Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone.
Writing in the New Yorker last month, Adam Gopnik laid to rest the academic debates as to whether or not Donald Trump embodied or promoted fascism.
As I have written before, to call him a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners.
This is, to me, inarguable. After all, we don’t generally have the same quibbles about communism. It took a different form in the Soviet Union than it did in China than it did in Vietnam than it did in Cuba or Angola. Time and place– which is to say contemporary culture, and the weight of history, and a million other factors– give it shape and form, but everyone agrees roughly what it is (and yes, I am sure that in some academic or leftist circles, there are huge debates about what is authentically communist, and I’d love to read them, but the point stands).
The reluctance to call it what it is springs, I think, from the hideous evils of 20th-century European fascism, and the knowledge that Trump isn’t that bad. It’s also a reluctance to make the Godwin argument. But neither of those are really relevant. If we agree that there is no one definition of fascism, and that it is more a collection of characteristics than a rule book, and that Hitler does not have a monopoly on it, then we should be able to agree that it can, in fact, spring up from anywhere. Even America, even in the 21st-century, and even from someone as singularly inept as Donald Trump. In fact, that’s sort of the point.
That Trump’s is a particularly clownish and improvised fascism doesn’t make it any less real. As Gopnik points out, that’s what our society craves at this point. We live in a time of incredible artifice, where celebrity culture (which has always existed; that’s not new) can be amplified by new media, and the desire to be famous (which has also already existed) is within the reach of even the most talentless, provided that they have no shame.
Mockable losers on reality show competitions are as famous as winners. Overactive ovaries are the basis of a lucrative career in TV followed by a sgig as the warmup carny for every cheapjack slick-haired pol with an R next to their name. That fame is achievable means that fame has transmuted into some kind of Good, even more than it used to be, because fame is, oddly suddenly relatable. If someone is famous, it’s because they are just like us, only a little bit better.
Donald Trump, who has spent a whole life navigating himself toward fame, in uniquely and comprehensively awful ways understands this as well as anyone. He understands that fame in the American 21st-century does not grant you remove, but gives the illusion of access. He’s mastered Twitter (value-neutral statement; that means nothing about his actual literacy), which is the great connective medium of human history. He understands how it works.
And that understanding, coupled with his own conman instincts, has let him step into a void in the center of American culture. There are humiliations, and there are millions who don’t understand where their lives are going, or where they have gone. They don’t know why the jobs they prepared for have left, but have a vague idea who to blame. Others: foreign Others, domestic Others, the Others that might even live next door. Certain the elite and effeminate others who make up the political class. They’ve been primed for this for the last 40 years, through decades of increasingly-unhinged GOP candidates who snarl anti-everything tirades, propping up only “traditional” values. These messages are amplified through the dissonant feedback loop of talk radio and the internet. Normal politicians fall to the wayside, and are replaced by slobbering beasts who don’t make anyone’s lives better, but know who to blame. The Others. It’s the Other’s who have betrayed our land, and betrayed you.
The image, for the fall of a civilization, is Yeats’s widening gyre, but I think it goes the other way, too. This is a swirling funnel, and in this landscape, with this fractured, atomized media, with a bunch of racially-unhinged and genuinely-dispossessed group, who have been told for years that the love of the gun was what made them Americans, a know-nothing bigot with a 4th-grade sense of vulgar humor could lead them. He makes their enemies sputteringly angry. He tells it like it is. He promises to protect us.
That it is completely phony isn’t beside the point; it is the point. That Trump is the most absurdly over-the-top liar to ever run for office is ok, because to his followers, his lies metastasize into a cancerous truth. He– and he alone– has that power. That he gives zero hint of having any idea how to put the Muslims and the Mexicans and the Black Lives Matter terrorists into place other than wall doesn’t matter. The mere act of saying it restores their idea of a homeland. He– and alone– has the power to do that. That he is patently unqualified is fine. So are you, and so am I. We all are. He’s one of us. He’s our voice, because he’s already famous, and says what we’re thinking: incoherent rage that brings with it the promise of glory. It’s the ultimate mix of our celebrity culture and the “blood, steel, and soil” that make up fascism.
That he’s such a manicured fake, whose idea of toughness is to send a lawyer at a carpenter, is what makes it perfect. Even Hitler, and you know that starting a sentence with that phrase is really difficult to do, had a history of sacrifice and valor. The fascists of old could call back on shared glory and shared agony. Trump is making it all up. The times he vaguely hearkens back to didn’t exist, and he suffered absolutely zero times with the people he represents. He’s not a fascist for a society that has been battered by war and failure. He’s a fascist for a society that has had its feet knocked out from under it by economic and cultural forces it doesn’t fully understand. He’s a fascist for a society that is grappling with hundreds of years of racial inequity, in which the perceived winners were barely more powerful than those it ground beneath its bigoted feet, and who have an inchoate desire for revenge. He’s the fascist for a society that has been numbed by and overhwhelming amount of cheap stimuli, and who need a center who actually thrives in that cultural morass. They want an elite who says “I am one of you, and you can be me, because neither of us is Them.” He’s an opioid for an opiate-addicted nation.
His platform is fascism. His style is late-American decadence. He’s perfect for us, because he is offering the glory of blood and soil without any of the sacrifice that Hitler or Mussolini or Franco demanded with their demented ideals. That such a thing is absurd, that it is Chaplin run through a funhouse mirror, doesn’t make it not dangerous. The danger is amplified by the, well, reality of it.
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