Beware: The strongman cometh

PUBLISHED: 07:00 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:38 13 March 2018

President of Russia Vladimir Putin. Photo: Kay Niefeld

President of Russia Vladimir Putin. Photo: Kay Niefeld

DPA/PA Images

Fascism arises when people have a yearning for order and peace at any cost, says BONNIE GREER

A recent image stands out. It is the sight of Vladimir Putin.

He strides across a long expanse of stage to a rapturous standing ovation. He stands at a lectern, a huge backdrop behind him. The image on the backdrop is of what can be called ‘the void’. It is a picture of a vista, a sky blue one. Maybe it is the colour of the sky over the Ukrainian capital on a glorious day; or the sight from a Riviera penthouse. Or maybe it is the idea of power and eternity. Embodied in one man, and the band of people who believe in him.

Another image: a missile flying over Florida. Putin again. Of course, this is both a provocation and a tease, a kind of in-joke between two friends. But not two friendly nations. Two individuals. Two individuals with enormous personal power. And threat.

The friend is Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States. He, who took an oath to protect and defend America, has said nothing about the image.

As per usual. There are so many questions to ask about his strange attitude towards a man whose country has been an adversary of the United States since most Americans have been alive. “Russia is the enemy” is what we were nurtured on; what we measured ourselves against: this ‘menace’ from the East. Now, suddenly, not so much.

Those who ask why, who question this new and strange state of affairs, are being made to resemble a chorus of ‘nervous nellies’ and ‘pearl clutchers’. Trump, the toxic president, has made his critics toxic. It is they who are ‘fake news’. Unreal.

His small, but staunch base of supporters – a steady 35-40% of the electorate, by the way, a figure that is an historic low for a president at this point in the cycle – believe and accept whatever he says. They call themselves the ‘forgotten people’. They welcome him with open arms when he lands the big plane they pay for into their tiny world. Their states are called the Red States or Flyover America.

This part of America is the only place he ventures. Why should he go anywhere else? He consolidates all news and the very definition of the news around himself. He is Big Daddy; The Man. And for many, this is comforting.

In the UK, the powerful right-of-centre/ right-wing newspaper environment largely prevents any kind of forensic scrutiny of Brexit by the BBC. The BBC acquiesces, for fear of summoning the hounds of hell against its subsidy. Against this, we find the emergence of larger-than-life, mainly, men. For them, the life of real people is a vessel, a soapbox, a megaphone, into which they can pour their doctrine. It is also the Pool Of Narcissus into which they can gaze and see themselves.

Because they have the energy, the drive and the focus. And we do not. There is life to be lived. And peace and quiet to be pursued and treasured. If all of this can be combined with a bit of political entertainment, so much the better.

Trump is so comfortable with the relative handful of the American electorate who will allow him anything, that he recently turned around, parted a curtain of hair and showed a hairless expanse of pink scalp. The people who are ‘The MAGA’ – his voters – would call him “bald as a coot”. It is all part of the comfort blanket that is The Donald.

Boris Johnson, who seems to be on what is called in the political world ‘manoeuvres’, sees his personal destiny to be that of Prime Minister of Great Britain. He wrote, while serving as the elected mayor of London, a biography of Winston Churchill. The Guardian headlined its review of the book: “self-serving but spirited”. Boris is a ‘card’. He is a fixture on the landscape for no other reason than, in the words of Noel Coward’s biography, his “talent to amuse”. He exists for those for whom the times we live in are much too overwhelming.

A novel that is being widely read and discussed in the US now is Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 semi-satirical political novel It Can’t Happen Here. The novel describes the rise of Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, a politician who defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and is elected the president. He wins by playing on fears and by promising massive economic and social reforms. He promotes a return to ‘traditional’ values. And of course, ‘patriotism’. After his election, he takes control of the government with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force whose job is to impose his will. A journalist sets out to oppose him and leads a rebellion against him.

The argument against this fascism is that the US government is simply too unwieldy, too large, for any one man to take over. That somehow the mechanisms of Washington will chew up and spit out anyone who tries to take it over. But not if the people are asleep.

In Britain, we believe that we have our safeguards, too. While the Queen has no power to prevent a coup, many people think that she does. They have very little understanding of how their own government works, let alone how the EU operates. They can become ‘citizens of nowhere’ because, in a sense, they choose to be, not consciously, but by omission. And a willing ignorance that stems from political and moral exhaustion.

George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, wrote that “the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. He wrote this in 1946 and it is still true.

The Russians, who may or may not have actually influenced the US election, perhaps even the EU referendum, may indeed have touched a few people. Someday we may know.

But the fact is, what is happening, what may be coming upon us, is what we have created ourselves.

A voyage through Twitterworld alone is enough to reveal the cornucopia of hatred and bile that exists across the political spectrum. The unease we are experiencing now seems to be rooted within our own humanity. The great fear of change, difference, a seeming inability to keep up with the pace of things, including the intradependent world that we all live in, is the engine behind the rise of protectionism and populism. It is a yearning for order and peace. At any price. And through anyone.

This is how fascism arises. This is how it begins.

When we cease to question; when we give up our naturally intelligent, inquisitive brains to what we believe is nirvana, to blankness.

Then you have the voters of western Michigan, the Rust Belt, selecting as their president a man who lives in a gilded tower in the middle of Manhattan. You have the South of Italy selecting a party started by a one-time clown.

And you have Brexit, that mixture of a Carry On film – without the great laughs and the great cast – and an Archie Rice story told as an aside during a too-long music-hall routine about the Charge Of The Light Brigade.

Then, when we have reached this point in the show: enter the strongman.

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