Jason Stanley breaks down How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them in this short, but intense book. We throw the term fascism around a lot these days. Better understand what it is before using it in a sentence. Or so I told myself when starting this book.
Chapters build on each other’s concepts. First is the mythic past, wherein fascist politicians evoke a better day gone by. And most of the time they refer to events or emotions that didn’t actually exist. Then they layer on propaganda, with language that makes people believe in their virtue. At the same time, they create objectionable events and positions. The fascist politician or government also start propaganda that ultimately creates a sense of “us” and “them.” In it, they say they’re against corruption. But watch closely: what they actually object to is the supposed corruption of “purity” in people or ideas.
Stanley next explains why fascist governments are anti-intellectual. And how they use conspiracy theories to their advantage. Those theories are the main part of a process that delegitimizes mainstream media, among other things. This chapter also discusses the reasons why a fascist politician can gain followers by rejecting political correctness in favor of “authenticity.”
Effects of polarization
Moving back to the polarization he discussed earlier, Stanley explains the power of hierarchy in fascist politics. This section ties its ideas to distorted concepts of equality and liberty. At the same time, fascist governments use hierarchy for power grabs. When hierarchies don’t benefit them, supporters feel victimized. In discussing victimhood, to which he devotes a chapter, Stanley shines a light on the feelings of white men. This explains plenty about “all lives matter” comments and patriarchal / misogynistic behaviors.
Given hierarchy concerns, it’s no surprise that law and order is the next chapter’s focus. It speaks for itself, although Stanley adds detail. From there he moves into how policing policies tie specifically to sexual anxiety. For example, why a black or brown man is depicted in propaganda as a criminal raping a white woman. And this information also ties back to mythic past and the patriarchy. The psychology is both fascinating and upsetting.
Rural versus city perspectives
Another chapter that relates to recent news is titled “Sodom and Gomorrah,” a commonly-used Biblical reference. Fascist politicians work to divide the rural citizen from the “cosmopolitans,” or city dwellers. Fascist beliefs focus on rural life as supporting both the patriarchy and the mythic, simpler past. As an example, when “coastal elites” is used derogatorily in opinion pieces. And Stanley also ties this kind of divide to anti-intellectualism, a previous chapter.
In the last chapter, Stanley explains the way fascism presents “honest labor” versus “laziness.” This again connects to the desire to vilify differences in race and class. When labor unions were a bigger part of workers’ lives, one of their purposes was direct defense against fascist tendencies.
Even though this review covers a lot of information, it barely glances over the content in Stanley’s book. If any of this intrigues, angers, or scares you, please go grab a copy of the book.
When Timothy Snyder interviewed Jason Stanley online, I sat in the virtual front row. I respect Snyder’s work, and his participation alone was enough to get me there. But in today’s reality, the word fascism is everywhere. I wanted to understand it better, for my sake and the sake of our world.
It’s beyond chilling to read chapters and immediately think of a recent news item in my country that demonstrates the author’s point. But Stanley also uses examples from various decades and countries. He doesn’t pin these activities or policies on one person or political movement. Instead, he explains and teaches. Most importantly, he breaks down a complicated subject into understandable chunks. After all, his day job is Yale professor.
If you’re politically aware and want to be better educated about fascism, this is the book for you.
Pair with either of Synder’s recent works, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth-Century or The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Also helpful would be Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne.