I never expected to live in a fascist state. I’m old enough to have grown up in the United States acquainted with people who escaped real fascists. One of my elementary school teachers in her late teens and early 20s fought with the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany during the war. I knew people who survived extermination camps, people who had letters and numbers tattooed on their arms. Fascism was not an historical abstraction.
Partly as a consequence, I’ve always been intrigued by the literature of fascism – not books written by fascists, but books reimagining the forces within Western culture leading to a homegrown fascism. There is no shortage of such American books, beginning with the grandfather of all such works, The Iron Heel by Jack London in 1908, and the most famous of the genre, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis in 1935. Kurt Vonnegut quipped that the plot of his first novel Player Piano from 1952 was the same as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley from 1932 that in turn used the same plot as We by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921. There is even pro-fascist literature making essentially the same argument, notably the insane fantasy The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce in 1978 that sees a second American civil war using nuclear weapons and the consequent extermination of all blacks and Jews as a good thing.
The earliest work I know of where people are given numbers instead of names, a common trope today, is the short story The New Utopia by Jerome Klapka Jerome in 1891, a retelling of the Rip van Winkle story into a dystopian future. Although nearly forgotten today, the author was a household name at one time, and his writing influenced generations of British satire including P.G. Wodehouse, The Prisoner, The Goon Show and Monty Python. In his ideal socialist future such perfect equality has been achieved that everyone looks alike, dyeing their hair a uniform black, and telling the difference between men and women requires looking at their identification since women get even numbers and men get odd numbers. In perhaps the most unnerving exchange, the awakened sleeper asks his tour guide, “How about an exceptionally clever man. What do you do with him?” and the guide answers, “Well, we are not much troubled in that way now… We have not come across anything dangerous in the shape of brain-power for some considerable time now. When we do, we perform a surgical operation upon the head, which softens the brain down to the average level.”
Sacrifice of the individual to the collective is as much a defining element of fascism on the extreme right as it is of socialism on the extreme left: In many respects, the extremes of right and left are indistinguishable, leading to serious challenges of basic definition. The word “fascism” derives from the ancient Roman “fasces,” which is a bundle of sticks, implying that its strength is greater than that of any individual stick by virtue of being bundled. Presumably when Adolf Hitler called himself a “national socialist” and Bernie Sanders called himself a “democratic socialist,” they had two different meanings in mind for the same word – but they did, nevertheless, use the same word.
Ultimately, the common manifestations of totalitarianism – fascism and socialism – are defined by fear, usually fear of chaos: Freedom is the greatest evil, whether free market, free speech, free press, or even free religion. Freedom necessarily implies uncertainty, and it was all vestiges of uncertainty that were seen as the enemy to be eradicated, whether in the Five-Year Plan of the Soviet Union or the Four-Year Plan of Nazi Germany. Surrender your freedom, the totalitarians promise, and they will keep you safe by telling you what to do.
Such a deal will seem attractive only to those who perceive an imminent threat. If you’re trapped with a crowd in a fire, you will probably be more willing to follow the instructions of someone who seems to know what he is doing and who is confidently giving orders. Many questions would logically occur to you outside the immediate threat of the fire, such as wondering who this person is, how qualified they are to give instructions, and even whether they are motivated to help you or hurt you, yet because there is an immediate threat from the fire, you instead have to make snap judgments based on gut feeling. Humans are bound by biology: a fight-or-flight decision-making process that evolved to protect us from a saber-toothed tiger attack 50,000 years ago is remarkably maladapted to aid in making political assessments.
I don’t want to focus on any particular political issue, but if there is one that proves especially illustrative, it is immigration. While reasonable people can hold different opinions, no one is entitled to their own facts. There are dozens of rigorous academic studies that show illegal immigration in decline, and other studies have shown that illegal immigrants are either less likely or at least not more likely to commit crimes than the general population. Yet one candidate has whipped up fervor to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, despite the inevitable conclusion that, because since 2009 there have been more people leaving the United States for Mexico than are leaving Mexico for the United States, such a wall would, at least mathematically, work in the wrong direction.
Likewise, calls to block immigration by Muslims resonate with people who are very scared, but they are scared in defiance of real facts. Excluding the 9/11 attacks, which were more in the nature of an act of war undertaken by a quasi-state actor, since 1972 the death toll where Islam played some role in the United States has been 139 fatalities in 48 incidents. This is a serious concern and two recent incidents, in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015 and in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, account for 14 and 49 fatalities, respectively, but both were perpetrated by native-born Americans — in San Bernardino by a husband and wife where the husband was born in Illinois, and in Orlando by a man born in New York. The next most deadly act of Islamist terrorism on American soil, the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009 that killed 13, was committed by a man born in Virginia. These three incidents together account for 55% of the 139 deaths, and many of the remainder involve score-settling by domestic terrorist groups such as the Nation of Islam and even intra-family honor killings.
I recite these numbers and facts not to deny that Islamist terrorism is a problem – it certainly is, and it kills a lot more people outside the United States than inside it – but to demonstrate that it is a problem totally disconnected from immigration. The political arguments over immigration in this election cycle have been appeals to fear, not to reason. It is easy to parody this, and an extinction-level asteroid impact that promises to destroy all life on earth has its own Twitter account and claims to be running for president. Unless we’re willing to lock up people in internment camps because they are of foreign ancestry even if they were born in Illinois, New York, or Virginia – and we’ve done that before – we’re going to have to accept that there is no facile solution that does not involve fascistic infringements of fundamental civil rights. To keep this in perspective, in this country (again excluding 9/11) over the past 45 years, Islamic motivation has accounted for an average of three deaths per year, about 10 times fewer than the 25-50 people killed by lightning every year.
What the literature of fascism has been trying to warn us about is that irrational fear can be exploited to make us willing to surrender the freedoms that define our society. Politically, this is like falling through a trapdoor: Once surrendered, freedom is very hard to get back. Fascism will not come to the United States under that name, but will approach stealthily, promising to protect us from whatever it wants us to fear. Freedom is not the natural status of human society, and its maintenance is precarious as numerous forces chip away at it. Vote while you still can.