Faint echoes of fas­cism in 21st-cen­tury Amer­ica

Enterprise-Record (Chico) - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will Ge­orge Will’s email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON » So many ex­citable Amer­i­cans are hurl­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of fas­cism, there might be more def­i­ni­tions of “fas­cism” than there are ac­tual fas­cists. Fas­cism, one of the 20th cen­tury's fight­ing faiths, has only faint echoes in 21st-cen­tury Amer­ica's political re­gres­sion.

Europe's rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­di­tion ex­alted lib­erty, equal­ity and fra­ter­nity un­til rev­o­lu­tion­ary fas­cism sac­ri­ficed the first to the sec­ond and third. Fas­cism fan­cied it­self as moder­nity armed — sci­ence trans­lated into ma­chines, es­pe­cially air­planes, and pure en­ergy rest­lessly seek­ing things to smash. Ac­tu­ally, it was a re­coil against En­light­en­ment in­di­vid­u­al­ism, the idea that good so­ci­eties al­low rea­son­ing, rights-bear­ing peo­ple to de­fine for them­selves the wor­thy life.

In­di­vid­u­al­ism, fas­cists in­sisted, pro­duces a hu­man dust of de­ra­ci­nated peo­ple (Ni­et­zsche's “the sand of hu­man­ity”) whose lone­li­ness and pur­pose­less­ness could be cured by gusts of charis­matic lead­er­ship blow­ing them into a vi­brant na­tional-cum-tribal col­lec­tiv­i­ties. The gusts were fas­cist rhetoric, mag­ni­fied by ra­dio, which in its nov­elty was a more pow­er­ful political tool than tele­vi­sion has ever been.

The En­light­en­ment ex­alted free­dom; fas­cism pos­tu­lated des­tiny for those on “the right side of his­tory.” Fas­cism was the youth­ful wave of the fu­ture: Mus­solini was 39 when he be­came Italy's youngest prime min­is­ter un­til then; Hitler be­came chan­cel­lor at 43; Franco was 43 when he ig­nited the 1936 mil­i­tary in­sur­rec­tion in Spain. In “Three Faces of Fas­cism” (1965), Ernst Nolte said that Mus­solini, who “had no fore­run­ners,” placed “fas­cism” in quo­ta­tion marks as a ne­ol­o­gism.

Fas­cism's cel­e­bra­tion of un­fet­tered lead­ers pro­claim­ing “only I can fix it” en­tailed dis­par­age­ment of “par­lia­men­tarism,” the pol­i­tics of in­cre­men­tal­ism and con­cil­i­a­tion. “Democ­racy,” said Mus­solini, “has de­prived the life of the peo­ple of ‘style' … the color, the strength, the pic­turesque, the un­ex­pected, the mys­ti­cal; in sum, all that counts in the life of the masses. We play the lyre on all its strings….”

Fas­cism was en­ter­tain­ment built around ral­lies — e.g., those at Nurem­berg — where crowds were played as pas­sive in­stru­ments. Suc­cess ma­nip­u­lat­ing the masses fed fas­cist lead­ers' dis­dain for the led. Hitler de­scribed them as fem­i­nine, the ul­ti­mate fas­cist dis­par­age­ment. Imag­ine the con­tempt a promiser feels for, say, peo­ple gulled by a prom­ise that one na­tion will pay for a bor­der wall built against it by an­other na­tion.

Mus­solini, a fer­vent so­cial­ist un­til his pol­i­tics mu­tated into a ri­val col­lec­tivism, dis­tilled fas­cism to this: “Ev­ery­thing within the state, noth­ing out­side the state, noth­ing against the state.” The Nazi Party — the Na­tional So­cial­ist Ger­man Work­ers' Party — ef­fected a broad ex­pan­sion of so­cial­ism's agenda: Rather than merely meld­ing the pro­le­tariat into a bat­ter­ing ram to pul­ver­ize the sta­tus quo, fas­cism would con­script into tribal sol­i­dar­ity the en­tire na­tion — with ex­cep­tions.

Fas­cism based na­tional unity on shared do­mes­tic dreads — of the me­dia as en­e­mies of the peo­ple, of elites, or oth­ers who pre­vented na­tional ho­mo­gene­ity and so­cial pu­rifi­ca­tion. Jews were re­viled as “cos­mopoli­tans,” a pre­cur­sor of to­day's ep­i­thet: “glob­al­ists.”

In the 1920s, fas­cism cap­tured Italy, in which, it has been said, the po­etry of the Risorg­i­mento — na­tional uni­fi­ca­tion achieved in 1870 — was fol­lowed by “the prose of ev­ery­day ex­is­tence.” Mus­solini, the bare-chested, jut­jawed, stal­lion-mounted al­pha male, promised (as Vladimir Putin to­day does in di­min­ished, sour Rus­sia) de­riv­a­tive mas­culin­ity for men bored by hum­drum life in a bour­geois “lit­tle Italy.” “On to Ethiopia!” was Mus­solini's hol­low yelp of re­stored Ro­man grandeur.

Com­mu­nism had a rev­o­lu­tion­ary doc­trine; fas­cism was more a mood than a doc­trine. It was a stance of un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated tru­cu­lence to­ward the in­sti­tu­tions and man­ners of lib­eral democ­racy. “The democrats of ‘Il Mondo' want to know our pro­gram?” said Mus­solini the month he came to power in 1922. “It is to break the bones of the democrats of ‘Il Mondo.'”

In the 1930s, Spain ac­quired a bland fas­cism — fas­cism with­out a charis­matic per­son­i­fi­ca­tion: ner­vous na­tion­al­ism, leav­ened by cler­i­cal­ism and cor­rup­tion. Spain's golden age was four cen­turies past; what was re­cent was the 1898 hu­mil­i­a­tion of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can war. Paunchy Fran­cisco Franco, a hu­man black hole negat­ing ex­cite­ment, would make Spain great again by keep­ing it dis­tinct from mod­ern Europe, dis­tinct in pre-En­light­en­ment back­ward­ness.

Don­ald Trump, an en­vi­ous acolyte of to­day's var­i­ous strong­men, ap­peals to those in thrall to coun­try-mu­sic man­li­ness: “We're truck-driv­ing, beer-drink­ing, big-chested Amer­i­cans too free­dom-lov­ing to let any it­sy­bitsy virus make us wear masks.” Trump, how­ever, is a faux na­tion­al­ist who dis­dains his na­tion's golden age of in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship and in­sti­tu­tion-build­ing af­ter 1945.

Trump­ism, too, is a mood mas­querad­ing as a doc­trine, an en­ter­tain­ment genre based on con­tempt for its bel­low­ing au­di­ences. Fas­cism was and is more in­ter­est­ing.

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