The "F-word" of Politics
"You... you... FASCIST!"
There are very few words in our political vocabularies that are more emotionally loaded, while at the same time more saddled with multiple, not-quite-identical meanings. When a Google search on "Bush fascist" yields 5.2 million hits, and a search on "Obama fascist" yields 5.9 million, you have to wonder: just what this word is supposed to mean, anyway?
We could start by looking at the symbol from which the word derives. Take an axe, surround it with a bundle of rods, and lash the whole thing together as tightly as you can -- and there you have what the ancient Romans called the "fasces." It was this symbol of unified power that Benito Mussolini and his Fascist movement latched onto in the early years of the 20th Century. (It's found in many other places, of course -- including the iconography of the United States of America.)
To Mussolini and his followers, Fascism represented, among other things, a unification of the power of the State and the power of the Market. Mussolini has been quoted as saying, "Fascism should more properly be called 'corporatism' because it is the merger of state and corporate power." (It may be worth noting at this point that such a merger can happen in two ways - either by the State expropriating and nationalizing the means of production, or by the Market influencing and ultimately corrupting the State.)
In the intervening years, the meaning has broadened; perhaps the best way to think of fascism is as the enforced unification of all aspects and institutions of a society -- not just the Market and the State, but also the workforce, the church, the media, the arts, the schools, the family" everything. (It should be obvious, by the way, that this unification might be done in the name of almost any political or economic ideology, across the political spectrum, or in the name of almost any religious or philosophical viewpoint, from fundamentalism to atheism. No one has a monopoly on fascism, Jonah Goldberg to the contrary.)
This notion of absolute social unity can become very attractive to everyday people in certain uncomfortable situations -- in times of external or internal threats (whether real or merely perceived), economic uncertainty, social upheaval, or cultural transformation. (Such as, you know, now.) It can also become very attractive to the folks at the top of a society, when they begin to suspect that the peasantry might be getting restless.
In the fascist state, after all, there are no such things as "competing interests" -- unlike the messy chaos of democracy, where there are so many competing interests that usually no single one can claim dominance. Under fascism, everything is tidy and well-ordered; there is no dissent tolerated, no discussion necessary.
Of course, people being people, such a unified state is deeply unnatural -- so it must be imposed. Here is where many of the negative qualities we associate with Fascist societies emerge. To unify the populace, Fascist governments frequently identify scapegoat certain minorities, on whom is placed the blame for all the ills of society. Militarism, the virtues of force, and strict discipline are emphasized. Repression becomes rampant, imagination is squelched, and justice becomes arbitrary and capricious. Fear and intimidation, torture and disappearances become societally accepted methods of control. These qualities make fascist societies seem strong, almost invincible in their early days -- but actually contain the seeds of their inevitable downfall.
But could it happen here? During the Bush Regime, many commentators and columnists looked around America and identified numerous signs that they interpreted as symptoms of incipient fascism. Their fears were not entirely realized -- but neither have they been entirely dispelled. Does fascism, in all its brutal and vicious glory, stand any chance of taking hold now, here, in America -- and if so, is there anything we can do to prevent it?
To address such questions, I think I have found a metaphor that might be useful.
Fascism is like Herpes
If we think of fascism as a disease -- an abnormal condition that makes the "body politic" act in bizarre, unnatural, and destructive ways -- we can look at it through the lenses of epidemiology and public health. How does it start? How does it spread? What are the conditions that encourage or impede its development? And what kinds of ongoing measures can we take to avoid catching the disease in the first place?
So the answer to "Could America ever turn fascist?" is like the answer to "Could I ever get really sick?":
"Yes, of course, at any time -- particularly if you don't take care of yourself."
Like herpes, the fascism "virus" is always present, lurking, just waiting for its chance to emerge. Our time is not really all that different from any other in this respect. Usually, the "immune system" of the social organism is sufficient to prevent its gaining a serious foothold. But when the organism is put under stress (as is certainly happening now in the US and many other countries), the virus can flourish and spread.