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Charting a Path from ‘Quasi-Democratic Autocracy’ to Democratic Self-Governance

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Umberto Eco was an Italian university professor, philosopher, novelist and literary critic. He died in 2016. The August 2, 2020 newsletter of The New York Review of Books featured an essay Eco wrote for that journal entitled Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism, that was originally published in its June 22, 1995 issue. In it, Eco recounted his personal experience as a child with the Mussolini regime and identified and considered a number of central elements that comprise that murderous form of autocracy.[1] Eco doubted that anything closely resembling Mussolini’s or Nazi fascism would soon engulf Europe once more, but he was nonetheless keen to contend that the hyper-nationalism that lay at the heart of Italian, Spanish, German and other forms of that autocracy in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s remained dangerous. As he put it, “We are here to remember what happened and solemnly say that ‘They’ must not do it again.”[2]

I was fascinated by Eco’s essay because I saw parallels to what is and has been occurring in a certain share of the American population and within one of our principal political parties for some decades. Whatever one labels the current U.S. regime, and I prefer the descriptor, “quasi-democratic autocracy,” it is today characterized by blind followership among millions of Americans, deep economic and social inequality and an unthinking devotion to the idea of serving the declared interests of a very small group of economic elites and maintaining power at all costs among many elected Republican Party officials. In short, many of the features of fascism that Eco highlighted are now evident in our politics, without fully constituting that framework. I outline seven of those here and suggest a share of their analogues in our politics, and then sketch what must occur if our nation’s governance is not to be further degraded.

First, Eco argued that Mussolini had no overarching philosophy, “he had only rhetoric.”[3] Notably, President Donald Trump is running for reelection in 2020 on the platform he offered in 2016, whose principal planks he has abandoned, and which did not originally reflect anything resembling a coherent set of tenets in the first place. One specific example of Trump’s 2016 promises was replacing the Affordable Care Act with “something” wildly better, which neither he nor his party has sought to undertake, even as they have continued actively to seek to remove the healthcare coverage for those now obtaining it as a result of that law by repealing it or undermining the statute in the courts. Another promise was to reduce the federal fiscal and trade deficits, of which the first ballooned following a large tax cut for which Trump pressed that favored the most wealthy disproportionately and the second has worsened markedly alongside his imposition of tariffs, which have economically harmed many of his supporters.[4] Trump likewise promised that coal miners and loggers would soon “go back to work” on his watch,  but the trend of declining employment in those sectors has not abated during his term.[5] What Trump is now relying on in light of his overwhelming failure to attain or attend to the lion’s share of what he promised in his election bid as well as his utter failure to address the COVID-19 crisis, is a “we are victims” rhetoric that scapegoats other nations, specific minority groups within the United States and the Democratic Party for the many major challenges the nation is now confronting.

Second, Eco contended that Ur-Fascism relied on what he dubbed “a cult of tradition,” by which he meant that those embracing it were willing to believe that their leader spoke and/or revealed concerns or issues in ways that were always and everywhere true. Accepting this assumption, one can ignore or attack what is factually occurring in favor of what has purportedly already been revealed. Or, in Eco’s words, “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”[6] In the American context, this proclivity is most in evidence among Evangelicals who have solidly supported Trump irrespective of his behavior and known personal shortcomings, which violate their central beliefs. They have done so because, as a previous Soundings explored, Trump has indicated he supports their desire for an unchanged social order, including, implicitly, a moral and racial hierarchy, in which their preferred values predominate.[7] Eco pointed out that such a priori rejection of the possibility or indeed, imperative, of social change ultimately constitutes, in context, a repudiation of both democratic values and pluralism, and in “that sense can be defined as irrationalism.”[8]

Third, Eco suggested that Ur-Fascism also spurned modernism and embraced a cult of action for action’s sake. In the United States context, Trump and his party have sharply criticized a number of long-standing alliances with our European and other partners as well as the counsel of experts and scientists of all stripes concerning the climate and COVID-19 crises and foreign and economic policy in the name of taking action to address concocted grievances. Those steps have been justified and constructed on the foundation of Trump’s self-proclaimed “genius” and hatred of unnamed “effete snobs and elites,” a group comprised of individuals who have acquired knowledge and reflected on the contextual realities of a disparate array of subjects relevant to national and international governance. Under Trump, that knowledge has been replaced by policy-making by personal hunch, conspiracy claims, stereotypes and ignorance. Those actions have cost many Americans their lives during the current pandemic and many more their livelihoods while also gratuitously and unilaterally undermining the civil and human rights of targeted groups and diminishing the nation’s role and standing in the world.

Fourth, and related, Eco suggested that Ur-Fascism relied on a shared view in which disagreement with the leader constituted treason. Trump, with the complicity of the GOP, has sought to populate his administration and the judiciary with individuals who will accept and support his positions, whatever their character and despite their outrageously eccentric and persistently counterfactual claims. Trump and his party have actively sought to punish perceived transgressors and the President personally has accused his predecessor, without evidence, of treason.[9] This rhetoric is poisonous and designed foremost to shore up believers willingness to countenance whatever the leader and Party suggest should be undertaken and without critical analysis of its foundations.

Fifth, according to Eco, Ur-Fascism argued that citizens should adopt the nation as their primary identity. Moreover, that identity was itself predicated on a reaction to those perceived as enemies of that nation. Or, as Eco put the matter,

Thus, at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.[10]

Trump rose to political prominence claiming without evidence that then President Barack Obama was not an American citizen and falsely intimating Obama was a Muslim as well. Both stands were examples of Trump’s persistent embrace of xenophobia. Trump has only deepened his reliance on such empty allegations, particularly against refugees and immigrants and all whom his supporters might regard as “others,” including Jews, during his term of office.[11] He has also labeled everything from his relatively small inauguration crowd, to the pandemic, to documented evidence of his payments of hush money to those with whom he conducted extramarital affairs, to overwhelming proof that the Russian state interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of his campaign (and in the current electoral process as well), as “hoaxes” designed only to harm him and his followers by “others,” including the Democratic Party and former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Sixth, Ur-Fascism was predicated on a faux selective populism in which the People were redefined as “a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will … with the leader pretending to be their interpreter.”[12] As a result, “the People is only a theatrical fiction.”[13] For Trump, this feature of autocratic governance has been evidenced most in his appeals to a supposed “Silent Majority” as supporting his often outrageous assertions, and at his political rallies designed foremost to elicit and demonstrate the fervent support of their attendees for their Leader, even to the point of visiting violence on any who might disagree.

Finally, Eco contended that Ur-Fascism was characterized by attacks by the executive on the legitimacy of other actors in governance, especially the legislature. Mussolini, Franco and Hitler each attacked their nation’s parliament. Trump has sought not only to assail the Democratically controlled House of Representatives, but to delegitimate Congress more generally by consistently refusing to abide by long settled accountability practices. Indeed, he has suggested repeatedly that he is accountable to no one, certainly not Congress, and not even to the rule of law.  Trump’s creation of what amounts to a personal militia comprised principally of redeployed customs and border agents, a rough contemporary equivalent of Mussolini’s “maniples,” with the support of the Attorney General and acting Secretary of Homeland Security, provides evidence on this point, as do his repeated attempts to repudiate any and all forms of congressional oversight of his personal finances and of his public actions.[14] In addition, Trump has attacked all national and much state governance as corrupt and has argued that he alone can “drain the swamp.”

One particularly cynical example of this phenomenon is Trump’s (and the GOP’s) refusal to negotiate with the Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives to extend unemployment support for the millions displaced by the COVID-19 crisis when that House passed a comprehensive bill to extend unemployment support and aid to hard hit states in May until those benefits were set to end. At that point, the GOP-controlled Senate still refused to engage, and when negotiations finally occurred between the White House and House Democratic leaders, the administration refused to accept anything but its own much less expansive position. Thereafter, Trump issued three memoranda and an Executive Order claiming to “help” Americans when the Democrats had “refused” to do so. It was all a lie aimed at developing a narrative that the Leader could offer salvation while simultaneously blaming others for the difficulties the GOP had in fact chosen to exacerbate.[15] The Potemkin Village quality of this especially ugly scenario and the contemptuous perspective it suggests its originators have embraced of America’s citizenry, speak for themselves.

Overall, Eco warned,

We must keep alert, so that the sense of [freedom, dictatorship, liberty] of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.[16]

In keeping with that injunction, I have sought to identify elements of the emergence of an autocratic authoritarianism in American politics and have argued that these have been justified by appeals to fear, to racial and social discrimination and by a belief among those embracing this orientation that maintaining power is more important than democratic values and freedom. On this point, Eco quoted President Franklin Roosevelt who, on November 4, 1938, observed, “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”[17] Further to Roosevelt’s observation, the Italian philosopher contended that “freedom and liberation are an unending task.”[18]

FDR’s remarks and Eco’s clarion call for vigilance by the friends of freedom brought to mind civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis’s farewell essay to the American people, in which he argued:

He [Martin Luther King] said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.  Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.[19]

The lessons here, in the face of the calumny and corruption of the Trump administration and the complicity of the Republican Party in that anti-democratic project, are clear. The attacks on governmental legitimacy, on the civil and human rights of minorities, on the possibility of truth and on knowledge itself together constitute a dangerous assault on the project of a free people and their possibility of self-governance. Persistent awareness, advocacy and exercise of the franchise, coupled with moral courage, can together constitute a way forward from the current cliff’s edge of freedom’s wholesale degradation. Every citizen should accept responsibility for ensuring the possibility of a fresh path leading away from our present political state of quasi-democratic autocracy.

Notes

[1] Eco, Umberto, “Ur-Fascism,” The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995, 42(11), https://www-nybooks-com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/, Accessed August 7, 2020. 

[2] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[3] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[4] Flynn, Meagan and Tim Elfrink, “Trump Administration Asks Supreme Court to Strike Down Obamacare,” The Washington Post, June 26, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/26/trump-obamacare-supreme-court-brief/, Accessed August 8, 2020; Tankersley, Jim and Ana Swanson, “In Blow to Trump, America’s Trade Deficit in Goods Hits Record $891 Billion,” The New York Times, March 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/06/us/politics/us-trade-deficit.html, Accessed August 8, 2020; Long, Heather and Jeff Stein, “The U.S. Deficit Hit $984 Billion in 2019, Soaring During Trump Era,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/10/25/us-deficit-hit-billion-marking-nearly-percent-increase-during-trump-era/, Accessed August 8, 2020. 

[5] Meyer, Gregory, “Trump Campaign for US Coal Undermined by Industry Slump,” Financial Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/39909dd4-7c6c-425e-8f05-4f6e63b60c43, Accessed August 7, 2020; Bull, Brian, “Four Years Since Trump’s Pledge To Boost Timber, Little Has Changed,” NPR for Oregonians, February 25, 2020, https://www.klcc.org/post/four-years-trumps-pledge-boost-timber-little-has-changed, Accessed August 7, 2020.  

[6] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[7] Stephenson, Max Jr., Soundings, “Evangelicals, Demographic and Economic Change and Injustice,” October 7, 2019, https://ipg.vt.edu/DirectorsCorner/Soundings/Soundings100719.html, Accessed August 7, 2020.

[8] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[9] Sonmez, Felicia, “Trump, Without Evidence, Accuses Obama of ‘Treason,’” The Washington Post, June 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-without-evidence-accuses-obama-of-treason/2020/06/22/14bc42c6-b4f3-11ea-aca5-ebb63d27e1ff_story.html, Accessed August 7, 2020. 

[10] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[11] Levine, Bess, “Trump Goes Full Anti-Semite in Room Full of Jewish People,” Vanity Fair, December 9, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/12/donald-trump-anti-semitic-remarks, Accessed August 7, 2020.

[12] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[13] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[14] Pullman, Laura, “Portland Protests: Donald Trump’s ‘Militia’ Sparks Political Firestorm,” July 26, 2020, The Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/portland-protests-donald-trumps-militia-sparks-political-firestorm-d3n22wwp6, Accessed August 7, 2020.

[15] Stein, Jeff, Erica Werner and Renae Merle, “Trump Attempts to Wrest Tax and Spending Powers From Congress with New Executive Actions,” The Washington Post, August 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/08/08/trump-executive-order-coronavirus/, Accessed August 8, 2020. 

[16] Eco, Ur-Fascism.”

[17] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, “Address on Election of Liberals,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1938, p.586, https://books.google.com/books?id=MyfeAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA586&lpg=PA586&dq=I+venture+the+challenging+statement+that+if+American+democracy+ceases+to+move+forward+as+a+living+force,+seeking+day+and+night+by+peaceful+means+to+better+the+lot+of+our+citizens,+fascism+will+grow+in+strength+in+our+land.%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=uQkThVVcEa&sig=ACfU3U18HMcdi_i_jhX9kQVLyZpVTQxDuw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiO9JbTqIrrAhUQl3IEHdZkBXcQ6AEwBXoECAsQAQ#v=onepage&q=I%20venture%20the%20challenging%20statement%20that%20if%20American%20democracy%20ceases%20to%20move%20forward%20as%20a%20living%20force%2C%20seeking%20day%20and%20night%20by%20peaceful%20means%20to%20better%20the%20lot%20of%20our%20citizens%2C%20fascism%20will%20grow%20in%20strength%20in%20our%20land.%E2%80%9D&f=false, Accessed August 8, 2020.

[18] Eco, “Ur-Fascism.”

[19] Lewis, John, “Together You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” The New York Times, July 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html, Accessed August 7, 2020. 

Publication Date

August 17, 2020

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