September 4, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The ‘Ur-Fascism’ of the Republicans
Why is Trump eroding the meaning of citizenship?
A reliable feature of American fascism is taking something that’s completely normal and making it look completely abnormal or worse: immoral, alien, deviant, corrupt, criminal or even treasonous. Take for instance free speech on college campuses.
There you will find young people disagreeing passionately about X, Y and Z. In disagreeing passionately, they are using free speech against free speech, which is what anyone would expect in a liberal democracy and its independent institutions in which freedom of thought and freedom of conscience are of paramount importance.
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Fascists don’t like free speech, but they can’t attack it openly for fear of giving the game away. So they attack it indirectly by alleging that young people disagreeing passionately about X, Y and Z are actually suppressing free speech. Or they take a position that’s beyond the pale—like, say, the earth being center of the solar system—and accuse dissenters of using “dehumanizing and totally unacceptable” rhetoric.
Their goals are various and sundry, but in the end, fascist political figures seek to dismantle the good-faith communal bonds on which an open democratic society must depend, and replace them with power and bad faith, but most of all loyalty to the leader. As long as communal bonds endure, free individuals can govern themselves. As long as free individuals can govern themselves, fascist politics can’t take hold. So fascists make normal things seem abnormal and normalize what’s beyond the pale. (I’m borrowing the above from the inestimable Jason Stanley and his new book.)
Fascism doesn’t work the way we tend to think it does. As novelist Umberto Eco, who had been an unwilling member of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, wrote: “It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises.”
By Ur-Fascism, Eco meant Eternal Fascism. It’s never going to go away completely, and it promises to come back. I think that’s a constructive concept and history with which to understand recent developments coming out of president’s reelection campaign.
Axios reported Tuesday that Donald Trump’s allies are seeking to raise a couple of million dollars to undermine the legitimacy of the press. The plan is targeting “people producing the news” by slipping “damaging information about reporters and editors to ‘friendly media outlets,’ such as Breitbart, and traditional media.” This isn’t new.
The Washington press corps has been a frequent target of the Republican Party since forever, but especially since the early 1990s when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who was taking a page from Spiro Agnew’s playbook) advised colleagues to doubt publicly the legitimacy of the press. Remember: bias isn’t the point of the Republican complaint. The point is suppression of a free press and free speech. That Trump’s allies plan to spread disinformation about members of the Washington press corps is the logical next step in the evolution from implicit to explicit fascist politics.
Fascists don’t like free speech, but they can’t attack it openly for fear of giving the game away.
Citizenship hasn’t been the party’s focus for as long, but it’s now of superlative importance. We can see this in the administration’s approach to a time-honored tradition in the armed forced: immigrants can become members of the political community if they sacrifice for it. Last summer, the Pentagon began discharging immigrant recruits who had been promised a pathway to citizenship. It gets worse.
In July, US Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was considering a rule change so that immigrant spouses and children of military personnel would not be shielded from deportation during overseas service. (Imagine coming back to find your family missing.) The USCIS also said last week that children born overseas to “active service members”—everyone from grunts to spies to foreign diplomats—would not be automatically eligible for citizenship. That rule change would affect about 25 people a year, according to the Times, leading critics to ask: Why change it? Good question.
Why erode, undermine, and compromise the meaning, value and ideal of citizenship when it’s only going to affect a few? For that matter, why attack other normal things, like free speech and a free press? My suggestion is that we try to understand what the Republican Party has become. Normal politics no longer works for it. It must do something else if it wants to prevail in the 21st century. It’s no longer committed to liberal democracy and individual liberty. Instead, it has become a collectivist ethno-nationalist enterprise, which is to say Republican politics is now fascist politics.
Free speech, a free press and citizenship serve individuals seeking the actualize the ideal of self-government. What’s that to a fascist prizing loyalty above all? What’s that to a fascist whose demands are so totalizing nothing can exist outside the party. Ur-Fascism doesn’t rule. And it won’t ever. Not as long as we take Eco’s advice: “Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.