voters that Barack Obama had a close association with Bill Ayers—a terrorist enemy of America. Then there was his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who believed that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a divine punishment for the evils of American foreign policy. Palin could not understand how anyone could stomach Reverend Wright’s raucous denunciations of America. To the radical nationalist, all criticisms of the nation smack of treason. The upshot of the matter was that Obama was allied with the enemies of America, and he was about to weasel his way into the White House! It is no wonder that the crowds at her rallies were crazed. They shouted: “Kill him!”
When a few brave journalists noted the ugliness of the Republican rallies, McCain defended his supporters, saying that they were s
incere, patriotic Americans. They were indeed sincere, but they were not patriotic. They were rabid nationalists wedded to a dream and a fantasy that Palin called “the real America.” Palin’s “real America” is on the side of God and his angels. It respects the rule of law. It fights only just wars against evil enemies. It does not bomb unarmed civilians. It does not torture prisoners of war. It does not imprison innocent people without charge or trial. In truth, the “real America” is as fictitious as Sleeping Beauty. A life dedicated to this fiction can only be characterized by lies, cover-ups, and an interminable struggle to destroy the “enemies” of the “real America” at home and abroad. If the Republican Party hopes to become a civilized governing party again, it must suppress the fascistic nationalism of its “base” that it has so cynically and slyly nurtured in order to attain and hold on to power.