Review of How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley

How Fascism Works book coverThe key takeaway from How Fascism Works is that fascist politics does not require or necessarily lead to a fascist state. As the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once said, “This will always remain one the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”

Plato recognized this tendency over 2,000 years ago; as Jason Stanley wrote, “In book 8 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that people are not naturally led to self-governance but rather seek a strong leader to follow. Democracy, by permitting freedom of speech, opens the door for a demagogue to exploit the people’s need for a strongman; the strongman will use this freedom to prey on the people’s resentments and fears.”

Fascist politics is characterized by deception and contradiction, as fascism cannot take hold by simply asserting its actual, explicit goals, which are often racist and exploitive of the people it pretends to be the champion of. Instead, policies are disguised, reality is distorted, and the very institutions that provide a check on the fascist’s power are attacked and de-legitimized (science, academia, and the media).

Fascism relies on a fabricated mythic past, a racist and misogynistic hierarchy, and anti-intellectualism and the propagation of conspiracy theories. But the most insidious aspect of fascist politics is the tendency of fascist leaders to accuse others of the very things they practice themselves.

Fascists will accuse others of corruption while practicing it themselves on a larger scale; they’ll decry legitimate news sources as “fake news” while propagating their own conspiracy theories; and they’ll attack scientific institutions as biased while basing their own decisions regarding scientific topics on their own “gut feelings” or politics.

This is all obvious to anyone not in the thralls of the fascist leader, but for those who are, their leader can do or say no wrong. In fact, the more absurd the fascist leader’s actions and comments become—especially if they are targeted at out-groups or are considered “politically incorrect”—the more popular that leader becomes.

Overall, the Jason Stanley does a great job of describing the elements of fascist politics, including the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, and victimhood, among others. Stanley demonstrates how the politics of fear, resentment, and division that are being used in the US today are the same fascist tactics that have been used throughout history.

However, I did have a couple of points of contention: first, the Stanley mischaracterizes Steven Pinker’s position on race-based IQ studies in the chapter on hierarchy. Stanley seems to be suggesting that Pinker is a proponent of these studies, but, as a psychologist, Pinker has never studied these differences, and, in an interview, openly questioned whether or not there are some topics we shouldn’t study, race-based IQ among them.

Pinker also stated that regardless of race-based IQ differences, the moral implications are entirely separate from the scientific findings, and that individual variation among members of any group is so large that it never makes sense to judge an individual by the averages of the group. This is a more salient point that the author failed to mention even himself.

Second, I’m not sure how persuasive this book will be to anyone who does not already agree with the author. Raising awareness of fascist tactics is a start, but if people really think, for example, that immigrants will steal their jobs and degrade their culture, then they will not agree with how the author has defined fascism, or see it as a problem. Perhaps Stanley could have spent more time on why xenophobia is irrational in the first place and on developing an alternative common-humanity vision of politics based on common economic interests. That could have been the second half of the book.