Recommended Reading: Sarah Churchwell’s “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here.”

Last week on our blog I wrote about the authoritarian/illiberal threat to democracy posed by Trump, as a post-electoral follow-up to an essay I published in The Bulwark on October 31. In the essay for The Bulwark, I took on the question of Trump’s fascism as it has been discussed and debated, at length, in the media over the last four years (Eric Levitz provides a good overview of what is/was at stake in that discussion here; Corey Robin and David Klion offer a very interesting counter-interpretation from the left right here).

I used to be staunchly in the “it’s not real fascism camp.” I found it irritating when people compared Trump to Hitler, and was not especially enthusiastic about books like Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works, or Timothy Snyder’s short On Tyranny. Though I saw some of the dangers Trump posed to American constitutional democracy, I found the rush to draw parallels between Trumpism and various forms of totalitarianism silly. I was sympathetic to Samuel Moyn’s view that such analogies did more harm than good.

Today I’m still somewhat agnostic on the question of what we should call Trumpy illiberalism, but I’m far less skeptical than I once was that Trumpism contains some truly fascistic elements. Partly this has to do with events of the past summer. But the single essay that most transformed my thinking on the matter was Sarah Churchwell’s “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here.” Churchwell’s essay was published in the New York Review of Books in June of this year. It is essential reading for anyone who has been skeptical of the threats posed by Trumpism. Churchwell’s essay offers a clear and powerful overview the very plain parallels between European fascism and Jim Crow America. Furthermore, she reminds her reader that fascism always takes a local and indigenous shape. As she puts it, in response to Moyn, “its claims to speak for “the people” and to restore national greatness mean that each version of fascism must have its own local identity. To believe that a nationalist movement isn’t fascist because it’s native is to miss the point entirely.”

Later in the essay, she continues:

American fascist energies today are different from 1930s European fascism, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fascist; it means they’re not European and it’s not the 1930s. They remain organized around classic fascist tropes of nostalgic regeneration, fantasies of racial purity, celebration of an authentic folk and nullification of others, scapegoating groups for economic instability or inequality, rejecting the legitimacy of political opponents, the demonization of critics, attacks on a free press, and claims that the will of the people justifies violent imposition of military force. Vestiges of interwar fascism have been dredged up, dressed up, and repurposed for modern times. Colored shirts might not sell anymore, but colored hats are doing great.

I hope you’ll read the whole thing.

One thought on “Recommended Reading: Sarah Churchwell’s “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here.”

  1. Terrific recommendation that I had not read until you posted it.

    I was never in agreement with Moyn or Corey Robin or others who diminished the fascist and authoritarian aspects of Trump. The idea that his ascendance is only a stage of the normal American cycle of partisanship, or is only the exhausted GOP project is really sticking ones head in the sand (though Trump and Trumpism is partly the result of an exhausted GOP project). The idea that no previous authoritarians or fascists were unsuccessful is ill informed. The idea that failure to get legislation passed is the mark of fascist insignificance is nuts, especially when most of the un-passed legislation was never proposed or, if proposed, never a priority for Trump himself.

    In the spirit of your post for me the most helpful readings were:

    1) Umberto Ecco’s essay Ur-Fascism in the New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995:

    Ecco shows that ALL previous fascists were different from each other in important respects. They shared some number of characteristics, but different numbers of them and different characteristics. Family resemblance not replication. Truly brilliant insight and essay.

    2) anything written by Masha Gessen, most recently this: and

    3) William Connolly’s book, Aspirational Fascism, which shows how much one can still learn from situations that are VERY different, such as Hitler and Weimar, versus Trump and the United States. It is understandable that unreflective or casual invocations of Hitler cause most of us to recoil. It should. But ignoring the insights one can glean from similarities is also irresponsible. For example, the description of the Big Lie in Mein Kampf is very helpful to understand the Orwellian innovations of Trump’s demagoguery. Jonathan V. Last was good on this last point over at The Bulwark.

    4) Anything by the young Turkish sociologist Zenep Tufecki, now working in information science at University of North Carolina. She was educated at UT but I have only learned about her recently from her extraordinary essays in The New York Times and The Atlantic.

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