A couple of weeks ago on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon, Andrew Denning was walking his dog and talking with me about fascism.
Denning is a history professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in 20th century Europe. I’d called him because I haven’t read enough books about World War II and was hoping he could give me a crash course on what regular people did as fascists took over. Did people in Germany go about their daily lives, worried but paralyzed by their inability to fully grasp what was happening, and how much worse it could get, as Nazis came to power?
It wasn’t just Germany, Denning reminded me. It was Italy’s Mussolini who gave us the term “fascism.” And there were fascist movements between the two World Wars in France and Great Britain as well.
“In the United States, tens of thousands of American Nazis were going to Madison Square Garden,” he said. “Why does fascism succeed in consolidating power in Italy or Germany but doesn’t in France or Great Britain or the United States in the same time period?”
Like Jay Steinmetz at Fort Hays State University, who I’d spoken with a couple of weeks earlier about protest movements in the United States, Denning said what we’re seeing around the world in recent years follows more of a “populist authoritarian” playbook, which can be used by dictators on the left (Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) but in recent years has been more widespread on the right (he cited Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Erdogan in Turkey).
Denning said there were reasons for concern in the United States.
“The rise of armed paramilitary groups showing up to ‘help police’ and ‘protect property,’ blurring line between agents of the state who enforce the law — the police, the military, the National Guard — with paramilitary groups. That’s where there is, I think, some danger,” he said.
All summer, we’ve seen reports of armed vigilante groups showing up to do exactly what he was describing.
“The ways political figures and members of the media have either tolerated or spoken approvingly of either threats or acts of violence by paramilitary groups in pursuit of, or defense of, political goals is quite troubling as well,” he added.
Nationwide concern about that Proud Boys comment lasted all of two days before it was swamped by the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis and Washington sank into whole new layers of crisis.
None of that had happened when I spoke to Denning. But each crashing wave of chaos brought echoes of what he’d told me.
“What’s troubling about the current situation in the United States is a real sense of internal disorder,” he said, “and political factions lined up against one another which are certain the other political faction does not have best interest of the country at heart and so is incapable or unable to rule. That’s something we would want to pay attention to in the American context if we want to avoid something like a fascist revolution or a rising authoritarian regime.”
“The view that, ‘If my side wins, the election was just and the will of people, but if my side loses, something was corrupt and the winner was cheating’ — that doesn’t lead to a sense of legitimate governance,” Denning said. “When one side totally disavows the right of the other side to rule, that becomes deeply problematic because then there’s an inability to separate the instruments of the state from political parties.”
Those instruments of the state — which we all chip in for, trusting that they’ll keep us safe, healthy, educated, fed and transported, among many other functions that by their nature are politically neutral — should be separate from political parties in a democracy like ours. Sure, presidents appoint partisans to lead government agencies, but the whole idea of “peaceful transfer of power” means the foundational work that keeps our country operating can continue regardless of who is president.
“The state has immense power — to tax, to seize property, to imprison, to commit violence,” Denning noted.
He said the modern state holds “a monopoly on legitimate violence,” such as the death penalty. “This requires a sense that the state is just,” he said, and not the arm of one political party.
Regardless of the president’s state of health or mind on this day, we didn’t get here because of just one man. And we didn’t get here in just four years.
The particular warning of history, Denning had told me, is that “small political questions,” such as when different wings of a party disagree about tactics and strategies, are what divide and fracture coalitions that can challenge authoritarian aspirations.
It’s only the big political questions that matter now.