American Fascism: No Longer Misleading

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Pastors pray with Trump in Nevada, October 2016 (Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP)

W.J. Astore

Five years ago, I wrote an article to suggest “American fascism” was a misleading concept.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism: 

“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

Here we are, in 2018, and the idea of American fascism no longer seems as misleading as it did to me in 2013.  For his followers, Donald Trump is a messiah-like dictator.  There’s even a movie making the rounds (“The Trump Prophecy“) about how Trump’s election in 2016 was an act of God.  Meanwhile, the American justice system is increasingly partisan, increasingly captive to the political right, even as it remains favorably predisposed to the powerful.  Our votes are increasingly suppressed: polling stations are closed in minority neighborhoods; onerous voter ID laws work to restrict voting by the “wrong” kind of people; early voting is being curtailed; voting rolls are being purged; and gerrymandering is widespread.  All of these steps are designed to protect one party in particular: the Republican.

To return to Paxton’s definition in the light of 2018:  Trump ran on a platform of American decline.  He sees himself and his followers as victims; nationalist militarism is growing in popularity; democratic liberties are being eroded (whoever thought children would be separated from parents at the border and put into what are effectively concentration camps?).

Ethical and legal restraints still exist on the worst of this behavior, but for how long?

Fascism, Norman Mailer wrote, is “a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”  Nowadays we call these lies “fake news” or “alternative facts.”  Whatever you call them, they feed what Mailer called “an insidious, insipid sickness” in society that “demands a violent far-reaching purgative.”

That’s where all of Trump’s lies may be leading us: to violent purges internally and violent surges externally.  It’s a grim vision, one that no longer seems as far-fetched to me as it did in 2013.

Thursday Thoughts

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He wrote me beautiful letters — then we fell in love!

W.J. Astore

Here are a few random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.

1. I’m still reeling from Donald Trump confessing how he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Imagine if Barack Obama had gushed about falling in love with a communist dictator? Fox News and the Republicans would have crucified him.

2. Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. But imagine if he’d been black. Would he have survived sexual assault allegations from three white women?  Or imagine if he’d been a woman and boasted of liking beer, lots of beer, while losing self-control before the Senate judiciary committee.  A female Kavanaugh would have been dismissed as hysterical and unsuited for the pressures of the court, methinks.  In sum, a certain type of privilege still exists for certain types of white males.

3. Last night, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians. Trump’s tactics on this issue have run the gamut from denying he colluded, to saying it’s not illegal to collude, to charging his opponent with the (apparent) crime of colluding.  This is not to say I believe Trump colluded with the Russians (though his constant denials make me think he’s got a lot to hide).  While we wait for the Mueller investigation to conclude, it’s worth recalling that candidate Trump asked the Russians to hack Hillary’s server to find her missing emails. Perhaps this was merely a snide remark by an unhinged candidate, but why were Trump campaign staffers meeting with Russians? To help speed adoption of Russian kids by Americans?

But here’s a key point: Trump didn’t win because of Russian “collusion.” He won because Hillary ran a poor campaign. The collusion story (assuming there’s something to it) is a minor issue compared to the real damage Trump does every day as president, e.g. dismissing the perils of climate change as a “Chinese hoax.”

4. At TomDispatch.com, Juan Cole has a fine piece on Islamophobia and how it’s promoted by the Trump administration. It has at least three components.  The first is resentment stemming from 9/11, which embarrassed the Republicans since it happened on their watch.  The second is religion, that old crusading spirit of evangelicals and conservative Catholics.  The third is entitlement/resentment.  You know the saying: Who put America’s oil under the desert sands of the Middle East?  America’s leaders, and so many of their countrymen, believe all that oil should be theirs.

5. There’s an argument that Trump is no worse than other politicians like Obama or the Clintons. Indeed, that in some way his mendacity is refreshing: that he’s torn the mask off American exceptionalism, revealing all the hypocrisy, all the duplicity, all the crimes against humanity, that other politicians work to keep hidden.

It’s tempting to say “they all do it.” But Trump’s dishonesty is constant. He lies just to stay in shape. And his lies are calculated to sow discord — to divide. Divide and rule is his strategy. Reaping profit for himself is his goal.  He’s always been a con man, but now the entire country, indeed the entire world, is his mark.

Because he’s anti-democratic, because he’s a divider, because he loves dictators while mocking people weaker than him, for these and many other reasons, Trump is worse.  Trump is making cruelty normal, even admirable (at least to his followers).  He’s not so much ripping a mask off America as he is reveling in his own nastiness while encouraging likeminded people in America and around the world to join him.

Trump: Making the world nastier again.

Fear of Defeat and the Vietnam War

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General William Westmoreland in 1968 (Stars and Stripes)

W.J. Astore

Fear of defeat drives military men to folly.  Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh.  His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam.  He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.  President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.

Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war.  Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms.  Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.

Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited.  A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges.  But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.

War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals.  Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.

But what price victory if the world ends as a result?

An Open Letter to Senator Collins on Brett Kavanaugh

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Kavanaugh brandishes a worn “pocket” copy of the U.S. Constitution.  Are you reassured?

W.J. Astore

Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court is a done deal.  Critical to his elevation was the support given to him by Senator Susan Collins of Maine.  My wife and I watched her speech yesterday, during which she praised Judge Kavanaugh for his demeanor and judicial record, affirming that he will uphold Roe v. Wade since it is “settled” law.  Collins also affirmed that Kavanaugh’s accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, experienced some form of sexual assault, but not at the hands of Kavanaugh, as there was no corroborating evidence.  In short, even though Ford affirmed under oath that she was 100% certain that a 17-year-old Kavanaugh attacked her 36 years ago, Collins chose not to credit her account as truthful or accurate.

In response to Senator Collins’s speech in praise of Kavanaugh, I wrote the following short letter to her.  Let me say this: for the good of our country, I hope I’m wrong and Senator Collins is right.

Letter to Senator Collins

Dear Senator Collins: My wife and I respectfully ask you how a 15-year-old girl misidentifies her attacker when he’s on top of her and putting his hand over her mouth so she can’t scream.

As near as we can tell, Christine Blasey Ford had no reason to lie.  Her life has been turned upside down.  Judge Kavanaugh, however, had reasons to lie.  He has a lifetime job at the highest level of his profession that hinges on denying Dr. Ford’s allegations.

We also ask you whether you approve of Judge Kavanaugh’s belligerence, his lies before the Senate committee, and his hyper-partisan attacks on the Democrats — your colleagues, even if they are on the other side.

We think you will regret the “yes” vote for Judge Kavanaugh.  He is not the man you think he is.  And we almost guarantee he will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Brett Kavanaugh Should Withdraw

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The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.

W.J. Astore

For the good of the country, Brett Kavanaugh should withdraw his name as a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court justices are public servants.  They need to appear as unbiased and objective as possible.  Their reputations should be as unsullied as possible.  They should not be known for partisanship.  Their public temperament should be sober, serious, and balanced, while making room for empathy and compassion and humility.

Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation, fairly or unfairly, is now sullied.  A quick and limited FBI investigation will not remove the taint surrounding his name.  Based upon last Thursday’s hearing and his own testimony, Kavanaugh stood revealed as a hyper-partisan associated with a particular brand of hard-right conservatism.  Instead of sober and balanced, he came across as belligerent, angry, self-righteous, and self-pitying.  He evaded questions as he demanded answers of senators questioning him.  When he did deign to answer, his responses were often unconvincing.

Put bluntly, Kavanaugh failed to display the demeanor Americans expect of any judge, let alone a judge with a lifetime appointment to America’s highest court.

Judge Kavanaugh says he’s a fighter who will never quit.  Yet there comes a time to withdraw from a fight when that withdrawal is for the greater good of the country.

An oft-quoted line from the “Star Trek” movies is Spock’s explanation of why he sacrifices his life to save the ship.  The needs of the many, Spock says, outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.  Spock’s rule applies here.  Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court will further divide this country along partisan and gender lines.  It will be interpreted as a slap in the face to sufferers of sexual assault.  It will cause many more Americans to lose faith in the Supreme Court — this at a time when Americans already express little faith in Congress, and highly polarized opinions of the president.

The Supreme Court’s reputation is more important than any one man.  The needs of the country outweigh the needs of the few who vociferously support him, or the one.

For the reputation of the court, and for the unity of our country, Kavanaugh should withdraw.

Update (10/2/18): There appear to be only four “swing” senators: Collins, Flake, Manchin, and Murkowski.  All the other senators are reportedly voting along party lines.  I’ve been sending notes to these four “swing” senators to vote “no” on Kavanaugh.  Here is the note I sent to them this morning:

Dear Senator XXX: Why vote for Brett Kavanaugh?

It’s a serious question. A vote for him will divide the country further. It will reduce our country’s faith in the Supreme Court as a fair-minded and non-partisan institution. It will be interpreted by many as a slap in the face to women, and especially to women brave enough to come forward to share their horrific stories of sexual assault.

Why this flawed man, and no other? As a retired military officer who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 (though I voted for Reagan in 1984), it makes no sense to me. Unless it’s all about “winning” for the Republican party, but even that makes little sense to me. Country, after all, comes before party. I learned that as a military officer.

Put country first. Please vote “no.”

A Trumped-Up Space Force

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Space exploration and exploitation isn’t what it used to be

W.J. Astore

Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be.  In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots.  Star Trek offered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace.  Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war.  (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)

Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command.  I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk.  (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.)  In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people.  I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later cancelled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.

But that was then, and this is now, and the “now” of the moment is a new US military service, an offensive space force, proposed by the Trump administration as essential to US national security.  At TomDispatch.com, William Hartung provides the details of Trump’s new space force in this fine article.  As I read Hartung’s article, a thought flashed through my mind: We’re not the peaceful Federation of Star Trek.  We’re much more like the Klingon Empire.

In the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a highly aggressive and thoroughly militaristic species that was dedicated to dominating space.  They were proudly imperial and driven by conquest.  Trump, who with his bombast and barking and boasting would make a great Klingon, sees a “space force” that’s all military: that’s all about domination through aggressive action and better offensive weaponry.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: Everywhere we go, there we are.  Increasingly for America, that saying means: Everywhere we go, there our military and weapons are.  Even in space.

The “final frontier” of space, which in my youth was largely a realm of peaceful exploration, whether by NASA in the real-world or in the imaginary future of Star Trek, is now under Trump an increasingly militarized place.  This is so because our minds, perhaps humanity’s true “final frontier,” have also been thoroughly militarized.

A war-driven people will bring war with them wherever they go.  If the Vulcans (like Mr. Spock, who was half-Vulcan) are smart, they won’t reach out to humans if and when we find a “warp” drive that allows us to travel much faster than the speed of light.  Logical and peaceful beings that they are, perhaps they’ll quarantine earth and humanity instead.  Maybe with the Vulcan equivalent of a big, fat, beautiful wall?

Of Brutal Binaries and Scale-tipping

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Forget binaries.  Who’s tipping the scale?

W.J. Astore

Citing the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh in particular, Andrew Sullivan claims that America is a land of brutal binaries.  On the surface, his idea appears sound.  Scratch the surface, however, and the idea breaks down.  The problem is that “brutal binaries” sell. They grab attention. They serve to mobilize.  They excite the base, the partisans, people who love to bicker.

But the notion that every issue is reducible to a binary, a 0/1, on/off, win/lose, is most often simplistic and misleading. Perhaps we should think not of computer binaries but of scales.  Entities with power put a finger (or more) on the scale to tip things in their direction. Even as they do this, they claim the scale is equally balanced for all or even tipped against them.  In short, we need to think not about either/or or on/off binaries, but about who has the power – and what they’re willing to say and do to keep and extend it.

Again, my point is to avoid binary computer-speak. The notion I’m 100% right, you’re 100% wrong.  Those who describe debates as “binary” leave no possibility for change or compromise. They see only unbridgeable divides. This is a satisfying notion to the powerful, for they don’t want change. They want to keep the status quo because it profits them. They’re happy to see Americans bickering and fighting and shouting — even as they quietly reap the profits.

So I despair of America’s so-called binary debates. They divide us, distract us, and make us angry. We shake our heads in despair, thinking there’s no way to reach “them,” the other side in the “binary” argument. The truth is different.  Polling data suggests Americans are far more in agreement than we are in disagreement (consider wide support for a higher federal minimum wage and for universal health care), but all we hear about is the divisiveness. Again, this serves the powerful. They’re happy to see us fighting over the scraps as they feast on the choice cuts.

Rather than shouting at each other, Americans need to work together in good faith.  Forget the false binaries, America.  The world is rarely a 0/1, I win/you lose, black/white place.  Even when the scales are tipped, as they so often are, there is common ground.  We’ve found it before – we will again.