Those of us who choose to make our careers in the Academy learn even as undergraduates that its greatest virtue is originality. Correspondingly, its greatest vice is plagiarism. To have a new idea, an idea never before expressed, is a triumph worthy of the greatest reward the Academy has to offer – tenure. But to steal another’s idea warrants expulsion. I have lived my life by these twin commandments, striving always to say something new and obsessively crediting those who have said anything even passably similar with the academic get out of jail free card, the footnote. But not every philosopher has embraced these twinned norms. Recall the exquisite passage in the Gorgias, which I have quoted before [giving credit to Plato, of course.] Here is what I said in this space several years ago [I cannot help it, I even footnote myself!]
“Callicles has triumphantly announced his brilliant new doctrine -- justice is the interest of the stronger -- and he impatiently awaits the praise of those listening. Socrates quietly undertakes to explore this novel teaching, using everyday examples of cobblers and ship builders and herdsmen. Callicles is deflated by this banausic colloquy, and finally says, in exasperation, ‘Socrates, you keep saying the same thing.’ And Socrates replies, ‘Yes, Callicles, and in the same way, too.’ This is so beautiful that it makes me weep every time I read it. Callicles is in thrall to what Kierkegaard, twenty-two hundred years later, would call the Aesthetic, a mode of existence that strives above all for novelty. But Socrates is committed to the search for moral truth, which is eternal and never changes. So he is content to say the same thing, over and over, and in the same way.”
These past few days, I have been growing increasingly alarmed by the behavior of Trump and his minions. As I have surfed the web, reading analysis after analysis, I have reflected that there already exists a vast and quite brilliant body of literature devoted to precisely the sorts of political behaviors we have been witnessing. I refer to the writings of the great German, French, American and other social theorists of the middle of the 20th century whose best work was devoted to an anatomization of Nazism. For Horkheimer, Adorno, Arendt, Fromm, Marcuse, Benjamin, Orwell, Camus, Sartre and many, many others the Nazi regime was the defining event of their personal and intellectual lives. The Frankfurt School intellectuals in particular were driven to understand how a culturally rich, intellectually vibrant Weimer Republic could devolve so rapidly into the horrors of Nazism. In countless books, some of the century’s greatest intellectuals and scholars anatomized the Nazi era, most of them having fled to England or America.
With the benefit of their insights, we can now see the relationship between small beginnings and disastrous endings. I have been struggling to gain some understanding of what is happening in these early days of the Trump regime. I claim absolutely no originality for my observations and reflections. The best of them, if there are any deserving of praise, are simply repetitions of the thoughts of others. I am retired and have no need of tenure.
Let me begin by drawing a distinction. Some of the bad things Trump is doing or is proposing to do, along with many terrible things the Republican majorities in Congress are planning to do, are, if I may put it this way, standard issue terrible things that are the predictable and unavoidable consequence of the workings of democracy. These include attacks on women’s reproductive health, attacks on the social safety net, attacks on public schools, massive tax cuts for the rich, further economic burdens for the poor and the middle classes, an assault on America’s foreign policy obligations, and the closing of the borders to immigrants and refugees. All of these have been on the Republicans’ wish list for decades, and their control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of government gives them an opportunity to achieve them. There is nothing new about all of this, and we know how to fight it: get out the vote and take back control of the House and Senate. Most of what the Republicans seek to accomplish is actually opposed by a majority of Americans. If they will get off their collective asses and vote, we can stop them. These things are not evidence of a flaw in the American political system. They are evidence that more Republicans than Democrats vote in off year elections. But what about gerrymandering and voter suppression laws? They are the result of Republican control of state governments, which in turn is a consequence of low Democratic turnout in off year elections. If Democrats turn out in off year elections, they can take back state houses and legislatures in time for the 2020 census, on the basis of which new non-gerrymandered districts can be drawn and voter suppression laws can be repealed. If Democrats cannot be bothered to turn out for these off year elections, they have only themselves to blame for all the terrible things Republicans do. Mind you, gerrymandering is not the only problem, nor are voter suppression laws. Part of the problem is that Democrats are demographically more concentrated than Republicans. Unless five million California Democrats wish to sacrifice themselves on the altar of progress and move to Kansas or Texas, there is nothing much to be done about that.
But there are some actions the Trump coterie are beginning to take that are completely different from these old and well-understood threats. If all those books by all those social theorists are right, then what we have been seeing these past few days are the very first signs of an incipient totalitarian fascism. If I am right [or rather if Orwell, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse, Arendt, and all the rest are right], then we had better act right now to stop this before we lose the ability to oppose it. What am I talking about in these apocalyptic terms?
Well, I am, for example, talking about Trump’s obsessive insistence that he won the popular vote, if you subtract five million “illegals” who voted. I am talking about Trump’s obsessive insistence that more people attended his Inauguration than Obama’s. I am talking about Trump making his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, appear before the White House Press Corps and repeat these obviously false claims.
But this just shows that Trump is a self-deluded narcissist. What on earth does this have to do with fascism? Let me reproduce here most of a profound and, in my judgment, important column by Tyler Cowen of Bloomberg News. [This is what I mean when I say that I am going to rely on the wisdom of others rather than strive for originality.]
“One of the most striking features of the early Trump administration has been its political uses of lying. The big weekend story was the obviously false claim of Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Trump pulled in the largest inauguration crowds in American history. This raises the question of why a leader might find it advantageous to promote such lies from his subordinates.
First and most obviously, the leader wishes to mislead the public, and wants to have subordinates doing so, in part because many citizens won’t pursue fact-checking. But that’s the obvious explanation, and the truth runs much deeper.
By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.
Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.
In this view, loyalty tests are especially frequent for new hires and at the beginning of new regimes, when the least is known about the propensities of subordinates. You don’t have to view President Trump as necessarily making a lot of complicated calculations, rather he may simply be replicating tactics that he found useful in his earlier business and media careers.
Trump’s supporters are indeed correct to point out that previous administrations also told many lies, albeit of a different sort. Imagine, for instance, that mistruths come in different forms: higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths. The high-status mistruths are like those we associate with ambassadors and diplomats…. These higher-status lies are not Trump’s style, and thus many of his supporters, with some justification, see him as a man willing to voice important truths. If Trump’s opponents don’t understand that reality, and the sociological differences between various kinds of misdirection, they are going to underestimate his appeal and self-righteously underestimate how much they are themselves mistrusted by the public.
Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.
These lower-status lies are also a short-run strategy. They represent a belief that a lot can be pushed through fairly quickly, bundled with some obfuscation of the truth, and that long-term credibility does not need to be maintained. Once we get past blaming Trump for various misdeeds, it’s worth taking a moment to admit we should be scared he might be right about that.
So the overall picture is this: The Trump administration trusts neither its own appointees nor its own supporters, and is creating a situation where that lack of trust is reciprocal.”
That is the first thing I have in mind when I talk of incipient totalitarian fascism. Here is another thing. “U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, two agency employees told Reuters, the latest move by the newly minted leadership to erase ex-President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives.” Trump is not merely reversing Obama’s climate change policy. He is trying to stop government agencies from making public the facts resulting from their standard work. Trump is taking the first steps to redefine what the government proclaims as simple fact. It is undertaking, by fiat, to alter reality.
What steps might we expect next? I anticipate that Trump will issue executive orders abrogating existing civil rights. If faced with a rebuke from the courts, he will flagrantly defy court orders, daring anyone to stop him. He will try to use the Capitol police to stop demonstrations against his policies, regardless of whether those demonstrations are legal. If he gets away with all of this, he may attempt to interfere with local elections, claiming that foreign terrorists are threatening his regime. Might he even, in four years’ time, declare his re-election a fact before the votes have been cast? If he has been able to get away with all the other acts undermining democratic procedures in the interim, of course he will.
Why I am I so frightened? Because I have seen this before in innumerable countries, some of them European countries with educated electorates.
Which leaves one more question: How do we stop him now, before he grows so powerful that we cannot? I do not know. Tomorrow I will struggle with that question.