These are troubled times.
While some hardcore holdouts may be clinging to their phony optimism, many more are have been struck by the lightning-bolt realization that however good or bad things were under neoliberalism’s yolk, the United States is entering a brave new world. When not protesting Trump in airports, these political Archimedes’ have set aside some time to do a little light reading.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is among several classic dystopian novels that seem to be resonating with readers at a moment of heightened anxiety about the state of American democracy. Sales have also risen drastically for George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” which shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list this week.
Other novels that today’s readers may not have picked up since high school but have landed on the list this week are Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, “Brave New World,” a futuristic dystopian story set in England in 2540; and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” a satire about a bellicose presidential candidate who runs on a populist platform in the United States but turns out to be a fascist demagogue. On Friday, “It Can’t Happen Here” was No. 9 on Amazon; “Brave New World” was No. 15.
Good news, everyone! This isn’t real life, it’s a Sinclair Lewis satire piece! Does anyone know the trick to returning to the real world ASAP or is this more like a Neverending Story-type situation?
It gets better. Since the publication of the Times article, Amazon actually temporarily sold out of physical copies of 1984. A disquieted populous is turning to fiction to see if they can scry parallels between dystopian nightmare worlds and what’s unfolding before their eyes.
Others have directed their gaze to the historical record. Over at Slate Academy, Rebecca Onion, June Thomas and Joshua Keating released the first episode of their limited podcast series on fascism. The first taste is free, and it features an extensive interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922 – 1945 (published 2001). I’ve transcribed parts of that interview and edited for clarity where necessary, but I recommend listening to the podcast for a fuller comprehension of the subject. As has been disclaimed before, the character of a fascist regime depends on the nation it emerges from and the leader who has seized power. A lack of a defining foundational text has created great idiosyncrasies in the implementation of fascism, but see if you can’t identify any similarities between the United States circa 2017 and Benito Mussolini’s Italy.
On confusion and Fascism’s seemingly incoherent ideology:
People at the time were very confused, which was part of Fascism’s strength. It kind of took people by surprise. … [Mussolini] played a lot with that. He used to taunt Italians at the beginning. He said “Is Fascism a revolution or a reaction?” … It was a motley crew of people and almost everyone could find something in Fascism that they believed in. Or they thought they could use Mussolini, because he was not taken seriously in the beginning, other than as a rabble-rouser who practiced violence. It was purposely very heterodox…
On the political elite’s gravest error:
We like to think that these people just seized power, and it’s very important in lessons for today, as we’ve been seeing, that this is a process, and one of the most dangerous things is that when people don’t know quite what to do with these disruptors – because Mussolini was a disruptor – they make the error of [ignoring] the violence, even though Mussolini, like all authoritarians and future fascists was telling people very clearly who he was. They think they can use them and tame them if they invite them into a parliamentary or democratic context. … For several years [after Mussolini was given power] people thought they could tame him. It was the classic pivot. They thought “Okay, now he has what he wanted. He has power, so he’s going to calm down and become a statesman.” And this is a fatal error, and it has been every single time.
Sometimes, when there’s a moment where traditional elites and forces are in crisis… or parties, you could say the GOP. It’s a funny analogy, but they think that they can use these people to make a measured amount of change that will save everything. And instead, it often proves the undoing. … It’s very important here that Mussolini pitched a narrative of Italy as in a state of crisis, a nation that was victimized by other foreign nations, and that Italy was always getting kicked around. … And so violence, and cultivating this kind of masculinity of these squads with their uniforms and their way of being was a way to, again, create this new kind of aristocracy that would bring Italy back to a place of respect and dignity in the world. And this was very compelling to many people.
[Fascists] make things that were in the air (discontents and aspirations) coalesce into a form. That becomes their movement, and people follow them because they say “This person! I’ve been feeling this all along and no one was listening to me. There’s no one who met my needs.” So, a successful demagogue or authoritarian has to be able to read the political market – and we can think of a contemporary person who’s done this very well – and see what is lacking. And then, if he has the right charisma and the right force of personality he can create a movement. It usually is called a movement. Trump calls it ‘the movement’. I don’t think he gives a whit about the GOP. He never did. And Mussolini, he advertised Fascism as an ‘anti-party’. Originally they were the Fascist leagues, the combat leagues, and he resisted making it a party because he wanted it to be something different, that would disrupt what was there, the whole system that was there.
On illegitimate rule:
When these regimes take hold they are illegitimate regimes. Even if their leaders get into power in a legal manner, they soon become illegitimate. So they need to ground themselves in some kind of national past. And you should always perk your ears up when you see a national history being pilfered. Putin has done this with the cult of Stalin. He’s rehabilitated Stalin. They need to step back and find a genealogy for themselves to pose themselves as national saviors. The Roman Empire was what Italy had in terms of a genealogy of strength and force. … Rome provided the justification for imperialism and we drastically downplay the scope and destructiveness of fascist imperialism because it becomes the lesser evil with respect to Nazism.
On racial panic and white supremacy:
Fascist Italy is extremely relevant and instructive for today, because already in the late 1920s, Mussolini was very involved in this debate over the crisis of Europe, but there was a whole demographic and racial angle, a worry that white births – and this is going to sound familiar – white births and Christian white male culture was declining. Mussolini wrote an article that “colored people are multiplying at a degree unprecedented in history and we’re going to be submerged.” He used this very interesting word. “We’re going to be submerged by them if we don’t do something.” So, he had a racial vision that is not recognized, and this is before Hitler came to power. Over the course of Fascism he did not activate antisemitism until the mid-1930s. So sometimes it’s seen as an imitation when he allied with Hitler, but it actually came out of this broader racial vision. When the Fascists went into sub-Saharan Africa to conquer Ethiopia, they sent a million people there, so the question of miscegenation and racial “pollution” of Italian posed itself in a new way. And so they started making these racial laws modeled on the Nuremberg laws, but they were for use in Africa. The antisemitic laws that hit Jews at home were part of this packet of larger racial laws that came between 1937 and 1940. Mussolini was not inherently anti-Jewish. There were a lot of Jews that served government positions. He was opportunistic. As long as the Jews suited him, he would use them. When they became inconvenient because they were going to get in the way of this larger racial project, he turned against them, but it was not done at Hitler’s behest. That’s a very important point that needs to be made because people used to say “Oh, well, Italian Fascism wasn’t bad, it’s just when he allied with Hitler, he got infected with Nazism and he became antisemitic.” And that’s not how it went.
On a demagogue’s cult of personality:
Cult of personality is key to exerting power as an authoritarian or a fascist. The crucial thing is that you create a bond with people that’s based on an allegiance to your person, and not to a party, and not to a particular principle. You do this through charisma, through direct communication with people. Trump uses Twitter, Mussolini was a genius at moving images and the radio. He was a performer. You can see him on his balcony, he reaches with his body toward the crowd. The problem is once this direct bond is cemented with people, it’s very hard to break. In the past, only some huge disruption such as World War II or… Berlusconi was felled by the Eurozone crisis… or the fall of Communism. It’s hard to break this bond because it’s very seductive, and it’s a bond that’s also based on intimidation and aggression. One point I want to make is that every one of these people – and this will be familiar – engages early on in a testing process. They throw out ideas and proclamations to see what the public and especially the political class’ tolerance is for violence and extra-legality. Always pay attention to that. Trump, in January 2016, said ‘I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any supporters.’ When I heard that, I was on the street, and I literally ran home through Washington Square Park to do an op-ed because this seemed like one of those moments of testing. And again, it’s a message to the people and it’s a message in this case to the GOP. All of these leaders do this to see if there’s going to be appeasement (the term we came to use later on) or not. If the political class fails to stop them they become emboldened and they do further things of this nature. So the cult of personality depends on a kind of charisma and a bond with people, but also a process of pushing the envelope and seeing who pushes back.
Ultimately, while Ruth Ben-Ghiat finds abundant direct parallels between Italian Fascism and Trump-style authoritarianism, she declines to apply the “f” word to the latter movement. I understand her reasoning even if I don’t fully agree with it – I’ll readily admit I haven’t spent years examining source documents on Benito Mussolini’s autocratic reign and have authored exactly zero books on the topic.
I don’t call Trump a fascist. I don’t use that word for him, because I think you have to be careful in using that word. He doesn’t want to create a one-party state. He doesn’t want to create a dictatorship. He doesn’t need to do that to accomplish what he wants to accomplish. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t look at a lot of the tactics that authoritarians used – he is an authoritarian, so I do call him that – used in the past, and again, we’ve talked about some of them, what I call “the aesthetics of menace”, the testing, the cult of personality, the direct communication, the Twitter at 3 a.m. It doesn’t mean you can’t look at these and draw some lessens. When you work on fascism you really don’t want your knowledge to be relevant. It would be nice if it stayed where it is, but is has proved very useful in predicting what has gone on, unfortunately.
In part, she doesn’t want to call a rose a rose because too many bad poems have been written using rose imagery. At least prior to January 20th when the podcast was released, she also didn’t believe Trump was trying to create a one party state or install a dictatorship. Subsequent developments may be testing that assumption, but her most recent published article was for The Atlantic on January 22nd, some days before those more sinister lurches toward a highly-centralized schema of control.
So while Ruth Ben-Ghiat has pulled up just short of the “f” word in her taxonomy, it’s instructive to consider Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s 1944 essay The Danger of American Fascism. The New York Times asked Wallace to answer the following questions: 1. What is a fascist? 2. How many fascists have we? 3. How dangerous are they? His response was illuminating and prescient, and I will partially except it here (all emphasis mine).
A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.
The dangerous American fascist is the man who wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.
American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.
The symptoms of fascist thinking are colored by environment and adapted to immediate circumstances. But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice.
Several leaders of industry in this country who have gained a new vision of the meaning of opportunity through co-operation with government have warned the public openly that there are some selfish groups in industry who are willing to jeopardize the structure of American liberty to gain some temporary advantage. We all know the part that the cartels played in bringing Hitler to power, and the rule the giant German trusts have played in Nazi conquests. Monopolists who fear competition and who distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity would like to secure their position against small and energetic enterprise. In an effort to eliminate the possibility of any rival growing up, some monopolists would sacrifice democracy itself.
Using Henry A. Wallace’s guidelines, president Donald Trump should be called a fascist. As with Dr. Lawrence Britt’s Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism. I focus so intently on the terminology because fascist is a polarizing word, a word that at least in America seems to demand decisive be taken action against it. Trump is both an authoritarian and a fascist, but “authoritarian” doesn’t evoke the same gut reaction in people. After all, we’re taught to respect authority and show due deference to the police and military forces. It’s almost anodyne. Fascism is a whole ‘nother monster, it breeds monsters, it is itself monstrous. It’s also politically radioactive.
So what’s the best solution to the impasse between the accuracy of the term and the political reality of its usage? Should we make due with the un-specificity of “authoritarian”, or do we have a moral obligation to be impolitic given continued troubling signs? I’m inclined to the latter view. The more an idea is repeated, the easier it becomes to accept. If the head of the GOP is a fascist, Democratic “bipartisanship” becomes collaboration. And if you can’t stand up to people who are largely in agreement with you but object to your word usage, how do you expect to stand up to the thing itself?
(Year Zero/Day Thirteen)