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The anger that should be directed at billionaires is instead directed by them. Facing inequality and exclusion, poor wages and insecure jobs, people are persuaded by the newspapers billionaires own and the parties they fund to unleash their fury on immigrants, Muslims, the EU and other “alien” forces.
From the White House, his Manhattan tower and his Florida resort, Donald Trump tweets furiously against “elites”. Dominic Cummings hones the same message as he moves between his mansion in Islington, with its library and tapestry room and his family estate in Durham. Clearly, they don’t mean political or economic elites. They mean intellectuals: the students, teachers, professors and independent thinkers who oppose their policies. Anti-intellectualism is a resurgent force in politics.
Privileged grievance spills from the pages of the newspapers. Opinion writers for the Telegraph and the Spectator insist they are oppressed by a woke mafia, by the rise of Black Lives Matter and other cultural shifts. From their national newspaper columns and slots on the Today programme, they thunder that they have been silenced. The president of the United States portrays himself as a martyred hero, the victim of oppressive liberalism. This politics of resentment is taken up by the footsoldiers of the nascent far right on both sides of the Atlantic.
Myths of national greatness and decline abound. Make America Great Again and Take Back Control propose a glorious homecoming to an imagined golden age. Conservatives and Republicans invoke a rich mythology of family life and patriarchal values. Large numbers of people in the United Kingdom regret the loss of empire.
Extravagant buffoons, building their power base through the visual media, displace the wooden technocrats who once dominated political life. Debate gives way to symbols, slogans and sensation. Political parties that once tolerated a degree of pluralism succumb to cults of personality.
Politicians and political advisers behave with impunity. During the impeachment hearings, Donald Trump’s lawyer argued, in effect, that the president is the nation, and his interests are inseparable from the national interest. Dominic Cummings gets away with blatant breaches of the lockdown. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, with his attempted special deal for a property developer who then gave money to the Conservative Party. With every unpunished outrage against integrity in public life, trust in the system corrodes. The ideal of democracy as a shared civic project gives way to a politics of dominance and submission.
Political structures still stand, but they are hollowed out, as power migrates into unaccountable, undemocratic spheres: Conservative fundraising dinners, US political action committees, offshore trade tribunals, tax havens and secrecy regimes. The bodies supposed to hold power to account, such as the Electoral Commission and the BBC, are attacked, disciplined and cowed. Politicians and newspapers launch lurid attacks against Parliament, the judiciary and the civil service.
Political lying becomes so rife that voters lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Conspiracy theories proliferate, distracting attention from the real ways in which our rights and freedoms are eroded. Politicians create chaos, such as Trump’s government shutdowns and the no-deal Brexit Boris Johnson seems to be engineering, then position themselves as our saviours in troubled times.
Donald Trump shamelessly endorses nativism and white supremacy. Powerful politicians, like the congressman Steve King, talk of defending “western civilisation” against “subjugation” by its “enemies”. Minorities are disenfranchised. Immigrants are herded into detention centres.
Do these circumstances sound familiar? Do they pluck a deep, resonant chord of apprehension? They should. All these phenomena were preconditions for – or facilitators of – the rise of European fascism during the first half of the 20th Century. I find myself asking a question I thought we would never have to ask again. Is the resurgence of fascism a real prospect, on either side of the Atlantic?
Fascism is a slippery, protean thing. As an ideology, it’s almost impossible to pin down: it has always been opportunistic and confused. It is easier to define as a political method. While its stated aims may vary wildly, the means by which it has sought to grab and build power are broadly consistent. But I think it’s fair to say that though the new politics have some strong similarities to fascism, they are not the same thing. They will develop in different ways and go by different names.
Trump’s politics and Johnson’s have some characteristics that were peculiar to fascism, such as their constant excitation and mobilisation of their base through polarisation, their culture wars, their promiscuous lying, their fabrication of enemies and their rhetoric of betrayal. But there are crucial differences. Far from valorising and courting young people, they appeal mostly to older voters. Neither relies on paramilitary terror, though Trump now tweets support for armed activists occupying state buildings and threatening peaceful protesters. It is not hard to see some American militias mutating into paramilitary enforcers if he wins a second term, or, for that matter, if he loses. Fortunately, we can see no such thing developing in the UK. Neither government seems interested in using warfare as a political tool.
Trump and Johnson preach scarcely-regulated individualism: almost the opposite of the fascist doctrine of total subordination to the state. (Though in reality, both have sought to curtail the freedoms of outgroups). Last century’s fascism thrived on economic collapse and mass unemployment. We are nowhere near the conditions of the Great Depression, though both countries now face a major slump in which millions could lose their jobs and homes.
Not all the differences are reassuring. Micro-targeting on social media, peer-to-peer texting and now the possibility of deepfake videos allow today’s politicians to confuse and misdirect people, to bombard us with lies and conspiracy theories, to destroy trust and create alternative realities more quickly and effectively than any tools 20th-century dictators had at their disposal. In the EU referendum campaign, in the 2016 US election and in the campaign that brought Jair Bolsonaro to power in Brazil, we see the roots of a new form of political indoctrination and authoritarianism, without clear precedents.
It is hard to predict how this might evolve. It’s unlikely to lead to thousands of helmeted stormtroopers assembling in public squares, not least because the new technologies render such crude methods unnecessary in gaining social control. As Trump seeks re-election, and Johnson prepares us for a likely no deal, we can expect them to use these tools in ways that Hitler and Mussolini could only have dreamt of. Their manipulations will expose long-standing failures in our political systems, that successive governments have done nothing to address.
Though it has characteristics in common, this isn’t fascism. It is something else, something we have not yet named. But we should fear it and resist it as if it were.