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The monster in their bed

October 18, 2017

Andrew Sullivan, who really is a Burkean conservative, explains why that repels him from the reactionary impulse he sees both in Trump and behind Brexit. “The right in Britain and America is either unraveling quickly into chaos, or about to inflict probably irreparable damage on a massive scale to their respective countries.” He fairly summarizes what Americans have seen the last few months:

The reason we have a president increasingly isolated, ever more deranged, legislatively impotent, diplomatically catastrophic, and constitutionally dangerous, is not just because he is a fucking moron requiring an adult day-care center to avoid catastrophe daily. It’s because he’s a reactionary fantasist, whose policies stir the emotions but are stalled in the headwinds of reality. He can’t abolish Obamacare because huge majorities prefer it to any Republican alternative, so he is sabotaging it. He hasn’t built a huge wall across the entire southern border because it’s a ludicrous project that cannot solve the problem it was designed for. Ditto ripping NAFTA to shreds, which would cause immense disruption to three countries’ economies and ricochet around the world. Or attempting to ally with Russia against the E.U., as if Merkel was worse a threat than Putin. Or removing NBC’s license, which it doesn’t actually have, for political reasons. Or deporting 11 million people. Or pretending that climate change is not happening. Or a massive tax cut on the wealthy, and arguing, as Trump did Wednesday night, that it would create surpluses as Reagan’s did, which, of course, Reagan’s didn’t.

The difference between Britain and the US is that the former is choking on a reactionary reflex that wants one thing — exit from the EU — that unfortunately was ratified by a poorly planned referendum. In contrast, the US is suffering a reactionary movement that wants to rewrite the entire 20th century of American politics. David French seems shocked when he takes the pulse of that movement.

Trump is stoking a particularly destructive form of rage — and his followers don’t just allow themselves to be stoked, they attack Trump’s targets with glee. Contrary to the stereotype of journalists who live in the Beltway and spend their nights at those allegedly omnipresent “cocktail parties,” I live in rural Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country. My travels mainly take me to other parts of Trump country, where I engage with Trump voters all the time. If I live in a bubble, it’s the Trump bubble. I know it intimately. And I have never in my adult life seen such anger. There is a near-universal hatred of the media. There is a near-universal hatred of the so-called “elite.” If a person finds out that I didn’t support Trump, I’ll often watch their face transform into a mask of rage. Partisans are so primed to fight — and they so clearly define whom they’re fighting against — that they often don’t care whom or what they’re fighting for.

That rage was burning crimson before Trump entered politics. Trump never was a politician or political thinker. He saw that movement aflame and fueled, full of rage, wanting its leader. He stepped into that role by identifying their largest fear, “exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference, an appeal against the intruders.” (#5) Against those imagined intruders, he promised to build a great wall. He stoked their anger and fear, again and again, until they decided he was the one.

John McCain is quite correct to criticize that movement’s “half-baked spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Alas, the movement McCain targets is uglier than he realizes. And closer to his own political berth. After reading Sullivan’s analysis, and laughing at French’s, read Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay on the nature of fascism, identifying “fear of difference” as fascism’s “first appeal,” whose “followers must feel besieged,” their nation under dire threat. (#7) Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, and who watched the tenure of fascist-like governments elsewhere, tries to identify the salient features of fascism in the broad sense, what he calls ur-fascism. I use his numbering here. He starts by saying it is a “cult of tradition,” whose adherents believe that “truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” (#1) That “implies the rejection of modernism.” (#2) Trump delivered those themes on Friday.

Fascist movements always prescribe a heroic role to men and what is viewed as a complementary role to women. Eco calls this “machismo, which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits.” (#12) Trump never struts so much as when displaying that disdain. French worries about the hypocrisy of Republicans “defending behavior from Trump that would shock and appall them if it came from a Democratic president.” What French fails to understand is that they approve Trump’s rude behavior. Part of the social conservative’s sexual moralism is the notion that modern women deserve debasement for tossing that morality aside. The social conservative can be quite flexible about the role they assign women, depending on where they position her relative to their political needs.

Trump has a special rapport with his base. He understands that their moralism is to be taken seriously, not literally. They see him as “their interpreter” (#13) to the world arrayed against them. He makes his “appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation” (#6). Eco presciently predicted that “in our time, when the old proletarians are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”

And his base uniquely understands Trump. Despite his “impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax.” When time and time again he tweets or says things plainly false, they take him seriously, not literally. Eco was again prescient in recognizing future authoritarian movements might take their language from the burgeoning media industry. “We must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.” (#14)

If you approve some of Trump’s goals, but think he may be impetuous in his actions, keep in mind that “action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.” (#3) He knows his base will support him in that action, marginalizing his own party members who hesitate as RINOs or CINOs. Or simply as unamerican. “Disagreement is treason.” (#4)

Not all of Eco’s features fit. There is a rigorous sense in which the only fascism, once and forever, was Mussolini’s. Franco’s phalangism wasn’t the same. The Cagoulards weren’t the same. No 21st century movement will replicate identically political movements from the 20th century. Still, it makes sense to speak of fascism in a general sense. “The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some ‘family resemblance,’ as Wittgenstein put it.”

The Trumpistas bear that resemblance. They are America’s fascist turn. Any doubt someone has about that should have been removed when Trump first gave six months notice to those raised here from childhood, without proper naturalization, and then turned their plight he created into a political bargaining chip. And when the Trumpistas then criticized him, it was that he dangled some hope at all. He fails them only when he isn’t cruel enough.

For many years, Sullivan poked the rest of the media about refusing to use the word “torture” when writing about George W. Bush’s program of “enhanced interrogation.” Though it killed people by enforced hypothermia and stress positions, and though we had prosecuted water torture as a war crime in the past, the program’s defenders always ran to the notion that somehow this time, when we did it, it wasn’t really torture. Now, both French and McCain stand perplexed. How is the right ascendant, and they are shoved aside? How did they spend decades working — they thought — for a limited, cautious, and deliberate government, only to see a reactionary and authoritarian movement steal their efforts? Where did the monster come from, that monster they so long had fed, whose bed they shared, and whose favors they enjoyed? It will be interesting to watch Sullivan, most aware of the lot, as he watches the ongoing descent.

One regard where this movement differs from many past is that it developed organically, stoked by pundits and talk-radio hosts and the internet. It was not built by a small cadre who developed a following around them. Trump saw the movement and rode it, rather than laying the ground for it. That makes it both less and more dangerous. Less dangerous, because Trump lacks the intelligence and political acumen of fascist leaders past. The Trumpistas wanted their Mussolini, and instead had to settle for Cheetolini, a conman and showman.

That movement is more dangerous, because it will persist after Trump is gone. Those outside it, wondering how to solve America’s greatest problem, cannot content themselves with getting rid of Trump. The focus must be on defusing the movement he exploited.

Do read Sullivan’s article. His second topic is the attempt to suppress academic speech from both the right and the left. The path he threads through that is not bad. It just seems a small and derivative thing, given present circumstance.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Anthony permalink
    October 19, 2017 10:01 pm

    Very well thought out. I just subscribed. You have managed to briefly explain Trumpism as phenomenon and your conceptualization of both the caller and his responders taking one another seriously but not literally is a dark truth that others have taken buckets of ink to explain with less clarity.

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