THE SIMPLEST EXPLANATION IS…THEY’RE FASCISTS
Or Why So Many of us Didn’t See Fascism Coming
As a sociologist, I have a love-hate relationship with Occam’s Razor.
On one hand, as an analyst of social life, I want to find ways to untangle the impossibly complex tendrils of the lived world. This task might seem perfectly suited to Occam’s dictum that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best.
On the other hand, as we try to untangle the Gordian Knot that is the social world we find that it is rare that all things are equal. Occam’s Razor does not apply.
The complexity of social life is exhilarating to the social scientist. Following the strings of social facts and revealing some underlying truth in the tangle makes the work as much a craft as a scientific endeavor.
Unfortunately, the truths we find at the end of these strings are often a picture of the world we would rather not see. This is especially true when these truths reveal a darkness within our lived, emotional experience, the nation we live in, the people we love, the relationships we enjoy. In this case, the seeming complexity of the phenomena we are exploring gives us cover, a place to shield our eyes from the uncomfortable realities that become undeniable in the face of illumination. We can parse the truth in ways that may adequately explain the phenomena while hiding the slimy underbelly of the truth.
I guess all social analysts fall into this trap at some point or another. When we realize it, however, we owe it to the people who trust us, as well as to our peers working diligently in the discipline, to come forward and apply Occam’s god-damned Razor to our own work.
Some years ago I tried to apply my Sociological Imagination to a very personal and political issue. How was it that so many of my countrymen, let alone close friends and family members, could be so taken in by an obvious con man with clear authoritarian intentions and select him to be nothing less than the President of the United States? Furthermore, how could they continue to support this man regardless of the bigoted and dehumanizing things he said, the disgusting policies he espoused, and the revolting revelations of his character that were exposed daily?
I settled upon a three-part typology. First, such people were idiots. This was not a critique of their intelligence, but rather their aptitude and knowledge base of politics, economics, and policy. This ignorance was often a result of relying on propaganda sources for their news,
Secondly, they were bigots. This was, of course, an easy claim to make and solidly defensible based on the data. Perhaps they weren’t openly bigoted. They may not have even been aware of their bigotry. Regardless, they held some level of what social scientists call “Racial Resentment” that was motivating their actions.
Finally, I suggested that they were sociopaths.1 In other words, they were not ignorant of the politics and weren’t necessarily bigoted. They knew how destructive their candidate and his medieval policies were. They just didn’t care because they believed they themselves would be untouched by the destruction and ultimately better off–everyone else be damned. Mostly, I applied this to those who were voting for the juicy tax cuts they knew would follow the election. The rest of the country, or the world, burning was of secondary concern if they could get an extra glass of water.
Overall, I still think this analysis is sound. Indeed, I think the evidence suggests that it has stood the test of time. The analysis was sound, but it wasn’t complete. I could have, indeed I should have, applied Occam’s Razor to its logical conclusion.
I wanted to understand what I was witnessing from the people around me–people I thought I knew. I was willing to assess their ignorance, their bigotry, their selfishness. Yet there was one theoretical line that I was unwilling to cross.
I was unwilling to accept the most logical conclusion revealed in the data. My friends, family, and countrymen were best described as fascists!
In retrospect, it should not have been hard to draw the parallels between what we all witnessed emerging in 2015 starting with a gaudy, but otherwise nondescript, escalator ride surrounded by paid actors. The fascist burlesque only became more extravagant as campaign rallies were filled less with actors and more with followers. As the adoring crowds grew the leader reveled in the size of his audience. The vast, anonymous faces in the crowd became part of the splendorous backdrop of MAGA. It was brilliant showmanship unmatched by the alternative party. The television networks could not (or rather would not) avert their lenses.
Of course, spectacle is the backbone of fascism. Fascists cannot run on being fascists. There are so many different ways to be fascist, and they are all abhorrent. It is the spectacle that draws the crowd and the crowd that imparts the identity. Once the identity is accepted, there is no limit to what the fascist can say or do in the eyes of his followers. Substance becomes irrelevant. As Theo Horesh writes, “Almost nothing the leaders says or does can shake their faith because his pathologies are reinterpreted as signs of greatness.” The centerpiece of the performance is not in the content, it’s not in the lyricism. The leader is the center of the spectacle. He’s charismatic, even messianic. Watching the leader is fun, cathartic, even pornographic because he’s saying all the things I wish I could say and doing all of the things I wish I could do and nobody can touch him as I wish nobody could touch me.
The leader is also an embodiment of contradictions that must be sorted in the mind. He’s all-powerful but set upon from all sides. He is the hero, the only one who can save you, and the ultimate victim. Like you, he is being denied the true expression of his greatness by powerful conspiracies. But if you give yourself over to the leader, you can help him overcome. You become part of the performance. His ascension is yours.
This is the foundation of the fascist aesthetic, and it was right there the whole time. It didn’t go without notice. As early as 2015 The Washington Post pointed out that the Republican candidate used many tools from Mussolini’s box, including “a contempt for facts, spreading a pervasive sense of fear and overwhelming crisis, portraying his backers as victims, assigning blame to foreign or alien actors and suggesting only his powerful personality can transcend the crisis.” Those of us repulsed by the spectacle, which was mostly all of us not engrossed by it, saw and recognized the performance for what it was.
But we also saw the people closest to us embracing the spectacle. They couldn’t be fascists. They were just misinformed, misdirected, beguiled by the charismatic, the aesthetic, the sense of moral catharsis. Of course, that’s fascism. Easy to identify in the stranger. Much harder when it is someone close. Better still to define their motivations as idiotic, bigoted, selfish, misinformed, duped…
The concept of idiocy draws, albeit unwittingly at the time, from Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity. Bonhoeffer wrote his essay from Buchenwald shortly before being hanged by the Nazis. He pointed out that stupidity was far more dangerous than evil because evil could be exposed and resisted, but “[a]gainst stupidity, we are defenseless.” Bonhoeffer may have been writing about the MAGA crowd, or even dedicated Tea Partiers from less than a decade earlier when he wrote, “reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed — in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical — and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.”
For Bonhoeffer, a victim of Nazism, his persecutors weren’t evil people embracing an evil doctrine in order to perpetuate evil. Instead, they were stupid people who, in their stupidity, really believed that they were pursuing the best policies for a free nation. In many ways, this is journalist Milton Mayer’s thesis in his invaluable book, They Thought They Were Free (1955). Mayer conducted interviews with ten German friends of his who were witnesses and participants in the Nazi movement from its inception. His book amounts to almost an ethnography of people who were by all accounts, “decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men [who] did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.”
So, how do ordinary people, Mayer’s ten friends, my friends, your family members–people who are otherwise normal if not intelligent–become stupid? This kind of stupidity is not inherent in the follower. Indeed, some of the most intelligent people are the most difficult to turn once they embrace stupidity. Stupidity is cultivated over time.
The cultivation process reads much like the right-wing playbook practiced and perfected since Nixon’s Southern Strategy. First, nuance your party’s discourse. The task is to make the unpalatable palatable. If it is no longer appropriate to say, “I don’t want my child going to school with black children,” then talk about “school choice” or “bussing.” Efforts to clean the environment are attacks against jobs for hard-working Americans. Another great tactic is to accuse the opposition of the very unpalatable goals held by the party. Hence attempts to protect the right to vote are reframed as autocratic.
Ultimately, the goal is to say nothing to anyone about anything yet convince everyone that the party is the only arbiter of truth. Terms like “political correctness,” or “cancel culture” and let’s not forget, “identity politics,” are perfect examples of concepts that sound meaningful…but are not.
Secondly, delegitimize any individual or institution that might serve as a foil for your reframing. The free press is not the cornerstone of a free society. It is the enemy of the people. Universities are dens of “Cultural Marxism.” Public schools are places where we send our children to be brainwashed with Critical Race Theory (because it is unpalatable to attack “critical thinking”) and the “gay agenda” (“Cultural Marxism” “Gay Agenda” sound like they mean something. See step one.). In essence, where it is part of the first goal to make the unpalatable sound palatable, it is fundamental to the second strategy to make the palatable sound unpalatable. Critical thinking is indoctrination. Science is a religion. Diversity is racism. Tolerance is intolerant. Slavery is freedom. If only we could make Orwell fiction again. Any suggestion that the government might take part in directly helping people is socialism–and socialism is liberalism is Stalinism.
Fascists of old accomplished the first two steps with intensive, all-consuming propaganda. Propaganda, however, is only possible when one party can assert nearly complete functional control over all sources of information. Once the propaganda takes hold, it is self-perpetuating. People will bring their own books to the bonfires.
With contemporary media, however, such control over information is difficult–though not impossible as demonstrated by China and Russia. In a reputedly free society, propaganda must be much more subtle and must incorporate the discourse of freedom even as liberty is being stripped from the system.
In 2007 erstwhile presidential aspirant Al Gore wrote, “The truth is that American democracy is now in danger–not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment with which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die…It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse.” He didn’t know the half of it. Facebook was just getting started as his book went to press.
Vice President Gore also missed half of the picture with the underlying premise of the book The Assault on Reason. He identified the source of this assault as the growth of television over print media and the twisted incentives of television within a market in which quality and importance take a back seat to entertainment and sensationalism. Indeed, he made some strong points. However, in his attempt to be “unbiased” and to find a generalizable explanation for the closing of the marketplace of ideas, he understated2 the blatant and intentional tactical assault on the very reason he was trying to defend. The strategic process of right-wing movements was not just playing an outsized role in this new media ecosystem. They were building and dominating the infrastructure by which this ecosystem could be navigated.
This leads us to the third part of the offensive: offer alternative institutions by which the faithful may get access to the “real truth”. If your party is not in a position to control the established conduits of discourse, then it must create its own. These institutions must then indoctrinate codependence on the part of the audience. To the faithful, these alternative institutions, what I call the FoxNoise Machine,3 are not just a reference from which to get an understanding of the world from like-minded people.4 No. They are the only source that can be trusted. All other sources are lying. They are part of the liberal media or elites who want to turn your patriotic, Christian son into a socialist, atheist woman.
Bigotry and sociopathy validate these tactics. The ultimate goal of this meticulous cultivation and coordination of idiocy is self-interest. The true patriots, the real “hardworking” Americans are tired of being ignored, their interests put on the back burner. They can no longer be duped by the big city East Coast Elites and their Hollywood allies in the lamestream media. They have FoxNoise to set them straight. They are savvy to the conspiracies holding them down and keeping America from being Great Again. They are going to rise up and take their country back.
This discourse begs the question, who are these East Coast Elites? Who are they in conspiracy with? Who now holds the country that will be taken back?
The answer is, “Those People.”
Those People must be stopped. They must be put in their place. They must be disenfranchised and disempowered so the Real Americans can step in and restore the country to its former glory.
Who are those people? Well, they are the folks that aren’t like “Us People.” They are the minorities who are allowed by the liberals to cut the line of Real Americans working toward the American Dream.5 They are the welfare cheats and immigrants who want to steal our jobs and take advantage of our generous safety nets. They are the “Cultural Marxists” spreading their propaganda about tolerance and equality. They are the gay and transgendered perverts who want to corrupt our children and feminize the country. They are the women who are willing to sacrifice their families and kill their babies in the womb so they can have unlimited sex and pursue their careers. They are anyone who suggests that the United States of America is something other than one nation under God destined to be that Shining City on a Hill, spreading freedom all over the world.
If it weren’t for those people, “We People” would be living large, in a powerful and wealthy country that rewarded the deserving and punished the undeserving. It’s simply an unfortunate circumstance of history, the fault of the egalitarians really, that Those People must now be made to suffer so that We People can be restored to our rightful place in country and history.
To what extent do Those People need to suffer?
Well…Those People could just leave and go back where they came from. And those who hate America can follow them.
I guess we need to just Stand back and stand by.
It was all right there. The rise of American Fascism was happening right before my eyes…and I could see it. It wasn’t hard to identify the main players as what many of us referred to as “proto-fascists.” Even if they weren’t standing under the Fasces or the Swastika or any of a number of contemporary fascist symbols, they were certainly willing to use fascist discourse and tactics to get their tax cuts, to get their church exemptions, or whatever benefit they felt condoned aligning with authoritarians. Fascist rhetoric and actions were certainly not crossing any moral lines with our friends and family.
Because they were and probably remain Fascists. For whatever reason, and those reasons may be complex and varied depending on who is expressing them, they have given up on or never believed in America as a democratic nation for all people. They were angry, disenchanted, indignant and were and probably remain willing to embrace authoritarianism so long as that authoritarian shows them some semblance of respect, speaks for them, says the things they wish they could have said, empowers them to say the things that they want. So long as he is their authoritarian, nothing else matters. As Theo Horesh writes, “Fascism is born everywhere humanity seeks to be in chains. It appears on the scene when people, weary of the burden of freedom, seek to throw it off and submit to a leader who promises to set things right.”
Those of us dedicated to freedom and not willing to submit can see authoritarianism coming over the horizon. What we have a harder time with is seeing authoritarianism coming from our own neighborhoods, workplaces, and even households. For that, we need Occam’s Razor to help cut through the cognitive biases associated with affinity and emotional connection.
- To be fair, I did not use the word “sociopath” in the original analysis, I was angry about what I was learning about my country and about my friends, family, and neighbors. Ironically, as I reveal in this essay, I was learning only that which I already knew deap down, but did not want to admit.
- Gore does acknowledge the role of right-wing ideology in this assault on reason. His analysis, overall, is sound. In retrospect, however, he should have given more time to right-wing movement politics than he did.
- What I call the “FoxNoise Machine” is not just Fox News, but rather the entire complex of right-wing media of which Fox is the largest and most well known conduit.
- We all seek out affirmation in this way. When I read progressive magazines or websites I’m doing much the same thing. The difference is that some of us understand that our preferred sources are biased, are ways of seeking affirmation. Reasonable people also seek out information from a variety of perspectives. For the faithful, however, any source that contradicts their affirmations is nothing short of apostasy.
- Hochschild, Arlie. 2016. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The New Press.
Other Books Cited
Gore, Al. 2007. The Assault on Reason. The Penguin Press
Mayer, Milton. 2017. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45. University of Chicago Press
Horesh, Theo. 2020. The Fascism This Time: and the Global Future of Democracy. Cosmopolis Press.