Matthew C. MacWilliams, On Fascism: 12 lessons from American History (St Martin’s Publishing Group, 2020)
Reviewed by Zak Kizer (Iowa Lakes Community College)
(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)
The United States is a country that prides itself on the egalitarian principles upon which it was founded almost two hundred and fifty years ago: government through popular will, equality of opportunity and a litany of individual freedoms. However, throughout our history, from the days of the Framers to the 2020s, those ideals have consistently been challenged and even undermined by authoritarian policies. This is particularly evident in the aftermath of the Trump administration and the 2020 election. The era of Trump began with endless claims of fake news and alternative facts, only to end with the president launching an unprecedented (and ultimately abortive) attempt to overturn millions of legitimate votes to stay in power. It is in this climate that Matthew MacWilliams (2020) wrote On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History, and his short but informative book is a bitter but essential pill for twenty-first century America to swallow.
MacWilliams begins his tome with a list of statistics compiled by the Index of American Authoritarian Attitudes (IAAA), with each bullet point displaying troubling data on American sympathies towards undemocratic worldviews. The book’s introduction places these statistics in context and demonstrates how they contradict the ever-popular myth of America’s immunity to authoritarian rule. Each chapter is labelled a lesson, and each one details specific examples of authoritarianism in US history. Lesson One covers the 1858 Senate race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, framing Douglas’s victory via the electoral vote as choosing “othering inequality” over American Enlightenment values (21). Lesson Two analyzes Donald Trump’s inaugural address point-by-point through the lens of Richard Hofstader’s “paranoid style,” a conspiratorial form of rhetoric that warns of apocalyptic threats to America and uses that fear to justify illegal or seditious actions (22).
Lesson Three analyzes the role of technology in spreading hate and paranoia, and how in the Digital Age the “guardrails of democracy” are woefully inadequate to stop the spread of manufactured scandals and conspiracy theories on the Internet (37). Lesson Four examines the Sedition Act of 1789, and how President John Adams used the “political monopoly” his party held at the time to enforce the unconstitutional censorship of writing critical of his administration (46). Lesson Five dissects the origins of the forced relocation of Native Americans, detailing the Jackson Administration’s constant violation of Indian treaties even when ordered to cease by a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Cherokee Nation. Lesson Six tackles America’s long and repulsive history of lynching, an “instrument” used by whites to maintain power over minority communities that still has not been outlawed at the federal level (61). Lesson Seven covers the xenophobic restrictions placed on Chinese immigrants from the 1880s to the 1940s, making note of the hypocrisy of such legislation being enacted just prior to the publication of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.
Lesson Eight describes the abuses of federal power during the First Red Scare following World War One, namely the nationwide arrests of suspected communists without warrant by Attorney General A Mitchell Palmer and his protégé, a young J Edgar Hoover. Lesson Nine tackles the appropriation of US historical imagery by American fascists prior to World War Two, specifically in the German American Bund’s rhetoric of the “militant white man” and “Aryan character” that built the nation out of a savage wilderness (93). Lesson Ten examines the internment of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, noting that “public fears” and “media fearmongering” were more than enough to overpower objections from the left, right and center (102). Lesson Eleven describes the parallels between the rise of Donald Trump with that of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, with the caveat that Trump lacks many obstacles faced by his predecessor due to relentless online misinformation and influential media sycophants. Lesson Twelve details the modern surveillance state and lack of government transparency since 9/11, calling the covert continuation of mass data collection on Americans (despite public denouncement of such programs) the US government’s “big lie” (128). MacWilliams concludes his book with ten steps to reduce the polarization of the American people and to reverse the erosion of our basic freedoms. In addition, MacWilliams provides three appendices that detail the IAAA’s survey questions, the chicken-and-the-egg relationship between bigotry and authoritarian attitudes, and the qualitative research that continues to shape the study of authoritarianism around the world.
The strength of MacWilliams’s book is its lack of sensationalism. Each of his lessons is backed by real-world examples and statistics, and thus MacWilliams skillfully avoids the tempting trap of false equivalency and hyperbolic language. For example, Lesson Two meticulously dissects Trump inaugural address using Hofstader’s framework (MacWilliams, 2020). Specifically, the author links Trump’s promises to “unite the civilized world” against and annihilate radical Islam “from the face of the Earth” to the paranoid style’s calls to fight a “totally evil and unappeasable enemy” that must be destroyed at all cost (MacWilliams, 2020, 27). In an age where words like “Fascist” are thrown out as insults with little nuance or depth, a work grounded in a detailed and refined understanding of authoritarian history and politics is most refreshing.
However, MacWilliams’s work is limited in two areas. First, while the book’s relatively short length helps to make it accessible to a wider audience, it also leaves out noteworthy information that could have strengthened the author’s arguments. A key example of this is Lesson Nine, which discusses the American fascist fringe but doesn’t acknowledge the more mainstream political connections between the US and the Third Reich (MacWilliams, 2020). According to Whitman (2018), the anti-Semitic laws crafted at Nuremberg in 1935 were built off the framework of the American segregation system, and many Nazi intellectuals viewed the United States as a “laboratory for experimentation” in revoking the rights of minority citizens (43). While the militant Far Right of decades past certainly offers eerie parallels to recent events, a longer text could have painted a more complete picture of Fascist sympathies in 1930s America.
The second limitation is not the fault of the author but because of the timing of the book’s release. Having come out in March 2020, the author, for obvious reasons, was unaware of the fruitless efforts of the Trump campaign to reverse their loss to Joe Biden. In what The Week labeled a “failed coup,” Trump and his allies launched a torrent of baseless lawsuits alleging mass voter fraud in multiple states, as well as publicly promoted conspiracy theories that blamed the alleged fraud on everyone from the Democratic Party to the Venezuelan government to the companies who provided electronic voting machines (“Trump’s failed attempt to overturn the election,” December 4th, 2020, 4). In addition, election officials across the nation have reported intimidation and even acts of violence from Trump supporters, in what The Washington Post has called an explosion of passions that potentially could form a new rhetorical playbook for floundering politicians going forward.
These passions exploded spectacularly on January 6th, 2021. On that day, a mob of Trump supporters stormed and briefly occupied the US Capitol in order to stop the certification of the election results. This attack was instigated by the previous lies about voter fraud, which Trump reiterated with gusto at a rally he held at the White House earlier that day. So consecutive were these events that the President’s call to challenge his loss has been deemed an “implicit blessing” of the siege. While the siege was unsuccessful at changing the outcome of the election, within a week Trump became the first US president to be impeached twice. In addition, Trump was banned from using several social media networks (including the giants of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) claiming the intent to preventing him from encouraging violence, a sanction unprecedented for an American head of state. While MacWilliams certainly cannot be faulted for not foreseeing these events, they are nonetheless very relevant to his arguments and would make for an interesting point of discussion in a future edition; perhaps even a thirteenth lesson.
Overall, MacWilliams’s On Fascism is an accessible yet provocative highlight reel of still-relevant US history. Despite its focus on dark chapters of America’s past and present, this book manages to offer a stirring and thoughtful road map for the future of American politics, emphasizing the vitality of communication and working for the common good in an age defined by deep polarization all along the political spectrum.
Whitman, J.Q. (2018). Hitler’s American model: The United States & the making of Nazi race
Law [eBook edition]. Princeton University Press.