This reviewer has to confess that his dislike of President Trump has predisposed him to approach with a favorable disposition each and every critique of him that he encounters. These sentiments explain my interest in this book. I also share with its author (son of Jewish-German refugees) strong feelings about fascism and Nazism since I experienced and survived the Jewish persecution in Hungary during World War II. These affinities did not prevent me from being disappointed by his well-intentioned efforts to raise the level of public consciousness about Trump’s policies.
The book could have been both a devastating critique of “Trumpism” and a study of the contemporary incarnations and remnants of fascism, and their connection with the ideas and policies of Mussolini and Hitler. Instead we have a collection of rather unoriginal, if impassioned, generalizations and clichés about “fascist politics” and “the politics of us and them.” These generalizations do not provide a better understanding of Trump and his supporters, neither do they shed new light on fascism and its current appeal in many parts of the world.
A no-holds-barred critique of Trump and all he stands for does not require the endless and tiresome invocation of the specter of “fascism” or “fascist politics,” transforming them into the all-purpose terms of denigration they used to be in the Sixties. Then, as now in this book, “fascist” ceased to mean anything specific or distinctive. It could be a synonym for authoritarian, nationalist, extremist, repressive, intolerant, malevolent, unjust, racist, xenophobic, ethnocentric—almost anything self-evidently disreputable and repugnant. The book was probably organized around this word to maximize indignation about the phenomena discussed.
Regardless its chosen terminology this is a book about political extremism, with special reference to its right wing variety and its affinity with the Trump regime. However, much of what the author says about right wing extremism also applies to the left wing variety. In this respect the book will remind some readers of the famous study of the authoritarian personality that diligently identified and analyzed components of the authoritarian disposition, taking for granted that they could only be found among right wingers.1 Edward Shils demolished this once popular misconception, specifying the numerous convergences between the authoritarian attributes found at both extremes of the political spectrum.2
The author’s overuse of the concept extends to an 1861 statement by Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, as “fascist” (the concept wasn’t invented until the 1920s by Mussolini!). In another dubious generalization we are informed that “the crime of rape is basic to fascist politics” (125). If so, the Soviet troops who raped millions of women in Eastern Europe during World War II engaged in “fascist politics.” Elsewhere the author writes that “[w]hereas cities, to the fascist imagination are the source of corrupting culture . . . the countryside is pure” (144). In that case Pol Pot of Cambodia was also a fascist since he wholeheartedly subscribed to exactly the same belief and acted on it removing the population of the largest city to rural areas. Similar beliefs accounted for Mao’s transfer of millions of mostly young urban people to the countryside in order to be purified. Further doubts arise about the distinctiveness of the concept as here used when the author writes that “at the core of fascism is loyalty to tribe, ethnic identity” (97). Are these loyalties substantially different from those animating identity politics?
Professor Stanley’s apparent unfamiliarity with (or lack of interest in) left wing extremism, and its similarities to the right wing variety have further expressions.3 He seems to believe that right-wingers have a monopoly on conspiratorial thinking (e.g. 58), but he himself is not immune to it. To wit: “U.S. politicians’ attitude toward crime policy and social welfare programs . . . has the unstated purpose—to create conditions that allow racist stereotypes to flourish, so that politicians can continue to exploit fascist tactics for electoral gain” (170). Stanley would also have us believe that it is peculiar to “fascist ideology” (that held by right wing extremists) to “reject pluralism and tolerance” (151) and “to undermine trust in the press and universities” (71). As to the “right wing’s desire to control acceptable lines of inquiry” (42) one may wonder how it differs from the far more common, indeed routine, (and largely successful) leftist demands to ban or censor politically incorrect, or allegedly insensitive, racist, sexist, homophobic inquiries or expressions? Stanley quotes with approval an article from The Guardian (a British newspaper) which claims that racist thinking is infiltrating “‘mainstream discourse’ via figures such as . . . . Charles Murray and . . . Steven Pinker” (82). He considers the types of research they would support “suspect at best” (83) probably ranking them with studies which seek to prove that the earth is flat (46-47).
This and other similar observations seem to confirm that the author is either unaware of the deeply entrenched left-liberal discourse on the campuses, or considers it of little importance. The expressions of this outlook found in the book may lead the reader to the conclusion that it is the campus left that is marginalized and harassed, its representatives silenced and intimidated; that it is leftist speakers who are disinvited or heckled (sometimes physically assaulted), that academic programs of left-liberal content are about to be (or are already?) censored, banned or suppressed.
In this peculiar distorted mirror image of contemporary academic life conservative and right wing movements and programs flourish on the campuses, nurtured by “huge sums pour[ed] into the project of advancing right wing goals in education” provided by right wing foundations (49) while praiseworthy fields of study are under attack by the forces of reaction. Thus “fascist” opponents of gender studies are compared to the Nazis for whom “feminism was a Jewish conspiracy” (43). Somewhat implausibly he also proposes that “in fascist attacks on universities, the universities play the role of the Nazi ‘Jewish conspiracy’ behind the women’s movement” (44).
The distorted mirror image of the academic world is further reflected in the assertion that “far right movements [are] . . . attacking universities for . . . failing to give central place to far-right values” (55, my emphasis). By contrast, more judicious observers of American academic life (conservative or liberal) would be compelled to point out that it is leftist values and beliefs which dominate, indeed occupy “central place” in the humanities and social sciences. They would also suggest that a better balance between different views of the world in higher education would be intellectually preferable. Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, also writes that “when universities restrict their required offerings to the European cultural touchstones” they inflict great damage on education (49). He does not make clear if he believes this is already happening, or if he just fears that it might. Needless to say, in reality, the academic curriculum has been moving in exactly the opposite direction. These “European cultural touchstones” have been under attack for decades and continue to be pulled from the curriculum, especially from required courses. Attempting to discredit “fans of ‘Great Books’ programs” (i.e. those “European cultural touch-stones”), rather shockingly, he associates them with Hitler’s views of what constitutes superior white culture (49-50).
The author also believes that the poor cannot get decent education in the United States, since “under conditions of stark economic inequality . . . the benefits of liberal education . . . are available only to the wealthy few” (185). It is an assertion that is belied by the substantial number of poor students (especially of minorities) who are supported by a variety of scholarships, fellowships, special programs, and loans both at expensive elite schools and state universities.
Jason Stanley is well informed about the misrule of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and correctly senses similarities between his authoritarian impulses and those of President Trump. But conditions in Hungary (its history, political culture, and recent transformations) which help explain the popularity of Orbán, are quite different from those prevailing in the United States. They don’t help to better understand the Trump phenomenon beyond suggesting that frustrations and wishful thinking (of a large portion of the population) play a part in both cases and that many people are capable of misjudging their best interests both in the United States and Hungary.
The most intriguing question about the Trump phenomenon is why he was supported by close to half of the American electorate? Ascribing it to “fascist politics” does little to enhance our understanding of this matter. The second question is whether or not Trump’s success confirms a very pessimistic assessment of American political culture and of the judgment of a large part of the voters. Another important question is how much Trump’s personality has to do with his politics. This volume sheds little light on these matters.