The Fascist Underpinnings of Pro-Trump Media: An Interview With Author Jason Stanley
In his 2018 book How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley details how the propagandistic cult of personality surrounding President Trump is reminiscent of fascist movements from history.
Stanley’s wide-lens analysis of the Trump years has felt particularly incisive in 2020. On June 1, Trump staged an authoritarian display in Washington, D.C., when National Guard troops and U.S. Park Police deployed tear gas against a crowd of peaceful antiracist demonstrators. The Trump administration did this so the president could stage a now-infamous, propagandistic photo op. Trump also deployed a collection of federal officers to Portland in July in response to protests in that city, leading to violent, sometimes one-sided clashes – like when Trump’s officers slammed a young woman to the ground while she screamed. On July 30, Trump floated the possibility of delaying the 2020 presidential election, something only Congress has the power to do. Also, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, Trump adviser Stephen Miller has pushed draconian, anti-immigrant policies, doubling down on White House policy.
Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, focuses acutely on fascist propaganda in his work. Hatewatch sought his point of view on a number of stories we have reported out or followed closely that deal with pro-Trump media figures. In July, Hatewatch started running a series about Jack Posobiec, a correspondent for the pro-Trump television channel One America News Network. Posobiec met, worked with and amplified a range of far-right extremists, including neo-fascists. Hatewatch also reported on the degree to which Trump adviser Miller pushed racist, anti-immigrant stories onto the electronic pages of the pro-Trump website Breitbart News during the 2016 election. CNN reported in July that Blake Neff, the top writer for Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, made racist and sexist remarks on a private forum. Carlson’s show is extraordinarily popular with Trump’s base, and white nationalists in particular praise his commentary.
Throughout the interview, Stanley highlighted the degree to which pro-Trump media creates a polarized “friend vs. enemy distinction,” which he says is typical of how fascist propaganda functions. The interview was recorded on the afternoon of July 17 over Skype. It has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Hatewatch: Broadly speaking, what is happening to conservative media under Trump? What changes have you seen since his election or, at least, since he first announced his run?
Stanley: I think I don't need to tell you this, but conservative media has been going off the rails for quite some time before Trump. And Trump has been part of it since birtherism, essentially. Conservative media, especially when you look in the South at political campaigns against sharia law, stuff that SPLC has been following admirably … it’s part of a long, paranoid streak.
What we find now is a culture war 24/7, which is highly reminiscent of really the 1930s where “communism,” “cultural Marxism” … utter hysteria about leftists, becomes married to classic antisemitic conspiracy theories about terrible crimes to children, blood libel (as the philosopher David Livingstone Smith recently made clear to me), and in this case pedophilia. I mean these are the kinds of conspiracy theories that we saw from the child sex ring aspect of #Pizzagate but also what is now fairly central to QAnon.
You see a normalization of these conspiracy theories, which resonate from the past, and you see a total friend vs. enemy distinction … a complete abandonment of the idea that there's legitimate political opposition. The total abandonment of that idea has been very striking to me. The idea that anyone who is not pro-Trump is a Marxist conspirator … The idea that Joe Biden is a far-leftist?
Hatewatch: You mentioned #Pizzagate. We have been reporting on Jack Posobiec of One America News Network and his ties to extremists, including neo-Nazis –
Stanley: His ties to extremists? He is an extremist.
Hatewatch: Yes, sure. You know, as of right now we’re leaving that up to the reader as we report it out. But he marched in Poland’s independence march in November 2018, which included a huge gathering of –
Stanley: White nationalists.
Hatewatch: White nationalists and neo-Nazis… So, Posobiec gained notoriety by pushing disinformation like #Pizzagate, which you mentioned here. What is the connection, if there is one, between disinformation and fascism?
Stanley: There’s a particular kind of disinformation that goes with fascism. The particular kind of disinformation that goes with fascism says, you know, there's a cabal of elites – they used to be the Jews – they’re here to destroy white civilization, to bring in immigrants, to destroy society. They’re doing terrible things to children.
It’s the “great replacement theory.” The elites are behind destroying individual nations, and destroying their character, destroying Christianity. They use the cultural institutions of the country – the universities, the media – to push for equal rights for minorities and destroy the white race so that the elites can take over.
[These are], as you know from my book, the characteristics of Nazi propaganda. The representation of individual acts of violence [or local crimes]. You would focus on say immigrant crime, particularly lurid cases involving MS-13, and then you say, “Look at the pro-immigrant people, the pro-immigration people want to bring in MS-13.” By focusing on a few individual cases – that might not necessarily be disinformation because those cases happened. But you’re using the individual cases to forge a connection between the hated out-group and horrible crimes.
The characteristic of disinformation in fascism is like … a “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” type of structure. There's a shadowy elite group that has no loyalty to any nation that is trying to destroy the nation by bringing in immigrants, by fomenting homosexuality, by undermining religion, and you need a strong leader to protect you from them. We’ve been constantly told antifa is this fundamental enemy, for example. I was supposed to write a piece for Tablet magazine on political rhetoric, and I never got around to it, but I did the research, and it was hard to find any violent crimes associated with something that you could call antifa at all.
Hatewatch: What do you make of Trump referring to “antifa” as a terrorist organization? Because the origins of that claim really seem to have come from people like Posobiec. For example, one of the disinformation campaigns that Posobiec pushed in March 2017 was a series of fake “antifa” Twitter accounts that were made to appear as if they were celebrating the desecration of soldiers’ headstones, according to reporting by Buzzfeed. And these images were faked in order to discredit antifascist activists.
Stanley: There’s a very important, very revealing speech that you should look at called by Goebbels called “Communism With Its Mask Off,” and it represents the opposition as this mortal enemy and mortal threat to civilization. Again, fascist politics presents a friend vs. enemy distinction. You know, where you're either with the leader or you’re a mortal threat to civilization. And you draw normal social conservatives [into the fascist movement] by getting them to fear this threat.
You take social conservatives, you tell them they’re coming for your children or that they want to turn your boys into girls, destroy your manhood … [leftists are] teaching kids communism and they’re teaching that we’re evil. [Take] the Mike Pompeo speech where he said 1619 Project is trying to destroy our history, for example.
You take out of context incidents … maybe some overzealous woke student activists and you represent it like a fundamental threat to free speech. You see it with the Hong Kong protests, you see it with the NRC protests in India: If there is any violence at all, you represent a protest as just being about that violent act.
Hatewatch: That seems to be describing what Andy Ngo does.
Stanley: Oh, he’s terrifying. Watching him go through essentially a tunnel, you know, into the far right, which is what he’s been doing. There was the milkshake incident and then it just went, you know, paranoid, completely paranoid. He had convinced various editors that there was this, you know, this false equivalence [between left and right political violence in the U.S.], when there’s no such equivalence at all. I mean, there’s been literally hundreds of murders of people by white supremacists on U.S. soil since 1990 and none by antifa.
Hatewatch: Ngo’s also been caught misrepresenting facts and then what he says goes substantially viral after that.
Hatewatch: Another thing you mentioned earlier was highlighting these sporadic criminal cases involving immigrants. So, we reported on Stephen Miller's emails to Breitbart News. It was almost difficult to describe in writing what it's like to see over 900 emails that are all focused on the negative qualities of non-white people …
Stanley: I mean, the administration has been doing this nonstop, this is classic fascist politics. You link a group with crime, terrible crime. They’ve got the protests. They’re representing the protesters as “violent anarchists.” So, leftists and minorities, that's the target of fascism, it’s the target of, you know, the Martin Niemöller poem, "First they came for the communists and [I] said nothing and they came for the trade unionists and they came for the Jews, leftists, labor union members" – and minorities are the targets. You represent minorities as criminals.
There was a good New York Times article about how Miller has been using public health to try to shut down immigration since he came into the White House. By linking immigrants with disease. That's also what they’re trying to do. You know, like my chapter on Sodom and Gomorrah in the book.
When COVID-19 was first mainly in New York City, it hit neighborhoods filled with non-whites. COVID-19 is a disease that seems to be hitting non-whites harder than white people, so what they'll try to do is forge a link between immigrants and disease. At the ICE detention centers, they’re just going to let it run wild. They want to make that fascist link between immigrants and disease [at those detention centers].
The bad economy will lead to more crime, so they will run a law and order campaign using that … rather than focusing on the fact that the cause of crime is unemployment, and lack of things to do, lack of food. They’ve destroyed the economy, and they will focus on the resulting uptick in crime as a way to demonize and vilify black people. And they will focus on the protests as an example of lawlessness, rather than their own actions which are the most salient example of lawlessness.
Hatewatch: The next question is about the GOP reaction to SPLC publishing reporting about Miller’s interest in white nationalist literature and websites. After we reported on Miller, a lot of Democrats pushed for Miller’s resignation. Nobody from the GOP publicly really came to Miller’s defense, but they more or less chose not to acknowledge the investigation. How do you think the Republican Party has become so immune to charges of racism and embracing fascism, authoritarianism?
Stanley: What they've done is they said that the people who level those charges are trying to destroy free speech, are dangerous leftist agitators, are trying to destroy the traditions of the nation, are trying to change our history and, you know – racism is exaggerated. And it's wild at this time at which we're told that ‘racism is no longer a problem,’ that ‘racism is exaggerated’ – that Stephen Miller is one of most powerful figures in the president’s administration. You say ‘no, the real threat is the people who call you racist, the real threat is the 1619 Project.’ As the secretary of state did in attacking the 1619 Project.
Hatewatch: Which is not the role of the secretary of state, traditionally …
Stanley: No, right, he has become a complete political agent, whose goal is to be a general in a culture war. You say that those who call others racist, those who call others fascist, they’re the real fascists. Fascism always involves, like I say in chapter two of the book, reversing things – saying ‘no, you’re the fascist.’ So, that's what they've been doing. Trump did that in his speech on Mount Rushmore. They're saying, ‘there's no racism, it’s fascism of the left.’
Hatewatch: So, this kind of inversion, this sort of accusations in the mirror thing, is a tactic …
Stanley: Exactly, it's a long-standing tactic.
Hatewatch: This one comes by request from my colleague Hannah Gais, who is particularly interested in The Daily Caller. So, what do you make of the white nationalists and other racists who have been exposed as working in proximity with Tucker Carlson? Neff, but also the people who have been exposed who worked at the publication he founded.
Stanley: I think Carlson is as likely as anyone in the United States to be a future president. And I think that he is very smart and extremely dangerous and is a white nationalist. And, as many people have said on Twitter, I don’t even get this, “Oh my God the writer of Tucker Carlson has been [discovered to have said racist things].” I mean, just watch the show! He talks about immigrants and dirt. That’s what the Nazis said about Jews. ‘They’re dirty, they’re filthy, they’re diseased.’ That's fascism.
Hatewatch: How do we get out of this situation?
Stanley: It’s investigative journalism that will get us out of this.