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

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?

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.

Hitler Had Joke Courts

History shows 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.

In the chapter, “Fascism: The Politics of Fundamentalism”, White cites the scholar, Laurence W. Britt, listing his “14 identifying characteristics of fascism”. Objective observers would surely concur that this list illustrates all of the core goals currently being sought by the new administration in its quest to “make America great again”:

i. Reject internationalism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism; promote nationalism, aided by such props as flags, slogans, and chants.

ii. Ignore charters that protect human rights; methods of torture are then recognized as viable interrogation techniques.

iii. Unify against perceived “enemy” groups; such scapegoats usually include ethnic, religious, and political minorities, as well as the mainstream media.

iv. Increase military spending and provoke conflicts overseas as a means of consolidating nationalist sentiments at home.

v. Promote masculine strength, power, and dominance through a rhetoric and behavior of misogyny and homophobia; re-establish traditional gender roles.

vi. Obsess over the need for more national security by disseminating alarmist warnings about perceived enemies both within and outside the country.

vii. Co-opt the majority religion (and its representatives) into the government, thus facilitating “moral” justification for often discriminatory policies on cultural concerns.

viii. Corporate power is not only protected but integrated into the highest levels of government.

ix. Labor and trade unions are abused, disempowered, controlled, and suppressed.

x. Academia, the arts, and intellectualism are treated with disdain and dismissed as elitist. Their critical thinking, creativity, and open-mindedness are considered threats to an order reliant upon simplistic solutions, obedience, and sloganeering.

xi. Dissent is stifled by propagandizing a crisis of law and order, thus justifying the need for more police powers and less citizens’ rights.

xii. Rampant cronyism and corruption. This might include masking conflicts of interest by erasing transparency rules. Top government jobs are awarded to friends of the regime, whether they are qualified for such positions or not.

xiii. Enable fraudulent elections by gutting laws protecting voters’ rights, gerrymandering voting districts, and/or subverting democratic processes.

xiv. Control the free press and entertainment industries by criticizing or censoring voices unsympathetic to the government while facilitating and promoting supportive ones.

“Fascism-in-progress” is perhaps a fair-minded assessment when considering the initial stages of the new administration against Britt’s identifiers. His final one — on attempting to control the media — however, seems to have been particularly fast-tracked. Such an incessant barrage of anti-media abuse from the highest positions of government has not been seen since the Nixon days, when, if otherwise occupied, the then-president would often send out his VP, Spiro Agnew, as his surrogate attack dog. Influencing our channels of communication is clearly a priority for Trump.

However, calls by his “right”-hand man, Steve Bannon, for the press to “shut up” do not universally sit well in a republic such as ours, where free speech and freedom of the press are such treasured constitutional rights. Furthermore, as much as the media has become a favored punching bag for Trump and the Trumpers, it is its comedic wing that has been particularly under attack.

Trumpism may have cast a dark pall over the nation, but it has also inspired an unprecedented golden age of critical comedy. Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, and Conan O’Brien are just some of the satirists unleashing their weaponry on the new order. Moreover, their nightly commentaries and parodies have invariably been both more revealing and effectual than the “serious” media outlets in exposing the proto-fascist tendencies of Trump’s America.

Of course, making fun of the president is nothing new. In fact, it’s a revered national tradition in America, dating back to the age of the founding fathers. It is, though, the reactions to such mockery that are un-“president”-ed, for another part of our national heritage has been for our leaders to rise above comedic slights, to take them on the chin and move on. One thinks of George W. Bush doubling down with self-deprecation when ridiculed for his constant verbal flubs; or Barack Obama wryly smiling at the insult humor hurled at him daily for eight years by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

Donald Trump, conversely, appears to be made of thinner skin; he seems pathologically incapable of letting the smallest jab go without response. Armed with his trusty Twitter, he routinely comments upon Alec Baldwin’s parodies of him on SNL. “A totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all”, the aggrieved

Commander-in-Chief recently tweeted before demanding “equal time for us”. Whether by instruction or out of sympathy, Press Secretary Sean Spicer even put out a public call to our nation’s wits to stop mocking the president. Such thinly-veiled warnings to comedians are unfamiliar to Americans, but they are all too familiar to those living under totalitarian regimes.

In Taking Laughter Seriously (State University of New York Press, 1983), humor theorist John Morreall offers some insights into why humorists are often the greatest enemies of fascists. While the latter seek to control and dominate hearts and minds, the former consistently outflank such efforts by comically exposing the myths and propaganda that dictators rely upon and hide behind. Humorists display an independence and “mental flexibility” (p.107) at odds with the totalitarian need to eradicate such traits. Morreall illustrates this dichotomy by pointing to Nazi Germany, where Hitler felt so threatened by humor that he established “joke courts” where citizens committing such offenses as calling their dogs and horses “Adolf” were tried and punished (p.102). One circus worker who had trained his chimpanzee to perform the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute was even sent a life-threatening letter from the Gestapo.

Americans can perhaps feel comforted that we have yet to witness comparable threats to our humorists from the current administration. Nevertheless, one should not dismiss the possibility that our legal channels could potentially be employed to scare, silence, or financially cripple our critical comedy. Trump even took such a path with his litigious reaction to a Bill Maher sketch in 2012. In response to the “birther” charges then-citizen Trump had been making against President Obama, Maher joked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he would donate $5 million to Trump’s charity of choice if he released a birth certificate proving that his father was not an orangutan. Trump responded, not with the good humor one might expect, but with a sustained and costly lawsuit against the comedian. “We love our free speech, and we love our celebrities getting taken down a peg. So Don, just suck it up like everybody else,” was the recommendation Maher made that apparently fell on deaf ears.

Such advice, history has shown us, often goes unheeded by fascists and fascist wanna-be’s.

Image info: Driftglass is the proprietor of Driftglass Blog and co-host of the long-running Professional Left Podcast with his wife, Fran Blue Gal.