Trump’s “fine people” at Charlottesville. WikiMedia photo by Anthony Crider.
We can talk about classic or “neo” forms, but in order to confront the resurgence of fascist politicians, methods and ways of thinking we ought to know the phenomenon’s distinguishing characteristics and its classic methods. Everyone whom a leftist despises is not a fascist. Every movement of the right is not fascist. The labels that are presently used, or of political tendencies within which it arose, are unreliable indicators of what is or is not fascist.
The existential core of fascism is that it’s a right-wing movement of the middle classes, of people disgusted with the traditional politicians of both left and right. It’s people who have been ruined or who are afraid of being ruined, and who hate and fear the prospects of a leftist government. The traditional right-wing oligarchs may support or use fascists, but they are different. Fascists hate the old establishment. Likewise, fascists often hire thugs, the dregs of society with no stable economic relationships, people who so desperately need the money that they can be hired to do almost anything. But fascist leaders consider such thugs to be disposable and almost never promote them to responsible positions in the movement.
Look at the right-wing Venezuela opposition. Are THEY fascists? They may have some such in their orbit, but Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó are representatives of the traditional oligarchy, López the mentor and would-be kingmaker is one of the richest Venezuelans. Guaidó the protege is of middle class origins but beholden to rather than in rebellion against the old establishment. These men may use violence and the endless repetition of lies like fascists often do, but the power base that they seek to mobilize is foreign intervention, not the Venezuelan middle class. Far right they may be, but strictly speaking they are not fascists.
By the way, López and Guaidó define their movement as social democratic. The founding figure of 20th century European fascism, the Italian strongman Benito Mussolini, emerged out of the ranks of his country’s Socialist Party to become its negation. The worst of the fascists, Adolf Hitler, called his party the National Socialist German Working Man’s Party (the Nazi party). But Spain’s Francisco Franco, who came to power with great assistance from Mussolini and Hitler, was a military man who called his movement the Falange. Falangists embraced the most reactionary sort of Catholicism, and dreams of restoring the Spanish empire and monarchy, as parts of their variant of fascism, but they made no socialist pretenses. Don’t look so much at the labels, but at the platforms, methods and followings to identify fascists.
In the USA the most traditional fascist organization predates fascism. That’s the Ku Klux Klan, formed after the Civil War to roll back Reconstruction and prevent black people from voting. The classic American fascist appeal goes something like this: “Those big-shots in Washington and their Wall Street backers [generally read JEWS if not explicitly stated] are taking all of my money and giving it to the [insert nonwhite scapegoat of the moment].” The US middle class is in decline, fascists will say, because brown people crossing the border and getting on welfare are an unbearable burden – even if the basic premises of this are ridiculously untrue.
One common bit of fascist symbolism is organicism, the simile of society to a human body. As in there are infections like feminism or communism or pacifism to be eradicated. As in there are cancers like blacks or Jews or immigrants to cut out.
Fascists need scapegoats and because the charges never stick they need to lie. The cherry picking of an anecdote and false generalization based on it is a favorite. So there are a couple of Venezuelans caught stealing and fencing Rolex watches and that is stretched into manifestly untrue allegations that most or all Venezuelans who come to Panama do so to steal. So a Colombian drug cartel moves cocaine up the isthmus, and it is alleged that all Colombian citizens here and all Panamanians of Colombian origin or parentage are drug dealers.
Hitler’s propaganda people boasted of the big lie tactic, of endlessly repeating a lie until people accepted it as true. This was not a German invention that came after World War I, but rather a late 19th century US advertising industry innovation, perfected in its application to the racist politics of the radio and movie age by the Nazis.
Fascism is anti-democratic and autocratic, which gives it a structural problem with respect to leadership succession. Put one person on a pedestal as the conquering genius and from that lofty position, or after a shattering fall from up there, it becomes hard to pass on a baton. Especially so because fascist leaders are self-made images rather than heirs to institutional posts.
In these troubled times neofascism is a growth industry and international network. Old traditions get dropped or modified as convenient. There are Goyish fascists still preaching about the International Jewish Conspiracy, and there are Jewish fascists. Racism is a defining characteristic of most US fascism, but Panamanian fascism is mostly a mixed race phenomenon with some of its adherents appearing to be of rather purely African ancestry. Regardless of the race, however, a fascist will always have some “other” to blame for society’s woes.
These days human migration ultimately caused by the collapse of traditional economies – often with climate change as a precipitating factor — drives a lot of fascist agitation. Wars begin over this or that professed reason but really it’s about fields that no longer produce and pastures that no longer feed the herds.
But there are the old divisions. Animosity toward Roma and Muslim populations who have long been present in Europe provides scapegoats for a lot of Old World fascists. The subjects of bygone European empires whose ancestors moved to the metropoli, often the most loyal of citizens, are often the “others” at whom fascist fingers get pointed. In the USA the white racism that’s a remnant of US slavery and the conquest of Hispanic and other nonwhite peoples are the bread and butter of fascism.
In Panama and the USA, fascism has non-traditional leaders. Both have bored into traditional parties, with means and methods toxic to the traditions.
Zulay Rodríguez, the daughter of a Soviet-educated lawyer and granddaughter of a Chinese family that Arnulfo Arias wanted to sterilize, arose as a cog in an absolutely corrupted legal system. Her greatest feat as a lawyer was her role in the ouster of an attorney general for being intolerant of the prosecutors under her shaking down the families of prisoners for payoffs.
Donald Trump is a rich criminal, son of a man arrested at a Ku Klux Klan disturbance, the scion of a pimping fortune. He’s a lifelong racketeer whose career has been in money laundering, ordinary real estate and business frauds, bankruptcy fraud, bank fraud and tax fraud.
Not your ordinary ruined middle class profiles, but also not traditional oligarchs of the right. In many ways they’re dedicated to the destruction of the fortunes of the old families. Destroy tourism and real estate in Panama, or destroy world trade in the USA, and there are wealthy people of aristocratic families whose interests are hurt. The Donald and Zulay arose in their places particularly because the old dominant elites had lost their grip, but their games, being bad for business, may yet be major factors in their downfalls.
In Panama we are not quite there yet. Zulay Rodríguez has played the quotient / half quotient / residue game of multi-member legislative circuits that lend themselves to undemocratic and often fraudulent results, but she lost the PRD primary to President Cortizo and lost badly. As in just a bit more than 19 percent, with the PRD going on to victory with just a bit more than 33 percent. Do the math. In the 2019 presidential election cycle Zulay Rodríguez garnered the support of less than seven percent of the electorate and by the post-invasion rotation of parties it would seem unlikely that the PRD continues in office after its five years are up.
In the USA, the 2020 elections will be a Republican effort at fraud and vote suppression to hold onto power. But whatever the result, the global American system that was the last one standing after World War II is shattered and gone forever, along with its domestic compromises. There will be no return to a supposed Golden Age.
We face scary times and an uncertain future. We will see, by how people act and how they express themselves, the essential value of many a human being. The time of the hero and the villain are upon us, and neither is really anything special or magical. It’s just how certain ordinary people respond in extraordinary situations. Just about everyone will have weighty choices to make.
Woody Guthrie and his machine. Photo by Al Aumuller, from the US Library of Congress collection.
Bear in mind…
‘1984’ is not a wonder tale. Not only could it happen, but it has happened, but under different names.
Fascism in Uruguay did not begin just with the military coup of 1973, but years before, even when there was still a government with a constitution and parliament.
I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Those bastards were born fascists and they will die fascists.
The particulars of Zulay’s personality and cause may be slightly different, but Panama has been down this road before:
These links are interactive — click on the boxes