Democracy, Part 3 – Fascism
“Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. You in America will see that someday.” – Benito Mussolini
So why discuss Fascism in a series about Democracy? Because a democratic system is not limited in what kinds of government it can produce. Several times in the last century, it has produced a Fascist government. It could be going that way again in America. Mussolini would say he predicted this a century ago.
Fascism, which Mussolini established in Italy in the 1920s after being elected through a failing democratic process, inspired both Franco in Spain and Hitler in Germany, who came to power at the end of a chaotic and weakening democratic process. Among Fascism’s characteristics are Autocracy, extreme Nationalism expressed by militaristic aggression, Racism, and strict social hierarchies based on whatever other differences and prejudices are at hand to be exploited.
As Mussolini put it, “Fascism is a religious concept.”
Like the worst forms of religion, it’s about being a True Believer.* The appeal is simplicity and safety for a dominant cultural group. For safety to be important, there must be something to be protected from, which is where the racism and social hierarchies come in. Fear of “the other” is easy bait for the autocratic trap.
In order to achieve these two benefits, members of the dominant cultural group give up some of their freedoms and pledge their allegiance unconditionally to the government (usually headed by a single charismatic leader), which then takes away significant freedoms from weaker cultural groups. Because this doesn’t affect the dominant group directly and removes complications from their lives, the members don’t object to this.
At first, this creates the simplicity and safety desired. Eventually though, the dominant group will end up losing more of their freedoms than they intended and most of their safety, too. Like any feudal structure—which this quickly becomes—protection depends on the whims of the ones above you in the hierarchy. That will not be what they signed up for.
Naturally, this doesn’t happen all at once.
In America today, the party of Trump depends on fear and demands absolute allegiance. Many, though not all, use government power to remove paths to power of other groups. In the gubernatorial election in Georgia in 2018, the republican candidate, Brian Kemp, was the sitting Secretary of State for Georgia and responsible for the election process itself. This obvious conflict of interest was anti-democratic and should not have been allowed. There is evidence that he used his office (or others did for him) to make voting harder for people of color and poor people, who were deemed more likely to vote for his opponent, Stacey Abrams. The election was very close and was almost certainly won by Kemp because of these hindrances to the voting process. Abrams accepted the result without conceding, convinced that the election was stolen.
Actions and inactions of the Trump administration, such as defunding the Post Office, failing to support voting infrastructure protections and upgrades, and actively encouraging followers to intimidate voters at the polls, point to similar tactics being used for the upcoming national election. Trump is also sowing doubt about the integrity of the election while his policies are the very things that threaten that integrity. Of course, he’s clear that if he wins, it’s proof that it was a fair and valid election.
The reason that Trump has the fervent support of True Believers is: 1) because he promises simple solutions that supposedly remove the complexity of real life politics that make his supporters (and everyone actually) uncomfortable, and 2) he is protecting them from the presumed dangers from those who are different from them by promoting the trampling on those others’ civil rights, dignity, and even their lives.
Of course, the others object to this, and when their objection leads to violence, Trump points to it as proof that they are a threat.
Also, he attacks the free press constantly. If anyone writes anything that criticizes him, he labels it fake news. His followers just listen to the news that he agrees with. In the Economist issue of September 12, 2020, the Lexington column reported interviewing a group of Trump supporters. Many of them gave these reasons for supporting him (I paraphrase): 1) He’s reducing the national debt, 2) he made China pay our farmers billions of dollars, 3) he fixed the health care system, 4) he built the wall like he promised, and 5) he’s demonstrated that he’s honest. These are all not only provably false, but Trump has done pretty much the opposite of most of them.
This is the beginning of media control. If he can intimidate the other press into reducing their negative coverage, there will be no options.
If you want to understand Trump, just remember the childhood bully’s tease when accused of something he or she has done. The bully says, “I know you are, but what am I?”. When you respond, the deflecting tease is repeated endlessly. If you want to know what Trump is doing, just listen to what he is accusing others of doing to him.
The militaristic part of Fascism will take longer to develop in America because we have no credible enemies geographically close to us. It will happen, though. Already, Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric towards China along with his trade war is laying that groundwork. Autocracies eventually need to send citizens to war to fight and die for the mother country just to maintain power. You can’t question your government if you’re fighting for your life against an “evil empire”, no matter how bad your life is becoming due to the government’s failures and corruption.
All of this is because Americans are growing tired of Democracy. We are growing tired because it has failed in so many ways. We can do better, and we have to do better, but failure is always going to be a part of Democracy. We have to fix what we can as best we can, knowing it will never be truly fixed. And remember, fixing means changing behavior, not changing human nature. People of color, the poor, immigrants, refugees, working whites, the wealthy—all must be treated respectfully, but what people think is not the business of government, just how they behave.
The Trump administration has permitted and actively encouraged the worst of human nature to be expressed in our country. Many take this as evidence that Americans are really evil and awful underneath the surface. Well, wake up, we are. We are all also loving, generous, and giving. Our leadership can determine what part of our nature is expressed. It won’t always be good, but often it will be, and maybe mostly. We have to change our leadership to have a chance to express our better nature.
If we get through this without descending into autocracy, either directly through Fascism or indirectly through the illusion of Socialism (see Pencils 2020 #11), it may be that this will all have been for the best. Donald Trump’s overtness has helped awaken many more of us to the pernicious evil of systemic racism. We have a chance to make real progress there, and we must in order to survive. His incompetence has revealed the resilience of the American people, state and local governments, and private institutions, all of which have stepped in to fill gaps. (This, by the way, supports some arguments of traditional small government conservatives. We need their voices in the dialogue again.)
Even the ideal of American Democracy turns out not to be a very rosy picture. It’s a constant struggle with some successes mixed with constant failures. Is this, then, the best we can do? Yes, it is. It’s not only the best we can do, it’s the best anyone can ever do, and the struggle is worth it. Humans are flawed creatures but also full of beauty. If we can just keep our heads above water, that beauty will reward and renew us again and again.
Democracy is a terrible form of government, but all the others are worse. Though it’s exhausting and eternally unsatisfying, we have no choice but to do the work to keep it going.
September 22, 2020
*If you didn’t read it in school, please find and read Eric Hoffer’s short classic, “The True Believer”. It’s based on his experiences as a longshoreman in America. The point is not the particular politics, which can be almost anything, it’s that the stated goals of a movement don’t matter once religious fervor takes over. At that point, the herd will follow their leaders anywhere, and the leaders and their direction tend to change without the herd really caring or sometimes even noticing.