Our Increasingly Fascist Public Discourse

Consider the concept of “European Enlightenment,” which has no singular philosophical meaning. As a taxonomical category, it could include philosophers as fundamentally opposed as Hume and Kant. Some of its figures, not least Kant, were the chief proponents of concepts that fascists roundly reject (namely, universal human dignity).

.. Nonetheless, European far-right politicians have subtly adopted talk of the Enlightenment as a way to smuggle in more bald-faced claims of European superiority. For example, Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, an outspoken Flemish nationalist, recently started referring to the Enlightenment as “the software” of “the grand narrative of the European culture.” Borrowing from British philosopher Roger Scruton, he argues that “the European Enlightenment” and nationalism are complementary, rather than opposed. In De Wever, one finds significant overlap with Faye. For example, both condemn liberalism and socialism as leading to “open borders,” “safe spaces,” “laws that protect feelings,” and the dissolution of parental authority.

.. By contrast, consider the case of Steve King, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives from Iowa, who recently caused a controversy by asking how language like “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” had “become offensive.” King apparently did not get the memo about striving for respectability. But the rest of his party did. Following a public outcry, congressional Republicans stripped King of his positions on the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees. Though he had made similarly offensive statements in the past, the Republican Party saw an opportunity to assert its relative respectability. And so, King was thrown to the wolves for expressing views that many of his fellow party Republicans – beginning with its 2016 presidential nominee – no doubt share.

.. And yet, reading European fascists’ metapolitical dictionaries is deeply disconcerting, because one finds that much of the language – and the concomitant ways of thinking – has already achieved mainstream status.

Faye, for example, denounces anti-racism as a doctrine that “encourages discrimination in favor of aliens, the dissolution of European identity, the multiracialization of European society, and, at root, paradoxically, racism itself.” When that was written in 2001, it seemed ridiculous. To say that anti-racism is racism is a classic fascist inversion of ideals (war is peace, corruption is anti-corruption, authority is freedom). But now consider what has happened in the intervening years. The concept of “reverse racism” has become mainstream.

When Faye asserts that anti-racism is the “[t]ouchstone of the self-righteous” and “the most advanced expression of postmodern totalitarian ideology,” his diatribe becomes obviously unhinged. But aside from the level of hyperbole, is his argument really so different than the brilliant Columbia University linguist John McWhorter’s description of “Antiracism” as “a new and increasingly dominant religion?”

Or, consider the issue of “political correctness,” defined by Friberg as “a pejorative normally used for a set of values and opinions from which individuals are not allowed to deviate without falling victim to social and/or media sanctions.” In the two excerpts below, both from Friberg’s work, it is genuinely hard to tell whether the author is Friberg or one of any number of US-based “classical liberals” decrying the latest trends on college campuses:

.. To take a final example, attacks against so-called cultural Marxism seem to have become mainstream within academia. But, as Yale University’s Samuel Moyn recently pointed out, the term itself is a recycled anti-Semitic trope that has been bouncing around on fascist message boards for years.

In reading Faye and Friberg and seeing the many overlaps with contemporary political discourse, it is difficult to avoid the thought that the fascists are winning the semantic war. To be sure, many of the American and European liberals wringing their hands about the “far left” and gender studies would reject Nietzsche and be called, by the far right, “globalists.” These are not fascists. And yet, we should not forget how easy it has been for some thinkers and politicians – Germany’s FDP is our era’s Exhibit A – to drift there from neoliberalism.

THE FASCIST SINGULARITY
Similar slippages can occur in other areas. For example, some anti-nationalist public intellectuals are increasingly pressing for a debate about IQ differences between racial groups, if only to signal their own commitment to the truth. And others are urging us to recognize the Enlightenment as the signal achievement of civilization, as if it was the Europeans who invented reason and bestowed it on the rest of humankind. As Gingrich understood when he included terms like “debate” and “listen” on the positive side of his ledger, appeals to reason can serve almost any end. Hence, Friberg assures us that reason is on the side of limited immigration.

Likewise, fascist ideologues constantly hold up and defend meritocracy as an ideal. But so, too, do all of the “globalists,” as well as the libertarians in Silicon Valley. In the event of an environmental catastrophe, it is not difficult to imagine free marketeers opting for ultra-nationalism as the best survival strategy, or tech billionaires deciding that society should be run by the “winners” – that is, people like them.

.. In its original usage, the term “alt-right” encapsulated somewhat distinct anti-democratic ideologies, among them the philosopher Nick Land’s “Dark Enlightenment.” According to Land, democracy is inevitably corrupting, and democratic states thus should be replaced by “Gov-Corps” that are run as corporations and managed by a CEO. The guiding principle would be “No voice, free exit,” meaning that citizens would have no say in policymaking, but could leave whenever they wanted (as if self-exile – one of the harshest punishments throughout antiquity – is cost-free)

According to Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill, the Dark Enlightenment has attracted a number of prominent supporters in Silicon Valley, including, apparently, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who has been channeling some of its tenets in his speeches.

Scholars who write about the Dark Enlightenment have employed the term “fascism” to describe it. The danger now is that distinct far-right anti-democratic movements, from European and American ethno-nationalism to techno-corporatist strains like the Dark Enlightenment, are converging, albeit with supporters who have been drawn in for different reasons.

.. the objective of fascist metapolitical dictionaries like those by Faye and Friberg is to insinuate innocent-sounding terms into public discourse in order to make once-unacceptable anti-democratic ideologies seem benign, thereby lessening public opposition to, if not licensing, anti-democratic action. When the fundamental democratic principle of equal respect is recast as “political correctness,” it is no surprise that people would become more accepting of politicians calling entire immigrant groups “rapists” and “snakes.”

.. we do not know if it is possible to adopt the language of hysteria about leftists, unions, Marxism, gender, and immigrants without also adopting other parts of the fascist package.

.. Intellectuals from Klemperer to James Baldwin have warned us about the costs of defeat in the semantic war, which we lose by adopting the vocabulary of our enemies.

In Illinois, Obama Hits the Midterm Campaign Trail—and Trump

Fascist politics bear particular and notably contradictory hallmarks:

  • ideas of equality are used to cloak discrimination;
  • demands for “law and order” camouflage growing corruption and official lawlessness.

Those descriptions are increasingly applicable to the current state of affairs in the United States, and, more extraordinarily, they mirror Obama’s comments at Urbana-Champaign. “Demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems,” he said.

  • “They promise to fight for the little guy even as they cater to the wealthiest and the most powerful.
  • They promise to clean up corruption, then plunder away.
  • They start undermining the norms that insure accountability, try to change the rules to entrench their power further.
  • And they appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all.”

How to Destroy Democracy, the Trump-Putin Way

All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.

fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—

  • a devastating world war,
  • drastic economic upheaval, the
  • fear of Bolshevism.

.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?

.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:

  • elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
  • once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
  • while inflaming powerful popular currents of
    • authoritarianism,
    • racism,
    • nationalism,
    • reactionary religion,
    • misogyny,
    • homophobia, and
    • resentments of all kinds.

.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”

.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.

.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.

There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.

.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and

.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.

Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.

One could mention

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
  • Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
  • India’s Narendra Modi as well.

Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by

  • unemployment and
  • austerity,

right-wing “populist” parties are surging in

  • Italy,
  • Greece,
  • the Netherlands,
  • France,
  • Germany,
  • Austria, and even
  • Sweden and
  • Denmark.

And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.

.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.

.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:

  • They control the media,
  • pack the courts
  • .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
  • “reform” education,
  • abolish long-standing precedents, and
  • use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.

While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. 

.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.

.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.

.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The

  • fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
  • MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
  • Fox-addicted retirees, the
  • hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
  • gun nuts have found one another.

.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.