I was reading this horrifying and hilarious story by Colson Whitehead, along with an excellent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (I posted a nitpick on it a couple days ago) on the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era in the United States, and I was suddenly reminded of something.
In one of the political science classes I took in college, we were told that one of the big questions about U.S. politics, compared to Europe, is why we’ve had no socialism and no fascism. Sure, there have been a few pockets of socialism where they’ve won a few elections, and there was Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana, but nothing like Europe where the Left and the Right have ruled entire countries. and where, at least for a time, socialist and fascism were the ideologies of major parties.
That’s what we were taught. But, as Whitehead and Gopnik (and Henry Louis Gates, the author of the book that Gopnik was reviewing) remind us, that’s wrong. We have had fascism here for a long time—in the post-reconstruction South.
What’s fascism all about? Right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology, and a charismatic leader.
The post-reconstruction South didn’t have a charismatic leader, but the other parts of the description fit, so on the whole I’d call it a fascist regime.
In the 1930s, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here about a hypothetical fascist Americanism, and there was that late book by Philip Roth with a similar theme. I guess other people have had this thought so I googled *it has happened here* and came across this post talking about fascism in the United States, pointing to Red scares, the internment of Japanese Americans in WW2, and FBI infiltration of the civil rights movement. All these topics are worth writing about, but none of them seem to me to be even nearly as close to fascism as what happened for close to a century in the post-reconstruction South.
Louis Hartz wrote The Liberal Tradition in America back in the 1950s. The funny thing is, back in the 1950s there was still a lot of fascism down there.
But nobody made that connection to us when we were students.
Maybe the U.S. South just seemed unique, and the legacy of slavery distracted historians and political scientists so much they didn’t see the connection to fascism, a political movement with a nationalistic racist ideology that used violence to take and maintain power in a democratic system. It’s stunning in retrospect that Huey Long was discussed as a proto-fascist without any recognition that the entire South had a fascist system of government.