Contributor: Socrates Dissatisfied
On July 19, Oregon’s attorney general brought a federal lawsuit against the Marshals and Homeland Security (of which CPB and ICE are subsidiary agencies), demanding the cessation of their activities in the state. That same day, Trump tweeted: “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”
I am reminded of a passage from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. After WWI, police (particularly border police) across Europe, tasked with handling the increasing numbers of stateless (and therefore rightless) persons, began to operate in an increasingly lawless manner: “This was the first time the police in Western Europe had received authority to act on its own, to rule directly over people; in one sphere of public life it was no longer an instrument to carry out and enforce the law, but had become a ruling authority independent of government and ministries. Its strength and its emancipation from law and government grew in direct proportion to the influx of refugees,” and, later, in proportion to the number of persons whose citizenship was revoked. Border guards and police, once allowed to act with impunity against “illegal persons,” tend to acquire a taste for that absolute power, and can then readily be turned against the citizenry by, e.g., the leaders of a fascist movement that has insinuated itself into the halls of power.
Or maybe I’m just paranoid. What exactly is “fascism?" And what does it look like?
In the October, 1994 issue of Wired Magazine, digital rights activist and attorney Mike Godwin articulated “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies” (now simply “Godwin’s Law”): “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one” (i.e., approaches inevitability). By 2012, Godwin’s Law had become ubiquitous enough to merit an entry in that illustrious and nigh-prescriptive compendium of English usage, the O.E.D. In its current, colloquial usage, Godwin’s Law tends to be employed polemically; according to this iteration, the first person in an online discussion to make a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler thereby demonstrates the bankruptcy of their position, and forfeits the argument.
Godwin had a point, insofar as “fascist” (granting, for the sake of argument, that “Nazi” equals “fascist + anti-Semite”), in contemporary discourse, often functions as a buzzword: an emotionally evocative term, emptied of specific content, and often simultaneously employed by representatives of opposing political viewpoints. The crucial difference between left-wing and right-wing evocations of “fascism” is that the former are generally correct, whereas the latter generally are not. Perhaps you find this assertion obviously true, in which case you are probably a decent person with a good head on your shoulders; perhaps you do not, in which case you are probably a fascist, or very confused. In either case, though, a claim is only as weighty as the evidence presented in its defense. All else is mere vanity, if not outright inanity; there is no sense in preaching to the choir, and even less, to the deranged.
How, then, to support my claim, while still doing justice to the slippery character of the term “fascism?” Given the differences between, e.g., Mussolini’s fascism, Franco’s Falangism, and Hitler’s Nazism, it is impossible, perhaps, to establish a single set of necessary and sufficient characteristics for determining whether or not a particular organization, policy, or individual is “fascistic.”
Enter Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay, “Ur-Fascism.” Eco proposes (à la Ludwig Wittgenstein) to define “fascism” in the manner of a “family resemblance.” Consider the set: “abc | bcd | cde | def.” Although “abc” and “def” do not share any common features, each of them does have features in common with other members of the set: the same family. In the same way, Eco delineates 14 features which are “typical” of fascistic phenomena: the presence of one or more of these features, while not definitive proof that a given phenomenon is fascistic, should serve as a warning sign; and, conversely, a phenomenon can still be fascistic, even in the absence of one or more of these features. I will discuss each of these 14 features in more detail, in the coming weeks and months, insofar as they are applicable to current events. In brief, they are:
Now, let’s return to Trump’s July 19 tweet about the situation in Portland. His reference to “OUR PEOPLE,” who must be protected, clearly evokes the selective populism of a supposed “Silent Majority,” a socially and economically frustrated demographic for which he alone has the virile, manly courage, and the dumbfounding clarity of vision, to speak. His criticism of Oregon’s leaders (they have “lost control,” and “are missing in action”) is framed in terms of contempt for the weak—for politicians who are too cowardly to defend the People from their enemies—and an anti-pacifistic cult of action, which is even more apparent in light of his previous tweets concerning the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder. I could go on, but this post is getting rather long, and my initial invocation of fascism is looking fairly well-founded. Until next time, then, intrepid reader.