Seventy-three years ago, the United States vanquished Germany, Italy and Japan, prevailing in a monumental global war against fascism. The outcome affirmed American values — a nation of free people, rising up to preserve liberty and democracy.
Back then, it wasn’t hard to recognize the enemy. Germany’s fascist regime was a monstrous killing machine; its racism and intolerance led to more than 40,000 concentration camps and the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.
Even now, the word “fascism” is so repugnant to most Americans that only crackpots, poorly educated malcontents, sociopaths and Twitter trolls publicly embrace it.
And yet, the nation that defeated fascism in 1945 is itself at risk of turning fascist, argues social scientist Carl Boggs in his latest book, “Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads.”
Don’t expect the grotesquerie of Nazism, Boggs is quick to point out — that’s unlikely. Instead, fascism here would likely be something “distinctly American … a novel form of fascism” in which liberal-democratic institutions — elections, representative government and media — survive, albeit in “truncated form.”
The foundation for American fascism, Boggs writes, was built in the years after World War II, as the military was ascendant and the U.S. projected power around the globe, ostensibly to keep the Soviet Union and its allies in check.
The Vietnam War represented a turning point. The domestic turmoil of the 1960s and the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia led to a reaction — a backlash — that reset political discourse. Powerful interests — the military, corporations and the state — grew stronger; corporations “permeated and transformed every sphere of public life, probably none more so than government and politics,” Boggs writes.
Boggs, currently on the faculty of National University in Los Angeles, builds on the works of sociologist C. Wright Mills and political theorist Sheldon Wolin, among others, in making his case. Students of the New Left will appreciate his nods to the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and others.
Boggs completed his book at the end of 2017, and that meant squeezing in — and explaining — the unexpected election of Donald Trump.
Boggs credits Trump with unleashing “a multitude of dark social forces in American society, tapping a certain ethno-nationalism that encourages stereotyping, hate speech and targeting.”
But Trump — despite the strong passions he arouses — may not really matter all that much.
“Certain tendencies are now so institutionalized, so thoroughly entrenched in American public life, that the leadership factor as such is bound to be less decisive than generally believed,” Boggs writes.
Barack Obama, he points out, was generally regarded as a “peace-oriented executive, yet upon leaving office he had been conducting drone warfare against no fewer than six nations.” And Boggs maintains the differences between Trump and Hillary Clinton were “far less pronounced than the corporate media chose to emphasize.”
“Fascism Old and New” isn’t light reading, and there’s a lot here that readers will challenge — or find challenging.
There are a few unforced, unfortunate errors — the wrong name for a major health insurer, the wrong year for a notorious police shooting — and some passages that repeat rather than reinforce key points.
Boggs, 81, is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles. He was active in the antiwar movement at Washington University after joining the political science faculty in 1969.
That activism would later cost him, he says, when in 1975 he was denied tenure on a 5-5 vote by the political science department. Boggs became one of the first of several left-leaning academics who quit or were pushed out by Washington University in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
More than 40 years later, Boggs is still protesting.