Preparing for Fascism

Do me a favor: convince me that I’m being an alarmist?

During an interview about his book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale Professor, Jason Stanley, was asked if the American government was fascist.  “I would never say it in an interview,” he responded.  “It would be too dangerous.  In other words, by the time the people in power have instituted fascism, it’s too late to call it that.”

But the time may be near.  Ironically, it is during periods of uncertainty—not knowing, for instance, if a hurricane will really strike, whether an authoritarian leader will execute a coup—that it is hardest to know what to do.  It is tempting to deny the potential calamity.  Those who insist it is coming look like alarmists.  Sometimes, though, the “threat” is transformed into a reality before we know it, before we stop calling it a threat.  We who have watched environmental degradation called a threat long after it is wreaking actual damage know this danger all too well.

On October of 2016, John McNeil of the Washington Post asked “How Fascist is Donald Trump?”  Then he identified 11 characteristics of Fascism to help us judge whether the danger is imminent or distant.  They are: hyper-nationalism; militarism; glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics; fetishization of youth; fetishization of masculinity; a “leader cult”; a “lost Golden Age” syndrome; self-definition by opposition;mass mobilization and mass party; a hierarchical party structure, which purges the disloyal; and theatricality. Most of these qualities are resonant in President Trump’s rhetoric and actions.

Let me add a few observations.  Trump has persistently, fervently, tried to weaken the checks and balances that are supposed to limit (democratic) presidential power. For instance, he attacks the press.  He now has an embarrassing degree of control over the Republican  Congress.  And, if Brett Kavanaugh, who believes in the immunity of the President from criminal prosecution, becomes a Supreme Court judge, then Trump will further insulate himself from the balance of power the founding fathers specifically erected against tyranny.

The international context further strengthens the possibility of authoritarian rule in the United States by making strong-man rule increasingly normative.  We need only think of Poland, Hungary, and Russia.  Or turn our thoughts to increasingly powerful right wing movements in France, Germany, England, and even Sweden.  Where are the bulwarks against the fall of democracy?

In a New Yorker review of Madeleine Albright’s new book, warning about the potential for fascism, Robin Wright noted this: On a Sunday morning in 2016, Donald Trump retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Asked if he worried about his association with Mussolini’s thinking, Trump was casually unbothered.

We have been warned about the possibility of Fascism by credible sources.  And we may be standing on a precipice, easily tumbled by national crises—like the Reichstag fire that provided Hitler with an excuse to consolidate power, like a little war in Iran, that might “require” even more centralized power in the United States, or like a natural weather disaster that “demands” a larger than usual contingent of the national guard.  These are the kind of events that could plunge us over the line and into a fascist abyss.

Even if the risk is 10%, don’t we have to take it literally, not as some metaphor used to criticize an dangerous presidency?  In other words, if we take seriously the warnings, if we allow ourselves to think the unthinkable, if we believe that Fascism is a real, perhaps imminent possibility, what should we do?

At the least, we must exhaust all democratic options and, in particular, work to turn the House of Representatives now, then state legislatures over the next few election cycles, thus ending the gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to win political dominance, even as minority party.

But, with the possible exception of turning the House this November, these are long-term solutions.  What if we at least hypothesize that the crisis is imminent.  How can we avoid the “pale cast of thought,” the paralysis that empowered the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain, during the last century, and the authoritarian regimes—Russia, Poland, and Hungary, among them—in this century?

If we had already become an authoritarian state, I don’t think that we would have qualms about forming a resistance movement.  Oddly enough, the moral choices grow easier as the enemy grows clearer.

I do appreciate that it is daunting to move from the idea of threat to its realization.   None of us want to consider this until it is absolutely necessary.  It would take a kind of courage that most of us have not been called upon to demonstrate.  We might admire the French Resistance.  We might romanticize the Republican struggle against Franco. We might wish that the Germans and Italians had begun to fight earlier.  But what about us?

I don’t feel very brave and I don’t know what to do.  But I am frightened.  So I am writing this essay to pose the question more strongly than I see it presented in the national mainstream media.  Even progressive venues such as The Daily Beast, Salon, and Politico have been reluctant to name the fascist threat as more than a threat.  To me, that is like saying that environmental degradation threatens our future when we know that it already produced undeniable consequences.

At the very least, we must begin to talk with one another and, possibly, to do so in an organized way.  We can ask what we should do “if.”  We can begin to plan for contingencies.  As Jason Stanley warns, there may come a time when we cannot have these conversations out in the open.  Now we can.

 

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Suing others does not Lead to Justice

While the huckster and the hurricane have kept us glued to our TV screens, a very important event has passed by with much too little attention:  the passage of a bill that permits Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for the death and destruction of the World Trade Center bombings.  It is called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).  What makes this bi-partisan bill so important?  Implicit in the Act is the belief that Americans can take legal action against governments but people from other countries will not or cannot reciprocate.  I’d like to explain how short-sighted, dangerous, and distorted this reasoning is.

First, let’s review the facts.  There was the 9/11 attack, planned and executed by Osama Bin Laden.  There is no proof that the Saudi Arabian government participated in this terrorist operation.  If they did, we might have taken the attack as an act of war; even the bellicose Bush administration didn’t do that.  Second, there is the internationally shared legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which says that “a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.”  To date, the United States has agreed to this doctrine.  Yet the Senate voted 97 to 1 and the House voted 348 to 77 to override President Obama’s veto of the bill.

And let’s remember that the right to sue is not the same as holding people and nations to account by bringing them to world tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This we can do.

Imagine what might happen if we really do abandon the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  How, for example, would we respond to Vietnamese families, who grieve their dead as much as we do, if they decided to sue the United States for the millions of people the United States killed and maimed in a useless war?  Would we accept the legitimacy of these legal claims?  What about Iraq, where we began a war on the false premises of weapons of mass destruction, murdering thousands, destroying homes and public buildings, and, in the process, precipitating civil war?  What about the relatives of those murdered—we call it “collateral damage”—during drone attacks.  What about the relish that people around the world would take in seeking reparations—or a big payday—by suing the wealthy American government.  The courts would be brought to a standstill by thousands of law suits and would be hard pressed to rule that the United States is different from other nations.

In short, the United States Congress has demonstrated both a clear double standard and an almost total absence of strategic foresight.

Beyond the strategic implications of JASTA, there is the symbolism: what it tells us about our society.

American society is destructively litigious.  When Americans feel wronged, they sue.  Why?  To lash out, to punish, to get even.  This is the biblical doctrine of “an eye for an eye.”  But is there really solace and satisfaction in vengeance?  Does that make up for our losses?  Does it relieve our grief?  Does it bring back our loved ones?  I don’t think so.  When there is injury and costs involved in caring for the injured, I am very much in favor of legal action.  But death is another thing.  Then we must mourn.  We must come to terms with our losses, however terrible and however difficult.  If possible, we mourn with others and, in that strange, awful twist of fate, grow closer through tragedy.  But vengeance tends to divide and embitter.  It leaves a sour taste in our mouths.  It solves nothing.  It makes a mockery of our belief in justice.

How about deterrence, the power of law suits to send a warning to those who would harm us?  I have seen virtually no proof in the sociological literature that punishment deters criminals, no less terrorists.  Let’s just dismiss this idea.  It is a rationalization for our desire for revenge.

Then there is the profit motive.  As the personal injury ads that pollute our TV screens tells us, there’s a potential gold mine out there.  If we’re miserable, maybe we can feel a little better if we’ve got money to spend.  There’s something to be proud of.

While our litigiousness tends to rot our society from within, our belief that America is different from other nations, that we are special and not subject to the same rules as others, does the same to our standing in the world.  We believe with our whole hearts that America is the greatest nation on earth.  And it’s true that our democratic ideals and the structure of our government are exceptional.  But there are two problems with exceptionalism.  First, we are in a period when the practice of democracy is strained.  Wealthy people, supported by decisions like Citizen’s United, wield more power and have more privilege than at almost any time in our history.  Voting rights are wantonly denied in many states. We are on the verge of becoming more a plutocracy than a democracy.  Poverty remains extremely high.  The presidential campaign—the symbolic centerpiece of democratic process—has people round the world horrified and repulsed.

We may still be one of the better places to live.  People still flock to our shores in search of the American dream.  But we are in a period of nativism, rejecting the very people who have made us strong.  And our foreign policy, in the name of great ideals, has never been so pure.  For centuries now, we have undermined regimes around the world when they do not agree with us or threaten our interests.  We believe ourselves to be superior to others, and that superiority gives us the right to tell others what to do—not in the candid language of realistic self-interest but in the language of ‘making the world safe for democracy.’  We do this with a straight face, even as we support some of the world’s worst regimes.  Here are a few: them Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Marcos in the Philippines, Saddam Hussein, Franco in Spain, Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Batista in Cuba, and Pinochet in Peru.  Apparently, America’s exceptional qualities give us this right. This is the second problem with exceptionalism.

Let’s return to my original premise: We cannot construct an ethical and strategically sound justification to sustain our own “sovereign immunity” while denying it to other peoples and nations.   If we try, we will continue to undermine our own credibility, moral suasion, and international power.