I hope to be pleasantly surprised with a Hillary victory announced on the day after the election next week, but I’m nevertheless bracing for a Trump win. And in wrestling with what this past year has meant, I find myself thinking about an essay written by the Italian writer Umberto Eco, who lived through Mussolini’s fascism.
Over twenty years ago, in The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995), Eco wrote of the difficulty of deciding whether a contemporary political movement is fascist: “It would be so 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.”
Despite the difficulty, Eco nevertheless identifies in some detail fourteen things he takes to mark a contemporary encounter with what he calls Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism). If you want the details, of course, the original essay is here. But at this historic inflection point–the 2016 election–let’s lay them out in digest form, so as to absorb them at a glance. The phrases and sentences in quotation marks are Eco’s:
(1) The cult of tradition gets wed to the occult in a way that tolerates the contradictions between them. The past provides revelation, and directs followers to a nostalgic Golden Age, but only in hints and in creative interpretive syncretisms. “Saint Augustine…as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge–that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”
(2) There is a rejection of the Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition of reason. Eco calls this the fascist dismissal of “the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course).”
(3) There is distrust and resentment of intellectuals. “Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.”
(4) There is impatience with making careful distinctions, maintaining coherence in sustained argument, and arguing civilly. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism….For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”
(5) There is fear of diversity. Ur-Fascism “seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”
(6) The movement’s energy is derived from “a frustrated middle class.” This middle class is “suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups….[T]he fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”
(7) National identity is besieged by enemies from within that are sinister and engaged in criminal conspiracy. “[A]t the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”
(8) There is bitter resentment of opponents, and thus an incapacity on the part of fascists to judge their enemies rightly. Fascists at once underestimate and overestimate their opponent’s actual capacities, and resent them for their wealth, cunning, solidarity, and power. “Followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” and yet they repeatedly misjudge them as “at the same time too strong and too weak.” For this reason, fascists “are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”
(9) Enemies must be vanquished utterly. Solutions must be final. There is no living with the enemy. “Life is permanent warfare” that brings about “an Armageddon complex.”
(10) Mass elitism. The fascist group consists of the best people on Earth. Are you a member? If not, you’re looked down upon. There is open contempt for outsiders and the weak. (This may be a reaction formation against aristocratic attitudes directed down toward the middle class.)
(11) The cult of heroism and heroic death is celebrated. “[E]verybody is educated to become a hero.”
(12) Machismo. This extends not just to “war and heroism,” but to a “will to power” in “sexual matters,” a “disdain for women,” and a playing “with weapons…[as] an ersatz phallic exercise.”
(13) Populism trumps democracy and rights. The Leader channels the People; individuals don’t have rights or agency that exceed the will of the People. “Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”
(14) Language is corrupted. Language games that cloud or prevent critical thought, such as the language of Newspeak instituted by the English totalitarian state in Orwell’s 1984, or the insular, epistemically closed, rhetorical world of the talk radio host, are deployed. “Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
If you accept Eco’s criteria for what constitutes Eternal Fascism, and you’ve got Eco’s fascist family traits list out in front of you, it’s pretty evident what jumps out: Donald Trump’s movement can be reasonably thought of in fascist terms.
This means, if you are a moderate or liberal American, all hands on deck this week. Why aren’t we working harder to stop Trump’s movement today, right now? A personality contest (Hillary vs. Donald) seems to be obscuring what’s at stake–but it’s not about who we find the most amusing or likable person. We’re not voting on a high school yearbook photo. We’re essentially voting up or down next week on an Ur-Fascist course for our nation.
Does fascism really have to be fronted by the name of “Mussolini” or “Hitler” to arouse our full attention, alarm, and resistance? Will the moderate and liberal immune systems of our country catastrophically collapse in the last week of this election, allowing the virus of Ur-Fascism into the very center of our nation’s organism–the White House?
What is happening to us?