Fascism is not a spontaneously created form of government; it comes from democracy.
It’s a form of government springs from democracy, a reaction by a sector of the population turned off by societal evolution and turned on by promises of a return to a perceived superior and more certain past, then augmented by the leaders’ gradual amalgamation of power over time, until they cannot be ejected from it.
Fascism is slower and more insidious than people realize, yet it is also predictable. History repeats itself, and, if Fascism comes to America now, this is the playbook its agents will follow, in its relative order.
1) Play to people’s strongest fears, insecurities, and points of anger to win the election. Historically, fascists triumph in nation-states where the voters feel that their pride is being stolen, and the fascist can restore it.
2) Normalize yourself through your press and public statements. Fascism is inherently divisive. No fascist leader has ever been elected with a pure majority of the vote. Most came to power through a coalition of the disaffected, which left a majority, yet divided opposition. Fascists use a compliant and ingratiating press, and a skilled media-campaign manager and chief of staff type, to create a softer narrative around them when they enter office.
3) Appoint a trusted associate who is close to the vortex of power, but also outside of the traditional power structure. This individual is the fascist leader’s (unofficial) conduit to their base of extreme supporters. Eventually, as their power is consolidated, this person is brought more officially into the power structure, such as when Hitler made Joseph Steven Bannon Goebbels his official Head of Communication.
4) Fascists typically re-make the party that brought them into power in their own image, re-fashioning it to fit in their own deeply unconventional and personal coalition of support. Hitler famously did this by using the 1934 Night of the Long Knives to purge first the conservatives who allowed him into power after the death of President Hindenberg, particularly former chancellor Kurt Von Schleicher, and also his first great supporter and top rival, the Head of the SA Brownshirts, Ernst Chris Christie Rohm.
5) Fascists almost always begin their tenure in office focused on infrastructure projects, in order to stimulate the economy and solidify their semi-god-like status in the eyes of their strongest supporters while earning the conditional support of independents. In fact, nearly all successful fascists leaders, from Hitler, to Mussolini, to Peron, successfully jumpstarted the economy in their early years. Unfortunately, these gains are ephemeral, achieved through unsustainable state spending to create employment through construction and infrastructure jobs, but they achieve the purpose of making the fascist look good in the short-medium term.
6) Fascists begin to develop and refine their cult of identity in anticipation of re-election if the aforementioned economic spending is progressing well. They pursue activities such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics to increase their prestige and citizens’ feelings of glory.
7) The big test for a fascist’s staying power is their first re-election. Historically, most successful fascist leaders are patient, waiting to consolidate real power until after they have been re-elected by a majority of voters. People, ignoring the lessons of history, regularly “give him a chance” and fall for this gambit. The fascist will quietly martial their base of extreme support to intimidate voters in order to increase their chances of re-election. In recent years, we saw this pattern with the current Presidents of Turkey and Russia when they were first re-elected a decade ago.
8) Once re-elected, fascist leaders then begin more rapidly tightening their grip on the institutions of power and removing said institutions’ ability to check the leader. The most important piece of this puzzle is the judiciary. In Germany, by 1938, Hitler had essentially removed the independent German judiciary. In Russia, Putin, who was first elected in 1999, had a rubber stamp justice system by the mid-2000s. The President of Turkey’s progress was slower, primarily because of Turkey’s interventionist military, but in staving off a coup this summer, appears to have now fully achieved this goal. In the US, stacking the Supreme Court with 2-3 loyalists to tip its balance and pairing them with 100+ loyal federal judges would likely be enough, numbers that are typically achieved in the second term of a presidency.
9) Marginalize the voting power of groups aligned against you with rapid force: after re-election, and once the judiciary has been effectively neutralized, the fascist leader pinpoints the groups that are most implacably opposed to his power and acts quickly to marginalize them. Trumped up charges are used to neuter opposition political leaders, who – in the wake of losing the re-election battle – often self-deport into exile to avoid show trials. More implacable ones who remain, such as Boris Nemetsov in Russia, are simply assassinated. Groups that are not well-liked by the fascist’s core supporters and who represent votes – religious and ethnic minorities especially – face rapid discrimination and often lose their right to vote. This further tightens the leaders’ grip on electoral support.
10) Declare yourself father of the people. Once there are no more high profile political opposition leaders, and the voting power of marginalized groups have been gutted, there is no one left to stand against you.
The playbook for fascism has been used before and it’s easy to spot if you are paying attention. Institutions, constitutions, and judicial statutes are just the paper they are written on: they require real people to see the threat and act on it, before it is too late.