Sunday, October 04, 2015

Recognizing rightwing authoritarianism

Rick Perlstein has a very insightful piece on political authoritarianism and how we understand it today, versus how it was understood in the 1950s and 1960s in the US, Donald Trump and the "F-Word" Washington Spectator 09/30/2015.

The f-word in this case is "fascism." Rick gives a good summary of how the word has been degraded almost to meaninglessness in US politics today:

The “f-word” has nearly vanished from everyday political discussion in America, and for good reason. It’s become the kind of epithet that stops thought instead of enhancing it. But serious people used to talk about the relevance of the German experience to American politics. In 1964, Philip Rahv, a founding editor of the marquee intellectual journal Partisan Review, wrote that the movement that nominated Barry Goldwater for president represented “a recrudescence on American soil of precisely those super-nationalistic and right-wing trends that were finally defeated in Europe at the cost of a great war, untold misery, and many millions dead.”

But within a couple of years, when student protesters were closing down universities through violence and the threat of violence, people like Ronald Reagan said that was exactly what fascists did, so he deployed National Guardsmen to keep campuses open––which student protesters called fascist in turn.

By the end of the 1960s both sides were throwing the f-word at one another with abandon. But in current American politics, the word has survived via the abject stupidity of many thousands of right-wing readers of one of the worst books ever published, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (2008), which made much of the fact that both Hitler and a heck of a lot of liberals were vegetarians.
And he offers this contrast because today's political discourse around authoritarianism and that of the 1950s and 1960s:

It’s a devolution to an older style of political thinking that felt perfectly logical in the 1950s and early 1960s, among writers for whom civilization’s descent into blood-soaked barbarism was recent memory. The writing that followed it was either explicitly or implicitly rooted in a Marxist style of thinking, which is to say a Hegelian style of thinking: if history was “supposed” to develop in a certain direction (toward socialism; toward liberal democracy), how, then, to account for the hard-right turn no one had predicted? The process of strong men taking advantage of weak men, with the strongman, his victims, and their willing executioners produced by the neuroses attending the breakdown of traditional ways of life, seemed to be encoded within modernity itself.
He probably overstates the degree to which all such thinking was "either explicitly or implicitly rooted in a Marxist style of thinking." Because liberal Cold Warriors who carefully insisted on their allergy to Marxism shared similar concerns, as did even some conservatives.

In the two decades after the Second World War, it was meaningful to make distinctions between "genuine," pro-democracy conservatives and "conservatives" who were really more-or-less anti-democracy authoritarians and reactionaries. The latter were direct ideological descendants of the prewar America First crowd. Which is kind of like saying they were ideologicval descendants of themselves, since very often they were the same people. The brand of segregationist "libertarianism" practiced by Papa Doc and Baby Doc Paul traces a clear ideological history back to the prewar rightwing isolationists. The Christian Front meeting in 1945 that I referenced in the post Trump as Radical Right agitator (08/21/2015) illustrates a very early postwar link in that chain.

Thus, the Nelson Rockefeller/Barry Goldwater divide in the Republican Party in 1964 was widely understood even among Republicans as one between conservatives and reactionaries, though the names they used for each other were often a bit harsher than that.

The Philip Rahv article that Rick references from Partisan Review 31:4 (1964), in which he one of the contributors to a set of brief essays under the general heading, "Some Comments on Senator Goldwater," includes the passage that Rick partially quotes in the passage shown above:

Goldwater and his zealots are not conservative in any intelligible sense of the term. They are out-and-out reactionaries. It takes very little political sophistication to see that Goldwater is not in the least a replica of the late Senator Taft, who was genuinely a conservative. His [Goldwater's] movement represents a recrudescence on American soil of precisely those super-nationalistic and right-wing trends that were finally defeated in Europe at the cost of a great war, untold misery, and many millions dead. No wonder Europeans, with that experience back of them, regard Goldwater with horror. [my emphasis]
Without elaborating on it much further here, there is a risk in over-stressing the difference between conservatives and reactionaries in the Republican Party prior to the Nixon Administration, which began merging those two tendencies in a way that made them effectively indistinguishable long before Donald Trump became the Republican man-crush of the moment. When Teddy Roosevelt fought the trusts on behalf a genuinely popular constituency, the Big Business wing of the Party represented by Old Man Taft (William Howard Taft the President, father of the Senator Robert Taft so commonly held up as a contrast to Barry Goldwater.) Politicians like Thomas Dewey continued the liberal tradition in the Republican Party. But he co-existed in a Republican Party with radical-right isolationists, admirers of Mussolini and Hitler, and authoritarian Liberty League types. For a grumpy take of my own on Robert Taft, see Barry Goldwater and 2012 Republicanism (1) 10/17/2012.

Rahv also comments on an aspect of our political culture that has remained central even after the enemy against which it was primarily directed, the Soviet Union, went out of existence: "Our hard-nosed Cold Warriors are interested in Communism, which they would be forced to invent if it did not exist, principally as a means of frightening the electorate and creating and artificial popular demand for their own elevation to power." (my emphasis)

Rick Perlstein gives us an excellent example of why we need to recover more of the sense of the risks of democracy degenerating into a rightwing authoritarian system, whether we call it by the "f-word" or something else:

Trump has now provided more 'specifics' about his immigration plan: a forced population transfer greater than any attempted in history, greater than the French and Spanish expulsions of the Jews in 1308 and 1492; greater than the Nabka of approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from British-mandate Palestine; greater than the 1.5 million Stalin consigned to Siberia and the Central Asian republics; greater than Pol Pot’s exile of 2.5 million city-dwellers to the Cambodian countryside, or the scattering of Turkey’s Assyrian Christians, which the scholar Mordechai Zaken says numbers in the millions and required 180 years to complete. Trump has promised to move 12 million Mexicans in under two years––'so fast your head will spin.
Trump is not being ostracized by other Republican candidates because of this. Our star reporters and pundits are too focused on the horse-race and reality-show spectacle of the Republican Presidential clown show to pay much attention to what a radical, horrendous measure Trump is proposing. (Despite the massive media coverage he's receiving at the moment, several polls have shown him slipping in popularity among the Republican base, particularly to his fellow non-politician candidate Ben Carson, e.g.: John Merline, Donald Trump Falls: Ben Carson Surges To Lead In Poll Investor's Business Daily 10/02/2015)

I'll close by noting that, as much as we need to get back more of that postwar sense about the danger of authoritarianism that Rick describes from the postwar decades. there is also a significant danger that we also see in those decades: the idolizing of "centrism" as the antidote to "extremism of the right and left." That aspect of the postwar Cold War consensus is not only alive and well among the Beltway Village press. It has metastasized into the cult of High Broderism, whose central tenet is Both Sides Do It.

In that worldview, the "center" is defined as being some ideal point between the two major parties, allowing the Village pundits and analysts to posture as being wisely above the fray and advising Both Sides to embrace bipartisan compromise. High Broderism effective prevents them from acknowledging, probably even from fully recognizing, a key fact about present-day American politics, in the words of Charlie Pierce, "that one of our two political parties has lost its mind and that it has committed itself to wrecking our politics if it doesn't always get its way." (The Ron Fournier Effect: Because Democracy Disturbs the Horses Esquire Politics Blog 06/09/2015)

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