Associate Professor of History Richard Steigmann-Gall from Kent State University presented “Star-Spangled Fascism: Antisemitism and American Political Extremism, Past and Present” on Feb. 26 in the Dolan School of Business Dining Room. Steigmann-Gall highlighted how fascism in America was “a very real presence, especially in interwar years.” Additionally, he discussed historian Robert Paxton’s model for how fascism is a process as opposed to a formula, and how it can exist in countries outside of Europe and not present itself identically to European fascism. One of the key characterizations of fascism is that it “exalts nation and often race above the individual,” according to Merriam-Webster. Therefore, although people rebuke the suggestion that the United States is not immune to the political philosophy and its ideologies, we cannot disregard its historical significance during the interwar years. Moreover, we cannot ignore its relevance today with the rise of neo-Nazism, white supremacy and antisemitism in the U.S.
Unlike the common perception, fascist ideologies did not develop out of the 2016 Presidential Election with the election of President Donald Trump. The Washington Post published an article on Aug. 12, 2017 — following the Aug. 11–12 Charlottesville rally — discussing three reasons why fascism spread in 1930s America. Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, sited a major economic depression, a fear of communism and “the rise of Nazi Germany as an economic and military powerhouse” as the three reasons. Although Gunitsky acknowledged that these factors are not present today, he also recognized that “similar problems lurk under the surface of modern political life.” These problems included rising levels of inequality in certain areas of the United States and “fear of globalists,” which can include antisemitic undertones. Furthermore, Gunitsky’s argument is that although we may not be a perfect model for a fascist regime at a given moment, it does not mean that democracy is infallible. More so, democracy is capable of failing to live up to its “promised economic prosperity and political stability,” and when that happens like in 1930s America, discontent can arise and place it in opposition to the public.
Likewise, Steigmann-Gall reaffirmed that Paxton endeavors to show that fascism develops contextually. So, if it is present in our country, it incorporates American heritage and American values, and “need not imitate European archetypes.” To that point, Steigmann-Gall argued that “authentic American fascism must be familiar to Americans,” meaning that its symbols may not be the commonly attributed swastika, but it could be a confederate flag. In March 1998, The Journal of Modern History published Paxton’s, “The Five Stages of Fascism.” He wrote, “… one cannot identify a fascist regime by its plumage … Focusing on external symbols, which are subject to superficial imitation, adds to confusion about what may legitimately be considered fascist.” Countries have different value sets and predominantly different symbols that its citizens attribute meaning to and recognize as important to the country’s culture or history. Therefore, when we now hear about white supremacists who carry torches or yell, “Jews will not replace us!”, it is clear that there is a notion that only certain people belong in the U.S.
Steigmann-Gall propounded that the idea which Paxton believed is in order for fascism to develop, there is a required distribution of power. The power, the former said, first needs to be obtained and then be exercised. Henceforth, power reinforces the belief that “the majoritarian group believe it’s suffering from minority dominance.” The spike and subsequent persistence of hate crimes that PBS reported in the aftermath of the 2016 Election makes it clear that we are not too far from the fascism that was prevalent in the U.S. in the 20th century. Also, there is a significant possibility that people have adapted historical amnesia and distance regarding the vigilante group Black Legion — an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan — or the Silver Shirts, founded by radical journalist William Dudley Pelley, who Steigmann-Gall discussed in great length. The groups, though distinct products of 1930s America, remain relevant today, and The Guardian raised the same point in an Aug. 17, 2017 article. They reported that according to a study by George Washington University, “… white nationalist and neo-fascist movements in the U.S. have grown by [600 percent] on Twitter, outperforming Isis in nearly every category.” The statistic is absolutely astounding, and ought to make people wonder why there is not a similar national campaign to the already existing War on Terror.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of American citizens to recognize that despite our widespread claim of upholding democratic values, these values are easily compromised. If we can take anything from Steigmann-Gall or Paxton’s arguments, it is that fascism or fascist ideologies can evolve and spread in our society, regardless of the decade. Furthermore, the lack of recognition from people that fascism is possible in the U.S. is why our country is in danger of perpetually remaining in the same destructive pattern of social and political supremacy over certain groups.