They call themselves culture warriors. In reality they are fascists. Both the world and our American political system are rapidly dividing along two simple political lines: democracy or fascism. And the typical device fascists have used to rise to power, in country after country for centuries, has been what Republicans today refer to as their beloved “culture wars.”
Democracies allow healthy debate about cultural and political issues, from the level of government support for the needy, to limits on immigration, to the funding of public functions like schools, libraries, and utilities. Control of government in democracies regularly and peacefully changes, reflecting the will of the people, as do the policies they legislate into law.
In fascist countries, by contrast, both policy and leadership are rigidified, almost always under the iron fists of a dictatorial strongman leader and the morbidly rich. Legislation that passes represent the will of special interests rather than the people more generally.
Here in America, the Democratic Party — for all its confusion and errors — still respects and represents democracy and a republican form of government. The GOP, however, has been taken over in the past decades by outright authoritarians, race-baiters, homophobes, and misogynists who see one-party fascist rule as their ideal.
They use “culture wars” as both a weapon and a tool to distract people and the media from the fascists’ real goal of establishing a semi-totalitarian police state where political power is defined by big money or access to big money.
They want a nation where political opponents can be arrested. Where people go to prison, shackled and on television, simply for showing up to vote.
Where if you speak out against the president, as Michael Cohen did while on probation, you are re-arrested and thrown into the solitary confinement cell of a hellhole jail. They push for an administration that runs the nation with no consideration of fairness, integrity, or the rule of law.
If the people object, the fascists know from the history of dozens of fascist politicians before them in other countries, enough violence in the streets by their armed militia thugs will shut them up and send them back to talking about sports and the latest movies.
No need to worry about what the majority of the people want. Just throw them a nice culture war to keep them occupied, to give them specific things they can do.
Like marching around with AR15s, waving flags, going to rallies, harassing school boards, and intimidating voters at the polls. Exploit the fact that many think they are actually helping society and protecting their children through their rightwing activism: exploit that natural human instinct to be an agent for change.
No fascist government has ever come to power with majority support. After all, when their main goal is not to legislate, help the people, or to even keep government running, but rather to overthrow “the system” and seize total power, they’re not going to accomplish that with speeches about policy ideas.
They are not going to do that by making life better for the average person or raising taxes on the morbidly rich. They are only going to be able to do that against the agreement of a majority of society.
And because fascists who aspire to governance are always part of a loud, visible minority (usually a faction within a political party) when they take over — and often even shortly thereafter — few people take them as seriously as society should until its too late.
Which is why fascists are constantly looking for a topic they can pretend is a “culture war” issue but in reality will end up shifting more power to them, along with an incremental slice of the voting electorate.
It is also why they put so much time and effort into changing voting laws; purging people from the voting rolls; and reducing the number of polling stations and voting machines in opposition neighborhoods to make lines to vote extend as long as 10 hours.
Fascists never come to power with majority support. They can only win power by cheating, and they are well aware of it.
Republican senators go to Russia to celebrate our Fourth of July; Rand Paul carries to Vladimir Putin’s intelligence agents in Moscow top secret documents in a sealed envelope given to him personally by Donald Trump; Fox “News” and CPAC celebrate Hungarian fascist Viktor Orbán’s Hungary where opposition media is almost totally silenced, racial and religious animosity are stoked for political purposes, and few dare to challenge the government.
Just last week 11 Republicans introduced legislation in the House of Representatives taking the side of fascist Russia over democratic Ukraine by trying to end US aid to Ukraine.
Although few in our media will acknowledge it — Rachel Maddow did so on her program Monday night and deserves kudos for her insight and bravery — America is on the cusp of a momentous decision.
Will we continue the “great American experiment” of a deeper and more effective democracy with every generation? Or will we submit to Trump-style authoritarianism and become a full-blown fascist police state within the next few years?
Today’s fascist countries — Russia, Hungary, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Belarus, Egypt, China, Pakistan, and those moving in that direction like India and Israel — go way beyond rational debate with a vibrant political opposition.
They outright criminalize actions they deem “not part of the cultural mainstream”: drag shows, homosexuality, voting by minorities, using libel and “national security” laws to shut down the press and arrest those who speak out, routine search, seizure, and harassment.
And it is all to enforce single-party rule. Fascist nations take a hard view of what’s culturally acceptable and what’s not, and then seek to use violence and the force of law to impose their idea of morality on the rest of their nation’s citizens.
As fascism expert Jason Stanley wrote recently for The Guardian:
“It is clear that the chief agenda of the GOP is to advance a set of speech laws that criminalize discussion in schools of anything but the white heterosexual majority’s perspective. The media’s portrayal of these laws as moves in the ‘culture wars’ is an unconscionable misrepresentation of fascism.”
Republicans in multiple states have criminalized the teaching of important parts of US history: teachers and librarians can go to jail for teaching the wrong subjects or having the wrong books in their classrooms and libraries.
As NPR noted:
“According to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, 39 states have introduced over 160 bills in the past year limiting what schools can teach about race, politics, American history, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Republicans and the media like to describe this as part of the GOP’s “culture war” against “woke” America. But it’s not. As Stanley noted, it’s naked fascism.
Democrats and the media must start calling it that, before the right gets that word banned or canceled like they did with “woke.”
In Robert Bork’s book Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, he argues, broadly, that the revolutionary changes brought about in the 1960s — women entering colleges and the workplace, racial minorities having employment parity with whites, non-Christian religions being broadly recognized across society as legitimate, the so-called “sexual revolution,” the acceptance of marijuana use, young people refusing military service during the Vietnam War, and government using regulatory powers to protect consumers from unsafe products, monopolies, and toxic pollution — were all symptoms of a “culture war”:
“In the United States, at least, that decline and the mounting resistance to it have produced what we now call a culture war. It is impossible to say what the outcome will be, but for the moment our trajectory continues downward. …
“Opposition to the counterculture, the culture that became today’s liberalism, is precisely what our culture war is about.”
But even Robert Bork never proposed banning books or censoring Advanced Placement High School American History.
That is not “culture war.” It is using the force of law to alter cultural behavior, another cardinal hallmark of fascism.
The term “culture war” took on national significance and widespread use among Republicans after Pat Buchanan, congratulating George HW Bush at the 1992 RNC convention in Houston, declared:
“My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
But even Buchanan — white supremacist though he was — never proposed imprisoning Black and Hispanic people for voting, as Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott have both done.
Denying the voting franchise and parading Black people in shackles for the cameras isn’t a debate about culture: it’s using the force of law to deny people basic rights of citizenship and terrify others who may think about voting. It’s performative fascism.
Perhaps most Americans don’t associate the hard right movement within the GOP with fascism because they’re not yet calling for the mass arrest of Jews or discussing extermination camps.
Americans have a cartoon vision of fascism, as if Hitler’s extermination camps had burst full-flower out of his October, 1923 arrest at a Munich beer hall.
But that’s not how fascism usually starts. It almost always starts with what people think are “only culture wars.” In fact, culture wars replacing serious policy discussions are signs of early fascism.
Hitler began with a campaign to “defend the children” and “preserve German culture,” and integrated both into his “Law and Order” government systems and police agencies.
He purged schools and libraries of books about socialism, sex education, and then went for literature and textbooks by prominent Jewish authors, as William Shirer so clearly lays out in his seminal Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
We should listen to the voices of those who lived through that era.
Chicago journalist Milton Mayer went to Germany in the 1950s and interviewed ten “normal Germans” who’d survived the war and never joined the Nazi party.
His book, They Thought They Were Free, is his story of that experience. Intertwined through it — first published in 1955 — are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans: to us, today.
Mayer quotes one of his German friends as describing what happened once Hitler seized power:
“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.”
Did the German people realize they’d abandoned democracy in the name of fighting in culture wars? That they would soon become international pariahs? The college professor Mayer interviewed answered:
“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it – please try to believe me – unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.
“Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.
“And one day it is over his head.”
They thought all those culture war Nazi comments about race and the immigrants and cutting taxes on the rich were simply hyperbole, or, at least with immigrants and taxes, something that might be reasonable.
They thought it was normal politics, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t just a “culture war”: it was a rising fascist movement, as I described in my book The Hidden History of American Oligarchy.
Is it possible this could happen in America in the years directly around the election of 2024?
That all our own “small steps” could one day lead to a dictatorial form of government that so cows the people, the politicians, and even the business community and media that it can’t be challenged?
Doesn’t the nation rise up and protest the destruction of its own democracy? Don’t the people pour into the streets?
Mayer’s German professor gave us the answer:
“You see, one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow.
“You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.”
In Shirer’s book, he documents in painful detail Hitler’s “culture war” against gay men to “protect the children.” It was at the very beginning, and a substantial help, for the Nazi’s rise to full power.
We can’t say we weren’t warned by our own people, our own politicians, even the most senior members of our own institutional power structure.
In a speech that was hysterically criticized by Republicans and Fox “News” pundits, President Obama in December of 2017 came right out and said it:
“You have to tend to this garden of democracy, otherwise things can fall apart fairly quickly. And we’ve seen societies where that happens.”
Yes, the former President of the United States was invoked Nazi Germany five years ago while Donald Trump was President, adding:
“Now, presumably, there was a ballroom in Vienna in the late 1920s or ’30s that looked and seemed as if it ― filled with the music and art and literature and the science that was emerging ― would continue into perpetuity.
“And then,” President Obama said, “60 million people died. And the entire world was plunged into chaos.”
The warnings have been there all along. I wrote of this in 2005, quoting Mayer and going off on Bush and the PATRIOT Act as the prequel to fascism.
Americans have been shouting about it lately, in venues like The New York Times, Madeline Albright’s book, and from legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But how do we know when or what to do? Is there a sudden proclamation by the president that the nation is now “officially fascist”? And even if that happened, how do we know how to respond?
Back to Mayer’s German friend in 1954:
“But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.”
America is long past “culture wars.” State after state, often working together with Republican members of the House of Representatives, are passing laws:
- Criminalizing women’s bodies
- Making it easier for billionaires to sue for libel to inhibit the press
- Cutting regulations for polluting companies
- Throwing millions off the voting rolls
- Giving speeches and speaking at conferences in favor of white supremacy and holding Hungary up as an example for America
- Fighting to keep billionaires paying around a 3% annual income tax
We’re in a full-fledged struggle with fascism right here at home, and that cancer has embedded itself deeply into the Republican Party.
As we head toward the 2024 election, this question of fascism within the GOP will become more and more urgent.
Will democracy survive in this land of its modern birth? Will we take seriously the threat of those who proudly called themselves “Culture Warriors?”
Or will the efforts of the Christian Nationalists, the brawling street gangs that call themselves “militias,” the purveyors of propaganda across thousands of blogs, podcasts, and rightwing hate radio stations prevail?
Will the fascists win? To a large extent, the answer will depend on whether we —you and me and our media — have the courage to call this what it is: fascism.
Because you can only stop a movement when you clearly recognize its true nature.