Book Reviews: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Stanley, James. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House Publishing, 2018.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism…” The high-sounding phrase “the American way” will be used by interested groups intent on profit, to cover a multitude of sins against the American and Christian tradition, such sins as lawless violence, tear gas and shotguns, denial of civil liberties

Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion,” September 11, 1938[1]

The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

History’s propensity to rhyme has always intrigued me; more recently it keeps me up at nights. You can ignore the individual warning signs only too long before they coalesce into a sustained feeling of dread. We can hope, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, for the moral arc of the universe to bend towards justice, but more often human nature bends towards its baser instincts. Racism and prejudice is more prevalent than ever. In 2017, a politician used FDR’s policy of Japanese internment during WWII to justify a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. The quest to “Make America Great Again” is a policy of regression to eras when only white was right, women knew and were kept in their place, and anyone who didn’t fit the norm was criticized and ostracized.

Some historians see even more disturbing overtones in the current rhyme. In their recent books, Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley sound a haunting alarm about the overwhelming similarities between current American domestic and foreign policies and those of fascist sites in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Snyder and Stanley take different approaches to the topic, but each is effective, to the point, and as my Dad would say, scary as all get out. Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century reads as a handbook for resisting authoritarianism. “History does not repeat,” he writes, “but it does instruct.” (Snyder, 9).

Stanley, on the other hand, does not shrink from making pointed comparisons between Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Trump’s America. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is an indictment of the ways in which the President’s open nativism, racism, and sexism have opened the floodgates for others to openly express the same. Stanley does not place the blame for America’s woes solely on the President, however. He also indicts the whole of the President’s administration and Republican-majority Congress for aiding and abetting the presidential view of “Americanism.” Stanley’s narrative on the Republican response (or lack thereof) to the President’s boast to “grab ‘em by the p***y” should chill anyone who supports women’s rights to the bone.

Stanley’s and Snyder’s cogent use of historical evidence and documents makes their arguments even more persuasive. Stanley’s understanding of Mein Kampf probably rivals that of the author himself. Historians and layman readers who support the current Administration’s policies will no doubt say when you go looking for unicorns, you will undoubtedly find them. We still cannot afford to ignore the patterns Stanley and Snyder reveal. We cannot afford to ignore the ways in which our current rhyme fits nicely into the goose-stepped past. We cannot afford not to ask to what “American way” we are dedicated to returning: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” or “I know nothing but my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country.”

KMS

16 July 2018

Cartoon from University of California San Diego Library Digital Collections, https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb4164680v

[1] Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion” The New York Times, 11 September 1938), 15.

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