AS THE UNITED STATES lurches unsteadily to the political right, here are two useful warnings of the dangers to freedom current trends threaten. Bertram Gross, now a professor at New York's City University, played an important role in the drafting of the Employment Act of 1946 and the early, upgutted versions of the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act. From his intellectual position on the democratic left, he shares a nightmare which he desperately hopes will never merge into reality. His thesis, often eloquent and imaginative but occasionally merely strident, centers upon a contrast between classical German fascism and the friendly fascism of his title. The Nazis glorified overt brutality and repression, dismantled parliamentary institutions, destroyed trade unions and trampled upon civil liberties. In contrast, friendly fascism is far more subtle and all the more menacing for that fact.

The friendly fasicsm which softly advances on little cats' feet amounts to sophisticated extention of the controls which big business already excercises over American politics by reason, as Charles Lindblom pointed out in Politics and Markets, both of financial subsidies to cooperative politicians and its role as major employer and income source. As constricted economic growth in the OPEC era reduces the resources once available simultaneously to enlarge social benefits, improve living standards, and gratify corporate profits expectations, the task of astute corporate managers is to diminish public expectations of individual prosperity and supply substitute gratifications for the loss of real income.

The weapons available to intelligent business leaders and their media, academic, and political allies include cooptation of dissidents, manipulation of market research, preparation of more inclusive data banks, improved electronic surveillance, and, most important, shaping of the agenda of public debate. Television is crucial. For the vast American majority which reads bad or no newspapers, news is what Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor say it is. Even the aspiring elitists who enrich their diet with Mac-Neil-Lehrer, Washington Week in Review, Agronsky and Company and the Sunday interviews are offered impoverished menu of choices, not quite Dorothy Parker's gamut of opinion from A to B, but essentially what television producuers identify as the range of respectable views. Radicals of the left or right need not expect very frequently to show up on national television.

For Gross the point of the operation is continued social and economic control by his "Ultra-Rich" and "Corporate Overlords" who are closely linked with the presidiential "Chief Executive Network," foundations, universities, courts, congressional committees and the national news media. The quantity of overt repression needed to supplement bloodless manipulation will depend in part on the degree of public resistance and for the rest upon the skill of the manipulators and their capacity to dull political passion, with sex, drugs, pornography and rock music.

Gross' organization is loose and occasionally his anger at and contempt for capitalists and capitalism distort his argument and cause his conclusions to outrun his evidence. Nevertheless, his case is far too plausible and, in the main, powerfully argued to be casually dismissed. From the standpoint of the friendly fascists, Jimmy Carter has been an outstanding president. He has dimmed his constituents' hopes of better lives and, no doubt unintentionally, displaced the resentments of the bewildered white, middle-class and working-class majority from their real opponents to allelged welfare cheaters, eastern elitists, incompetent teachers and wasteful bureaucrats.

Friendly fascism, Gross reassures us, is not inevitable. His brief conclusion notes such encouraging phenomena as the proliferation of neighborhood organizations, public interest groups and progressive trade unions. If we alert ourselves to its menace, friendly fascism will never arrive.

Alan Crawford, a much younger writer, describes himself as a traditional conservative. He admires William Buckley, Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell and moderate Republican politicians of the Javits totem. A former assistant to ex-senator James Buckley and a one-time editor of New Guard, the organ of Young Americans for Freedom, Crawford alarms himself and his readers by this cool, well-documented recital of the antics of the New Right. Under the rubric are Birchers, born-again Christians, single-issue groups obsessed by abortion, pornography, subversive textbooks and guns, and a few rogue intellectuals. Among the latter are Patrick Buchanan, William Rusher, and Kevin Phillips who intensely resent the eastern establishment of which by education and occupation they are qualified members.

Fortunately for the sane, these groups are at frequent odds. Anti-filth crusaders conflict with libertarians willing to allow each citizen to go to hell in his own way. Bellicose patriots on the march to reassert the American imperial writ quarrel with isolationists determined to curtail Pentagon budgets.

All the same, single-issue groups have contributed to the defeat of progressive politicians like Iowa's Dick Clark and New Hampshire's Thomas McIntyre and this time around have raised huge sums to terminate the senatorial careers of George McGovern, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, and Alan Cranston. If these diverse, often paranoid folks get thier act together, the stage will be set for classical fascism.

Friendly fascism appears to be the more threatening menace because it extends to much that is respectable in American society. However, I may be making that judgment because I have encountered more potential friendly fascists in three-piece suits than angry Americans equipped with rifle racks on thier pickup trucks. Both books are well worth contemplatiang. They may even stir an occasional citizen to action.