How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them

Jason Stanley, Como Funciona o fascismo: a política do “nós” e “eles” [versão ebook], Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2018.

Jason Stanley offers us an interesting theoretical proposal in the study of fascism, presenting it not as a political doctrine and ideology to the concrete case, but rather in the condition of modus operandi, i.e., as a way of doing politics. By rooting fascism in a set of principles linked to ‘nation’ and patriarchy, although Stanley makes use of a comparative methodology between the present – with a focus on the rise of Trumpism – and Mussolini’s fascist and Hitler’s Nazi regimes, the truth is that to most reason we can apply his theoretical device to the process of emergence of Western states in their fabrication of internal belonging and otherness vis-à-vis their neighbours. It is true that the “us” versus “them” narrative has become a mostly internal resource, since it is on social division that fascist politics bet, thus counterposing contractualism. Nevertheless, the “them” corresponds to an abstract mass of subjects composed of immigrants (1), corrupt elites and leftist defenders of minorities.

In this field, fascism as described by Stanley is analogous to the populism discussed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die, as tactics of political action that seek to achieve a social division, creating a feeling of mutual distrust between social groups, in which the “us”, that is, the “good” nationalists, gather around the demagogue politician, or in Stanley’s words, fascist.

Right at the beginning of the book, Stanley invokes the America First movement of the 1920s and 1930s to explain Donald Trump’s election platform, with exactly the same slogan and a similar discourse in relation to immigration. Trump’s own horizon for making America great again was the 1930s, precisely the period of major policies with a fascist slant (p. 7). On the same page, the author clarifies the material content of his definition of fascism: “(…)any type of ultranationalism (ethnic, religious, cultural) in which the nation is represented in the figure of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf. As Donald Trump stated in his speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016, ‘I am your voice’,” advancing that “fascist politics includes many different strategies: the mythical past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the notion of homeland, and disarticulation of unity and public welfare.”

This definition by Stanley may not be consensual, but it is perfectly operative and allows itself as a doctrinal resource for the analysis of several Western societies today, which the author himself alludes to, such as Hungary and Poland, but not exclusively. Stanley further, subsequently that the “dangers of fascist politics come from the specific way in which it dehumanises segments of the population. By excluding these groups, it limits the capacity for empathy among other citizens, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, repression of freedom, mass imprisonment and expulsion, even, in extreme cases, widespread extermination.”” (p.8). If we stick to the two previous quotations, very restrictively, we would only apply Stanley’s theoretical framework to classical fascism, i.e. to the authoritarian experiences of the 20th century. But this is not his intention and the theoretical framework allows a wider reading, giving account of current phenomena. It is for this reason that he finds in Donald Trump a prime example of policies and strategies of a fascist nature. This theoretical courage allows us to position certain modern-day phenomena beyond populism, since the populist is a way of doing politics that targets a mass psychology that can – and often is – be transversal to the various political currents and be present in politicians committed to democracy but anxious about electoral gains. Fascist politics is of a different nature. As Stanley notes, the most distinctive mark of fascist politics, or the ‘symptom’ as he terms it, is the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, made in a concrete way – as communist politics, e.g., applies the same distinction in class matters – by drawing on ethnic, racial or religious distinction, working around this dichotomy. To this end, history is undone, creating or appealing to an imaginary of a mythical past that supports its vision of the present, operating through propaganda, conspiracy theories and fake news, both in the propagation of a nationalist ideal glorifying the past, and in anti-intellectual militancy, attacking universities in order to discredit scientific knowledge that calls into question its narrative.

To all this, Stanley adds, as a characterising element of fascist politics the sexual anxiety generated by gender equality that questions the patriarchal hierarchy of the ‘nation’ idealised by fascist politics. As he states, in a “fascist society, the leader of the nation is analogous to the father of the traditional patriarchal family. […] The authority of the patriarchal father derives from his strength, and strength is the principal authoritarian value” (p.14). The patriarchal family therefore becomes the archetype of the nation. However, in fascist politics, according to Stanley, the patriarchal model is not only a reference, it assumes the role of exclusive, and is therefore openly anti-liberal, giving as an example Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – a nation imagined around St Stephen’s Christianity, and which only on this religious track can be a great nation again (p. 18). This model is embodied in the Fundamental Law, which upholds the institution of marriage as the basis of the family relationship, marriage being contracted between man and woman (art. L/1).

The imaginary of the nation proves to be determinant in the constitution of fascist politics, since it is the need to be a great nation again implies a feeling of loss generated by liberalism, especially the liberalism of customs and multiculturalism. To this end, the past needs to be glorious. As Stanley points out, the Polish parliament passed a law in 2018 condemning the insinuation of Poland’s responsibility during the Nazi occupation, regardless of whether the facts contradict such a narrative, such as the well-documented pogroms (2). In the same vein, the German far-right party (AfD) claims the right of the German people to be proud of the achievements of its troops in the two world wars. Thus, “When not simply inventing a past to use as a weapon the emotion of nostalgia, fascist politics proceeds to selectively choose the past, avoiding anything that diminishes the unreflective adulation of the nation’s glory” (p. 24).

We come, then, to the point of propaganda. As Stanley points out, this “uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise questionable goals” (p. 28), giving as examples the racist agenda of the Nixon administration camouflaged by the prerogative of “law and order”, and the practice of spreading false accusations of corruption while engaging in corrupt practices, as part of fascist propaganda and activity. For this reason, Stanley argues that “Corruption, for the fascist politician, consists in the corruption of purity, not of law” (p. 29).

For propaganda to be effective it needs a strong man (patriarch), who will know how to exploit widespread fears and prejudices by turning them against democracy. This is the case of the pro-free speech speeches in favour of Donald Trump that occurred in 2017.

For it to take effect, fascist politics needs a social divide. The “us” vs “them” tension is expressed, therefore, as identifying the nation and essential in legitimising the “us” as a virtuous people (“the people” referred to by several authors). In this sense, it is very interesting to note the phenomenon of the rural rooting of fascist politics, as a locus of pure values and traditions of the nation preserved despite the cosmopolitan threat of big cities full of immigrants, minorities and liberals. As Stanley refers “”We” are workers and we earned our first place with struggle and merit. “They” are lazy, surviving on the goods we produce, exploiting the bounty of our welfare systems or employing corrupt institutions like unions to separate honest, hard-working citizens from their wages. “We” are producers; “they” are parasites” (p.10). In fact, as the author points out throughout the work, this notion has little to do with reality, when we know that it is in the city that most of the wealth that is distributed by countries through the implementation of budgeted programmes and other policies is produced. As Stanley states, in agreement with a broad doctrine, free-riding corresponds to a racialized vision of minorities that is reproduced in order to keep vulnerable populations in a permanent condition of subalternity, that “law and order” policies, instead of solving any problem of criminality, worsen the juxtaposition between crime and race by promoting a generalized and aggressive incarceration of specific populations.

In this sense, the fascist narrative is only possible to convey by (1) agreeing with prejudices, (2) appealing to nostalgic nationalism, (3) fighting against universities, i.e. being anti-intellectual. This last aspect is decisive. A serious and coherent debate needs to take into account different perspectives of events and phenomena, which can only be achieved through education, for it is education that offers a language rich enough to describe reality accurately and coherently. However, in fascist politics “there is only one legitimate point of view: that of the dominant nation. Schools present students with the dominant culture and its mythical past.” (p. 37). Given the importance of the school and the university as spaces of production of a complex, broad and critical vision of reality, fascist politics focuses on them. This is why it is so important to denounce them as sources of “Marxist indoctrination”, a concept aimed at defaming equality (p. 42).

As Stanley concludes, fascist politics normalises prejudice, attacks on equality, racism, and social divisions. In his words, normalisation “means precisely that the invasion of ideologically extreme conditions is not recognised as such because they appear normal. The charge of fascism will always appear extreme; ‘normalisation’ means that the rules of the game for the legitimate use of ‘extreme’ terminology are always changing.” (p. 153).


(1)In fact, although Stanley does not refer to it, looking at populist discourses, which he classifies as fascist, the category “immigrant” is different from “foreigner”, which reveals a question of class and ethnic, national and racial origin.

(2)The Netflix television series Lodo (Rojst) portrays this erasure.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them," in [The] IntersektionScope, 01/12/2021,

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