The Trump Wound: Fear and Fascism
During most of my lifetime, when people used the word ‘fascist’ when referring to a right wing point of view in a liberal democracy, it was a little hyperbolic. I think like many people, I sincerely believed that the spectre of fascism was in the past. Europe and North America had learned their lesson after WWII, that the destruction of sane social order wrought by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco would endure, like bio-hazard signs, for centuries.
How is it that mainstream Americans, English, French, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles are listening to the kind of racist, totalitarian rhetoric that is being shamelessly spoken, given airtime in all forms of media, and embraced? Why are we allowing intellectual space to the likes of Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s UKip, Hungary’s Jobbik, Austria’s ‘Freedom’ party and Poland’s ‘Conservative Law and Justice’ Party?
I don’t mean to make little of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris or the San Bernadino shootings, but I do want to put them in proportion. Yes, Daesh is a threat. They’re a bunch of devious, murderous and destructive extremists, but many, many more Americans die each month at the hands of white, Christian, American extremists than at the hands of radicalized Muslims. Why doesn’t this salient fact sink into the minds of the people supporting Trump’s call to ban Muslims from visiting the US? Why doesn’t fact ‘trump’ fear?
I don’t want to suggest that this means that we should give Daesh any quarter, or be passive in the face of their aggression. They are a concern because they exploit the fragile aspects, the rickety lies we tell ourselves, about our culture.
Two things strike me as uncomfortable truths about Daesh. One is that we have made ourselves vulnerable by not engaging with our Muslim minority populations and by allowing cultural and economic ghettos to exist in our midst; Daesh exploits the gap between the ideal and the reality of our ‘integrated’ societies. The second is that our ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratizing’ adventurism in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and in African countries have undeniably fueled anti-Western hatred. We have given organizations like Daesh a stick to beat us with both at home and abroad.
This isn’t a post on how we deserve what we get. I am fully in favour of battling extremist terror wherever it occurs. But what is important to clarify is that totalitarian rhetoric is a counter to Daesh; it is participation in their schema.
The irony is that these hate-filled, anti-democratic politicians and talking heads are giving comfort to the enemy. If Daesh can be said to have any ideology at all (because it certainly isn’t Islam) it’s a condemnation of open, liberal, inclusive, democratic societies. A virulent rejection of relativism. The policies being proposed by politicians like Trump and Marine Le Pen are essentially the same: exclusionary, fear-based, reactionary and authoritarian policies which erode the foundations of our democracies. Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are, essentially unconscious Daesh quislings. They are doing their job for them, promoting fear over courage, lies over truth, and fanaticism over reason.
But there are, I think, a number of forces in our societies that make us vulnerable to the kind of fascist rhetoric being bandied around.
First, media. For all the legitimate criticism of the media in the past – it was didactic, patronizing, paternalistic, preferencing high over low culture, etc. – its post-modern incarnation is worse. The cynical pandering to sensationalism, the complete abrogation of responsibility for the consequences of what it perpetuates, the refusal to determine what constitutes an informed opinion or verifiable fact… these aspects of how contemporary media operates are damaging the fabric of public discourse. Editorial decisions based only on viewership and advertising income are incompatible with the role of the press as ‘the fifth estate’ in a liberal democracy. They result in media filled with nothing but the most extremist views, the most violent images, the most superficial perspectives.
Second, the Christian Right in the US. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the Republican party was less racist, and more egalitarian than the Democrats. The slow, inexorable take-over of the Republican party by fundamentalist Christians, the rise of the Tea Party and the decades-long tolerance for extremist discourse on talk-radio and at political rallies has wrought tremendous damage. The drive for media attention and votes have meant that, on the whole, the Republican party has moved further and further towards what can only be described as radical authoritarianism. Anti-gun control, anti-family planning, anti-immigrant, anti-pluralism, anti-intellectual, pro-fear, pro-bombing, pro-war – if America actually enacted the policies the Republican party of today says it wants, it would look like a cross between the 12th Century and Margaret Atwood’s ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’.
This isn’t ‘conservative’ politics. No self-respecting political conservative would sanction the kind of race-baiting aimed at Obama, the rejection of education, the plain rudeness of language being used by Right-wing pundits on every platform, the shameless flaunting of ignorance of history, the careless and brutal misinterpretation of the constitution, the blithe opting out of the Geneva convention. Conservatives conserve. These people aren’t conservatives. Like Hitler, like Franco, like Mussolini, these are destructive radicals appealing to our amygdalas. They are exploiting our basest fears – of the other, of sexual competition, of the loss of territory, of the unknown – in their bid to get power.
Why is it that, in the 21st Century, a significant proportion of Americans are so vulnerable to the appeal of these people?
I think it’s a number of things: economics, social status, fears about gender, but most importantly identity. In the last 30 years, many of our long-held social myths have been exposed as lies. I think there is a tremendous psychic burden to living with the knowledge of these lies, especially when you don’t possess the intellectual tools to exist in a relativistic world.
White Christian Americans are seeing the privilege they once took for granted challenged. Other races are demanding their share of power, of economic success, of social respect and this has triggered a fear reaction. A fear that sharing that power, economic success and social status is not possible and that they’ll lose out. What’s worse, it is becoming almost impossible to ignore that the concept of meritocracy is a myth: as hard as politicians keep banging on about how hard work will bring you prosperity, it’s becoming clear that the game is rigged and rigged against MOST people. How do people whose plan for their lives was predicated on that meritocracy deal with that?
Meanwhile, it was not so long ago that rigid gender and sexuality rules made for a false but easily conceived of order the universe of gender. Men and women each had their roles and their place, sex was proscribed. If you followed the rules, you knew what the outcome of those interactions would be. It is debatable whether this sexual order ever existed, but now we know for sure that it doesn’t. That scares people. Women don’t want to be subordinate. LGBT people don’t want to have to hide their sexualities. That old ‘order’ was achieved at the expense of a great deal of private misery. Again, the blowing apart of the myths of this ‘order’ has meant that many people feel fundamentally threatened by this more fluid way of dealing with gender and sexuality.
Finally, status. The sort of qualities that, in the past, might afford you status within your community are almost gone. Mass media has usurped the mechanism by which we used to allocate power and respect. Being a good citizen, being charitable, knowledgeable, expert at something, good at your job, self-sacrificing, wise, etc. – these used to be the qualities that were valued within communities. The people who possessed or achieved them earned status and respect. Celebrity culture and wealth porn has changed that. If social hierarchy is an innate part of how humans negotiate living in communities, we have all been stripped of our ability to be heroes now. How can a good teacher, a kind farmer, a responsible father compete for social status with Paris Hilton? Behind this almost fanatical support of no-limit gun-rights, I see a terrible fear of powerlessness and insignificance. The appeal of ‘Open Carry’ is that no one with a loaded gun in their hand is ever insignificant or ignored. You don’t disagree with a person with a loaded weapon. And a loaded weapon seems to be the only way these people know how to demand their significance.
We are slipping into a very dark place. People like Donald Trump simply don’t care what they enable in our dark hearts to get the power they want. And – I’m sorry to say it – our rational ‘leaders’ are not showing enough leadership. We need loud, rational and positive voices shouting these would-be-destroyers of our societies down at the top of their voice. And we need responsible people in the media to help them get the message out.
There is a real war going on – not with Daesh, but with the dark forces in our own culture. It is an existential battle for the survival of a humane, civil society, and very few are fighting it with the energy and courage needed to halt the oncoming darkness.