Tuesday, December 08, 2015

It Can Happen Here. It's Happening Now.

Political rhetoric can reach - often - for the extreme when discussing a troubling issue or political figure.

Especially during campaign/election cycles, when the mudslinging kicks in and the demonization of a political opponent is a quick-and-easy way to stir up your base to stick to your side.

As this happens often, it's a little hard to convincingly point at a political figure on the national stage and scream ZOMG he's a fascist. Everyone else can just glare at you and say "Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man"

Sometimes, though, you've got no choice. Sometimes, a person on the national stage running for high office will go so far to the extreme that defines Fascism - as Merriam-Webster does as "a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition" - that you have to point a finger and say "oh dear f-cking God he's a f-cking Fascist."

Such as Donald Trump. Going after immigrants and refugees while exhorting nationalist fervor. Argues for a "strong" Executive who can bully all opposition. Holds campaign gatherings that are starting to resemble brown-shirt rallies. Yup. Talks very much like a raging Fascist.

Scholarly work, however, suggests Trump is a more American variant of fascism: that of the Native Populist. Which is just as dangerous as Fascist, but we're getting into technical details here.

And why do I say Native Populism is a uniquely American version of this -ism? Because we've been here before, and other people have documented the atrocities then too.

Sinclair Lewis' classic work It Can't Happen Here may be a fictional title but it's based on real-world observations of our national mood of the 1930s. Lewis wrote this novel at the peak of the Great Depression when the national mood was dour, a quarter of the people were starving and poor, and the potential for a rabble-rouser to rally the masses to form a dictatorship was high. That last part wasn't paranoia: FDR himself opined that if his first term had failed, his would be the last tenure of a truly elected Presidency.

Lewis based the novel on the tensions of the day, and in particular based his early villainous figure - Buzz Windrip - on real-life political boss Huey Long, a governor/Senator from Louisiana whose bullying political style and censoring of any public criticism were well known across the nation... and did little to damage his appeal to the masses because Long effectively scapegoated his opponents and authored economic policies to attack hated banks and seek mass redistribution of wealth.

Huey Long - and his literary doppelganger - may display some of the historical trappings of fascist leanings, but they are in fact an aspect of a similar -ism: Populism. Where in Fascism the dictatorial absolutism works its way Top-Down (from the power money elites), Populism goes the other way (from the angered masses raging against elites).

Merriam-Webster's definition of populism is lacking (it just refers to "populist" as a "believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people") so a more detailed definition is needed. A recent Newsweek article has something of note:

But populism, during the farmers’ revolt of the 1890s, was also a cultural insurgency—a kind of self-administered political wake for the beleaguered middle American Protestant soul, newly adrift in an urbanized, capitalist nation of immigrant laborers and international bankers, and yearning for the folk egalitarianism of an idealized Jeffersonian republic. This is how populism has come to double as a synonym for modern cultural conservatism. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously branded the Gilded Age agrarian uprising as a precursor to McCarthyism: an outpouring of economic resentments that gave aggrieved farmers license to scapegoat any and all available elites—Jewish bankers, British titans of industry, American robber barons—for their declining cultural influence.

That helps a bit. Populism is basically a mass movement of lower-income groups driven by economic woes but expressing their outrage towards other groups that can be easily defined as "Other" by how they don't fit the majority identity (White Christian Protestant that are not of the cities). Back in the 19th Century, that meant Jews and business owners (and in the South, Blacks). In the 21st Century, that means Muslims, Mexicans and Wall Street bankers (and now Blacks across the nation).

What makes Populism dangerous is that there's little wisdom or patience to it. Relying more on the force of the majority to impose will, and eager for solutions to come immediate and absolute, there's little of the spirit of compromise or respect for the other viewpoints - of either the minorities or even the differing opinions of fellow majority members - to allow for a consensus towards a working solution. Because the quick solution - usually not well-thought, impulsive, and reckless - isn't always the correct one.

Which is what happens in Lewis' novel. Windrip wins the election and imposes his populist will on the nation, acting the bully using his not-so-secret police force called the Minute Men (yes, irony is lost on the real-world modern Far Right) and enacting his wealth redistribution programs to curry favor with the masses, but none of it works out. Suppressing criticism against his regime does little to stop it, and the economic woes that propelled him to office aren't answered by his knee-jerk policies. The novel ends with Windrip suffering an ouster via coup and the nation descending into a series of military takeovers that still do not resolve the problems that the reigning Populist ideology can't solve.

Lewis wrote it as fiction but based it on fact: at the time he wrote it, Huey Long was a legitimate threat to run as a third-party candidate against FDR and whomever would represent the Republicans. Some of the worst traits attributed to Windrip - the silencing of critics, the demolition of political institutions so that Long could swiftly pass his own laws - came from Long's actions as Governor (and then as party boss of Louisiana as Senator using a puppet Governor he controlled). Through that quirk of history, Lewis' novel never came true because Long was assassinated by a relative of a political opponent whom Long was attempting to drive out of power that very day. Without Long's ambitions, his movement faltered and fell more into the racial animus (anti-Semitism) that made it unacceptable by World War II and our nation's fight against the Nazis.

And then there's Alexis de Tocqueville and his seminal work Democracy in America (two volumes). Even though he wrote that back in the 1830s, he perfectly documented the American (Caucasian) mindset and cultural norms of the era and one that has not changed much over the centuries.

While Tocqueville had kind things to say about the American character, the differences in American to European world-views, he also sounded a warning against what he labeled "tyranny of the majority". Chapter Fifteen, if you looked it up:

...I am therefore of opinion that some one social power must always be made to predominate over the others; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power is checked by no obstacles which may retard its course, and force it to moderate its own vehemence...
...Democratic republics extend the practice of currying favor with the many, and they introduce it into a greater number of classes at once: this is one of the most serious reproaches that can be addressed to them...

That is the impulse towards which Populism strives: forcing critics into silence and allowing the representatives of the masses to impose their will in the name of that -ism. To continue:

...Governments usually fall a sacrifice to impotence or to tyranny. In
the former case their power escapes from them; it is wrested from their
grasp in the latter. Many observers, who have witnessed the anarchy of
democratic States, have imagined that the government of those States was naturally weak and impotent. The truth is, that when once hostilities are begun between parties, the government loses its control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or without resources: say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force and the misemployment of its resources that a democratic government fails. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by its want of strength...
...If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism...
I need to re-read Tocqueville again to find the more specific elements, but one of the things he warned against was how a political figure would rise up with a mandate from that "tyranny of the majority" to enact policies that punish the minorities. Which is something that came about during the era of Andrew Jackson, someone who did rise up on an anti-elite agenda of demolishing a lot of federalized institutions such as the national bank. And someone with open hostility towards The Other in the form of Native American tribes and foreign influences.

There's been other moments when Populism arose - notably in the 1890s in response to the greed of the Gilded Age - and when Nativism unleashed our darkest demons - the Jim Crow era of lynchings, the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor - all of which came after Tocqueville but which he predicted - as both eras were driven by majority fears of The Other - with unerring accuracy.

A lot of that Populism echoes today in the platform and campaign style not just of Trump but with nearly every Republican candidate. Even Jeb (?) with his attempts and re-marketing himself as a down-to-earth fixer is playing to a Populist message (which honestly a rich elitist like Jeb can never sell).  It's just that Trump - with his open calls against Mexican immigrants, his blatant Islamophobia based more on paranoia than historical fact, and his uncompromising bullying of others - is the most overt about it.

And he's the one garnering most of the early polling support.

This is happening now. This isn't fiction, and this isn't a historic review. This is all in real time on our news channels and web sites. And it ought to wake everyone up to the horror that our worst impulses - our nation's terrifying history of racial animus against Blacks, Natives, women, Hispanics, Asians and now Middle Easterners - are being inflamed by a Populist movement spiraling out of control.

This will not end well, unless more of us turn to the better angels of our nature and not our base instincts.

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