Henry Olsen is a conservative columnist at The Washington Post. He’s typical of the kind of conservative affirmative action that all of the mainstream press provides because of decades of the right disingenuously calling it “liberal.”
Don’t call us liberal! Beat us up! Legislate us out of existence! Just don’t call us liberal! We couldn’t die in peace knowing that anyone questioned our objectivity!
Anyway, a week ago, Olsen penned, No, MAGA Republicans Do Not Support “Semi-Fascism.” And then, of course, after Biden’s speech, he produced, Biden’s MAGA Speech Was Designed to Protect Democrats, Not Democracy.
(I wasn’t going to read the second article figuring it was just a reworking of the first. It isn’t actually. Instead, it’s just more finger-wagging. The article also elides Republican behavior and current norms. It’s a classic example of an argument much beloved by supposed moderates, “The Republicans are allowed to destroy norms; when the Democrats are back in power, it is their job to reinstate them!”)
Olsen’s “Republicans Ain’t Fascists” Argument
I’ve heard Olsen’s argument many times before. Lauren Southern likes to make it! It boils down to this: Fascism was a political philosophy of the mid-20th century in Europe.
Okay, not in so many words. But his entire argument is to nitpick what fascism is and give an example of why that doesn’t apply to the MAGA crowd. Here is his base argument:
Classic 20th-century fascism was a political philosophy that comprehensively denounced modern liberal democracy. Fascists believed that multiparty democracy weakened the nation, and that competitive capitalism was wasteful and exploitative. Their alternative was a one-party state that guided the economy through regulation and sector-based accords between labor and business.
How the MAGA Cult Stacks Up
And then he contrasts this definition with what the MAGA faithful believe:
Compare this to the MAGA philosophy. MAGA politicians usually argue that America’s liberal tradition is under attack and needs to be saved, not that it is the root of all evil. They tend to attack most expansion of government regulation and spending as “socialism.” That’s the polar opposite of fascism, not its kissing cousin.
This is one of the apologist’s greatest weapons: pretending to not understand subtext. My favorite example of this was when Ben Shapiro claimed that he just didn’t see Steve King’s white-supremism — until years later when he simply could not continue to claim that.
Olsen is using another apologist trick too: pretending that because fascists update their tactics that they can’t be fascists. Of course modern fascists give lip service to liberal democracy! Nazis gave lip service to free speech! And how does Republicans being against socialism distinguish them from any fascist movement ever?!
Olsen goes so far as to discuss the January Sixth Coup and concludes, “Yes, attacks on elections are heinous and autocratic but they aren’t necessarily fascist.” In other words, Olsen wrote a whole column because Biden used the word “fascism” rather than “authoritarianism.”
Oh, that it were true!
Henry Olsen’s Subtext
The point of the article is simply to attack Joe Biden for other things that Henry Olsen doesn’t like about the president. (He also spends two long paragraphs (173 words) defending the MAGA crowd from an article that generally isn’t made and certainly wasn’t made by Biden.)
Henry Olsen is seen as one of the “reasonable” conservatives — the old-fashioned type that you can compromise with. But he shows in these recent articles he’s as thin-skinned as Donald Trump himself. And if people like Olsen can’t be encouraged to reflect on the American Right, there is no hope for them. Or, it often seems, us.
 This is not true. It’s one of those things that conservatives believe so much they don’t think they need to look it up. You can’t say that fascism was pro- or anti-capitalism. But it is certainly true that it lived very comfortably with it.
Image of Henry Olsen taken from The Washington Post under Fair Use.
The defining characteristics of fascism aren’t the specifics. It’s “the cruelty is the point.” There’s arbitrary “in” groups and “out,” and to the “out,” no viciousness is beyond acceptable. To a fascist, even permitting the “out” group to exist is benevolent tolerance. (Jim Crow was fascist.)
No, these things aren’t technically the way Nazi Germany was run. You know what else wasn’t? Mussolini’s Italy and Hirohito’s Japan. Or Orban, Bolsonaro, etc., today. Those are all vastly different systems. What they all have in common is the strong sense of “us,” the real citizens, being under existential threat from “them,” the duplicitous monsters who’ll destroy us if they get the chance. Which is of course nonsense.
You and I and other “woke” liberals aren’t particularly interested in tearing down Christianity or straight white manhood. We find a sense of superiority based on such things to be nonsense, but we don’t care if the neighbors are active in fundraisers for their church. Heck, we might even help out, if the fundraiser is for a “woke” purpose we agree with, like donating coats for homeless people in the winter. (If only there was a a famous historical religious figure who believed in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, etc. What a “woke” person that would be!)
Modern Republicans have flirted with fascism for a very long time. Now, they’re beholden to it. They have nothing else. You can’t run on “the super-rich deserve tax cuts, screw everyone else” and get more votes than the handful of super-rich. Unless you make it a culture war. And they have.
Apologists like Olsen, Friedman, etc., are pretending the party has some high principles, but it doesn’t. It’s cutting taxes on the rich and allowing big companies to totally rip off employees/customers. That’s it. The rest is performance art. And not even very clever performance art. It’s also gotten worse over time. Hell, Reagan was a nincompoop, but he was also a pretty decent B-movie actor! Ron DeSantis would be kicked out of any amateur theater troupe; he’s lousy.
Maybe it’s no accident that Republicans love John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. They also were lousy actors. Sergio Leone once said that “what Michaelangelo saw in a block of marble was a statue. What I see in Clint Eastwood is a block of marble.”
“Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”
That’s a great interview. Sounds like an interesting guy. Thanks!
I do think the line has an enormous amount of truth to it, once we examine the right/libertarian drift over the last few decades.
It was, at first, the Laffer nonsense (no theorist has had a more appropriate name) that cutting taxes on the rich pays for itself with more tax revenue through economic stimulus. This predated Laffer but it really took off at around his time.
Once that didn’t work, things became more extreme; the only reason tax cuts and deregulation didn’t pay for themselves is we hadn’t done them ENOUGH. The new English PM seems to be of this ilk.
Finally, we get: whether or not these things work isn’t the point. The rich are just better (or they wouldn’t be rich, QED) and therefore any interference with their pursuit of wealth is morally wrong. The rest of us are lesser beings and of course need restrictions on our behavior. Naturally it bleeds out into religious and ethnic lines and all the rest of that noxious garbage. But it was always going to be the divine right of kings.
Conservatism has taken several forms over the millenia; it’s always the divine right of kings.