Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Imagine that you recently discovered a book titled How Cancer Works, written by a respected professor from a prominent university. He promises to explain the disease and tell you how to avoid getting it. You would doubtless be interested. Cancer is, after all, an awful thing. With enthusiasm, then, you embark on a careful reading of the book. But as you proceed, you make disconcerting discoveries.

Although you have only a layman’s knowledge of modern medicine, it becomes evident that the author knows little about the subject. He has no relevant expertise and has produced no research on the topic. Through the length and breadth of the book, the author gives you the distinct impression that he only started to think about cancer ­recently—roughly, you guess from clues in the text, within the last three or four years, beginning somewhere around November 2016. By the time you finish the volume, you must conclude that the thing he is calling “cancer” is altogether different from what those who study the disease refer to as “cancer.” 

The author’s symptomology of cancer is your first clue something is amiss. It seems every symptom imaginable—fever, nausea, headache, double vision, stomach pain, itchiness, muscle aches, change of appetite, weight loss, weight gain, general fatigue—is evidence of the disease. The author insists that these symptoms have almost no other causes. And yet he also claims that these symptoms only ­indicate cancer when they appear in a certain subset of the population—tall people. Others who show these symptoms can be diagnosed with ­certainty—based upon their lack of height—to be free of cancer, and in fact to be in exceptionally vigorous health.

When you finish the book, you are certain that the author is not a serious person, whatever his pedigree and claims to authority. This is the most generous interpretation.

Make just a few substitutions—“fascism” for “cancer,” “whites” for “tall people”—and you have How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University. Perhaps the most complimentary thing one can say about it is that at least it is not a bad book on fascism—though this is only because it is not a book about fascism at all.

Stanley uses a strategy that has become widespread in academia and media. Just as people carelessly overused “communist” during the Cold War to deride those deemed insufficiently loyal to God and country, today many weaponize “fascist,” “authoritarian,” and “illiberal.” They become bludgeons with which to beat political opponents. The goal of this name-­calling is to narrow the spectrum of ­legitimate opinion so that it includes only progressive views. How Fascism Works excludes views that take national sovereignty and cultural tradition seriously, instead describing them as morally equivalent to the genocidal totalitarianisms of the first half of the twentieth century. If you do not think like Professor Stanley and his colleagues, you are a fascist. It is that simple.

The subtitle of Stanley’s book, The Politics of Us and Them,” signals its intellectual shallowness. The human love of the primordial game of “us” and “them” is a great deal wider and deeper than the phenomenon of fascism. All of politics is predicated on it, as is much else that human beings do together. Even our gregarious leisure revolves around the sun of “us” and “them.” Sports fandom, for example, is unthinkable without it.

This is only the beginning of the problem. ­Stanley’s book purports to reject the “us” against “them” approach to politics. Throughout, he holds it to be a bad thing—indeed, fascist. But How Fascism Works ­operates on the same polarity. It distinguishes between “us” and “them,” fascists and anti-fascists, on nearly every page. “We” are the thoughtful, inclusive, and cosmopolitan people; “they” are fearful, racist, and parochial.

The “us” versus “them” game may be irresistible. Politicians are attracted to it, the better to motivate their supporters. Mitt Romney described his candidacy in terms of the difference between makers and takers. Hillary Clinton described hers in terms of good people versus deplorables. This approach is inevitable, perhaps, in the practical world of competitive politics. Polemicists on the right often characterize politics as a contest between those who love freedom and respect the American tradition, and those who betray our national heritage with “collectivism” and “socialism.” This move requires a tendentious definition of what counts as part of the American tradition, dismissing progressivism as a wholly alien incursion. The conceit of today’s progressive intellectuals is more brazen. They claim to transcend differences in a grand gesture of inclusion even as they deride as moral criminals those who dissent from their project.

We expect intellectuals to do better, but like many other recent ­interventions, How Fascism Works participates in this contradiction. How does fascism work at the present time? We begin with Donald Trump. He is, Stanley tells us, an American fascist in power. And how do fascists come to power? Stanley allows that in years past some might have done so without the aid of elections, but these days they are voted in. By other fascists, of course. In the case of Trump, about 63 million of them, roughly one-fifth of the population of the country. This cohort constitutes Stanley’s depraved “them.” They must be opposed by the righteous “us,” which is to say, people like Stanley.

As part of his case that Trump is fascist, ­Stanley repeats anti-Trump talking points from Vox, the Huffington Post, and the like. He reiterates the prevarication that CODEPINK radical Desiree Fairooz was arrested and charged for laughing at the confirmation hearings of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The video of the hearing is available online. Had Stanley been interested in the truth, he could easily have checked the veracity of this claim. It is plain in the video that in addition to laughing, Fairooz yells repeatedly and refuses to stop when asked to do so. She physically resists the security guards who attempt to escort her out of the room. This disorderly conduct, not her laugh, was the justification for the charges against her. It is hardly a sign of incipient fascism that the workings of the United States Senate are protected from hijacking by activists.

Stanley treats a vote for Trump in 2016 as a sure sign of fascism. There are many others. The lack of a desire to spend time in large cities also marks one as a fascist. He cites Mein Kampf and Hitler’s denigration of Vienna as a place afflicted by “ever-present fungoid growth” of Jews. Stanley then invokes a 2017 U.S. poll showing a rural-urban divide on ­attitudes toward immigrants, with those in the countryside wanting less immigration and those in the cities happy with the present situation. We proceed smoothly from Hitler expressing anti-Semitic bile to rural Americans cherishing their communities and rejecting their transformation. Stanley implies guilt by association.

General contempt for rural America runs throughout How Fascism Works. Fascists supposedly idolize and mythologize farmers and hunters and those who obtain their own food, and they despise city-dwellers for their lack of such self-sufficiency. These backwoods fascists are more likely than city-dwellers to value self-reliance and to believe that the successes and hardships faced by an individual are to some degree his responsibility, whereas those in urban areas are more likely to believe that people suffer primarily because of structures beyond their control. Anyone so primitive as to adhere to the American tradition of rugged individualism and personal responsibility is, by this schema, a fascist.

In a chapter titled “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Stanley suggests that the movement behind right-to-work legislation is fascist. This is because Vance Muse, a lobbyist and early advocate of giving industrial workers the freedom to decline to pay union dues, had benighted ideas about race. Even non-logicians will have no trouble spotting the obvious error here. It does not follow that an idea must be wicked simply because it is affirmed by a person with unrelated, repulsive beliefs. If this were so, then in order to be morally good people, we would have to stop believing everything a serial killer believed. By Stanley’s reasoning, if the Son of Sam voted for Democrats, then when people vote for Democrats, they are in truth trying to institute a system of mass murder.

These manipulations always work in one direction. In the introduction, Stanley observes that Trump used the slogan “Make America Great Again.” He notes that chief strategist Steve Bannon said to a reporter after Trump’s election that “it will be as exciting as the 1930s.” With this remark, Bannon was evoking the New Deal, which transformed American society and laid the foundations for our politics over the next eighty years. Stanley ignores the meaning of the remark, fixing instead on the fact that Charles Lindbergh rose to political prominence toward the end of the 1930s on the strength of nativist rhetoric. Thus, in the short compass of two paragraphs, Stanley implicitly argues that “Make America Great Again” really means a return to the 1930s, which really means “Make America Fascist Again.” His clinching piece of evidence: The 1930s was “the era when the United States had its most sympathy for fascism.”

How Fascism Works is correct about at least one thing: We are living in strange and potentially dangerous times. But in place of the book’s bizarre diagnosis of fascist symptoms, a much better case can be made that the greatest danger we face is the failing academic and political culture that produced Professor Stanley. “I have written this book,” he says, “in the hope of providing citizens with the critical tools to recognize the difference between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and invidious tactics in fascist politics on the other.” Would that it were so. How Fascism Works was written to reassure anti-Trump readers that they are among the righteous. Instead of telling them that they face a difficult and complex array of political questions, Stanley wrongly instructs them that they are engaged in a simple struggle of good against evil.

Stanley is not the only elite professor who has penned works of propaganda posing as anti-fascist bravery. His Yale colleague Timothy Snyder has written two books in this genre: On Tyranny in 2017 and, a year later, The Road to Unfreedom. The first had its origins in a Facebook post dashed off in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The book’s publisher describes it as “an essential guide to survival . . . for our time”—a guide to survival, not political awareness or civic responsibility. Life or death, freedom or tyranny, good or evil, these are the stakes in this hyperbolic genre of writing that treats anything to the right of university leftism as fascism.

According to Snyder, we must “believe in truth,” “defend institutions,” “listen for dangerous words,” and “remember professional ethics.” Fair enough. But surely it occurred to the professor of history at Yale that such axioms are a tad more complicated in our time than he acknowledges in his curt pamphlet.

The existence of such writings indicates the degraded state of professional ethics in institutions of higher education and publishing. Elite university professors are now happy to sell anti-Trump propaganda to the public under the cape of their degrees and university positions, with major publishing houses eagerly assisting them. Should the institutions that tenure and promote such writers be uncritically defended? And how is the public to evaluate truth claims when scholars can no longer be counted on to contain their ideological passions? What are we to do about figures who extol critical thinking and collegial debate, yet stoke political hysteria and, rather than reason with those that disagree with them, employ charged words such as “fascist” to denounce them wholesale?

In The Road to Unfreedom, Synder asserts that the Putin regime in Russia is not merely fascist, but, in a neologism of his own invention, schizofascist. The term identifies a subspecies of fascism that misrecognizes its own (fascist) politics, and then—in a telling demonstration of its embrace of fascist ­tactics—­accuses its opponents of being fascist. That is to say, denying the charge of being a fascist becomes evidence that one is a fascist. The fact that a schizofascist regime in Russia desired and cheered the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency proves . . . well, you know what. Some of Snyder’s readers have pointed out that Putin and the other Russian leaders described in The Road to Unfreedom learned their political tactics not under a fascist regime, but under the communist Soviet regime. This seems to have had no effect on the author. In the contemporary academic world, “communist” is not a disqualifying word, while “fascist” is. Snyder, like Stanley, is interested in political warfare, not historical exactitude. He seeks rhetorical weapons.

Reading curious books such as these, one would think we are living in 1936 and that paramilitary groups await the signal to sweep down upon American society and usher in dictatorship and death camps. This misjudges the crisis of our time, for the tensions and polarities roiling public life emanate from trends that go wholly unexamined by Stanley, Snyder, and other writers in this new school of academic propagandists. The unity of American cultural identity is dissipating, undermined by narcissistic displays and multicultural ideology. Calls for meaningful social responsibility and affirmations of traditional norms that encourage marital stability, civic involvement, and a dignified life are regarded as an assault on individual freedom or, worse, as “white” and therefore racist. It is a sign of the depth of our crisis that, in the midst of the erosion of religious, civic, and moral bonds that united Americans of all races and social classes in the past, high-profile professors weave fantasies about how a democratically elected administration cloaks an emerging fascist regime.

We need better. How Fascism Works is the liberal propaganda equivalent to Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book Liberal Fascism. ­Goldberg’s carelessness with political categories is breathtaking. “Call it what you like—­progressivism, fascism, communism, or totalitarianism,” he writes, treating all four as the same thing. Nazism and Marxist communism are indistinguishable, according to the author of Liberal Fascism, because both are critical of classical liberalism and the effects of capitalism. That conservative thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was also critical of liberalism and capitalism escapes Goldberg’s attention entirely.

Liberal Fascism was skewered by the scholars who reviewed it. Columbia historian Robert ­Paxton criticized the jejune approach Goldberg takes to twentieth-century political history. But we can safely predict that Stanley’s book will be spared the scathing treatment it deserves for relying on the same sophistic chicanery. As Goldberg shrinks the immensity of the French Revolution neatly into ­the events of the spring and summer of 1794 in order to sustain his narrative, so Stanley caricatures historical phenomena. By his account, any concern over the integration of refugees or the radical assault on traditional gender categories, as well as mere interest in traditional American myths and heroes, makes one a fascist—because Hitler and other tyrants had similar concerns. The two books, and those by Snyder as well, are indistinguishable in their ideological monotony, ploddingly determined to show readers how all the worst qualities and ideas can be attributed to their political enemies. These tracts are crafted by authors so self-righteously certain of the circumstantial evidence they present that they make Cotton Mather appear a fretting relativist by comparison. None of these books stand the slightest chance of convincing anyone who is not already a member of its author’s political tribe, one of “us” that is warring against “them.”

But of course, “us” versus “them” books are not written to convince “them.” The point of How Fascism Works, Liberal Fascism, and The Road to Unfreedom is to exacerbate “us” versus “them” conflicts. They are sermons meant to rally the parishioners, urging them to vanquish enemies who are moral monsters. The thoughtful reader who closes such books is thus prompted to ask: Do the authors realize that they have written “anti-fascist” books employing the rhetorical strategies of polarization and demonization that any real fascist could not help but admire? 

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.