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

Image: DriftGlass

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?

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.

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