More on Fascism

February 12, 2018

One of my favorite correspondents — OK, my son Tommy — adds depth and corrective about fascism.  He writes:

On this topic, I find Robert Paxton’s slim (~220p) The Anatomy of Fascism to be extremely helpful. Paxton is a scholar of midcentury European fascism (he has also written the leading book on Vichy as well as lots of great essays in the NYRB on the fascism literature).
Here’s his definition:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
He also finds it important to create conceptual boundaries from related concepts. So, he argues, we must not confuse fascism with classical tyranny, military dictatorship, and authoritarianism (“Authoritarians would rather leave the population demobilized and passive, while fascists want to engage and excite the public.”).
Lastly, he theorizes fascism as proceeding in stages:
  1. The creation of movements;
  2. Their rooting in the political system;
  3. Their seizure of power;
  4. The exercise of power;
  5. The long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy.
Most of the time, in most places, fascism exists only in stage one. The clearest example of traditional fascism in the United States is probably the first (post-bellum) KKK, which was locally rooted in the political system and in some cases seized and exercised localized power. And of course, it challenged the legitimacy of the “liberal” Reconstruction regime. And every subsequent identifiable fascism candidate in the United States (from the second Klan to Father Coughlin to George Wallace) has been similarly rooted in white supremacy.
Usually, when people mislabel things as “fascism,” it’s because they’ve ignored the feature of fascism that it be backed by a mass movement. Such was the case with liberal over-reactions to George W. Bush. But today? I’m not so sure we aren’t closer to realized fascism than since the Jim Crow south.
My objection to Eco’s list of ur-fascistic criteria is that it focuses too much on intellectual tenets, which ignores the role of action, dynamism, and self-contradiction in fascism. “It doesn’t matter if none of this makes sense, at least we’re going to do something, and do it fast and violently.”
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What Is Fascism? Has It Bloomed in the U.S.?

February 7, 2018

fascismOver the past few days, James Fallows has been musing about “the challenge of calling the Trump era by its proper name.”  He is especially wrestling with whether “fascism” is the proper term as, he notes, Dutch writer Rob Riemen argues in his new book To Fight Against This Age.  

Yesterday, in a post that included a number of responses from readers one correspondent (who does think fascism is the proper term) urged reading an Umberto Eco essay titled Ur-Fascism.  It was published by the New York Review of Books in its issue of June 22, 1995.

It’s prescient and also chilling.  Eco argues that Fascism is a fuzzy term.  Nevertheless:

But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

The ensuing list of fourteen features capture Trump — as well as those who have fallen in step with him or been called out of the woodwork.  Worth reading.

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In a battle over basic norms, the press cannot be neutral

February 2, 2018

As we await the release of the Devin Nunes memo, my attention was drawn back to a piece Dave Roberts wrote on Vox back in May, 2017, titled “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology.”  Very worth a read even/especially because it’s long and a great deal aligned with its core argument has happened in the past eight months.  He raises these questions:  “Are we a multiethnic democracy committed to equality under law? Do we respect science and scholarship? Do we expect public figures to tell the truth?  This, finally, is the question the media must face: Can it be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?”

Here’s a long section towards the end:

To understand the media’s dilemma, let’s revisit the classic liberal view of democracy, in which there is an area of normal politics bounded and structured by a set of shared rules and norms, enforced by institutions. This is still the view accepted, consciously or unconsciously, by most of the mainstream political press. It prides itself on being a neutral referee, enforcing shared standards of accuracy and honesty. (Yes, I am aware the reality falls painfully short.)

But what happens when political participants step out of bounds and violate shared norms? Is it the press’s role to defend those norms, to push back, or merely to report on what has happened?

It’s a dilemma. For one thing, no clear line separates legitimate subjects of political dispute from what is off limits or out of bounds. As circumstances change, those lines shift and warp at the margins. Collective values are always in flux. Things that were subject of dispute get put off limits (slavery, spousal rape), and things that were subject of consensus get opened back up to dispute (trans rights, marijuana legalization).

Instinctively, US journalists tend to see their role not as taking sides in those fights, but as accurately reporting on them.

They have faced the question again and again over the past few decades. From Gingrich’s rule changes in the House through Clinton’s impeachment through George W. Bush’s theft of the 2000 election through adamantine GOP intransigence under Obama to widespread state-level efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, the US political media has watched the right traduce one norm after another.

Each time, it has simply taken a step back and adjusted. A major political party will simply reject the consensus of the world’s scientists on climate change? Okay. Senate Republicans will filibuster every bill now? Okay. House Republicans will routinely threaten the solvency of the country by refusing to raise the debt limit? Okay. The Senate will refuse to vote on a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of a presidency? Okay. The party will unite behind a serial swindler and self-confessed sexual predator? Okay.

It’s been one step back after another, adjusting and readjusting to a new normal in politics.

And it’s been the same with the profusion of right-wing media. One side of America’s two-party system will build a giant parallel information apparatus operating on tribal lines, pushing one nonsense conspiracy theory after another into the political mainstream? Okay.

It’s all been, to use a term much abused and misused lately, normalized.

With Trump — his candidacy and now his presidency — the trampling of norms has become a stampede. The offenses range from small to large, petty to sinister. ….

The norms are falling like dominoes. We’re bumping up against core principles. Are we a multiethnic democracy committed to equality under law? Do we respect science and scholarship? Do we expect public figures to tell the truth?

This, finally, is the question the media must face: Can it be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?

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Meanings: Nous

January 30, 2018

In a review of Martin Amis’s new collection of essays, The Rub of Time, Dwight Garner quotes Amis on the era of Donald Trump:

 “There’s nothing there. No shame, no honor, no conscience, no knowledge, no curiosity, no decorum, no imagination, no wit, no grip and no nous.”

I think this is a very perceptive take.  It doesn’t emphasize what’s there with the Donald, it emphasizes the lacks, the not-theres.  That’s what really needs to be captured in describing Trump.  The wording of the list is quite something, too.

But what is ‘nous,’ that last item?  That’s a nearly unknown word to American ears, but not to British ones.  Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary on nous:


  • British informal:   Common sense; practical intelligence.  ‘if he had any nous at all, he’d sell the film rights’

  • Philosophy:  The mind or intellect.

It’s from Greek, a term found in Aristotle and in neo-Platonists in speaking of mind.

The impressively substantial Wikipedia entry on the term gives this:

In the Aristotelian scheme, nous is the basic understanding or awareness which allows human beings to think rationally. For Aristotle, this was distinct from the processing of sensory perception, including the use of imagination and memory, which other animals can do. This therefore connects discussion of nous, to discussion of how the human mind sets definitions in a consistent and communicable way, and whether people must be born with some innate potential to understand the same universal categories the same logical ways. Deriving from this it was also sometimes argued, especially in classical and medieval philosophy, that the individual nous must require help of a spiritual and divine type. By this type of account, it came to be argued that the human understanding (nous) somehow stems from this cosmic nous, which is however not just a recipient of order, but a creator of it. Such explanations were influential in the development of medieval accounts of God, the immortality of the soul, and even the motions of the stars, in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, amongst both eclectic philosophers and authors representing all the major faiths of their times.

But Amis means ‘nous’ in the first sense in speaking of one of the things that Trump lacks:  common sense, practical intelligence.

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Atlas of Redistricting

January 25, 2018

Here’s a marvelous resource from An Atlas of Redistricting.  (This is part of their Gerrymandering Project.)  It starts with the premise that gerrymandering is bad, but recognizes that drawing ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’ electoral districts isn’t as easy as you might think.  So it gives you an opportunity to see the consequences of several different ways of drawing electoral maps: what the districts look like, and what the likely consequences are for electoral results using several different kinds of maps.  The current map is below.  You can see the options across the top.  And you you can do this not just for the nation as a whole, but state by state.  Take a look!

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 12.27.47 PM

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End the Filibuster?

January 23, 2018

Donald Trump is calling for an end to the filibuster in the Senate.  His argument appears to be that it does not respect majority rule.  here’s the tweet.

If Senate Republicans don’t get rid of the Filibuster Rule and go to a 51% majority, few bills will be passed. 8 Dems control the Senate!


OK.  It’s no part of the Constitution.  But while we’re up, let’s eliminate the anti-majoritarian Electoral College as well and elect Presidents by majority vote of the American citizens.

And let’s be sure Congressional districts lines are drawn in such a fashion that every vote counts equally.  If Democrats get 50% of the House vote in a state, then 50% of the Representatives from that state should be Democrats.

If we’re for democracy, let’s be for democracy.

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Who’s Responsible for the Shutdown?

January 20, 2018

The question dominating the media just now is ‘who is responsible for the shutdown of the federal government?’ Is this a #ShumerShutdown or a #TrumpShutdown?  For me it’s the not the most important or interesting question, but it is worth considering.  For me — and of course I’m a partisan — it’s a McConnell/Trump shutdown.

Here’s Paul Ryan’s take, simple and straightforward:

At this hour, the federal government is needlessly shut down because of Senate Democrats. This did not need to happen. But it is important for people to understand why it did.

On Thursday, this House passed a bill to keep the government open and extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers nearly 9 million children from low-income families. No games, no strings attached.

Last night, Senate Democrats blocked the bill and shut down this government. But why? What part of the bill do they oppose? The answer is: they have no problem with any of it. We do some crazy things in Washington, but this is madness.

Senate Democrats refuse to fund the government unless we agree to their demands on something entirely unrelated: immigration. It is a shakedown strategy, and in 2013, Senator Schumer himself said: “No matter how strongly one feels about an issue, you shouldn’t hold millions of people hostage. That’s what the other side is doing. That’s wrong and we can’t give in to that.”

I don’t see anything false in what Ryan says.  Most Democrats voted against last night and most Republicans voted for, so isn’t it that simple, Democrats are to blame?  For me, no, on two considerations.

(1) In the run-up to yesterday, Trump sketched a series of conditions for a bill he’d sign.  A bi-partisan group of six worked out a compromise that (a) met all those conditions, and (b) was supported by a majority of Senators.  Trump blew that compromise up in the “shithole” meeting.  That was the more noteworthy aspect of that meeting, not Trump’s offensive language, but his backing away from his earlier conditions (and very late in the game) at the behest of radical Republicans.

(2) If you are the majority party in the Congress, and even more so if you also are the party of the Presidency, you have a positive obligation to govern.  In the House, Ryan has nearly total control over what matters can be voted on.  In the Senate, McConnell does have complete control.  Hence, the gang of six compromise could never come up for a vote, because McConnell didn’t want it to be voted upon.  A bill giving legal security to Dreamers could command comfortable majorities in both houses, but neither Ryan nor McConnell would allow such a vote.  Similarly, a clean, stand-alone bill reauthorizing CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program) could gain majority votes in both houses.  But Ryan and McConnell won’t allow that.

Perhaps its not right that Ryan and McConnell have such power, but the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader have had such powers for many years.  If you have such powers, however, you have an affirmative responsibility to use those powers to govern successfully.  At a very bare minimum, that means keeping the government functioning. That means working with all elected representatives (Republicans and Democrats and Independents) to find solutions that can yield enough votes to pass.

Under Ryan and McConnell, that’s precisely what has not happened.  Each has worked only with members of his own party.  That was true of the tax bill, true of the various assaults on healthcare, true of nearly everything: no hearings, no effort to gain Democratic votes, no effort to seek a governing coalition.  With this continuing resolution, Ryan put up a bill he that he could pass with enough votes only from Republicans, and McConnell allowed a vote only on this same bill in the Senate — even though it needed at least 10 Democratic votes to pass assuming he secured the votes of everyone from his own party.  This isn’t constructive effort to govern, this is gangster behavior: your money or your life.  This is Republicans, knowing Democrats care more about what government does than they do, daring the Democrats to vote no.

And remember, McConnell has a majority in the Senate, but he couldn’t even muster that 50-votes or more majority from his own party.  Four Republican Senators voted no.

In a parliamentary system, McConnell would have lost his leadership position in suffering such a defeat.  His ‘government’ would have fallen, and likely new elections would be called.

This was a #TrumpShutdown because he blew up the bipartisan compromise that could have passed, and a #McConnellShutdown because he failed to work out an alternative compromise that could command enough votes.


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