When I hear someone compare actions or groups to Nazis, it’s usually a conversation ender. The other person has gone too far, the debate is fully off the rails, and it’s pointless to even continute the discussion.
That’s the way I’ve always viewed the situation; until the beginning of the Trump era when my dad — who was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust, lived on his own in the Polish forest during winter for several months, and ultimately joined the Partisans in the fight against the Germans — said of the current American president: “You know, to me this guy sounds a lot like Hitler during the early years.”
He didn’t mean that Trump is a genocidal maniac. But rather that Trump, like leaders in Hungary, Turkey, and Poland (and aspiring leaders in France, England and elsewhere) are utilizing the tools and strategies often favored by fascists.
Do we live in a fascist state? Far from it. But we are normalizing behaviors that are drawn from the fascist to-do list. There’s a value to being aware of these behaviors and having the guts to call them what they are.
To examine a few of these strategies, let’s take a quick look at a single day in American news. What we cover, how we discuss it, and the messages coming from the bully pulpit are all part of an effort that is often distorted and misunderstood — but is actually quite obvious and even simple once you know what to look for.
August 30, 2018 in America: The Day in Fascism.
President Trump attacked Google (and by extension, all of big tech) for being biased against him and the those who support him. As Kara Swisher rightfully explains in the NYT, “the idea that Google and Twitter are rigging their platforms against him is patently false.” In The Atlantic, Alexis Madgridal adds, “There is a reason that Microsoft’s Bing News or Apple News have nearly the same mix of news sources as Google News: By reasonable, measurable standards, those organizations are the ones reporting the state of the world best.” Madrigal and Swisher are two of our best tech reporters and they clearly explain why the president’s attacks are dead wrong. Here’s the problem with this situation: The point of Trump’s attacks on Google are not intended to ‘prove’ bias at tech companies. Like all the manufactured controversies before it, this one is intended to get Americans to argue the issue, which gives validity to the debate, and ultimately leaves the masses wondering if anyone or anything can be trusted. It’s not about definitive proof or objective truth. It’s about broad confusion and general mistrust. Even if you win the battle (“See, Google is not biased!”), you lose the broader war by participating in the debate in the first place.
Aside from the effort to obscure reality, there is another key factor at work here. Fascists love to position their supporters as victims (even when they hold most or all of the power). Here, Trump’s supporters are the victims of liberal-controlled big tech and its secret plot to hide the truth. What’s amazing here is that this message can be accepted and absorbed, even though Trump (and his international assistants) extensively capitalize on this supposedly biased tech to win an election in 2016; and he is social media’s most successful exploiter. It turns out that the Upside Down is not limited to Stranger Things. The contradictions disappear because reality has been systematically distorted.
CNN reported that the FBI debunked Trump’s latest conspiracy theory. Ultimately, debunking them isn’t enough. Once they’re in the social bloodstream, their damage has been done. Conspiracy theories aren’t intended to be literally believed. Nothing is. That’s the point.
Trump attacked Carl Bernstein for what he called “a major lie” in his reporting about what the president knew and when he knew it when it comes to the Trump Tower meeting. Bernstein joined the fray: “I have spent my life as a journalist bringing the truth to light, through administrations of both parties. No taunt will diminish my commitment to that mission, which is the essential role of a free press.” That’s of course true. But by being lured into a tit for tat debate, Bernstein implies that Trump calling him a liar is even worthy of a response. Trump is lifelong, nonstop liar. Bernstein is one of the reporters who brought down Nixon. How could anyone spend five seconds wondering which guy to trust? Remember, it’s not about trusting anyone. It’s about trusting no one. That’s what Trump is after, with the media, and even more so with Mueller.
A man was arrested after threatening to shoot Boston Globe employees, whom he called ‘the enemy of the people,’ after the Globe launched a national newspaper campaign in support of the free press and the First Amendment. Does this story suggest that Trump’s attacks on the media will turn all of his staunchest supporters into gunmen in an army against journalists? No. This guy is an outlier; a side-effect of a much broader strategy. Here’s one of the real goals of the scorched-earth attacks on the media: Trump Has Changed How Teens View the News. “Young people can see the president’s tweets as jokes, but they still often share his negative feelings about the press.”
For Trump, the constant attacks on the press (and those on the FBI, the Justice Department, the Special Counsel, etc) are part of a broad scorched earth campaign. If you’re a liar and criminal (hypothetically), it makes sense that you’d want to discredit those tasked with finding and sharing the truth. Target the media. And target law enforcement. While Trump’s personal motivations here are about self preservation, the tactics are straight out of the fascism playbook. If people feel that they can’t trust public institutions, they’re more likely to follow the lead of a singular strongman. Is Trump adopting fascism by design, or does his all-emcompassing instinct for self- preservation merely lead him towards fascist tendencies. Answer: It doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s fascism.
Sexual assaults on campus are a problem that has finally been addressed in the past few years. But, according to a new set of policies, the awareness of the problem has led to another issue. From the NYT: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is preparing new policies on campus sexual misconduct that would bolster the rights of students accused of assault, harassment or rape, [and] reduce liability for institutions of higher education.” In other words, the actual campus crisis is that we’re being too hard on the perpetrators of sexual violence. And the real victims are the men who are being unfairly targeted. This is fascism 101. First, gender equality is the enemy of the fascist. And second, the Trump administration has taken the party in power (and often the party committing the crime) and turned them into the victims.
The Justice Department joined an affirmative action case against Harvard. “The Harvard case, which was brought by an anti-affirmative-action group called Students for Fair Admissions, is seen as a test of whether a decades-long effort by conservative politicians and advocates to roll back affirmative action policies will ultimately succeed.” Affirmative action is the enemy of fascism. Those in power are naturally concerned with any change to the status quo. So if society tries to right past wrongs by improving the lot of people of color, that is seen as a threat. In this case, the Justice Department is able to mask its ultimate goals (getting rid of affirmative action) by selecting a case that pits one minority against another (another core tenant of fascism). Finally, in both of these campus cases, there is an effort to control academia. Academia (the “elites”) is a favorite target of fascists.
WaPo reports that the U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border. Birthersim is what got Trump onto the political map. And this is a natural outgrowth of that. The threat of immigrants hurting people, changing the culture, and being generally bad hombres is always part of fascism. Support me because I am against the other that threatens you. It’s really pretty simple. Create a false nostalgia about a time when things were wonderful (Make America Great Again) and then target a relatively powerless group for ruining this imaginary world that never existed in the first place.
Wapo: Trump suggests Bruce Ohr, Justice official linked to Russia dossier, should be fired. Once again, we see Trump attacking those who hold the truth of what he may have done. Does it matter that Bruce Ohr has served America honestly and loyally for decades? Well, put it this way. Did that matter for the other officials who have been fired, lost their security clearances, or been otherwise maligned? But how can we let a liar exert control over those who tell the truth? Again, the goal here is not to make you trust Trump. It’s to make sure you trust no one.
NYT: National Enquirer Had Decades of Trump Dirt. He Wanted to Buy It All. In this story, we’ll see the two ways Trump has sought to control the message. First, he buys content he doesn’t want out there (or gets it by other means). And second, he has maligned the NYT constantly. So even if the story is really bad, his supporters will doubt its validity.
NYT: Colin Kaepernick Wins a Ruling to Continue His Collusion Case Against the N.F.L The anthem kneeling nonsense is one of Trump’s favorite topics. In reality, a historically abused group is utilizing free speech to bring attention to an unjustice. That effort is quickly distorted into some anti-patriotic act against the flag and America. It’s silly. But it works. And we know it works because Trump keeps doing it over and over.
WaPo: Climate change could render many of Earth’s ecosystems unrecognizable. We spend a lot more time debating whether or not climate change is real than we spend deciding how to slow climate change. That’s what happens when smart people are dragged into a dumb debate.
There are other stories I could point to. But it’s enough to take a handful of stories from a single day to provide a good look at how fascism is being used right here right now. The more we understand what’s being done, the more we can deflect it.
Ultimately, the hardest part about fighting those who use fascist techniques is that you hate their base for supporting them. Hating the other side is precisely what fascists want you to do. Think of Darth Vader as a fascist and Yoda as a progressive if that makes falling into this trap easier to avoid. The hate you feel is the way Vader gets what he wants. The most effective way to defeat a divide and conquer strategy is not to be divided. And the most effective way to counter fascist media strategies is to be aware they are happening all around you. Hopefully this look at today in fascism helps.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, by Jason Stanley.
Dave Pell Writes NextDraft It’s Amazing. At Least That’s What He Wants You to Believe...