Last week I wrote an article that, I’m pretty sure, received the highest circulation I’ve ever had on a single piece of writing. It was an an interesting experience. The first version appeared on Liberty.me. Probably four days later, I revised it, re-stylized it, and it appeared on FEE.org. Then Newsweek picked it up, then ZeroHedge, and it went viral from there. My social was slammed. I can’t keep up with the interview requests.
It’s a bizarre thing because I write every day. Why this one? Why now? I have no idea, no theory. I try to put valuable stuff in everything I write, so I don’t regard this article’s popularity as a commentary on its quality. It just somehow hit in the right way at the right time. You can’t game this system. (It amuses me when people accuse me of having written something “to go viral”; if it were that easy, I would do it more often.)
But I did learn something from this experience. I learned that we desperately need a theory of right-wing statism. We know what socialism is. We think of it as left wing. But the culturally right-wing version has no real name. We talk about specific variants of right-wing theory such as theocrats, jingoists, racialists, and so on, but it is all rather haphazard. These describe odd biases and impulses, but not a political theory.
So when someone like Donald Trump comes along, we have no real term to describe his views. We listen to him scream about making the nation into a business, about the evil of foreigners, about the danger of bad trade deals, about the need for a new order of things that bypasses the sluggishness and cowardice of the status quo. We listen but it all sounds like the random yammerings of a crank.
When I heard his speech, it gradually dawned on me that I had heard all of these views before. They are rather new in modern history — or, rather, they had never cohered in this way before the interwar period. But they did indeed come to cohere, pushed mostly as an alternative to socialism. This alternative to socialism was not freedom as such. It was another version of the planned society but without the completely idiotic theories pushed by socialist lunatics for the last 500 years.
In a brief period in the 1930s, it developed the right name. It came out of syndicalist theory and eventually led to Nazism and then was blown away in wartime. But between 1930 and 1938, it had a name and it was briefly respectable and gained a gigantic following. In fact, it was far more popular all over the developed world than socialism ever was. Its name was fascism.
What were its tenets? Like socialism, it sought a planned society ruled by smart people with power and resources. But unlike socialism, it had no interest in strange and far-flung theories about overthrowing human nature, creating a “new man,” abolishing religion, or getting rid of the family or private property. Indeed, it praised all these institutions. It only clarified that these institutions needed to serve the national interest and the collective heart of the people.
It draws on revolutionary idealism to some extent. It says that the current system is deeply corrupt. It serves special interests only. It is riddled with graft, bribes, and payoffs. It calls for a new plan that sweeps away the existing order and replaces it with a plan that serves a higher ideal. That ideal can be anything: race, history, people, industry, whatever. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the power that is necessary to make the system smarter, more productive, more mighty and glorious.
Fascism, then, would not propose the abolition of private property, or even the over nationalization of industry. It would not propose to suppress religion or family. It proposes regulatory controls on all of these sectors of life in order to channel them into a single national interest. This requires a massive and totalitarian state, one that effectively obliterates any room for individual decision making, institutional autonomy, freedom of action, entrepreneurship, and so on.
It is conventionally believed that fascism does not have a fully worked-out plan for managing national life, and that’s true enough. But actually, its plans are more worked out in practice than socialism ever was. The socialists were famed for their blistering criticisms of capitalism, but rather short when it came to actually showing how their hare-brained system of collective ownership of scarce goods would work out in practice. In contrast, the fascists were much more overt about their plans for economic life. Business would be cartelized, labor would be syndicalized, trade would be mercantilized, and production and consumption subjected to massively regulatory oversight — in the name of the national interest.
No, I do not believe that Trump has done a private study of the works of the Italian syndicalists in order to arrive at his views. Fascism took hold in history not because it is a systematized theory of politics. It took hold because it cobbles together a series of cultural biases together with a belief that the state is the best-possible tool for organizing economic and social life. Anyone who can combine those two can find himself stumbling, however haphazardly, into embracing fascist theory.
But just as with socialism, fascism is also a method for propagandizing people into considering a new way of ordering society. The fascist must get elected. He must convince people to acquiesce to his dictatorial aspirations. Here is where the failures of the current system serve him well. The entire establishment is deeply corrupt, incredibly stupid, not serving the nation, failing to boost the national spirit — and so on. The orator seeks to tap into raw emotion in hopes of inspiring a suspension of incredulity.
Fascism is also deeply personal, more so than socialism. It is all about the great leader’s capacity to wrest control of an entire economy and nation and steer it in the right direction. Thus does business or military success become central to the campaign. You have to have a proven record of doing implausibly amazing things, things no mere mortal could accomplish without some special gift.
Two names come to mind within the Republican ranks: John McCain and Donald Trump. So it’s not surprising that they are fighting like scorpions in a jar. It is actually delightful to watch. Trump said that McCain is no war hero, and the Republican establishment went nuts with denunciations. According to all reports on the ground in Iowa, most of the actual Republicans at the grassroots didn’t really care that Trump had insulted McCain. Most all GOP activists are sick and tired of this McCain guy in any case.
Where Trump really messed up was in using the words “hell” and “damn” in his speech. This upset many religious people in Iowa. One person quoted in the New York Times worried that perhaps Trump is not really born again. If that rumor continues to spread, he will have no future.
It will be one of the greatest ironies of American politics if, in the end, it is pietism that stops the advance of fascism in our time.