June 18, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Liberals Must Name the Evil
Suffering is central to fascist politics. Indeed, "sadism" is the point.
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The United States is on the edge of what I’ve called a new era of apartheid. By that, I mean, among other things, a long period in which the politics of fascism, if perhaps not fascism itself, has emerged, grown and flourished right before our eyes.
I’m humble enough to say I don’t know if we are there yet. I’m confident enough, however, to say it’s coming if we fail to act. By “we,” I mean us. I mean liberals.
I suspect most liberals can’t quite bring themselves to believe fascist politics is happening. Liberals are deeply moral and open-minded yet skeptical. We have a good nose for bullshit, and cries of fascism! sound a bit hysterical. And anyway, that happened in Europe. It’s what Germany did. Fascist politics can’t happen here.
As long as American liberals can’t quite bring themselves to believe that fascist politics is happening, fascist politics will have opportunities to prevail in plain sight. As long as American liberals cluck their tongues at the world’s Cassandras, admonishing people of color to pay attention to “real issues,” our government—constituted of, by, and for the people—can perpetrate grand evil in our names. Without belief in the truth, there is no resistance. Without resistance, evil won’t stop.
Adam Serwer is right but not right enough.
As I see it, a major problem is naming the evil.
“Fascism” smacks of foreignness. It’s relevant to people and places far, far away. American liberals are more fluent in the native vernacular of white supremacy. We are more adept at identifying domestic practitioners. Ronald Reagan, for instance, launched his 1980 presidential bid in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights activists were murdered in cold blood. For American liberals, especially liberals of color, conservatism has been for decades another word for white supremacy.
Liberals should take the next step. Sure, “fascism” still sounds foreign, but our history suggests that’s a distinction without a difference. Arthur Goldwag (a subscriber to this newsletter!) wrote The New Hate. In it, he said Adolf Hitler was inspired by Henry Ford, whose newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, spread anti-Jewish propaganda. Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, told me that the fuhrer admired US behavior toward indigenous peoples. Death camps were not a German invention. The Nazis perfected, by way of gas chambers and ovens, an American innovation.
Despite this history, liberals struggle to properly name the evil. That’s partly due to Reagan’s success. His landslide victory in 1984 (winning every state but one!) made it virtually impossible for respectable liberals to use “fascism” or “white supremacy” in mixed company. But liberals struggle for another reason: they are, well, liberal.
Liberals tend to believe that everyone has the right to the public square no matter how reprehensible a person’s views are. In trying to tolerate the intolerant, American liberals tend to believe they are being good liberals and by extension good Americans. The marketplace of ideas, they believe, will sort out the whole truth in time. But the reverse is the case. What they are really doing, in a context of fascism politics, is helping fascists exploit liberal principles to undermine and replace democracy.
I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s partly because fascist politics is so very hard to believe. Fascist politics, though it seeks power, doesn’t know what it wants to do with it. Power itself is the ultimate good in fascists politics. Once it’s attained, that’s it.
If this sounds like a tautology (they want power because they want power?!) that’s because fascist politics is utterly tautological, which is another reason that liberals can’t quite bring themselves to believe that fascist politics is happening. No one can be so dumb, liberals tend to think, as to want power but not know what to do with it.
Oh, but they can be!
In an influential and hotly debated essay, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic came close to properly naming the evil. In the following passage, he refers to Southern lynchers smiling for the camera as black bodies dangle behind them. Serwer wrote:
Their names have mostly been lost to time. But these grinning men were someone’s brother, son, husband, father. They were human beings, people who took immense pleasure in the utter cruelty of torturing others to death—and were so proud of doing so that they posed for photographs with their handiwork, jostling to ensure they caught the eye of the lens, so that the world would know they’d been there. Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another (my italics).
There was no point to the American South’s crimes against humanity except one, Serwer said. “Cruelty,” he titled his essay, “is the point.” And indeed it is. But even Serwer, whom I take to be a liberal’s liberal, does not take it far enough, I think.
“Cruelty” does not evoke the emotions he describes. “Cruelty” does not, in my view, explain the appeal of fascism. Something made these murderers “feel good,” “feel proud,” and “feel happy.” The word I’d prefer American liberals use is “sadism.”
“Sadism,” politically expressed, explains why some people want power but don’t know what they want to do with it except use it to make others suffer. Why is our government interning immigrant children on military bases and encampments on the border? We’re told it’s for deterrence, but that’s not it. It’s not a deterrent—we know this—and no amount of explaining that will change that view. Why?
Because deterrence isn’t the point any more than policy is. To the president’s supporters, immigrants deserve their suffering, because they are immigrants. Because they are immigrants, they deserve their suffering. Yes, it’s tautological. Yes, it’s insane. That’s what you’d expect from people who take pleasure from others’ pain.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.