Gordon Campbell on the politics of using the word “fascist”

91e7cb03dbbbe27a3414“Fascist” is one of those labels with the ability to capsize any debate. Call your opponents “fascists” – or “agitators” or “terrorists” or “scum” and you’ve taken the option of mutual respect and compromise off the table. Interesting then to see the ( paywalled) Washington Post seriously debating with itself yesterday over whether…. hmm, is it now finally time to bring out the f-word in connection with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, and with his enablers in the Republican Party?

Usefully, the WaPo column mentioned several of the fascist identifiers that have become familiar themes of Trumpism : its xenophobia, its nativist rage, its rallying of grievance against cosmopolitan elites, its celebration of military strength. Not to mention Trump’s distinction between neo-Nazi demonstrators (“very good people”) and the George Floyd protestors (“scum and low lifes.”) Or his threat to use the US military to over ride states rights, and to“ dominate” US citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceful assembly.

These trends have picked up momentum as the US election draws near, and as Trump has attempted to de-legitimise the process that might remove him from power. ( The recent White House conflict with Twitter has been about his alleged “right” to require the social media platform to publish his lies about the validity of postal voting, and without Twitter having the right to tag such tweets with editorial qualification.) Actually, “lies” was a previous media Rubicon. Early in the Trump presidency the media used to fret and worry about whether it should use the word “ lies” to describe the relentless stream of intentional White House “falsehoods” “mistakes” and“mis-statements…” Now, the media is feeling similar qualms about using the f-word to describe the p0litical theatre with which Trump likes to frame his actions:

Contemporary scholars of fascism caution against explicitly labeling Trump a fascist. But they point to the erosion underway during his presidency, the steady bending of norms and relentless attacks on those who don’t show absolute loyalty to him, from political rivals to the free press.

“We are still in a democracy and he cannot get away with it but he seems to keep trying,” Federico Finchelstein, a historian at the New School and author of “A Brief History of Fascist Lies,” told Today’s WorldView. “Fascists destroyed democracy from within and Trump so far is bastardizing democracy.”

No doubt, the media’s reluctance to use the f-word has had a lot to do with the over-use of 1930s Germany as a cautionary tale for any and all oppressive political behaviours. (Nazism’s culmination in the Holocaust tends to make any modern comparisons seem banal, and a case of crying wolf.) Interestingly though, Trump too was initially viewed as a buffoon who would never gain national office – and if he did no worries, because the demands of office would surely moderate him, and make him act more like a conventional politician. Well, it hasn’t turned out that way with the Donald in the US, any more than it did with the Adolf in Germany.

Thankfully, one needn’t reach right back to 1930s Germany for comparisons. Trump has his neo-fascist counterparts right now elsewhere in the world : Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jail Bolsonaro in Brazil, and – most notably – Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

“Erdogan has built a base by polarizing the country, demonizing his opponents, and cracking down and brutalizing demographics unlikely to vote for him,”Soner Cagaptay, author of “New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” told Today’s WorldView.

All of this has echoes in Trump’s presidency, Cagaptay noted. Erdogan has made “opposing him tantamount to opposing the nation,” he said. “It leaves no room for democracy.”

Sounds familiar.

Bible (Flash)Banging

When historians compile a list of the despicable acts of the Trump presidency, it will be pretty hard to top Monday’s use of mounted police and flash-bang canisters to clear a church and nearby park of non-violent protesters… so that Donald Trump, Bible in hand, could stage a photo op aimed at currying favour with his supporters on the Christian right.

There was more. As mentioned, the President had been condemning Twitter for violating his free speech “right” to incite violence against protesters – Twitter and Facebook have differed on how to handle this – and to deter people from relying on postal voting. Less than 24 hours later, Trump was deploying riot police to violate the constitutionally protected rights of peaceful assembly and protest….Ironically, the people being attacked by mounted police and flash-bang shells had gathered near the church to help make police more accountable when they abuse their power.

Both here in New Zealand and across the US, the arguments are ongoing about institutionalised racism and racial profiling by the Police. Similar concerns exist about the scope of the Covid-19 lockdowns, whether they should be enforced, and when they should expire. Obviously, New Zealand’s recent protests in solidarity with the US movement against police racism were not compatible with the Covid-19 rules for Level Two.

Thankfully though, Deputy PM Winston Peters was alone in calling for police enforcement. Instead, PM Jacinda Ardern and National Party leader Todd Muller both agreed that the Police had used their discretion wisely. It seemed a no-brainer to everyone except Peters. Sending the Police into the crowd to enforce social distancing and to forcibly reduce the size of the gatherings would have been insanely counter-productive.

Looting and “ Legitimate” Protest

One recurring theme in the media coverage of the Floyd protests has been the distinction between peaceful protest as being “legitimate” and everything else as being the work of “agitators” and “ activists” who were allegedly detracting from the aims of the wider movement. Sure, those differences are recognised by many of the protesters as well. But in context, the White House has been using the same distinctions to denigrate the Floyd protests as a whole, and the media appeared at times to be dangerously willing to make its own value judgements along the same lines.

It is a familiar tension. For decades, peaceful marches that politely make their point and go on home have been celebrated, and with their lasting value being questioned only in hindsight. In the 1960s, it was evident that the mainstream media was sympathetic with Martin Luther King’s messages of non-violence, while being actively hostile to the criticisms of King’s passivity being voiced by Malcolm X. Both men ended up being assassinated anyway, although the mantle of martyrdom was posthumously awarded to Malcolm, almost as a consolation prize. Nothing much has changed in that respect. Non-violent protesters get tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets, regardless of how passively they choose to protest. In recent days, the media’s enthusiasm for the “good news”story about the cop and the protester sharing a hug was effectively satirised by the Reductress website.

Moving right along….this excellent article on Vox News points out that allegations about “outside agitators” was a familiar trope during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s as well. Racist Southerners would routinely blame Northerners for coming down and stirring up the locals in ways prone to ending in violence.

The scattered examples of looting, as Vox says, have allowed the conversation to move very quickly indeed from the protests to the looting, thus overshadowing the aims of the protests – a risk that has been recognised by the organisers of the protests, and by the family of George Floyd as well. For better and worse though, the diversity of actions – peaceful and otherwise – reflect the multiplicity of motivations that have driven people out onto the streets, even in the midst of a pandemic. Unfortunately, the tales of looting and the blaming of “agitators” and “Antifa activists” foster a false sense that the protests are monolithic, and readily manipulated. They’re not :

Civil disobedience is frenzied and chaotic by nature. People who take to the streets might not all share the same beliefs: Some protesters are looting out of the same anger that drives the protests, and other looters are not protesters at all. But because it’s impossible to untangle every person’s motivations and intent, it’s much easier to lump them all into a group to create a narrative of the event that fits our understanding.

As Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA (and the author of academic work on the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992 ) told Vox :

The Rodney King verdict [The police involved were acquitted of beating King, even though the brutal beating was captured on video ] was just a trigger that created a moment for people to sort of put on the agenda any number of critiques of the system. Questions of failures of the criminal justice system. Rampant inequality in society. Right now, we’re caught in an unprecedented moment where you have a once-in-a-century pandemic combined with the biggest urban unrest we’ve seen probably since the late 1960s….They’re not disconnected. I think the strains of the pandemic, the fact we have 40 million unemployed Americans, people without access to health care, people who have been shut in for months, people who don’t know where the next paycheck is going to come from, and not just African Americans but affecting people from across all racial groups.

If you look at the video coverage of what’s happening across the country, this is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural protest in many ways, again, triggered by a specific instance of police brutality, but an instance that was the bookend to other cases of police brutality in the last few weeks and months, going back to Ahmaud Arbery in Atlanta to Breonna Taylor in Louisville. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more beneath the surface of the water prompting people to risk their lives, quite literally, in the midst of a pandemic and to protest without proper social distancing, in some cases without a mask, because they’ve been driven to the edge.

Finally, what Hunt also told Vox was that – with respect to the limited amount of looting related to the Floyd protests – that the targets this time seemed to be different from what happened during the King riots. This year, most of the looting has been directed at the chain stores – from Target to Macys – rather than at any of the surviving Mom and Pop firms still operating in local black neighbourhoods :

In the 1960s, a lot of protest activity was centered in the inner-city communities. There was a long period after those events where the residents of those communities suffered because they didn’t have access to certain resources. Grocery stores stopped locating in those communities, banks went away, and people lost out on services you had before because they were burned to the ground or looted and destroyed.

What’s interesting about this moment is that a lot of activities are not the inner-city communities but in more affluent areas. Here in Los Angeles, it’s in Santa Monica and Melrose. I haven’t heard of events in South LA, where people organized in 1992 and other periods. It begs the question of symbolism, of where people decide to go and who decides to participate in those areas. It makes it somewhat different than what we’ve seen in prior instances of urban unrest — where people took to the streets wherever they happened to be and those areas became the victims of burning and looting. That doesn’t appear to be necessarily the way things are unfolding now. People appear to be more intentional and actions appear to be more political.

Is this change indicative of the work of those shadowy “outside agitators” ? As mentioned before, given how widespread the Floyd protests have become it would be surprising if any activists would feel impelled to travel interstate, rather than just walk out the door and join the protests in their own neighbourhood. It seems more likely – and far more interesting – that the people on the streets are now savvy about the sources of their oppression, and about what firms they feel should count as legitimate targets.

Correction. In Tuesday’s column I mistakenly referred to “Brianna” Taylor. Her real name was Breonna Taylor. Also there was a typo whereby Philando Castile was referred to as “Philandro” Castile. Apologies for both errors.