Essential Fascism: A Response to Goodfellow

Sam G (I like the Lord of the Rings echo here!):

You have always maintained an appropriate caution in drawing parallels between the fascism that emerged in interwar Europe and similar elements in the US political landscape of the present.  What emerged in the Nazi period, for example, drew from foundations deeply set in medieval mythology, the particularities of German militarism that drew upon those myths, the role of German corporate conglomerates, and the government propaganda used during World War I and adapted by German conservatives after it.  The US experience is much more rooted in both the virtues and vices of liberal ideology, broadly writ.  Of course, what is meant by liberal ideology is what we today call conservatism:  free trade, free markets, minimal government intervention into the economy, and some general notion that government expresses the will of the people.  In short, the differences between the German conservatism of the interwar period and the US conservatism today reflect two variant understandings of history and the role of the state in society.

Your point in this reflection, though, was to draw on features of fascism reflected in the current US landscape; especially the tendency for those conservatives in our country who have deemed themselves the arbiters of who is and is not an American.  The freedom that these conservatives assert as their birthright can only come at the expense of the freedom and equality of those they deem outside of their sacred community due either to their system of belief, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or race.  It is as if freedom is a zero-sum game wherein one person’s freedom can only grow at the expense of another’s.

What is profoundly disturbing about this most recent period of US history is the extent to which the cult that has grown around Trump parallels notions of the Führer principle of fascism.  In the US conservative belief system, the syllogism develops something like this:  the state embodies the will of the people; the leader embodies the will of the people; therefore, the leader is the state.  The four years of the Trump presidency witnessed the demise of the notion of an independent and fair department of justice within the executive branch and the failure of any notion of the separation of powers, with the legislative and judicial branches of government effectively relinquishing authority to the executive.  January 6 was the attempt of the majority of Congressional Republicans to make the personal dictatorship permanent.  Had they succeeded, Trump could rightly have said: ” L’etat c’est moi!”  And while Trump Tower could never match Versailles, Louis XIV certainly did not have a state religion as acquiescent as American evangelicalism.

American evangelical Christianity is the bastard child of a phony, personalized Jesus and Ayn Rand.   In the mind of evangelicals, the US is God’s chosen nation.  The state that organizes that nation, though, is only responsible to ensure private property rights by way of massive defense expenditures and a militarized police force.  One of the evangelical churches’ objectives is to provide tax shelters for megadonors who encourage the building of cathedrals in prime real estate markets.  Their children are taught that there is only one truly unforgivable sin:  for any woman to not bring any pregnancy to term.  This personalized Jesus teaches the chosen to focus exclusively on the sins of others and bask in the inherent forgiveness of the lesser sins that the chosen might commit.  While the contradictions between American Christianity and the core teachings of Jesus are massive, suffice it to say for now that the link between religion and capitalism is a core feature of the western liberal tradition.

In the abbreviated list of atrocities you mention that occurred in the name of spreading civilization to the world, the Opium Wars seems a particularly poignant example of how capitalism and Christianity colluded to impose themselves on resistant groups.  After a war of aggression looking to expand British and French imperial interests, the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin not only allowed for the sale of opium by British and French traders trying to offset the costs of acquiring precious Chinese goods like silk, porcelain, and jade; it also required that the Chinese government allow for the free movement of Christian missionaries throughout the country and exempt them from Chinese laws.  Greed, Guns, and God:  the unholy trinity of western imperialism.  Greed, Guns, and God: the essential belief system of the 74 million American who voted for Trump.

Marjorie Taylor Greene is only an extreme example of the new belief system of these 74 million and the close proximity between evangelical Christianity and the QAnon conspiracies.  Franklin Graham, the successor to his father’s Christian libertarian empire, called the ten Republicans who rightfully called for the impeachment of Trump for his role in the January 6 effort to destroy representative government in the US “Judases.”  This merger of Q and Christian conspiracies points to a belief system rooted in the notion that God has designated Trump as his agent on earth who will realize the fulfillment of end times promises.  Anyone opposing Trump consorts with the forces of darkness.

Gullible Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, were key to the success of Hitler just as they have been key to the success of Trump.  Whether active or acquiescent in the rise of the dictatorship, the point of the Niemöller quote is about the need to be aware of how a political system treats its outsiders and minorities.  When the Lutheran pastor did his lamentations before global audiences after World War II, he customarily made some version of the quote you paraphrased.  He invariably, however, noted that “they” came first for either the socialists or communists.  Jews were the second tier of victims.  It is important to point this out for a couple of reasons.

First, it is historically accurate.  The initial victims of Hitler in 1933 were the communists and socialists, not the Jews as such.  These were the most vulnerable people in Germany because they could easily be labeled as godless outsiders to the sacred German nation.  The fact that many Jews were prominent figures in both the socialist and communist organizations of Weimar Germany made them double victims, persecuted both for their political beliefs as well as their ethnicity.  While you correctly noted in your earlier reflection (“Forecast”) that Jews comprised only one percent of the population of interwar Germany, that fact should also be considered in the broader context of the Jewish cultural role there.  While Jews were small in number, they were prominent in many arenas such as arts, literature, law, science, business, and entertainment.  It was not difficult for Hitler’s propagandists to construct a vast Jewish conspiracy theory around which to rally German resentment despite the relatively small number of Jews.

Second, the priority concern with socialism remains among the 74 million Trump voters in the country.  While QAnon peddles grotesque conspiracies involving various prominent liberals and Jews, evangelical Christians in the US generally embrace a diluted version of these conspiracies that center on the continuing and dire threat of socialism and communism.  American Christianity has spent the last century promoting this fear.  For about 74 million Americans, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Kamala Harris have become the tools of Satan in keeping American from fulfilling its Biblical promise.  Socialism very broadly defined, not Jews, is the first order of concern.  The fact that the junior Senator from Alabama believes that the US fought World War II to defeat socialism and not fascism is probably consistent with what the 74 million Trump voters believe about World War II.  It is also a sad comment on the state of historical education in our country.  Compound this deeply engrained fear of socialism with the idea that all Democrats believe in abortion on demand from conception to delivery, and you have the basis for the crusader mentality permeating Christianity in both its Protestant and Catholic variants.

How Trump became God’s messenger for these 74 million largely White, Christian voters is a puzzle that must be solved, and soon.  He is, after all, currently married to a woman whose parents both fared well in communist Slovenia.  Trump’s first wife, Ivana, also fared exceptionally well under communist rule in Czechoslovakia.  Trump has a famously cozy relationship with the former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin.  Moreover, there is growing evidence that Russian intelligence organized the Trump presidency decades ago, when the KGB  operated as an agency of the former Soviet Union.  For these 74 million Trumpists, however, it is the “Democrat” Party that threatens the God-ordained sanctity of free markets, private property, the institution of marriage, the well-being of children, and America’s divine destiny.  Trump’s support for Israel and anti-abortion judges confirm in their minds his role as God’s chosen leader.  Might it be the case that Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr. is Q?  Let’s ask the pool boy.

This all points to the fundamental truth of Hitlerian propaganda.  To paraphrase Mein Kampf:  “The intelligence of the masses is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous.  All propaganda must therefore focus exclusively on the emotions.”  What, though, are the operant emotions?  In his response to your reflection, Mike McCall focused the central role of fear based in ignorance and accelerated through the contemporary media landscape.  That is certainly a factor.  Your reflection noted the positive appeal based on beliefs in a mythical German past in which a more purely racial nation embraced virtues lost in the mess of modern materialism, social strife, and political divisiveness.  Nazism, at its core, endeavored to reject the complex social and scientific challenges of modernity by constructing a simplistic religion and perverted science around the issue of race.  This was the path to making Germany great again.  German fashion sensibilities would certainly have rejected MGGA red baseball caps, even though Nazi propagandists were very aware of the emotional appeal of the color red.  Neither fear nor hope, however, are the central emotions defining fascism.

Fearful ignorance and unfulfilled hopes reap the harvest of hatred cultivated by today’s Republican Party.  While a more effective educational system would address much of the ignorance spawning fear and provide a more complex understanding of society in which variant beliefs, behaviors, values, and identities are seen as essential features of a transcendently beautiful but inherently limited world, the real challenge is to get people to accept the inherent limits of existence.  Reality is a harsh master, and the pandemic has painfully reminded us of our frailty and vulnerabilities.  Instead of driving us toward greater humility and appreciation of the potential that science offers to lessen the devastation of the pandemic, 74 million Americans voted for the man who blamed the pandemic on the Chinese, disparaged Democratic governors and mayors who followed CDC guidelines by enforcing lockdowns, and encouraged the public to put their faith in a miraculous, sudden disappearance of the disease.  It was not just a matter of denying science, it also involved hatred of those who embraced it.

When Marjorie Taylor Greene created a poster in which she posed with an assault weapon targeting three Democratic women of color, or when she stalked David Hogg with a loaded weapon a year after he had been a victim of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, she represents only an extreme version of the hatred that permeates today’s Republican Party.  It is the party that blames Mexicans for crime, Muslims for the decline of Christianity, members of the LGBTQ community for the demise of the American family, Blacks for welfare abuse, and the Chinese for the pandemic.  It is a party incapable of looking internally for the sources of its own problems.  It is a party exuberant with animosity toward everyone who does not share their view of the world and their perverted understanding of Christianity.  It is the party of God, Guns, and Greed.  It is the party of unfettered hatred.  The social-psychology of hatred, though, is an enormously complex topic.

The great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm caught something of the essence of fascism in his use of a quote from an anonymous volunteer in the Fascist Social Republic brigade.  The quote explains the psychological gratification of violence and hatred that permeates extreme right movements.

“To die for the Fatherland, for the Idea! . . . No, that is a cop-out.  Even at the front killing’s the thing . . . Dying is nothing, it’s non-existent.  Nobody can imagine his own death.  Killing’s the thing.  That’s the frontier to be crossed.  Yes that is a concrete act of your will.  Because there you make your will live in another man’s.”

Killing is the illusion of empowerment, a momentary experience in transcendence.  In this perverted view, your life is confirmed when others die.  The great array of armed white extremists that the Republican Party has promoted in this country represents this conviction.

We all fear mortality.  We hate our fear.  In our weakness and ignorance, we deflect that hate onto others.  We fight that weakness through faith, humility, and courage.  That is how we avoid the deflection.  That deflection is the ultimate heresy.  That deflection is the original sin.

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