The specter of fascism in the US has been raised with the presidency of Donald Trump. While he has openly flirted with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, his defenders have said that his behavior does not imply fascist sympathies.
The problem is that fascism does not take a single form. In an article in the April/May 2020 issue of The Progressive, John Nichols looks back at the warnings that Henry Wallace, a progressive who in 1944 was vice-president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gave about the danger of fascism emerging in the US then and what were some of its signs
“The dangerous American fascist is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way,” argued Wallace in his essay. He charged that those who sought to divide the United States along lines of race, religion, and class could be “encountered in Wall Street, Main Street, or Tobacco Road.”
“Some even suspect,” Wallace wrote, “that they can detect incipient traces of it along the Potomac.”
Wallace did not limit his critique of American fascism to the overt racists and anti-Semites that at least some of the mainstream politicians of his day decried. He was determined to go deeper, to talk about the enablers of the racists and anti-Semites.
“The obvious types of American fascists are dealt with on the air and in the press. These demagogues and stooges are fronts for others,” Wallace wrote. “The really dangerous American fascists are not those who are hooked up directly or indirectly with the Axis.” Rather, he warned of “a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information and those who stand for the KKK type of demagoguery.”
This was a definition of fascism that brought the issues of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, of media manipulation and political machination, home to America. Wallace even saw the prospects of an American fascism in the predictable machinations of big business.
“Monopolists who fear competition and who distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity would like to secure their position against small and energetic enterprise,” he wrote. “In an effort to eliminate the possibility of any rival growing up, some monopolists would sacrifice democracy itself.”
Even today, there are debates about how to define fascism, but we recognize now that it cannot be identified by a single rigid set of characteristics. Fascism “takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects,” author Adam Gopnik observed in 2016. “In Italy, it is bombastic and neo-classical in form. In Spain, Catholic and religious. In Germany, violent and romantic.” He added: “It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television.”
And Henry Giroux, a cultural critic who has written extensively on authoritarianism, says: “Fascism looks different in different cultures, depending on that culture. In fact, it is the essence of fascism to have no single, fixed form.”
Wallace’s strong critiques of the enablers of American fascism earned him the ire of the ruling classes and the supporters of big business including, of course, establishment media like the New York Times. Their opposition led to him being denied the re-nomination as vice-president in 1944, replaced by FDR with Harry Truman.