How Fascism Works, by Jason Stanley

I am split about this book. On the one hand I learned a lot about fascism from reading it, on the other it made me think of the boy who cried wolf. What is fascism, and are we really there?

Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University, writes in the introduction to his book How Fascism Works that ”multiple countries across the world have been overtaken by a certain kind of far-right nationalism; the list includes Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States” (p. xiv). This sounds a bit extreme. Have these countries really been ”overtaken,” in the sense that they are defeated or controlled by fascists?

Stanley is referring to ”ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf” (ibid). In Stanley’s conceptual apparatus, this is fascism. He exemplifies by quoting Donald Trump, who declared in his Republican National Convention speech in 2016, ”I am your voice” (ibid).

”Wolf!” Sure, president Trump is a lier and a demagogue. But, Trump has also found himself constrained by the law on various occasions during his presidency. The system of checks and balances works; the US has not been ”overtaken.”

Nonetheless, How Fascism Works is insightful. Stanley focuses on fascists politics, i.e., ”fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power” (ibid). These include strategies such as anti-intellectualism and the construction of a mythic past of ”the people” to be used in propaganda. It is in the discussion of these that the book shines.

I recognize many of the strategies from Swedish politics. I do not mean to cry wolf; non-fascists can also employ fascist tactics, and Stanley’s analysis is or can be made helpful for understanding particular instances of right-wing politics that are problematic in ways that are at least similar to how fascism is problematic.

For instance, a number of Swedish politicians, writers, and public figures are pushing an anti-intellectual agenda that can be explained with support in Stanley’s analysis: ”When fascist movements are under way in liberal democratic states, certain academic disciplines are singled out. Gender studies, for instance, comes under fire from far-right nationalist movements across the world” (p. 42). Their aim is to delegitimize universities and experts. Once this is achieved, ”fascist politicians are free to create their own realities, shaped by their own individual will” (p. 53).

Likewise, this far-right group in Sweden takes part in the construction of a narrative in which the Swedish nation, once comprised of honorable men and women, is under threat. They argue as if sexual violence had been a new phenomenon in Sweden and hardworking people in historically rooted rural communities are being exploited by a culturally isolated metropolitan elite. ”In the rhetoric of extreme nationalists, such a glorious past has been lost by the humiliation brought on by globalism, liberal cosmopolitanism, and respect for ’universal values’ such as equality” (p. 4). This is tactics. ”With the creation of a mythic past, fascist politics creates a link between nostalgia and the realization of fascist ideals” (p. 5).

Overall, the book is enlightening. However, Stanley could have emphasized more clearly that fascist politics—under his description of it—is not exclusive to full-blown fascist movements. The book would have gained from a deeper discussion of how the analysis is helpful for understanding non- or not-yet-fascist nationalist populism. That would also have made Stanley’s arguments less vulnerable to the charge that they misconstrue this movement’s nature and achievements.

Stanley, J. (2018). How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Random House.