Did Somebody Say Fascism? Shadefreude and Hannah Arendt on the American Election of Donald Trump
In 1950 Hannah Arendt wrote these words in the preface to her book The Origins of Totalitarianism
“Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecendented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.
Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest – forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.“
To read these words, one may have the strange feeling of a déjà vu with the election of Donald Trump to the presidential office of the United States of America. Though we do not have the two World Wars our experience is neatly sandwiched between Operation Desert Storm and the seemingly endless and ongoing oil wars in the Middle East, with a chain of revolutions, wars, skirmishes and crises in between (Arab Spring, Ukraine, etc), all redoubled with the largest mass movement of refugees in recent history. Homelessness and uprootedness dominate the current discourse with an increased drive toward the traditionalist nationalist narrative as things take a wider turn toward the populist politics of the conservative right precisely because certain sections of the populace want to return to the Edenic origins from which we supposedly arrived, where gay, lesbian, trans, metro, liberal, vegan, gluten free atheists were simple fancies and where real men and women took part in the daily routine of tilling and farming the earth or making stuff in factories only to come home to sleep in separate beds and where business oligarchs made dreams possible by engineering comforts into reality and made everyone else wealthy and prosperous at the same time.
If history is any sort of coordinate, and in America it rarely is because for some strange reason America prides itself on its ignorance of history and geography, it certainly should be now. Both history and geography are inexplicably absent from the discourse of American politics. History is treated as quaint and useless while geography is presented as something almost un-American because should any normal American show signs of knowledge in this area it would almost certainly be perceived as a cowtailing to the politics and hegemony of others. To an average American, Czech Republic remains Czechoslovakia 24 years after this state broke into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It is a detachment signifying a distance not only ideological but intellectual, but one that does not come from simple stupidity, most Americans are actually not complete idiots, it seems to come from a type of strength of self-identity that governs the dealings of most US politicians with other nations, it is an arrogant hubris that is normal in the US and completely illogical, inexplicable and dangerous to everyone else. Interestingly enough, in Czech Republic the leading politicians have embraced Trump on the simple premise that he, unlike other presidents before him, actually knows where Czech Republic is, given that he seems to hunt for his love interests in the waters of Eastern Europe.
To be certain I have treated the American political campaign with a completely identical distance, observing most of the events leading up to the election from the high tower of detachment. The campaigns of both Clinton and Trump seemed unreal most of the time and like jokes during others, Clinton the supposedly decent and calculating candidate whose first order of business was to save face at all costs, Trump the crazy nationalist press whore to whom all sorts of attention, positive or negative, is equally valuable. Trump does not have a drug of choice and does not discriminate between what type of fix his he gets, he accepts them all sight unseen. During all of this, both Clinton and Trump have been called fascist, but now that we know that Trump is going to be the next president, we should analyze whether or how this label applies. To be sure and in light of the information that we have on both, the danger posed by each candidate as president can be summed up this way, Trump is dangerous potentially and Clinton actually, Clinton is after all tied to the Military Industrial Complex, while Trump’s only famous political stunt was as a Birther.
Thou Sayeth Fascist and Thou Shalt Receive
Of course the problem is that fascist, if we want to be completely specific, is a term applied to the ideology of the Italian system of government under Benito Mussolini, yet like Nazi, the term has been loosely thrown at anyone whose political stance is different from one’s own in order to discredit them. For many years the term corporatist was used pejoratively in an attempt to replace the term fascist but with limited success. Corporatist just does not sound dirty enough. But where the term Nazi fails because it’s been properly profaned by intellectuals and idiots alike, the word fascist remains an acceptable term for everyday use. In its simplest iteration the words fascist and corporatist signify an absolute interconnectedness between the worlds of business (banks, corporations, technologies, etc) and government, making them indistinguishable from one another, with a third external component in the church. What Fascism also signifies is a movement toward a totality in which all three worlds that make up the day to day happenings in which most of us move, with little chance of escape or wiggle room for alternatives. The idea is that by combining these three world into a seamless whole, preferably under a single party rule, the entire apparatus would move smoothly, society would be totally administered, business able to police itself, ideology left to the church and government’s sole purpose would be to protect both worlds from the people through the rule of law, written specifically for the worlds of business and the church by the government. Trump’s Mussolini-like act behind the podium seems to suggest that the movement is certainly one toward a corporate agenda, though he will certainly be hard pressed to make himself into an absolute ruler in a government that is still operational under certain checks and balances. But the success of Trump’s campaign certainly deserves attention.
I for one was certain that Clinton was going to win the election and that there will be little surprise on the morning of November the 9th. I am interested in seeing the day after, when the so called revolution realizes that it is now the establishment. Trump’s political campaign was an iteration of Bush’s campaign, as both presented themselves as anti-establishment outsiders, when both were neither. Both were able to mobilize sections of American society from which neither originated but decided to speak to and in their stead. When looking at the states that Trump was able to carry it is apparent that he made use of those who on the whole seemed voiceless. Arendt points out that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany wasn’t simply a carefully organized conspiracy of a select few powerful men, he in fact depended on his own popularity with the people. He was able to mobilize the ‘volk’ because he was the only one that paid any attention to them. It was they who stood with him because no other politician did. Hitler focused his attention on those that previously had no political experience or power, the seemingly disenfranchised multitude that was everywhere yet apparently entirely voiceless and forgotten. The Communists in Russia did as Hitler did, with similar results.
“It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system.”
Trump was apparently able to give a voice to a section of the population in the predominantly democratic but depressed rust belt states in the north like Michigan. The polls showed overwhelming numbers in support of Clinton, but did anyone bother to leave the cities or the swing states and ask the people there? Everyone was so sure of a Clinton victory that even the Republicans for a while did not believe that Trump actually won. Where Clinton’s surplus political power came from the gender gap, Trump focused his on class, precisely where Hitler was so successful. Despite the increasing race, gender, and culture wars being waged in the US, Trump was able to capitalize on the thing that trumps (pardon the pun) them both. If Clinton believes, like her husband, that ‘it’s the economy stupid,’ then Trump is betting on class relations. To be sure, the ‘volk’ that voted Trump into office were indeed mostly white and mostly rural, but not entirely, there were black, white, Latino, upper, lower, middle class voters that turned out, more Latino and black voters came out to vote for Trump than they did for Romney, yet they all seemed to have voted in order to gain a voice and not with their wallets the way they did with Bush. Ironically they cast a vote for someone who along with Clinton is least likely to actually give them the time of day, for in order to cast a vote for someone that truly spoke to and for them would have been to vote for no one, no such choice ever existed. Trump’s nostalgically utopian slogan spelled out the tragic reality of America today, since America was great only in its specific iterations when in service to a specific race and class of its citizenry. Again, no such greatness ever existed when projected onto a global scale, if it did, it existed merely as a mediated image, an iteration of Trumpism dressed in 1980s fashion and hair styles dipped in gallons of hair spray. A second irony dwells in the sad prediction that Trump may indeed make the US ‘great’ again by ‘fixing’ the economy, an iteration of Hitler’s economic miracle, propped up and supported by American and European banks and wealthiest families. Trump is a business man, the nostalgic superhero of the American middle-class, sweeping in from the chaos of the streets like Batman, waging war with allegorical enemies, the entire source of his wealth owed to his father and eventually propped up by banks who bailed him out when times were lean. Trump is filthy rich, but not necessarily from his real estate dealings, he owns very little, but rather from the selling of his name and his act, Trump is a master at branding and entertainment. Trump’s ridiculous pronouncements take on an air of foreboding when seen through the historicist lens of Arendt.
“For the propaganda of totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes is invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian rulers usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones.”
Thou Shalt Laugh at Your Neighbor’s Misfortune
Make no mistake, Trump is a genius manipulator, but he is no strategist. He shoots from the hip rather than carefully organizes his every thought, he has others do that for him, yet all the top totalitarian leaders employed coaches, aides and consultants, to teach them proper form in public, from Hitler, to Kim Jong Un. To be sure, I draw on the similarities between the ideology put forward by Trump and the existing fascist ideology of the 20th century modernist era knowing full well that there is a world of difference between the two. Trump is not Hitler, and Trumpism isn’t fascism. I draw on Arendt’s work in order to highlight knowledge already apparent in hindsight of the actions of fascists and the flirtation with the words and images of said fascism by Donald Trump. It was already in the early 1920s when social commentators noticed something wrong in the population of Europe. Where from came the need and desire for a strong leader and one party rule? The danger of the Reds was purely virtual as far as Europe outside of Soviet Russia was concerned. Yellow Journalism was at its height and industrialist tycoon-run newspapers, opposed to the wave of liberalism and hedonism sweeping Europe and America, countered with remorseless trumped up attacks, making all sort of things illegal from marijuana to Communism. The liberals and the left caved and the nationalist right ushered in an unprecedented era of human suffering and destruction.
Today’s left is continuing its struggle with itself. It lost its way during the 1960s and was not able to regain its footing, deferring to a set of outmoded prescriptions without so much as a modicum of self-reflexivity, instead blaming the outcomes of elections on the idiocy of the electorate. The left should have been able to prop up Sanders toward the presidency, instead it decided to moan and complain about the corrupt Clinton campaign that swept him off his perch during the primary. In 2011 it seemed that the left was reemerging from the swamps of history with the Occupy Movement, but in 2016 this wet dream finally turned into a sobering reality as the redeeming quality of grassroots movements oriented toward populist ideas morphed into sentiments of xenophobic nationalism. The irony is, of course, that the left had by this time completely evacuated its discourse of critical thinking and above all of actual cold hard facts, let me rephrase that, the left had in fact directed critical thinking toward a defense of its position instead of putting forth a clear outline of its ideas, ideals and ideology, allowing for the manipulation of data, facts and stats by the opposition to go unchecked. The left had instead focused its gaze on the nebulous idea of multiculturalism and a type of reverse racism, clothed as white guilt. It took less than ten years, roughly corresponding with the rise of the smart phone and the distribution of Google and the iPhone to every home and hamlet in a quasi-socialist manner, for the typical Joe and Jane to be on the one hand mortally offended by any deviation in the normalized speech and dress and on the other to be scared witless for not knowing whether they themselves have deviated in some way from the clearly outlined coordinates of acceptable mannerisms. Political correctness does have a place, mostly in an academic setting where a set of rules for conduct level the playing field and establish a standard of correctness. One has to wonder how and why was political correctness used as a straightjacket of western populations?
It is interesting to see when a feminist like Camille Paglia or black conservative Larry Elder hack away the myths of modern feminism and white privilege respectively, using simple numbers and facts, the left doesn’t know how to react and instead resorts to a wholesale ad hominem attack, hence the attacks on Donald Trump and a kind of strangely revolting acceptance of Clinton despite the overwhelming facts pointing to her as simply a George W. Bush in drag. To be sure, the disinterested approach of cold hard facts and sober realism of the right is just as alienating and empty as the passionate appeal to humanity from the left. What we witnessed during the last election cycle and especially in the last few hours before the results were actually called was a tragedy turned into a comedy. The seemingly endless tears streaming from the faces of disillusioned voters, the ridiculous vague open letters compelling readers toward unity and tolerance during hard times, the smugness of the wannabe industrialist victor, the awkward fall of the politico-military puppet backed by banks and the media were sweet music to the ears of all those who already gave the finger during the DNC. Both parties have left most of the people neck deep in the dust of the techno-industrial wasteland and now they are slowly figuring out how to pull the plug on the rest. To have a hearty laugh at the expense of liberal apparatchiks or the conservative proletariat, both deeply troubling and paradoxical positions, is the only form of therapy that is and will be left when the doors of corporate America finally shuts its doors to the outside world. In some strange schadefreude way I am looking forward to the presidency of Donald Trump, the reality star buffoon with an orange toupee. But did we not see this before? Who still recalls the presidency of George W. Bush and his famous one liners, the stupefying lunacy of Sarah Palin, the muscle-flexing pronouncements of B-movie western cowboy Ronald Reagan? Donald Trump did actually achieve a first with his election, he is the first president we can watch on YouTube get roasted by SnoopDog. The Republicans have endless hours of horrifying entertainment in the National Archives and it will be a strange pleasure to witness the history of an American political reality show taking center stage from the Oval Office. The question is, who will be the celebrity judge when we will first see Trump give Berlusconi a run for his money in pomposity, and how long will it take before somebody yells out ‘you’re fired’ at a presidential press conference?