"Never Again?" How fascism hijacks democracies over and over

Fascism very much could be alive and well in America in today's toxic political climate. After all, the appeal of fascism breeds in unhealthy democracies. We can’t be too careful, says political expert Rob Riemen.

Rob Rieman: Why is it difficult to identify fascism? 

Well the first, the main reason I think, is that it’s bad news. And with bad news, with inconvenient truths the natural response is denial, right?

The most famous form of denial related to inconvenient truth was the report of the Club of Rome in 1972 limits to the growth, which was the first scientific report to make clear for the whole world that an ongoing economic growth in a industrial society will have devastating consequences for the planet. And the denial was enormous for decades. Now the denial is no longer possible and, you know, governments try to do what they do, and Greenpeace and other organizations—But imagine how the world, how the planet would have looked like if at that time people would have realized yes, it’s an inconvenient truth but they are right. We wasted time. 

So the first part and to say look, the return of fascism is an inconvenient truth. 

The second thing is… it’s very embarrassing, you know. After World War II, especially in my part of the world where fascism came from, Europe, at our commemoration day we will say, “never again”. That’s what we said all the time: “Never again.” 

And so the whole idea that this terrible, terrible thing of fascism could be back was, you know, out of the question. 

The third element is the phenomenon of we do not know our history anymore. There is a kind of political amnesia. 

And so we are, we have forgotten some extremely important warnings which the warnings did not come from the political scientists. The warnings came from important artists. Novelists like Albert Camus and Thomas Mann, two great artists who lived through the era of fascism.

And in 1947, independent of each other, said “Don’t make the mistake. World War II is over but fascism did not disappear.” 

Camus even wrote a very important novel about it, La Peste, The Plague, trying to explain “Look, this phenomenon of fascism is there to stay because it’s the dark side of every democracy. In every democracy it is possible that at the very moment the spirit of democracy is gone then you’ll get a society (which we now call a mass society) which is no longer cultivating the high ideals of a democracy, but you get the kind of society which is dominated by our lowest instincts – greed, fear, resentment, hatred, propaganda, stupidity. And that’s where the demagogues and the populists will move in and they will present their own version of fascism. 

But we don’t recognize it, again because the idea is – well we know fascism is a bad thing, but in our, you know, media, Hollywood-oriented visual culture... look, in a visual culture, evil has to be very visible. 

Look at Batman, right? Batman, handsome guy. And who’s the evil guy? The Joker, and you immediately see that is an evil man, right? 

And James Bond, you immediately recognize who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. So we think that if there’s evil in our society you have to be able to immediately see it, right? 

And so when it comes to fascism probably we’ll have swastikas and black uniforms and silly gestures. Now of course on the fringe there are always those lunatics who like to present themselves “Oh we are fascist” or “we are Nazis” or whatever. That’s the fringe. We can ignore, I mean, those idiots are always there.

But the fascism in our time will present itself in forms of our time. 

So we have to look at the characteristics because the characteristics will be the same. 

You and I—everybody who looks at this—will be different next year and five years from now, okay, because of time. At the same time we’re still the same, because our characteristics are still the same. 

And so what are the characteristics of a fascist culture? In a fascist culture you’ll always have, and again, you know, the terrible examples of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler—they tell us: The fascist leader will always come forward in a time of crisis. 

He—most of the time it’s a he—will present himself as the anti-political leader who will cure society of all social evils. A kind of new messiah. It's a cult figure. It will always be a form of extreme nationalism, you know, to “make the country great again”. That’s a very old phrase every fascist will use. Deprived of any positive idea, not even interested in it, because those fascist leaders are completely obsessed by self-interest. It’s all about them, them, them, them—them and nothing else. 

They know they have to use all kinds of propaganda to captivate and brainwash and manipulate people. Again this is also an old story. I mean interestingly—enough the focuses of Sigmund Freud—Mr. Bernays, came here to American in the twenties and he wrote a small essay which is still available, entitled Propaganda. 

And Bernays became the godfather of marketing and he became also very rich because he was one of those people who at that time managed to make women smoke. And he also could use the techniques of his uncle Sigmund Freud. But anyway in his essay Propaganda he in a very honest way said look, of course America is a democracy and Washington was the president and the congress. 

He said, “but beyond that is an invisible government. And that’s us. Because we can control the mind of the people by marketing, by propaganda, by advertisement, a whole commercial culture is like this, right?”

So interestingly enough when the Nazis came to power in the thirties he got in touch with the White House and said look, you know, I know those people. Not personally but I know that Goebbels because I know their techniques. Probably I can help you because we will have the war of propaganda. 

So anyway, propaganda. The other thing is all fascists will be and have to be: pathological liars. It will always be lies, lies, lies, lies, lies. 

And a very telling example is that one of my intellectual heroes, Thomas Mann, who came to America in 1938, in 1948 he gave a lecture in L.A. And he said at that time, “if fascism should come to America it will come in the name of freedom.” And interesting enough so many of those fascist parties are parties for freedom including my country, the Netherlands, is the Party for Freedom. Of course this is a lie. 

(Unintelligible) Okay, so there was this thing of and the demand of complete loyalty. 

Then because the crisis is there so we always are in need of a scapegoat. The Jews or the Mexicans or the black people or people from Poland or wherever. They always are in need of a scapegoat. They are always in need of new enemies. And so the thing is that fascism is a political expression of our lowest human instincts. And with a leader who knows how to use it, you’ll get a very corrosive process in your democracy. 

What we should never forget – two things about this. 

We should never forget that Hitler could come into power through a democratic process. It was a democratic process. And even more telling than that: he lost the popular vote. He had 11 million votes, and 22 million voters did not vote for him. But the political parties, the power elite at that time thought well, you know, we can use the guy, we can control him. We give him this responsibility then people will understand what kind of failure he is, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, so many things as we’re seeing here right now.

And then there is this terrible blind spot. 

So even one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, on February 1933 – so Hitler was already in power. He gave a speech for the League Against Socialism—because as a real conservative, for Churchill, socialism was one of the terrible things and he immediately related it to Bolshevism, et cetera. In this lecture he gave there he says, he says quote-unquote, “In Italy it was Mussolini. Mussolini is the Italian genius of law and his fascism might be the strategy for our future.” Churchill in 1933. I mean it took him even a couple of more years to realize what the connection is between Mussolini and Hitler. 

So if even if Churchill, you know, can make this mistake, and he was not the only one—I mean even Freud in the thirties dedicated one of his books to Mussolini. And with a whole line up of hundreds of intellectuals who wanted to see Mussolini. He wasn’t only a politician but he also was a poet, he wrote plays, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

So anyway fascism always comes with a huge temptation. 

This is also the reason why so many intellectuals and so many artists on the one hand they could go off to Stalin and, you know, Stalin is the new messiah. But they also felt, you know, temptation to fascism. So if you put all these things together we realize that again in moments of crisis when people are losing trust in their own political system—which is happening—when the democratic spirit is going out a new anti-democratic spirit will come in. 

And if we have bad luck—and we are now having a lot of bad luck in Europe, and here—and here the risk is a leader with a fascist mindset.

Rob Riemen — founder and president of the Nexus Institute — posits that the type and level of toxicity in today's political climate is a breeding ground for fascism. He argues that most people in fully democratic Germany in the early 1930s didn't think that by decade's end they'd be a fully fascist country, and goes further to say that perhaps history will look back on the 2016 American election in the same way. Is he correct? You be the judge. Rob Riemen's latest book is To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

Facebook finally adds option to delete old posts in batches

Got any embarrassing old posts collecting dust on your profile? Facebook wants to help you delete them.

Technology & Innovation
  • The feature is called Manage Activity, and it's currently available through mobile and Facebook Lite.
  • Manage Activity lets users sort old content by filters like date and posts involving specific people.
  • Some companies now use AI-powered background checking services that scrape social media profiles for problematic content.
Keep reading Show less