Jun 7th 2016

Springtime for Fascism?

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 



NEW YORK – Are we seeing a new dawn of fascism? Many people are beginning to think so. Donald Trump has been compared to a fascist, as has Vladimir Putin and a variety of demagogues and right-wing loudmouths in Europe. The recent tide of authoritarian bluster has reached as far as the Philippines, whose president-elect, Rodrigo (“The Punisher”) Duterte, has vowed to toss suspected criminals into Manila Bay.

The problem with terms like “fascism” or “Nazi” is that so many ignorant people have used them so often, in so many situations, that they have long ago lost any real significance. Few still know firsthand what fascism actually meant. It has become a catch-all phrase for people or ideas we don't like.

Loose rhetoric has coarsened not only political debate, but historical memory, too. When a Republican politician compares US property taxes with the Holocaust, as one Senate candidate did in 2014, the mass murder of Jews is trivialized to the extent of becoming meaningless. The same is roughly true when Trump is compared to Hitler or Mussolini.

As a result, we are too easily distracted from the real dangers of modern demagoguery. After all, it is not hard for Trump – or the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, or Putin, or Duterte – to refute accusations of being fascists or Nazis. They may be repulsive, but they are not organizing uniformed storm troopers, building concentration camps, or calling for the corporate state. Putin comes closest, but even he is not Hitler.

Of course, forgetfulness or ignorance about the past goes both ways. When a young Dutch writer, sympathetic to the new populist wave, expressed antipathy to his country’s “cultural elite,” for promoting “atonal music” and other arrogant forms of ugliness, instead of the wholesome beauty embraced by the common man, I wondered whether he knew about the Nazis’ attack on “degenerate art”? Atonal music, hardly the cutting edge today, was precisely the kind of thing that Hitler’s minions loathed – and ultimately banned.

There are other echoes of our darkest history in contemporary political bombast, which a few decades ago would still have cast any politician who used it to the margins. Stoking hatred of minorities, fulminating against the press, stirring up the mob against intellectuals, financiers, or anyone who speaks more than one language, were not part of mainstream politics, because enough people still understood the dangers of such talk.

It is clear that today's demagogues don’t much care about what they derisively call “political correctness.” It is less clear whether they have enough historical sense to know that they are poking a monster that post-World War II generations hoped was dead but that we now know only lay dormant, until obliviousness to the past could enable it to be reawakened.

This is not to say that everything the populists say is untrue. Hitler, too, was right to grasp that mass unemployment was a problem in Germany. Many of the agitators’ bugbears are indeed worthy of criticism: the European Union’s opacity, the duplicitousness and greed of Wall Street bankers, the reluctance to tackle problems caused by mass immigration, the lack of concern for those hurt by economic globalization.

These are all problems that mainstream political parties have been unwilling or unable to solve. But when today’s populists start blaming “the elites,” whoever they may be, and unpopular ethnic or religious minorities, for these difficulties, they sound uncomfortably close to the enemies of liberal democracy in the 1930s.

The true mark of the illiberal demagogue is talk of “betrayal.” The cosmopolitan elites have stabbed “us” in the back; we are facing an abyss; our culture is being undermined by aliens; our nation can become great again once we eliminate the traitors, shut down their voices in the media, and unite the “silent majority” to revive the healthy national organism. Politicians and their boosters who express themselves in this manner may not be fascists; but they certainly talk like them.

The fascists and Nazis of the 1930s did not come from nowhere. Their ideas were hardly original. For many years, intellectuals, activists, journalists, and clerics had articulated hateful ideas that laid the groundwork for Mussolini, Hitler, and their imitators in other countries. Some were Catholic reactionaries who detested secularism and individual rights. Some were obsessed with the supposed global domination of Jews. Some were romantics in search of an essential racial or national spirit.

Most modern demagogues may be only vaguely aware of these precedents, if they know of them at all. In Central European countries like Hungary, or indeed in France, they may actually understand the links quite well, and some of today’s far-right politicians are not shy about being openly anti-Semitic. In most West European countries, however, such agitators use their professed admiration for Israel as a kind of alibi, and direct their racism at Muslims.

Words and ideas have consequences. Today’s populist leaders should not yet be compared to murderous dictators of the fairly recent past. But, by exploiting the same popular sentiments, they are contributing to a poisonous climate, which could bring political violence into the mainstream once again.


Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "