Authoritarian Past and Future – Jason Stanley | The Open Mind

Authoritarian Past and Future – Jason Stanley | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner,
your host on The Open Mind. As we document and work to
reverse the resurgence of authoritarianism in the
United States and around the globe we welcome an
expert: Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley,
author of the edifying and essential Random House
volume “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and
Them.” Stanley told Dana Milbank of the
Washington Post that the Trump rendition of
these tactics “uses emotion to circumvent reason,
to overwhelm reason, wanting us to get the
situation in which there’s such fear and suspicion
that the only happiness is winning over
his enemies.” These are Jason Stanley’s words
and he added in an interview
with Vox, “I think of fascism as
a method of politics. It’s rhetoric, a way
of running for power. Of course that’s connected
to fascist ideology because fascist
ideology centers on power. But I really see fascism
as a technique to gain power.” At this year’s
philosophy conference for high school and
undergraduate students at Stony Brook University
I was so pleased to interview Jason and eager
to continue that exchange for our television viewers
and digital viewers now, welcome Jason, a
pleasure to see you again. STANLEY: Thank you so
much for having me on this great iconic show. HEFFNER: Oh,
you’re very welcome. You say that fascism
is a tactic in effect, but how would you describe
your peak concern right now in the United States
about the demagogues’ not just survival, but
permanence here? STANLEY: I think my peak
concern is with the idea that political
opponents are traitors. And so if political
opponents are traitors, if Democrats
liberal elite, the cosmopolitans
are traitors, and if they, they have
this control over the media, universities
and the press, then people are wanting to
think that any tactic is legitimate to suppress
them: voter suppression, packing the courts,
changing libel laws, remaining in office. So when you set up the
political arena as war and when you define yourself
in terms of an enemy that not positively, but
in terms of an enemy, then you set things
up that all is fair, all is fair in
love and war. HEFFNER: Well, I remember
that moment when Trump tweeted: enemy
of the people, the press are the
enemy of the people. And to me that was the
first of many statements that are impeachable
in and of themselves. If we have a democracy,
if we are governed by constitutional principles,
including the First Amendment, chiefly
the First Amendment, his utterance, that
enemy of the people are, are the media, to me
that’s impeachable. STANLEY: Well, I stick
with my academic areas of expertise and they do
not, do not include the conditions for
impeachability. HEFFNER: Sure. STANLEY: But I will say
about the rhetoric and this does include
my academic area of expertise, that the rhetoric is
extremely dangerous. Now we don’t have a clear
sense of how the rhetoric leads to these strongly
anti democratic outcomes like purchasing the press,
like changing the laws on the press, creating
an enmity and backlash against the process,
violent reprisals, threats. I know it’s much harder to
be a journalist right now than it was
five years ago. I’ve heard that from
enough sources and I experienced it to
some extent myself. But we’re in that phase in
authoritarianism where we have the authoritarian
rhetoric and we are slowly seeing, or rapidly
seeing certain effects. What effects
are we seeing? One, we’re seeing a
welcome effect of people recognizing that the
rhetoric is strange. And, but
secondly, we’re seeing, so we’re seeing
differential effects on the people it’s targeted against
versus the supporters. I think the supporters are
doubling and tripling down. This kind of rhetoric is
meant to reinforce the supporters’ belief that it’s
a war, that they face an enemy. That politics is
just about a war. If you see the Steve
Bannon movie done by Errol Morris, American Dharma,
Bannon talks this way, he’s like we want to make the
political arena like war. And that is really
the core of fascism. That’s Carl Schmitt’s view
that you define yourself by picking an enemy. HEFFNER: If the
language is war, like you’re saying
that doesn’t necessarily translate into genocide
or into censorship. The warlike posture and
lexicon of Bannon and Trump, we can say
objectively from the US perspective, yes, he’s
threatening CNN and AT&T, now corporate
owner, on a daily basis, he’s constantly chilled the
press, made it more vulnerable. You can’t say definitively
from the emergence of the rhetoric how it’s
going to go from here. or where it’s
going to go from here. STANLEY: We, it’s up to
us. I think that way of talking, you can’t say
definitively, locks you in because
there’s no stance from which we can stand apart
and say that we are not involved in what’s
going to happen. So it’s going
to be up to us. It’s going to be up to the
press to stand up to this. It’s going to be up to the
press to stand up to for example the threat to CNN
that Mr. Trump made today, I think, where he
said, that he essentially threatened them
calling for better press. So the press, unfortunately,
the press has been focused on a kind of
infotainment model that, this is one reason this
show is so crucial because this show is not focused, it
goes into a deep dive and ideas. But the infotainment model
requires this access to
audience. It requires a connection
to government and corporations of the sort that
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman explore in
“Manufacturing Consent.” The press requires access or
press requires these things. And so the press is to
some extent in this kind of market for – free
marketplace of the press, beholden to corporate
and government concerns. HEFFNER: How do you
take that reality, which is inequities in
this country from the American perspective and
have a press that’s going to own those concerns
without giving fuel to the demagogic exploitation of a race
war or an economic war. STANLEY: I think history
suggests it’s tricky because there are some
clear maneuvers that demagogues employ
against the press. For instance, they spread
conspiracy theories, sort of outlandish
untethered from reality: birtherism was an
example like this. And then they
trap the press. They say, as Mr.
Trump did in 2012, they say, well, Obama
controls the press. You can tell because the
press is not reporting on birtherism, and this is a
kind of pincer movement. This is like what
the Nazis did with the Protocols of the
Elders of Zion. You can tell that the
press is owned by the Jewish media,
they would say, because they’re not
reporting that the press is controlled by
the Jewish media. So then the press
ends up saying, okay, there’s this theory,
but then by reporting the theory, they give theory
greater credibility. So there’s a kind of pincer
movement of the press. I think and there’s,
there’s a kind of paradox here about, I’m tempted,
I’m often tempted to say the press needs to stay with
the truth, which they do. But it’s also the
case that the conspiracy theories as Hanna
Arendt emphasized, are much more attractive
than reality because there are simpler, they
seem more explanatory, and any
evidence against them, like the press isn’t
reporting them or taking them seriously, it’s taken
to be evidence for them. HEFFNER: So you’ve just
returned from Germany where you did several interviews
on how fascism works. What struck you most in a
climate that we read about is anti Semitic rhetoric
on the rise in Eastern Europe and that already in
Germany there has been a muted anti Semitism that’s
pervaded the air in these last
decades. What was your takeaway? STANLEY: Well, I went to
high school in Germany for a year and college
for a year in the 1980s. And so I’ve watched
Germany go from a country that didn’t recognize its
Holocaust past as much as it should have, to a
country that has monuments in the middle of Berlin,
like Peter Eisenman’s monument memorializing the
murdered Jews of Europe. So there’s been, in
the past 25 to 30 years, an Erinnerungskultur, a culture
of memory that’s emerged. Now in America we’re at
that point in grappling with our past where we’re
trying to urge people to take certain monuments to
problematic figures down. In Germany, well,
after World War II, they took the
monuments down. You can’t find in Germany
monuments to Goebbels, monuments to Hitler and
monuments to Goring or streets named
after Goebbels. Then they eventually
erected new monuments to the past and now they’re
at the point of political debate about, where the
far right is saying we should take them down
because that makes, it makes
people feel guilty. And we should, we should
be proud of our past, which is always the
authoritarian thing. It’s always the core
of authoritarianism. Chapter one of “How
Fascism Works” is called The Mythic Past because
there’s a very particular structure to
the fascist past. We were an
empire, we were great, and liberalism has led us to
feel ashamed of our greatness. So, you know, the
German far-right say, look the soldiers in
World War II were heroes. They were
patriotic heroes. Sure it was a bad
cause in certain respects. And yes, the Holocaust
shouldn’t have happened, but they were German
heroes in this great thing. And we stopped Stalin
as Ernst Nolte argued. Hitler stopped Stalin. So there’s this kind of
attempt to rehabilitate the past and seek
pride from a past very comparable to the kind of
rhetoric surrounding the confederacy today. HEFFNER: Isn’t
that simply stated, a kind of
revisionist morality. STANLEY: Putting up
monuments does not mean remember the past. Putting up monuments has a
social meaning of honoring those
people. HEFFNER: Uplifting,
STANLEY: Uplifting. There’s a terrific piece
by a former Yale student, by a Yale graduate Karleh
Wilson in Boston Review called “What’s in a Name”
where she looks at the Wikipedia entry for places
named after famous people. And she points out that they’re
all named to honor those people. So when you put
up monuments, their social meaning is
to honor those people, not remember the past. And the civil war
monuments weren’t put up to, they were put up
much after the civil war, post reconstruction in order to
glorify a past that never was. And what’s particularly
problematic now is this kind of revisionism is
represented as a sole truth against
multicultural postmodernism
because they say, look at what the universities
are trying to do. They’re trying to get you
to see multiple truths. We need to just
have one truth. And the one truth is the
truth of the experience of the dominant group. In actuality, real truth, what
you have with gender studies, with African American studies,
is you have the exploration of history as experienced
by marginalized groups. One point in time is experienced
differently by different groups. And what’s important in
the search for knowledge is to aggregate all
of those different experiences of that
one point in time to understand that point in
time and what you have in this current moment and
the authoritarian moment and trying to recreate
this myth of a pass than and re-describe hateful
ideologies as somehow noble is you have this
attempt to say let’s just have one dominant truth. It’ll help for
social cohesion. Sometimes they will
give excuses for this. Du Bois lambasts this in
the final chapter of Black Reconstruction “The
Propaganda of History,” he says, you should al…. So, so we need, we need
to focus on the fact that truth is very complex. The actual truth is very
complex because different groups experience it
in different ways. And if you’re going
to teach history in an accurate way, it’s not
going to be this simple glorifying narrative. HEFFNER: Right. Well, certainly there was
disunity and in reunifying as a nation because
of the politics of reconstruction, we
accepted decades and decades of Jim Crow
so those reconstructed monuments did represent
the truth to the people there and I think it is
a local and state matter insofar as those aggrieved
by those statues and their meaning ought to have the
conversation with the community. But let me ask
you this, the, the question of liberal
democracy you know, there was a point at
which conservatives did not politicize
liberal democracy. Now you have in Brazil
and Poland and Hungary, you have people who
are promoting illiberal policies as the antithesis
of liberalism and in furtherance of what they
perceive to be conservatism. I asked Yascha Mounk the same
question I want to ask you. How did we get, when did we
really get to this point? STANLEY: Now first of all,
I would not call Bolsonaro or Orban et
cetera, conservatives, I think conservative,
what we need is we need conservatives back. HEFFNER: Right. STANLEY: We need a
powerful conservative movement to debate with
that we that those of us who aren’t conservatives
can debate with a legitimate; we need
libertarians because some problems have free
market solutions. We need democratic
socialists because some problems have government
solutions and public solutions. So I don’t think these leaders
are conservative at all. I think they,
unfortunately, history shows us that
fascism threatens when conservatives fall
for these types. So that’s the
dangerous thing. So… HEFFNER: I’m very
heartened you say that because that is what is the
truth. That’s the truth. STANLEY: Yeah, we need,
we need — HEFFNER: But they’ve made their
money on being quote unquote
conservative. I mean they’ve
made their political, STANLEY: Well, the power,
the power because the power, I think
if you look at, if you look at
what’s going on, like what unifies all
these far-right movements, across the world, besides
anti-immigrant immigration
sentiment? Climate change
denial, they’re all — the far-right parties
in Europe are now in endorsing
climate change denial. Bolsonaro of
course, Trump of course. So what’s behind
climate change denial? Oligarchy oil and
energy concerns. So what we have is we have
the influence of large money and politics. And the history of
fascism tells us this. History of fascism tells
us big business unites behind fascist
politics, fascist leaders, and it enriches
the fascist leaders, their families and
some of their some their, a few of their supporters,
their loyalists. And bankrupts and
bankrupts the majority of their supporters and does
so for the benefit of the oligarchy
that’s behind it. It smashes
labor movements; Hitler smashed the
labor movement in Germany. So what you have is
not conservativism, which stands up to this
depredation of our public life. But you have a
power politics, you know, money in
politics that goes behind fingers like
Bolsonaro, Putin, Orban, who seek to
transform their countries into, you know, essentially,
you know, mechanisms for enriching certain
concerns, including themselves. So, that’s, there’s a
certain cynicism there. Now in moments when you
transform the political arena into war, then
you get people who are conservative to say,
well at least they’ll do certain things for
me like the agenda, like as we see in
our own country with a transformation of
the Supreme Court, with voter
suppression laws. We see these
things that, you know, I don’t think voter
suppression laws are conservative either. But we see, we see
conservatives saying, okay, this is
going to be illiberal, but it will retain
our, our lock on power. And that’s really
unfortunately cynical. And you know, you
can understand, one can understand
why it’s tempting, but if authoritarianism
and fascism are going to be resisted, we need
principled conservatives. We need the
Justin Amashes, we need… History shows
that when conservatives go for these figures, that’s when
we have real problems. HEFFNER: And we need a
press that is going to not self-identify people
because they say they believe in the Constitution,
as constitutionalists. STANLEY: You’re, you’re
making a very important point about the press. The press tends to go
with the propaganda, with many of the propagandists’
own terminologies, like Frank Luntz who’s a very
skilled propagandist. I mean he introduced
climate change rather than global warming because global
warming sounds scarier. So, or deep-sea
energy exploration for, so the press tends to
unfortunately go with certain vocabulary that
completely undermines the neutrality
of the debate. Not that neutrality is, is
neutrality of debates is difficult anyway because
the vocabulary we use constantly
prejudices things. Take pro-choice
versus pro-abortion, both terms
slant the debate. So it’s tricky, but the
press can do us a favor and not call for example,
and here I disagree with Yascha Mounk, not call the
nativ… I understand why the process does not want
to call Orban a fascist, okay, I get that. But don’t call him a
populist for goodness sake. Stop calling the
far-right populists. Cass Mudde repeatedly,
the authority on, pop — one of the
authorities on populism constantly says populism
is not the problem. Nativism is the problem. The press can really do
us all a favor by not calling, not calling these
people, these parties populists. ‘Cause when you
call them populists, you suggest that they do
speak for a larger people, that they’re in
some sense in, in connection with the,
with the soul of the people. HEFFNER: Or if
you have to, call it false, faux, phony
populism because it is the promise in delivering “America
First” you know, in economics — STANLEY: You know but it
always bases itself on racism. HEFFNER: I agree with you. STANLEY: And so when you
call it populism and this is what Mounk
is trying to do, he’s trying to
erase the distinct, he’s trying to, to
fudge that it’s not, I mean I
respect Mounk a lot, and his work, but in
his work he is trying, his, his use of
terminology and description, fudges the
fact that the very basis of this involves
nativism, racism. HEFFNER: I think it’s
really problematic for the reason you
describe because you, you know, if you want to
propose an alternative that is going to take into
consideration the economic plight of your people,
then do so without the racialized or ethnic
baiting of us versus them. There is a populism
that is not racist — STANLEY: Absolutely —
HEFFNER: homophobic, STANLEY: Bernie Sanders. HEFFNER: The
authoritarian’s best friend today if not
for the oligarchy is, well this is part of the
oligarchy: social media, right? The oligarchy and
authoritarian’s best friend is social media. And you pointed out from
an important historian that in the 20s – the
1920s before the rise of Hitler youth and before
Nazi-ism became ingrained in Germany, it was young
people who were really pivotal, could have been
pivotal, to de-platforming Nazi-ism on the stage in
the performances that they did that were nationalistic and
nativistic. And to my mind, it is this
generation coming of age, graduating from
the university, or recently graduated from
the university, who are going to have to say to
Twitter and Facebook and these companies, no, there
is not space for Nazi-ism. Free speech cannot be
free speech without acknowledging what it
means to be in a free society what the precondition
is to live in a free society. And that means you
can’t have people who are harassing you and who
are explicitly engaged in bigotry campaigns
on your platforms. And I just wanted to give
you an opportunity here to talk about how in
the analog to today, young people can
attempt to protest the, or try to de-platform hate
speech on these platforms. STANLEY: So, young people
are very much the key, which is why we always find
universities being attacked. Brazil, Bolsonaro has
threatened to defund universities by 30 percent
because there were large protests, antifascist
protests at universities. In the United States of
course we have a sort of politicized attack on
universities because the students of course are
going to be the source of any protest movement. Now as far as
social media goes, we had fascism before
social media and there’s a, but I agree that social
media has made verbal harassment campaigns much
more damaging and harmful: reputational destruction,
things like this. So, and that’s a problem
on the left and the right, like, you know, there’s
sort of social media mobbing that I
decry on every side. And social media has
definitely changed how democratic
discourse functions. And we have to deal with
that and we have to deal with that simultaneously
with what I call, what I think of, and
my previous book “How Propaganda Works”.
The fundamental difficulty with democracy, which is
outlined already in book Eight of Plato’s “Republic.” Democracy requires free speech,
and yet free speech will lead to the end of democracy because
it will enable demagogues. So this is the fundamental
paradox of democracy. It doesn’t have
an easy solution. It didn’t in Athens,
and it does not today. HEFFNER: Isn’t free speech
really only guaranteed in a free society that respects the
dignity of all people? Can’t we, we
can’t even use; we shouldn’t use the
idea of free speech unless people are accepting a
compact with their fellow human beings that they
respect their dignity. STANLEY: So that’s right. The liberal democracy
has two great values. One is freedom, and
the other is equality. And they’re connected
as is often recognized they’re really two
sides of the same coin. If everyone has freedom,
then you have to give everyone freedom to
operate in their own space and do what they want. And that leads to equality
‘cause everyone has equal
freedom. So if you use your free
speech to undermine the freedom of others, to
restrict their actions, to deny them that
space of freedom, then you are undermining
the tenants of liberalism. And you’re undermining
the, the freedom itself. So there’s this
complicated and delicate interweaving of things. If you deny
people’s humanity, if you deny
people’s equality, with your free
speech, then you’re also encroaching on freedom
because by denying them their equality you’re
denying them a space for their own freedom. HEFFNER: Free speech
cannot exist unless you have a free society. Jason, thank you
for being here today. STANLEY: Thank
you so much. HEFFNER: And thanks to
you in the audience. I hope you join us
again next time for a thoughtful excursion
into the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit The
Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to
view this program online or to access over 1,500
other interviews and do check us out on Twitter
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