Before continuing: please be very aware that I do not think the USA is about to elect a fascist government under Sarah Palin. I am basically pro-america, and think the country is a great and historically self-adjusting force for good. All I am doing is explaining why the idea is not ipso facto ridiculous to me. This is much better as a way of understanding democratic fragility in Africa, the Middle East and Central Europe
Robert O Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism is an absolute crackerjack - it basically rescues the term from the sloppy usage that threatens to make it useless, and offers a way to compare fascist regimes rather than look at them as if each were sui generis. Its thesis, in a nutshell, is that fascism isn't about specific programmes - it is a particularly awful type of government which can emerge in a specific set of circumstances. Of course future fascist governments wouldn't look like the Nazis - we all know the Nazis were the bad guys - so how could we recognise the danger signs?
Well, for Paxton, fascism doesn't depend on once-in-a-lifetime leaders (which absolves those who supported it, and should be obvious to anyone who has ever studied the Nazis, who were a bunch of hopeless losers who got horrifically lucky), and it doesn't grow out of national characteristics (which lets other nations off the hook). It depends on a crisis, primarily an economic one, which breeds an atmosphere of hopelessness and fear.
As I wrote in a review of the book:
Paxton believes that fascism mobilises fears of community decline and exalts unifying categories such as race, nation, and (possibly) religion. In the context of a democratic crisis that seems beyond the reach of traditional solutions, this can create a popular movement that cuts through moribund party squabbles. For such a movement to gain power, established elites have to try to co-opt its electoral muscle to defend their own interests. The fascist leader must accommodate himself to these elites, especially economically, but he must also hold out for political power as a precondition of being co-opted.Now, Paxton was careful not to bang the cheap drum of contemporary resonance, and this book was written long before the credit crunch, but the three things that I think worth bearing in mind, in the context of the thing I don't think will happen but don't find utterly beyond credibility, are:
1. Palin is incredibly popular and says she stands outside politics; moneyed interests definitely reckon they can co-opt her political muscle
2. The US political system has got ridiculously moribund, to the point where it is increasingly difficult to make any laws. This is repeated all the time, which is more important than the literal truth of it, which is that it IS unwieldy, but all the same, Obama has been a very impressive legislator
3. The US economy has not recovered. My main analyst says things are going to get massively worse soon, though bear in mind that he is a bear*
* For those of you not up to speed with financial jargon, a bear is an animal with big claws