Several years ago, during a municipal election in Toronto, someone was running around plastering stickers on newspaper boxes and telephone posts throughout downtown that said “Let the police choose the mayor!” I recall having seen them at the time and thinking to myself, “wow, that’s actually fascist – not just as a figure of speech, or a term of abuse, but literally fascist.” (I suspect, but am not sure, that this was the election in which Rob Ford won the mayoralty.)
The problem, of course, is that “fascism” has been vastly overused as a term of political abuse – particularly during the ‘60s – so it has lost all force. We have become overly used to people calling others “fascist” whenever it looks as though they might have to do anything that they don’t want to do. The result is that we lose track of the actual meaning of the term. (Those of us in the professoriate also tend not to teach students anything about fascist political thought, and so most people just associate it with Nazism, or some combination of racism and militarism.)
In fact, I suspect that the people running around putting stickers on newspaper boxes in downtown Toronto were not thinking to themselves “yay, I’m a fascist.” In fact, they probably would have resented the suggestion that they were. And yet, when you think about it, what does it mean to suggest that the police should choose the mayor? Obviously it is undemocratic, but it is also illiberal, in that it dissolves the division of powers and the rule of law, giving the executive supremacy over the legislature. It is important to remember that the police are, ultimately, the sharp end of the stick when it comes to the capacity of the state to exercise force over its population. Indeed, they are precisely the agency that specializes in the use of force domestically, which is why we normally take great care to ensure that they operate under both legislative and judicial oversight. The idea that we should reverse all of this, and give the agents of force control over the legislature is, well, fascist.
I am reminded of this because American commentators, trying to digest the Donald Trump phenomenon, have been reaching for their first-generation Frankfurt School, trying to understand the authoritarian personality. This is after widespread publicization of the claim, made by several political scientists, that authoritarian personality traits are the single most powerful predictor of support for Trump. (For those not familiar with this literature, let me just mention that having an “authoritarian personality” is not the same thing as being personally authoritarian – contrary to much public commentary since the ’60s, as well as popularizations in films such as American Beauty.)
I think there are a lot of reasons why we are seeing the emergence of this phenomenon. The desire for “strong man” leadership is a fairly natural response to institutional gridlock. That’s one of the things that people loved about Rob Ford in Toronto. For instance, the city municipal housing system is a complete mess – there are literally billions of dollars worth of outstanding repairs waiting to be done, and an incredibly complex set of procedures for assigning (very well compensated) workers to do them. But Rob Ford would give out his personal phone number, so frustrated tenants could call him directly. He would then get on the phone, call someone way down the chain of command and say “drop what you’re doing and go fix the sink at Mrs. X’s house.” In so doing, he would break a half-dozen rules, and probably generate several union grievances, but he would also get Mrs. X’s sink fixed. The net effect, at an institutional level, was of course total chaos. But it was easy for Mrs. X to look at the whole thing and say to herself “what the city needs is more people like Rob Ford.” Because the people who work within the system are able to accomplish so little – given the number of constraints and veto points in the system – the public starts wanting people who are going to say “to hell with the system.”
And, of course, if you think the Toronto Municipal Housing Corporation is broken, then the American political system is ten times more broken. So it’s hardly surprising that voters are not excited about the candidates promising to work within it.
But there is another aspect to what is now being dubbed “the rise of American authoritarianism.” It’s the fact that Americans are being fairly constantly bombarded by what could be described, without much exaggeration, as “fascist propaganda” – but again, “fascist” in the narrow and literal sense of the term. One of the central themes in fascist thinking is the idea that the military has unity of purpose, or will, while the (democratic) legislature is hopelessly divided. This in turn leaves the state, and the people, both divided and weak. The way to reverse this decline is therefore to give the military control of the state.
The way that many Americans reacted to the loss of the Vietnam War had the effect of embedding this line of thinking very deeply into public consciousness, and of making it a very common theme in public entertainment as well. (It is the familiar suggestion that politicians “lost the war.” The military had the capacity to get the job done, but was undermined by weak politicians, who lacked the resolve to make the choices that were necessary.) There are dozens of examples of this that are literally set in Vietnam (e.g. Rambo), but it is a prominent theme in the recent Benghazi movie as well (except here it is mercenaries who are the only ones willing to take the fight to the enemy, whereas the U.S. government, including the CIA, is portrayed as lacking (inexplicably) the will to fight):
In any case, I wish there were a way of presenting, as a criticism of such productions, without sounding overly hysterical, that they are fascist. I also wish there were a way of communicating the thought, again without sounding hysterical, that it is not a great idea to be feeding the broader population in a democratic society a steady diet of fascist propaganda, since it may have the effect of, say, undermining democracy. Of course it’s not the end of the world – each movie, taken by itself, is just a movie, and democracy is relatively robust. Still, one should not be overly surprised if there are cumulative effects.