The other day I was at the library reading this article about how unexpected the demise of the USSR really was, and how to this day it is still not really understood. Then I looked up, watching people walking around the carrels and clicking away at computer terminals. It was as innocuous a scene as one could hope to find, and yet in that moment there was a subtle transition that I cannot describe except to say that, for the first time, I really felt that fascism is somewhere we could go in this country.
The outward patterns of life remain largely the same. Yet a hunger and a rage has slipped in somewhere, and at the same time a supreme lassitude that would never lift a finger in protest; it is in the movements, the expressions of people everywhere. One feels it in every quarter.
There is fatigue with normalcy, fatigue with order, fatigue even perhaps with reason itself. Fairness, equality and justice are on everyone’s lips, and the concept of rights has never been more widely invoked. But underneath, for more and more citizens, these terms have come to be seen as objects of cynical manipulation or weapons for tantrum-throwing. The names of great ideals have become mere phantoms or memes–either objects of derision, or sound patterns no more meaningful or idealistic than the pounding of a fist on the dinner table or the honking of horns in traffic.
On the eve of the first debate, Donald Trump–a casual bigot who romanticizes violence against opponents and exhibits an alarming power to cast “truth” as whatever he says often and loudly enough–stands once again at the top of the polls, or at least in a virtual tie. On the other side of the aisle stands the establishment’s lackluster champion: a terminally uncharismatic former first-lady with a record of committing major errors in judgment, compromising herself to corporate and elite interests across the board, boosting for unnecessary military interventions and now possibly, of failing health.
In anything like a functioning democratic culture, I cannot easily believe either of these people would be in a serious position to attain the highest office in the land; but if they somehow were, there would, I think, be mass mobilizations and civil disobedience aimed at delegitimizing their candidacy and setting up a recall process of some kind.
Instead, a Joker-like desire to “just watch the world burn” has quietly taken the place of ideals of any recognizable sort, much abetted by the mass retreat in recent years into an isolating digital realm of virtual consumer comforts–a realm that seems to systematically un-train just the kind of sustained attentiveness towards wider issues that is needed to protect or even articulate political ideals. (I will never forget one young adult at a recent philosophical discussion group, who insistently and in full seriousness argued that his “philosophical ideals” consisted of the right to enjoy a nice cup of Starbuck’s once a day. To my astonishment, the other millennials soon chimed in with agreement.)
Against the hopelessness and humiliation that has quietly built up across so many walks of life in this country–plus the strangely listless inability to formulate a critique or find enough common cause with one’s own neighbors to coalesce into movements–it is as though all hope has been invested in the catharsis of one sublime outburst of revenge against the power structure that (largely correctly) is deemed the source of their humiliation.
It seems to matter little (or is left altogether unthought) whether such revenge would justify ushering in, as it surely would, an age of even greater dysfunction and misery than came before. At first, fascism works by seduction, not by intimidation–and certainly not by far-sightedness.
In that moment in the library, I realized there is an incredible tension that runs through the center of human life–a tension between, on the one hand, the sense of overwhelming permanence and universality that comes from having been immersed in a certain social or political arrangement all your life; and on the other hand, the facts of history that tell us all such arrangements are inherently unstable.
There is nothing holding us up: the unthinkable can happen if we let it. And moreover, when or if it does, there is no guarantee that it will make any sense at all, even in retrospect.
Having lived in the US all my life, I have known it as a remarkably free country–one with a sclerotic ruling class and a limited civic-democratic culture, admittedly, but nevertheless rule of law, due process, a strong Bill of Rights, an occasional ballot measure, and some other basic checks against total statist lunacy. None of that has to last if no one will fight for it–and certainly not if they secretly crave its opposite.
In a way, Trump, with his searing militarism, nativism, and denial of climate change, is the demonic inverse of Obama’s soaring promises of dramatic “hope” and “change”. Let’s hope that Trump’s promises go just as undelivered as Obama’s–or better yet, do more than hope. Find people of like mind and raise your voices against this sham, or find a third party candidate. Do something. Protest, dammit, protest.