|Boardwalk, Asbury Park|
So what does the word fascist mean? I was aware that many people used the word "fascist" to describe people they didn't like who were of an authoritarian bent - basically making it a synonym for the sixties word "pig." This made it difficult to distinguish among right-wing authoritarians.
I had an interest in such distinctions because I'd written my bachelor's thesis on the French army in Indochina and Algeria, and therefore spent a fair amount of time studying people who were often called fascists. But they weren't really. They were just soldiers who kept losing one war after another, and some of them lost their way. I was writing my thesis in 1967 and 1968, and I was concerned that the Vietnam war might have a similar effect in our country. Fortunately we did not copy the French experience, at least in this regard.
So I found my son's paper illuminating. I still didn't really know what fascists were, but I was extending my ideas about who they weren't. We had a number of interesting conversations on the topic. And there the matter rested for quite some time.
More recently, as I was watching the rise of Donald Trump, I found my interest in fascism rekindled. And I took a book down from the shelf and read it. It was Robert Paxton's Vichy France. I had bought it when it came out in 1972, but then I got diverted onto other things, like land surveying before the invention of the surveyor's transit.
Vichy France and Fascism
Around the middle of the book (pages 228-233), Paxton wrestles with the question of whether Vichy France was a fascist state. He starts by comparing fascism with traditional authoritarianism. Perhaps the most striking difference is that fascism always is, or aspires to be, a mass movement. Conservatives, on the other hand, "show distaste for mass participation and prefer government by a few established families."
There are also points of agreement: "authoritarianism, hatred of liberals as weak-kneed harbingers of leftist social revolution, defense of property." So one quick definition of fascism is "mass antitraditional authoritarianism."
Paxton then looks at how fascism played out in five countries: Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. He notes that "No undiluted fascist regime has wielded power." They all had to compromise with traditionalists in order to gain power. The question is: How much did they compromise?
Paxton suggests placing these regimes on a spectrum, "ranging from those in which fascists dominated the partnership to those in which the conservatives dominated the partnership."
At one end of the spectrum he puts Germany: "The Nazi party and the paramilitary organizations eventually broke the power of even such conservative elite groups as the diplomatic corps and the army." Italy ranks second as a fascist state. There, the king, the church, and the army "retained sufficient autonomy to regain their independence and overthrow Mussolini and the party in order to make a deal with the advancing Allies in July 1943."
Salazar's Portugal occupies the other end of the spectrum and is best analyzed as a conservative, Catholic, authoritarian regime.
Franco's Spain relied on the army, the church, and the great landowners, but it also had a political party that, in the early days at least, was strongly fascist: the Falange, which means phalanx in English. As Hugh Thomas explains on page 70 of his book The Spanish Civil War (1961), the name was "ominously taken from the Macedonian unit of battle responsible for the destruction of democracy in Greece in the fourth century BC." As Paxton notes, "Franco gradually muted the Falange."
This leaves us with France, which was defeated by Germany in 1940, with the northern part of the country (including Paris) occupied and directly administered by the invaders, and the southern part administered by a regime located in the resort town of Vichy.
Vichy was basically two things: traditionalist and collaborationist. There was, however, a distinct fascist tinge that grew over time. The fascist influence is particularly strong in the deportation of the Jews and the rise of the Milice, a paramilitary group organized in 1943 to combat the Resistance.
All of these disparate regimes shared one thing: They played on the fears of the middle class in a turbulent time. This is what fascism does. Paxton sums it up this way: "Hard measures by a frightened middle class - that, indeed, is one good general definition of fascism. In that broader sense, Vichy was fascist. And in that sense, fascism has not yet run its course."
Where Does the Fear Come From?
So fear lies at the base of fascism. But where does the fear come from? It comes when people start to think that they may lose what they have. Or, as James Carville put it, "It's the economy, stupid."
This deep fear is usually overlain by more superficial fears. For instance, in the 1930's many people felt a pervasive fear of communism. But what underlies this? The fear that the communists are going to come and take my dairy farm in Normandy, or my trendy boulangerie in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris. Great croissants, and a baguette to die for.
Today, Donald Trump's followers want to build a wall and abrogate trade agreements. These demands may appear as xenophobic (and they are) but they are also clearly based on deep economic fears.
And these fears are real. The middle class is getting hammered, and it's been getting hammered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. In 2014, Thomas Piketty noted the hollowing-out effect of more than three decades of policies that shifted income from the middle class to the rich. In his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he wrote that "what primarily characterizes the United States at the moment is a record level of inequality of income from labor (probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world, including societies in which skill disparities were extremely large)." (P. 265.)
And he observes, "It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups." (P. 297.)
And here we are.
I agree that the recent election results have numerous causes. Anything human is bound to be complicated. But, deep down, I believe this was a change election driven by income inequality.
What Will Trump Do?
Whether Trump's middle-class voters will see better economic days is, of course, an open question. But things aren't looking good. Tax cuts for the rich, eliminating Obamacare and possibly Medicare, maybe even Social Security. Shutting down the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. All these things will only hurt the middle class in their pocket books and, frankly, their dignity.
On the other hand, Trump can play the old distraction game and give his voters a raft of things that they did ask for - basically fierce pursuit of external demons and internal scapegoats.
All this is a recipe for profound instability in this country, for the foreseeable future.
Sources of Stability
As the country lurches in unpredictable directions, it would be nice to look around and find some institutional sources of stability. However, it seems likely that Donald Trump, once he is inaugurated president, will find that he has a relatively free hand. The Supreme Court and both houses of Congress will be dominated by conservative Republicans. And Trump clearly has more than one friend at the FBI.
At the state and local level, resistance is more likely, and I think it has a real chance to be effective. But we shouldn't kid ourselves. Donald Trump will soon have the powers of the president of the United States, and he will use them. How? I don't think even he knows.
Who Will Trump Ally Himself With?
Franco had the army, the church, the large land owners. I think Trump will look for allies in the business class. He will seek out people he is comfortable with, and they will ride the roller coaster together. I'm afraid I don't see anyone in this group seeking to moderate Trump's whims. Rather the opposite.
What Can the Dems Do?
The electoral process will be increasingly stacked against Democratic candidates. This means that the Dems need to find a way to get Trump voters on their side. This is not going to be easy.
The Dems need to face some hard facts. Attacking Trump voters for their racism, sexism, and xenophobia will only drive them further into the arms of Trump.
My father was a doctor, a surgeon actually. One day he said to me - I forget the context - "You know, sick people aren't very attractive." Doctors of course have an obligation to look beyond the surface and see what they can do to help.
I believe the underlying sickness here is income inequality. I think if we could fix that, the ugliness would fade to manageable levels, although it would certainly not disappear.
The only problem is, with Trump in the White House presiding over an utterly complaisant Congress and Supreme Court, I have no idea how to fix income inequality.
I've been thinking, all the while I've been writing this story, about the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris, and what happened there in 1942. The Vel' D'Hiv, as it was called, was a place to go watch bicycle races and other sporting events. It was located near the Eiffel Tower and no longer exists.
In July 1942 French police rounded up a large number of Jews in what is known as the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv. Many of the 13,000 arrested were held at the Vel' d'Hiv in very difficult conditions. They were then moved to internment camps, including Drancy, which is in the suburbs of Paris, and later transported further east. Very few returned at the end of the war.
I've given some thought to what sports venue could play the role of Vel' d'Hiv in Philadelphia. Bicycling is not a very big sport in America, but basketball is. Perhaps the Palestra, out at Penn.
Today, I'm guessing nobody thinks this can happen here. But the craziness has only begun. And here is something that I do know. If the French were capable of this, so are we.
See also Mr. Piketty's Book.