Marine Le Pen. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

American discussions of Europe swivel between rationality and hysteria. A discussion of Europe’s awful unemployment figures and swelling mutiny against austerity suddenly mutates into tremulous wails about the menace of fascism in France, rancid racism in the Netherlands, the anti-Semitic beast unchained in Germany (in the terrifying form of Günter Grass’s new poem).

A lot of this has to do with Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front. Now and again I’ll mention her in something I’ve written without the obligatory insults about her family heritage and presumed totalitarian agenda. Furious letters pour in, particularly since she made a strong showing in the first round of the French presidential elections.

Marine Le Pen is a nationalist politician, quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France amid the imposition of the bankers’ austerity programs. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard put it in the Daily Telegraph recently, she “presents herself as a latterday Jeanne d’Arc, openly comparing France’s pro-EU camp with the Burgundians who plotted ‘English Annexation’ in the 1430s—or indeed ‘Les Collabos’ who bought peace after 1940. ‘Let us break the chains of the French people. Bring on the French Spring,’ she tells Front National rallies.”

Anti-Semitism? Diana Johnstone, an excellent journalist who has been reporting from France for years, writes to me, “There is absolutely nothing attesting to anti-Semitism on the part of Marine Le Pen. She has actually tried to woo the powerful Jewish organizations, and her anti-Islam stance is also a way to woo such groups. The simple fact is that the best way to destroy someone in this country is to call him or her ‘anti-Semitic.’ ”

Marine Le Pen certainly has made some unsavory comments about immigrants and Islamization. But she has gone to the heart of the matter, asserting that monetary union cannot be fudged, that it is incompatible with the French nation-state. She has won 18 percent of the vote by campaigning to pull France out of the euro and smash the whole project. As Johnstone explains, a new poll shows only 3 percent of French voters consider immigration the main issue. So logically, Le Pen cannot owe her 18 percent to that issue. The number-one issue is employment.

It’s true, things could get ugly. Europe’s politics are being refashioned before our eyes. Greece has 21 percent unemployment, and the socialist PASOK party could face near-extinction in the upcoming elections. In Spain one in four is out of work, and the right-wing prime minister insists on maintaining austerity. As Evans-Pritchard points out, “We forget now, but Germany was heavily indebted to foreigners in 1930, like Spain today. It was the refusal of the creditor powers (US and France) to reliquify the system and slow monetary contraction that pushed Germany over a cliff. The parallels are haunting.”

But there’s another aspect to this habit of flinging the charge of fascism at Europe, and that’s the simple matter of national hypocrisy. The mobs who flooded into the streets to revel in the execution of Osama bin Laden were not exulting in America, land of the free and of constitutional propriety. They were lauding brute, lawless, lethal force. In this year of political conventions we’ll be hearing a lot of tub-thumping about American freedoms, but if there’s any nation in the world that is well on the way to meriting the admittedly vague label of “fascist,” surely it’s the United States.

Fascism, among other things, is a system of extreme, methodical state repression, violent in contour and threat, buttressed by ultra-nationalist mythology, a militarist culture and imperial ambition. In the 1980s America started locking up its poor people. Seven million adults were under correctional supervision in 2009. A fascist system uses constant harassment. Last year there were more than 600,000 stop-and-frisks in New York City, overwhelmingly of blacks and Hispanics. Historically, fascist regimes have been particularly cruel toward what is deemed to be sexual deviancy. US sex offender registries doom three-quarters of a million people—many of them convicted on trumpery charges—to pale simulacra of real life. Others endure castration and open-ended incarceration.

Fascist regimes, ultimately the expression of corporate power, repress labor in all efforts to organize. The onslaught here began with Taft-Hartley in 1947 and continued with methodical ferocity during the Reagan and Clinton years. Obama reneged on pledges to make organizing easier, froze the wages of federal workers and advanced free trade across the globe. Attacks on collective bargaining are pervasive. Big money’s grip on both parties ensures corporate control no matter who’s nominally in charge. Fascist regimes show open contempt for democracy while deifying a leader who embodies the national spirit. We salute democracy while suppressing it.

A fascist regime is the sworn foe of the right to assembly, “unauthorized” marches and encampments. We’re sure to see more signs of this around the NATO summit and the national conventions. America is a network of SWAT teams and kindred state-employed thugs on permanent red alert.

A fascist regime spies obsessively on its citizens. Study US laws on secret surveillance since the Patriot Act and you will find procedures that would have been the envy of the East Germans. Ultimately a fascist state claims the right to imprison its victims without term or hope of redress or legal representation. As the executive power, in the form of the president, it claims the right to kill its enemies, whether citizens (Awlaki) or others (Guantánamo), without judicial review. In other words, rule by decree—which is what Hitler’s Enabling Act won him in March 1933.

We live in a fascist country—“proto-fascist” if you want to allay public disquiet, though there’s scant sign that most Americans are disturbed by the trends. So quit beating up on Europe.