Conservatism Is No Cure for Fascism

Conservative writer Ross Douthat discussed the fascism of Donald Trump in his column at the New York Times and concedes that much of Trump's persona and issues fit the "seven hallmarks of fascism identified by the Italian polymath Umberto Eco."

He wrote Trump's:

...bravado and performative machismo (complete with mockery of the weak, unattractive and disabled), his obsession with how we get 'beat' by other nations and need to start beating them instead, his surprisingly deft exploitation of blue-collar economic anxieties, his dark references to Mexican 'rapists' and other immigrant threats, and as of this week his promise to not only bomb and torture our foreign enemies into submission but to round up their families as well--no, it isn't hard to match Eco's list to many of the Donald's greatest hits.

Douthat postulates as to why fascism has not taken root in America before. He credits American conservatives, of course. "[T]he American conservative tradition has always included important elements--a libertarian skepticism of state power, a stress on localism and states' rights, a religious and particularly Protestant emphasis on the conscience of an individual over the power of the collective--that inoculated our politics against fascism's appeal."

I'm not buying any of it. Douthat is careful to lay out reasons that appeal to various wings of his party. He credits religion as being anti-fascist, tosses crumbs to libertarianism, and drags in traditional conservative beliefs such as states' rights.

That is an odd mixture of contradictory ideas. Certainly, the states' rights theories that have dominated were highly fascistic in application, with a mixture of "progressive" economics, resentment against achievement, bigotry, and Big Brotherism. That was the case with the movements of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, two prominent creators of states' rights movements.

The more libertarian Ayn Rand dissected states' rights long ago. She outlined why libertarians should not be enamored with it. She denounced Wallace, because he was "not a defender of individual rights, but merely of states' rights--which is far, far from being the same thing. When he denounces 'Big Government,' it is not the unlimited, arbitrary power of the state that he is denouncing, but merely its centralization--and he seeks to place the same unlimited, arbitrary power in the hands of many little governments. The break-up of a big gang into a number of warring small gangs is not a return to a constitutional system nor to individual rights nor to law and order."

The current conservative love affair with states' rights is not rooted in a desire to limit government interference, but rather to maximize it. They've been angry that the federal government--most particularly the Supreme Court--has been limiting the powers of state governments to violate individual rights and equality before the law.

The dominant view in conservative circles is easy to understand. Don't like gays, then pass laws against them. Don't like abortion, then make it illegal. Don't like people smoking pot, send in SWAT teams with guns blazing. Don't like erotica, push censorship. If the federal government won't oppress people, then damn it, states' rights will let local governments act oppressively, in compliance with conservative religious values.

Douthat argues American conservatism saved us from fascism because the "conservative tradition" includes "a libertarian skepticism of state power." Hardly! It is true Trump is the perfect anti-libertarian. Where libertarianism swerves left, he goes right, where libertarianism swerves right, he goes left. That is only marginally worse than the average conservative, whose support for limited government is pretty much restricted to areas where government controls pinch his feet, not those of others--particularly not those who aren't like them, such as immigrants, gays, blacks, refugees, etc.

The conservative "skepticism" of government control is limited to anything that restricts white, middle-class men--preferably only Christians. Everyone else feels the iron fist of the state the way God intended.

Equally as fanciful, is Douthat's belief that Protestantism "inoculated our politics against fascism's appeal." Protestants, most particularly fundamentalists, who now infest the GOP like fleas on a dog, have long embraced many of the truly ugly aspects of fascism. The brilliant book, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution, by John Comptom, points out how various theories unleashing state power in America came directly out of evangelical moralistic crusades. Precedents for the agenda of the Progressives--many of whom were fundamentalist--came from the desire of evangelicals to impose their morality upon the whole nation.

James Morone, in Hell-Fire Nation: The Politics of Sin in America, points to a long history of the religious desire to "redeem" others through expansion of state power. "Turn to moral control and you'll find a powerful government pushing deep in American society." (p. 3) Moral panics, pushed by the religious, don't just appear and disappear, they "leave deep legacies; they lead us to rewrite laws, reinterpret the Constitution, reshape the political culture and create new agencies." (p11). Moral panics leave behind a legacy of legislation and regulations that do harm for generations to come.

Douthat claims the reason Trump is so fascistic is because he "isn't really an ideological conservative." Therefore, he's not inoculated against fascist ideology. Even if we granted that premise, which I don't, we still have large swaths of Republican conservatives lining up behind Trump to goosestep into the White House.

Throughout his column, Douthat speaks of how libertarian values restrain fascism--they do. To equate them with conservative ideology, however, is a bit of stretch. Conservatives are not libertarians. Conservatism is not the ally of liberty. It is first and foremost the ally of the status quo and the past. Every attempt to expand human liberty was opposed by conservatives of the day.

Campaigns to grant equality of rights to minorities are clear examples Whether it was equality of rights for blacks, women or LGBT people, conservatives clung to oppression because it was "traditional." Traditional injustices trumped individual rights. After the reforms and a few generations later, conservatives came to feel comfortable with them, at which point they pretended to have supported such reforms, if not initiate them.

If we look at the great hate campaigns in American history, conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, were heavily involved in all of them. Whether it was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Irish, anti-black, or anti-gay campaigns, or movements such as the Klan, Christian fundamentalists were manning the barricades of hate.

Let me suggest an alternative theory to the one Douthat proposes. Instead of inoculating people from fascism, the modern conservative movement--especially that of the Religious Right--prepared them to accept it as pure Americanism--cross and flag, constitution and Bible all glued together by bigotry, nationalism and big government.