Because I published a book recently on the harm done to U.S. democracy by violent rhetoric, I get lots of calls for comment on whichever right-wing shock jock uttered the most menacing words on air in any given week. Lately, however, those questions have shifted in a very noticeable way. Whereas the public concern used to be focused on violent terms and phrases used in broadcast media, nowadays all the talk is about Sarah Palin's speeches and fear of 'fascism.' And even if 'fascist' is not a very accurate description of Sarah Palin -- neither sociologically nor historically -- public concern in response to her campaign events is a social fact well worth noting, if only for the sheer scale of it.
Palin Events Evoke Image of 'Rallies' Seen in History Museums
The most common point brought to my attention in this new concern for Palin is that her events remind people of the kind of 'rallies' people have seen in old newsreels and exhibition photographs in history museums about the fascist period.
Many people have said to me, in so many words, 'I went to a Holocaust museum, recently, and the kinds of rallies they had in the 1930s are exactly what we are seeing now at these Palin events.'
What is it that makes people see events from 1930s Europe and Sarah Palin's campaign stops in Florida (e.g.) as similar? People repeatedly mention three things:
(1) Palin's claim that Sen. Obama has covert ties to 'domestic terrorism'
(2) Palin's claim that Sen. Obama wants to see the U.S. military defeated in war
(3) Shouts from attendees calling for physical harm against Sen. Obama
Interestingly, I have heard these observations from Democrats and Republicans. The logic is that it is not just one feature of the Palin events that leads people see them as 'rallies' of the sort they have learned about in history museums, but three elements combining together: claims of Obama's covert terrorist ties and desire to see the military fail, combined with voiced calls for harm to Sen. Obama.
Palin Events Elicit Talk of Attendee 'Mentality''
After talk of historical references, the most common concern I hear is about the 'mentality' or 'psychology' of the attendees at Palin events. When put to me, the question is often phrased as:
Is there some reason why the people at these events -- and not other people -- are susceptible to the kind of political rhetoric Palin uses?
The psychology questions are most often posed in response to several observations made about the attendees:
(1) Since Sen. Obama has no ties to terrorism, why do some people believe it?
(2) Why are these people susceptible to right-wing propaganda while other people are not?
(3) Why do people continue to accept the 'terrorism' and 'treason' smears even when presented with facts about Sen. Obama?
Nobody who has presented me with these questions has claimed any kind of expertise in psychological theory. Rather, they seem to be looking for a scientific sounding answer for what they observe as an irrational 'anger' at Palin rallies and, in general, a 'mentality' departing from 'normal.'
We find these same kinds of questions about 'anger' and 'mentality' in the writings from observers of the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s -- such as Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. What I hear in these questions about the 'mentality' of the Palin attendees is not a return to social psychological theories of the postwar period, but a voiced concern for what people view as behavior in the public sphere that strikes them as a departure from normal, healthy behavior.
Palin Events Provoke Talk of Acting Before 'Too Late' to Stop Fascism
The third most common kind of chatter in response to Sarah Palin's events focus on the idea of 'proto-fascism' or the process of becoming fascist. These discussions often reference certain lists or books that describe the emergence of fascist totalitarianism in terms of a series of elements that emerge over a given period of time.
The people who ask these kinds of question all express a very similar concern about identifying fascism 'before it is too late to stop.' These arguments emerge from people who have gone out and read books and articles that talk about fascism emerging in small steps that nobody notices until it is 'too late,' to stop -- a common argument made in polemical writing about fascism.
Of note, this kind of concern is often the most fear-filled -- the most advanced. Often, the people who ask me if it is too late to stop the 'fascism' Palin brings to our system had voiced concerns about 'fascism' prior to Palin's nomination.
Conclusion: Palin Not Fascist, But She Sparks Talk of Threats to Democracy
To call someone a 'fascist' is a very serious charge. Despite all these questions and concerns, I have not concluded that Sarah Palin's past or recent campaign events represent the emergence of fascism in American politics. In particular, Sarah Palin does not bring anything even closely approaching a comprehensive totalitarian nationalist ideology to the campaign trail. Instead, Palin merely thumps the war drums of George Bush's 'robber baron' style Republicanism.
What she does bring is a noteworthy skill with extreme, often violent populism. As a result, she has succeeded at creating intense loyalty to her personally, and deep antipathy for Sen. Obama -- also on a personal level. And while this populism has succeeded only amongst small core of the Republican base, the fervency of Palin's supporters has been amplified a thousand times over by the obsessive media coverage that she enjoys.
So, Sarah Palin is not 'fascist,' but that does not mean her language and her events have not had a dangerous impact on our democracy.
Beyond adding populism to the campaign trail, Palin has also done something else: she has re-framed the McCain campaign in violent terms -- terms that had been used predominantly by right-wing shock pundits on TV and radio.
Whereas politicians like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich had occasionally used violent rhetoric in stump speeches, Sarah Palin's use of it has resulted in a complete repackaging of the Republican presidential campaign. And thhat use of violent rhetoric has threatened to clogged up any attempt by the American public to have serious, pragmatic conversation about the problems we face and the solutions necessary to solve them.
In our gut, Americans feel that the violent rhetoric in Sarah Palin's campaign events poisons the productive pragmatism of American Democracy. In response to that gut feeling, some people reach for the word 'fascism,' most likely, because that is the word used in popular culture most frequently over the past ten years to describe threats to democracy.
Even if 'fascist' is not an accurate description of Sarah Palin, the scale of the public concern in response to her campaign events is a social fact all by itself. And as we head into the final weeks of the campaign, the scope of that social fact grows by the hour.
Crossposted from Frameshop
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