At a party over the holidays, I was treated to a round of a new parlor-game that’s sweeping the nation, winning awards for thoughtful game design, bringing innocent delight to households great and small: “Secret Hitler“!
As the name suggests, one player is designated secretly to be “Hitler”, and three others secretly to be “fascists”. The remaining “liberals” must try to figure out the latter’s identities before it’s too late. As the gameplay unfolds, paranoia abounds and accusations fly ever faster, but calm deduction will avail you precious little.
I took away four key impressions from this experience:
1) Americans, more than ever, can be relied on to mindlessly “gameify” (or inane-ify) simply anything. This process is almost a reflex at this point, providing almost our sole foil to that other, much-loved, but more strenuous coping-mechanism, the Moral Outrage Sweepstakes.
Interestingly, just as Moral Outrage in our day seems to subsist on incidents of an increasingly minuscule sort—the occasional wrong pronoun, say, or culturally-appropriative sombreros at Halloween, or even someone failing to completely agree on a crucial fine point of your post-Marxist critical narrative theory of heteronormative subtexts in bonobo enclaves—so, inversely, this trivializing impulse of gameification seems increasingly to rejoice in refashioning into banal amusements topics that really, really should be kept serious (such as, well, Hitler).
Incidentally, this pattern—this loss of solemnity and proportion over every scale of life—is a further sign of the now-overwhelming predominance of the Last-Men, those glib “discoverers of happiness” out of Zarathustra, who “make everything small”. For the Last-Man, real seriousness is foreign and unbearable (carrying, as it does, the potential confronting of tragedy); whereas fake outrage and light amusement are both always-welcome salves to his gnawing inner emptiness.
2) The USA’s morbid fascination with fascism—a political system that to all outward appearances has been buried for nearly 80 years—has now extended into the pastimes of those very bien-pensant Last-Men who now, in the age of Trump, so excitedly style themselves as guardians (albeit mostly gameified ones) against fascism. (Also, yes, that this post is itself discussing fascism does play into my point–if you noticed that, give yourself a star!)
As living memory of it has dwindled, World War II has gotten less and less real and more and more fantastical, more virtual. It now serves almost as modern-day Americans’ creation myth, a grand adventure-epic in which, out of the ashes of Europe’s final, comic-book-like Götterdammerung, our nation swept in just in time to save the West, establish the Free World, and glean unending superpowerdom and moral supremacy in the process; it is often the farthest back in history we bother knowing about, even in popularized form, because the universe did not exist before then, at least as far as we care.
Meanwhile, in keeping with the nigh-cosmogonic importance of the War he launched, Hitler seems to have stealthily risen in the everyday American (and Western) imagination to a new office as our de facto god of the underworld, which, in an essentially post-moral society that prides itself on having done away with the silliness of most moral absolutes, has made him a quasi-Mephistophelian locus of boundlessly titillating horror and hypnotic fascinations. The mass-popular re-imaginings just keep coming, and seem to plumb ever-new depths of flippancy: from “Hunting Hitler”, “Iron Sky”, and “Look Who’s Back”, to the endless “Downfall” parodies that form virtually a whole separate genre on Youtube. In the publishing business, meanwhile, there are few more sure-fire recipes for a best-seller than accounts of the Nazi era and its leader; in the marketplace, as well as popular imagination, the Hitler vortex deepens apace.
This complex fascination, which seems only to grow the further we get from the days of actually-existing fascism, tells of something deeper and possibly more dire going on, though it has been going on for a long time, and goes well beyond pop-culture. In The Closing of the American Mind—now over 30 years ago—Allan Bloom in fact warned of certain striking parallels between the state of the US intelligentsia and that of the Weimar Republic.
In particular, he noted, the USA’s intelligentsia and subsequently popular culture had imbibed, with a stunning gusto and equally stunning obliviousness, the same fateful brew of German philosophy as had captivated the doomed Republic in the 1920s: Weber, Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger, principally. In America, this philosophical invasion was disguised by the national instinct to cheerfully trivialize everything serious, to ignore deeper currents—to gameify, in short. As Bloom nicely puts it,
“…the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.” (147)
Surely the concept of “Hidden Hitler”, though a small addition to the heap, fits with this overall mood most uncannily.
The irony, naturally, is that the very fascination with fascism helps pattern an actual resurgence: it is a prefiguration, ideation, suggestive of a mental pregnancy, or a subconscious planning-in-advance. One good economic shove (or a well-coaxed national security threat), one senses, combined with the right sort of demagogue, is all it could take.
3) Another interesting detail: on the cards used to play “Secret Hitler”, the fascists are depicted never as people, but as ugly, reptile-like creatures. Now—depicting members of a disliked political group purely as inhuman monster-caricatures: is this not itself a rather fascist habit? And inversely, perhaps a tad complacent as well?
4) The game was not very fun to play, since there is no way to guess what is really going on—one simply yells, and points, and makes shot-in-the-dark accusations. But I suppose this, too, is a match for our time and place.
The intellectual and foreign-policy elite, meanwhile, of “adults-in-the-room” fame, seems to offer anything but a clear-sighted bastion amid the general fascist-fascination. For example, notice the careful terminological tip-toeing in this recent, much-discussed essay: (https://www.cato-unbound.org/2018/12/10/stephen-davies/great-realignment-understanding-politics-today)
Stunningly, the author, Mr. Davies, discerns a “realignment” underway in Western politics, where one newly emergent pole of the political spectrum will be what he awkwardly terms “national collectivists“. What does this term remind us of?
Of course, the more natural and well-worn term to use here would actually be not “collectivists”, but “socialists“. For obvious historical reasons, however, to use that term would be too impossibly fraught, especially for the august annals of the Cato Institute—even though the resulting compound, “national socialists“, indeed sheds much more light on the true structure and urgency of our situation.
But were this term “national-socialist” to be substituted anyway in Mr. Davies’ argument—as a thought-experiment, let us say, by some utterly tasteless individual who knows nothing of the finer mores of discourse—it would begin to usefully expose the frightening naïvety inherent in several of Mr. Davies’ positions: firstly, in his assertion that the “realignment” now underway is indeed “normal”; and secondly, in his thinking this realignment will duly lead to some new “stable equilibrium” between whatever two major blocs that eventually coalesce out.
The absurdity of the latter expectation—stability—becomes even more plain when we consider what Mr. Davies posits as the likeliest main opposition to these ravening national collecto-socialists: none other than “radical leftists“!
So we are then supposed to have, in effect, national socialism versus radical leftism as the newly-dominant axis of political ideology in the Western world—and stability is to follow from this! Through what illimitable genius of self-delusion can one seriously imagine such a configuration as either “normal” or “stable”? Can anyone bother to recall how this arrangement played out the last few times it was tried? (For a hint, think back to Bloom.) “Sanguine” hardly begins to sum up Mr. Davies’ attitude here; “somnambulistic” may be nearer the truth.
This kind of severe misperception likely stems from one of the gravest blindnesses of received political wisdom in the postwar period, one that, like the gameifying tendency, has only deepened with time—namely, that Germany’s national socialist episode was purely a mad fluke, essentially limited in spread by certain repressed, insular, grim-minded peculiarities unique to the German psyche–and also, implicitly, that Hitler was purely a moronic, one-time madman whose like we need not really worry about encountering again (except, that is, when mining the Internet for comedic gold).
In fact, as Davies has just unintentionally demonstrated, the basic complexation of nationalism with socialism (or collectivism) is in itself not some moon-shot Teutonic lunacy, but an extremely general political possibility, translatable to a wide variety of societies given certain combinations of popular mood and stress. This generality comes from the way in which nationalism and socialism can represent, concisely, the two main sides of tribalism, that red-in-tooth vade mecum of virtually all geopolitical organization up to the present day. We may call these two aspects of tribalism the “outward-looking”, and the “inward-looking”, respectively. In sum:
Nationalism represents outward-looking tribalism: “we define ourselves as a single empowered entity, as a People, the Nation-tribe, in distinction from, even opposition to, all other nation-tribes”;
Socialism represents inward-looking tribalism: “we take very good care of each other within the tribe, because each tribe member is a precious part of the Nation”.
Put together, these two amount to possibly the most brazen, direct, bread-and-circuses, red-meat rabble-rousing political strategy in the book, and also one of the most seductive: its offerings include group pride and glory; cooperatively assured security; crisply- yet generously-delineated enemies, ready for your hating pleasure; and of course, loads of goodies from the government.
Now, can anyone name at least one country that currently seems to be experiencing (albeit by seemingly separate factions) a profound upsurge in both aspects of tribalism just now? It so happens that here in the USA we currently have a rather unusually jingoist, proudly “nationalist” chief of state who is proposing to declare an open-ended “national emergency” over a perceived threat to tribal organization of the country (in the form of a string of overhyped but not wholly imaginary disasters along the southern border). We also have, simultaneously, an equally unusual formation of Morally Outraged cultural collectivists/socialists, who seem to have an intense interest in enlisting the state to guarantee every aspect of personal well-being, down to the level of policing any language even imagined to be offensive.
What baleful hybrids may yet come of this; what rough beast slouches towards Washington to be born? Remember, the Left and Right are not opposites, so much as two parts of a process; as Bloom recounts, summarizing Nietzsche:
“the Left, socialism, is not the opposite of the special kind of Right that is capitalism, but is its fulfillment.” (143, my emphasis)
So finally here is a warning—to the country; to erudite quietist fools such as Mr. Davies; to the blackshirt-bewitched game designers happy to turn a buck regardless of meaning or message; to the moiling millions of bien-pensants who, from the safety of their spacious suburban foyers, vaguely thrill at imagining “secret fascists” all around them; and to the legions of rheumy-eyed, Weltschmertz-drenched Youtubers who find re-enacted tantrums of Der Führer a delightfully edgy diversion from their 21st-century mal du siecle—to all of these and more I say, if you do not wake up to the real ramifications of what you are normalizing, and fetishizing, and gameifying, we will eventually see far more of “stable realignments” than any of us know what to do with!