In 2018, American philosopher and a professor at Yale University, Jason Stanley published his non-fiction book How Fascism Works. As the child of two Holocaust survivors and a renowned scholar of propaganda, the author explained how even democracies suffer from fascist politics.
In this interview following his book’s recent release in Hungary, the author talks about fascist culture wars.
Excerpts from the interview:
Thank you for accepting our invitation for an interview, Jason.
Your book, How Fascism Works, was published in Hungarian in mid-December. The book describes various interconnected aspects of fascism. It presents a wide range of examples – both classical and contemporary. Let us start with the definition. You write “I have chosen the label ‘fascism’ for ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” How does this definition compare to others?
The definition of fascism that I am giving, the definition of fascist politics or fascist propaganda is the whole book, all ten chapters. You need all these ten elements. If I wanted a shorter definition, what I would give is: “Fascism is a cult of the leader, who promises national restoration in the face of humiliation, supposed humiliation, by liberals, homosexuals, immigrants and minorities. And he promises that he will gain revenge for this humiliation and restore the glorious order, a glorious previous lost order.”
That definition, if we go through the book, encompasses really a lot and it interconnects very well with other definitions, like the one that insists on the central role of financial capital.
Right, good. So, the other definition is: “nationalism in the service of finance capital”, which fits Hungary very well, where you have, essentially, nationalism being thrown to the people to get electoral support for just money going into the pockets of a leader and his friends.
What I was trying in the first instance to characterise was a certain kind of politics, fascist politics. We can talk about a fascist regime, we can talk about fascist policies, but I was talking about fascist propaganda. The definition “nationalism in the service of finance capital” is kind of trying to characterise what the aim of fascism is or what the overall goal is, rather than the way the propaganda is structured and the way that the politics works.
I think there is still a lot of work to be done with my book, my book is about fascist propaganda. And now what we are seeing all across the world is leaders who took power using fascist propaganda starting to transform or having transformed their country, as in the case of Hungary.
My first time in Hungary was in 2009. It was being transformed into a liberal, cosmopolitan, democratic country, there was no thought that the free press would be eliminated and everything that [Prime Minister of Hungary] Viktor Orbán has done. When I am thinking about labelling, it is the relationship between fascist politics and fascist reality. What happens when a politician gains power? And you see them using fascist politics as a way to blind the people and pocket the profits. That is what it is about.
All over the world, you see money, a lot of money. China has a lot of money, Russian oligarchs have a lot of money, and they are funding the destruction of democracy because democracy is dangerous for them. Because democracy involves making sure everyone gets something, that the entire country is materially benefitted. Maybe democracy would involve a country cracking down on business practices, making sure state contracts are fairly distributed. The fascist leaders are doing constant culture war and then you have to ask why. Well, they are doing a culture war so that they do not have to deliver on any material things. And they can take it all for themselves.
My book is about the culture war. How a fascist culture war looks. Fascist culture wars start to create a fascist culture. One where people do not question what the leader is doing. One where labour unions are weak. Workers’ rights are weak – because they challenge what the leader is doing. So, my book is about fascist culture, fascist politics, the structure of the culture war that is all the fascist politics. What you have to do is ask yourself some questions like why have your politics been 100% all about culture war? You do that when you have a material interest. When you are protecting the money.
Yes, ideology serves as a mask of self-interest. In a conversation, you mentioned that a visit to Budapest had given you a strong push to write this book. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Yes, I ran two summer schools in Budapest, one in 2009 and one in 2010 for the Central European University. When in 2009 I went to Budapest, everyone was saying, Budapest will be the next Berlin, it is going to be the next international city, it is going to draw investors and tech companies.
People from abroad were buying apartments there. It is a beautiful city, it is a wonderful place, you know, evenings on the rooftop of Corvin… It felt like the next Berlin. It felt like a place where capital would flow, where there were great universities, Central European University was the finest European university in Eastern Europe, and frankly, emerged as a better university than many Western European universities.
And there you have this great university in the middle of a great city, why would it not attract business interests, why would it not be the Budapest of the past, the cultural capital for intellectuals? Central European University was going to bring back the great Hungarian traditions of intellectual life.
When I came back in 2010 after Viktor Orbán had won, it was an entirely different mood, I felt. In the discussions in 2010, the level of hatred of Roma became very open, the kind of openly anti-Western ideas… people were talking about Orbán’s campaign, which sounded like a fascist campaign
The attitude towards the Roma scared me, they were so open and so widely shared, and when you have a minority hated that much… then I saw a poster of St Stephen, standing with a menorah over a map of Hungary, and I asked Hungarian friends, “What does that say?”, and they said, “Hungary will not be another Palestine”. So, there was this mood, this sort of anti-cosmopolitan mood.
There were all the elements, there was Trianon, and everybody was talking about Trianon. And I was like “Trianon? I have heard about it, but why are you talking about Trianon, that was a long time ago!” Greater Hungary… I mean it was crazy! Why were we talking about Trianon in 2010?
So, all that ultranationalism… and then Orbán seemed to me an openly… he did not seem to have a Christian bone in his body, he seemed openly just. Friends of mine have known him, and said, oh, yeah, religious? You know, he was funded by Soros, liberal, so he seemed to me a cynical opportunist. And so, this cynical opportunist ran an anti-Semitic, anti-Roma campaign, harkening back to Trianon, restoring Greater Hungary.
It was just nuts, it was insane to figure this in the heart of Europe. So, I said to my friends, this man is very dangerous, your country is in trouble, and I am not coming back. And people thought I was crazy. And they were like “That is ridiculous, it is Viktor Orbán, he is a liberal. He is just making it up for the cameras, there is no way… you are in Europe! There is no way Hungary is ever gonna be threatened… You know, we could say whatever we want, there is no way the media is ever gonna be muzzled.” People laughed at me saying, it is just the question of how big the Central European University is going to get.
But people forget that Orbán was very new… That Orbán was the person who went there in Europe. Who did an anti-Semitic, an anti-Roma, ultranationalist campaign, knowingly and cynically, and I knew that there were no bounds to that. Because if you do that in a country that had killed so many of its Jewish and Roma citizens, you are awakening things that cannot easily be put back to sleep and if a person does that to win an election, they have no conscience at all.
And the naivety of Hungarians in Budapest who thought their democracy was safe, the idea that media could be shut down was inconceivable… So, I did not go back to Hungary until 2019 because everything that happened I had expected to happen, and thankfully things did not get as violent as I thought they would get. But he forced Central European University out of the country. Orbán has perfected the tactic of using the courts just as his personal fiefdom. Right now, Hungary is an autocracy, is an authoritarian state in Europe and Orbán is being treated as a model for other countries. So, for me, that was the first sign.
I am the child of two Holocaust survivors, and I am not from Hungary, so I did not have the sense that Hungarian Jews I talked to had. “Oh, that is Hungary, we trust our neighbours: they are never gonna be anti-Semitic, they are never gonna be… that past cannot come back.” They seemed so naïve. Because for me going back was like this is the Europe I heard about. This is the Europe my parents were talking about.
So, I went back in 2019 and saw Freedom Square and all the statues.
In 2009, what is essential for democracy is looking back on your past clearly. And taking responsibility. And that was happening in 2009, you had powerful exhibits like the shoes on the Danube.
When I went back, what I saw in 2019, you were almost a decade of this. So, you had the centre of Budapest transformed. You know, your kids go to school where they are gonna be fed nonsense by the government.
The reason in 2010 that I said I was not going back was that although I love Hungary – beautiful country, amazing history – although I love Hungary, I just thought, at the time, Orbán was the first politician. I mean there was Kurt Waldheim. There were far-right: Jörg Haider. Well, not really Waldheim, he did not really fake, had a bad fascist past, a Nazi past – but Jörg Heider.
But Orbán was not really very charismatic, and yet he was doing this kind of politics. And I have always believed this kind of politics is really powerful, it is very very potentially successful.
The reason that we do not have fascism in more countries is that politicians avoid it. And so, you really have to be an unprincipled human being to use this politics. And if you are an unprincipled human being you will not stop at anything to take control of the country.
In addition to philosophy, you also have a background in linguistics. In How Fascism Works – just like in your previous book, How propaganda works – you use insights from linguistics and cognitive sciences. You describe language as a potent and subtle tool. You cite Ernst Cassirer, who wrote:
“If we study our modern political myths and the use that has been made of them we find in them, to our great surprise, not only a transvaluation of all our ethical values but also a transformation of human speech….New words have been coined, and even the old ones are used in a new sense; they have undergone a deep change of meaning. This change of meaning depends upon the fact that these words which formerly were used in a descriptive, logical, or semantic sense are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up certain emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings; but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.”
A couple of months ago the government campaign for the latest “national consultation” survey in Hungary involved billboard ads with questions like “Does Brussels make you angry?” and “Are you outraged by illegal immigration?” – accompanied by emojis to suggest the appropriate emotional reaction – perhaps you have seen some pictures of that.
Where would you put this campaign – and infantilisation in general – in the landscape of present-day propaganda?
Well, it is just a set of cultural issues. What is happening in Hungary is the government is stealing – I mean Orbán is robbing the country blind, selling it out to China, and he just goes back to this cultural playbook, to this cultural war playbook. And most Hungarians only speak Hungarian, so they do not have access to international media.
He is giving this set of emotional things, you know, things to be afraid of: immigration, Islam, homosexuality, like trying to make them afraid and promising to protect them from these things. And he will protect them because many gay people will not want to live in Hungary. Immigrants are not that interested in living in Hungary, they are fleeing from places like Hungary.
I mean, Hungary is OK, it is in Europe, that is great, but if you are going to be in Europe, you would rather be in Germany or Sweden or in places where there is a functional system, where they are not trying to steal your money all the time. That is not that corrupt. So, these things, immigration, these cultural matters, they feel alien.
I mean how many Hungarians have a lot of immigrants in their towns? Very few. Because it is not a site destination. So, he is playing this fascist emotional playbook. And he is doing it to rob the Hungarian people, and to sell the country to China.
Is immigration a problem in Hungary? Are there immigrants? Immigrants go through Hungary. Tolerance for sexual minorities will economically benefit Hungary. Tolerant societies, tolerant liberal societies tend to be more open to change and technology, which is not always good.
It is an emotional politics: here are the enemies, here are the things you are not familiar with to be afraid of, and I am protecting you from that. And so, it is meaningless because the real issues Hungary faces are corruption, corruption and corruption. Corruption and democracy and freedom of the press. Authoritarianism and corruption. But you get people afraid so they will hand their liberty and their pocketbooks and their children’s future to the person who promises to protect them from these phantom fears.
Yes, that is clearly what is happening.
The subtitle of the book is “The politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’”. A very common example for a systematic split between “us” and “them” is spectator sports. They play an important role in ultranationalist regimes – the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games being of course a classic example. They effortlessly achieve many goals cherished by fascist politics: with competition as their essence, they create new idols, heroes, myths. They introduce meritocratic hierarchies and they support ableism. Sports results continue to be a source of national pride – justifying a disproportionate budget for spectator sports, often at the expense of social spending. When looking at sports, what warning signs of rising fascism should one look for?
So, if you look at Brazil right now, the Brazil soccer team with Germany and Argentina are the world’s great soccer teams. Brazil has every reason to be proud of its soccer team. Bolsonaro did something very smart.
He got his supporters to wear the Brazilian national soccer jersey, as a symbol of his support. So now, supporting the Brazilian team, wearing the Brazilian national soccer team’s jersey means you are a Bolsonaro supporter. So, in Brazil we really see this point coming together. And it is a real tragedy, because kids end up being drawn into supporting the person that is destroying their country. So that is what you want to do, you want to tie yourself to it.
If you look at the images of Donald Trump, our would-be fascist leader. He is always shown muscular. He is very fat. In the United States, Colin Kaepernick got kicked out of football for taking a knee, he never got a job in football again. Trump went after him because he is attacking football.
In general, stadiums are places in which you have a crowd, a mass acting as one, you have the national team. I know Orbán has a soccer stadium in his hometown, at a great price. I do not know enough about that situation and why he did that.
But if a national leader affiliates themselves with sporting success and the national team. Well, everyone loves the national team. That is something that non-controversially adds to his success. In Brazil, it is very intense. Everybody loves the Brazilian national soccer team. The whole world loves them. And now that means loving Bolsonaro. So, if you can identify yourself with it, then the nation’s success is your success. It is a way we have modern national war.
Does Hungary have success in sports generally?
Yes, in some sports we do. Spectator sports, mostly soccer, have received enormous amounts of money and success is very seriously lacking there. But stadiums have been built, like mushrooms growing everywhere.
Also, it is just a way to distract people with entertainment. When you are robbing people, you want to distract them by providing them lots of entertainment. And Orbán is robbing people, he is robbing the future, destroying democracy, making sure that no business that wants to operate in a non-corrupt manner will ever be there, and when you are doing all that you need to distract people – and sports are a very good way.
Yes, Noam Chomsky noted that “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum” – and spectator sports look like an ideal terrain for this.
Yet the link between fascist politics and spectator sports may go far beyond a simple “bread and circuses” approach. Namely, a loud and intimidating minority of supporters may express racist and other far-right ideas or be mobilised to support an authoritarian power.
There is macho maleness about it, so it fits very well with the anti-gay politics.
Absolutely. We saw that very recently when anti-gay messages were shown in soccer matches and so on. But also, such groups – just like the Night Wolves in Russia or other bike gangs in many countries – allow fascist parties to outsource intimidation and violence, and we have seen that.
Do you see violent soccer gangs?
A socialist politician wanted to submit a question for a referendum and he was blocked by a dozen of big-arms supporters back in 2016. And we see that in many cases when Fidesz’s headquarters were targeted for demonstrations these football supporters were mobilised, practically so that the police do not have to intervene and intimidation on their part was part of the agenda.
We also saw it in Russia where the Night Wolves are very close to Putin’s power and in many other countries, you have bike gangs that allow this kind of outsourcing of violence. Is there a general trend? Can you describe the dynamics of the power relations in such a setup where political power and football supporters or other sports supporters team up in a way?
I think it is just the point that fascism involves vigilantes that have police support. They are allowed to do things violently.
We know from the United Kingdom, for instance, that violent right-wing vigilante groups are often located in soccer clubs. All over Europe, really. Germany as well, certainly East-Germany. So, we see soccer clubs being a place, all over Europe, where the far-right locates itself. It is no surprise that is happening in Hungary.
You need to worry when you have these unofficial, illegal, potentially violent vigilante groups that are being allowed to operate freely and they are not constrained by the police and that’s what we are seeing now in the United States. Today Kyle Rittenhouse was just acquitted after killing two people.
Many aspects of Trump’s US are described in your book. Trump’s most faithful support base has been the white evangelical Christian movement – a particularly conservative form of Christianity. The example is not unique. Can organised religion be used, or rather how can organised religion be used by authoritarian leaders?
Always, always, because, read Joseph Goebbels’ speech “Communism with the Mask Off,” a 1935 speech. The fascist propaganda always appeals to religious conservatives, it says, “Look, the communists and the gays are out to grab your children, we are going to protect you. We are going to protect your religion from the communists, we are going to protect your property from the communists, we are going to protect your children from people who are gonna turn them gay or turn your boys into girls.
This is old-school fascist propaganda. You speak to the religious conservatives. You tell them that their identity is at risk, you tell them that the communists are coming for them, that they are at a mortal threat, and yes, fascism is not a very Christian way to defend them but it is the only way.
Is it also possible that if you want to build an unquestionable leader then it is very useful to have a model where you have an unquestionable entity?
Oh, yes, this comes out in the last chapter of my book as well, you always have a model. Religion gives you a model where there is a boss on top. And the boss is just like the boss of the fascist nation. Any fundamentalist version of religion is anti-democratic.
Now democracy requires religious liberty, but fascism is a governmental system that is based upon organisations like businesses with the CEO, or fundamentalist organised religion, which is often patriarchal. Authority is key and central. Antidemocratic authority and hierarchy, all those values are central in religion. So is patriarchy: the fascist leader is the father of the nation. The sort of hierarchical structure of religion. They train you for an anti-democratic political sphere.
Yes. In January 2021, the US Capitol was attacked by Trump’s most ardent supporters. It was an unprecedented attempt of coup d’état in the US. What made democratic institutions – supposed to provide checks and balances to the President’s power – dysfunctional to this point? Can you walk us through the process that led to this event?
That is a big question. The basic thing was when the President of the United States, the leader of the country is telling you that the system is calling on you to revolt, then it is confusing. It is confusing: who is the leader? That is why you cannot have a democratic society where the president has become an autocrat.
People did not know what to believe. We have propaganda stations like Fox News, broadcasting lies 24/7. So, essentially, the autocrat has a media station. Then we have got many states where the elections are controlled already. In Mississippi, the population is 38% black, and you would never know it from its elected officials, and who has power.
The US, like the European Union, has gotten used to having little one-party states that are autocracies inside it. So, it is really only a matter of time before this pattern turns to the national stage. And if the EU keeps Hungary and Poland in it, it is only a matter of time before other countries follow their lead.
Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán has become an important partner of the US Republican Party. According to the Financial Times, “Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, once described Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as ‘the most significant guy on the scene right now’.”
America’s former VP, Mike Pence also visited Hungary recently, and a major event of the US Republican Party, the Conservative Political Action Conference will take place in Budapest next spring, probably just before the next parliamentary elections.
What support can Orbán expect from his American allies in the next elections?
So, the American Republican Party has turned explicitly anti-democratic. Very fascist. The national conservative conference have become a fascist social and political movement whose leader is Donald Trump. And Orbán has very much provided the model – but we expect it to be much more violent here.
So, Orbán will get an enormous amount out of this. It is embarrassing for me because I wish my great country would not fall to Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, it is kind of embarrassing. You know, there were many Hungarians at the National Conservative Conference last week or two weeks ago, whenever it was. This whole model of total lying, absolute corruption, using fascist politics as a culture war… Hungary is a model, Viktor Orbán is successful. He took over Hungary. And nothing breeds success like success. So, he is providing a model for the American Republican Party. So, they are gonna support him back.
Right before the Polish elections, Andrzej Duda visited the White House. Same thing. So, Hungary is now important, it all comes together as far as the theory in my book, where Hungary’s was very central. Hungary has done well on the fascism scene.
In the past few months, Orbán also met other heads of far-right groups, including Giorgia Meloni of Brothers of Italy, Santiago Abascal of Spain’s radical right VOX party, Marion Maréchal Le Pen and Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National of France, as well as Éric Zemmour, the new presidential hopeful of the racist French extreme right. We see many other examples of cooperation between far-right leaders.
In her book Border and Rule, Harsha Walia mentions that “… in order to secure economic deals to militarize Hungary’s border, [Israelian prime minister] Netanyahu has dismissed the real anti-Semitism of Viktor Orbán’s praise for Hitler’s ally Miklós Horthy”.
An Ultranationalist International would be full of similar cognitive dissonances – but this does not seem to be an obstacle. Do we just have a smokescreen hiding the real motivations, power and money?
Oh, this is a Fascist International, just like from the late 1920s, the mid-1930s. The same thing happened then. There was a Fascist International. You gonna get these tensions, … the tensions in the national conservative conference the main people, like Yoram Hazony, who argued that America should be a Christian country, were Israelis.
They are Israelis because they do not care about people like me, American Jews, they want America to be a Christian country so that Israel can be a Jewish country. They are fine with Orbán being anti-Semitic especially against leftist Jews or liberal Jews because if Hungary is a Christian country, Israel can be a Jewish country.
Where you are really going to get tensions is corruption, because fundamentally, Orbán is not ideologically a fascist, he is just a kleptocrat. So, where you will get tensions is his selling out the country to Russia and China. Specifically, Hungary foots the Fudan University campus: you are selling your country out to China. It is going to be obvious that it is not nationalism after all. There are some hopes like with Poland versus Russia… You know, Russia is so involved in these ultranationalist movements that when you have a long history of tension and conflict with Russia, as we have seen in the case of Poland, that is a case where if you really care about your country, you are not going to want to sell it out to China and Russia.
So, since China and Russia are so much the force behind the current Fascist International, they want to destabilise democracy, undermine democracy so that there is no viable democracy it is all just nationalist posturing, and they want to make money out of it, too. Maybe there is a hope that people will see that finally. But right now, we have a Fascist International.
As Howard Zinn said, “what distinguishes democracy from the totalitarian state is its belief in the rights of the individual over the rights of the state”. The human body – especially the female body – is the ultimate battlefield: once you deprive people of their physical autonomy, you dominate them.
As you describe in your book, the hetero-cis-normed patriarchal family model is central to fascism. Abortion rights are systematically under attack, as are sexual minorities. How can these issues be kept on the fascist agenda despite the major progress made in the past decades?
We know this in America, we should know this in America, but when Black people had the right to vote for 12 years after the Civil War and then lost it for another hundred years. Look at Germany: Weimar Germany was certainly one of the most important cultural centres of the world before the Nazis.
You know, progress comes, and it goes. It does not stay. The US shows: Black Americans could vote from 1865 to 1876. And then that ended. They could not vote for 90 years. People have rights, and then the rights will go.
Progress does not rule out regression.
Yes, it is just a conceptional confusion. The thing is that the rights stay.
The last chapter of your book, “Arbeit macht frei”, focuses on the role of work in controlling society. The myth of black welfare queens popularized by Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan’s “makers” vs “takers” split, and the success of similar rhetorical tactics show that it is easy to garner support for a “work-based society” instead of a “welfare society.”
Such rhetoric often serves as a façade to underlying racism – against African Americans and Latinx in the US, or against Roma people in many European countries, and so on.
During an economic downturn, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, already vulnerable minorities may be disproportionately affected – and that may easily reinforce the above rhetoric. Yet, crises like these can also create unprecedented solidarity. What factors determine whether one or the other path is taken?
That is a great question. I do not know, if I knew I would have told the Biden administration. People need to feel some hope for the future, they need to feel less fear, they need to feel like their future is taken care of. But right now, we are seeing the American public – even though we have had a lot of economic help – turn sharply to the right.
And against democracy. You need a sense that we are in this together. And what fascist politics tries to do is it tries to tell you that: “No”. What they try to do in fascist politics is to say that there is just a small pie, and immigrants, Roma, they are trying to steal parts of it. So, they have this model of this fixed amount of goods. And that’s not true, like immigrants grow the economy and there is more stuff.
So, what you have to do is to combat this idea that there is a fixed number of resources. And a fixed, never changing economy. And you have to point out that in fact more people and more liberties means more businesses and a better economy and more choices for everyone. So, more people paying taxes. So, in times of fear, like a pandemic, you have to make people not do zero-sum thinking. Zero-sum thinking is the cause of the “us” versus “them” mentality.
Yeah. One last question, Howard Zinn said: “democracy is not a spectator sport”. You also write, “It remains for us to join that struggle [against fascism], realising that it is not to overcome a moment, but rather to make a permanent democratic commitment”. How? What specifically can a citizen do to join that struggle?
Support labour unions, where you are working with people who are different from you. Support the rights of others as if they were yourself. So, join groups, join civil society groups, join organisations, be involved in your country at the local level.
Acts of involvement – so that you feel that no one is doing things for you and it is your country, you should not be handing it off to someone else to run it for you. So that feeling of agency and empowerment that joining a union can give you, that being involved in a local government can give you. Keeping informed is also part of that, it is your responsibility of informing yourself about your nation’s history, informing yourself about corruption, what is happening with your politicians, informing yourself and protecting the information space. Like the media and journals. Protecting the democratic institutions.
Attila Piroth is a Hungarian translator of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Jean Ziegler. He is the founder and director of the Théâtre le Levain in Bègles, near Bordeaux.