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“The Canny and Careful Reconstruction of Barbarism”*

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Soundings

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Novelist, poet and journalist E.B. White penned a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News on October 8, 1964, reflecting on the themes of Republican Party standard bearer Barry Goldwater’s campaign, as that year’s presidential election approached. He remarked that he had been studying the Arizona senator’s writings and speeches and observed:

The pattern of [Goldwater’s proposals] closely parallels the classic pattern of authoritarianism and the police state: discrediting the court, intimidating the press …, depicting the federal government as the enemy of the people, depicting social welfare as the contaminant of our lives, promising to use presidential power to end violence, arguing that the end justifies the means … slyly suggesting that those of opposite opinion are perhaps of questionable loyalty, and always insisting that freedom has gone down the drain.[1]

        These tropes should sound familiar for they have guided the GOP since and have now reached their acme with the party’s decision to adopt former President Donald Trump’s many lies. These include his “Big Lie” that he won the November 2020 election and his contention that individuals of different views are not simply citizens with whom one disagrees, but disloyal “radical corrupt communists” who are intent on wrecking the country and are in league with the nation’s minorities and immigrants who are “invading” by the tens of thousands to rob America’s “true citizens” (read white and rural area dwellers, principally) of their rightful way of life.

        Trump offered these assertions in a rambling speech on July 24 at a “rally” in Phoenix, Arizona. While there was no apparent order to his remarks, I have excerpted his claims as he voiced them and quote his talk at some length to illustrate that his words treat the same matters Goldwater articulated. That said, Trump has exacerbated the venality and moral turpitude of those original claims with fantastical lies and encouragement of a personal cult of loyalty:

In my opinion, there is no way they win elections without cheating. There’s no way. There’s no way. … The radical left Democrat communist party rigged and sold the election. And we caught them. The time to hold them responsible and fix this broken and corrupt system is not in 2022 where it may be just as corrupt. And if it is, you’re not going to win. … We are beyond socialism. When you have no press that you can talk to, that’s how a communist country begins. They have no press. We find things in Arizona, and other than a couple of great networks, we have no press. We have no voice. I only have voice because I get great ratings. … Crime is surging. Inflation is soaring. The border is gone. We went from the strongest border ever to the weakest border ever. The border is non-existent. Illegal aliens are pouring in, in record numbers. Critical race theory is being forced into every facet of our society. Free speech is being crushed. …  Men are being allowed to compete in women’s sports. How do you like that? Think of that. … Now crime is at the highest it’s ever been in history. These police departments have been devastated, … you’re talking about millions of people are coming into our country. We expedited removals and deported criminal aliens by the thousands. We took out MS-13 gang members by the tens of thousands, we got them out. Thousands and thousands of these absolute killers. And we built nearly 500 miles of beautiful border wall. …  numbers are coming in from Haiti. They’re coming in from all parts of Africa. They’re coming in from Europe; they’re coming in from all over the world. And our country’s not, no country is set for that. Number one, you can’t afford it. Number two, on a human basis, and even on a common-sense basis, it’s going to destroy it. They are destroying our country. They’re destroying our country. … As the radicalization campaign in our military illustrates. We are seeing almost every major institution in American life be taken over and weaponized by the extreme left, including law enforcement, the military, the corporate media. These people here just, you know, it’s just … I hope they’re, more than anybody in this room, I hope they are listening because they’re destroying our country.[2]

        I argued in my last Soundings essay that one characteristic of fascistic rhetoric and ideology is that it embraces fanciful demagogic “us-them” tropes against targeted others in a society, even as its purveyors lie and claim their efforts to undo liberal democratic principles are supporting them.[3] I know of no better recent example of this stance than Trump’s Phoenix speech, in which he lied repeatedly about national conditions and also lied constantly about the outcome of the last election. More specifically, he lied about immigration and about the beliefs and proclivities of millions of Americans who do not support him or his party. He went further to characterize his continuing assault on the rule of law and voting rights in his efforts to overturn the November 2020 national election, his call on enthusiasts to attack the Capitol and his racist attacks on specific immigrant groups, as desirable efforts to “Make America Great” again. This last is also prototypical of fascist rhetoric and ideology in its appeal to an unspecified Eden, which only the leader can bring to pass. He also recurrently claimed not only to disagree with those now in power in Washington, D.C., but to characterize them, as I note above, as “radical corrupt communists” hellbent to bring the country down because they want to “take stuff” from his audience members and give it to the undeserving. This meme, too, dates to Goldwater and, before him, at least to Reconstruction, and bespeaks an effort to (re)establish a racial hierarchy and to empower a social and economic elite.

        Readers who believe that this sort of rhetoric and thinking is characteristic of Trump, but not of his Party, and that the majority of Americans should not be alarmed on that count have only to watch GOP state legislators working assiduously to make casting ballots more difficult for groups they fear are less likely to vote for their party, to realize that there is, indeed, cause for grave concern. Republican lawmakers also are working to permit partisan officials to have direct control over voting processes. More, federal and state GOP elected leaders have lined up in large numbers to back Trump’s Big Lie, to the point of crafting a new narrative of the events of January 6, in which Trump seditiously called on a crowd to attack the Capitol to stop certification of the election results. As is well known, that mob stormed the building, resulting in five deaths and injuries to 140 members of the Capitol and Washington, D.C. police, as well as horrific property damage and a deep blow to our nation’s democratic way of life.

        Two New York Times analysts have described Trump and the Republican Party’s ongoing effort to rewrite the history of this ignominious event this way:

This past week, amid the emotional testimony of police officers at the first hearing of a House select committee, Republicans completed their journey through the looking-glass, spinning a new counternarrative of that deadly day. No longer content to absolve Mr. Trump, they concocted a version of events in which those accused of rioting were patriotic political prisoners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the violence. Their new claims, some voiced from the highest levels of House Republican leadership, amount to a disinformation campaign being promulgated from the steps of the Capitol, aimed at giving cover to their party and intensifying the threats to political accountability.[4]

        In sum, the lion’s share of the GOP, including its institutional leaders, has now embraced Trump’s lies and fascistic stance toward governance with an eye toward ensuring the ongoing support of his loyalists. To do so, the party’s leaders at the national, state and local levels have accepted Trump’s form and fora of politics, which include, as his extemporaneous 110-minute Arizona diatribe illustrated, the following central elements:

  • An embrace of a mythical idyllic past that only the putative leader, Trump, can (re)create
  • Continuous willful and cynical lies and propagandizing crafted to appeal to supporters’ prejudices, fears and disquietude, including claims of victimhood, coupled with “othering” of other citizens, especially members of minority groups and immigrants, who call out Trumpian lies and claims
  • Repeated and overt appeals to racism and racial hierarchy
  • Deliberate and sustained attempts to undermine governance and the rule of law, alongside a profound assault on reality via continuous efforts to delegitimate all forms of information and social legitimacy other than the Party and its leaders’ changing versions of the same
  • Appeals designed to fetishize rural life and to condemn urban residents and related cosmopolitan culture as impure and corrupting
  • An assault on educators, education and expertise, as effete and ignorant arbiters whose roles should be supplanted by absolute loyalty to the party and especially to its leader’s assertions.[5]    

 

        The online news magazine, Salon, convened a panel of scholars to reflect on Trump’s remarks a few days following their delivery, and while all of the participants expressed deep concern about the speech’s content, one panelist’s observations quite struck me. Yale University philosopher, Jason Stanley, an expert on fascism, reacted to Trump’s screed this way:

Trump's speech in Arizona brilliantly structured the themes in American politics that are gradually coming into greater clarity as a fascist social and political movement centering on Trump as leader. In fascist ideology, communists are supposedly seeking to destroy the nation by opening the borders to immigrants who will dilute the majority population and give power to ethnic and sexual minorities (currently, transgender persons are the most vilified by the far right worldwide, and Trump's speech was no exception). Fascism requires minorities to vilify to create panic and fear among the dominant majority. The fascist leader represents himself as the nation's savior and only hope against these threats.[6]

        Like many other scholars and commentators, I have highlighted the parallels of the GOP’s increasing turn to 20th-century authoritarian and fascist politics, but I have long been reluctant to contend that the party itself had adopted that ideology and view of the nation. I have now concluded that the evidence that it, and its principal supporters, have done so is overwhelming and inescapable. Among many others that might be cited, three Republican choices have made this clear. First, the party’s leaders and its primary followers have continued to support Trump, who has exhibited, as Stanley argued, every major element of fascist politics and clearly views himself as such a political and social movement leader. Second, the Party’s willingness to allow Trump to escape impeachment for his sedition on January 6 represented a more than lamentable choice, but its leaders have gone further in the name of “changing the subject for electoral reasons,” to create a completely false narrative of that murderous event that blames “corrupt Democrat communists” and House Speaker Pelosi for it. This course demonstrates a descent into complete and fantastical fascistic nihilism. Finally, by embracing Trump, the GOP has now, in practice, repudiated its decades-long major policy stands, favoring instead a cult-like devotion to the former president.

        Trump and the Republican Party today represent a deeper threat to our Republic than they did even in January, when Trump instigated an attempted coup. Both the man and the party have refused to recognize the current administration as legitimate and, as his Arizona speech highlighted, Trump and his allies are daily working to undercut, in the minds of their supporters, the legitimacy of any electoral outcome not favorable to the GOP. Moreover, they have demonstrated they are ready to lie repeatedly and to construct alternate realities for their followers, and to do so via fascist memes. In short, the Republican Party and its core supporters provide every evidence of having embraced fascism and a fascist leader and they have made it abundantly clear they are prepared to undermine the Republic and its most basic principles, if it appears such will allow them to exercise political power.

        Atlantic Monthly staff journalist David Frum captured the moment our nation now confronts in a recent essay in which he argued that January 6 cannot be wished away or redefined or seen in any way other than for what it was: a mob insurrection aimed at setting aside the legitimate outcome of a national election. A failure to acknowledge that fundamental reality misunderstands profoundly the governance crisis confronting the nation and democratic rule:

If you can shrug it (the January 6 mob insurrection and attack on the Capitol) off as no big deal, just another incident of Trump talking too much, then you have already signed up for the next incident—and the one after that. You are then offering a no-risk pair of options for the enemies of democracy: Try to overthrow democracy and win, then you win; try and lose—hey, you were only kidding.[7]

        All Americans must recognize the present moment as the danger it has become, without losing hope. Indeed, only indomitable vigilance, sustained efforts and hope are likely to see this nation through its present political tragedy. As E.B. White observed in 1973 during the Watergate crisis:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us in a bad time.[8]

*With thanks to E.B. White for this title, from whose December 1941 New Yorker essay, “Intimations,” I have drawn it. E.B. White, On Democracy, Ed. Martha White. New York: Harper Collins, 2019, p. 35.

Notes

[1] White, E.B. “Democracy is Destructible,” (October 8, 1964), in Martha White, Ed., E.B. White on Democracy, New York: Harper Collins, 2019, p. 167.

[2] Trump, Donald J. “Donald Trump Phoenix, Arizona Rally Speech Transcript, July 24,” Rev.com, Jul 24, 2021,  https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-phoenix-arizona-rally-speech-transcript-july-24, Accessed August 3, 2021. 

[3] Stephenson, Max Jr., “A Looming American Choice: Self-Determination as Freedom or Tyranny,” Soundings, July 26, 2021, https://ipg.vt.edu/content/ipg_vt_edu/en/DirectorsCorner/Soundings/Soundings07262021.html, Accessed August 1, 2021. 

[4] Lerer, Lisa and Nicholas Fandos, “Already Distorting January 6, G.O.P. Now Concocts Entire Counternarrative,” The New York Times, July 31, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/31/us/politics/jan-6-capitol-riot-pelosi.html?searchResultPosition=2, Accessed July 31, 2021.

[5] Stanley, Jason. How Fascism Works. New York: Random House, 2018.

[6] Stanley, Jason, as quoted in Devega, Chauncey, “ Expert Roundtable on Jan.6 and Trump’s Big Lies: ‘Fascism in its pure Ideological Form,” Salon, July 28, 2021, https://www.salon.com/2021/07/28/trump-arizona-fascism-hearings-roundup/, Accessed August 1, 2021. 

[7] Frum, David. “Don’t Let Anyone Normalize January 6,” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/january-6-minimizers/619634/, Accessed August 3, 2021. 

[8] White, E. B. “On Hope (Letter to Mr. Nadeau),” (March 30, 1973), in Martha White, Ed., E.B. White on Democracy, New York: Harper Collins, 2019, p. 173.

Publication Date

August 9, 2021

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