“— mind you, the corridors of power are littered with Fascist leanings; anything to save the upper classes through disenfranchisement of the common man while allowing the common man to think you are on his side.” — Dr. Trevor Petit, a character in Jaqueline Winspear’s mystery A Lesson in Secrets
Recently, I’ve stumbled upon two articles on fascism that are chillingly relevant as political darkness envelopes the nation.
“When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017) tells the story of Austrian writer and intellectual Stefan Zweig, who fled the German Anschluss in 1934. Zweig — so miserable in exile he took his life in 1942 — always lamented the inability of his intellectual circle to take Hitler seriously before it was too late. Regrettably, “. . . the big democratic newspapers, instead of warning their readers, reassured them day by day that the [Nazi] movement . . . would inevitably collapse . . . .”
Sound familiar? What poll or newspaper predicted that Donald Trump would finish the race?
The second article (The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995), written by the late Italian novelist Umberto Eco (1932-2016), is titled simply Ur-Fascism. Eco, who as a youngster and adolescent witnessed the zenith and then demise of Mussolini, learned invaluable lessons about the soil in which fascism grows.
Eco identifies fourteen traits of Ur-Fascism (or Eternal Fascism), his terminology for a constellation of factors—some contradictory—that are latent in most societies. Under favorable conditions, the ripening of just one such factor can allow “fascism to coagulate.” What’s immensely troubling is that at least a dozen of the bitter fruits identified twenty-two years ago by Eco have ripened in today’s America. We teeter on the brink of totalitarianism. We’re not quite there, but the stench is in the air.
Because of space limitations, we’ll consider only a subset of Eco’s list. For coherence, these are re-ordered relative to Eco’s presentation.
- Historically, fascism arises from “an appeal to a frustrated [and/or humiliated] middle class, . . . frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” The economic and psychic pain of America’s middle class—for whom the American dream has collapsed—is real. The hope that Trump, whose allegiance is to the oligarchy, will alleviate that pain is false.
- Fascism feeds upon fear, particularly the “fear of difference . . . . The first appeal of a fascist . . . movement is an appeal against the intruders.” Whereas Obama and Sanders appealed to our hopes, Trump exploits our fears: of ISIS, Muslims, Mexicans, blacks, immigrants, and refugees. Fear is a strong motivator, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trump is grandmaster of the politics of fear.
- Anti-intellectualism and “action for action’s sake” stoke fascism. Reflection, or navel-gazing, is seen as “a form of emasculation.” Trump is the anti-Obama; the former president was thoughtful and deliberate in all actions. Trump is incapable of reflection. It’s no coincidence that the first two weeks of the Trump presidency were variously described as a “demolition derby” or as a campaign of “shock and awe.” To take root, fascism needs a shell-shocked public. What better way to keep us reeling than an incoherent barrage of executive orders.
- Analytical criticism is anathema to fascist movements, which, as suggested above, are inherently anti-intellectual and anti-rational. Thoughtfulness, reflection, and analysis shine bright lights into the dark corners of fascism’s “structured confusion.” In constant need of adulation yet afraid of the light, Trump rampages in late-night Twitter storms against all who dare challenge him: the media, the 500,000 participants of the Women’s March, and judges who refuse to shred the Constitution.
- Charging ahead regardless of consequences requires a calculated recklessness; thus, machismo is a prized “value” among fascists. Whether it’s Trump’s bragging about grabbing women’s genitals or his brandishing of nuclear weapons, chalk it up to unbridled testosterone.
- Fascism thrives on enemies. “Life is permanent warfare” between good and evil forces. Armageddon is just around the corner. Anyone who is not for us is against us. This is the dark mindset of Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is obsessed with an apocalyptic view of the future, including the necessity of World War III.
- To the fascist mind, “pacifism is trafficking with the enemy,” and anyone perceived as weak deserves only contempt. Trump’s list of “losers” is long and contains just about everyone—vanquished GOP presidential candidates, handicapped journalists, prisoners of war, the pope—save for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, whom most regard as a thug.
- Propaganda is the fertilizer of fascism. Fascist regimes flourish in the intellectual fog of Newspeak, George Orwell’s term—from his dystopian classic 1984–for the inversion of the truth. Up is down. Good is bad. Love is hate. In Mein Kampf Hitler invented the “The Big Lie,” a fabrication so “colossal” it could not be doubted, for no one “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Already, Trump’s propagandists, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, bombard us daily with “alternative facts’’ and “fake news.”
Looking back on the intelligentsia’s failure to thwart Hitler, Zweig was overcome with remorse for the belated recognition that “. . . there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then [the discovery of] how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.’’
For Germany the window slammed after Berlin’s Reichstag fire by arson on February 27, 1933. Hitler blamed the Communists as a pretext to assume power.
Already, political seers, including Naomi Klein, Paul Krugman, Paul Waldman, and Chris Hedges, anticipate an analogous power grab by the Trump administration. Hedges, in particular, envisions this scenario:
We await the crisis. It could be economic. It could be a terrorist attack within the United States. It could be widespread devastation caused by global warming. . . . The crisis is coming. And when it arrives it will be seized upon by the corporate state, nominally led by a clueless real estate developer, to impose martial law and formalize the end of American democracy.
The window for action remains open, but the time to hobble Trump and reclaim the tatters of democracy is short. On the one hand, we may legitimately take heart that the resistance against Trumpian tyranny is well-organized and massive. On the other hand, flush with power, the GOP daily enables rather than restrains Trump’s worst impulses and abominable cabinet picks.
When the window of action closes, we will live in a fascist state. The only question is: What kind? Black Shirts or Brown?
Unlike Hitler, observes Eco, “Mussolini did not have any philosophy; he had only rhetoric.” Neither does Trump have an overarching philosophy. But Bannon, the Ueber-President, does. Whether we are headed for the fascism of Mussolini or of Hitler is anyone’s guess.
The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."