The Real Phrase We Need to Use-Rising American Fascism
The hard right and some leftists like Bill Maher have bemoaned for years Obama’s reluctance to associate over a billion people with terrorism by using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” as if that phrase would somehow render terrorists impotent. I subscribe to the view that its use would inflame billions rather than neuter the radical thousands, but my purpose is not to debate that — the “call-radical-Islamic-terrorism-by-its-name” crowd will have its day under the Leader, Donald Trump, and we will see what difference that makes or not. My purpose is to agree that there is power in words and their proper use, and now we all have a need to call something by its true name so that it can be effectively resisted and overcome, rising American fascism.
Fascist forces have long been loose in America, but it seems their moment may be at hand. The KKK, white supremacists, militant nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, and other fascist extremists gleefully support our new Leader whether he claims to want their support or not. And fascism is clearly where America is headed under the Leader. In a recent New Yorker essay, “When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism, According to Stefan Zweig,” George Prochnik explores how Zweig’s belated recognition of rising German fascism led him to write his autobiography as a guide for future generations to recognize fascism’s gathering form . But it seems likely a lesson unlearned or simply unknown. Indeed now many Americans are likely to explain Nazi Germany in reductive and meaningless terms, a case of mass spiritual possession by an evil force, rather than what it was: a long-gathering storm of nationalism and resentment, misunderstood, underestimated, and dismissed by the old guard, left and right, but inherently understood and manipulated by the ego of one man and his coterie of enablers as they rode its flood tide over the state structures that once seemed so robust as to make such an outcome unthinkable. Sound familiar?
Zweig’s autobiography details the progress of 20th century fascism, and it is disturbingly topical. The fascists “elevated lying to a matter of course,” and turned “anti-humanitarianism to law” so that by 1939 not “a single pronouncement by any writer had the slightest effect” or ability to inspire resistance to the fascist wave of militaristic authoritarianism. We aren’t there yet but the push is underway.
In today’s hyper-connected environment, dismantling objective truth is simple as literally anyone with an internet connection can create a “fact,” and there are large numbers ready to make it viral. But why? A significant source of fascism’s appeal is the “my-thumb-in-your-eye” feeling it engenders amongst its supporters, an official fuck-you to so many of the groups they deeply resent: condescending liberals, intellectuals and academic experts, high-brow writers, artists and ‘know-it-alls’ in general. The incomprehensibility of the artist or the expert to the fascist both fuels his fear of inferiority and his consequent resentment and confirms the worthlessness of the art or expertise. Undoubtedly that dissonance only amplifies the sense of resentment. How satisfying it is to have the highest office in the land as the instrument of revenge on all those who make provincialism and ignorance uncomfortable and uncool! The truth is in what is felt, and what is felt becomes what is known: a lie couldn’t make me feel this good, so in the most important sense it can’t be a lie!
Today the obfuscation of truth is greatly aided by entertainment- and politically-based ‘journalism,’ owned directly by the fascists or by their spiritual and business comrades. Their goal is to support the agenda, not to provide information as objectively as possible. Purposefully, the disinformation from these sources is subtler than classic internet-propagated disinformation, but only a little. During the rise of fascism when openly carrying its banner can still provoke disapproval, a mainstream disinformation source provides a critical function: the illusion of an objective, ‘fair and balanced’ viewpoint validating the pro-fascist agenda. These ‘news’ sources proclaim the agenda is the only sensible and patriotic one, and any failure of it to deliver tremendous results is because of the disloyal resistance! Of course it is fine to have your own tastes for music but not in science, history, and mathematics, yet that is exactly what current pro-fascist ‘journalism’ does. Truth becomes a matter of belief, exemplified best in the Leader whose beliefs, by being his, have the power to create truth.
Beyond the tools in the traditional media, our current fascists employ unmediated social platforms to communicate winks and dog whistles to keep their zealots satisfied without raising the concern of the less politically and socially radical and/or connected. This allows the Leader to retreat from his typical bombast in certain public settings, and the radicals don’t feel a need to protest, reassured that they are in on the joke being played. In these moments, they take advantage of the optimist who hopes for moderation from the fascist cabal and of the traditionalist who argues that respect for our system requires patience — it’s their turn now, they say, and they deserve a chance. (It’s like the prior decades of the Leader’s record or even the many months of his campaign either didn’t happen or have no relevance to his tenure as president.) Germany too had voices calling for both hope and patience, and Zweig tardily recognized them for what they were, wishful thinking that paralyzed opposition while fascism reinforced.
Under objective scrutiny, like that provided by time, fascists are widely identified as incompetent or ignorant purveyors of distorted history and perverse science, and ours are no different. However German fascists were not ignorant of the tools of mass manipulation, nor of the sources of institutional resistance. Likewise American fascists are no exceptions. They rely on the inability of people to weigh risks proportionately and have put forward a demagogue who uses that fact to trade the meaningful protections of our Constitution for the belligerent posturing of a would-be strong man. The foundations of American civil society — a constitutional system of checks and balances, unfettered free speech and widespread voter enfranchisement — are intentional obstacles to authoritarianism, and as such represent problems for rising American fascism. Consequently a wide variety of right-wing efforts are busily eroding the American foundation. Undoubtedly when the inevitable triggering event arrives — the American Reichstag Fire — our balancing forces, a free press, voters, the judiciary, and even Congress, will all be in some contrived state of marginalization or even culpability. Our institutional tools will be diminished and unable to fulfill their constitutional role as safeguards from the rise of the fascist authoritarian. The Leader’s supporters will cheer this subversion of our foundational principles while in the same breath asserting their unique patriotism.
In the face of rising American fascism, let us hope that the resistance needed is not more than peaceful acts of protest and civil disobedience. At the same time let no one be afraid to say that it might not be enough or that it’s irresponsible to suggest that possibility. With the perfect vision of hindsight we know now that there were moments in history where stronger resistance may have averted catastrophe. With our bristling armaments of Apocalypse, it’s not hyperbolic to say a failure to resist today’s tide of American fascism might let no one live. Let us hope that a strong resistance now gives future reactionaries the privilege of remembering these times as an outrageous act of ‘left-wing’ defiance that unfairly frustrated a presidency. I won’t agree with that but I could live with it. What’s more important is that because of resistance today all of us, liberals and reactionaries alike, might live to see that tomorrow. That is what is at stake in naming and resisting rising American fascism.