You can’t stop authoritarianism unless you understand it. Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Conservatism and Fascism Are Not the Same Thing

You can’t stop authoritarianism unless you understand it.

You can’t stop authoritarianism unless you understand it. Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

The Republican evolution into an authoritarian party is the most important development of the current political era. The conservative movement has a long tradition of anti-democratic thought, which Donald Trump catalyzed and which has accelerated since he departed office into his movement’s defining ethos.

Hardly a day goes by without some horrifying new expression of the right’s contempt for democracy. Here is Republican senator Rand Paul defining a “stolen” election as “targeting and convincing potential voters to complete [ballots] in a legally valid way.” Here is conservative talk-show host Jesse Kelly warning, “When I take power, communists” — Kelly’s term for liberals — “will not be allowed to hold jobs. Their children won’t be allowed in schools.” Here is an essay in a conservative journal urging the right to openly celebrate January 6 “as our Storming of the Bastille … One side is prepared to do everything necessary to secure their political power, so the other side must be prepared to resist every step of the way with equal determination.”

Ideas like this are not representative of the Republican Party — at least not yet. What they represent is a fringe that is creeping closer and closer to control over the GOP and meeting less and less resistance.

It is vital to understand the interplay between authoritarian logic and standard-issue conservative politics. My long-standing contention is that the two overlap heavily — that is, rather than having descended suddenly in the form of Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the party, right-wing authoritarianism grew out of the conservative movement organically. Trump articulated deep-seated fears that the conservative agenda could not prevail under liberal democratic conditions because the right would be outnumbered either economically (the takers would confiscate the wealth of the makers) or demographically. Conservatives turn to authoritarianism for the same reason communists turn to revolution: They don’t believe they can accomplish their policy goals democratically.

Jason Stanley has proposed a much more sweeping claim. Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, argues in the Guardian that the Republican Party has entered what he calls “fascism’s legal phase.” Stanley’s essay, which attracted widespread praise from progressive intellectuals on Twitter, treats conservative policy goals as inherently authoritarian. The total conflation of conservative policy goals with authoritarianism is ill conceived and ultimately counterproductive to the goal of defending democracy and clearly understanding the threats it faces.

One of the things you learn in your first week of an introductory philosophy course on logic is how to identify a logical fallacy. The most common is called “affirming the consequent.” The structure of this fallacy takes the form:

If A, then B;
Therefore, A.

For example:

If it is raining, there won’t be a baseball game that day;
There isn’t a baseball game today;
Therefore, it must be raining.

Stanley has presumably learned about this, having secured a job in a philosophy department at a high-quality institution like Yale. Oddly, though, his entire essay is built on this well-known fallacy.

Stanley bases his conclusion that the Republican Party is fascist on a series of juxtapositions. For instance, “The Nazis used Judeo-Bolshevism as their constructed enemy. The fascist movement in the Republican Party has turned to critical race theory instead.”

Does this mean opposition to critical race theory is fascistic? This would come as a surprise to critics of CRT on the center-left as well as the right. Or does Stanley merely mean to say that opposing critical race theory is something a fascist would do? If so, he’s probably right. A right-wing fascist is certainly going to fulminate against left-wing theories. But so too would a perfectly democratic right-of-center party. Nothing about the CRT debate gives insight into the Republican Party’s authoritarian bent any more than the absence of baseball today indicates rain.

Drawing out his analogy to Hitler’s rise, Stanley notes that the Nazi Party “increased its popularity over many years in part by strategically masking its explicit antisemitic agenda to attract moderate voters,” focusing its attacks on communists and other unpopular left-wing targets. But how do we tell a right-wing fascist party strategically masking its fascist agenda from a conservative party that is appealing to moderate voters because it is engaging in democratic politics?

Stanley provides his readers no tools to make this distinction. Instead he simply lumps all right-wing politics into the same bin. He points out that right-wing extremists seize on left-wing protests to create a crisis atmosphere that justifies extreme countermeasures:

In its most recent iteration, in the form of the reaction against Black Lives Matter protesters and the demonization of antifa and student activists, a fascist social and political movement has been avidly stoking the flames for mass rightwing political violence, by justifying it against these supposed internal enemies.

Yet Stanley seems to present any criticism of left-wing protests as laying the groundwork for fascism:

Street movements in the US have often been accompanied by vigorous campus protests, from the protests against the Vietnam war of the 1960s, to recent campus protests for racial justice that attracted media rebuke (paradoxically, for “chilling free speech”). Politicians in both parties have feasted on these moments, using them to troll for votes.

I’ve read this passage and the surrounding text a half-dozen times attempting, fruitlessly, to locate a clear statement of how these positions relate to fascism. It seems to me that some criticisms of left-wing protests are perfectly consistent with democratic politics while others are not, and distinguishing between the two is the vital thing. Stanley simply doesn’t bother parsing the difference.

On gender controversies, he is more alarmingly cogent. I don’t see any other way to read this passage except as a claim that restricting abortion is ipso facto fascistic:

Fascist ideology strictly enforces gender roles and restricts the freedom of women … According to National Socialist ideology, abortion, at any point in pregnancy, was considered to be murder … The recent attack on abortion rights, and the coming attack on birth control, led by a hard-right supreme court, is consistent with the hypothesis that we are, in the United States, facing a real possibility of a fascist future.

I urge you to read the entire thing to see that I am not omitting the caveat where Stanley says, Of course you can oppose legal abortion without being a fascist. No passage like that exists. If you think opposing abortion (which, to be clear, I do not) is fascistic, then you don’t recognize any boundary between conservatism and fascism at all.

Why am I quibbling with Stanley’s logic, or lack thereof, if I agree with his conclusion that the Republican Party is increasingly authoritarian? Because it’s impossible to detect or stop authoritarianism without having a clear understanding of its meaning. Stanley isn’t exaggerating the danger so much as he is misdiagnosing it completely. What’s dangerous about the modern right is not its social-policy agenda but its refusal to share power or accept the legitimacy of Democratic election victories and majoritarian governance.

The idea that conservatives can’t pursue their policy goals democratically is dangerous. Treating all conservative politics as undemocratic is paradoxically to reinforce that poisonous belief.

Conservatism and Fascism Are Not the Same Thing