Can We Say the F Word Yet? On Fascism and Humor

by Iain Ellis

17 April 2017

In light of the decrees and executive orders signed thus far by Donald Trump, we might reasonably ask: is fascism relevant to America's current political state?
Image: DriftGlass 
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Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right

Mel White

(Tarcher)
US: Sep 2006

cover art

Taking Laughter Seriously

John Morreall

(SUNY Press)
US: Jun 1983

Fascism… cannot be evaluated purely through the prism of historical precedent; it must be recognized as a human condition we must closely monitor lest it periodically rear its head.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham reported that “fascism” has recently soared into the top one-percent of words being looked up in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. He also noted that George Orwell’s allegory of totalitarianism, 1984, has been given a new literary lease on life, landing in the upper echelons of Amazon’s bestseller list. One might interpret such developments positively, as signaling a new-found interest in history and literature; sadly, this is clearly not the reason. Over the last year or so, pundits, historians, politicians, and citizens have been dusting off the “F” word, assessing its prior features and manifestations in light of Donald Trump and the Trumpism phenomena.

A new debate has consequently emerged as to the helpfulness of invoking such highly-charged words as “fascism”, when on so many fronts (class, race, gender, religion, etc.) the nation is so currently divided. “Donald Trump is actually a fascist”, proclaims Michael Kinsley of The Washington Post. “An actual fascist is now your official president”, cries an exasperated Chauncey Devega in Salon. “Trump’s Emerging Fascism Threatens the Nation”, warns the Huffington Post’s William Lynn

Neither enthused nor amused by the “liberal” (ab)use of the “F” word are conservative critics like John Daniel Davidson, who has used two outlets to dispute comparisons between Trump and the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. “Stop Calling Donald Trump a Fascist, Because He’s Not One”, he instructs in The Federalist, and “Trump is no Fascist”, he more succinctly declares in The Guardian. Davidson is joined in this rhetorical wing of “see no fascism, hear no fascism” by Will Gore, who argues, “No, we shouldn’t call Donald Trump a ‘Nazi’” in The Independent.

Use of the “F” word has increased to such levels that Trumpers have taken to dispensing with customary defensive postures, instead employing the Orwellian methods that have served them so well in disseminating “alternative facts” and denouncing “fake news”. Adopting the playground methodological approach of “I know you are, but what am I?” battalions of Bannon disciples are now using “fascism” as a descriptor for any and all institutions critical of the new administration: universities, the mainstream media, street protesters, opposition party politicians, even certain judges. Fascism has not only become the buzzword of the day, but it’s being evoked with a regularity we have not seen since Ric Mayall, portraying a stereotypical trendy lefty student in the ‘80s comedy, The Young Ones, who tagged as “a fascist” anyone who dared to disagree with him.

American attorney Mike Godwin contemplated our predilection for going for the rhetorical jugular when introducing us to Godwin’s Law in 1990. His assertion was that at some point in all political arguments someone will insert a Hitler comparison in an attempt to invalidate the argument of his/her combatant. Sometimes regarded as a fallacy of irrelevance or as just an ad hominem attack, words like “fascism”, “Nazi”, and “Hitler” are employed not to further one’s position but to derail another’s. Godwin hoped that by shining a light on this aggressive urge, we would curtail our hyperbole and only use such inflammatory terms where appropriate. Thus, while recognizing Godwin’s council, we still might reasonably ask: is fascism relevant to our current political state?

Again, responses suggest that America is a nation divided. For the right, liberals bandying around the term “fascism” is little more than hysterical fear-mongering. Will Gore calls its current use “a catch-all insult” and “playground stuff”. Rachel Lu, despite recognizing the old adage that those that do not learn from history are destined to repeat it, sees few similarities between Trump and past dictators. She jests that the fascist profile is ordinarily of a militarist rather than a draft-dodger! John Daniel Davidson similarly points to the expansionist militarism of past fascist regimes in contrast to the more isolationist foreign policy outlined on the campaign trail by Trump. Davidson’s assertion, it might be noted, was made prior to the recent illegal missile attack on Syria and the military spending proposal made by the new administration. Furthermore, as prior fascist states have demonstrated, their totalitarian transformations usually arrive piecemeal, not all at once. In this regard, history also shows us that reticence in recognizing or calling out proto-fascism, coupled with blind faith that the republic (or democracy) will survive attempts to dismantle it, can open a window of opportunity for fascists that later cannot be closed.

Advocates for the excavation of the “F” word are not only hoping to set off alarm bells, though; they are also citing daily evidence that points towards a trending totalitarianism. Trumpism, they say, has either dog-whistled or openly encouraged the following: the stoking of majority group resentments, feeding it nostalgic dreams of a mythical national “great”-ness; expelling foreign elements (based on criteria of race and religion) deemed threatening to the state; pursuing isolationist trade policies that shore up nationalist sentiments; threatening and saber-rattling with other nations while proposing huge increases in military spending. If the jackboot fits, argue those who see as ominous such developments in such a short period of time.

Firing the “F” word at right-wing governments is, of course, not an unprecedented activity in American political discourse. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Jr. were all hit with it; even Johnson (over Vietnam) and Obama (over most Fox talking points) have been victims of Godwin’s Law. In recent decades, fascism has been associated particularly with those administrations that cozied up too closely with the theocratic forces of fundamentalist Christianity. Mel White, a former ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham, even wrote a mea culpa book in 2006, entitled Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right (Penguin), in which he warned of the entrenched forces that threaten the American republic. Although his concerns are largely about how Falwell et al were intent on breaking down the wall separating church and state, he’s not shy in aligning the Moral Majority’s mission with fascism.

As perceived in Trumpism today, White highlights the powerful myth rhetoric that fuels the fascist impulse, how it speaks to a restoration of an idyllic past that never actually existed. For him, “Fascism is not an ideological apparatus frozen in a particular historical period but a theoretical and political signpost for understanding how democracy can be subverted, if not destroyed” (p.214). Such “understanding” recognizes that fascism is always alive in the “very primitive parts of us”, that it thrives in our “default settings” of seeing and desiring “in-groups” and “out-groups” (p. 222). Seen this way, fascism in its current form cannot be evaluated purely through the prism of historical precedent; it must be recognized as a human condition we must closely monitor lest it periodically rears its head.

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