The uniqueness of the 2016 election is the radicalism of the winner – in terms of content, manner, and temperament. There is no precedent among mature democracies for the election as head of government of someone so gross, so ignorant, so bigoted and so inexperienced. Further, it is inconceivable that such person – or his approximation ― even could come close to gaining power elsewhere. So, the issue is the number of votes he received rather than the margin of victory.
The healthy instincts are to fight or flee – to isolate and extinguish the source or to distance oneself from it. There is a less honorable “third way,” that is to inhale through a scented kerchief until one gets accustomed to the smell and treats it as normal. Most Americans already have chosen that third path. Predictably. For it is the course of least effort; and we have acquired considerable aptitude at devising methods to spare ourselves harsh realities by making believe that they are something else. After all, the man in the White House is there because of that facility at blurring the line between the virtual and the actual – and to live in a world of self-delusion.
The goal of every radical movement that seizes power is to foster the image of inevitability – now and forevermore. The best strategy for accomplishing that is to maintain outward forms while imposing drastic changes in their substance and the culture that guides behavior. Everything must look to be the same so that everything can change. Thereby, the sharp edge is taken off opposition to those drastic changes, opportunities for cooptation expanded, language molded so that the old words and phrases subtly acquire new meanings, so that – in short – a new normal is impressed on minds and codified in official acts.
There are two features of the collective American mindset that work against a tough, unsparing approach toward our current situation. First is the distinctive American instrumentalism that sees life as a series of challenges to practical skill and will power. Intangibles of the spirit are downplayed. Hence, the repeated advice now offered on pragmatic ways for coping with the forthcoming administration. They all entail maneuvers to seek out common ground, for tactical agreements on individual items on the public agenda. That attitude assumes that the contending party also is an instrumentalist at heart and, moreover, that we can isolate bits and pieces of public policy from the deep forces operating in the American body politic and shaping how we think about the country.
That assumption, in turn, is rooted in the accompanying American belief that good lurks within every person, and thereby within every movement. It is particularly pronounced among liberals. Our optimistic creed postulates faith in people, in progress, in human nature, in resolving whatever obstructions are before us. This philosophy guided Obama’s strategy of conciliation mingled with appeasement toward his implacable Republican opposition. The results were nil in terms of policy and disaster politically for the Democrats.
These two traits together could be fatal to any serious effort at countering the menace that we now face.
The unpalatable truth is that authoritarian movements and ideology with fascist overtones are back – in America and in Europe. Not just as a political expletive thrown at opponents, but as a doctrine, as a movement, and – above all – as a set of feelings. Against this historical backdrop, it should not be a complete surprise that due to the troubled state of the West, across Europe and now most pronounced in America, we should see recrudescence of the attitudes, the rhetoric and the inspirations that marked Fascism’s rise 80 or 90 years ago. Some ingredients are recognizable: racist hate; scapegoating of the alien “other;” mounting feelings of insecurity – economic, status, national; frustrated feelings of lost prowess; the scorning of elected democratic leaders condemned at once as “weak” (in not crushing the Islamic terrorists) and overbearing (in not yielding to claims of an absolute right to high caliber weaponry). Its intoxicating effects have given America over to the Tea Party and placed the Orangutan in the White House.
These multifarious phenomena are not exact matches to the Fascism of an earlier era. Trump is not a mass murderer. He is, though, a mentally unbalanced racist with strong autocratic tendencies. The comparison does reveal some important similarities, though, that clarify their sources, their dynamic and their possible implications. So, it is worth noting the extraordinary essay by Umberto Eco (recently deceased) who composed a concise disquisition that presents the distilled essence of Fascism. Informed mainly by the Mussolini regime which he experienced personally, it has universal applicability.
Eco identifies the several defining features of Fascism. Here are the most central ones. Let’s look at how they figure in the Orangutan’s playbook and the response to his ploys.
1. A mythologizing of tradition that glories innate virtues and heroic deeds.
That obviously is what the slogan “Make America Great Again” is all about. It harks back to some fictional Golden Age when the United States was unanimously declared the world’s No. 1 – forever and anon. When the American Dream of inexorable betterment was a tangible fact; when Horatio Alger was the boy next door; when this truly was the land of the free and the home of the brave; when American soil was inviolate (Pearl Harbor and the British burning of the White House aside); when John Wayne rode high in the saddle.
The medley of legends and images that composed the mythical America was at its heart a white male myth. Others could share in it but the emotional core was well recognized. Somehow the myth lives on as a measure of individual as well as collective power and credibility. Its fraying has been unsettling – especially for those whose reliance on it is accentuated by personal insecurities. There were multiple ways in which the current stressed state of the American psyche could be exploited for political ends. The easiest, as always, is that of the bigoted demagogue whose maniacal ego overrides all decorum and restraint to sell a snake oil compounded of fear, scapegoats, and an appeal to our basest instincts. Trump had those qualities; moreover, he caught on to the hidden truth of how base those American instincts in fact are.
His victory is now making their expression respectable. By treating the his doings as run-of-the-mill, by taking them at their face value, the media, the commentariat and the tame opposition acquiesce not just in
today’s political fait accompli – but also imperil the country’s future.
2. A rejection of Enlightenment ideals with their emphasis on rationality.
The Orangutan and his minions take a cavalier approach to facts, to the most elementary logic, to consistency. There is no objective truth for them. There is only the truth that is rooted in their angry emotions. That is the sole legitimizer. Genuine fascist movements of yesteryear packed raw emotion into a contrived ideology of some sort. Our crypto-fascists don’t even bother with that. “Americanism” is their sole ideology. A warped Americanism that features every manner of prejudice and subordinates tangible interest to the gratification of joining in a mass movement of collegial juveniles.
3. Exalting of action for action’s sake – especially physical action with a penchant for violence.
Trump’s message is saturated with the words and images of violence. His very manner and gestures convey little more than bellicosity. The meager content is expressed in short, declaratory sentences: I will bomb the hell out of the Islamic State! I will not let Syrians into the United States! I will build the Wall to keep out rapists and murderers!
What he cannot give them are pledges of grisly violence – war, beatings, lynchings. This is not Germany 1933. Anyway, Trump’s militants don’t want a real war with real casualties and real spending. What they crave is a video game war: sanitized, comfortable, decisive – along with graphic pictures of Muslims being crushed under foot a la The Sniper. It’s war porn that they relish. They might get a thrill from Guantanamo but they don’t want to get their own hands dirty. So, how will he satisfy this desire for vicarious violence?
The answer is not evident. A few possibilities do exist, though. There is the grandiose Wall – 50, 60, 70 feet high – beautiful to behold, like a T Tower. He could claim that it will rival China’s Great Wall as the only earthly structures visible from the moon. However, that’s pretty low-grade thrills. It’s hard to imagine Orangutan Youth in starched uniforms being escorted to the Sonoran Desert to view with awe the WALL and chanting hymns of praise in honor of the big O.
4. Intolerance for criticism from any source – domestic or foreign.
A critic is an enemy – an enemy of the movement, an enemy of the leader, an enemy of America. Standard autocratic stuff. Trump will use all the means at his disposal to intimidate, to cajole, to seduce the media into serving as tacit allies in his campaign to remake the country’s political institutions and culture. All the evidence we have summoned tells us that it will succeed to a very great degree. Why resort to the primitive means of censor when your purposes are served by a nominally free but craven media?
5. A cultivated sense of status denial or threat from combined internal and external sources.
Turning people away from authority figures, established institutions, and their creeds is an essential precondition for cementing their allegiance. The hallmark success of the 2016 campaign was to achieve exactly that, to break the restraining ties and to free voters to follow their emotions and to allow their base instincts to prevail over reason in putting the Orangutan in the White House. Maintaining that estrangement from the pointed-headed intellectuals, from the liberal elite, from a hostile press, from whomever preaches tolerance and generosity will be his priority. The trick is to spit out the white hot rhetoric while dealing with many of the establishment elements you need and are your self-interested allies.
The easiest group will be the financial and business establishment. He’s one of them. Favors in the form of further tax breaks (when paid at all) and deregulation already are in the pipeline. The wedding of political power and economic power is natural. It always takes place – whether in Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, throughout Latin America. Populism be damned. For the boobs and credulous who bought the pitch that the crooked billionaire would improve their lot, it will be words, scapegoats, and raw emotions. For the powers-that-be, it will be hard cash.
6. A doctrine built on the idea that “life is a struggle” whereby only the strong and resolute prevail.
Trump played shamelessly to the macho instincts of the white American male – among the most insecure cohort in the world. It was a coarse, simple message: “they” have been trying to denature you; “they” have undermined your natural prowess; “they” must be put in their place for you to regain your potency. Look at me; Trump personifies the ultimate Alpha male who is surrounded by beautiful, servile women. ”I am the one who can lead you to new heights of manliness. I even can legitimize sexual assault.” The truth of assumptions about male insecurity is confirmed by how many bought into this line of adolescent nonsense. It should be no surprise: look at TV shows, commercials, MTV, and celebrity culture.
7. Contempt for the weak stigmatized as life’s losers and nature’s failures.
This is a natural match to macho posturing. Prowess, and a sense of prowess, always have a relative element. It is rooted in our animal nature. The crudest way of bolstering one’s self-esteem is to belittle those designated as weaker. Indeed, finding persons who are inferior becomes an inner drive for those who crave signs of their superiority. That is why Trump can mock a disabled reporter at no cost. That, too, is why his coarseness toward women was not fatal. Too many men are so intimidated by WOMAN that visions of their debasement offer reassurance as well as a thrill rather being seen as repugnant.