America’s culture warriors are not fascists. In its various guises European fascism, like their Communist opponents, was collectivist. In Germany the collective was the ‘Aryan race’ and in Italy it was the Italian nation whereas in Russia it was the working class. By contrast America’s political right is singularly bereft of collectivist terminology, tending more to a Hobbesian sense of rational self-interest, at least among the elite, or a debased form of Protestant individualism among many others. Both nationalism and ethnic identity could form a core of collectivist thinking for the American right wing, but so far have not. Political and cultural nihilism manifests differently within America’s liberal culture than it did within Europe.
But if not fascist, America’s culture warriors are deeply authoritarian, and are as devoted to the supremacy of will, domination, and pathological masculinity as ultimate political forces as was any European fascist. Democratic rules are valued only for their utility, to be abandoned when necessary to continue power. For example, many state governments where Tea Party Republicans came to power with voters’ dissatisfaction over Democrats are now seeking to make voting more difficult for those Americans who as a group tend to vote Democratic. Their public reasons are to prevent “voter fraud” but in fact there is no evidence of significant voter fraud conducted by these groups. In addition many are seeking to destroy the Electoral College in order to corrupt the next presidential election so a Republican can win even with a small minority of the vote.
For another example, when the Republican Party held national office we heard incessant references to George W. Bush as our “Commander in Chief.” But this constitutional term applied only to the president’s relationship with the armed forces. The logic of a democratic republic made the American people his commanders in chief. The framework for a radically un-American conception of political power with anti-democratic European roots is attaining unquestioned legitimacy among the culture warriors.
This outlook also sheds light on the truly strange treatment Barack Obama has received from the right. His legitimacy is incessantly questioned and policies he pursued that were initially Republican ideas are denounced as ‘socialist’ and worse. Many believe he is not really an American, or at least not qualified to be president.
If the president is our commander in chief he can only be legitimate when we approve him as a kind of plebiscitary dictator, or in Bush’s terms, the “decider.” Therefore the other party cannot truly ever be legitimate. It can never really have a right to make the rules, and so it is appropriate to make the country ungovernable until they have been ousted. A kind of tribal identity politics is replacing a national view.
Consider how the right wing has reacted to Obama’s policy towards Syria. When he threatenbed military action he was criticized for being warlike. But when he then said he would ask for Congressional input, the same right wing figures criticized him as insufficiently forceful. When his initiatives led to the possibility of ending Syrian possession of chemical weapons through Russian auspices he was criticized as having lost, without what would count as a win ever being discussed. This is tribal politics where whatever your opponent does is wrong. It is deeply destructive to democracy.
Another significant example of this undermining of democratic principles is a subtle but disturbing shift in terminology describing the Founders’ vision of government from limited government to “small government,” a term the Founders rarely if ever used. The entire point of adopting a new constitution was to create a government stronger than the old Articles of Confederation. The worry was that a stronger government could also become a more authoritarian one. Their solution was to create a limited government.
A limited government is limited in the means it can use to attain its ends, hence our Bill of Rights and other constitutional limitations. When “limited” is replaced by “small” a new context is created. A “small government” can be unlimited within its sphere, whatever that might be.
This rhetorical switch harmonizes the culture warriors’ position with the corporate oligarchs because while a small government cannot stand up to Wall Street, it can and as we see at the state level, it does seek to minutely regulate individual behavior and even education when the culture warriors disapprove of what others do. Hence the unprecedented attempts to regulate women’s behavior, approval of torture, and hostility to limitations on a state’s power to execute prisoners. For a group supposedly suspicious of government, culture warriors are remarkable trusting in its power to crush those with whom they differ.
The counter-culture of the Confederacy is strong in these people, but that of our Founders is virtually nonexistent.