As white supremacist Steven Bannon enters the White House a grinning chipper Evan Davies gives Raheem Kassam a free pass on Newsnight and the new normal settles in. Truly dire political decisions get re-framed as Hard or Soft Brexit, now Hard or Soft Trump. Bannon runs Breitbart and Kassam is the London editor. Breitbart – which many outside the circles of right-paranoia had never heard of before yesterday – is a cesspit of right-wing propaganda.
The Washington Post described Bannon as:
“Before taking a leave from Breitbart to become the chief executive of Trump’s campaign, Bannon boasted of turning Breitbart into the “platform of the alt-right,” a movement that pushes a white-supremacist philosophy. Under Bannon, Breitbart has included a section called “black crime,” equated feminism with cancer, attacked companies that employ legal immigrants, and described Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew” for opposing Trump’s candidacy.”
Kassam presented him as a father-figure who had “helped him as a human being”. To which you can only respond that he didn’t do a very good job.
Even Glenn Beck the “ultra-conservative” broadcaster has said that the new chief political strategist to the White House is dangerously far to the right, a “nightmare” with “clear ties to white nationalists” and “a frightening… no… a terrifying man. A terrifying man.” The American Nazi Party said they were ‘surprised’. Those that described the Trump victory as a whitewash weren’t wrong. The Southern Poverty Law Center said Bannon “simply has no business in the White House.”
But our media are kind of okay with it. “The early signs are we are seeing a more moderate Mr Trump” intoned one C4 documentary. Kassam dismissed the Breitbart editorial as ‘satirical’ and his anti-Semitism as “the sort of thing that comes out of a divorce”. Evan Davies shrugs meekly and says “would you admit there’s been a coarsening of language?”.
These people’s language isn’t coarse, it’s fascist.
The media failure to predict or hold to account this burgeoning populist right is no being continued in a new form of accommodation and conciliation. It’s appeasement.
And for those who bridle at the F word, let’s remember that Bannon is now aligned himself with the leaders of several ‘far-right’ movements in Europe, including England’s Nigel Farage, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, and France’s Marine Le Pen.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen — niece of the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen — wrote on Twitter on Saturday that representatives of President-elect Donald Trump had invited her to “work together.” (@Marion_M_Le_Pen
Je réponds oui à l’invitation de Stephen Bannon, directeur de la campagne #Trump, à travailler ensemble. http://www.lci.fr/elections-americaines/elections-americaines-stephen-bannon-l-homme-qui-murmurait-a-l-oreille-de-donald-trump-2012076.html 5:32 PM – 12 Nov 2016)
If the new media failure is a dangerous new low, there’s no room for complacency about our own political culture. As Alec Finlay notes wryly:
“It’s good that history will judge Britain kindly compared to the USA. At least during the Brexit Referendum we had a balanced debate, there was no outbreak of racism, and no one getting shot by political extremists. If that happened here we know people would be so appalled it would sway voters.”
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Is Trump a fascist? Is it “hyperbolic” to do so. I don’t think so. Amid much hand-wringing there’s some key criteria we can use to make such an assessment. The Italian thinker Umberto Eco has outlined what he calls 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.”
Here’s Eco’s fourteen features:
1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.
2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.
3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.”
4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.
8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.
9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.
10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.
11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.
12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority.
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
* * *
Newspeak, machismo, a frustrated middle-class, irrationalism, ultra-traditionalism, all are major features in Trump’s falange. The “people who feel deprived of a clear social identity” are the deified “left-behind” and the “impoverished vocabulary” was ever-present on the TV stump.
The “distrust of the intellectual” was a key meme now being recycled in endless op-eds about the “liberal elite”, while “disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of homosexuality” is a leitmotif of the new American fascism alongside the tragedy of American gun law (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) and the obsession with “action” (build walls, deport 3 million people etc).
“Contempt for the weak” could almost have been a campaign slogan under “Trump / Pence”.
Trumpism matches almost all of Eco’s criteria. He says: “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
* * *
The role of the media before, during and after the US election is now one of a scathing self-reflection. Charlie Beckett writes:
“They (the US media) had failed to predict Trump’s victory and the collapse of the Democrat vote both in its scale and nature. The demographics that have emerged from exit polling reveal that huge sections of the electorate had turned to Trump but had been ignored in the campaign coverage. When their rage was noted it had been scorned in the liberal media. Worst of all, American journalism has to face up to the fact that half of the voters appear to hate them, the other half despair of them. Few trust them.”
It’s no comforting irony that the media played a huge role in Trump’s success and Clinton’s failure despite the movement’s obsessive hatred of that same media (see Eco’s points 4, 5 and 8). But they – and we – could learn from this failure now that Trump has been exposed in the cold light of day for what he is.
At the end of the Newsnight interview Raheem Kassam described going throughout the ‘big gold door” to President Elect Trumps suite: “We were floating policy ideas to Trump and we were floating some back at him” he tell us. Then he recounts meeting a ‘Human Rights establishment figure’ on the streets of New York who is expressing fear at the coming government. He says: “Are you an optimist or a pessimist? And he said well at this point we just need to be optimists don’t we?”
It was a cheerful tale, a nonsense anecdote, but no we really don’t need to be optimists. Whitelash will become whitewash if media complacency goes unchecked. Optimism is not the mood of the day in the face of the coming politics, as the late Leonard Cohen said: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin”.