Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Rise of Pseudo Fascism

Part 1: The Morphing of the Conservative Movement

Part 2: The Architecture of Fascism

Part 3: The Pseudo-Fascist Campaign

Its whole purpose being the acquisition of raw power through any means necessary, the discrete "conservative movement" and its dealings can at times be extremely disorienting. The proliferation of Newspeak as a political propaganda strategy by the American right, in particular, has created a milieu in which up is down, wrong is right and ignorance is strength.

At times, is seems as if factuality has no real basis. Truth has no objective value; it is instead a mutable thing, readily manipulated through repetition of propaganda talking points.

Think back, if you will, to the 2000 election fiasco in Florida, resulting in the abominable Bush v. Gore ruling (whose continuing significance was recently limned in detail by Jeffrey Rosen of the New Republic). Al Gore, you may remember, chose -- instead of calling for an extralegal statewide manual recount, which would have been the fairest solution -- to follow Florida state law to the letter and filed for recounts in only a handful of given counties.

This led, of course, to Republicans claiming that Gore tried to "steal" the election by "cherry-picking" enough votes in a handful of counties. It's a popular meme that maintains a steady life on the right today.

But if Gore had chosen the other course -- calling for a statewide manual recount in all counties -- Republicans would have just as certainly attacked him for failing to follow the letter of Florida law.

The truth -- that Gore had legitimate reasons for following either course -- had no chance in this case. What mattered was that regardless of his choices, Republicans were prepared to accuse him of trying to "steal" the election.

Then, of course, they proceeded to march forth and steal the election themselves.

Determinedly fair-minded liberals were largely left utterly baffled by this bizarre twist of events. They have been even more baffled by the subsequent course of the Bush presidency, in which -- despite a manifest lack of a mandate -- a radical right-wing agenda has marched relentlessly forward, culminating in the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Throughout it all, the steady drumbeat of the right has been to blame everything wrong with the world on liberals.

Today we have a milieu in which this administration's manifest incompetence is hailed as moral clarity; in which the torture of prisoners at American hands is dismissed as a fraternity prank; in which the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II is defended as a necessary step (that may need to be repeated); in which a policy to further denude America's forests is called the Healthy Forests Initiative, and the evisceration of the nation's public education system is named No Child Left Behind. We're relentlessly sold an image of Bush himself as strong and resolute, and yet when he appears for a national debate on TV, what we see instead is a "peevish and bored" caricature of a leader, a man more likely to remind us the feckless pointy-haired boss we all once had than an actual president.

At times it seems, when dealing with the modern conservative movement, as if we've entered a gigantic and remorseless mirror funhouse. Or more to the point, a dark and labyrinthine cavern, twisting in an endless maze, whose architecture we can only vaguely discern through upheld torches.

Every now and then, though, someone within the movement hierarchy -- often one at the very top -- will let slip a bit of the curtain, flashing a little light on the vastness and shape of the metastatic architecture of the conservative movement. When it happens, it can be a little like the scene in Aliens when Ripley's flamethrower lights up the interior of the lair into which she has wandered.

The mutability of truth is what has made confronting the conservative movement so maze-like -- you never know what kind of bizarre argument they're going to come up with next. At times they even turn established historical consensus on its head. First we get Ann Coulter penning a defense of McCarthyism in her book Treason; then we get Michelle Malkin justifying the forced incarceration of 122,000 Japanese Americans with In Defense of Internment. What's next? A text outlining the virtues of fascism? (Calling Michael Ledeen!)

But the movement not only makes reality a function of the movement's agenda; its agenda itself can shift rapidly according to the strategic needs of the movement in its acquisition of power. Thus, as described in Part 1, the conservative movement has come to resemble nothing so genuinely conservative at all but rather something starkly radical: profligate spending; incautious and expansionary wars, pursued unilaterally; the steady dumbing-down of the nation's education system. The neo-Confederate-laden GOP no longer has even a passing resemblance to the "party of Lincoln." Even at the micro-political level, in interpersonal debate, the famous conservative carefulness, politeness and reserve has utterly vanished.

The conservative movement, as such, is an ever-shifting beast. Its drive is power, and as such it has gradually adopted the familiar architecture of another power-mad phenomenon of mass politics: fascism.

In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton explains how fascism similarly adopted and dropped ideologies at will, according to its power needs (pp. 16-17):
In a way utterly unlike the classical "isms," the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. Fascism is "true" insofar as it helps fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason. The first fascists were entirely frank about this.

We [Fascists] don't think ideology is a problem that is resolved in such a way that truth is seated on a throne. But, in that case, does fighting for an ideology mean fighting for mere appearances? No doubt, unless one considers it according to its unique and efficacious psychological-historical value. The truth of an ideology lies in its capacity to set in motion our capacity for ideals and action. Its truth is absolute insofar as, living within us, it suffices to exhaust those capacities. [A. Bertele, Aspetti ideologici del fascismo, Turin, 1930]

The truth was whatever permitted the new fascist man (and woman) to dominate others, and whatever made the chosen people triumph.

Fascism rested not upon the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader's mystical union with the historic destiny of his people, a notion related to romanticist genius, though fascism otherwise denied romanticism's exaltation of unfettered personal creativity. ...

Fascist leaders made no secret of having no program. Mussolini exulted in that absence. "The Fasci di Combattimento," Mussolini wrote in the "Postulates of the Fascist Program" of May 1920, "... do not feel tied to any particular doctrinal form." A few months before he became prime minister of Italy, he replied truculently to a critic who demanded to know what his program was: "The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo."

This fist-shaking style of response to normative political discourse, in fact, was one of the real hallmarks of fascism. It signaled, above all else, the rightness of power by virtue of its naked use to intimidate and silence dissent. To the fascist leader, diplomacy is a parlor game for the weak; what counts is the raw will of the man of action. Whether he is right is moot; what counts is his strength and resolve in the exercise of power.

The Ripleyesque moment when this aspect of the conservative movement's core was revealed came earlier this summer, when Vice President Dick Cheney told Sen. Patrick Leahy, in an exchange over policy disagreements and the rhetoric used in them: "Go fuck yourself."

Coarse language and threats have always been part of the political scene, and their appearance in rancorous exchanges between politicians is woven into American lore. But it is rare for someone as high-ranking as the vice president to use them, especially on the floor of the Senate, and in such decorous confines they are almost always accompanied by later apologies, especially in cases where an obscenity was used.

What was remarkable about this case was that there was no apology at all. Instead, Cheney defended the use of the epithet:
"I expressed myself rather forcefully, felt better after I had done it," Cheney told Neil Cavuto of Fox News. The vice president said those who heard the putdown agreed with him. "I think that a lot of my colleagues felt that what I had said badly needed to be said, that it was long overdue."

"Ordinarily I don't express myself in strong terms, but I thought it was appropriate here."

This wasn't just an "isolated event." By the terms of his defense, Cheney's non-apology clearly signaled that this kind of response to critics of the conservative agenda was appropriate for movement followers as well. And indeed, one didn't have to look far to see the way Cheney's response filtered down to the rank and file, as from this story about a Cheney campaign stop in Ohio:
Seventy-year-old Florence Orris, among those at the Parma rally, said she's backing Bush because of his integrity and strong faith. "Any man who has the courage to speak about our Lord has my vote," Orris said. She lamented the "ugly" tone of the campaign but nonetheless said she didn't blame Cheney for blurting out an expletive during an angry encounter with Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor last month.

"I'm almost getting to that point with my Democratic friends," she declared. "One of them told me this week she hates President Bush."

Lord knows, after all, that we never heard such vile language about President Clinton.

The flash of Cheney's signal to the troops illuminated clearly the fact that the conservative movement had developed an architecture to its argument -- that is, the core of its appeal to the masses -- that was indistiguishable from that of fascism. This became especially clear when considering how neatly it wrapped up, in those three short words, so many of the "mobilizing passions" that form the fascist appeal (described in Part 1).

Present in the thrust of this singular episode were the right to dominate others without normative restraints; the threat of exclusionary violence for those who fail to integrate with the movement community; the victimhood (at the hands of nasty liberals) that justifies any action; the beauty of violence and efficacy of will; and the superiority of the leader's instincts over logic and reason. Indeed, if there was any way of summing up Cheney's response, it was that it expressed a deep and abiding contempt for the weak, and the assertion of the right of power over it.

Cheney's remark was just the flash that initially revealed this architecture. The clearer view came a few weeks later, at the Republican National Convention in New York City. While anyone audacious enough to protest the proceedings outside was subject to the classic lockup treatment, often in scenarios straight out of a totalitarian state, those partaking of the big pep rally inside were treated to a whole menu of classically fascist mobilizing passions, played out on national television.

Foremost among the appearances of these passions was the convention's most memorable moment: When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told the assembled faithful, "For those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy -- don’t be economic girlie men."

Sidney Blumenthal remarked in Salon on the deeper implications of this speech:
Having established his citizenship, Schwarzenegger felt entitled to articulate the Republican credo -- of power over weakness. "If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope for democracy, then you are a Republican." Thus the immigrant blasted internationalism. "If you believe that we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican." Thus he declared the Democrats soft. "And to those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men."

So beyond unilateralism, jingoism and social Darwinism lies sexual apprehension. Those who aren't with the program are queer. But the anxiety is even deeper than that of homosexuality. "Girlie man" is a peculiar accusation for being effeminate. It reveals fear of women and their complex values. The name-calling is a frantic effort to suppress nuance, which the action hero fears he may harbor within.

Like Cheney's remark, this brief moment neatly captured a range of emotional appeals from the fascist blueprint: contempt for the weak, the superiority of instinct over reason, the efficacy of will. It also raised the virtue of virile, masculine leadership, as opposed to "effeminate" policy built on wisdom. This mindset disdains intellectual rigor as an affectation of vacillating liberalism.

As Umberto Eco described it:
The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

We have been hearing, of course, a steady drumbeat from the media's rabid right -- Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and many more -- accusing liberals of overt treason and complicity with "the enemy." This raging anti-liberalism -- another key feature of fascism -- was prominent in Schwarzenegger's speech as well. He even resorted to a well-worn far-right canard when he described Hubert Humphrey's politics as something "that sounded like socialism."

It was an even more prominent feature of Zell Miller's speech the following night. Though Miller, nominally at least, is a Democrat, the entirety of his speech was a raging attack, not merely on John Kerry, nor on Democrats, but on liberalism in general. At times -- especially as he attacked liberal "pacifists" -- he seemed almost to be extolling the aesthetic (or at least utility) of war. Liberals, he contended, are incapable of keeping our families safe. A vote for George W. Bush was a vote for strength and resolve. The weak and vacillating Democratic nominee stood in stark contrast: "From John Kerry, they get a 'yes-no-maybe' bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends."

Miller expanded on this theme in suggesting that merely running against Bush in the election was a kind of treason, claiming that "our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our Commander in Chief".

Miller's characterization of the opposition to Bush thus deftly identified it with attacks on the national interest by referring to him as "the Commander in Chief." It's a sly way of associating Bush's political enemies with our national enemies -- Democrats with Al Qaeda. Dissent is treason, indeed.

Of course, only a few short days later, Cheney himself made this suggestion explicit at a campaign stop, saying: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."

But Cheney's speech to the RNC was also rife with these memes: The "strength" and "resolve" of the Bush leadership, contrasted with the weak and vacillating liberal Kerry contingent. Above all, Cheney hammered home the theme that post-Sept. 11 America faced a historical crisis of catastrophic dimensions, one that demanded exceptional responses:
Sept. 11th, 2001, made clear the challenges we face. On that day we saw the harm that could be done by 19 men armed with knives and boarding passes. America also awakened to a possibility even more lethal: this enemy, whose hatred of us is limitless, armed with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.

Just as surely as the Nazis during World War Two and the Soviet communists during the Cold War, the enemy we face today is bent on our destruction. As in other times, we are in a war we did not start, and have no choice but to win. Firm in our resolve, focused on our mission, and led by a superb commander in chief, we will prevail.

The culmination of these passion-laden appeals came with the RNC acceptance speech from George W. Bush himself, in which the attacks on liberals were given a few requisite lines, while the recurring themes of "strength" and "resolve" were driven repeatedly home, capped by an appeal to a vision of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny:
Now, because we have faced challenges with resolve, we have historic goals within our reach, and greatness in our future. We will build a safer world and a more hopeful America and nothing will hold us back.

These themes have been the centerpiece of the Bush campaign since the convention -- Kerry an effete, vacillating "flip-flopper," Bush a virile, strong, resolute leader. Kerry a pointy-headed liberal, Bush a plain-spoken man of the people. And for awhile, it appeared to be working.

But then came the first presidential debate, and Americans were hit upside the cognition with the dissonance transmitted over their television sets: It was Kerry who looked strong and resolute, while Bush was not only weak and vacillating, he was forced to fall back to his mantra of strength and resolve and "hard work," all of which were plainly belied by the image the man himself presented.

Digby had one of the most incisive takes on this:
George W. Bush is a man with two faces--- a public image of manly strength and a private reality of childish weakness. His verbal miscues and malapropisms are the natural consequence of a man struggling with internal contradictions and a lack of self-knowledge. He can’t keep track of what he is supposed to think and say in public.

There is no doubt that whether it's a cowboy hat or a crotch hugging flightsuit , George W. Bush enjoys wearing the mantle of American archetypal warriors. But when he goes behind the curtain and sheds the costume, a flinty, thin-skinned, immature man who has never taken responsibility for his mistakes emerges. The strong compassionate leader is revealed as a flimsy paper tiger.

On Thursday night, the president forgot himself. After years of being protected from anyone who doesn't flatter and cajole, he let his mask slip when confronted with someone who didn't fear his childish retribution or need anything from him. Many members of the public got a good sharp look at him for the first time in two years and they were stunned.

That is, perhaps, the important thing to remember about both the undercurrent with which we are faced: Fascism, at its core, is a fraud. It promises the triumphal resurrection of the nation, and delivers only devastation. Strength without wisdom is a chimera, resolve without competence a travesty.

And a hollow, pale imitation of a fraud -- which is what the pseudo-fascism now being practiced by the conservative movement amounts to -- can be readily revealed for what it is, if its opponents have the strength of character to stand up to them.

For all his other failings, John Kerry did so last week in the debates, and in the process exposed Bush, and the entire architecture of his appeal, for a weak, hollow fraud. The only response that the Bush team is likely to muster henceforth is a kind of impotent screaming, raising the volume of the "flip-flop" attacks on Kerry, throwing more shit on the wall in the vague hope that something will stick.

In a normal political environment, this might not be a problem. But the conservative movement controls all the reins of power now. It is not about to relinquish any of them willingly. And it has the devout backing of a substantial portion of the American populace, even if it eventually proves to be a minority.

These people have no intention of sharing power with liberals. Indeed, their entire agenda, in the end, is devoted to eliminating liberalism completely. By any means necessary.

We may have finally illuminated the lair at the center of the labyrinth, but we've only begun fighting our way out.

Next: The One-Party Apocalyptic State

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