Saturday, February 11, 2017

Truth is the First Casualty of Fascism

Is he a clown, or a fascist? Depends on who believes him, and who follows him.

We are in new territory, in American politics. Never before has such a vile know-nothing bully been elected as president. George Washington is surely spinning in his grave. But other countries have been here before- Italy perhaps foremost, with its experiences of Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi. Each was thought to be a clown, at least originally. The dark side of political clown-ishness, however, is fascism.

The signs are everywhere, from the campaign, to the inaugural address, to the flurry of hate unleashed in the first weeks in office. The pillars of fascism are an authoritarian mind-set, use of hate as the most powerful political emotion, scapegoats to focus hate on, lying, systematic hatred and denigration of the press, dedication to business interests, militarism, and use of extra-legal means and general destruction of institutions and due process in favor of direct use of, and displays of, power. And then more lying.

The President's inaugural address and festivities exemplified all these trends. There was national renewal and rebuilding the country, as though it was not already built. There was "American carnage". Really? Crime hardly our biggest problem. It was a play for power, to justify extreme measures and authoritarian approaches. God was invoked constantly, not only by the blessers and benedicters, but by the President himself, as though he had a theological leg to stand on. "We will be protected by God", "... the same almighty creator". There was the cheap nationalism. "America first, America first!", and "a total allegiance to the United States of America".

There were fawning claims of putting power back in the hands of the people in several places in the speech. Which makes the ensuing flurry of executive orders seem rather odd, since they exemplify the power of one, not of the many. Even in representative terms, he represents a minority of those who voted. But no matter. The narcissistic identification of the leader with the whole is another facet of authoritarianism. And of narcissism.

The order banning Muslim and refugee immigration was further evidence, among many other orders and tantrums. The claim was that this would make us safer, evidently in light of the carnage that such immigrants were causing on US streets. Scapegoating and the lying are, as usual, inextricably linked. The authoritarian has to have enemies and can not have enough of them in reality, at least ones who are easy to hate. Thus Hitler and the Jews, or Mussolini and the pacifists and communists. We will have to watch the ratchet of hate and scapegoating very carefully. Now it is Muslims and Mexicans. Next is the press, whom the President calls garbage, and the worst people on earth- when he isn't sucking up to them, that is. Who will be next? The civil servants? The Democratic states unwilling to join immigrant roundups? The lawyers of the ACLU? The scientists? The logic of bullying is that anyone who is not clearly cowed is a threat and must be hounded into submission, or else the bully does not feel secure.

Bulldozing through institutions was another part of the immigration order, now being so thoroughly picked apart in the courts. Fascism is impatient with process and legal forms. The scapegoats must be eliminated immediately, and the leader must show his virile power to crush all opposition, with scathing tweets, if not with his armed followers or suborned organs of the law. It is ironic, though not surprising, that he has landed in the wrong end of federal court mere days after pledging so faithlessly to protect and defend the constitution.

But truth is the most serious casualty of this process, and ingredient in the many facets of fascism. All politics involves lying and coloring the facts to some degree. But most politics takes place in a zone of acceptable shadings of the truth, through a normal discourse of free media filtration and critique. This President has been notoriously immune to fact-checking through his campaign, and keeps tweeting lies. His enablers and advisors seem to be selected for their pusillanimity in accepting such alternative facts. The internet has brought us an unmediated liar as president, whose voters loved that he was not a normal politician. Little did they realize that this means he lies more rather than less!

The danger of Muslims in the US- lies. The carnage in the "inner city"- much less than a decade ago. The bad deals with Mexico, China, Iran- lies. The crowd size at the inauguration- lies. Voter fraud, and the idea that the actual popular vote favored the President- lies. Each lie is engineered to set up an false enemy or normalize an appalling view or policy. Each lie is engineered to augment the President's power, needing immediate executive action to fix. Who buys it? Well, the poll numbers have been dropping by the day, so this round of lying does not seem very effective.

The destruction of truth in our political discourse owes relatively little to the President and his appalling acolytes, however, but much more to the larger ecosystem of the right, particularly FOX news. They have been building startingly false and destructive narratives for decades, which curiously support the corporations and the rich while denigrating the government- the one entity that can stand in the way of the rich gathering the rest of our economy into its greedy fingers.

Thankfully, the President does not have the full toolchest of fascism at his command. And this goes beyond brains! He does not have enough popular support to alter the basic rules of the system. The Women's march was a very important warning shot in that respect. He does not have his own armed forces. He has only a modest grip on his own Republican party. That party is more dedicated to neutering the state than to building it up, at least in most respects. A crisis may change all these equations, but at the moment, a descent into fascism seems unlikely, despite his best efforts.

Starting with brains, it has become painfully apparent that the President's ravings are not the calculated distraction of a clever fox. Rather, they are his utmost effort at clarity and strength. There is no there there. He does not seem to have enough of a grasp of reality to manage it. Nor is the power behind the throne much more fearsome. Steven Bannon has a long history of right-wing agitation, and I studied one of his more recent films to gather an impression of his thought process: Occupy unmasked. It is an incoherent salad of clips and snark. But little sustained argument to be worried about. His actual speeches are more insidious, but they are very standard Republican pablum- the deficit is too big, the country is drowning in debt, the government needs to be cut. Nothing very novel there, just a fundamental misunderstanding of economics, an anti-worker agenda, and perhaps a note of warning to those Republicans who want to blow up the debt for tax cuts.

And the milita- the blackshirts or brownshirts, beholden to the fasicst leader- where is it? Thankfully, we have not stooped to that depth quite yet. But the way the customs and immigration service jumped to do the President's bidding, almost before the ink was dry, was highly disturbing. The order was half-baked at best, something that should have met with a bureaucratic friction and pushback for clarification, if not resistance. Likewise, the support the President has gotten from the border patrol union, to the point of incapacitating their leader, is also troubling. No one seems to be minding the values of common decency in those departments. Otherwise, the President and his acolytes are militaristic, but the military for its part sees how fake their values and rhetoric are, and will doubtless keep the crazy at arm's length. They may have disliked Obama, but that doesn't mean they want to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

How does the media environment look? Not that great, surely, but compared to something like Putin's Russia and Berlusconi's Italy, it is quite free. No amount of vitriol from the President is going to alter that, and the other institutions of government, principally the Congress, are unlikely to alter that, other than perhaps cutting public funding for the public media. Indeed the humor that has been unleashed is most cathartic and positive. The danger is mostly indirect, from a further unleashing of corporations on the public sphere, which will further pollute and damage our very notion of free speech and truth.

There have been many authoritarians, but few fascists. We can take comfort in the incompetence, small-mindedness, and stupidity of the current President to save us. But mostly, in our fellow Americans, who must draw a line. How the President was voted into office remains a conundrum, but his followership looks unlikely to grow. Quite the opposite- the poll numbers are going down; support is dwindling. The incompetence and meanness on display is offending everyone near and far. Other than base Republicans, of course. What will they do who are closer to power? Will the President's aides and advisors draw a line anywhere for decency and our long-term interests? Will the bureaucracy offer some resistance? That will only happen in concert with, and as an expression of, a general revulsion in the political system.

  • The signs are clear.
  • The establishment is appalled and uneasy.
  • Fake olds: re-writing history. Religions have been doing it forever, of course.
  • Lies as an excuse for oppression.
  • Who will follow? Who will not? Especially when the crisis comes.
  • Workers? Savers? Who cares?
  • Cringely on H1B and L1B visas.
  • Science and truth- another humdrum Democratic constituency.
  • Enemies are accumulating on all sides.
  • 60,000 to 100,000 visas flushed down the drain- it is shameful and culpable.
  • First Things- high-end religion for Trump. And yes, racism is the left's fault.
  • Trump crumples like a wet bathrobe on Taiwan.
  • Afghanistan, still a quagmire.
  • This what resistance looks like.


  1. Thoughtful assessment. Thanks for writing this.

    Would it be possible to add some share buttons at the bottom of your posts? Would make it easier to share on Twitter, etc.

  2. Hi, JD- Thanks for the comment, and the tip. They are now installed.