John Michael Greer had it pegged a couple of years ago, and Oswald Spengler a century ago. Civilizations and cultures seem to have a natural life-cycle, and while the cycle, like the cycles of individual human birth and death, can be tweaked, the final outcome is pretty much inevitable.
Empires rise. Empires fall.
For the last few years, Greer has been engaged in a project of watching our own culture go through its shifts, and he believes that one of the next stages is what Spengler called a “New Caesarism,” with the rise of a “strong leader” who will sweep away all the trappings of democracy in the name of “getting things done,” promising to bring back glory to a fallen nation.
These days, we don’t call it “Caesarism,” we call it “fascism.” Not the fascism of the childish name-calling spats that cause the ignorant to shout the word at figures like Ted Cruz or Harry Reid, but the Real Deal: the kind of fascism once brought into existence in Europe by Mussolini, by Franco, by Salazar, and — of course — by Hitler.
Fascists gain power by winning elections. I didn’t know that a few years ago, but that’s how it works. Fascism is a populist movement: fascist leaders are demagogues pushed into power by the people who vote them into power.
That isn’t to say the elections are entirely fair, of course. In fact, fascist movements are especially well-organized when it comes to corrupting the election process. They are usually a large minority party, and they use various tactics, such as intimidation at the polls, restrictive voting laws, and redistricting, along with the usual outright fraud of voting for the dead, voting multiple times, “losing” ballots before they are counted, invalidating ballots after they are counted, and so forth.
You’ve perhaps heard the expression, “taking names and kicking butts?” That’s another thing fascist organizations do to intimidate voters. They come to your door, or stop you on the street, and quiz you about your political views — the results of which are written down along with your name, or in these days of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, your picture. Should the fascists come into power, these lists re-surface as “allegiance rolls,” and if your name is on the wrong list — well, a simple butt-kicking is the least of your worries. “They’re taking names and kicking butts” is a way of saying, “Vote for our Cause, or we’ll make certain that you regret it when we take power anyway.”
Fascisms are nationalist movements. The word fascio in Italian, from which the word fascism is derived, has to do with a bundle of hay, and “fascism” could be called “bundleism” or “groupism.” Fascism is about loyalty to and sacrifice for the higher good of the group. This translates directly into the language of national supremacy, as in the Nazi motto, Deutchland über alles, Germany above everything — above family, above religion, above politics, above life itself. Fascism loves words like “fatherland” or “motherland” or “homeland” and extolls the virtues of those who belong in the homeland over those who do not; and there is always someone who does not belong. Fascism always has The Enemy Within, the traitors and saboteurs and criminals who are the reason things go wrong, and who therefore must be found out and eliminated. In Germany, it was the Jews who did not belong. In Spain, it was the Communists.
Fascist leaders tend to be narcissists, not in the common sense of people who think rather too highly of themselves, but true, clinical narcissists — people who, through genetics or trauma, are basically incapable of accurate self-reflection, of cultivating any measure of humility, or of possessing any but the most infantile levels of empathy. They are people who consider the world and the people in it their playthings, with emphasis on the word “their.” It belongs to them, and them alone. They see themselves as “great men whose time has come.” One of the first things they do with any power they obtain, however small, is to surround themselves with a loyal inner circle of sycophants who never question their leader’s destiny and thus protect their leader’s narcissism. Fascist leaders often feel they were “chosen by God” — not in the pious sense, but in the Messianic sense — and they don’t walk, they run down the path toward megalomania.
Donald Trump appears to be all of these things: a reckless narcissist, a white supremacist, a nationalist who is thumping the drum of “restoring” the glory of a fallen nation by kicking out “the enemy within,” which happens at the moment to be the so-called “illegal aliens” from Mexico. Should he gain power, that target will certainly expand.
Donald Trump is a fascist demagogue. He’s actually quite good at it.
The real question is whether the United States has tipped over the edge into actually wanting fascism over democracy.
As Greer describes the process, the desire for fascism comes about when the political machinery locks up and stops functioning, and people get angrier and angrier about declining opportunities within their own nation. In the Weimar Republic of Germany prior to World War II, the German government accepted all of the economic sanctions placed on it after World War I. There arose a severe “wealth gap” between the well-positioned and everyone else. The complacency of the rich was matched by concern, worry, then desperation among the people who started to sink into poverty under the sanctions and the consequent economic collapse. There was no court of appeal in politics or legal process, because the government was part of the process. So people eventually accepted and voted for a demagogue who promised them a better life. That man was Adolf Hitler.
Does any of this sound the least bit familiar? It should.
In our case, I think the analogue to the Weimar economic sanctions are the corporate deregulations and the various international trade agreements our Presidents have been pushing, starting with Nixon and running continuously through both Republican and Democratic administrations and congresses. These policies favor an ungoverned corporate oligarchy that ships work out of the US in the effort to reduce labor costs and put the profits into the pockets of the ownership and investment classes, as well as to put American workers into competition with each other rather than coming together to improve their own lot: this reduces opportunity (for everyone but the wealthy) within the country, causes concern, worry, and desperation among those slipping into poverty, and robs the young of any reason to invest in the status quo.
Since Reagan, there has also been a continuous propaganda assault on our Constitutional political process — “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” It has reached the point, now, where “everyone knows” that politics is hopelessly corrupted by big money, and there’s no point to looking to our Constitutional process — I’m not talking about the second amendment, I’m talking about the Constitution — to seek redress against a government that is off the rails. Government is unresponsive to the public, is obsessed with social issues that are none of the government’s business, neglects its most basic duties to the welfare of the nation, and is incompetent when it tries to perform those duties. There is nothing we can do about it, because government is broken and cannot be fixed.
This is all common knowledge, because it’s been repeated so often. It’s not true, but everyone “knows” it to be true because any lie, repeated often enough, is taken as truth.
The ground is well-tilled and fertilized for fascism. The Donald is applying for the position of Fearless Leader.
It’s one more reason I support Bernie Sanders, because he represents the only real way out of our current plight: an opportunity to skip over the fascism part — the glory-seeking world wars, the interment camps, the police state, the eventual horrible bloody collapse, followed by the multi-generational shame and reparations to the victims of the inevitable loyalty purges and witch hunts — and move straight to where we need to go after our nationalist tantrum to solve the actual problems that created this mess in the first place. Or if not solve them, then at least bring them back under some measure of restraint.
That’s what Bernie’s “political revolution” is all about: fixing a government that has become the problem. And it’s actually quite fixable.
If we don’t solve these basic problems, the US will only continue to grow riper for fascism. We might manage to keep The Donald out of the White House by main force in 2016, but he’ll come back in 2020. And then in 2024. And again in 2028. When he (inevitably) loses his curb appeal, or if he (unthinkably) spends himself into penury, he’ll be replaced by another demagogue, running the same story line. And then, another.
This is why I won’t vote for Hillary. She is as status quo as they come. She doesn’t seem to understand what a below-fifty-percent-and-declining voter turnout, and the rise of an overt racist demagogue like The Donald represent when taken together: a vote of no-confidence in the United States, and the shadow of coming fascism, brought on by precisely the kind of government she represents.
I started out talking about inevitability. While I think the rise and fall of empires is inevitable — there’s not yet been an exception in the last 10,000 years — I’m not sure the fascist or New Caesarist phase is inevitable. One of the biggest reasons we might avoid it in the US, in my mind, is the fact that we aren’t really a nation to begin with.
In the early twentieth century, European nations had centuries-old national identities that the fascist demagogues could exploit. When Hitler spoke of German virtues, German ideals, the German Fatherland, every German knew what he meant, even if they disagreed with his politics. They knew they were different from their neighbors, the Czecks, the Poles, the French. They spoke different languages, ate different foods, used different currency.
In the US, there’s less consensus regarding what “American” means. For one thing, it’s an ambiguous term: Canada is “American,” as is Paraguay.
Even within the confines of the United States, however, the “(US) American nation” is akin to the pastiche nations that Europe created in the aftermaths of WWI and WWII, like Iraq and Yugoslavia, which never really coalesced into a single people. Within the contiguous United States, we have between six and eleven different historically, politically, and ethnically distinct nations. To a large extent, the Great American Experiment has been about trying to keep this mess together at all. It almost fell apart in the 1860’s, and while the Union was ultimately preserved, it’s been an angry truce, not a true peace.
If there is a successful attempt to forge a Fascist State of America, I think it will fall apart in short order over regional issues. I suspect it won’t last even as long as the twelve years that Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” did.
So I think — I hope — The Donald will prove to be a premature and failed expression of the growing desire for fascism in the US. While I do feel a teensy bit sorry for the way Trump is destroying the Republican Party, they made a deal with the Devil back in the late 1970’s, and now the Devil has come back to claim their souls. Or to use a Biblical metaphor of the sort Republicans are so fond of quoting, they have sown the wind, and are now reaping the tornado. We can only hope it doesn’t turn into a Class Five monster.
I don’t think there are any guarantees.