who goes fascist? [abridged]

the game. now faster than ever. battery not included.

Who would go fascist in a crisis? It’s a variant of a guessing game pioneered by Dorothy Thompson right around World War II. Our friend Dorothy was the first American journalist kicked out of Nazi Germany for criticizing the regime, but she also recognized that fascism was an impulse not limited to a single nation or group. Since then we’ve had around 80 years of popularized history, dramatized in endless WWII movies, to warn us about Nazis. Yet fascism isn’t only a threat when someone wearing a swastika walks into frame.

Violent fascist regimes don’t just pop into existence; they’re grown, contested, cultivated, ignored, defended, protested. The archetypes have been laid bare, from the open fascists, the complacent, and the facilitators to the fighters, the cautious, and the satisfied.

But on to the game. I’ll explain the rules. We look around — let’s say at a local coffee shop — and speculate on who, in a showdown, would go the fascism route. Yes or no. Simple enough.

[Act 1]

[The curtain opens on a modern American coffee shop, people scattered about]

The lady sipping on a medium macchiato is Mrs. A, a woman whose kind spirit matches the warmth of the fireplace behind her. She’s just past living paycheck to paycheck — when you work for the church down the road, money takes a backseat to the mission. She’s well educated with a college degree. Her advisor recommended her for a PhD program in anthropology, but she left behind higher academia to start a family with a handsome man from her graduating class. Mrs. A is witty and wise without a trace of arrogance. She has a memory fit to win nearly any round of trivia and still abides by her brother’s rule to not ruin Jeopardy by answering all the questions ahead of everyone.

Mrs. A is content with a quiet life with her family, putting in the effort to make her corner of the world a more human place to live. Despite having little money, her education and family ties give her a place in the world to call her own. She doesn’t see life as a competition, locked in an endless battle for limited resources. Fascist ideologies don’t fit within her standards and she wouldn’t accept anything that isn’t model behavior for her children. She’s not a fighter, but at the end of the day, she’ll fight against the fascists if — God forbid — they rise to power.

The melancholic man brooding at the window with half his face shadowed is already a fascist. Not that you can tell from his large Americano, although he does appreciate the subtle patriotic allusion. Mr. C is brilliant and embattled. He comes from a middle class Mid-Western family, currently earning his degree far from home without help from a scholarship. He has a vague feeling that he’s getting screwed over — by girls, by teachers, by the media, by online language police. He’s felt largely ignored as of late, the cultural narrative moving towards sympathy for the thems.

Mr. C is a young man in his prime looking forward to worse prospects than his parents. Mounting debt will keep him in the red for decades post graduation, home ownership seems impossible, his healthcare might disappear any minute. He’s found online spaces where like-minded guys gather to vent their frustrations. It started off watching hilarious videos about over-sensitive teen feminists, and soon enough the Algorithm led him to questions of biological IQ score differences. Now he moderates a message board on how to resurrect the great Western society that he is meant to inherit.

His style is partial to sweats and sneakers, but he could certainly fancy himself in a uniform — the aesthetics of proper validation. Mr. C wasn’t born a fascist, but was drawn into its allure as a byproduct of a “hypocritical democracy preaching social opportunity and equality while practicing carelessly exploitative alienation.”*

*Snippet taken from his twitter bio.

Mrs. D would go fascist sure as the french press with two extra shots will keep her energized through her late-night meeting. She’s become a snob, blissfully in denial of her snobbery. At least she’s better than the men around her — men who got to where they are with half the effort she did and none of the unwanted advances. She fought her way into the same rooms that Mr. B and his ilk were born to run, and now she makes decisions about what men like him see everyday when they turn on the television.

Even more than the class of powerful men and women in her boardroom, she detests where she came from — the parents who told her she would make an excellent wife, the small town that taught her to aspire to marriage to a small man and little else. All that reminds her of her lowly origins and past humiliations can be left to rot. There’s no place for pity as an executive, and the ride up to her penthouse is long enough to forget about the homeless woman a few blocks down who’s stopped asking for change.

Her own ambitions have led her to media prominence, where people walk around repeating her ideas, their own perspectives framed within what she says. She prefers facts over feelings, and has abdicated her own in service of maintaining her station. She hardly interacts with the silent majority she speaks for, but knows how to incite their anger and sense of loss. And it’s incredibly lucrative.

As with all who reach the top, Mrs. D sees no difference between what is and what should be. She’d be well rewarded by a fascist administration. There’s always room for the ruthless and intellectual, those self-righteous enough to see no gap between their own views and the Truth. In the game of billionaires paying millionaires to make thousand-aires scared of people in debt and immigrants, somebody has to be the millionaire. It might as well be her.

Mr. G stands with his head high, having risen up from humble beginnings to achieve the American dream. He’ll stick with a plain black coffee, one Splenda. Equalᵀᴹ is too saccharine. He has a lovely wife and kids, owns a house, and works a stable (if stressful) job that provides for his family’s needs and wants. He found a pair of usable bootstraps, and knows that America is filled with opportunity where anything can happen — well, not fascism.

Things aren’t perfect, sure. Take that whole Charlottesville mess a few years back. As far as he’s concerned, if everyone just let those idiots march without paying them any mind, the country would see how unpopular fascism is in America. To be honest, the counter protesters only brought more attention to it, and there wouldn’t have been any violence if none of them went. That poor girl wouldn’t have died.

Mr. G doesn’t defend the fascists (in fact he dislikes them). But it’s a free country. It’s his choice to watch his favorite news anchors, who articulate reasons to vote for someone who provides cover for fascists. Three degrees of separation stop him from thinking he’s involved at all. Besides, fascism isn’t even a serious problem here. He’s more concerned about how he’ll explain to his future grandkids how transgender, vegan, gay socialists are running for Senate.

H is very awake to the threats around them in the room. And their alertness has nothing to do with the kombucha and second iced coffee they just ordered. A recent graduate, H majored in engineering — something practical for their parents — and minored in philosophy, a long time hobby horse. They’re off working for an environmental consultant contracted to the city’s water infrastructure project, combining just the right amount of social sustainability with personal financial sustainability. But they could do without the corporate bureaucracy and billing time in 15 minute increments. Living in a progressive city sometimes means going online is the only outlet to combat the world’s inequities. H is disappointed with so few obvious allies around to actively oppose fascism. They might need to find another coffee place, but this one has the best cinnamon buns.

[Intermission]

It’s a macabre sort of fun to curb the anticipation of an uncertain future: a people-watching game of who goes fascist? And it simplifies things — asking the question about the people around you.

As Dorothy tells it, kind, happy, secure people don’t go Fascist. They may be a well meaning church-goer or an exasperated twitter warrior, but they won’t be tempted by fascism. However, the alienated, young outcast; the complacent, patronizing parent; the rich, ambitious business woman — they just might go Fascist in a crisis.

If only it could be as simple as Dorothy made it seem.

Maybe the game was a better fit in 1941, as fascism flourished and nations chose a side in a World War. 80 or so years later and things are less clear. Even Confederate and Nazi flags marching side by side in America doesn’t receive universal acknowledgement that something has gone terribly wrong. There’s more to the game now. Things have gotten left out or gone unnoticed.

[Act 2]

[later]

We couldn’t see that the church-going mom had to go home and explain to her 1st grader why someone in class said that girls are allowed to marry other girls now. It’s been hard raising children while a changing culture belittles and rejects her religious beliefs, but that’s the world she finds herself in. Likewise with politics, she’s been left without a party to call her own, torn between a child’s right to life from conception and the universal call to welcome the stranger and the immigrant.

We missed how the bootstrap-equipped dad got badgered by his kids again on the way to dinner. They want him to start calling immigrants ‘undocumented’ instead of illegals, but it sounds like a bunch of unnecessary political correctness if you ask him. We can’t take everyone, and if we’re not careful soon we’ll be the United States of Northern Mexico — although one of his mom’s favorite nurses who takes care of her during her episodes has been away. Apparently she was undocumented. She was always so kind. Somehow she should be able to stay.

We didn’t stay long enough to notice the alienated young outcast meet with his new lab partner for this semester. Turns out they got along better than he might’ve thought after first seeing her. Mattering to one person was what he needed. After their 4th date, an online alt-right forum permanently lost a moderator.

Over time the exasperated twitter warrior set their standards higher and higher until nobody could reach them. Eventually they became as likely to cancel an ally as a fascist, drawing a line in the sand around a cohort too small to contain all the people needed to defeat the looming barbarism. One person’s bad take is another person’s public excommunication. We missed them radicalizing through the years, violence becoming less impossible as the oppression around them continued unabated. When other people aren’t taking it seriously enough, the threat of fascism can justify any response — without noticing they adopted the tactics of those they seek to defeat.

And someone else entirely escaped notice — me — the pestering patron beside you spinning tall tales about strangers who go fascist. Perhaps authoritatively dictating the moral fate of everyone in the room does raise some questions. But I don’t have a fascist bone in my body. I swear.

It can be an amusing game while you wait for your next double-shot nonfat vanilla latte — no foam. But fun as it might be, reducing our opponents to vaudeville performers in some over-caffeinated masquerade purifies the messier truth. The sharp lines of our imaginary game board become smudged in real life.

Who goes fascist is murky and uncertain, with the game rightly casting us all into suspicion, because we are all susceptible. Sometimes the things we most wish to destroy are pieces of ourselves.

— Warmest regards, a coffee shop stranger

take some lightning, a kite, and a fat brass key

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