by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2019 • Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK CITY, near America
In January 2016, in Montréal, the old man lay dying.
Perhaps he silently cursed having reached the age of ninety-nine rather than a full century well deserved. Surely he reflected on his long ago life in Berlin; in particular, Kristallnacht—the night of November 9 in 1938, when Hitler’s brown-shirts assaulted Jews in the streets, smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops, burned synagogues to the ground.
Perhaps he gave silent thanks to his having the wisdom and wherewithal necessary to escape the existential terror of Berlin in that period, fleeing first to London, thence on to Canada with his young family.
Without question, he cursed the world as it was on the day of his passing.
The old man’s son, a friend of mine, told me of his father’s last words: “It’s happening again.”
Such weltschmerz was not without reason.
Later in 2016, in the weeks preceding Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in November, the New Delhi-based Journal of International Studies published a white paper on the worldwide ascendance of what we may politely call Trumpism. As if confirming the old man’s dreadful vision, sociology Professors Ulrike Vieten of Germany and Scott Poynting of Australia premised their paper thus:
Not for the first time, rightwing racist movements are on the march…History tells us that economic crisis, with the casualties of attendant restructurings, provides conditions favourable to the rise of rightwing populism, with the scapegoating of Others being a key populist strategy. Indeed, these circumstances are among the necessary conditions of fascism.
The authors cited a disturbing menu of fascistic advance, an almost coordinated force characterized by “anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideology in equal measures with Trump.”
As the professors see it, among the vanguard of Trumpism are the English Defence League; the United Kingdom Independence Party, facilitator of the Brexit vote; the National Front in France; Alternative für Deutschland in Germany (AfD); the Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA); the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands; the Austrian Party for Freedom; the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats party; the One Nation Party in Australia; and the Golden Dawn in Greece.
I would add to this shameful list the xenophobic Lega of Italy, under its leader Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister; the reactionary Law and Justice Party of Poland under President Andrzej Duda; the Fidesz, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, libeler of the Jewish philanthropist George Soros and obsessive scourge of what he calls “Muslim invaders.”
—And let us not forget the Republican Party of the United States, one half my country’s governing establishment in odious collusion with Trumpism.
Strongman dictators flourish in such Zeitgeist, to wit: the homophobic Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt, who took power following a 2013 coup d’état; Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines and a proudly self-acknowledged murderer; and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who said declared a female member of the national legislature “too ugly” for him to rape, and that “climatism” is a totalitarian “globalist” plot. All three tyrants were recent honored guests in Washington, hosted by Mr. Trump.
Vladimir Putin—murderer, cyber-war criminal, president of Russia—has been invited to drop by the White House before year’s end. Two other murderers, the smirking Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, are likely next up on Mr. Trump’s list of “fantastic guys” to be fêted.
Mr. Kim’s prospects are especially bright. Last September, following their pointless summit meeting, a beaming Mr. Trump told reporters of his regard for the overfed thug who rules over his famished people: “We fell in love. No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters.”
Academicians will differ in defining post-World War II fascism, but classic needs and verities form common ground between past and present: reliance on cadres of bullies to enforce a climate of angst—per Hitler’s sturmabteilung, Mussolini’s squadristi, Franco’s falange; unquestioning allegiance to a fusing of flag and Caucasian-centric Christianity; attentive mass media and compliant propaganda outlets; construction of a mythical past, articulated by a charismatic leader incapable of shame and convinced of Heaven-certified infallibility; the three Rs of hatred (race, religion, region); and the acquiescence of bourgeois conservatives.
Thomas Meany, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York and a visiting scholar at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, provides U.S. context for that final ingredient in the stew of fascism. Writing in the September 2018 edition of the New Statesman magazine of London, he linked a European conservative establishment of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s to that of modern-day America: “[O]nce again, conservatives have serenely presided over Trump’s tinkering and savoured the blessings he has brought to the Republican Party. In this scenario—crude, but more accurate than others—Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is America’s Paul von Hindenburg, the Weimar president who thought he could manage the Führer.”
By no means is that the sole parallel of personnel between the Trump regime and the Third Reich. Consider the eerie physical resemblance between hate mongers of yesterday and today: the malignant anti-Semite Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), Hitler’s minister of propaganda who murdered his six children at war’s end before committing suicide; and the viciously anti-immigrant Stephen Miller, senior advisor to Mr. Trump whose Jewish family has denounced him for gloating at the sight and sound of refugee children separated from their asylum-seeking parents and locked in communal cages at the U.S.-Mexico border—cages topped in barbed wire, à la Dachau and Auschwitz.
When reporters’ secret audio recordings of frightened, screaming youngsters aired on television, Mr. Miller stepped forward in defense of concentration camps. “Doesn’t everyone sleep in cages?” he asked, believing his remark suitably jocular.
Stephen Miller has been a Trump loyalist from Day One. The events of his final day remain to be seen.
Clearly, Donald Trump fills the fascist bill of fare, complete with chilling political campaign appearances that echo Hitler’s annual Nuremberg rallies— des Reichsparteitags, from 1923 to 1938. When Herr Trump appears in a community deemed copacetic to his toxic cause, he mounts a dais awash in stars and stripes to be greeted by a sea of bellowing MAGAts in scarlet caps—$25 (€22.12) a pop. The faithful whoop and bray and swoon and sway in old-timey call and response to an orange-faced man with yellow hair nicknamed The Donald, a man who thrills them with well-tread lyrics from his true-believer songbook: the acronymic “Make America Great Again!” and “Build that Wall!” and “Lock Her Up!” and “Climate Change is a Hoax” and “Witch Hunt” and “No Collusion!” and “It’s a Disgrace!” and “Fake News!”
—and of course, the über Hitleresque “Enemy of the People!”
Should some audience gate-crasher heckle Herr Trump, or should some foolhardy reporter wander beyond chain-link confines for press and television cameras—useful installations for intimidating enemies of the people, and de rigueur at Republican festivities—the president of the United States is cheered for inciting MAGAts to violence. His lustiest line thusfar: “Knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell…I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise!”
Herr Trump literally wraps himself in the American flag at every stop on his endless Reichsparteitag circuit. He wows the MAGAts with a big fat lie about the Holy Bible being his favorite reading material. With a chuckle, he admits that his ghostwritten “Art of the Deal” is a close second. Everyone buys the gag, it seems; everyone actually believes that Herr Trump actually reads. For the heavy contingent of illiterate attendees, audio editions of “Deal” are available in the lobby for $19.25 (€17.03). Trump-autographed editions of the Bible are available on eBay for $525 (€467.27); seemingly, some MAGAts believe he authored the Bible.
Mr. Trump famously explained his love of Scriptures by misnomering “Two Corinthians” as “the whole ballgame.” His press secretary, the semi-lovely Sarah Huckabee Sanders, assures the flock that Dear Leader owns Lordly imprimatur. As she so earnestly said during a February interview with the Christian Broadcast Network, “I think God calls all of us to fill different rôles at different times, and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president. That’s why he’s [in the White House], and I think he has done a tremendous job.”
Ms. Sanders is hardly alone in her faith that The Lord endorses The Donald. According to a Fox TV News poll conducted in February, twenty-five percent of all Republicans believe the president to be sanctified by the Heavenly Father, while another fourteen percent are unsure. Mr. Trump is a devoted viewer of Fox TV, the Republican propaganda organ that masquerades as a news outlet and features leggy blonde “reporters.” Bona fide journalists representing legitimate media, not nearly as toothsome a bunch as the Foxers, are obliged to cover his rallies as a matter of historical record; he is the president, after all.
Apart from his oligarch golfing pals, the mass of Trump’s admirers belong to a culturally disadvantaged and economically insecure segment of the American polity, a group with which I have lifelong familiarity: white working-class people. Many, if not most of this subset, are choked in inchoate resentment over the unlikelihood of rising beyond their station in the nation’s hardening social order. Many are sorely aware of the quiet sneers from expensively educated élites. All are receptive to a self-appointed tribune who promises to express and exalt their rage. They are convinced, many if not most, that if nothing else they are superior to black people, by god!
Above all, they are fearful: afraid of justifiable changes that they believe, with some reason, have short-changed them; that whatever benefits of citizenship they still own could be snatched away by swarthy Muslims, or “caravans” of desperate and destitute Spanish-speaking brown-skinned migrants—most of them women and children.
I understand these people because I come from these people. I neither approve nor condone their self-destructive expressions because they are illogical at best, stupid and racist at worst. I merely understand.
I feel badly for them because Donald Trump understands in another, cynical way: They have value for him—as bedazzled shock troops, as a voting bloc he commands that can be dangled before conservatives as reward for political loyalty.
As Jews and the Roma were to monsters of another time, migrants are the parasites of Donald Trump’s fever dreams. Hatred of The Other is the sine qua non of fascism—
• In announcing his candidacy for the presidential election of 2016, Mr. Trump said of job-seeking migrants from America’s nearest southern neighbor, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
• One year ago this month, the president said of asylum-seekers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, “These aren’t people, they’re animals.”
• Last month, Mr. Trump said of les misérables who walk hundreds of miles through deserts to exercise their human rights under U.S. and international law by surrendering themselves to American authorities as refugees from gang violence, government cruelty, and endemic poverty in their countries of origin: “They’re coming like it’s a picnic, like ‘Let’s go to Disneyland.’”
These are words that my grandfather Ben would say “gladden the heart of Lucifer.”
Herr Trump gladly stokes the primal fears of his people. He revels in their fear. He makes them drunk on fear.
In Trump, the MAGAts have found a vessel for grievance. As complement to their fire engine red caps, we may now know them by the cards they proudly carry—price range $35 (€31.35) to $2,800 (€2,520) per The Donald’s misspelled, ungrammatical, weirdly punctuated and capitalized plea of late April:
Let me be clear. Since the day I [announced my presidential candidacy], the Democrat harassment, fake news attacks, and blatant lies have never been about me…
Their target has always been you.
The liberal swamp hates the idea of people like YOU being in charge of America, and there is no line they won’t cross to prevent that from happening. Just look at the Phony Witch Hunt—NO COLLUSION.
In 2016, I was simply your voice, but YOU were the one that took our country back and made the liberal swamp and political insiders FURIOUS.
Now headed into 2020, we have to remind them that this is your country, not theirs.
Since you’ve been such an important part of our movement, I wanted to give you this exclusive opportunity to become an Official 2019 Trump Executive Member and receive your PERSONALIZED membership card. Please contribute to activate your Official 2019 Trump Executive Membership by 11:59 PM TONIGHT and we’ll send you this beautiful PERSONALIZED card.
The one thing that keeps our movement alive is our members. I need you on my side to fight back against the lies and attacks.
Meanwhile in Italy, the American political gadfly and sometime filmmaker Steve Bannon is poised to infect European Parliament elections at month’s end with appeals to immigrant bashing, which he promotes as a defense of “Judeo-Christian values.” Tagged by media wags as “the most handsome man at the liquor store,” Mr. Bannon was Donald Trump’s chief strategist until leaving the White House for Europe in 2017, there to coördinate the sort of social upheaval referenced by Professors Vieten and Poynting.
To that end, Mr. Bannon’s has launched a right-wing academy, housed in the thirteenth-century Carthusian monastery of Trisulti in the forested mountains beyond Rome. As a counter to George Soros’ Open Society Foundation—and along the lines of Hitler’s beloved “Eagle’s Nest” in the Bavarian Alps, near Berchtesgaden—Mr. Bannon recruits and trains the cadres of an incipient Fascist International.
In addition to a lavish apartment for himself — cavernous living quarters boasting thirteenth-century frescoes, a chapel, a panoramic view of hills below that would be the envy of Il Duce, and a reception area where the monastery’s procurator general was murdered in 1947 — there are classrooms and dormitories for Mr. Bannon’s protégés, young media and political professionals in the cause of what he calls “economic nationalism.”
Funding for the Trisulti venture comes courtesy of theocracy-minded Ben Harnwell — a British national, onetime operative in the European Parliament, and founder of the rightwing Catholic think tank Dignitatis Humanae Institute. From a reporter’s interview with Mr. Harnwell on the academy premises, published in the New Yorker magazine:
I asked Harnwell if the academy’s focus would be more on culture than on politics. “Well, it’s all of it together,” he said. “The distinction is pretty artificial. It sort of entered in Western discourse after the medieval period.” He motioned around the grounds, which once held the summer palace of Pope Innocent III, who, Harnwell said, exemplified the principle of inseparability between catechism and politics. “Before, it was a seamless thread,” Harnwell continued, arguing, “What we believe in our hearts is what we ought to then do for politicians.” I asked if this conception of politics was at odds with the modern, secular state. “Sure,” Harnwell replied. “I’m O.K. with that.”
Tristulti monastery, domicile of the redoubtable Messrs. Bannon and Harnwell, seeks its place within a Fascist International educational pipeline alongside an ultra-rightwing training school in Lyon run by Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen.
Here is irony: Back in Washington, it is conceivable that an embattled president facing the possibility of being driven from office—or to prison—is advised by whomever aides extant that he is fast approaching the need for migratory action himself. Indeed, Donald J. Trump could become a refugee in the postwar tradition of potentates who have run afoul of their polities.
Since 1945, one hundred and thirty-one heads of state have claimed sanctuary abroad. With the exception of assassinations here and there, all in this caste of refugees have lived or are living comfortable lives. Their number, living and dead, that includes the uncomely likes of Erich Honecker, Victor Yanukovych, Alfredo Stroessner, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Fulgencio Batista, and cannibal-statesman Idi Amin.
Paraguay is nice. Said to be the last place on Earth for the worst people in the world—Josef Mengele and Anastasio Somoza lived there in exile—the landlocked South American nation presents familiar terrain for Mr. Trump: semi-tropical weather, a wealth of public and private corruption, and excellent golf courses. But if nothing else, Mr. Trump thinks capital-B big. Life in Asunción would prove far too constricting for a man of his ego.
Perhaps he imagines a whisper from his old retainer, Steve Bannon: “Hagel Trumpf, der Weltführer!” And perhaps the rest of us should ponder, every day, these warnings:
• “Fascism poses a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of the Second World War.” — Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state and child of fascist Europe
• “What we are living with is pre-fascism.” — Fintan O’Toole, columnist for the Irish Times
• “Fascism is already here.”—Michelle Goldberg, columnist for the New York Times
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag