Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale
This article does two things. First, we pass on Timothy Snyder’s reasons for describing as fascist the invasion of the Capitol building in Washington. Second, we explain why fascists have to tell big lies, why they tell the particular lies they do, and how this is connected to the class con which is basic to fascist politics.
Last week we listened to a Yale History Prof, Timothy Snyder, speaking on UK Channel 4 News. He began with some cogent points about social media, but his main concern was with the rise of fascism in the US and around the world.
Re social media, Snyder pointed out that the gap is now enormous between what people see and hear on-line, and what is happening in the world at large. This is for two reasons. One is because local news reporting is many many parts of the US is basically dead. Secondly, the way the algorithms work, social media offers people what they want to hear. This means there is no easy way to compare what people see and hear via social media with the experience of other people outside their safe, comfortable spaces. This is a form of censorship and self-censorship, and is one way fascism gets going. And of course, it has benefitted Trump greatly.
This is the weakest part of Snyder’s argument. Many countries without a desert of local news have large fascist movements, and classic fascist movements were built in an age of newspapers without social media. Moreover, Snyder seems to assume that the mainstream media has long been printing the truth. So he misses the deep distrust people on all sides have for mainstream media.
Re the rise of fascism, Snyder’s points are compelling. He notes three ways in which Trump’s capitol invasion was fascist.
First, it was based on a big lie. And big lies are typical of fascism. Trump has been telling lies forever, but they are mostly medium-sized lies. The one about voter fraud is a big lie. And when we are confronted by a big lie, we are forced into an ‘us’ or ‘them’ situation. It forces us to commit to supporting the big lie or denying it. If the election had in fact actually been stolen, then of course decent people had to stop the steal.
And to tell a lie on this scale, a really big lie, you need a conspiracy theory. After all, stealing an election on this scale would require a massive conspiracy.
Big lies leave no middle ground, and, either/or situations typically lead directly to violence. Big lies work well for fascists, and they tell big lies for just this reason.
Second, Trump’s big lie was told to destroy democracy and the legitimacy of elections. This is what fascists seek to do. But given the way most Americans understand US history, it is hard to argue outright for trashing US democracy. Hence the big election fraud lie.
Third, fascism is racist. The capitol invasion, and Trump’s whole movement, are saturated with race. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ of fascist politics is racist, whether it is a colour or a cultural racism (anti Jew or Gypsy, anti-Muslim or homophobic). At the heart of fascist politics in the US is race. And there is a sort of truth to the big lie if you are a white supremacist.
Whatever else they are – survivalists, fundamentalist Christians, followers of QAnon or Neo-Nazis wearing Camp Auschwitz and ‘6MWE’ (Six Million Wasn’t Enough) T-shirts, the crowd were white supremacists. And the charismatic, proto-fascist, wannabe successors to Trump – Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley – have harked back to the 1877 compromise which created segregation and apartheid in the US after the Civil War. If you believe that black people shouldn’t have the right to vote, then it is easy to feel the election has been stolen.
And perhaps most important point of all is something Snyder did not spell out clearly enough. For fascists, the big lie helps hide an even bigger truth.
Charismatic fascist leaders – like Trump, Hitler as was, and others presently in power like Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil- aim to mobilize mass audiences against elites. Yet every policy they espouse benefits the actually existing elite. The big lie hides this truth and paradox, and what we have called a ‘class con’.
Fascist leaders use populist arguments to attract angry, disaffected working class people to be their street fighters, while the leaders and the people who stand to gain most from the end of democracy are the elite politicians, business people and professionals who will get richer and more powerful without the checks and balances of democratic oversight. This is a class con.
In the United States election, for example, more than two-thirds of white voters with a college degree went for Biden. Almost two-thirds of white workers without a college degree went for Trump.
This is a class vote. One third of Americans – the better paid – have a college degree. Two thirds – mostly lower paid – do not. These working class voters were voting against both elites and black people. The mixture differed from oner person to another, but overall this was both a class vote and a racist vote. This may be an uncomfortable truth. We are where we are.
Trump’s lies almost all work to conceal the hurt he will do to working class voters, both white and black. These lies are essential because working class white voters don’t want to hurt themselves and the people they love.
And to hide this class con and keep their followers on board, fascist elites need scapegoats – and these scapegoats are treated as the elite enemies of the working class – the Jews in Nazi Germany, the East Coast establishment, US liberals, the scientists, and other bugbears. Scapegoating some people as elite – whether they are or not – makes them easy targets, while distracting attention from the actual privilege of Trump or Hawley.
And in an epidemic, if you support Trump, or Johnson in the UK, there are other lies you have to buy into to hide the big truth.
Trump and Johnson were prepared to let the virus rip ‘to save the economy’, i.e. the banks, the stock market, big business, oil and aviation. This was presented as an either/or choice. And it is a really hard choice if you are a Trump supporter. You don’t want to give up on white racism, and yet you find you – who can’t afford to work from home, and your vulnerable elderly mother – are being thrown to the dogs.
So the proto-fascists have mustered other lies to hide the class con – the evident discrepancy between the populism that favours ordinary people and policies which are harming them directly. Enter the anti-maskers, the arguments that the virus is just like flu and the idea that the vaccines are dangerous. And hey presto, supporters’ loyalty is whipped up by the threat of scapegoat elites – whether big pharma, and other presumed conspiracies.
These lies have allowed supporters to continue to listen to Trump, and to keep white racism in place. Trump and Johnson and others who have forced the choice between the economy and public care have failed on both fronts. Yet, if you heed the conspiracy theories, you are likely to never see, or can quickly discount, the information from elsewhere which makes it clear that when politicians sought to protect the working people who couldn’t work from home, and their vulnerable elderly mothers, that has worked best to keep the economy going – as in South Korea, Taiwan, Viet Nam, New Zealand, Norway, Finland and Denmark but not Sweden, the US and the UK.
There was a long piece by Timothy Snyder published in the New York Times on January 10. It’s good, but his four minutes on Channel 4 was in some ways both more informative and more powerful. That starts four minutes into this video.
However, in the longer piece Snyder does sketch out further a division within the Republican party between the ‘gamers’, as he calls them – the people who believe they are likely to personally benefit from the weakening of democratic controls, and what he calls ‘the breakers’, the people who outright want to destroy the system and take power without democracy. Snyder is describing a division at the top, among the Republican elite, and doesn’t go into what we have called the ‘class con’, in which both groups of elite Republicans have turned to populist politics to attract a mass following.
To take this further, the Radio 4 series on How They Made Us Doubt Everything is also useful. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000l7q1/episodes/downloads