Signposts to Perdition, by Michael Brenner

  Is Fascism the natural default setting for failed Constitutional democracies? ‘Natural’ in the sense that there is a connection between these societies’ characteristic features – especially ones figuring prominently in its decline – and the ingredients of an emergent fascist system/regime? That is a pertinent question in present-day America.

FASCISM is in the wind – and on the ground. We are passing one milestone after another marking out the route. and measuring our progression. The endpoint, were we to reach it, would be a unique form of American autocracy with Fascist characteristics. The word Fascism is more than an epithet. It has a distinct meaning when placed in its proper historical context. For it is a phenomenon of the modern world – a world of pervasive status anxieties, of anomie, of unbelief, of low tolerance for adversity, and – above all – of estrangement from self.1

 Let us take a look at the landmarks on the road to political perdition we are taking,and examine the evidence in order to assess which of them we have passed. Before doing so, it behooves us to get a better fix on what we mean by Fascism. Here are the cardinal points to bear in mind.

 A. Fascism is not synonymous with Nazi Germany. That was the most extreme manifestation of Fascism in practice, to which were added certain distinctive elements. 

 B. It is important to note that Fascism is a distinct type of regime, not every autocracy qualifies as Fascist. One might say that every Fascism is autocratic, but not every autocracy is Fascistic.

 C. Fascism as a generic political phenomenon encompasses a diverse assortment of regimes. In its heyday – the inter-war years, it spread across Europe from Spain to Rumania, took root in Latin America, and even reached as far as Lebanon in the form of the Falange. Some were atheist, some wedded with a reactionary Catholic Church, some perverse miliary dictatorships. Today, we are witnessing the emergent Hindu neo-Fascism under Modi in India. Fascism’s recent recrudescence includes the singular mutation that we are experiencing in the United States.

  D. It has become commonplace to label each and every neo-Fascist movement in the West as “populist.” That is a misnomer – and highly misleading. The ahistorical, lazy use of the term is symptomatic of an intellectual degeneration that accompanies the degeneration of political life generally.2 William Jennings Bryant was a true populist. As was Senator LaFollette from Wisconsin – among many other prominent political figures in the late 19th and early 20th century. The only communality with today’s MAGA is that they drew strength from targeting exploitative vested interests and elites. In the former case genuinely. In the latter, only as empty rhetoric. Indeed, almost all Fascist mass movements eventually reconcile with the existing Establishment and combine forces. The one exception is Peron in Argentina who actually delivered economic and social benefits to workers and the less well-off generally, that thanks mainly to Eva.3

   E. Fascism is not ideologically driven or bound to doctrine. There is little if anything in the way of intellectual content. It appeals to feelings – not thoughts. Indeed, one of its principal attractions is that it spares followers the need to think for themselves – or, to think at all. Rather, it deals in vivid imagery – most of it highly caricatured when not outright cartoonish, in spectacle, in the release of violent emotions.  



   1. 1. A Fascist or crypto-Fascist movement places feelings above ideas. A pastiche of slogans substitutes for ideology.  In Trump’s case, this rhetoric resonates and taps the crude emotions of his MAGA followers. The aim is to sweep clean minds until there is nothing left but raw emotions to be manipulated. The quality of ideas plays a minor role among mass movement leader. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.


2. FASCISM’s core dynamic is that of a cult. Blind loyalty to a charismatic figure who is, at once, the incarnation of the movement’s driving emotional force, its champion in battle against ‘THEM,’ and the generator of the spirit that binds the adherents into an undifferentiated mass.  Loyalty is total and unquestioning.  Complete obedience to whatever the leader and his henchmen say or do – however erratic it might be – is a Fascist hallmark. Failure (January 6 & legal aftermath) stokes anger that further inflames passions by casting those called to account as victims of THEIR repression, thereby strengthening faith in the movement’s leader as the agent of revenge.4

Cults can be open or closed, mass or exclusive. The Branch Dravidians was of the inner-directed, restrictive type. MAGA obviously is the latter type – as is every cult that operates politically.

3. Fascist movements lack aspiration to anything beyond expanding power and domination. They stress destruction rather than construction. There is no vision of the good life, the ideal society, or the redemption of the human soul. In its most extreme for, it can degenerate into a DEATH CULT – as was Naziism. They are devotees of KALI. Gratification comes from crushing enemies, whomever or whatever has deceived, frustrated, suppressed the true believer. That relished pleasure may not be literal or at the moment; if not, then in the imagined moment of future triumph. Pleasure comes from gloating over their enemies’ – often brutal – liquidation. 

  4.The Fascist mentality is keyed by Hate. No yearning to embrace a loving figure (as in most religions) or to enter Paradise (be it mystical or Heaven on Earth a la Communism). As Eric Hoffer has put this truth in a few pithy words: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” Empathy for the weak, the vulnerable, the ’other,’ the Palestinians is non-existent. So, too, for all those on the opposite side of the barricades. The true Fascist personality suffers free-floating, simmering anger that generates an irrepressible impulse to hit someone – preferably physically or, at least, in hysterical verbal attacks. Trump is their surrogate, militarized police their realized daydreams.

It was Barack Obama’s coddling of the financial predators who caused the havoc of 2008 – 2010 that diverted the nation’s pool of diffuse yet intense anger into Tea Party channels – giving it shape and direction. That strong initial impetus fueled the MAGA movement that such momentum today.

5. Fascists like to hurt people. That is the most tangible way to demonstrate domination, control and superiority. In extremes it is violent – whether impulsive or as a calculated move to cow and to intimidate. The militants enjoy the direct action; others do vicariously; the mass of supporters are unmoved by the harm done – even to innocents. Today’s neo-Fascist movements act like a magnet to attract violent persons who see a chance to act out their aggressiveness in conditions that legitimize them and offer justifications for vile behavior.  We see that in the savage brutality of militarized riot police at UCLA, at Columbia, at Georgia. We see their wannabe, Walter Mitty civilian cheerleaders who get their emotional kicks from identification with them. In the same vein, we hear Congressmen telling reporters that the answer to the Palestine crisis is: “kill them all.” 

The Gaza student protest episode also was historic for displaying another signature Fascist feature: squads of ‘brown shirts’ with the cover of official police attacking peaceful assemblies of students. None of the perps have been arrested despite appearing in video interviews. University authorities concentrate their public statements on the unlawful actions of the victims who, at some schools, are being charged with felonies.

There are less violent ways to hurt people. You can denigrate them verbally. That’s a Trump/MAGA favorite method. Latinos are “murders and rapists,” Muslims are “terrorists” who hate America, cripples are to be mocked, the old demeaned as a useless drain on productive citizens. And this is not just Trump. It has become a theme of the entire Republican Party mainstream that goes out of its way to harm the poor whether by denying them food stamps, medical care, housing, or protection from out-of-control racist police or locking up a million or so grabbed off the streets for innocuous misdemeanors and warehoused in jails because they can’t make bail. A party whose ‘respectable’ members insist that all welfare recipients are drug addicts (Senator Orin Hatch) and that immigrants who don’t sign up to be deported are too lazy “to get off their asses” and want handouts (General John Kelly – Trump’s Chief of Staff). 

The MAGA people, in particular, are dedicated to tearing down many of American society’s great achievements: from its Constitutional principles, to its democratic ethic of civil political discourse, to racial equality, to the programs that have been the foundation of domestic community – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of other enlightened innovations of the 20th century.  

Making the lives of the weak, the sick and the poor more miserable than they need be surely is not the same as killing. Even racial hatred in itself is not to be equated with systematic murder or lynchings. Still, these actions all drink from the same poisoned wells.  

6. TRAUMA may play a role in instigating and impelling a Fascist movement. That trauma could be individual in the case of the willful leader or personal among those drawn into his magnetic force field. Collective trauma creates facilitating conditions: Germany’s defeat in WW I symbolized by the humiliating Versailles surrender.  That last in not a necessary factor, though. There was no equivalent that spawned the other European Fascists of the inter-war years. Italy was on the winning side, albeit resentful of the meager spoils it was awarded. So, too, Rumania – sort of. By contrast, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Galician Ukraine were among the losers.

An equivalent trauma is also hard to identify in contemporary America. No civil war, no internal economic collapse, no glaring catastrophes or threats from abroad. The closest thing was 9/11 which did have an unsettling effect on the nation’s psyche; it could be considered a contributing factor. Fear-mongering by politicos and other self-interested parties compounded the effect. But it is quite an analytical stretch to posit 9/11 as a principal causal factor.   Admittedly, when followed by the financial collapse of 2008-2009, together they did exacerbate a deepening of free-floating anxiety along with, in the latter case, an estrangement from public authorities inattentive to their troubled state and cosseting of the Establishment powers.

 7. Nothing about Fascism is associated with the idea of a common humanity. Just the opposite. A stark line of demarcation is drawn between the oppressive malefactors and WE who are fiercely dedicated to righting ongoing sins inflicted on us by THEM – and to install true values. The THEM is a loose category that encompasses the agents of affliction and insult (criminal, disease-ridden immigrants), those who enable them, and those who propagate twisted values that set the scene for abominable actions (abortion, gender transformations, open borders, coddling of the criminal class).

8. America’s neo-Fascist leaders may lack doctrine or ideology, but they do have an overriding strategic objective: to delegitimize existing institutions, the values of which they are cynosure, and the political culture that is their software. Hence, the relentless assault on Executive offices (Department of Justice, FBI, Department of ICE); on District Attorneys at every level; on academia; on judges who do not bow to their pressure; on Churches that do not bow to their pressure.   Hence, the abuse of Congressional rules to prevent the routine functioning of the federal government as part of blackmail schemes.

Above all, the rejection of the fundamental Constitutional legal stipulations: a President who instigated a violent assault on the Capitol in a plot to prevent the certification a duly elected President; the vote by 154 members of the House of Representatives to overturn the results of that election. The refusal by leaders of the Republican Party to accept the lawful outcome of the 2024 election.

 In addition, we see the corruption of segments of the judicial system in acting in crude ways to use their authority to block the normal proceedings of the courts in cases where Donald Trump is the accused. The current Supreme Court majority has blatantly violated their oath of office in so doing, by refusing to reign in the gross conduct of Federal District judges in Florida and, Georgia, in refusing to act on the Presidential immunity question, and in permitting one its members to publicly flaunt his personal allegiance to the movement that directed, and continues to defend, the January 6 rioters.

9. In place of ideology, doctrine or religious creed, American neo-Fascists wrap themselves in “Americanism.”  Their overwrought, deformed version turns it into a Unified Field Theory that incorporates a wide range of emotional symbolism, serves as a worshipful holy object, and can be employed to explain all and to justify all. ‘Americanism’ has the great advantage of being ecumenical – transcending every manner of particularism. Thus, the movement eclipses lines of possible cleavage. *     




   1. Fascism is now assimilated into the United States’ body politic. As mode of action, as way of public life, as an intrinsic menace to Constitution and legal authority.

   2. It has infiltrated every segment of government at every level.

   3. It has a legion of militant ‘true believers’ impervious to reason or evidence.

   4, It has coalesced a wide alliance of groups, persons and tendencies – constituting roughly 50% of the American electorate – who are prepared to vote for its candidates.

    5. It controls a vast network of media outlets that dedicated to broadcasting a steady diet of propaganda, devotions to incitement, and the demonization of anybody or anything that is not a sworn follower.

    6.The Republicans in both Houses of Congress vote as a bloc with complete discipline in the manner of delegates to the old Supreme Soviet. This holds no matter what the issue at hand. It is a fundamental shift from past practice when it was routinely said that the Congress is made up of 535 political parties.

7. The abuse of executive power, now a pronounced feature of American society, is accommodated and accepted as the norm.

     88. The American public has been fed a steady stream of outright lies about consequential international matters that have led to failure and, more than once, to catastrophe: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Russiagate, Ukraine as the last bastion of democracy protecting our freedom. They all have been glaringly exposed for the cynical manipulations that they were. Yet, the political class and the media continue to credit the dubious assertions of the same parties, and actively propagate them to the wider public with no reference to past deceit and dissimulations.

       9. The United States today is a country that blithely commits itself to acting as an accomplice in crimes against humanity. That shamelessly flaunts its participation as a part of a strategy to bring peace to the Middle East. A country whose two Houses of Congress – in near unanimity – invite a mass murderer of historic dimension, indicted by the International Criminal Court and head of a government that the International Court of Justice judged as having “plausibly committed genocide,” to address a special Joint Session. A rare honor on behalf of the American people. There is no significant public debate, much less protest, against this insult to our foundational principles, our nation’s moral bearings, or its sense of human decency. 5

Indeed, there is little concern expressed about the plight of the many thousands of victims of atrocity displayed graphically in video feeds day after day. Their hurt evokes scant empathy. Protesters are never described as ‘anti-genocide’; instead, they are labelled ‘pro-Palestinian’ – an appellation that readily gives way to ‘anti-Israel’ and then ‘anti-Semitic.’  A scan of the public discourse tells us that a humanitarian position that the United States should cease its support for the Gaza slaughter on empathetic moral grounds is ruled out-of-court – its advocates disqualified from the corridors of power, the MSM, the punditocracy. Even the admonitions of the Pope cut no ice. Instead, Washington leads its Western parties in an abrupt cutoff of funding for the UNRWA (the main provider of food and medical aid to Gazans) in immediate response to specious Israeli claims of misbehavior by a handful of the agency’s staff. It takes months – and the aggravated suffering of a million Palestinians – for the embargo to be partially lifted.*

 Sticking the boot in when the victim is down (aka “superior Western values”).  

 Lines have been crossed, taboos violated, precedents set. These are not mere transitory events – to be dismissed as epiphenomena. Together, they – along with other corrosive developments – have changed the texture and tenor of American public life. This stark truth is astonishingly overlooked. Therefore, it is a fair assessment that we are clearing the path for Fascism in our future – in one form or another, whether or not it actually materializes.   

*The MAGA need not bother searching for an equivalent to the evocative Fascist symbols of yore. MAGA has a more potent symbol at hand: THE STARS & STRIPES.

Symbolic objects like flags are tangible distillations of a complex of ideas, meanings and civic loyalties with a potential to powerfully move us.  Their impact on our feelings and thoughts can change over time. They also can carry multiple, even contradictory meanings – ones that may co-exist: witness the Christian Cross.


1. A serious discussion of Fascism should begin with a rereading of Umberto Eco’s definitive guide to reflection that systematically delineates its distinctive features (“Ur Fascism” NYRB June 22, 1995). For depiction of the phenomenon’s socio-psychological dynamics, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951) remains invaluable.

 2 . We have reached a point where not only don’t important persons know what they are talking about – literally, but also misuse words whose meanings they do not understand &/or calculatingly misrepresent. Their minds and senses reside contentedly is an astral world only tangentially in touch with actual reality.  The only people with whom they converse are fellow residents.  Coping with that reality is subordinate to comfort and convenience. Reasons: a devaluing of factual truth, a consequent lack of curiosity, mental laziness, unconcern about being held to account.  

3. Peron’s steady tightening of measures to curb the privileges enjoyed by American commercial and financial interests in Argentina is the main reason why Truman brought the United States’ full weight behind the successful campaign to topple Peron (not the harboring of senior Nazi officials).

4. In Eric Hoffer’s words: “misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement…..Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves”

 5. One might add a 10th point. A large segment of American society now agrees with the   proposition that gender identity is a matter of personal preference, and this precept has been imposed in several domains of public life. This confected view of the world’s success in shaping perceptions contrary to experience of human nature reveals how susceptible we are to being recruited into cult-like dogmas.  The swiftness with which this basic transformation has occurred is all the more stunning in that the very idea was unimaginable not so long ago.


Michael Brenner