A Response to Hochman
Shrugging towards Gomorrah
Nate Hochman of the National Review has written a reply to my effort to explain to him salient differences between fascism and conservatism. It is difficult to know what to make of it: Is this the product intentional, self-conscious sophism or terrible judgment? Kant thought that judgment, the capacity to find the proper general concepts that apply particular things, was a mysterious function of the mind that could not be taught according to rules, but only cultivated through examples. At some point ,“you know know it when you see it.” Well, what happens when someone doesn’t want to see it? As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I guess let’s start at the beginning. Hochman’s initial complaint is that progressives use the word “fascism” as a catch-all term of abuse for conservatives, draining it of any specific meaning. My response to that is, “So what? This is politics, get used to it.” On the every day level, the political sphere is not a grad seminar, it’s going to have a lot of sheer name-calling. Since Hochman’s favorite mode of argument is apparently “Well, you guys do the same thing,” I’d just point out that there is very little caution on the Right about the labels they apply to the left. Every single day the most mild liberals are tarred by right-wingers as Marxists, Communists, and so forth. Every proposal from progressives is called Cultural Marxist or Critical Race Theory. Not to mention “woke,” which is applied to everything under the sun now and has no fixed meaning. Some daft lady the other day was saying on Twitter that the Disney Corporation was Marxist. Not too long ago, one National Review editor even wrote a book called Liberal Fascism. Do most of the people have the foggiest idea or care what these terms mean? No. Does it keep Hochman up at night that his side is hurling absurd invective? Of course not, because he understands 1) it’s just part of politics and 2) he probably believes it to a certain, qualified degree.
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In fact, the right-wing hysteria about the infiltration of “Marxism” into every facet of American life is itself, well, kind of fascist! “Will the American people be able to rid itself of the essence of Marxism which has entered the whole state, its organizations, and the legislative machinery?” Doesn’t that sound like something a hysterical right-wing culture warrior might say today? You know who said it? Adolf Hitler! He just said “Germany,” not America. Now you might object, “Well, there you go again, being anti-communist or anti-Marxist does not make you Hitler.” No, of course not, but the paranoid preoccupation with the infiltration of every aspect of life with some alien force or ideology might start to lean you in that direction.
In any case, the fact that some people use a term sloppily or abusively does not foreclose the possibility that it can be used in a considered way. But what Hochman is doing is engaging is the “Tucker Carlson school” of rhetoric, albeit practiced with less of sneering. Here’s how it goes: “I find some ridiculous example, and therefore I decide I no longer have to take seriously the entire proposition.” Or, “this word can also have a different valence in another context, so I am just gonna pretend not to understand what’s being argued here.” This is all just a permission structure for irresponsibility. Here’s a pretty subtle example of it:
While there are important differences among their conceptions, “all three authors agree that statism, nationalism, unity, authoritarianism, and vigor are essential elements of fascism,” Anesi writes.
Two of these terms — “statism” and “authoritarianism” — are pejorative. “Nationalism” can be negative or positive, depending on the context. “Unity” and “vigor” are usually seen as positive. But all of these concepts, to one degree or another, have been ascribed to right-wingers of every stripe, across time and place.
You can just imagine Tucker doing his incredulous gape and then going, “It says here nationalism is part of fascism. But I was always taught being proud of your nation was a good thing? And what’s wrong with unity? What happened? What changed? ” By the way, in the context of an academic discussion of politics, “authoritarian” and “statist” are not really pejorative: they are descriptive, they describe certain political structures. By insisting on the most abstract definition of terms and draining them of all content, we can play these semantic games ad infinitum. They are not meant to clarify or specify, but to muddy and obfuscate the question at hand.
Hochman writes, “The second problem, as I see it, is that much of the literature on the difference between conservatism and fascism is oddly lacking in ideological specificity, focusing on means rather than ends.” Well, maybe you should keep reading. The reason why the literature is lacking ideological specificity is that the fascists themselves lacked ideological specificity. Here is Robert Paxton:
The role programs and doctrine play in [Fascism]…is fundamentally unlike the role they play in conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, but rather upon popular feelings about master races, their unjust lot, and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples. It has not been given intellectual underpinnings by any system builder, like Marx, or by any major critical intelligence, like Mill, Burke, or Tocqueville.
In a way utterly unlike the classical “isms," the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. Fascism is “true" insofar as it helps fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason. The first fascists were entirely frank about this…
…. “The fist," asserted a Fascist militant in 1920, “is the synthesis of our theory." Mussolini liked to declare that he himself was the definition of Fascism. The will and leadership of a Duce was what a modern people needed, not a doctrine. Only in 1932, after he had been in power for ten years, and when he wanted to “normalize" his regime, did Mussolini expound Fascist doctrine, in an article (partly ghostwritten by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile) for the new Enciclopedia italiana. Power came first, then doctrine. Hannah Arendt observed that Mussolini “was probably the first party leader who consciously rejected a formal program and replaced it with inspired leadership and action alone."
Does this belief that a very special someone was the answer to our political problems because they embodied strength and toughness and intelligence more than any clearly defined program sound a little bit familiar? Well, it should.
Hochman writes, “The problem here is that tactical distinctions are effectively content-neutral; the description of the strategic differences between fascism and nonfascist conservatism could feasibly be applied to the extremist versus moderate factions of any number of political ideologies.” Okay, who cares? What kind of objection is this? No one would deny that there are extremisms of the left, too. What makes this an argument against using “fascism”?
…other examples Ganz cites are more aesthetic than substantive. This category includes “the degree of national crisis” — in which conservatives “shake their heads at declining mores, and propose alternatives,” while “fascist propaganda is hysterical and shrill,” holding that “things have gotten so bad that only a radical move break the present regime can save the nation” — and fascism’s “cult of masculinity” that “explicitly centers violence and war.” (Conservatives, in contrast, “tend to emphasize the patriarchal and staid parts of traditional masculinity—the stern but beneficent father as pillar of community stability and so forth,” he writes.)
I don’t get what the distinction between aesthetic and substance is doing here at all. My point is this: if someone is like, “It’s really a terrible shame we don’t have the right values anymore,” that doesn’t sound so fascist, but if someone is like, “OUR NATIONAL SPIRIT IS BEING SAPPED BY CORRUPT ELITES AND DIRTY IMMIGRANTS, WE ARE ON THE VERGE OF COMMUNISM, MASSACRES, THE VIOLATION OF OUR WOMEN AND CHILDREN, WE MUST FOLLOW OUR BRAVE LEADER INTO BATTLE AGAINST THEM TO RECOVER OUR NATIONAL GREATNESS,” well, that sounds a little fascist, no? Hochman knows every single day this kind of propaganda is churned out on the right in various degrees of shrillness and hysteria. Is there no one on the contemporary Right that speaks this way? Labeling these differences merely “tactical” and “aesthetic” doesn’t constitute much of an argument either, although it is meant to function as one. Aesthetics and tactics are important because they specify how politics is actually practiced. They also usually imply beliefs behind them. Also, if you think that the nation is in such bad shape that electoral democracy ought to be overthrown and replaced with a dictator who will suspend the constitution that’s not a small detail or a question of “tactics.” Guess who openly espouses that now? The former Republican president of the United States! Guess who tried that?
Here’s where Hochman’s apparent inability to see any hints of fascism anywhere on the Right begins to strike me as a bit disingenuous. Once again, let’s recap the past few years, which Hochman tellingly avoids all discussion of:
A charismatic outsider to the political system offered himself as a providential solution to a national crisis brought on by failed wars and economic debacles, “the only one who could fix it,” talking of restored “national greatness” to salve a wounded and humiliated domestic pride; he directed rhetoric against both corrupt elites and ungrateful and unclean racial minorities; he menaced and then ultimately coopted the existing conservative elite; who believed they could ride his movement to getting their policy agenda through; he offered a sort of technocratic government of the smartest” while being a populist alternative to the present elites; he provided a menu of contradictory and competing vague policy ideas that included nods to redistribution but ultimately catered to the needs of business; a cult of personality formed around him with messianic and millenarian fantasies; the extreme right and figures of the conspiratorial mob demimonde rallied to him as the long-hoped for messenger of their kind of politics; he employed reality-defying propaganda and the mass rally; right-wing intellectuals began to envision him as a kind of emergency, custodial dictator that could put the country back on track and save it from the radical left. And as silly as it seems to anybody rooted in reality and while there is no imminent threat of left-wing revolution in the United States, the right regularly pushes the propaganda line that liberals and “the left”—as they call anyone not a conservative Republican—are actually hard-core Marxists bent on totalitarian domination and one or two steps away from accomplishing it. Sometimes this propaganda has a distinct antisemitic flavor…And, ultimately, with the assistance of his paramilitary supporters and a mob, Trump tried to bluff his way into maintaining power and overthrowing an election and the constitutional order.
Is this not a reasonably accurate recap of the past few years? And, for that matter what about the past few weeks? The former President just pow-wowed with the country’s most prominent antisemites. Is Nick Fuentes such a fringe figure he might as well not be taken seriously a political reality? Well, Hochman apparently didn’t really think that when he tried to engage him in civil discourse. To be fair to Hochman, he apologized and said he should have realized it was a waste of time to engage with Fuentes, but he clearly thought it was politically worthwhile to try to sway people who might otherwise listen to Fuentes to a less noxious form of politics, suggesting, once again, the political salience of fascism on his side of the aisle. (Hochman wrote to me that it was more accurate to call Fuentes a “White Nationalist,” rather than a fascist, to which I can only reply, “Come the fuck on already.”)
The fact is Hochman knows there are honest-to-goodness fascists or at least the spread of a fascist culture on the Right. He is associated with Claremont Institution, which has developed the theory of the putschist radical right since Michael Anton’s 2016 “Flight 93” election piece. Glenn Elmers, one if its members, wrote in 2020:
Practically speaking, there is almost nothing left to conserve. What is actually required now is a recovery, or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens.
This recognition that the original America is more or less gone sets the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy apart from almost everyone else on the Right. Paradoxically, the organization that has been uniquely devoted to understanding and teaching the principles of the American founding now sees with special clarity why “conserving” that legacy is a dead end. Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.
Is this just mainstream conservatism? No, he even explicitly says it’s not. It’s openly something more aggressive and radical and revolutionary. It is literally palingenetic ultranationalism. Hochman even said he subscribed to a similar belief in The New Republic: “We have to think of ourselves as counterrevolutionaries or restorationists who are overthrowing the regime…there’s not a lot left to conserve in the contemporary state of things. There are things that need to be destroyed and rebuilt.” Maybe if you don’t want people to call you a fascist, then don’t talk this way.
In the big New York Times piece on Claremont, Hochman remarked, “Why did every junior staffer in the Trump administration read ‘Bronze Age Mindset?’ There was something there that was clearly attractive to young conservative elites.” What does ‘Bronze Age Mindset’ say? Well, let’s look at Claremont’s Micheal Anton’s own review of it: “…today all the space is, and has been for some time, “owned” by a degraded elite, reducing the majority of men to “bugmen” and thwarting the innate will of the higher specimens.” Moreover:
BAP rejects the Darwinian claim that the fundamental imperative of life is reproduction. The highest animals, he notes, reproduce relatively slowly and infrequently, with great danger to the distaff side of the species. Indeed, BAP’s objections to Charles Darwin are among the most original thoughts in the book. He doesn’t so much dismiss him—and certainly not in the name of creationism—as diminish him. Darwin, he argues, was right about the circumstance with which he was most familiar—crowded England, where all the space was already “owned”—but mistakenly thought he could extrapolate that narrow insight across all life.
For BAP, space is owned when it is mastered or controlled. This can either be accomplished by you—or your herd or pride or clan or tribe or nation—or by others. In the latter case, life—especially for the higher beings—is at best unsatisfying and often miserable. Nature—life—has been thwarted.
Let’s see…Ubermenschen and untermenschen, the need for lebensraum…Hmm, what does that sound like? Oh, I know! This is all in Mein Kampf! Is this just really a set of ideas that is so difficult to separate from “mainstream conservatism?” Because if you know anything about fascism and look for one second at Bronze Age Pervert’s whole deal, there’s no way not to apply the concept. Consider: the vulgar pseudo-Nietzcheanism and pseudo-classicism, aggressive social darwinism, near homoerotic celebration of the masculine form and machismo, the neopaganism…it’s all there! So, I’m not just saying that the right has a fascism problem, Hochman is. He openly says this kind of stuff is popular with young GOP staffers and then asks his readers to think it preposterous for us to speak of GOP fascism.
This gets at the point I was making at the end of my last piece: barely disuguised fascist and proto-fascist notions and propaganda have so thoroughly suffused the ranks of the conservative movement that they have trouble even recognizing it anymore. You can call it “groyperfication.”
This and the apparent leads to a broader issue, one addressed in a Bloomberg column by Andreas Kluth: we are forgetting what fascism even is and ceasing to take it seriously. Kluth notes most young people don’t know the basic facts of the Holocaust. I’ve witnessed this personally, overhearing a Zoomer in a restaurant talk to his parents about learning about the gas chambers through conspiracy memes that denied they existed. I’ve called this situation similar to the thought-experiment in the beginning of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: the concepts still exist, but we don’t know how to apply them properly anymore, how to judge anything anymore. Kluth writes:
So here we are, with everyone from rappers in ski masks to genocidal autocrats holding forth about Hitler and the Nazis, unburdened by fact, proportion or decency. And the rest of us, especially Millennials and Zoomers, are left groping through a postmodern fog, where nothing is true and everything is possible — and, when in doubt, hilarious.
This is the moral void we used to fear, the intellectual vacuum where hatred grows and eventually makes mass murder imaginable once again. The problem’s not just Kanye West. All of us have dumbed down memory to the point of nihilism.
Hochman, whether intentionally or not, is contributing to this very degradation of discourse with this hand-waving. He’s basically saying, “Look, don’t worry about the fascism label, guys, it basically is meaningless anyway. They call everyone that.” Again, like Tucker-talk, this just grants permission to be irresponsible. And if you are sincere, why don’t you read a little bit more and talk a little less? Hochman writes of my “obvious discomfort:” at engaging with “conservatives in anything other than sardonic and mocking terms.” If I write contemptuously about people, and I do, it’s because I think they are spouting bullshit.
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