Complacency’s about fascism’s return must end, says our editor-at-large.
I mentioned last week that I have been reading a fair few books on fascism.
I am clearly not alone. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, an avid, cover-to-cover reader of The New European, and as passionate as I am about the damage Brexit is doing to Britain, and Trump is doing to the world, told me on the back of last week’s column that he too has been devouring books of and about the 1930s.
He had just read It Can’t Happen Here, a novel by American author Sinclair Lewis, published in 1935.
The ‘here’ in the title is the US, because it was over ‘there’ in Europe where fascism was rising, and Americans felt insulated, arrogant even, about the impossibility of such a thing happening to them. But in Lewis’s story, it does.
Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, a charismatic populist with an insatiable hunger for power and attention, defeats Franklin D Roosevelt to become president. His main weapons are fear, and the pledge of big social and economic reforms that will, to coin a phrase, ‘Make America Great Again’, not least through a focus on patriotism and traditional American values.
Fast forward a few chapters, and you see Congress neutered, dissent stifled, women’s and minority rights undermined, power handed to Windrip’s wealthy business friends. His supporters love him and respond with glee to his imposition of order. His critics hate him but assure themselves and each other, even as it is happening, that ‘it can’t happen here’.
Fast forward a few more chapters and there are concentration camps for critics and an SS-style force protecting what has essentially become an American Hitler.
The novel had a bit of a revival in Nixon’s time as liberals sensed a free press under threat and a president behaving as though above the law; then a mini-revival under George W Bush, when a critic published a book, It Can Happen Here, Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.
As I discovered on a short trip to Maine last week, Bush is today viewed, even by Democrat friends, as a pinko liberal compared with the current occupant of the White House.
And don’t forget the huge credit Dubya poured into the reputational bank when he was overheard saying, as Donald Trump ended his inauguration speech, ‘that was some weird s**t’. In my darker moments, I gain some comfort from thinking one day those words may be Trump’s epitaph.
It is Trump whose election was followed by It Can’t Happen Here entering the Amazon bestseller lists in 2016, a full eight decades after Lewis wrote it, and the question Can it happen here? being turned into a much-commented upon collection of essays about the possibility of authoritarian rule in the US.
Both my former boss, Tony Blair, and my occasional sparring partner Piers Morgan, have separately taken me to task when, interviewing them for GQ magazine, I asked if they shared my concern that there were too many parallels in today’s world with the 1930s, and that Trump had the makings of being today’s Hitler or Stalin.
The world emerging from a financial crash. The elites under attack. Populism on the march. Discrimination against minorities. A revival in anti-Semitism. International alliances weakening. Now even I, hateful though I find Trump, might answer the question ‘Is Trump a fascist?’, currently at least, in the negative.
But I think that both Tony, and, if only he could rid himself of the link between his occasional access to the president and his determination to defend him, Piers, might answer the question ‘does Trump have the makings of a fascist?’ in the positive.
As I said to both, Hitler took a while before going for the judges and the journalists.
Trump was there from Day One, and shows no sign of backing down from his view that anyone who criticises is a liar, anyone who asks difficult questions is an enemy of the people, and a fact is whatever he decides it to be at the time. Meanwhile, his right hand man is on a global tour openly campaigning for right-wing extremism aimed at destroying international order. So let me leave you with a short passage from one of the books I mentioned last week, Fascism: A Warning, by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and see if anyone, other than the person she is writing about, comes to mind.
‘Hitler’s claim to distinction rested not on the quality of his ideas, but instead on his extraordinary drive to turn warped concepts into reality.
Where others hesitated or were constrained by moral scruples, he preferred to act and saw emotional hardness as essential.
From early in his career, he was a genius at reading a crowd and modulating his message accordingly. In conversations with advisers, he was frank about this.
He said that most people earnestly desired to have faith in something and were not intellectually equipped to quibble over what that object of belief should be. He thought it shrewd, therefore, to reduce issues to terms that were easy to grasp and to lure his audience into thinking that behind the many sources of their problems, there loomed a single adversary…
‘Hitler felt that his countrymen were looking for a man who spoke to their anger, understood their fears, and sought their participation in a stirring and righteous cause.
‘He was delighted, not dismayed, by the outrage his speeches generated abroad. He believed that his followers wanted to see him challenged, because they yearned to hear him express contempt for those who thought they could silence him. The image of a brave man standing up against powerful foes is immensely appealing. In this way, Hitler could make even his persecution of the defenceless seem like self-defence…
‘Pundits talk today about the importance of authenticity in politics. Hitler lied shamelessly about himself and about his enemies. He convinced millions of men and women that he cared for them deeply when, in fact, he would have willingly sacrificed them all. His murderous ambition, avowed racism and utter immorality were given the thinnest mask, and yet millions of Germans were drawn to Hitler precisely because he seemed authentic.’
Neil Kinnock said something very wise when we met for a family get-together last weekend: ‘It is when collective memory fails that we repeat the errors of the past.’
And that, dear reader, is why we need to keep reminding ourselves of them. There is far too much happening, in the States and in Europe, that even a few years ago, we would have been fairly confident could never have happened… Here. Or there.