Fascism as a Unifying Principle

Trump is scary when he tries to divide Americans against each other. But his vision of unity is even scarier.


The televised speech Donald Trump gave last Monday evening was billed as the introduction of a new military strategy for Afghanistan, but it began with a plea for national unity.

During the previous week, the President had been taking heat for his statements about the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, which he said was attended by “very fine people” in addition to the obvious Nazis and Klansmen. The rally’s violence, which culminated in a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, was the fault of “both sides”.

Critics (like me) saw Trump siding with racists and bigots, and refusing to hold them to the same standards he applies so enthusiastically to Hispanics and Muslims. Across much of the mainstream liberal-to-conservative spectrum, pundits wondered: Couldn’t he at least try to be a little bit presidential and say something unifying rather than divisive?

In the Afghanistan speech, he tried. I don’t want to take him out of context, so I quote at length:

Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history.

American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives — and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds — they achieved total immortality.

By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.

They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together — and sacrifice together — in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; it’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.

The soldier understands what we, as a nation, too often forget: that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.

Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.

The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas — and we will always win — let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name that, when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.

I got chills listening to that, but not in a good way.

Probably most Americans who heard the speech didn’t share my sense of ominous foreboding. If you’re a Trump supporter, you probably heard the kind of bold patriotic sentiments you wish our leaders would express more often. And even those who listen to Trump cynically probably heard only boilerplate rhetoric: Our country is good, our soldiers are brave, so let’s all wave our flags and try to get along.

But there’s something deeper going on in this passage. It expresses a vision deeply at odds with the traditions of the American Republic.

The vision of the Founders, which they embodied in the Constitution, is of a social contract: In order to secure our own rights, we recognize the rights of others. Because we want respect for ourselves, we grant respect to to our neighbors. “As I would not be a slave,” Abraham Lincoln said when he was running for the Senate not quite four-score years later, “so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Lincoln said nothing about “loving” the slaves, because in the American tradition that’s not where rights come from. America has never been about love, neither love for each other nor even love for the Nation as an abstract entity. (On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, many were denying any emotional connection at all with the Nation. The States, they held, had merely formed a confederation, which had no claim whatsoever on the loyalty of individuals.)

What Trump is describing on the other hand, is a sort of emotional socialism. In economic socialism, the Nation collects money and redistributes it to make sure everybody gets a share. But in Trump’s vision the Nation is the focus of our love, which it then redistributes to all our fellow citizens. “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.”

This is not a new idea for Trump; it was in his Inaugural Address:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The basic pattern goes back much further, to a Masonic phrase that was taken up by many 19th-century Christians: “The brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God.” You should love other people, because you love God and God loves them.

But Trump’s formulation has one very significant twist: America is playing the role of God. In a nutshell, that’s what nationalism is: an idolatry in which the Nation becomes the central object of worship — God the Fatherland.

Now look at the other concepts Trump is presenting: total allegiance, loyalty, patriotism, heroes sacrificing themselves to become immortal, the obedient military as the ideal to which the rest of society should aspire, and our dead heroes as the symbol of the moral debt we owe to our country.

These are the emotional underpinnings of fascism.

You may not recognize them as such, because all our lives we’ve been told that fascism is ugly. These sentiments, though, don’t seem ugly at all, at least at first glance. On the contrary, they are moving and inspiring, noble and even beautiful in their own way. We all want to be immortal, we want see ourselves as selfless heroes, we want to love and be loved by those around us. Particularly at this cynical moment in history, we want to believe that something is worthy of our total allegiance.

We are like crusaders who have trained all our lives to battle a dark and hideous Devil, and so are completely unprepared when we encounter Lucifer, the Morning Star, the shining Angel of Light.

Fascism in its original form wasn’t all book-burnings and death camps. It was also a good job building the autobahn, wholesome outings with the Hitler Youth, and a feeling that your country was moving again; France and Britain weren’t going to kick it around any more.

I’ve urged you before to watch Triumph of the Will, the classic propaganda film that recorded the pageantry surrounding the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. You will find nothing ugly in it, other than your own knowledge of what comes next. In one rally after another, different groups of Germans focus their love on Hitler, the symbol of the German Fatherland, who reflects it back to them.

It’s beautiful. Hitler talks not about himself, but only of Germany and the greatness of the German people. He calls for them to be unified as never before. A group of infrastructure workers march by, in uniform, each carrying a spade as a soldier would a rifle (because the military is the model all should aspire to). Hitler tells them:

The concept of labor will no longer be a dividing one but a uniting one, and no longer will there be anybody in Germany who will regard manual labor any less highly than any other form of labor.

To a group of children he says:

We want to be a united nation, and you, my youth, are to become this nation. In the future, we do not wish to see classes and castes, and you must not allow them to develop among you. One day, we want to see one nation.

Only in hindsight do we see the flaw in this system: If we focus our love on the Nation (and on the Leader who symbolizes the Nation), and the Nation reflects that love to its citizens, then the Nation can cut off the flow of love to anyone it decides no longer belongs to it. In Germany, the exclusion process started with Jews and Socialists, and then spread until it reached people like Martin Niemöller. The suffering of the excluded wasn’t worthy of compassion, because they were never respected for what was inherent in their humanity. Germans had only loved them because they thought (wrongly, as they were later informed) that such people belonged to their Nation.

You can already see a similar exclusion starting to happen in Trump’s speech. Did you catch that “one nation under God”? Where are America’s atheists and agnostics in that vision? When we love America, do we love them as well? Or have they already been cast out?

And how specific is Trump intending to be when he says “God”? Americans who worship Allah or Brahma or some larger pantheon — are they under God, as Trump and his evangelical base understand the term? What about Jews or Unitarians, who fail to recognize two-thirds of the Trinity? Or liberal Christians, who may have a more deistic, impersonal view of the Creator? When we unify as “one nation under God”, who are we intending to leave out?

Another (largely Catholic) group is so obviously excluded that it need not even be mentioned: immigrants from Hispanic or other not-recognized-as-white cultures. They are being cast out in a literal, physical sense. So when ICE knocks on their doors in the middle of the night, we can avert our eyes and feel nothing. We need not inquire where they are going or what will happen to them. No one should be held accountable for abusing or mistreating them. The Nation and its Leader does not love them, so neither should we.

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Comments

  • Martin malone  On August 28, 2017 at 8:31 am

    Great take on this speech. I think mussolini’s early writings about strength and unity are also an eye opening comparison. And both show the road ahead.

  • Joseph LaMarche  On August 28, 2017 at 10:09 am

    This confabulation of God and the nation has been going on longer than just Trump.

  • Bobby Nobis  On August 28, 2017 at 10:14 am

    We do live in interesting times, don’t we? I think so, and one of the things that makes it so interesting is that we have competing versions of fascism, by your own definition, in play in the US. I’ll grant you your analysis, for the sake of argument, and also because I think it may have some merit, especially the bit about social contracts. So, anyway, Trump Nation. Alright.

    On the left is another version, more amorphous because it doesn’t focus as much on the nation as it does on culture. But it’s got every bit as much tendency to, as you suggest, use its structures to give an withhold love, to define insiders and outsiders, and to punish and destroy those in the latter camp. “Antifa,” for example, is no more anti-fascist than my dog is a cow. It is but one street level expression of a much larger and more powerful entity that expresses itself in the kinds of ideological control exerted via popular media, giant tech corporations, the educational establishment, and the “deep state,” among other things.

    This latter thing, for which I don’t have a name, is a kind of fascism that might only use the “nation” and its tools to exercise power, without using it as a nexus for identity. But its demands on loyalty and conformity and uncritical assent are just as total, and the consequences for withholding those things ultimately just as dire, as they would be in any successful fascist state.

    I don’t like either option, because both, to the extent that they actualize, are actually evil and destructive forces, but I see the latter as the greater threat because the first, Trump Nation, isn’t viable. The people of the left need it to seem so, but it will fade. The left’s version of fascism is ascendant, ultimately, and is far more nefarious because of its roots in post structuralist thought, among other things.

    Cool post, though. Thanks.

    • AC  On August 28, 2017 at 4:12 pm

      “Amorphous fascism” is a contradiction in terms, since the basis of fascism is autocracy.

      I think you’re referring to suppression of dissent, which the left is often accused of- yes?

      • Bobby Nobis  On August 29, 2017 at 5:02 pm

        The basis of fascism isn’t autocracy. Autocracy is its own thing. Fascism means total government control. The state is all. Maybe there’s an autocrat at the top of the foodchain, but not necessarily.

        The reason I say “amorphous” is that the movement represented by antifa exhibits the kinds of tendencies eventual fascist states have exhibited in their early stages historically, but they don’t yet have a unifying political philosophy. Some are anarchists, others are socialists or other collectivists. Some are probably just along for the lulz. Will they eventually gel around something that’s, um, morphous? Who knows?

      • AC  On August 29, 2017 at 5:18 pm

        All right. I checked a couple of dictionaries and they included dictatorship as part of the definition of fascism, but I can see that there are other less dictionary-concise definitions that don’t.

        As you see it, what is the movement represented by antifa? What are they doing that eventual fascist states do, that other movements don’t do? What are examples of successful fascist states, how do they punish dissent, and how is that similar to what the left does?

      • AC  On August 29, 2017 at 5:24 pm

        OK, thinking about it more… I think you’re saying that as Doug sees fascism as giving loyalty to the Nation, which then reflects it back to the individual; you see a leftist fascism as giving loyalty to the Movement, which then reflects it back to the individual. Yes?

    • weeklysift  On August 29, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Here’s where the parallelism stops making sense to me: I read the accounts from Jews in Charlottesville, where they described being in their temple as armed right-wingers passed by outside yelling anti-Semitic insults at them. They were terrorized.

      I don’t know any parallel stories about antifa, or any other leftist group. No stories where some group of Americans is just trying to live their own lives, but it’s being terrorized by armed groups of leftists.

      I don’t think you need to whitewash antifa to notice that difference.

      • Bobby Nobis  On August 29, 2017 at 4:52 pm

        http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-far-left-violence-20170829-story.html is in today’s LA Times. There are plenty of other such documented stories of antifa and other leftist violence out there, and it looks like more will come, but soon. Whether or not you choose to look at them is the question. Some thoughtful observers on the left seem to be growing concerned by what is becoming increasingly difficult to downplay. Others embrace violence and rationalize it in various ways, with which I’m sure you’re familiar. You might fall into one of those two camps, I don’t know.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “parallel.” If you mean that every single characteristic and action of every incident has to have perfect alignment between each of these “sides,” then I’m going to think you’re justifying violent behavior on your side of an ideological divide, while excoriating it on the other.

        I also don’t know what you mean when you say, “live your own life.” If you mean to exclude the exercise of first amendment-guaranteed speech from that definition, then I’m going to think you’re being disingenuously narrow.

      • AC  On August 29, 2017 at 5:25 pm

        So, to me your original post seemed like you were trying to draw parallels. Is that not what you meant to do?

  • Robert Glorioso  On August 28, 2017 at 10:22 am

    I thought you would find this interesting.

    The Nine-Step Process to Fascism

    Bob Glorioso

    1. Blame the government saying repeatedly that government can’t do anything right whereas Corporations can by blocking and demonizing the opposition – Newt Gingrich is the man abetted by Reagan.

    2. Enable Corporations and Wealthy Oligarchs to take over a party – the GOP.

    3. Use cultural issues to divide the electorate – abortion, gay marriage, guns, religion, LGBT, immigrants, etc.

    4. Use the resulting cultural and intellectual divide coupled with gerrymandering and voter suppression to create and elect an extreme right wing movement to block responsible government – the Tea Party – thereby legitimizing the argument that government can’t do anything right or anything at all.

    5. Make it easy using the well established right wing media as cover to violate the norms of decency, respect and traditions of government that evolved since our founding and do it often enough to “normalize” it and blame the other party for doing exactly what you are doing. Trump’s a genius at this and McConnell is the master. Most egregious – Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court and Arpaio’s pardon!

    6. Create an angry minority of heavily armed partisans to form a base for the Tea Party that will vote for the Oligarch’s positions and against individual rights, like voting and gay rights.

    7. Elect a demagogue Fascist President using all the ammunition created since Reagan and you get Trump.

    8. Slowly remove people’s rights using a radical right wing Supreme Court formed through this process. For example, we now have a court that votes in favor of Corporations over individuals most of the time. People don’t count and Corporations and Oligarchs donate money and favors like hunting trips and access to corporate aircraft.

    9. Use the corrupt Judiciary and physical force and intimidation supported by the new “brown shirts” to take over the country.

    Voila – you have a Fascist state.

    We’re only two steps (8 & 9) away and moving interminably in that direction.

    >

  • QASIMARA  On August 28, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I have read up on this and have done my own research on the ground here where I live. I conclude, following on the 9-step process mentioned by R.G (B.G.), that people “don’t count” because they would rather watch screens, do drugs and drink alcohol than engage in face-to-face community action. So long as most addicts have enough for the next “fix,” these same addicts will not bother to “count” how many republic members and fascist actors exists among them. Most of those who have tried to “count” have found that measuring, counting and weighing leads to violent outbreaks among them over resources and turf. Mainly, this is because there is not enough in their areas for all to thrive safe and sound.

  • Amy Houts  On August 28, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you for explaining why DJT’s speech made me feel sick.

  • Anonymous  On August 28, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Reading that post makes this even creepier:
    Trump Administration Lifts Limits On Military Hardware For Police
    http://www.npr.org/2017/08/28/546743742/trump-administration-lifts-limits-on-military-hardware-for-police

  • gerrymackrell  On August 29, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Please continue to expose the hidden truth behind the platitudes.

  • Bobby Nobis  On August 29, 2017 at 6:05 pm

    AC On August 29, 2017 at 5:25 pmPermalink
    So, to me your original post seemed like you were trying to draw parallels. Is that not what you meant to do?

    Doug used the word. I don’t know what he means by it.

    As to your other comments, you’ll need to do your own history-reading. There aren’t a lot of political movements that are better documented than the rise of the real Nazis in Germany, as opposed to the abhorrent but not quite so scary ones we have here. Especially focus on the 1930s there. The guys wearing brown shirts fighting in the streets and breaking things then were not yet the state, but they helped to bring it about.

    The parallels, and the paradox of something named “antifa” behaving the same way, are kind of hard to avoid, unless you just don’t want to see them.

    • weeklysift  On August 30, 2017 at 8:15 am

      Here’s the difference: antifa is a response, not a cause. Places without fascist marches don’t have antifascist responses. People in conservative areas don’t have to worry that antifa is going to hold a “Unite the Left” rally in their local park and start terrorizing evangelical churches.

      • Bobby Nobis  On August 30, 2017 at 11:18 am

        Okay, but antifa is just one example of one piece of a complex movement that is much more powerful and pervasive than what we see in demonstrations and marches. I’m not sure it was smart of me to use antifa as that example. It’s obviously distracting.

      • Anonymous  On September 2, 2017 at 9:29 pm

        Bobby Nobis: What’s a better example? So far, I’m not really getting what your point is.

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