Tag Archives: fascism

The Appeal Of Fascism

A comment to a recent blog post reminded us of the overwhelming–albeit under-appreciated–power of culture. The famous banner in Bill Clinton’s war room was wrong. It isn’t “the economy, stupid”; that message should be edited to read “it’s the culture, stupid!”

The problem is, in today’s United States, there are two very different cultures. (Actually, there are many permutations within those two “mega” cultures.)

As a recent essay at the Brookings Institution site put it, despite the fact that Joe Biden won by an enormous margin (more than five million votes and counting) the size of Donald Trump’s vote is a “stark reminder of the enduring power of racism and misogyny in America.”

The essay from the usually circumspect Brookings didn’t mince words; it compared Trump’s core appeal to the appeal of fascism,

the pleasure of inflicting cruelty and humiliation on those one fears and disdains, the gratification of receiving the authoritarian’s flattery, and the exhilaration of a crowd freed from the normal strictures of law, reason and decency.

Americans are not immune to the charms of authoritarianism. We did not need Trump to know this about ourselves; racial authoritarianism has existed within and alongside our democracy from the beginning. Trump was in essence a rearguard action by those who wish to preserve the racial hierarchy that has defined America from its founding.

The rest of the article discussed the very real costs of divided government, in the event the Georgia run-offs do not deliver slim control of the Senate to the Democrats.  Those costs are clearly obvious to the people who read and comment on this blog–divided government, whatever its merits at other junctures of our national history, will make it impossible to address the structural issues that have entrenched government power in a minority party unresponsive to and contemptuous of the needs of a majority of Americans.

So what does this have to do with culture?

In the quoted language, I was most struck by the definition of “Trumpism” as a rearguard action focused on preserving white privilege. White privilege is the essence of the alt-right movement–it is clearest in the pronouncements of the Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazis, and the Klan remnants who see themselves as the protectors of “White Culture,” but it isn’t limited to those fringe movements.

We can see “white culture” in the urban/rural divide, in the sneering dismissals of “cosmopolitanism,” in the denunciations of coastal and global “elites,” and in the efforts to protect Confederate monuments as exemplars of Southern culture rather than reminders of American willingness to enslave dark people. Etc.

I was never a huge fan of John Edwards, whose Presidential campaign dissolved for a number of reasons, including his infidelity (remember when infidelity actually harmed a candidacy? talk about the “good old days”!), but he was onto something with his highlighting of the existence of “two Americas.”

Cultural change is inevitable, but it is also difficult and slow, and it creates understandable and unfortunate resentments. It will take time–and changes in both the media and social media platforms– for those resentments to abate.

Pious exhortations to more progressive Americans to “reach out” to those resisting social change aren’t just embarrassingly one-sided (no one is telling the alt-right to try to understand those dark-skinned or Jewish or Muslim “libruls”); they also have a distressing tendency to be either naive or condescending– or both.

I don’t know whether the gulf between America’s very different cultures can be narrowed or bridged. I have no suggested magic wand, but at least a part of the longer-term solution needs to be a new appreciation for the importance of public education in public schools–education that emphasizes what we diverse Americans presumably have in common: allegiance to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Enlightenment approach to empiricism upon which they were constructed.

An in-depth civics education would at the very least be an inoculation against the appeal of fascism.

 

 

 

 

This Is Scary

Speaking of collusion…

CommonDreams recently reported on evidence of “explosive” and “extraordinary” coordination between a controversial Madrid campaign group and far-right parties across Europe.

A controversial Madrid-based campaign group, supported by American and Russian ultra-conservatives, is working across Europe to drive voters towards far-right parties in next month’s European Parliament elections and in Spain’s national elections this Sunday, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Our findings have caused alarm among lawmakers who fear that Trump-linked conservatives are working with European allies to import a controversial US-style ‘Super PAC’ model of political campaigning to Europe – opening the door to large amounts of ‘dark money’ flowing unchecked into elections and referenda.

The Madrid-based campaign group CitizenGo is best known for its online petitions against same-sex marriage, sex educationand abortion– and for driving buses across cities with slogans against LGBT rights and “feminazis”.

But now openDemocracy can reveal new evidence of “extraordinary coordination” between this group and far-right parties across Europe – from Spain to Italy, Germany and Hungary.

Former United States Senator Russ Feingold, who worked with John McCain to reform political finance in the U.S., described the report’s findings as “frightening” and called on European leaders to protect the democratic process.

“Europe has an opportunity to get ahead of this and not make the same mistakes that were made here in the United States.”

During the past few years, there has been explosive growth of far-right–essentially fascist–parties here in the U.S. and in Europe.  Spain is just one example:

The Spanish far-right party Vox has pledged to build walls around Spanish enclaves in North Africa, jail Catalan independence leaders, loosen gun control laws and “make Spain great again”. The party also opposes “political correctness”, marriage equality for gay people and laws against gender-based violence.

Sound familiar?

The cited article goes into considerable detail about the global links among far right groups and the sources of their financing, but what is truly chilling is the extent of this movement and the fears that motivate its supporters.

We’ve been here before. Change can be terrifying to those who believe that their positions are being threatened. And societies today–especially western, democratic societies–are facing enormous changes.

Technology is rapidly transforming economies, and automation is threatening millions of jobs. Previously marginalized populations–women, LGBTQ citizens, African-Americans, immigrants–are demanding an equal place at the civic table. Longstanding traditions are under assault from a variety of directions–from the arts, from globalization, from liberal religions, and from growing secularization.

People–okay, mostly straight white Christian males– fear the loss of their traditional dominance ; they experience these changes as existentially threatening. That isn’t new. What is new is the ability–courtesy of the Internet– to connect with others around the world who share their fears.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric coming from Trump and his white nationalist ilk gives them permission to be far more candid about their bigotries. (You might even say that the bigots are leaving their closets and “coming out.”)

White nationalism appeals to people who are fundamentally insecure–who believe, deep down, that they can’t compete in the world that is dawning, that shorn of their traditional privilege they will be insignificant.

The problem is, that fear is powerfully motivating.

People of good will who are willing–even eager– to live in our evolving world cannot afford complacency. There’s a quote by someone whose name I’ve long forgotten, to the effect that a rattlesnake, if cornered will become so angry it will bite itself. That, of course, is exactly what happens to these people who are consumed with hate and resentment against the Other — they are biting themselves.

But the rest of us are collateral damage.

American Nazis

Over a third of American voters still support Donald Trump, incomprehensible as that seems.

I have always had a naive faith in the good sense of the general American public. That faith was shaken in November 2016, and it’s currently on hold until November 7th of 2018, when it will either be revived or permanently destroyed.

This depressing realization– that a third of the country could support (or even endure) this odious man and his thuggish and criminal administration–comes a bit late. It turns out that Americans have never been as impervious to the attractions of fascism as we like to think.  A recent book tells us a lot that most of us would rather not know.

In fact, when Bradley W. Hart first started researching the history of Nazi sympathy in the United States a few years ago, he was largely driven by the absence of attention to the topic. Hart’s new book Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United Statesargues that the threat of Nazism in the United States before World War II was greater than we generally remember today, and that those forces offer valuable lessons decades later — and not just because part of that story is the history of the “America First” idea, born of pre-WWII isolationism and later reborn as a slogan for now-President Donald Trump.

Hart’s research was triggered by Charlottesville, and the sight of Americans brandishing Nazi flags and paraphernalia.

Hart, who came to the topic via research on the eugenics movement and the history of Nazi sympathy in Britain, says he realized early on that there was a lot more to the American side of that story than most textbooks acknowledged. Some of the big names might get mentioned briefly — the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, or the highly public German American Bund organization — but in general, he says, the American narrative of the years leading up to World War II has elided the role of those who supported the wrong side. And yet, American exchange students went to Germany and returned with glowing reviews, while none other than Charles Lindbergh denounced Jewish people for pushing the U.S. toward unnecessary war.

There are a number of reasons this particular element of America’s history is so rarely invoked. There’s the well-knowns  “bandwagon” effect, the human tendency to “remember” ourselves as having been on the winning side of conflicts, and to identify with the narrative that emerged after the war: America saved the world! We’re number one! Admitting that a not-insignificant minority of our citizens were rooting for the bad guys doesn’t do much to advance that narrative.

It was also possible for those who had participated in Nazi-sympathetic groups to later cloak their beliefs in the Cold War’s anti-communist push — a dynamic that had in fact driven some of them to fascism in the first place, as it seemed “tougher on communism than democracy is,” as Hart puts it. (One survey he cites found that in 1938, more Americans thought that communism was worse than fascism than vice versa.) Such people could truthfully insist that they’d always been anti-communist without revealing that they’d been fascists, and their fellow Americans were still so worried about communism that they might not press the matter.

If we are being honest, relatively few people are attracted by the the tenets of political ideologies–communist, fascist, socialist, whatever. Then as now, the real motivators are tribal: people who look and pray like me are superior to people who look and pray like you.

Fascism–like communism–appeals to people who couldn’t define its political philosophy if their lives depended upon it. In Hitler’s SS or Charlottesville, the message was much simpler and much uglier. My tribe is better than yours. They supported “Aryan purity” or (White Christian) America.

That tribalism is central to Trump’s appeal. It has been the only consistent thread in what passes for his message, and that tribalism is what at least a third of America supports. On November 6th, we’ll see if enough of us reject it.

 

Why Language Matters…

On the most basic level, language matters because the ability to use words accurately to convey one’s meaning is a critically important skill in modern society.

And let’s be honest: we assess the probable intelligence of the people we meet based largely on their use of language. That isn’t simply snobbery–fuzzy language more often than not signals fuzzy thinking.

An individual’s use of language is a reasonably reliable clue to that person’s conceptual agility.

Those of us who are unimpressed with Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that he is “like really, really smart” often point to his lack of language skills. Newsweek recently compared the vocabularies of the last 15 U.S. Presidents, and ranked Trump at the very bottom.

President Donald Trump—who boasted over the weekend that his success in life was a result of “being, like, really smart”—communicates at the lowest grade level of the last 15 presidents, according to a new analysis of the speech patterns of presidents going back to Herbert Hoover….

By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” Factba.se CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Of course, it’s also true that genuinely bright people rarely find it necessary to tell people how smart they are…

Effective propaganda requires the manipulation of language, and that’s another reason to be alert to its use. Trump’s former consiglieri, Steve Bannon, clearly understands that in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to change reactions to certain words. As a recent, fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times recounts,

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

The author notes that this is a departure from the usual “dog whistle” approach taken by racists and xenophobes–Trump’s constant references to immigrants as criminals, for example, or the traditional, negative euphemisms for Jews and blacks. Bannon wants to eliminate the pretense, and change our reaction to words that convey straightforward bigotry.

Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous….

But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” …. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

Remember “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? It was wrong.

Language matters.

There Really Are Two Americas

We are facing a division in this country unlike anything we’ve seen since the 60s, or perhaps the Civil War. If America is to emerge reasonably intact, we need to look honestly at what just happened (and by “looking honestly,” I don’t mean self-righteous whining about campaign tactics, the primary process, Clinton’s policy positions or her deficits as a candidate, none of which were dispositive, and none of which is particularly productive.)

The ugly truth is that his voters saw Trump’s bigotry and authoritarianism as features, not bugs. They didn’t overlook his appalling behaviors—they embraced and endorsed them. They applauded his repeated attacks on “political correctness” and routinely told reporters that what they liked about him was that he “tells it like it is”–“it is” being things like the illegitimacy of a black President.

The people who voted for Trump were overwhelmingly rural, less-educated white Christians. Research showed that the characteristics most predictive of support for Trump were racial resentment and misogyny—not economic distress.

The people who voted for Clinton were overwhelmingly urban, and there were more of us than there were of them. Clinton won the popular vote, but thanks to the Electoral College, rural votes count for more, so she lost the Presidency.

The urban/rural divide is more telling than the other ways we “slice and dice” the American population, and it is getting more acute. I have previously linked to an essay–an angry and not altogether fair rant, really–by the editors of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative newspaper, written in the wake of John Kerry’s defeat. Its authors describe an “Urban Archipelago” composed of blue cities in red states; twelve years later, the divide they portrayed so vividly has grown even larger.

It’s time to state something that we’ve felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion…

The entire (very long) essay is worth reading–and re-reading. But the following, lightly edited paragraphs on urban values are a great description of the worldview so many rural Americans reject.

So how do we live and what are we for? Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity. We’re for a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion–not as some crazy aberration, but as an equally valid approach to life. We are for the right to choose one’s own sexual and recreational behavior, to control one’s own body and what one puts inside it. We are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

Unlike the people who flee from cities in search of a life free from disagreement and dark skin, we are for contentiousness, discourse, and the heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints. We’re for opposition. And just to be clear: The non-urban argument, the red state position, isn’t oppositional, it’s negational–they are in active denial of the existence of other places, other people, other ideas. It’s reactionary utopianism, and it is a clear and present danger; urbanists should be upfront and unapologetic about our contempt for their politics and their negational values. Republicans have succeeded in making the word “liberal”–which literally means “free from bigotry… favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded”–into an epithet. Urbanists should proclaim their liberalism from the highest rooftop (we have higher rooftops than they do); it’s the only way we survive…

Let’s see, what else are we for? How about education? Cities are beehives of intellectual energy; students and teachers are everywhere you look, studying, teaching, thinking. In Seattle, you can barely throw a rock without hitting a college. It’s time to start celebrating that, because if the reds have their way, advanced degrees will one day be awarded based on the number of Bible verses a person can recite from memory. In the city, people ask you what you’re reading. Outside the city, they ask you why you’re reading. You do the math–and you’ll have to, because non-urbanists can hardly even count their own children at this point. For too long now, we’ve caved to the non-urban wisdom that decries universities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. Guess what: That’s why we should embrace them. Outside of the city, elitism and snobbery are code words for literacy and complexity. And when the oil dries up, we’re not going to be turning to priests for answers–we’ll be calling the scientists. And speaking of science: SCIENCE! That’s another thing we’re for. And reason. And history…

As part of our pro-reason platform, we’re for paying taxes–taxes, after all, support the urban infrastructure on which we all rely, and as such, are a necessary part of the social contract we sign every day…

A city belongs to everyone in it, and expands to contain whoever desires to join its ranks. People migrate to cities and open independent businesses or work at established ones. They import cultural influences, thus enriching the urban arts and nightlife, which in turn enrich everything. Most importantly, they bring the indisputable fact of their own bodies and minds. We wait in line with them at QFC, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them at the bar, we cram ourselves next to them on the bus. We share our psychic and physical space, however limited it might be, because others share it with us. It’s not a question of tolerance, nor even of personal freedom; it’s a matter of recognizing the fundamental interdependence of all citizens..

In the years since 2004, partisan polarization, the near-disappearance of real journalism, the venom and conspiracy theories promoted by talk radio, Fox News and the blogosphere, and the improving legal and social status of previously marginalized groups have triggered and nurtured racial and cultural resentments.

Unlike the authors of The Urban Archipelago, City-dwellers can’t simply say “Fuck off” to rural America. For one thing, as we have once again been reminded, thanks to gerrymandering and the Electoral College their votes count more than ours; for another, that really isn’t a very liberal–or helpful– attitude.

Intentionally or not, rural white America has elected a would-be fascist, together with a large number of Senators and Representatives willing to do his bidding so long as it benefits their party and their financial patrons. The question the rest of us face is: what do we do now?

Tomorrow, I’ll suggest some answers to that question.