DO YOU SMELL fascism in the air? A little whiff of the Wehrmacht? A friend recently suggested that my head needed to be flexed for being, I suppose, a liberal Chicken Little writing doomy columns implying that something jackbooted this way comes.
"Fascist" is a word that hippies wore out with too many references to dad's necktie, so it's not a terribly useful term. But something about Bush II and terrorized America is bringing Third Reich references to the lips: A Saudi Arabian daily recently called Bush a cowboy who was comfortable with the "Nazi-like" policies of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. A Canadian member of Parliament, Bonnie Brown, compared possible U.S. pre-emptive war in Iraq to the tactics used by Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II (surprise attack and annexation). And German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin created an as-yet unhealed diplomatic rift with the U.S. by using the term "Adolf Nazi" in a discussion of Bush's Iraq policy.
But it's not just overseas critics who are making such comparisons. Late last week, the Drudge Report Web site featured a sneak preview of Washington Post editor Bob Woodward's new book about Bush's war-making apparatus. Bush's master political strategist, Karl Rove, was said to have compared the post-9/11 display at the World Series in Yankee Stadium to a Nazi rally.
It's significant that even members of the administration are reaching for fascist metaphors. They're at hand because we've watched endless hours of the History Channel. Nazism created an incredible vocabulary that is almost impossible not to use as a reference point when it comes to war, aggression, terror, and nationalism. The words and images fit what some of us see and what many feel. In the pages of this paper in recent weeks, readers have compared both Bush and Tim Eyman to Adolf Hitler, which, if you're up on your Holocaust reading, you know is an absurd comparison that cheapens the epithet.
But are the comparisons to fascism otherwise valid? Is America actually in danger of becoming a fascist state? For most of us, fascism is like pornography: We know it when we see it. Roger Griffin, author of International Fascism, has boiled the definition down to an ambitiously simple phrase: It is a "palingenetic populist ultra-nationalism." Meaning, real-deal fascism is a broad movement rooted in nationalism or ethnic identity and promising salvation through apocalyptic rebirth.
Such movements often are the result of tremendous insecurity or response to a real or perceived threat. They often target immigrant groups for persecution. They are obsessed with maintaining the integrity of the "homeland." Individual rights often are suspended in favor of collective security: Privacy is compromised by increased surveillance, military spending, and police powers. Patriotism and moral values are emphasized as an alternative to the decadent ways of the present. A millenarian model is adopted, promising a new order that will cleanse the nation once and for all. Fascist regimes are careful collaborations between one dominant political party, business, and the military. Sometimes, gaining or maintaining power necessitates a circumvention of the democratic process, such as stealing an election.
Anything sound familiar?
NONE OF THIS PROVES America is becoming a fascist state. But we certainly are experiencing some of the conditions where such movements thrive. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity, observes that a culture steeped in Christian fundamentalism would find the central fascist story line very familiar. Of course, so would a culture steeped in New Age mythology, but last I looked, the Woo-Woo Coalition had less influence in Washington than the Christian Coalition and John Ashcroft was attorney general, not Shirley McLaine. Certainly, at the millennium, on the brink of an expanded war and the potential for chemical, nuclear, and bio-terror Armageddons, at a time when our international woes are centered in the Middle East, the ground zero for the coming Rapture (you can watch it live on a Web cam at www.olivetree.org), the air is thick with the hothouse atmosphere where fascism takes root, and the sound of goose steps carries.