Jason Stanley

Authoritarian Past and Future

Air Date: August 5, 2019

Yale University professor of philosophy Jason Stanley discusses his book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. As we document and work to reverse the resurgence of authoritarianism in the United States and around the globe we welcome an expert: Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, author of the edifying and essential Random House volume “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” Stanley told Dana Milbank of the Washington Post that the Trump rendition of these tactics “uses emotion to circumvent reason, to overwhelm reason, wanting us to get the situation in which there’s such fear and suspicion that the only happiness is winning over his enemies.” These are Jason Stanley’s words and he added in an interview with Vox, “I think of fascism as a method of politics. It’s rhetoric, a way of running for power. Of course that’s connected to fascist ideology because fascist ideology centers on power. But I really see fascism as a technique to gain power.” At this year’s philosophy conference for high school and undergraduate students at Stony Brook University I was so pleased to interview Jason and eager to continue that exchange for our television viewers and digital viewers now, welcome Jason, a pleasure to see you again.

STANLEY Thank you so much for having me on this great iconic show.

HEFFNER: Oh, you’re very welcome. You say that fascism is a tactic in effect, but how would you describe your peak concern right now in the United States about the demagogues’ not just survival, but permanence here?

STANLEY: I think my peak concern is with the idea that political opponents are traitors. And so if political opponents are traitors, if Democrats liberal elite, the cosmopolitans are traitors, and if they, they have this control over the media, universities and the press, then people are wanting to think that any tactic is legitimate to suppress them: voter suppression, packing the courts, changing libel laws, remaining in office. So when you set up the political arena as war and when you define yourself in terms of an enemy that not positively, but in terms of an enemy, then you set things up that all is fair, all is fair in love and war.

HEFFNER: Well, I remember that moment when Trump tweeted: enemy of the people, the press are the enemy of the people. And to me that was the first of many statements that are impeachable in and of themselves. If we have a democracy, if we are governed by constitutional principles, including the First Amendment, chiefly the First Amendment, his utterance, that enemy of the people are, are the media, to me that’s impeachable.

STANLEY: Well, I stick with my academic areas of expertise and they do not, do not include the conditions for impeachability.


STANLEY: But I will say about the rhetoric and this does include my academic area of expertise, that the rhetoric is extremely dangerous. Now we don’t have a clear sense of how the rhetoric leads to these strongly anti democratic outcomes like purchasing the press, like changing the laws on the press, creating an enmity and backlash against the process, violent reprisals, threats. I know it’s much harder to be a journalist right now than it was five years ago. I’ve heard that from enough sources and I experienced it to some extent myself. But we’re in that phase in authoritarianism where we have the authoritarian rhetoric and we are slowly seeing, or rapidly seeing certain effects. What effects are we seeing? One, we’re seeing a welcome effect of people recognizing that the rhetoric is strange. And, but secondly, we’re seeing, so we’re seeing differential effects on the people it’s targeted against versus the supporters. I think the supporters are doubling and tripling down. This kind of rhetoric is meant to reinforce the supporters’ belief that it’s a war, that they face an enemy. That politics is just about a war. If you see the Steve Bannon movie done by Errol Morris, American Dharma, Bannon talks this way, he’s like we want to make the political arena like war. And that is really the core of fascism. That’s Carl Schmitt’s view that you define yourself by picking an enemy.

HEFFNER: If the language is war, like you’re saying that doesn’t necessarily translate into genocide or into censorship. The warlike posture and lexicon of Bannon and Trump, we can say objectively from the U S perspective, yes, he’s threatening CNN and AT&T, now corporate owner, on a daily basis, he’s constantly chilled the press, made it more vulnerable. You can’t say definitively from the emergence of the rhetoric how it’s going to go from here. or where it’s going to go from here.

STANLEY: We, it’s up to us. I think that way of talking, you can’t say definitively, locks you in because there’s no stance from which we can stand apart and say that we are not involved in what’s going to happen. So it’s going to be up to us. It’s going to be up to the press to stand up to this. It’s going to be up to the press to stand up to for example the threat to CNN that Mr. Trump made today, I think, where he said, that he essentially threatened them calling for better press. So the press unfortunately the press has been focused on a kind of infotainment model that, this is one reason this show is so crucial because this show is not focused, it goes into a deep dive and ideas. But the infotainment model requires this access to audience. It requires a connection to government and corporations of the sort that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman explore in “Manufacturing Consent.” The press requires access or press requires these things. And so the press is to some extent in this kind of market for – free marketplace of the press, beholden to corporate and government concerns.

HEFFNER: How do you take that reality, which is inequities in this country from the American perspective and have a press that’s going to own those concerns without giving fuel to the demagogic exploitation of a race war or an economic war.

STANLEY: I think history suggests it’s tricky because there are some clear maneuvers that demagogues employ against the press. For instance, they spread conspiracy theories, sort of outlandish untethered from reality: birtherism was an example like this. And then they trap the press. They say, as Mr. Trump did in 2012, they say, well, Obama controls the press. You can tell because the press is not reporting on birtherism, and this is a kind of pincer movement. This is like what the Nazis did with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You can tell that the press is owned by the Jewish media, they would say, because they’re not reporting that the press is controlled by the Jewish media. So then the press ends up saying, okay, there’s this theory, but then by reporting the theory, they give theory greater credibility. So there’s a kind of pincer movement of the press. I think and there’s, there’s a kind of paradox here about, I’m tempted, I’m often tempted to say the press needs to stay with the truth, which they do. But it’s also the case that the conspiracy theories as Hanna Arendt emphasized, are much more attractive than reality because there are simpler, they seem more explanatory, and any evidence against them, like the press isn’t reporting them or taking them seriously, it’s taken to be evidence for them.

HEFFNER: So you’ve just returned from Germany where you did several interviews on how fascism works. What struck you most in a climate that we read about is anti Semitic rhetoric on the rise in Eastern Europe and that already in Germany there has been a muted anti Semitism that’s pervaded the air in these last decades. What was your takeaway?


STANLEY: Well, I went to high school in Germany for a year and college for a year in the 1980s. And so I’ve watched Germany go from a country that didn’t recognize its Holocaust past as much as it should have, to a country that has monuments in the middle of Berlin, like Peter Eisenman’s monument memorializing the murdered Jews of Europe. So there’s been, in the past 25 to 30 years, an Erinnerungskultur, a culture of memory that’s emerged. Now in America we’re at that point in grappling with our past where we’re trying to urge people to take certain monuments to problematic figures down. In Germany, well, after World War II, they took the monuments down. You can’t find in Germany monuments to Goebbels, monuments to Hitler and monuments to Goring or streets named after Goebbels.

Then they eventually erected new monuments to the past and now they’re at the point of political debate about, where the far right is saying we should take them down because that makes, it makes people feel guilty. And we should, we should be proud of our past, which is always the authoritarian thing. It’s always the core of authoritarianism. Chapter one of “How Fascism Works” is called The Mythic Past because there’s a very particular structure to the fascist past. We were an empire, we were great, and liberalism has led us to feel ashamed of our greatness. So, you know, the German far-right say, look the soldiers in World War II were heroes. They were patriotic heroes. Sure it was a bad cause in certain respects. And yes, the Holocaust shouldn’t have happened, but they were German heroes in this great thing. And we stopped Stalin as Ernst Nolte argued. Hitler stopped Stalin.

So there’s this kind of attempt to rehabilitate the past and seek pride from a past very comparable to the kind of rhetoric surrounding the confederacy today.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that simply stated, a kind of revisionist morality.

STANLEY: Putting up monuments does not mean remember the past. Putting up monuments has a social meaning of honoring those people.

HEFFNER: Uplifting,

STANLEY: Uplifting. There’s a terrific piece by a former Yale student, by a Yale graduate Karleh Wilson in Boston Review called “What’s in a Name” where she looks at the Wikipedia entrance, entry for places named after famous people. And she points out that they’re all named to honor those people. So when you put up monuments, their social meaning is to honor those people, not remember the past. And the civil war monuments weren’t put up to, they were put up much after the civil war, post reconstruction in order to glorify a past that never was.

And what’s particularly problematic now is this kind of revisionism is represented as a sole truth against multicultural postmodernism because they say, look at what the universities are trying to do. They’re trying to get you to see multiple truths. We need to just have one truth. And the one truth is the truth of the experience of the dominant group. In actuality, real truth, what you have with gender studies, with African American studies, is you have the exploration of history as experienced by marginalized groups. One point in time is experienced differently by different groups. And what’s important in the search for knowledge is to aggregate all of those different experiences of that one point in time to understand that point in time and what you have in this current moment and the authoritarian moment and trying to recreate this myth of a pass than and re-describe hateful ideologies as somehow noble is you have this attempt to say let’s just have one dominant truth. It’ll help for social cohesion. Sometimes they will give excuses for this. Du Bois lambasts this in the final chapter of Black Reconstruction “The Propaganda of History,” he says, you should al…. So, so we need, we need to focus on the fact that truth is very complex. The actual truth is very complex because different groups experience it in different ways. And if you’re going to teach history in an accurate way, it’s not going to be this simple glorifying narrative.

HEFFNER: Right. Well, certainly there was disunity and in reunifying as a nation because of the politics of reconstruction, we accepted decades and decades of Jim Crow so those reconstructed monuments did represent the truth to the people there and I think it is a local and state matter insofar as those aggrieved by those statues and their meaning ought to have the conversation with the community. But let me ask you this, the, the question of liberal democracy you know, there was a point at which conservatives did not politicize liberal democracy. Now you have in Brazil and Poland and Hungary, you have people who are promoting illiberal policies as the antithesis of liberalism and in furtherance of what they perceive to be conservatism. I asked Yascha Mounk the same question I want to ask you. How did we get, when did we really get to this point?

STANLEY: Now first of all, I would not call Bolsonaro or Orban et cetera, conservatives, I think conservative, what we need is we need conservatives back.


STANLEY: We need a powerful conservative movement to debate with that we that those of us who aren’t conservatives can debate with a legitimate; we need libertarians because some problems have free market solutions. We need democratic socialists because some problems have government solutions and public solutions. So I don’t think these leaders are conservative at all. I think they, unfortunately, history shows us that fascism threatens when conservatives fall for these types. So that’s the dangerous thing. So…

HEFFNER: I’m very heartened you say that because that is what is the truth. That’s the truth.

STANLEY: Yeah, we’ll, we …

HEFFNER: But they’ve made their money on being quote unquote conservative. I mean they’ve made their political,

STANLEY: Well, the power, the power because the power, I think if you look at, if you look at what’s going on, like what unifies all these far-right movements, across the world, besides anti-immigrant immigration sentiment? Climate change denial, they’re all – the far-right parties in Europe are now in endorsing climate change denial. Bolsonaro of course, Trump of course. So what’s behind climate change denial? Oligarchy oil and energy concerns. So what we have is we have the influence of large money and politics. And the history of fascism tells us this. History of fascism tells us big business unites behind fascist politics, fascist leaders, and it enriches the fascist leaders, their families and some of their some their, a few of their supporters, their loyalists. And bankrupts and bankrupts the majority of their supporters and does so for the benefit of the oligarchy that’s behind it.

It smashes labor movements; Hitler smashed the labor movement in Germany. So what you have is not conservativism, which stands up to this depredation of our public life. But you have a power politics, you know, money in politics that goes behind fingers like Bolsonaro, Putin, Orban, who seek to transform their countries into, you know, essentially, you know, mechanisms for enriching certain concerns, including themselves. So, that’s, there’s a certain cynicism there. Now in moments when you transform the political arena into war, then you get people who are conservative to say, well at least they’ll do certain things for me like the agenda, like as we see in our own country with a transformation of the Supreme Court, with voter suppression laws. We see these things that, you know, I don’t think voter suppression laws are conservative either.

But we see, we see conservatives saying, okay, this is going to be illiberal, but it will retain our, our lock on power. And that’s really unfortunately cynical. And you know, you can understand, one can understand why it’s tempting, but if authoritarianism and fascism are going to be resisted, we need principled conservatives. We need the Justin Amashes, we need… History shows that when conservatives go for these figures, that’s when we have real problems.

HEFFNER: And we need a press that is going to not self-identify people because they say they believe in the Constitution, as constitutionalists.

STANLEY: You’re, you’re making a very important point about the press. The press tends to go with the propaganda, with many of the propagandists’ own terminologies, like Frank Luntz who’s a very skilled propagandist. I mean he introduced climate change rather than global warming because global warming sounds scarier.

So, or deep-sea energy exploration for, so the press tends to unfortunately go with certain vocabulary that that completely undermines the neutrality of the debate. Not that neutrality is, is neutrality of debates is difficult anyway because the vocabulary we use constantly prejudices things. Take pro-choice versus pro-abortion, both terms slant the debate. So it’s tricky, but the press can do us a favor and not call for example, and here I disagree with Yascha Mounk, not call the nativ… I understand why the process does not want to call Orban a fascist, okay, I get that. But don’t call him a populist for goodness sake. Stop calling the far-right populists. Cass Mudde repeatedly, the authority on, pop, one of the authorities on populism constantly says populism is not the problem. Nativism is the problem. The press can really do us all a favor by not calling, not calling these people, these parties populists. ‘Cause when you call them populists, you suggest that they do speak for a larger people, that they’re in some sense in, in connection with the, with the soul of the people.

HEFFNER: Or if you have to, call it false, faux, phony populism because it is the promise in delivering “America First” you know, in economics,

STANLEY: You know but it always bases itself on racism.

HEFFNER: I agree with you.

STANLEY: And so when you call it populism and this is what Mounk is trying to do, he’s trying to erase the distinct, he’s trying to, to fudge that it’s not, I mean I respect Mounk a lot, and his work, but in his work he is trying, his, his use of terminology and description, fudges the fact that the very basis of this involves nativism, racism.

HEFFNER: I think it’s really problematic for the reason you describe because you, you know, if you want to propose an alternative that is going to take into consideration the economic plight of your people, then do so without the racialized or ethnic baiting of us versus them. There is a populism that is not racist,

STANLEY: Absolutely

HEFFNER: homophobic,

STANLEY: …Bernie Sanders,

HEFFNER: The authoritarian’s best friend today if not for the oligarchy is, well this is part of the oligarchy: social media, right? The oligarchy and authoritarian’s best friend is social media. And you pointed out from an important historian that in the 20s – the 1920s before the rise of Hitler youth and before Nazi-ism became ingrained in Germany, it was young people who were really pivotal, could have been pivotal to de-platforming Nazi-ism on the stage in the performances that they did that were nationalistic and nativistic. And to my mind, it is this generation coming of age, graduating from the university, or recently graduated from the University –who are going to have to say to Twitter and Facebook and these companies, no, there is not space for Nazi-ism. Free speech cannot be free speech without acknowledging what it means to be in a free society what the precondition is to live in a free society. And that means you can’t have people who are harassing you and who are explicitly engaged in bigotry campaigns on your platforms.

And I just wanted to give you an opportunity here to talk about how in the analog to today, young people can attempt to protest the, or try to de-platform hate speech on these platforms.

STANLEY: So, young people are very much the key, which is why we always find universities being attacked. Brazil, Bolsonaro has threatened to defund universities by 30 percent because there were large protests, antifascist protests at universities. In the United States of course we have a sort of politicized attack on universities because the students of course are going to be the source of any protest movement. Now as far as social media goes, we had fascism before social media and there’s a, but I agree that social media has made verbal harassment campaigns much more damaging and harmful: reputational destruction, things like this. So, and that’s a problem on the left and the right, like, you know, there’s sort of social media mobbing that I decry on every side. And social media has definitely changed how democratic discourse functions. And we have to deal with that and we have to deal with that simultaneously with what I call, what I think of, and my previous book “How Propaganda Works” treats, the fundamental difficulty with democracy, which is outlined already in book Eight of Plato’s “Republic.” Democracy requires free speech, and yet free speech will lead to the end of democracy because it will enable demagogues. So this is the fundamental paradox of democracy. It doesn’t have an easy solution. It didn’t in Athens, and it does not today.

HEFFNER: Isn’t free speech really only guaranteed in a free society that respects the dignity of all people? Can’t we, we can’t even use; we shouldn’t use the idea of free speech unless people are accepting a compact with their fellow human beings that they respect their dignity.

STANLEY: So that’s right. The liberal democracy has two great values. One is freedom, and the other is equality. And they’re connected as is often recognized they’re really two sides of the same coin. If everyone has freedom, then you have to give everyone freedom to operate in their own space and do what they want. And that leads to equality ‘cause everyone has equal freedom. So if you use your free speech to undermine the freedom of others, to restrict their actions, to deny them that space of freedom, then you are undermining the tenants of liberalism. And you’re undermining the, the freedom itself. So there’s this complicated and delicate interweaving of things.

If you deny people’s humanity, if you deny people’s equality, with your free speech, then you’re also encroaching on freedom because by denying them their equality you’re denying them a space for their own freedom.

HEFFNER: Free speech cannot exist unless you have a free society. Jason, thank you for being here today.

STANLEY: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.