The diverse conspiracy theories, the denial of scientific knowledge, and the demands of an absolute individualism against the public interest, which have arisen lately, certainly give one pause for thought. The historical parallels to the rise of fascism are stunning.
The ability of a president—who in no way represents the actual interests of the American people, only his own—to influence and direct magical thinking among distressed citizens makes no sense to most “thinking people.” But something deeper than political persuasion is at work here.
The Q-anon conspiracy theory just sounds so far-fetched that many find it incomprehensible that anyone, even members of the Trump base, could believe it. I heard some believers interviewed on 60 Minutes. One fearful suburban mom claimed, “There’s so much evidence.” Although she didn’t explain, I suspect that the “evidence” was claims made on social media based on convenient assumptions and outright prejudice.
Another felt certain that “Q” is Robert Kennedy, Jr., who did not really die in that plane crash but would save all the children from those baby-eating pedophile “celebrities,” and Democrat party elites who are running some kind of child trafficking ring. He had recently lost his job and spends several hours a day obsessed with social media. Qanon has grown rapidly amid the anxiety and fear in the US as multiple crises unfold.
And, of course, the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing more than a vast conspiracy of scientists, democrats, and doctors somehow collectively conjuring up 220,000 deaths just to somehow further enslave us all, well, what can I say?
How Fascism Grows
History clearly demonstrates that fascism arises gradually out of displacement, fear, and emergent hatred of not only the stranger, the feared other, but also from a form of “mission creep.” Increments of increased violence and perversity occur gradually so that each change doesn’t seem like much. I have invoked the following quote before, because it is so relevant.
Chris Hedges (2014) quotes a crucial passage from Raul Hilberg’s monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews, which illuminates this gradual dehumanizing process:
“The process of destruction [of the European Jews] unfolded in a definite pattern,” Hilberg wrote. “It did not, however, proceed from a basic plan. No bureaucrat in 1933 could have predicted what kind of measures would be taken in 1938, nor was it possible in 1938 to foretell the configuration of the undertaking in 1942. The destructive process was a step-by-step operation, and the administrator could seldom see more than one step ahead.”
Certain elements are present in situations where the dehumanization process allows unbounded cruelty and violence. For example, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out a series of experiments in the 1960s that became quite famous. He showed that it was easy to get subjects to inflict what they thought were severe electric shocks to persons they were told were “learners” in response to errors made. The experimenters wore white coats and acted with an aura of great authority, telling subjects to turn up the voltage. Most of the subjects administered “shocks” they thought were extreme and maybe deadly, all because they were told to do so by an authority figure.
Performing the Fascist Playbook
In politics, members of the “base” fall for the charisma of the demagogue who manipulates them because they see him as a hero. His lies are absorbed in their confirmation bias; that is, they accept only “facts” that fit with their prior beliefs. That is why Trump’s base is so consistently loyal even as so many perverse facts come out about his abuse of women, tax cheating, stiffing small contractors saying, “So, sue me,” and general cruelty. The thousands of lies told during his presidency are simply ignored or dismissed. They ignore his refusal to accept intelligence reports that the Russians are hacking our elections. They accept his indifference to wearing masks as a public health measure in favor of his bravado in spite of the experts on disease. The list goes on.
Masha Gesson is a Russian American journalist who left Russia under threat of death due to her opposition journalism. In Surviving Autocracy she chronicles the elements of how fascist demagogues control their victims. The goal of autocrats is to exert absolute rule over their populations. The easiest way to do that is by controlling their minds.
Donald J. Trump has for over four years now, first as a candidate, then as president, followed precisely the fascist playbook, destroyed every regulation or law he could, intended to protect the people. At the same time, he claimed to be their hero. He continues to perform the fascist playbook.
It is a matter of action, not theory. The only way to stem the tide of fascism is to throw the bums out. Suddenly and urgently, democracy means only one thing: VOTE.