If we go back to 1929, we’ll see some interesting parallels to our current moment. When that depression started, millions lost their livelihoods to pay for the bankers’ crisis. Faith in capitalism sunk to rock bottom. The public flocked to two major ideologies that offered a way out: socialism and fascism.
Socialism presented a solution to the crisis by saying, roughly: “Capitalism is flawed because it divides us into rich and poor, and the rich always take advantage of the poor. We need to organize the poor and workers into unions and political parties so we can take power for the benefit of all.”
Socialism attracted millions of followers, even in the United States. The labor movement was enormous and kept gaining ground through sit-down strikes and other forms of direct action. The Communist Party sent thousands of organizers into the new CIO, at the time a more radical union than the AFL. Socialist viewpoints even started getting through to the mass media and government. Huey Long was elected Senator from Louisiana by promising to “Share Our Wealth,” to radically redistribute the wealth of the country to abolish poverty and unemployment. (He was assassinated.) Socialism challenged President Roosevelt from the left, pushing him to create the social safety net of the New Deal.
On the other side, fascism also emerged as a serious force and attracted a mass following by putting forth something like the following: “The government has sold us out. We are a great nation, but we have been disgraced by liberal elites who are pillaging our economy for the benefit of foreign enemies, dangerous socialists, and undesirable elements (like Jews). We need to restore our national honor and fulfill our God-given mission.”
When people hear the word fascism, they usually think of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, where successful fascist movements seized state power and implemented totalitarian control of society. Yet fascism was an international phenomenon during the Depression, and the United States was not immune to its reach. General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in US history, testified before the Senate that wealthy industrialists had approached him as part of a “Business Plot” and tried to convince him to march an army of 500,000 veterans on Washington, DC to install a fascist dictatorship.
Today we are approaching a similar crossroads. When I hear the story of the Business Plot I think about the Tea Party, which has sprung from a base of white supremacist anger, facilitated by right-wing elements of the corporate structure like Fox News. This is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. The tea-partyers have moved from questioning Obama’s citizenship, to now trying to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the ability of everyone, regardless of color, to enjoy public accommodations like restaurants.
I think it’s fair to name the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Christian Right, etc. parts of a potential neo-fascist movement in the United States. Their words and actions too often encourage attacks on people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT folks, and anyone they don’t see as legitimate members of US society. Ultimately, many in this movement are pushing for a different social system taking power in the United States: one that is more authoritarian, less compassionate, more exploitive of the environment, more militaristic, and based on a mythical return to national glory. This is not a throwback to Nazi Germany. It’s a new kind of fascism, a new American fascism. And it’s a serious threat.