Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Niemoeller Instinct

It's already started.

Whether you turn on TV, read the paper, or go online, you're sure to hear it. The muttering of people who don't want to acknowledge that they're living in a nightmare. "Well, maybe Trump won't be that bad," they say. "Maybe we should give him a chance." "Some of his domestic policies are kinda liberal."

"Maybe it won't be that bad."

This is the wishful thinking of people in denial, people who can't admit that America as it's existed for the last 240 years is dead. They want Trump to take off his mask and show that the last eighteen months were just an act. They'll take any twitch of his eyes as a sign of conciliation. They gush about his speech last night and say, "He's right. We've got to bring the nation together."

They want everything to go back to normal.

It's not going to.

It will never be normal again.

The only mask that came off last night is the one that hid middle America's white nationalism, the contempt large parts of this country feel towards immigrants, people of color, women, sexual minorities, and non-Christians. That is something we can never walk back. Pretending otherwise is like being the woman who says, "Well sure, he just punched me, but he was angry. He's not really like that." By the time the evidence piles up that, yes, actually, he really is like that, it's too late.

During the 1930s, the German minister Martin Niemoeller felt the same way. He watched as Hitler consolidated his power and lashed out against his enemies, but Niemoeller did nothing about it. Later he wrote,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

That's how fascism works. One enemy at the time, starting with the smallest and least popular.

But the problem here is that people don't believe Trump is fascist. The word's been abused for so many years that it's lost its power. People -- even those who should know better -- reflexively flinch when you use it to describe anyone in a major political party, especially the leader of a party.

But Trump is a fascist. What he represents is a fascist movement.

The term is notoriously hard to define -- in no small part because the manifestos written on the subject are mostly incoherent gibberish. But one of the best definitions comes from the Italian scholar Umberto Eco, who actually grew up in Italy under Mussolini. He laid out fourteen points of what he calls "Ur-Fascism," or "Eternal Fascism," and Trumpism hits every single one.

The Cult of Tradition

The key tenet of any fascist movement is the myth of a lost Golden Age which has been stolen from us, and which only The Leader can bring back. Hitler had the mythical Wagnerian Age of the great Nordic heroes, and the First Reich of the Holy Roman Empire, which had been undone by Those People. Trump has MAGA -- the hazily defined period when the United States was totally awesome, Americans all worked in factories producing actual stuff, and Those People knew their place. Like the Wagnerian Age, this period never existed. It's based upon schoolbook history which elides all the bad bits and exaggerates America's accomplishments. (Note Trump's constant invocation of Patton, as though Old Blood and Guts actually won WWII instead of the overwhelming power of the Red Army.)

Rejection of Modernism

As Eco notes, Fascists certainly embrace all the shiny chrome of the modern world, but the ideals of the Enlightenment are trash to them. Even before Trump, the Alt-Right was fighting against feminism and multiculturalism for the ways they "destroy" science fiction and video games by opening them up to different perspectives. Our modern world is built upon the idea of embracing the Other; Trumpkins consider this an existential threat to our culture.

Action for Action's Sake

In 1990 Trump gave an interview with Playboy that's highly illustrative of his views on government power:

What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; The signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That's my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

You mean firm hand as in China?

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak... as being spit on by the rest of the world—

Why is Gorbachev not firm enough?

I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere—which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader and we should continue giving him credit, because he's destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish—their jobs.
He doesn't view any of these events through a moral lens -- all he cares about is whether a leader was strong or weak, with strength being defined in the simplistic terms of General Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes: "The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!"

But Eco's point here is more nuanced.

Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.

Every time Trump has been pressed about policy specifics, he's brushed them off as unimportant. When pushed by advisers to prepare for the debates, he brushed them off and made fun of Clinton for actually making the effort.  To him, leadership is about making snap decisions, doesn't matter if they're informed decisions. Doing something is important, not doing it right.

Eco goes on to identify fascism with, "such expressions as 'degenerate intellectuals,' 'eggheads,' 'effete snobs,' and 'universities are nests of reds.'" To this we can add, "elites," "social justice warriors," and, of course, "cuckservative".

Disagreement is Treason

True culture is monolithic and any crack in its facade is intolerable. The suggestion that a multiplicity of ideas brings strength is heretical. There is one solution, it is obvious, and anyone who disagrees is a cuck. Trump supporters are upset that the cosmopolitan elites embrace the multiplicity -- different genders, different sexual orientations, different cultures, different religions. These guys from New York City (Trump excepted, of course) are an alien influence within the United States.

Fear of Difference

The monolithic culture is also fragile and cannot withstand differences from without, either. The Outsider must be shunned, for anything that is different -- Muslims and Mexicans, let's say -- is a threat to the monolith.

Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class 

Though in the case of Trumpism, it's not so much the middle class as a privileged racial caste having its power challenged, but the phenomenon remains the same one Eco describes: "a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups."

Obsession with a Plot

Fascism preys upon the minds of its followers by presenting them with a narrative -- everything wrong with their lives isn't a product of uncaring, impersonal forces that can only be fixed through broad systemic changes. It's a conspiracy. Those People are out to get you, and you can only stop them if you get them first.

Trump embraces conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones and then spins their fantasies as his own. Why is ISIS ascendant? Why is the US letting Muslim refugees into the country? Could it be because Barack Hussein Obama is secretly on their side? Maybe. I dunno. But it could be. And why is he doing that? Does it have anything to do with gay marriage? Black Lives Matter? Sure, why not. Trump's approach is scattershot, and he'll never spell out what he believes (if, indeed, he believes any of this). Instead, he throws out hunks for people to grab onto and make up their own narratives. The only thing that matters is his followers believe there's some plot to keep them down, and only he can save them.

Humiliation by the Wealth and Force of the Enemy

If we used to be great but we no longer are, naturally somebody else must've taken our place (Fascism requires a belief that the world is zero-sum). Their existence is a humiliation to us. We have a natural right to be the best in the world. (Remember, because we're a monolithic culture, considering the other side's point of view is not allowed.) China, they're eating our lunch. Iran is hoodwinking us. They're getting together behind our backs and laughing at us for not wearing the right brand of tennis shoes. Of course, because we're naturally great, it'll be easy to stomp them into the ground, if only we had the right leader who didn't kowtow to them and deal with them as equals. Someone who'll come along and say, "This deal is no longer applicable. We want to renegotiate everything, and we're going to get the better half of the bargain."

Life is Permanent Warfare, and Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy

Why are we negotiating with Iran when we should be stomping the shit out of them? Why did we leave Iraq without stealing the oil? That's weak. Weak is bad. Life is struggle and struggle is life. In everything there is a winner and loser -- thus has Trump defined his entire life.

Contempt for the Weak
 If you've ever had the mispleasure of dealing with Trump's Alt-Right supporters online, this should be familiar to you. Any complaint about the social structure of our country is met with reflexive jokes about "safe spaces" and "drinking your tears." Men who side with feminism are "cucks" who stand aside and let their girlfriends get fucked by black dudes. Fascists are weak, therefore they must believe they are stronger than someone. And doubly so for The Leader, who validates his manhood by the fact that everyone bows down before him. Listen to the stories about how Trump treated Christie -- and Christie accepted it all because he wanted Trump to make him strong.

The Cult of Heroes

Heroism isn't just something to be respected in others -- not being a hero yourself is a failing. We've seen this repeatedly with Trump and his attempts to make his draft-dodging heroic -- avoiding STDs was his "personal Vietnam," and spending money to pay employees was his personal sacrifice. Even he realizes he's wanting in the grand scale of things and has to build himself up with bravado while tearing down real heroes like John McCain.

The Ur-Fascist Transfers His will to Power to Sexual Matters

Does this one need any explication? We've all seen the Access Hollywood video.

Selective Populism

Sayeth Eco,

For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

 Hey, did I mention Eco wrote this in 1995?

In Trump's world, the voice of his followers (which echoes his own, naturally) is the only legitimate populism -- Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, feminism, and other social movements are illegitimate intrusions of the Outsider. The Vox Populi is that which supports Trump, and everything else can safely be ignored.

For now this echo chamber is limited to Fox News, Breitbart and the like, but we already see signs of it encroaching on CNN with their inclusion of Lewandowski and his ilk on panels. Add to that Trump's veiled threats against the Washington Post and the strong likelihood that he'll limit press access to his White House and you can see the shadow of a monolithic media environment.

Ur-Fascism Speaks Newspeak

Eco isn't talking here about individual euphemistic phrases, but more broadly of Orwell's original conception -- a language stripped bare of the vocabulary for dissent. Much has been made of Trump's simplistic language, and how he barely speaks at a fifth grade level. Without nuance, his ideas sound plausible to those who are ignorant of the subject. The complex arguments necessary to refute him are too long and detailed, and they end up sounding like flimflammery next to Trump's straightforward rhetoric.

We see this, too, in his followers. A phrase like "social justice warrior" reduces a slew of complex issues to a simple, pejorative phrase. Once somebody calls you an "SJW," the conversation is over. The merits of your argument don't matter -- it's SJW logic, and SJW logic is wrong by definition. Shut up and go away.

The goal of Trumpkins and the Alt-Right is to illegitimate opposing ideas. In the next few years we can expect the basic premises of modern, pluralistic society to not only come under attack, but to be declared incoherent due to their complexity.

This is what we face over the next few years. Trumpism is not merely an alternate political view. It is an assault on the very fabric of post-Enlightenment civil society. Pluralism, multiculturalism, even religious liberty outside mainline Christianity are all going to come under assault as Republicans gain control of all three branches of government, and Trump gains control of the Republicans.

America is already over. All that's left is the screaming.

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