Should We Worry About Fascism? Talk at Congregation Adat Reyim, September 10, 2017

by Rich Rubenstein on October 15, 2017 · 3 comments

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   A talk by Richard E. Rubenstein at Congregation Adat Reyim

West Springfield, Virginia

September 10, 2017

    I’m very happy to be back at Adat Reyim, where my daughter became bat mitzvah and I spent many happy hours worshiping, listening to Rabbi Bruce Aft’s sermons, and laughing at his attempted jokes. I am delighted to have been asked to speak by Rabbi Aft, a great exponent of Jewish learning and values and a colleague in teaching and practicing conflict resolution.

   Current Causes of Concern

What brings us here this evening is a growing concern about the resurgence of American organizations with fascist or neo-fascist sympathies and ideas. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a burst of growth on the Far Far Right, with more than 900 hate groups currently active.[1] These organizations come in a variety of brands, ranging from white nationalists and KKK members to neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, patriot militias, anti-Muslims, Christian identity groups, and others.

According to the SPLC, “Several new and energetic groups appeared last year that were almost entirely focused on Trump and seemed to live off his candidacy.” [2] They included Identity Evropa, a campus-oriented group based in California, the Right Stuff, based in New York, American Vanguard, a group with 12 chapters, including some in our region, and the Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi website that has expanded into real-world activism by starting 31 “clubs.” A number of these groups sponsored the rally last month in Charlottesville whose main theme was “Unite the Right.

The Trump presidency may have emboldened these groups, for reasons we can discuss. But, in my view, the President is not a fascist. Or, perhaps I should say, not yet. A key question, then, is what is fascism? According to Wikipedia, “Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and control of industry and commerce.” Unfortunately, this narrow a definition raises more questions than it answers. Adolf Hitler was legally appointed Chancellor of Germany and did not forcibly suppress his opponents until after the Reichstag Fire. Does this mean he was not a fascist until then? A more complex multi-factor definition turns out to be more useful.

   What Is Fascism?

There are a number of different forms of fascism, but most analysts agree that it involves at least four components:

(1) Worship of the nation, which is considered to be a cultural and even a biological unit, and which is conceived of as the ultimate source of authority. Ultra-nationalism of this sort is a form of highly ritualized civil religion that tends to separate groups defined as “the people” from those defined as outsiders. The outsiders are considered aliens without legal rights, or even sub-humans without a right to life. One gets a strong whiff of this thinking in the recent remark by Fox News consultant Ralph Peters justifying a preemptive nuclear attack by the United States on North Korea, because it would be worth killing one million Koreans to save one thousand American lives.[3]

(2) Promotion of the Leader as the embodiment of the nation. The Leader is considered a truer representative of the nation’s interests, values, and needs than legislative or judicial bodies or political parties. He is also regarded as the authoritarian Father of the national family. The “Leadership Principle” (in German, the Fuhrerprinzip) often reflects as widely shared contempt for politics-as-usual, which many people feel has become inefficient, corrupt, and meaningless. It involves accepting a need for domination by a strong executive exercising great discretionary power.

(3) Strengthening and glorification of force and the instruments of force, including the armed forces and the police. In Germany and Italy, this meant the creation of a totalitarian police state. In other cases, one could imagine “friendlier” forms of fascism. But glorifying the army and police always connects with intense pride in an aggressive foreign policy aimed at capturing or maintaining global power. It means conducting permanent war abroad and normalizing a state of permanent wartime “emergency” at home. Culturally speaking, it also means revering a ruthless image of male strength and protectiveness.

(d) Destruction of the independent labor movement and a radical increase in the power of large businesses and banks enmeshed with the state. This often involves the formation of a business-government “partnership,” with government playing an important coordinating (and sometimes deciding) role in the economy. Mussolini called his new order “corporatism,” and Hitler called his “national socialism.” Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism” is not yet a form of fascist economics, but its basic drive – to combine private control of the economy with a higher degree of planning, as in wartime – seems to move in that direction.

Looking at these factors, it seems clear that the U.S. as a whole is not a fascist state, although some trends in our politics and culture are extremely worrying. Most of these trends, by the way, do not begin with Donald Trump, but were already part of American political culture – for example, the permanent state of war conducted by the President and the military with virtually no Congressional interference. Some trends, however, are Trumpian: I am thinking of his blanket ban on immigration from certain Muslim nations and his encouragement of police to use more force in making arrests. Even so, fascist and neofascist groups in America are still quite limited in size, probably amounting to less than 10,000 members all told.

Under these circumstances, what must concern us most is the “iceberg” problem. What is the potential of these groups for growth, esp. among discontented sectors of the population? How much of a future threat is fascism in America? To answer this question, we need to look briefly at the causes of fascism. So long as these causes persist, their possible effects will continue to give us nightmares.

   Fascism: Causes and Effects

Fascism arose in Europe in the period between the two world wars in response to crises that were economic, political, and cultural. The Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, who died in one of Mussolini’s prisons, said, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[4] At the moment, none of these crises are as extreme in America as they were in Europe – but serious problems exist and need attending to. If they are not solved, the potential for fascism will increase even more sharply. Here are a few of them:

(a) Economic Crisis. It makes no sense to continue to avoid recognizing the forty-year decline or stagnation of the American working class, the de-industrialization of large areas of the country, the persistence of deep poverty, or startling and continuing increases in inequality and insecurity. This is why so many workers rebelled against the Democrats in 2016 and embraced Donald Trump’s right-wing populism. The key states won by Barack in Obama in 2012 but taken by Trump four years later included Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida – all places where very high levels of worker insecurity and discontent could be turned in the direction of anti-establishment (and anti-immigrant, anti-minority, and anti-foreign) ideology. Unfortunately, not only did Trump’s opponents fail to recognize the extent of this discontent before the election, one year later they have still not proposed social or economic reforms capable of remedying the problem.

    (b) Political Crisis. Again, ignoring obvious problems is dangerous. One notes the decay and disorientation of the American two party system; the growth of intense, narrow partisanship; legislative gridlock; domination of the political system by self-interested lobbies; the effect of the Citizens’ United case on election spending; and a growing disenchantment with democracy among some sectors of the population. Under such circumstances, many people look for a Man on Horseback to unite the nation at home and to put “America First” in foreign relations. Real solutions to problems of political decay and corruption, it seems to me, must involve a revival of democracy. A major political realignment may already be under way, with new political formations appearing on the left as well as on the right of the American political spectrum. But, again, we wait for Donald Trump’s opponents to stop attacking his personality and character long enough to suggest how a more democratic system might be constructed.

(c) Cultural Crisis. The Pew Foundation, among other polling sources, reports that they have never before seen such deep divisions between American political groups based on class, race, ethnicity, religion, differing educational levels, and differing cultural values. [5] An internal cultural war is being fought that raises a real danger of the nation descending into tribalism. On the one side, immigration is seen as a threat to an endangered majority (i.e., white, Christian) culture. On the other, those despised as uneducated or uncivilized racists and sexists are called “deplorables” (certainly, Hillary Clinton’s worst mistake of the 2016 election). Witnessing the growth of a sense of humiliation and resentment among many groups, one cannot help recalling the fascist appeal to people’s wounded pride in the Nazis’ rise to power. We have got to learn, first, to identify real problems, and, second, to talk about them with each other.

   What Is To Be Done?

If these are some of the causes of potential fascism, what can be done to eliminate or mitigate them before the fascist movement gets stronger? A key concept here is the existence of systemic problems and the need for systemic solutions. As I say in my new book, Resolving Structural Conflicts, we need to get away from the kind of personality politics which analyzes everything in terms of people’s good or bad intentions – or in terms of their sanity or craziness – and start talking about how to transform failing systems.

For example, on the economic side, we need to think, talk, and dialogue more freely on failures of the capitalist system as practiced in the U.S. and the possible usefulness of other economic models. It’sery hard to talk about this sort of thing because of taboos, many developed during the Cold War, that were intended to sanctify the existing system and make criticism of it seem blasphemous. But there are a wide range of alternatives now being discussed in various quarters, ranging from the innovative industrial, tax, and ownership policies adopted by some European nations to the programs of local ownership and control advocated by Gar Alperovitz and his “next system” project (, and proposals for a “new New Deal” offered by democratic socialists and Green Party spokespeople (, and others. The right-wing economic nationalist measures associated with Steve Bannon at least recognize the existence of a problem that American liberals have long ignored. Our overall need is to empower the lower 80% of the U.S. population. How to do this is up for grabs.

Similarly, when it comes to politics, we need to think about ways of fixing dysfunctional systems, including the two-party system, the system of campaign finance, and the electoral system. Perhaps more important: we need to find new ways of energizing and empowering people currently alienated from politics and new ways of making democracy more democratic. The goal of “direct democracy” has long been blocked by fear of the people among elites of both parties. This suggests the importance of rethinking political education and role of youth, especially since there are signs that America is entering a new period of political destablization and change. Will we see a return in the near future to some aspects of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s? Perhaps!

Finally, it seems to me that the most important factor in preventing the growth of fascism may well be a struggle on the cultural front. Solving economic problems will reduce the displacement of resentment onto cultural targets to some extent, but there are other causes of cultural insecurity – for example, challenges to the coherence and stability of the family; changing social mores and gender roles; challenges to traditional religious beliefs; and new contact with foreign “others” in a globalizing world. These are shared problems, and so we need to find alternatives to the kind of ethnocentric defensiveness and contempt for different others that have become normal in our society.

Dialogue is a key starting point for this sort of rethinking. How can we begin to talk across the deepening lines of cultural division with people whose views we may consider hateful and dangerous? The point of this sort of dialogue is not to bargain or to reach compromises but to gain a better understanding of the roots of the conflict and the possibilities of ending it by eliminating or mitigating its systemic causes. In my field, we call this “social-constitutional” dialogue. Institutions like this congregation have the ability to participate in healthy, regenerative dialogues of this sort. I can assure you that if you are interested in doing this, there are facilitators who can help you to make it useful and meaningful.

I began this session by asking whether we should worry about fascism in America. The answer, which should now be clear, is “Of course!” But worrying about it is not enough. We can also do something about it.

Now let’s talk.


[1] See Southern Poverty Law Center, “Hate Groups, 1999-2016” (“Hate Map”),

[2] Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report (August 6, 2017),

[3] See

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from The Prison Notebooks (International Publishers, 1989, 221)

[5] Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American Public” (June 12, 2014).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann Kielty Sweet March 13, 2018 at 4:07 pm

Dear Rich (ie),
Roger is recuperating from surgery at our daughter’s where I am reading your book WHEN JESUS BECAME GOD. A reader’s column in a recent Christian Science Monitor spoke enthusiastically about this book, so I looked in the Keene Public Library for it, and there it was. It is very interesting. I knew nothing about Constantine and Christianity except that he became a Christian on his deathbed. The competition among Christian groups sounds like our divisiveness today.

I have read this blog, and I think it a good summary of our situation and future risks.

I cannot remember when we last saw you, but it may have been when we lived in Needham in the mid 60’s. Now retired (25 years ago), we live in NH near Keene, where we have been active hikers until recently. My mother died in 1999 at 99 but much diminished by Alzheimer’s for the previous 12 years. I think I recall that my sister, who lives in Texas, may have looked you up in Virginia a few years ago.

It is wonderful to see you so helpful in a public way for all these years. I am going to listen to your TEDx talk later today.

Warm regards,


P. Byrne March 19, 2018 at 6:28 am

Your article presents a very real threat to Democracy in the USA

Your suggested beginnings in a search for a remedy appear to be very complex, as well they may be.

I would suggest developing a few basic rules in beginning a dialog. Such rules may be helpful in gaining the interest and
support of groups which would otherwise be opposed to one-

Thanks for your wise observations.

P. Byrne


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