Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Projecting fascism

[Image courtesy of Old American Century, with a hat tip to Max.]

Donald Rumsfeld's Aug. 29 speech to the American Legion was a real watermark for the Bush administration, since it finally made official the government's embrace of the "war critics are treasonous appeasers" theme that has been circulating in the right-wing bloodstream for the past several years.

But it was also noteworthy because it became the launching pad for the administration's open embrace of the term "Islamofascism" as a way not only to describe the terrorist threat these officials use to justify every one of its monstrous policies, but to smear the good citizens whose consciences lead them to oppose those policies. As if on cue, the rest of the administration -- including Bush himself -- and their amen chorus in the pundit class began using it endlessly in media appearances, though they had actually been circulating it for some time.

The tactic, beyond its mere scurrilousness, reeks of desperation, and most of the public can smell it. And some of the left-wing response -- perhaps most notably Keith Olbermann's -- has been exactly what this kind of gutter tactic deserves.

"Islamofascism" is also, as I've pointed out a couple of times, a generally inappropriate term. This is especially so because fascism, as we have known it historically, only arises from a democratic state in a state of decay or crisis. Indeed, fascism, as I've explored in some depth, is a specific pathology constituted of a constellation of certain traits, only some of which are described by Islamic radicalism, and some of which are specifically repudiated by it. Perhaps they intend "Islamic totalitarianism," which would be accurate; but fascism is a very specific kind of totalitarianism, and what we see in the Islamic world today does not fit the description.

As the New York Times' Alexander Stille pointed out awhile back, regarding the contention by Bush apologists like Christopher Hitchen and Paul Berman that Al Qaeda's attacks of Sept. 11 are comparable to Hitler's threats against Czechoslovakia:
This interpretation does not sit well with most experts on Islam. "Fascism is nationalistic and Islamicism is hostile to nationalism," said Roxanne Euben, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. "Fundamentalism is a transnational movement that is appealing to believers of all nations and races across national boundaries. There is no idea of racial purity as in Nazism. Islamicists have very little idea of the state. It is a religious movement, while Fascism in Europe was a secular movement. So if it's not what we really think of as nationalism, and if it's not really like what we think of as Fascist, why use these terms?"

It's clear that the administration, in this regard, is simply embracing ideas that have been circulating on the right for awhile. But it also goes deeper than that.

The most astute observation regarding this I've seen comes from John Dean, commenting at Firedoglake on Sunday while discussing his excellent book, Conservatives Without Conscience. Someone asked Dean where the administration cooked up "Islamofascism" at "just about the same time you proved to the world that we are enduring proto- fascism?" He replied:
I suspect that they market tested it and found it worked. But a more sinister thought that has occurred to me is that by using the "F" word to describe the enemy they may be trying to immunize themselves. (But that is a thought only, and I have no evidence -- at this time -- that that is the case.)

Dean has hit on exactly what we've been observing about movement conservatives and their increasingly ugly tone in recent: it is part of a sometimes conscious strategy to project their own ambitions onto their opponents:
In other words, for a number of the right's leading rhetoricians, the projection appears to be perfectly conscious: it is a strategy, designed to marginalize their opposition and open the field to nearly any behavior it chooses.

And it is extraordinarily successful precisely because projection, as a trait, is so deeply woven into the right-wing psyche. Those who engage in it consciously set off waves of sympathetic response from their audiences because it hits their buttons in exactly the right spot.

The deep-seatedness of this trait can make it diffidcult, at times, to discern whether the behavior is conscious or not. But it also lends to a certain predictability: One of the best indicators of where the right is heading, I've noted previously, can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.

So when it starts to accuse its opponents of coddling fascism, you can rest assured that the American right is embarking on precisely that path itself. And considering what we know about fascism historically, this shouldn't be a surprise.

After all, as George Seldes noted, it was Huey Long, "a very smart demagogue," who observed the following:
"Sure we'll have Fascism here, but it will come as an anti-Fascism movement."

This raises the possibility that, in America at least, fascism could arise not the classic European way, that is, through an outside party that gradually gathers strength, but rather, as I've previously suggested, through "the transformation of an existing party into a fascist entity from within -- not necessarily by design, but by a coalescence of political forces already latent in the landscape."
This possibility, actually, is raised by the fact that, as [Robert O.] Paxton describes in detail [in The Anatomy of Fascism], fascism is not so much an ideological "ism" but a constellation of traits that takes on a pathological life of its own. And these traits, as he details, are very much present, historically speaking, in American political life.

In fact, this very mechanism was raised by the one of the significant American fascist "intellectuals" who arose in the 1930s. His name was Lawrence Dennis, and in 1936 -- a year after Lewis' novel -- he wrote an ideological blueprint titled The Coming American Fascism.

Dennis predicted that, eventually, the combination of a dictatorial and bureaucratic government and big business would continue exploiting the working middle class until, in frustration, it would turn to fascism. What's especially noteworthy were the kind of conditions he foresaw for this to happen:

Nothing could be more logical or in the best political tradition than for a type of fascism to be ushered into this country by leaders who are now vigorously denouncing fascism and repudiating all that it is understood to stand for...

And, needless to add, these principles would mean the replacement of the existing organizational pattern of public administration by that of a highly centralized government which would exercise the powers of a truly national State, and which would be manned by a personnel responsible to a political party holding a mandate from the people. This party would be the fascist party of the United States-undoubtedly called, however, by another name...

Yet how infinitely better for the in-elite of the moment to have fascism come through one of the major parties of the moment than to have it fight its way to power as the program of the most embittered leaders of the out-elite. ...

This description has an ominous ring in an era in which the dominant party in power in America is frenziedly declaring war on "Islamofascism" while itself taking on many of the traits of fascism itself. It's unlikely that Dennis' thinking guided any of the intellectuals in today's mainstream conservative movement, though it is worth noting that his work is enjoying a renaissance in the paleo-conservative movement, particularly in such places as The Occidental Review, the far-right publication sponsored by William Regnery.

Rather than being guided consciously (and there certainly is no evidence whatsoever for an ideologically fascist conspiracy), this transformation is occurring almost spontaneously, as the forces that fascism comprises gradually come together under their own gravity.

Chief among the traits driving this phenomenon are A) the utter willingness of movement conservatives to believe whatever their leaders and leading pundits say, and B) the utter willingness of those leaders to say anything, including the notion that their fellow citizens are among "the enemy." They form a symbiosis in which propaganda in defense of the regime is an end unto itself, forming a kind of ideological bubble within which all True Believers may reside, resisting the tug of reality.

Of course, this was a significant component of Conservatives Without Conscience: identifying the right-wing authoritarian impulse within the conservative movement; further distinguishing between the authoritarian followers who fill their ranks, and the manipulative, somewhat sociopathic personalities who lead them; and examining the symbiosis of their complementary impulses.

Much of this analysis was built out of the work of Bob Altemeyer, the University of Manitoba psychologist who specializes in authoritarian personalities. At the FDL salon, Altemeyer added this to Dean's observation:
I just want to add my agreement to what John Dean and others have said about the administration's calling Islamic terrorists "fascists." The first thing I thought of when I read Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion on August 29th, where the phrase was first used, was "John Dean's book has smacked these guys right in (a very vulnerable place)." It is an old technique in propaganda -- going back to the Big Lie in WWI -- that when you are completely and undeniably skewered, you just take everything that people have pointed out about you and say it's your enemies who are like this. You don't even bother to deny anything; you simply go on the offensive and holler as loudly as you can. Conservatives Without Conscience of course says the Bush administration is taking us down the road to fascism, so the administration sticks the fascism label on America's enemy to try to keep it from sticking on them, and make it seem they are our defense against fascism rather than its very carriers. In this case it is an absurd lie, because whatever you want to say about Islamic terrorists, they certainly are not fascists in any of the various ways the word has been distinctly used in history. But that won't matter at all to the choir of high RWAs for whom the administration made up the charge. If they hear later that someone says President Bush is a fascist-like leader, they'll think "Nonsense. The man's defending us against this."

The recognition of this likelihood is one of the reasons, I suspect, that movement conservatism's growing adoption of fascist traits is discussed so little on the left: we understand, from experience, that right-wing True Believers not only will never concede that it's occurring, they'll simply project any recognition of its truth right back onto the left. It is, almost certainly, a fruitless conversation to be having with folks on the right.

But it is almost certainly a conversation we need to be sharing among ourselves, because it's critical for coming to terms with what we're up against.

No comments: