In Review: Jeffrey M. Bale and Tamir Bar-On’s Fighting the Last War: Confusion, Partisanship and Alarmism in the Literature on the Radical Right
Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” may have been originally addressed to children, but of course, adults are the ones who are in most desperate need of its lesson. This is especially the case in our woke era. Fascism has become the new wolf, and progressives waste no occasion to hysterically scream about the big, bad fascists coming. As in Aesop’s tale, at first people believe them, but once people discover that it is all a hoax, they lose credibility—which makes it very dangerous, because when the big wolf really comes, nobody will be prepared.
Jeffrey M. Bale and Tamir Bar-On’s Fighting the Last War: Confusion, Partisanship and Alarmism in the Literature on the Radical Right (Lexington Books, 2022) is a meaningful attempt to expose all those eager to use the term “fascist” to describe anyone they do not like. In the Western world, these alarmists are all over the social sphere, but they are most notable in academia. As Bale and Bar-On explain, there is a “growing problem of ‘progressive’ political hegemony and activism in academia” (p. 2), and ultimately, its effect is the suppression of dissenting voices and the labeling of any dissent as “fascism.” Under the guise of scholarship, many academics are willing to expand the definition of “fascism” to include anyone who does not uphold their leftist ideology.
In contrast, Bale and Bar-On aptly argue that “fascism” is a very specific ideology that took shape in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Although they agree that “fascism” may be difficult to define (and they devote many pages to critically examining some proposed definitions), they add that “when one thinks of regime fascism, one thinks of brutal violence, imperialist conquest, war, and totalitarianism” (p.56).
Who fits this profile? Academia, mainstream media, and a substantial number of politicians in the West try to downplay an obvious candidate: Islamism. In contrast, they are eager to portray President Trump as a match. While far from sympathetic to Trump’s style of politics, Bale and Bar-On go to great lengths to show why Trump is not a fascist, and how persistent academic attempts to portray him as such are unfair and ultimately dangerous.
In Bale and Bar-On’s assessment, Trump reverses Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “walk softly and carry a big stick.” Yes, Trump’s mouth is loud, but his actions are quite mellow. Whereas Hitler and Mussolini were eager to engage in military conquests, Trump’s isolationist stance in the world stage makes him far less similar to fascists than many of his adversaries on both the Right (neocons) and the Left (liberal hawks).
Trump was critical of media and universities, but he never laid a finger on them. It is therefore astonishing that someone such as Jason Stanley (an alleged authority on the history of fascism) would be worried that Trump is coming down hard on academia to silence dissent amongst professors. In reality, it is Stanley’s own stripe of academics who persistently threaten free speech on college campuses.
In the leftist narrative, Trump’s alleged similarities to fascists lay in his big rallies and populist style. But as Bale and Bar-On argue, this reveals academics’ double standards. Bernie Sanders also attracted large crowds, yet nobody in academia went out of their way to claim that Sanders was following Mussolini’s (or even Stalin’s) script. In Bale and Bar-On’s view, this is all confirmation that “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a very real malaise, and its prevalence is most felt in academia.
I might add that many of these scholars are (rightly) horrified by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet they don’t seem to notice their own similarity to the Russian dictator. Like many professors, Putin is happy to use the label “Nazi” to describe anyone he does not like, and in his mind, this justifies his war crimes. Recall that the Kremlin’s propaganda (repeated by some useful idiots in the West, such as Oliver Stone) insists that Ukraine is full of Nazis, and therefore, the invasion is necessary.
The great lesson of Aesop’s fable is that if people go around screaming “Wolf!,” when the real wolf comes, nobody will be prepared. Bale and Bar-On warn about this danger. Albeit a tiny minority, fascists do exist in the United States and Europe. But if people are unfairly accused of being fascists all the time, eventually, they will run into the arms of real fascists. Furthermore, if everyone except whites is allowed to have ethnic pride and is encouraged to play the identity politics game, ultimately, disenfranchised whites will seek comfort in those who are happy to go along with white identity politics. The only meaningful way to avert the danger of fascism is to truly embrace Enlightenment values (the real liberalism) and uphold a universalist and cosmopolitan ethos that opposes the tribalist tendencies that are now becoming so prominent, manifested in proposals such as affirmative action and reparations. In the authors’ words, “the solution, of course, is for everyone to abandon identity politics, that is, to stop viewing individuals simply as representatives of collective racial (or gender, or class, or religious) groups with essentialized characteristics, who can then be unfairly denounced or romanticized en masse, and to return to treating people as individuals and evaluating them on the basis of their own specific characteristics and merits” (p. 299).
Despite Bale and Bar-On’s forceful arguments, I worry that some of their claims may not be distant enough from the toxic conspiracist style of American politics. For example, in their discussion of the events of January 6th, 2021, they correctly argue that President Trump never incited a revolt. But they also suggest that there may have been FBI infiltrators who incited the crowd so as to portray them as fascists. Admittedly, this type of tactic has been deployed in the United States before—J. Edgar Hoover used it against leftists, and it now seems that it was used in the 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But it is still a stretch to suggest that the storming of the Capitol was an inside job.
Furthermore, to this writer, Bale and Bar-On’s constant use of the phrase “globalist elites” rings too conspiracist. Who, exactly, oversees these elites? George Soros? Bill Gates? The authors never say. And what is so bad about globalization, anyways? Supranationalism and cosmopolitanism are precisely part of the Enlightenment agenda that, as Bale and Bar-On acknowledge, is the antidote to tribalism and identity politics.
Be that as it may, Fighting the Last War is a welcome contribution to the effort to push back against those academics whose self-righteousness may leave us dangerously unprepared for the arrival of real fascists.
Image: Steve, Public Domain