You know, we Americans like to think of our political system as one that is immune to the extremes found elsewhere around the world and throughout history. There is some truth to that. For all the times we accused George W. Bush of being a "dictator" or having totalitarian ambitions, the American experience pales in comparison to a real totalitarian state (say, Myanmar or North Korea). This is partly a matter of semantics and partly reflective of our higher standards and expectations. It's sort of like saying "Man, I am really starving." Sure, you may not have eaten all day, but your statement would look pretty ridiculous if you said it next to someone who was actually starving.
I hope this is always true of the U.S., that even the lunatic extremes of our political spectrum fall short of subjecting the country to roving death squads, racial pogroms, government-controlled access to information, and so on. But if we can step outside of the comfort zone of our cushy life of contesting politics in the confines of a liberal democracy, an objective view of this country is pretty scary. I struggle to think of modern democratic state in which the conditions for the success of fascism would be better. I mean, we have it all: simmering racial hatred, extreme xenophobia, sharp class distinctions, a ravaged economy, and the grandiose belief in our own exceptionalism.
That thought is simultaneously paranoid and plausible. Watch a Teabagger rally and tell me those people would not fall in line behind the right charismatic fascist leader if given the opportunity. And I don't mean Tom Tancredo. I mean a real, honest-to-god, working from Hitler's playbook fascist. Because as the Ground Zero mosque story underscored in yesterday's post, most Americans don't believe in rights except for themselves. Sure, we talk about rights a lot, along with freedom, liberty, the Constitution, and all kinds of other high-minded concepts. But when the chips are down, we are willing to deny (other) people rights at the drop of a hat. The cry of the American right quickly changes from "Constitution! First Amendment rights! Freedom of religion!" to "Yeah, but I hate Muslims more than I love any of that stuff." I came across this interesting question on the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large survey of over 30,000 adults during election years. The question asked respondents to indicate their support or opposition for a number of proposed election reforms:
Yeah, we don't so much understand that Constitution thing. We can turn into King George in a hurry when our prejudices so dictate.
Hannah Arendt may have written some of the most important political analysis of the 20th Century when she characterized the post-War analysis of Nazi Germany as "the banality of evil." The people seated on witness stands were not horned monsters or satanic comic book villains (even if they committed acts that we'd expect from Satan himself). They were your parents, your neighbors, and your dentist. Arendt concluded that just about any person was capable of committing Nazi-style atrocities under the right circumstances. How much urging do you think a crowd of Teabaggers would need to burn down a mosque or start rounding up brown people? It's like Bill Hicks said about alcoholics – anyone can become one. All it takes is the right bar, the right friends, and the wrong woman.
We've all seen Sinclair Lewis' quote that "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." (Unfortunately he never actually said that; the real quote is "When fascism comes to the United States it will be wrapped in the American flag and will claim the name of 100-percent Americanism." according to the Sinclair Lewis Society. Nothing about a cross. And there is evidence that he got the quote from – get your irony pants ready – Huey Long). We've all heard that because it gets brought up regularly, and it gets brought up regularly because, well, it's really, really plausible.