Cover image for the book titled On Fascism
book review,  Books

On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History by Matthew C MacWilliams – A Book Review

Authoritarianism is NOT a new threat to American democracy, Matthew C MacWilliams explains in his new book, On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History.

I received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press; all opinions are my own. This post contains some affiliate links that may earn me a commission if you purchase through them.

On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History by Matthew C MacWilliams – A Book ReviewOn Fascism by Matthew C. MacWilliams
Published by St. Martin's Publishing Group on September 29, 2020
Genres: HISTORY, Political Science, Political Ideologies, American Government
Pages: 208
Buy on Amazon
Buy from your local independent bookstore via

"The twelve lessons in On Fascism draws from American history and brilliantly complement those of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny." —Laurence Tribe

An expert on American authoritarianism offers a searing rebuke of the exceptional narrative that dominates our understanding of US history. In 12 lessons, Matthew C. MacWilliams' On Fascism exposes the divisive rhetoric, strongman tactics, violent othering, and authoritarian attitudes that course through American history and compete with our egalitarian, democratic aspirations. Trumpism isn’t new, but rooted in our refusal to come to terms with this historical reality.

The United States of Lyncherdom, as Mark Twain labeled America. Lincoln versus Douglas. The Chinese Exclusion Act. The Trail of Tears. The internment of Japanese-Americans. The Palmer Raids. McCarthyism. The Surveillance State. At turning points throughout history, as we aspired toward great things, we also witnessed the authoritarian impulse drive policy and win public support. Only by confronting and reconciling this past, can America move forward into a future rooted in the motto of our Republic since 1782: e pluribus unum (out of many, one).

But this book isn’t simply an indictment. It is also a celebration of our spirit, perseverance, and commitment to the values at the heart of the American project. Along the way, we learn about many American heroes – like Ida B. Wells, who dedicated her life to documenting the horrors of lynching throughout the nation, or the young Jewish-American who took a beating for protesting a Nazi rally in New York City in 1939. Men and women who embodied the soaring, revolutionary proclamations set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution.

On Fascism is both an honest reckoning and a call for reconciliation. Denial and division will not save the Republic, but coming to terms with our history might.


My Thoughts on On Fascism

On Fascism is a timely book. It also is, in a nutshell, disturbing, and a little bit horrifying – as it should be. It serves to push against the idea of American exceptionalism. Its chapters focus on twelve times in American history where our democratic beliefs came up hard against authoritarian or even fascist ideals.

He opens the book with a bit of a gut punch with survey results on authoritarian attitudes and democracy that are alarming. A recent study reflects that 46% of Americans are inconsistent supporters of democracy and democratic institutions. It’s the perfect launching point for answer to the question: “How do we square these opinions with the story of American exceptionalism and the values that ostensibly anchor it?”

In 12 concise chapters, he covers: the use of fear to both stir up the populace and as a path to power, the Trail of Tears, Chinese persecution and the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also looks at the lynching of Black Americans, Nazi demonstrations billed as “pro-American”, and the rise of radio (and later tv) conspiracy theorists and how they distort the value of truth.

At the end of it all, thankfully, MacWilliams doesn’t leave you in despair. He offers ten steps to strengthen America. Following that are three helpful appendices. The first has a set of questions, a survey of sorts, that will help gauge your own support for democracy. The second discusses causality and authoritarianism – a “which came first, chicken or egg” conversation. It offers a 4 question test so you might see where you stand – the results might surprise you. (MacWilliams also has a quick quiz “How Authoritarian Are You” on his website that mirrors this appendix.) The last offers a brief discussion on authoritarianism itself – what it is, and its history. I found it all very helpful.


I consider myself a good student of American history. Still, I still had much to learn in these chapters, such as certain nuances forgotten or glossed over in their teachings. This is a quick read – only 208 pages in length – but it merited my full attention. I found On Fascism to be interesting and insightful.

It’s obvious where MacWilliams political leanings lie. (A few more examples of authoritarianism on the left would have softened his bias). However, he’s clear on the fact that the rhetoric of authoritarianism isn’t limited to one side, and that it has seeped into people’s belief system more than we realize.

As the book clearly shows, authoritarianism is NOT a new threat to democracy. We still need to fight it. And to fight it, we need to recognize it.

For more timely reading, check out my list of books to aid in undestanding of anti-racism and race issues:

Leave a Reply

Discover more from JennCaffeinated

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading