Gee, I loved “Animal House”. Do you remember when the Delts were facing expulsion from college and Bluto as played by John Belushi, rallied them with an impassioned speech?
D-DAY: War’s over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.
BLUTO: Over? Did you say “Over?” Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
OTTER: [whispering] Germans?
BOON: Forget it, he’s rolling.
I suppose we can overlook a lot when somebody’s rolling. And that’s just what I did when I recently had breakfast with a Republican candidate for West Virginia’s House of Delegates. During our conversation he mentioned that communism and fascism are really the same thing.
I let slide what I thought was an obvious inaccuracy because the comment was merely parenthetical and took place during a discussion of tax policy. But, in a strange coincidence, later that day a friend forwarded a 10-minute video titled “The American Form of Government.”
The Tea Party-inspired video described various political ideologies including communism, socialism, fascism, and Nazism and, like my breakfast companion, went on to explain they are all the same thing.
The claim that these ideologies or systems of government are the same raises two issues. First, it’s patently wrong for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Second, why have the definitions of ideologies that are in some respects little more than historical artifacts acquired such consequence, at least to people with Tea Party leanings?
To understand the difference between communism and socialism, which are on the political left, and fascism and Nazism on the political right, let’s turn to the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Georgetown University political science professor, a staunch anti-communist conservative, and President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
One of Kirkpatrick’s signature contributions to political science was her distinction between totalitarian governments on the one hand, which included the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, China, and others; and authoritarian states on the other hand, such as Franco’s Spain, the Shah’s Iran, Marcos’s Philippines, and Pinochet’s Chile.
The difference she pointed out is that in totalitarian regimes governments are not only politically repressive, but they also collectivize the economy and own or control the means of production. Whereas authoritarian regimes, while they may be as politically repressive as their totalitarian counterparts, nonetheless allow the economy to remain largely in private hands.
For Kirkpatrick and other conservatives, that latter characteristic — the willingness of dictatorial regimes to tolerate free markets and private ownership — meant that, while we might regret their lack of political freedom, they still had shared interests with the United States and were therefore acceptable allies politically, economically and militarily.
Although Kirkpatrick’s belief that the United States should ally with authoritarian regimes was and is debatable, her distinction was a valid one. And to prove it, one needs look no farther than Nazi Germany.
Decades before the Nazis came to power, privately held companies such as Daimler-Benz, Bayer, and BMW were well established. They continued to be privately held during the Nazi period and throughout World War II and are still with us today.
The same point could be made for all of the other authoritarian regimes mentioned above, which unlike Nazi Germany, the United States considered to be allies. And, truth be told, prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, even Nazi Germany was not universally reviled.
Prominent Americans such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were favorably disposed toward Hitler and the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil of New Jersey carried on a thriving business with the Nazi regime.
Also noteworthy is the fact that, while the United States has accommodated authoritarian dictators such as Marcos, Franco, and Pinochet; democratically elected leaders who nationalized or threatened to nationalize some industries, such as Iran’s Mosaddeqh, the Shah’s predecessor, or Salvador Allende who preceded Pinochet in Chile, fell victim to overthrows supported or even engineered by the United States.
In short, when the behavior of other countries brought into conflict two core American values — democratic government based on the consent of the governed and free enterprise — the United States willingly sacrificed the former in favor of the latter.
That’s why, while Tea Party sympathizers are fearful of incipient socialism, their counterparts on the left are just as fearful of creeping fascism. Given American tolerance of nondemocratic regimes, it’s entirely plausible to those on the left that there are economically powerful people who would willingly undermine basic political freedoms in order to achieve political dominance and commercial advantage.
Whether deserved or not, that’s the fear surrounding Charles and David Koch, the politically active brothers who heavily fund various right-wing causes, including the Tea Party.
But, regardless of whether anyone’s fears are well-founded, why is it that, despite a bright line theoretical distinction between totalitarianism and authoritarianism and extensive historical examples, folks aligned with the Tea Party movement are at such pains to blur or even deny the distinction?
For some, it may be a case of ignorance, but for others who know better or should know better, there is reason to suspect a propagandistic attempt to bundle up the sum total of Americans’ political fears and deposit them at their opponents’ end of the political spectrum while making their own extremism seem pure, incorruptible, and risk free.
If true, it’s a dangerous thing. After all, at the end of “Animal House” Bluto became a United States senator. One shudders to think.
— Sean O’Leary writes form Harpers Ferry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org at or through his blog at www.the-state-of-my-state.com.