The Security Studies Group primarily focuses on hostile physical threats to the West, but an intellectual defense of the West is not out of our mandate. In Charlottesville, VA, this weekend you saw where bad ideas lead. In America Nazis may have the right to march, but they cannot claim the right to have their ideas considered as a serious alternative. Their ideology is wrong: not just wicked, not just ugly, but also demonstrably wrong.
The fascist ideology is a perversion of ideas that do belong in the West. Young people are vulnerable to ideologies that seem to extend a truth they already accept. The purpose of this piece is to lay out what that truth is, and where it goes wrong. Americans need to turn away from the ideal of blood-based loyalty.
The term “fascist” derives from a Roman weapon, a weapon that was as much a symbol as anything else. The fasces was a bundle of sticks tied together (often depicted with an ax-head attached). The Romans could make perfectly good ax-handles. They didn’t do it this way because they needed to do it. They did it to make a point. Each of the sticks making up the fasces was weak by itself. Hit a man with it and it would break on him. But if you tied the bundle together, the sticks became strong. The Roman magistrate who punished with the fasces was making a point about Rome. Its strength came from the unity of its citizens. It was because they held together as Romans that they could impose a Roman order on the world.
The Founders of the United States of America adopted the fasces in a lot of our national symbols. It is small wonder that they did so. They were close students of Roman history, and would have recognized in this ancient symbol a truth they had seen for themselves.
Benjamin Franklin’s illustration “Join, or Die” captures the same truth that the Romans knew. Franklin expressed the same sentiment when he said, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Pulling together was the only way to create and defend a space in the world for American ideals of liberty and good government.
The fascist follows the logic of this idea to the point of banding together against others of his countrymen. The idea is to create a similar ‘bundle of sticks’ out of the weak people in society, so that together they can exert themselves against those they perceive as stronger than themselves. Since it seems like an extension of a true idea, it often feels persuasive.
There are two reasons it cannot work. The first is that the fascist drives against the very unity represented by the fasces. He is not bringing sticks together into a bundle, but pulling sticks out of the bundle. The very sense of unity that a country needs in order to be strong will be weakened, even broken, when internal factions try the same trick.
The second reason, the reason that Nazi-style fascism cannot work, is that it is badly grounded. Their idea is that blood can serve as a proxy that makes it easy to identify who is on your side. Well, the enemies of the political right in America are mostly quite white: consider Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, etc. Barack Obama may seem to be a counterexample, but in fact is a cousin of George Washington and, for that matter, a descendant of the Norman kings of England.
Blood isn’t going to prove to be a proxy for good ideas. Americans are not looking for the Return of the King. In that we are less like the Normans of England and more like the Northmen who settled Iceland, of whom Adam of Bremen wrote that they had “No king but the law.” We don’t look to blood, but to wisdom.
The Republican administration stands accused of winking at all this for political advantage. I trust those arguments are well known to all readers. What is not widely recognized is that this tendency to try to create fasces out of bloodlines is not limited to Republicans. It might be said to have become the chief long-term electoral strategy of the leadership of the Democratic party. I suspect that the ’emerging Democratic majority’ strategy — of building a new coalition of immigrants, migrants, and minorities to advance the Progressive agenda — is probably what these Klansmen and Nazis are reacting to so violently. Their chant is “You will not replace us,” which suggests they conceive of this as a defensive struggle rather than an offensive one. The Democratic leaders probably do not realize how their open embrace of this model is inflaming groups like the Klan.
Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the Democratic leadership conceives of this move as a pursuit of justice. When Keith Ellison calls for everyone to ’embrace intersectionality,’ he is I am sure intending to suggest that we have to break out all the little groups of Americans who haven’t been treated fairly by the whole. Each of their concerns needs to be advanced separately, I gather he believes, in order to ensure it is taken seriously. Not all of these groups are defined by bloodlines, but all of them are made up of sticks taken from the whole and fashioned into ever-smaller bundles.
Ellison probably does not conceive of what he is doing as breaking up the American whole into a bunch of little fasces that will clash against one another. Nevertheless, that will be the result of teaching people to view their fellow Americans as oppressors. It is going to be the result of teaching people to try to force liberty from their fellow Americans rather than seeking liberty with them. You do not need much imagination to know the fruit of dividing Americans into clashing camps in this way. It is already coming to be before our eyes. This alliance between Klansmen and Nazis is a reaction to a broad shift in American political rhetoric, one that has been embraced at the highest levels.
All Americans should turn aside from this temptation. What was true for Benjamin Franklin has not ceased to be true for America today. “Join or Die” is in front of us, not behind us.