Jason Stanley: “America is Now in Fascism’s Legal Phase”

Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley sees January 6, 2021 as part of a history of fascist impulses in American politics. This is the focus of his book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” His latest article in The Guardian is titled “America is now in fascism’s legal phase.” Stanley speaks with Michel Martin about what he calls an “extremely critical moment” for democracy.

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BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley sees January 6 2021 as part of a history of fascist impulses in American politics, which is the focus of his book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. His latest article in The Guardian is titled “America is now in fascism’s legal phase”. Stanley speaks with Michel Martin about what he calls an “extremely critical moment” for democracy across the world.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Bianna. Professor Stanley, thank you so much for joining us once again.

JASON STANLEY, AUTHOR, “HOW FASCISM WORKS”: Thank you so much for having me on.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons we called you is that you have issued in recent weeks, a rather dire warning. You are saying that this is a pivotal moment in the life of this country. Why do you say that?

STANLEY: It’s a pivotal moment, because right now we’re seeing the legal mechanisms to steal an election being formalized. We’re seeing a system put in place that will enable permanent minority rule.

MARTIN: You, you, you said that this is, we are now in the legal phase. You see historical, you see historical precedence for this. And you say, it’s almost like a conversation that has gone on for a century between the, you know, Americans who have, you know, fascist solutions to national problems and kind of the European experience. And you’re saying now this sort of two-way conversation has resurgent is resurgent in the United States through legal means. Many conservatives, many of the most prominent conservatives, sort of scoff at the criticism of these, what they call voter integrity measures. They say that some of these measures that are being enacted in the Southern states, and also really in states around the country that they’re just trying to implement voter integrity. They’re just trying to give people confidence in our election systems. How do you respond to that?

STANLEY: Always call say about your opponent, what you are yourself doing. That’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing massive projection. We’re even seeing the fascist label being thrown at Democrats, right? So projection is a standard propaganda tool. It was one that Goebbels and Hitler both explicitly recommend, but it’s not just fascists who engage in it, but we’re seeing this massive projection. It’s almost like you can tell what the Republicans are doing by what they say the Democrats are doing. We have to interrogate this – electoral integrity, what does that mean here? Well, you have to filter it through a kind of fascist loyalist lens, which means only the “real” people of the country should get to determine who the leaders are. And so it’s not a really fair election if everyone gets to vote. And we’re seeing this again, and again. We’re seeing Republicans, including, former President Trump say this if we don’t pass these laws, everyone will vote. We’ll see them be, we’re seeing them being very explicit. So the idea is that a real election is one where only, you know, the real Americans vote. And this goes back to, this idea, which is, unfortunately, unless things radically change going to be a reality of a permanent minority running this country, who in the eyes of that minority are the real Americans.

MARTIN: We already see this with the Supreme court. I mean, the reality of it is the United States Supreme court is dominated by people whose political ideologies do not match those of the majority of the country in any way. The question I have for you though, is what’s appealing about this to so many Americans? I mean, you’ve made the point, like other, other scholars have made the point that the former president and the people who have embraced him – even though he’s no longer in office – are sort of beset with this kind of racial anxiety. But what about these other people? What about these extremely wealthy business people who presumably have everything they could ever want, have massive influence in our society, whose companies are fueled in large part by the labor and creativity of many diverse people. So what, what’s the appeal to some of these folks?

STANLEY: Power, simply put. We can’t forget that people aren’t racist by their nature. Racism is something that the powerful use to split the powerless. They split us apart. They split – this is something, an analysis that dates back to W.E.B. Du Bois’ master work, Black Reconstruction, which is still the best work about the American ideology. The wealthy elite faced a labor movement. Poor whites, poor blacks joining together in a labor movement. So racism was used to split them apart. Racism is a mechanism of power, which is why you see many people who aren’t personally racist at all – who simply want their taxes cut, don’t want government regulation – exploiting any means they can, supporting any kind of mass panic, be it a racial panic, be it a panic about COVID, to push people to vote for an extremist, an extremist movement (10:42): that’s going to, pad their pockets. And this is also consonant with the past. It’s consonant with the past and fascist movements across the world right now, like in Hungary. Many business elites, particularly in the hydrocarbon business, they recognize that their work is against the public good. So they need to, they need to support a movement that will split apart the public and result in a system that they can control.

MARTIN: One of the points is that you just made is that, ‘the contemporary American fascist movement,’ as you describe it, ‘is led by oligarchical interests for whom the public good is an impediment such as those in the hydrocarbon business, as well as social political and religious movements with roots in the, in the Confederacy.’ But the other point you made is that, you know – this is something we hear a lot of journalists in Washington DC say all the time is that – ‘oh, these guys in Congress, well, these people in Congress, they know that this is all, you know, made up. So what’s in it for them? Like, why continue to maintain this mythology? Especially when the person who advances mythology, the former president, is no longer in office?

STANLEY: Again, power. So let’s look at the people who are sort of leading this charge, this charge against democracy. Ted Cruz went to Princeton and Harvard Law. Josh Hawley went to Yale law. JD Vance, Yale law. These are the elites of the elites. These are not just the elites, they’re the elites of the elites. And they know exactly what they’re doing, when they foment conspiracy theories about the election; when they talk about, you know, a totalitarian government restricting our freedoms, with COVID policy; they know exactly what they’re doing. What are they doing? They’re trying to create the idea that the government, the concurrent government, is authoritarian. That it’s corrupt, that it’s destroying our children. It’s a threat to our children. This is what the critical race theory stuff panic is about. And that you need a strongman to protect the nation and your children from this terrible threat. Look, as long as COVID keeps raging, you can keep the politics of fear and panic alive. And when you keep the politics of fear and panic alive, people will set aside democracy. People will say ‘I just wanna be protected from this.’ They’re not gonna be able to think reasonably and rationally. You need to present your enemy, your internal enemy. So fascist politics works by saying there’s a nefarious internal enemy who’s working in tandem with the minorities to overthrow the government and control your children. And so what you do is you, you, you, you, you make society complete. You put people in incredibly anxious and fearful state where they’re looking for some kind of simple explanation. And a conspiracy theory is a kind of very simple explanation that people can grab onto. They’re controlling the schools. We’re hearing a lot about the schools, and there are very real worries here. I mean, we all want our children back in school and we want that dealt with. But, you know, the way to deal with that, to, to deal with that is to address the COVID crisis. But no, instead we’re leaning, the Republican many Republicans are leaning into the COVID crisis because they want to make it worse. They wanna say, you know, just like Qanon, it’s an extension of Qanon. You wanna say the vaccines are, are out to poison you, you know, all of these things by hypocrites who themselves are getting vaccinated and boosted. So this kind of constant conspiracy thinking, the internal enemy wink, wink, is there. They’re trying to manipulate you deviously. This enables people to, to say you need a non-democratic solution.

MARTIN: you’ve talked about sort of how restricting voter access plays into these kind of fascist techniques that you have described. But one of the things that we’re also seeing is this kind of hypermasculine, rhetoric and what seems to kind of go along with that is as a call toward female submissiveness, even though, you know, some of the prime figures ARE women in this movement. It’s just sort of a, kind of a call to kind of a 1950s family style. How do, how do you, do you see what I’m saying and how do you understand that?

STANLEY: Let’s begin with the attack on abortion right now. The, uh, which is the majority of Americans, do reject the repeal of Roe versus Wade. They want to keep Roe versus Wade, but we are facing a future in which abortion rights are gonna be severe, severely curtailed. And let’s be clear. There are plenty of social conservatives who are not fascists at all, who are not authoritarians, they are autocrats who want to participate in the democratic process who are against abortion. But, what we find here is a kind of classic macho, strutting, autocratic, in the figure of Trump who obviously has no social conservative history or morals, but he’s appealing to social conservatives. He’s saying, I’m gonna be your man. Now, that’s gonna draw social conservatives to him, but it also feeds into a general macho masculine ideology where the men control the women. So it both appeals to social conservatives because of overlap of interests, even though many social conservatives would vastly prefer this to be a democratic process, and it also feeds into the idea that men are around to protect women and women need to rely on men.

MARTIN: And what about the racial panic idea? Cause you know, we are seeing this kind of play out as a debate within the democratic party, for example, they wanna move forward with the, the programs and the policies for which they were elected. And at the same time you’re seeing this kind of furious backlash, not just from conservative opponents who are attracted to the ideologies that we’re talking about, but you’re also seeing it within the party itself, the democratic party, where people who say ‘we know that this is stimulating a backlash, so the best thing to do is to tamp it down, not continue to stoke these racial anxieties, you know, back off in essence I mean.’ So what’s your take on how that kind of tension is to be addressed?

STANLEY: So we have enormous racial disparities in our country. I don’t need to tell this audience. Enormous and persistent racial disparities. The racial wealth gap is massive and continues to be and what we have as a result…and we have a MASSIVE police system. We put our money – I’m not advocating to defund the police, I’m just stating facts – we put an enormous amount of money into militarized police, to police very poor populations, both white and black and to address social problems that way. What will result repeatedly is uprisings against that. And those uprisings will be then used to justify a fascist law and order crackdown. And this is analogous to what happened in Germany when there was mass left wing violence on the street and this was used to justify a fascist crackdown. So what’s to be done with this? I think Americans, get that there’s, that there are many people who are impoverished white and black, and they get that the government should be doing something about that, it’s not JUST a racial issue. But if we focus on the elites who are preventing us from achieving a kind of economic equality and a kind of fairness in our justice system and fairness in our educational system, that will cost money to do, we focus on the fact that it’s elites who are trying to split us apart, maybe we can make some traction here.

MARTIN: I wanna loop back to where we started this conversation, which is you think this is an extremely critical moment. So the question is what is to be done?

STANLEY: Well, I’m not, I’m better at analysis than I am at solutions, unfortunately. But here’s what I think. Democracies come and go. American democracy was fragile to begin with because we are racial democracy. We have the world’s highest incarceration rate, and you know, a country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, well, you gotta wonder how much that’s a democracy already. But we there’s a principle of democracy. One person, one vote. That principle should be bipartisan. Even though we are flawed structurally and ideologically, and historically, we’ve also been a model for that principle. The civil rights movement is held up as a model all across the world, a model of democratic bravery. When – if American democracy falls – and American democracy might well fall. I mean, you know, it’s never been, it’s always been flawed but we might take an enormous step back, like, like post reconstruction, might take many decades to recover from. We might become an autocratic authoritarian one party state – but IF we do, democracy across the world is in peril. We have a responsibility not to invade other countries and make them democratic. That’s not the way to do it. Our responsibility is to represent the push towards democracy. And I was speaking on Polish media on Monday and the broadcaster said to me in a very worried tone, Trump’s not gonna win again. Is he? Because if he wins Polish democracy, the hope that we can retain Polish democracy is simply gone. That’s not just in Poland, that’s all over the world. Let’s stop with the stupid wars – Trump was right about that. Let’s not invade countries, but let’s by example represent this striving for one person, one vote. And, you know, if we can align across that, along that principle and what we represent for the world and what makes us great, which is the striving for that, maybe we can fight this

MARTIN: So before we let you go, we are speaking on the one year anniversary of the mob attack on the capital. There are a number of strains coming together today. I mean, on the one hand, there are efforts to commemorate this in a very serious and solemn fashion; on the other hand, here are people who are making a determined effort to ignore this and to act like it never happened, or to say that the country should move on, that even these efforts to acknowledge it are divisive. As we reflect on this moment, what do you see? Do you see any sense that others share your alarm at the current moment – that this, that this slide toward authoritarianism, toward fascism, is being addressed? What, what do you see?

STANLEY: So, so you’ve left a crucial third party out and that’s the many, many Republican politicians who are trying – and media personalities – who are trying, not neither to ignore or to seek accountability, but to glorify. We have a political elite that’s openly pushing for people to arm themselves, to steal an election. To arm themselves to protect a minority, a permanent one party state. For any scholar –so my basic area is philosophy of language in the study of violent rhetoric – what we are seeing is justification for violence, 24/7. Kyle Rittenhouse was paraded in front of multiple Republican audiences at the Turning Points USA conference, they had a song about him. He came out, they chanted Kyle, Kyle, Kyle. What is this saying to 17 year olds across the country? It’s challenging their masculinity. It’s saying a real man goes into the capitol. A real man gets a gun, a real man stands and fights for his leader, Donald Trump. It’s challenging people’s masculinity. What we are seeing is a glorification of January 6th and a glorification of Kyle Rittenhouse. They’re stoking a large scale, violent, militia movement of not just organized militia, but individual actors like Kyle Rittenhouse, and they’re challenging them via their masculinity. So THAT’S what the legacy of January 6th is. They’re being transformed into heroes and we need to stop that process as soon as possible, and every Republican politician needs to disassociate themselves from the mass attempt to create and stoke eventual political violence.

MARTIN: Professor Jason Stanley. Thank you so much for talking with us.

STANLEY: Thank you so much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Rep. Rosa DeLauro remembers her experience of the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen explains the warning signs he noticed leading up to the insurrection. “How Fascism Works” author Jason Stanley reflects on the state of democracy in the U.S.