Why American Culture Was a Perfect Fit For Fascism – Eudaimonia and Co
How Regressive Societies Flee Into the Arms of Strongmen
This is going to be a tough essay to read. You will think that I am shaming, blaming, and judging you. I am not. My goal is precisely the opposite: to free you a little bit from that. But that is for you to judge, and first we must, as they say, “work through” those very issues.
Over the last couple of decades, a curious observation has struck me everytime I look at American culture. It seems a little more childish every year. It is a regressive culture — not just socially, but emotionally regressive, as in “going back to acting and thinking like children” — and I will come to how the two are linked.
I am going to start with what will strike you superficial. First let us consider self expression. Americans, by now, quite literally look like little children. Sorry. Someone has to say it. Sweatpants and yoga pants and oversized suits and Untuckits, no attention to whether garments fit or even have a shape — this kind of absence of self-care isn’t quite so acceptable, let alone desirable, in other cultures. It’s a little Soviet, this giving up on expressing one’s self. Still, do personal appearances matter? Am I being unfair?
I can’t count how many superhero movies and shows there are available on my TV. There are more produced by the week. The point isn’t that they’re bad. I enjoy some myself. It is that no other society in the world needs or has so many. Who is obsessed with superheroes — and the villains they must fight? Little children. But these shows are not for children — they are for adults, to inhabit whole parallel universes. But self-help books and reality TV and whole bizarre new genres of fabulism — “Ancient Aliens” and “Hitler’s Still Alive!!” — are about superheroes and supervillains, too. In no other place do I get a culture that is made not just for an emotional five year old — but will keep you one if you consume it.
What does such a culture tell us? Well, they point to another fact of American life: it is marked by magical fairy tales about salvation, made of black-and-white thinking. Ironically, in history, quite literally — but still to this day. Good and evil are absolutist affairs. Heroes save us from villains — heroes like the Ancient Aliens. People are infallible heroes — right up until they are unforgivable villains. Those dirty nations are evil, we are good. Lazy is bad, work is good. Capitalism good, socialism bad. Rigid, magical, incurious, dichotomized thinking is regressive, too —a sign of abuse in children — but what does it point to? Where does it come from?
From stunted moral development. American life is uniquely marked by a Lex Talionis principle — an eye for an eye. But this is also the moral logic of a child. It’s funny — you break a tiny rule and the baby, a little tyrant, lectures you, wagging a cute little finger. But why do children exact such harsh moral punishments? Salvation fairy tales, remember? Children think they risk retribution by fates and gods if you aren’t punished severely for not following the rules exactly, too. The fear of shame overwhelms them. Talionic thought has suffocated America— incarceration, militarism, bigotry— but it is only a reflection of a childlike level of moral development, in which the criminal is not the one who risks being punished, but the shameful one who fails to punish him hardest, too.
Now. It is not that regression is bad per se. It is not. Quite the opposite. But there is healthy regression, and unhealthy regression. Healthy regression is the baby play we engage in with our pets and loved ones — it is a feeling of being nourished emotionally, loved unconditionally, a return to the oceanic primal state of the womb. But a baby can be a spiteful, envious, enraged thing, too. Unhealthy regression is just that: insatiable shame, which, never satisfied, drives intense envy and rage at anyone that gets such love.
Anyone that gets such love.
In psychology, we might call this sibling rivalry — if mommy or daddy love you more, I will feel ashamed, and hurt you. But isn’t that precisely the operative social law we see in American life? American life is permeated by a culture of cruelty. One the world is by now a little aghast at. The smallest infraction of the rules can yield a homeless, ruined, destroyed life. Every tiny interaction is filled with dread and spite and a sense of vengeance — from buying groceries to going to work to sending a tweet. What explains this? This is a kind of regressive rivalry, shame giving way to childlike envy and spite, instead of adult development.
People do not lift one another up in any way whatsoever — from investing in one another’s healthcare, to being decent to one another — because they cannot. They are ashamed of who they feel they are — unloved little children, unworthy, alone, afraid. Stuck in an unhealthy, rivalrous regression, they are competing for the tiny bits of love left in a broken society.
Now. Who is loving them? Or at least caring for, nurturing, and protecting them? You see, we do not regress unless we are threatened — or we have been abused to the point that we have never grown into adults. So which one of these explains America’s childlike culture?
If we look at American life, there is another curious fact: it tells itself it is the most egalitarian society in modern existence, but in fact it is the most hierarchical society in the rich world. How do Americans spend their lives? In titanic hierarchies. They are born, they ascend through the hierarchy of grade school — that much is true in every other country. But right on the cusp of adulthood, a globally unique set of hierarchies hit them: they go to college, and there, instead of being peers, life is organized via extreme hierarchy again. Not a member of a frat? The right sorority? Then they leave college, and work life is again a choice between megacorporations, which again are ordered hierarchically, not just inside, but also socially, according to prestige and power and so on.
Thus, extreme hierarchy dominates American life to an extreme it doesn’t elsewhere — especially not in rich countries. That is why CEO to worker pay is the highest, as is inequality, indignity, inopportunity, and so on. Yet the cultural meaning of all this is that Americans do not see one another as equals — but as rivals.
What does hierarchy teach us? It teaches us obedience. It teaches us revenge. It teaches us power-seeking, through cunning. It teaches us conformity. In other words, hierarchy teaches us that we are children, who can never grow up. Extreme hierarchy keeps Americans regressed, never allowing them the feeling of safety that children need to explore, play, and grow beyond a child state. How?
Hierarchy tells us that we can never be safe or loved as we are — only for the position that we occupy, which is usually the very one we have given our true selves up to get. And so children raised in extreme hierarchies often spend their whole lives searching for substitute parents in spouses, bosses, and so on, to validate and appreciate them as perfect, and grow jealous and spiteful and enraged when they are not. Ah, doesn’t that sound exactly like American culture?
Now that brings us to fascism. Why did fascism ascend so swiftly and suddenly in America? The answer by now is very simple. American culture left Americans at the emotional level of something like neglected children. They applied moral Talionis laws. They sought salvation by superheroes. They divided the world into good and evil. Hierarchy taught them to treat one another as vicious rivals, not peers— for only perfection and greatness could earn the love and safety of parental figures, which they never learned to give themselves, or each other.
And along came a strongman. What was a nation that was made to feel inside like ashamed, unloved children, raised on grandiose superhero fantasies, fighting one another desperately for a sense of safety and belonging, already desperately always looking for substitute parents, through conformity and obedience and envy, going to do, but flee into his arms? American culture was like a lock, that kept people regressed children — and fascism was the key. A nation kept emotional infants needed a stern, commanding, authoritarian father figure — and it got one.
I said that the point of this essay was to free you, a little bit, from shame. I am sure that if you have read this far, you are reacting strongly. That is shame leaving, in the form of anger, perhaps. Breathe. Give this burden you have been carrying too long away now. Perhaps the world makes a little more sense — but, as I have said, that is for you to judge.