How Does Fascism Develop within the U.S.?

Photo by Mark Wilson via Getty Images


Fascism is notoriously difficult to identify and prevent early on in its development. It has no manifesto or defining text. While the macro-ideological agenda of fascism is relatively formulaic, the players, aesthetic, and strategy depend on the historical and sociopolitical circumstances of the country in which it manifests. The word is also somewhat overused by both sides of the political spectrum to describe any disliked political activity. Even though fascism is and always has been an alt-right ideology, many conservatives cry “fascism” at any semblance of government regulation or social progress. The word is striking, yet dull from overuse. 

When we think of the term, our minds go automatically to 1940s Nazism and Mussolini’s Italian Fascist Party. These are the clearest examples of fascism in history because they were allowed to develop into late stages—particularly Nazism, as it resulted in the second World War and the systematic murder of six million Jews as well as millions of other minority groups and political dissidents. When the possibility of modern fascism within the U.S. is broached, it can be difficult to conceptualize because we instinctively compare it to the most extreme, furthest developed examples. However, Nazisim and the Italian Fascist Party are not the only instances of this political ideology. Political scientist, historian, and Columbia professor Robert Paxton analyzes the mechanisms of fascism in his 1998 paper, “The Five Stages of Fascism.” 

He writes, “An authentically popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black; in Western Europe, secular and antisemitic, or more probably, these days, anti-Islamic; in Russia and Eastern Europe, religious, antisemitic, and Slavophile. It is wiser to pay attention to the functions fulfilled by new movements of an analogous type, to the circumstances that could open a space to them, and to the potential conservative elite allies ready to try to co-opt them rather than look for echoes of the rhetoric, the programs, or the aesthetic preferences of the proto-fascists of the last fin de siecle.”

Fascism is not locked away in the darkest records of historical trauma, or tied up neatly in a bow of moral lessons and humanity’s promises to learn from its mistakes. Just like every other political ideology, fascism occurs time and time again, evolving with shifting times as it disguises itself in idealistic rhetoric to worm its way, very gradually, into our political systems. It is somehow so recognizable, yet incredibly opaque. How is it that we know fascism when we see it, but we never seem to see it coming?

Firstly, the beginning stage fascism does not resemble the extreme acts of violence that hindsight reveals to us. It also does not develop spontaneously, and cannot grow without public consent. First and foremost, this ideology relies on populist-esque engagement with an already disillusioned public. 

Paxton writes, “Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillu­sion…In order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty—for better or for worse.”

If fascism is enabled by an alienated public body, the U.S. is already primed for its development. As of 2022, 582,462 people were experiencing homelessness, 64% of which had substance abuse issues. Even among housed people, “70% of all extremely low-income families pay more than half their income on rent,according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. As housing costs rise in one of the richest countries in the world, citizens’ access to healthcare remains tied to their employment, threatening employed people with sickness- or injury-induced life-long debt should they risk leaving their job for better pay. Enforced subservience to employers and landlords is enough to constitute widespread disillusion, but the limited influence the U.S. democratic system gives its constituents paired with the prioritization of corporate interest over citizens solidifies these issues into invariable living conditions.

Gas, food, and housing prices have increased, and more citizens become alienated from the neoliberal ruling class. These are the conditions in which charisma and grandiose promises of a secure future begin to pull people toward a fascist system. A consenting public body is essential because, as fascism is an alt-right ideology, it cannot take power purely through force. Paxton explains why fascists must gain political power through existing legal avenues.

 “…fascism has never so far taken power by a coup d’etat, deploying the weight of its militants in the street…Fascism cannot appeal to the street without risking a confrontation with future allies—the army and the police—without whom it will not be able to pursue its expansionist goals.”

Despite abundant police brutality and widespread calls to defund and reorganize policing as an institution, the U.S spends $100 billion a year on policing and $80 billion on incarceration. Even with the U.S.’s long-standing anti-union sentiment, policing possesses the strongest union in the country, basically providing tenure to every police officer regardless of abuse history. Furthermore, as of 2020, the U.S. federal funds budget, which is funded by constituents’ income taxes, was $948 billion in military funding, with $3.8 billion in military aid per year to Israel. This does not include Biden’s extra 100-plus shipments of bombs and military equipment since the beginning of Israel’s genocide of Palestinians.  

Paxton defines the second stage of fascism as “rooting—in which a fascist movement becomes a party capable of acting politically on the scene,” and cites “polarization within civil society and deadlocks within the political system” as “circumstances that favor the fascists.”

With a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate, the U.S. is accustomed to political gridlock. However, the Republican party seems to be furthering its agenda relatively smoothly despite both a Democratic Senate and president. The Republicans have a six-to-three majority on the Supreme Court, and they’ve used this power to make draconian, conservative rulings. By restricting access to abortion through the overturning of Roe v. Wade (1973), granting IVF embryos the same status as real children, and ending Affirmative Action, Republicans have already taken major steps that encroach on women’s rights and racial equality, signifying fundamental aspects of the fascist agenda. Not only do Republicans control the Supreme Court, they also use gerrymandering, the purposeful redistricting of voting district boundaries to favor one political party, to win congressional majorities in state legislatures. With this incredibly undemocratic strategy, Republicans suppress democratic voters and specifically target voters of color. Even without a Republican president, the party is well-equipped to act politically through undemocratic yet technically legal avenues. 

The groundwork for a successful fascist movement within the U.S. has been effectively laid. As public consent mounts and the means of strategic violence is held by the state, political dissidence struggles to resist the tide of alt-right legislation. 

The possibility of U.S. fascism is moderately talked about within mainstream media, which often attributes the emergence of alt-right fascism to Donald Trump. News outlets and political analysts have declared the U.S. as within the legal phase of fascism, yet representatives both on a state and federal level have done little to address the issue. If we are standing at a precipice of fascism that exceeds the legal definition, then why is there no institutionally leftist influence driving back the tide of the alt-right? 

The demonization of domestic enemies is, perhaps, the most crucial fundamental of fascism. The U.S. alt-right has most obviously implemented this with Democrats and, more cruelly, immigrants, but in order to understand why fascist development is somewhat recognized in this country with very little legislative action being taken to prevent it, the original outgroup should be analyzed. 

Fascism develops gradually. It comes in stages and relies on the constant existence of outgroups. These outgroups serve as scapegoats for all the political and social failings within a country, and the order in which they are targeted is strategic. The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was built in 1933 and was reserved for communists, trade unionists, and social democrats. Before Mussolini even founded his Fascist Party, he created the Italian Combat Squads to violently suppress socialists in Italy. 

Although different in many ways to their respective approaches to fascism, both Hitler and Mussolini strategically targeted leftist political dissidents as their first outgroups, as these were the organizations most likely to recognize and challenge their ascent to power.  

The U.S. has been operating on a trend of anti-leftist propaganda for over 70 years. After the Cold War era, a second Red Scare, and mass persecution of communists, the U.S. is left with less than the bare minimum of social welfare as well as rampant privatization. Because this country has no genuine left-wing party, the center of political gravity leans right when compared to centers in other democratic countries. There is consequently no institutional or organized force with enough power to resist the development of fascism. Any leftist presence exists primarily within grassroots and social activist movements made of individuals unaffiliated with political institutions. 

As we creep closer to U.S. fascism, we begin to understand how long it has been brewing. If institutional leftist influence as the first outgroup has been eliminated, then it’s not surprising that the alt-right now targets individual leftists and the Democrats, even if they still exist within the center-right. 

The demonization of leftists is embedded in American culture, and concrete steps are being taken to disempower leftist political organization and activity among individual citizens. The Supreme Court recently ruled that protest organizers in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi are now financially liable for the unlawful action of any individual protester. By targeting organizers, this ruling attempts to pull activism out of the political sphere by its roots. Fascist ideology begins with the oppression of the far left and works inwards. It creates new outgroups after each previous group is disempowered. Further, many don’t identify fascism early, as it is difficult to notice until the outgroup oppression becomes personal. Nazi concentration camp survivor, Pastor Martin Niemöller, articulates this phenomenon in his poem “First They Came”:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me