A few notes at the start:
1) The topics today are fascism and Donald Trump. Feel free to stop reading now if you were expecting something different.
2) I have a rule about not saying unkind things about people in this blog. I make an exception for idiotic public figures spewing venom and scaring people.
3) I wrote this several days ago, but didn’t want to post it on the first Sunday of Advent. Wasn’t sure I would post it at all . . .
4) Today I started doing some research on the Climate Talks in Paris for school and stumbled across a news report on Trump’s ridiculous stances on climate change. Within two minutes he called the President “dumb, naive, and incompetent”, said climate change was much less of a danger than the “large groups of people” whowant to destroy our cities and kill us all, or North Korea and Iran with their nukes. He cast doubt on whether climate change was real because “they” keep changing the name of it (global warming, extreme weather . . .) and if it is, it’s China’s fault for burning all our coal and nothing can be done because other countries don’t behave. What he wants is clean air and clean beautiful water.
I decided to post this after all.
I’ve been making fun of Trump on and off for a while now, but the truth of the matter is that I stopped laughing quite a while ago. He deeply, deeply disturbs me. His candidacy has changed from a reality show of dubious entertainment value into – as many journalists are now pointing out – something “dark”. Maybe it is my education combined with my life in Austria — living among a people that both gave birth to and were almost destroyed by such thinking, and having to deal with this country’s far-right party over the years (“Intolerable”, “Headscarf”) — that makes me ultra-sensitive to the subject of fascist ideology. I recognize something truly sinister in Trump and am appalled by his apparent current success. I had always thought that the American political system was inherently immune to such hysteria. A nation of immigrants cannot scapegoat immigrants! A nation founded on the principle of religious freedom cannot discriminate and cordon off one particular religion! The people in the richest nation on Earth cannot possibly be convinced that they are the sorry victims of desperate refugees!
And yet, here we are. Allowing a fascist blowhard to steer the national political debate.
I was incredibly happy to see news reports lately using the “F* word” in connection with Trump. At the same time, I wondered at the hesitancy to use the actual word. It is fascism. Call it by its name!
Maybe the problem is that people have different interpretations of the term. The usual thinking goes something like this: calling someone a fascist is the same as comparing him to Hitler. That, in turn, will engender a reaction. It’s too extreme! Unfair! Hysterical! Registering Muslims can’t be equated with exterminating Jews!
The thing is . . . it can. Both hark back to the first and foremost promise of the fascist: the scapegoat, excuse me, I mean the awful people who are responsible for all your fears and troubles will be found and dealt with. Hitler managed to reach a position that allowed him to “make good” on his promises. Trump hasn’t reached that position. Nor will he, in all probability. But he will certainly do a whole lot of damage to the country in his attempt to get there.
Fascism is a not an established set of certain political beliefs or policies. It’s a (potential) mindset (lying dormant) in every human being that can be activated when the conditions and catalysts all line up in a certain way. Any politician aiming to exploit this “potential” need only reach a certain critical mass of people before they become afraid of one another and the movement becomes self-propelling. The Salem Witch Trials on a grand scale.
It was Umberto Eco who helped me understand all of this.
Over 25 years of teaching university students about social issues, I periodically had groups who were interested in politics and chose the topic of fascism for the course. (These periods usually overlapped with times that our “Freedom Party” here enjoyed peak popularity.) That, in turn, forced me to do research and I eventually stumbled across Eco’s “Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”. It opened my eyes. I figured if Eco could make fascism comprehensible to a white, middle-class, suburban American, he could do the same for my students. I took his wonderful text and simplified it down to a length and language level my students could handle. What ensued were some of the most memorable and meaningful class discussions I ever had the fortune to listen to.
In this blog post, I will only give a ridiculously simplified version of Eco’s words, followed by my own thoughts and the examples that occur to me offhand. To read the original – and I highly recommend it — click here: http://www.pegc.us/archive/Articles/eco_ur-fascism.pdf
So here it is – 14 ways of looking at the F* word:
1. The Cult of Tradition
There is a Truth, with a capital “T” that was spelled out from the beginning and we have strayed from it. That means there is no advancement through learning. No better future state. Our goal is to go back to some (glorious) earlier state – to. . .
“Make America Great Again”.
2. Rejection of Modernism
The Age of Reason is overrated. Questioning things is a waste of time. What we need are simple answers to complex issues. This is the way things are. Period.
How many times have you heard Trump say “It’s so simple!” Here’s a direct quote from his website (notice the omission of “well regulated”):
“The Second Amendment to our Constitution is clear. The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed upon. Period.”
3. Action for Action’s Sake
Action is beautiful in itself, and it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Liberal intellectuals with their critical attitudes betray traditional values and can’t be trusted. (Not to mention the fact that they are a bunch of wimps.)
Everything Trump promises to do, he also promises to do “fast”. The Wall between the US and Mexico will be built fast. The Veteran’s Administration will be fixed “ – and fast.” About the “bad illegals” he says:
“Day one. If I win, day one of my presidency, they’re getting out. We’re getting them out. We’re getting them out fast.”
4. Disagreement is Treason
This one is self-explanatory. Notice the way Trump viciously goes after anyone who criticizes him, calling them “stupid” and “awful” and “disgusting” etc. I defy anyone to come up with an example of him saying “I respectfully disagree”.
To defend the way his “fans” beat up a Black Lives Matter protester, Trump pointed out Bernie Sanders’s “disgusting” weakness when confronted by the same group, adding “maybe they should be roughed up a little”.
5. Fear of Difference
Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist movement is an appeal against intruders.
How did Trump kick off his campaign? By bashing the Mexicans and promising to build a wall (and build it fast). Now he wants a “Deportation Force” to get rid of the “illegals” who are already here. All 11 million of them. And now with the refugee crisis, Trump can point to them as proof that we are being “invaded” at this very moment.
6. Appeal to the Frustrated Middle Class
Fascism rises up from individual or social frustration. One of the most typical features of the historical fascism is a middle class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.
Despite years of continual job creation and sinking unemployment rates, the Republicans keep telling us how horrible everything is and that it is getting worse. Apparently a lot of people believe this, which is a phenomenon I have trouble understanding. Trump is no different – he just adds that it is the fault of our “stupid negotiators” and China and the immigrants who are “taking our jobs”. When it comes to the solution, it is always the same: cutting taxes.
Again from his website, his “tax reform” position:
“Too few Americans are working, too many jobs have been shipped overseas, and too many middle class families cannot make ends meet.”
7. Nationalism / Obsession with a Plot
When people feel deprived of a clear social identity, Fascism tells them that their only privilege is to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. The only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies, so at the root of fascist psychology is an obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged and their xenophobia (= fear of foreigners) is encouraged.
In Trump’s world, the Mexicans are “sending us” their criminals and the Chinese are stealing our jobs and the refugees are really an invasion and the Muslims are dancing in the streets as the towers come down . . . It seems everyone is out to get us . . .
8. Humiliation by the Force / Wealth of Enemies
Fascism teaches followers to think of themselves as somehow inferior, poorer, more helpless than their enemies. At the same time, they must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. By the continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.
Trumps harps continually about his strength and the “weakness” of his adversaries. It seems America has been humiliated and he will make it strong again.
“Our weak President, that kisses everybody’s ass, is in more wars than I have ever seen. Now he’s in Libya, he’s in Afghanistan, he’s in Iraq. Nobody respects us.”
“When people are screwing you, you don’t give them state dinners . . . we have weak, pathetic leadership.”
The scariest thing, though, is how he mixes up his own enemies in the campaign with America’s enemies. They are all in one and the same pot, we are all at war with one another . . .
9. Life is Permanent Warfare
In the fascist world view, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. Despite the view of life as permanent warfare, enemies must be defeated. There must be some “final solution”.
“Yes, we’re gonna have a force. A deportation force.”
“I’m putting the people here on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration that if I win, if I win, they’re going back.”
10. Contempt for the Weak
Elitism in a fascist regime is militaristic and popular. Every citizen belongs to the best people in the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. The weak need and deserve a ruler.
Trump doesn’t mince words when proclaiming his own superiority. He is so rich and so smart. He is a winner and everyone else (who is not with him) is a “loser” . . .
“How stupid are the people of Iowa?”
11. Everyone is Educated to Become a Hero
In mythology the hero is exceptional, but in Fascism, heroism is the norm.
Trump is noticeably devoid of policy positions – there are only 5 on his website – and his promises on what he is going to do are ludicrously vague:
“We are going to be great on the military stuff.” – “We’re gonna look into a lot of things.” –
His plan is not to govern America, but to save it.
Machismo means both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.
Do I need to even go into this one?
13. Selective Populism
The fascist Leader pretends to be the interpreter or the Voice of the People – identifying what the common will is. This leader is often against “rotten” parliamentary governments, accusing them of no longer representing the Voice of the People.
Trump is clearly impressed by his own poll numbers. He mentions them constantly and then makes the claim that they prove his message is what the people want to hear. He belittles all the Washington insiders and claims to be the only candidate who is there for the people.
14. Fascism Speaks Newspeak
Newspeak was invented by George Orwell in 1984, as the language of his fictional future England. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of a limited vocabulary, and a simple sentence structure, in order to limit the tools for complex and critical reasoning.
Similarly, Trump’s language has no subtlety or nuance – it’s all just simplistic phrases peppered with childish insults. The writing on his website is at a level any grade school child could understand.
I think it is clear that if democracy is going to work, the people have to have enough intelligence and discernment to make wise choices. So what’s with all the dumbness?
There you have it – Umberto’s and my case for using the F* word when talking about Trump. For the sake of the country, I would so love to see him brought down. When it comes to the Republican Party, though, I have zero sympathy for the predicament they are in – their years of obstructionism and incessant ranting about the terrible the state of the country with its useless government have prepared the soil for Trump to grow in. Now one chunk of their voters has run off to join the circus and another to join a cult.
Do I think Trump can win? Of course not. With only 50% of Americans voting and about half of them voting Republican, Trump’s current 30% translates into less than 10% of the total voting age population. I am more worried about the damage he is doing day in and day out on his quest. The fear he must instill in all the people he considers “losers” (and there are a lot of them!) The needlessly continued suffering of downtrodden people – whom the normally generous Americans would be happy to help – but Trump has made them suspicious. His penchant for feeding conspiracy theories and the paranoia that accompanies them. And last but not least, that Trump thrives along with the ideas that “Simple is good and simpletons are better.”
He –and everything he stands for – enrages me and I feel compelled to shout.
Umberto Eco reminds us that it is “our duty is to uncover [fascism] and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.” He then ends by quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938 and I will do the same:
“If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”