Exactly one-half century ago, the editor of The New York Times invited Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965), the sitting Vice President of the United Sates (1941-1945), to write a newspaper article answering three questions: (1) What is a fascist? (2) How...
Exactly one-half century ago, the editor of The New York Times invited Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965), the sitting Vice President of the United Sates (1941-1945), to write a newspaper article answering three questions: (1) What is a fascist? (2) How many fascists have we? and (3) How dangerous are they?. Wallace's answer ran under the title "The Danger of American Fascism" (April 9, 1944), which began with this definition:
A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.
Fast forward fifty years. Vice President Wallace's questions about American Fascism have been raised again.
Sermon on the Mounted Server
Immediately after the 2004 President election, Wallace's long-forgotten NYT article on American Fascism reappeared in an essay by Davidson Loehr of the First UU Church of Austin ("Living Under Fascism" November 7, 2004), which Loer first presented as a sermon and then subsequently published to the Church's website.
Before the virtual ink had dried on Loehr's words, a national debate had been sparked. Once again, citizens of this country were discussing the three questions about American Fascism that had first been put to Vice President Wallace some fifty years ago.
Fascists vs. Fascism
Wallace's discussion of American Fascism is striking because it emphasizes the economic nature of fascism as the primary issue, rather than the more familiar definitions that emphasize racism or genocide. When we read Wallace's article, it feels like we are walking into a very different frame.
Here is one passage in which Wallace tries to define the exact number of fascists in America in 1944:
If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States. There are probably several hundred thousand if we narrow the definition to include only those who in their search for money and power are ruthless and deceitful. Most American fascists are enthusiastically supporting the war effort. They are doing this even in those cases where they hope to have profitable connections with German chemical firms after the war ends. They are patriotic in time of war because it is to their interest to be so, but in time of peace they follow power and the dollar wherever they may lead.
American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.
This definition of a "fascist" as "one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings" resonates with many people who watched the current administration deal with the aftermath of the violent attacks against this country on September 11, 2001.
According to Wallace, there were several million Americans who saw global conflict in the 1940s as an opportunity to make money. Remarkably, Wallace discusses an aspect of American Fascism that has been largely lost from public discussion: American industrialists who forged business relationships with Axis countries--despite the fact that these countries were enemies of the United States--and at the same time supported US war against these countries. He then limits the definition to "only those who...are ruthless and deceitful" in their search for money and power in times of conflict to arrive at a number of roughly 100,000 fascists in America in 1944. But he is clear in his warning that until this relatively small group is able to form an alliance with hate groups such as the KKK, the danger to America is relatively benign. It's a problem more than a threat.
Wallaces' economic logic provided a very broad stage on which to discuss who was and who was not an American Fascism. Exactly what did it mean to put a concern for money before a concern for people? Americans on an individual basis may have specific ideas about what it means to put money before people, but that specific idea was certainly not articulated by Wallace. And that seems to have been part of what marked Wallace's essay as an act of framing debate more than an act of defining fascism.
In simple terms: Wallace framed fascism as an extreme outgrowth of greed. And he did so not simply because he was focused on the political and economic changes in the Europe, but because he was one of the architects of the New Deal.
But Wallace's discussion raises a very important question about American Fascism: Can Americans become extreme in their greed without becoming fascists? Can we have a greedy society, a society that is wholly concerned with the pursuit of individual wealth, a society that values money more than people--can we have all of that and still not be fascist?
The "Propaganda" Frame
Long before the discovery of an internet pornographer and GOP activist posing as a reporter in the Bush White House Press room, the debate on American Fascism was focused on the question of propoganda.
In fact, much more than Wallace's points about industry and greed, Davidson Loehr's "Living Under Fascism" sermon picked up on Wallace's thoughts about media and deceit as key indicators of fascism:
In early 1944, the New York Times asked Vice President Henry Wallace to, as Wallace noted, “write a piece answering the following questions: What is a fascist? How many fascists have we? How dangerous are they?”
Vice President Wallace's answer to those questions was published in The New York Times on April 9, 1944, at the height of the war against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. See how much you think his statements apply to our society today.
“The really dangerous American fascist,” Wallace wrote, “… is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.”
Again, the part of Wallace that seems to grab Loehr's attention is a discussion of Fascism that is free of any talk of genocide or concentration camps or jackboots. Instead, Loehr invites his congregation to ask themselves if Americans are now living under fascism by virtue of the economic and media policies advanced by the White House. That is not the only criteria Loehr discusses! There are 14 additional factors that he puts forward as a definitional checklist (and which will be discussed in the next installment of the American Fascism series).
Despite the 14 factors of fascism, however, it was Wallace's core arguments about economy and media that caught people's attention when they read Loehr's sermon, and which ignited passionate debate in the Ethernet Town Square.
Even more importantly, Loehr's sermon brought to the surface a very important thesis about American Fascism that was only hinted at in Wallace.
Specifically, Leoh'rs sermon led readers to the conclusion that America's transformation into a full-fledged fascist country would happen long before the outward signs of fascism appeared in government. Long before any hypothetical fascist march on Washington or any hypothetical burning of the Congress or any hypothetical passing of laws that stripped the rights of citizenship from a particular class of Americans--Loehr's essay argued, implicitly and explicitly, that long before any of these clear signs it was possible that we were already living in a de-facto fascist country.
Fascism Coming or Already There?
Is the fight to turn back American Fascism or is the fight to prevent American Fascism?
This seems to be a question that defines the current debate. It is a debate that has been structured in large part by the Loehr sermon and by the particular approach to fascism introduced by Vice President Wallace in 1944.
But the conditions for the debate were not set in place by Loehr, but by the particular way that President Bush lead the nation following the attacks on September 11. President Bush climbed onto a pile rubble and proclaimed that he would fight with strength, clarity and resolve for the American people. But then he and his administration changed paths. Instead of engaging in an open discussion about what happened on September 11, they put up a staggering number of obstacles, they refused to answer questions, and they launched a massive campaign that demanded people show allegiance to America by wearing lapel pins.
Instead of fighting for the American people, he launched a series of wars, the planning and rationale for which President Bush hid from the American people, but---curiously--he shared in great detail with the heads of large American corporations whose former board members had top positions in the Bush Administration. When the initial rationale for these wars was discovered to be questionable, rather than discussing the war with the American people, President Bush employed media experts too sell war to the American public. The American public would have supported any number of security measures that involved using the US military to protect the country following September 11. The entire nation would have united behind President Bush if they had only understood and been included in the discussion. But instead, President Bush actively excluded Americans from the discussion unless they were Americans who were the heads of large American corporations or they were Americans who used to be the heads of large American corporations.
So, even before considering the White House campaign against homosexual Americans, many
Americans felt anxiety and concern over our present situation--anxiety and concern that seemed to be clearly explained and addressed by Loehr's sermon and by Wallace's original ideas about American Fascism.
Was it fascism? Were we already there? These questions have yet to be resolved, but they took root in those weeks following the 2004 elections, and they are still unders discussion now.
A Crucial Debate
This debate on American Fascism is not about "Bush is Hitler" rhetorical flairs that occasionally get tossed out by Senators with momentary lapses of judgement. Rather, the responses to Loehr's essay have grown into a serious, passionate and astoundingly sophisticated American conversation about the political, economic and cultural direction of this country.
The current debate on America Fascism involves Democrats and Republicans, scholars and students, old and young.
Moreover, the debate on American fascism is unfolding not on the mainstream media, but in the new center of American political engagement: on the park benches and public paths of America's Ethernet Town Square. Take a seat in any major weblog and you will hear the debate on American Fascism. Stay seated in the Etherneet Town Square long enough, and you will find yourself drawn into it.
There is every indication that the debate on American Fascism is not just an ideological bushfire, but a debate that will grow to such vast proportions that it will, soon enough, define the political identities of most Americans.
"The United States is on the path to (please check one and only one): ( ) Fascism ( ) Freedom."
Republicans will say that the debate on American Fascism is driven by " 'Democrat' hate."
Democrats will say that the debate on American Fascism is driven by " 'Neo-Con' hate."
Pull up a chair America. The next phase of American history is about to begin.
Next in Jeffrey Feldman's American Fascism Series
14 Theses Nailed to a Blog
At the core of the debate about American Fascism is a check-list definition of "14 points" that Davidson Loer cited as the core indicators of fascism. What are these 14 points and how have they defined the current debate on American Fascism?
When I was a child, my grandmother told me stories about Father Coughlin--America's so-called "radio priest" who incited violent hatred against Jews from his Detroit pulpit. When I am old, I will tell my grandchildren about the Reverend Fred Phelps, who uses the internet to incite violence against homosexuals from his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. What defines these political groups that use religious themes and broadcast technology to incite violence against Americans?