‘How Fascism Works’
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‘How Fascism Works’

Yale’s Dr. Jason Stanley talks about the political system’s structure and history

Jason Stanley
Jason Stanley

What images flash through your mind when you hear the word “fascist”?

Many of us immediately see brown shirts, shiny black jackboots, black-and-white footage of white-faced, black-mustached, dead-eyed black-souled men. We think of death and horror and trains running on time.

Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale (and before that he held a named chair at Rutgers), has been thinking about fascism, at least in an informal way, almost all his life. He’s the son of childhood Holocaust refugees; the understanding of how fascism develops and grows tendrils and suffocates life and then outright kills almost is part of his DNA.

Dr. Stanley’s last book, “How Propaganda Works,” was a look at one of fascism’s tools, and it led directly to his new work, “How Fascism Works.” The book, a small, elegant, carefully designed object, takes background that much of us know, ties it to history that we might but more likely do not know, and presents us with a look at the structure of fascism. In the book, Dr. Stanley separates out the elements that all fascist cultures use, and shows us how and why they work, insofar as they do work. And he shows how it’s all based on the basic human desire to separate the world into the good guys — us — and the bad ones — them.

Dr. Stanley’s book has drawn a great deal of interest; the subject is a live one right now, with fascism seemingly resurgent around the world, a nightmare becoming a daytime soap. Last week, the New York Times book review picked it as one of its suggested weekly reads. Dr. Stanley is touring the country talking about the book, and about the issue — in fact, he’ll be in a high-profile public discussion at the New School with fellow Yale philosophy professor Timothy Snyder, moderated by the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, on Wednesday, October 10. But the next day, he’ll cross the Hudson for a talk at the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (See box for more information.)

Why is he coming to the JCC? “I took this invitation because I remember being with the community last year, and working through some of these issues with them,” he said. “It was during this book’s initial stages, and I had just started outlining it, so thinking about it on stage, and thinking about the questions the audience members asked, helped me think through it. So I feel a bond with the community. They helped me write this book. I will be coming back and reporting on what they saw me begin.”

Okay. So what are those ideas?

“I will be talking about the ways in which the political tactics we are seeing now across the world, this harsh resurgence of high-right nationalism, are reflective of political movements in the past,” he said. 

People are “susceptible to a certain kind of divisive politicism, racism, social Darwinism, and I want to show that many things that we really are used to are worrisome signs. For example, when leaders run as CEOs, promising that they will run the country like a business — a democracy is not supposed to be run like a business. A democracy is not a business, and we need to be better at recognizing what a democracy is and isn’t. We need to see that certain things — like the promise to run the country like a business — might seem promising, but we have to resist them if we are to hold onto our democratic ideals.

“I am going to use history and look across the world, as in the book, to come up with a template of a kind of politics that is based not on liberty and equality but on loyalty and power. Fascist leaders resemble Mafia bosses because the Mafia is an organization that is based on loyalty, and fascism is a system that prizes loyalty to the political leader.

“How do we see the symptoms of a fascist system? We see leaders appoint their relatives and business cronies to administrative posts. These are worrisome signs of the fascist ideology, which replaces truth with loyalty.

“Fascism is a politics of emotion, and the emotions that it evokes are fear and disgust.”

In his book, Dr. Stanley looks at the interlocking systems that create fascism.

They are rooted in a mythic past; a past that might include nuggets of actual history but is inherently untrue. That past is a pure one; the people whose story it tells — the ultimate “us” whose purpose is to fight — actively to repel — “them” — are of pure blood. Think of Germany’s glorious (to them) if counterfactual past. Think of the “blood and soil” of the tiki-torch-wielding protestors in Charlottesville last year. Think of the straight line between them.

Fascism is maintained by propaganda that values its own untrue truths over actual truth, and binds its followers together in a shared, fantastical web, Dr. Stanley tells us. It is based as well on a rigid hierarchy that always values its members over outsiders, and its blood over theirs (and it often, maybe even always, comes back to blood); it values men over women (and controlling women’s sexuality is a big part of that hierarchical structure); and it models its own politics on the family, with its head as the undisputed paterfamilias.

“I did a tremendous amount of research, and I discovered very many surprising things,” Dr. Stanley said. “Like this weird use of corruption, which occurs everywhere.”

American schoolchildren are taught that Reconstructionism — the period right after the Civil War in the South, where freed slaves were given the power to vote, and often became politically powerful — failed because of the rampant corruption that bedeviled it, Dr. Stanley said. But as W.E.B. Dubois said in his 1935 book “Black Reconstruction” — a book that Dr. Stanley called Dr. Du Bois’s “masterpiece” — it was not the African Americans who were corrupt. The corruption came from the southerners who feared their power. As it was then, so it is today, he added. “Think about Flint, Michigan,” which we are told “like all black majority cities is declared too corrupt to run itself.” That’s why it was run by an emergency manager, brought in from the outside, and that led to the scandal of its lead-tainted water. “It is very easy for Americans to accept the idea that black majority places are corrupt,” Dr. Stanley said. “Why? It’s because you have an in group and an out group, and the out group is always corrupt. No matter how you define the in group and the out group, the one defined as the out group is always believed to be corrupt.” 

In a fascist structure, the leader seems always to call out corruption, and to pledge to end it, but that leader’s group always teems with corruption, Dr. Stanley said; for example, the Nazis constantly railed against corruption but exemplified it.

The Nazis were not the only fascist society, but they seem to provide a blueprint. There is very little — if anything — about fascism for which the Nazis cannot provide an example.

Because of its loathing of the truth — truth to fascists is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West — the concept of false news and lying reporters is basic to it. “The Nazis used the term luegenpresse,” Dr. Stanley said. “That means lying press. That was the mainstream press.”

Immigration? “Every time I pick up ‘Mein Kampf’ — and because of my research I have to do that a lot — I find a section with Hitler railing about Germany’s immigration laws being an embarrassment to the world,” he said. 

And gender issues? “The Nazis were the most anti-feminist government ever,” Dr. Stanley staid. “Aryan women were to stay at home and bear babies. They weren’t allowed in the workplace. Abortion was entirely banned. The family was the model for the hierarchical vision of society that fascism set out to implement, so the family was set up as a way to create positive emotions toward the authoritarian organization.” (Or at least to create positive emotions in the men, who held the power and who therefore mattered.)

The inherent problem with fascism, it seems, is that it creates its own reality, which can work for it until suddenly it bangs up so hard against real reality that it shatters. Is that true? “Hannah Arendt says that the strength of fascist propaganda also is its greatest weakness,” Dr. Stanley said. “Initially you can’t fight it with facts, because the people sucked into it do not care about facts. But in the end, the break between the mythic and the factual reality is so great that it becomes too much.”

So yes, there is some hope.


Who: Dr. Jason Stanley of Yale, author of “How Fascism Works”

What: Will talk about his book and then answer questions

Where: At the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

When: On Thursday, October 11, at 10:30

And also: After Dr. Stanley’s talk and a break for lunch, the session resumes with a talk by Janice Kaplan, the author of “The Gratitude Diaries.” She’ll talk about “How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love, and Life.”

How much: $35 for members, $42 for non-members

For more information or to register: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to www.jccotp.org/adult-jcc-university.

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