What we talk about when we talk about fascism - Michael's essay

"With the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of an extreme right wing government in France after next spring's election, plus what's going on in the rest of Europe, you hear the word fascism tossed around quite casually lately. At some point after the American election, I realized I had been using the term without really knowing what it meant."
Members of the National Socialist Movement "salute" a speaker during a neo-Nazi rally at the Jackson County Courthouse November 9, 2013 in Kansas City, Missouri. (REUTERS/Dave Kaup)
Listen5:22

One sure way to stop any argument about politics is to bring up the question of Nazis.

It's a conversation ender. Calling your opponent a Nazi, automatically precludes further discussion. Call me a Nazi or a neo-Nazi and where do we go from here?  

It's the same with fascism. If you call someone a fascist, you might as well leave the room. There is no follow-up conversation.

It sometimes gets to the point when you've run out of coherent arguments and you fall back on the excuse of "Well you're just being a fascist." 

On March 5, 2016, (now) president-elect Donald Trump asks his supporters at a rally in Orlando to take a pledge, to promise to vote for him. Some compared the gesture to a Nazi salute. Trump called the accusations “ridiculous” and said his supporters wanted him to pretend that he was taking the oath of office. (The Associated Press)

With the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of an extreme right wing government in France after next spring's election, plus what's going on in the rest of Europe, you hear the word fascism tossed around quite casually lately.

At some point after the American election, I realized I had been using the term without really knowing what it meant.

For the last 10 days or so I've been immersed in two books, a novel and a history of fascism. The novel is It Can't Happen Here, written by Sinclair Lewis and published in 1936. The other is Friendly Fascism, written by Bertram Gross and published in 1982.

The Sinclair Lewis novel tells the story of Senator Berzelius Windrip, a crude, right wing fanatic who courts racist radio preachers and disgraced generals as he plans to run for president. Nominally a Democrat, he will do whatever it takes to win. Friendly Fascism explores the nexus between corporations and government. Gross argues that collusion between Big Business and Big Government can create a fascist environment where civil society is managed in the interest only of the elites.

He says fascism will not ride in on a white horse, followed by legions of armed militia.

It will come gradually, silently even, in the unfolding of seemingly disparate events at high corporate and government levels.

As Orwell taught us decades ago, words, especially political words, matter. - Michael Enright

He suggests fascism can't take hold in the US unless and until the great institutions of democracy begin to erode. And we know from the Nov. 8 election that fully 40 per cent of Americans have lost faith in their institutions.

Both books are worth looking into but neither outlines the pre-existing conditions that lead to fascism.

For that I turned to the delightful novelist and essayist, the late Umberto Eco.

Two decades ago, he wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books entitled "Ur-Fascism."

In it, he talked about his boyhood experiences living in fascist Italy. He watched the collapse of the fascist government and the murder of Benito Mussolini by Italian partisans.

The term 'fascist' has been thrown about a lot since the election of Donald Trump — but what does it actually mean? (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Eco insists that you can't have fascism without an underlying ideology. It has to have a complete, thought-out political program which he says springs from a cult of tradition. 

Such a cult rejects modernism as evil. Its followers must feel besieged. They must believe that life is not only a personal struggle, it is a kind of permanent warfare.

Donald Trump has no ideology other than Trumpism.

Fascism springs from an overwhelming sense of individual and social frustration, which might disguise itself as a kind of angry populism.

It demands a frustrated middle class and a contempt for the weak and less fortunate. Its followers must feel humiliated by the wealth and force of their real or imagined enemies. Another definition of elites, perhaps?

In Eco's universe, the Ur-Fascist mythology creates an exceptional human being, the great hero at its core liturgy. In Ur-Fascism, heroism is the norm. And the cult of heroism is linked inextricably to the cult of death. Fascists are in love with death. 

It may well be that some of the characteristics of  neo-fascism exist in the world today. Some do not. There are many contradictions, in the Eco analysis, many deviations from what is generally thought of as fascism.

Benito Mussolini was the founder of Italy's National Fascist Party and the leader of Italy from 1922 to 1943. (Associated Press file)
As Orwell taught us decades ago, words, especially political words, matter. 

Too often we media types throw around language without actually knowing what we are talking about.

One of my early city editors once told me: "Tell me what the thing is, not what it might be or what it could be, but what it is."

Donald John Trump may be an incipient fascist, about to spring from the belly of America like the gut creature in Alien.

I don't happen to think he is.

But I guess he'll do until the real thing comes along.

Click the 'play' button above to hear Michael's essay. 

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