Weimar Redux: Trump, Cruz and the New Fascism

Study the Trump-Cruz square off close enough, and one understands that each is simply one side of the same ideological coin: a right-wing currency minted at the boundary of ultra-conservatism and fascism. The duo’s persistent lead in the polls speaks less to these two candidates themselves and their character, than to the desire of a frustrated and manipulated Republican base for a leader who will recreate what they imagine were the halcyon days of US supremacy. Their followers hope to anoint someone who, through sheer strength and force of character, will deliver them from the foreign “others” and government agents who, they believe, have infiltrated their country, snatched away their jobs and robbed them of their once obvious claim to cultural superiority.

But the pair’s dominance is logical, representing merely the next step in the Republican Party’s slow descent intofascism; a journey launched, in fact, decades ago by the blustering and avuncular Ronald Reagan, who handed the keys to the party (and the country) to Wall Street and bloviating televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The Republican base’s enthusiasm for Trump and Cruz signals nothing less than a disturbing willingness to trade democratic discourse, debate and process for the comforting security of authoritarian rule. They represent the final, honest and overt embrace of fascist ideas that have long rumbled just below the surface of Republican politics. More importantly, it points to a dangerous nod toward the type of cult of personality (reminiscent of Reagan) which, at its extreme, brooks no dissent and imposes its will by fiat, one uncomfortably like the regime the Allies spent so much blood repelling in World War II.

Echoes of Weimar

Though traditionally associated with Nazi Germany, modern fascism actually began its life as a small, violent reactionary group of toughs led by Benito Mussolini in 1920. In his 1985 book, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of American Power, Bertram Gross chronicles Mussolini’s early pact with big business: a Faustian bargain whereby, in turn for businesses’ support, the budding dictator “…raided the offices of Socialist or Communist mayors, trade unions, cooperatives and left-wing newspapers, beating up the occupants and burning down the buildings.” By 1924, Mussolini had dispatched the leftist enemies of Italian manufacturers and beaten his way all the way to the premiership in an election darkened by violence. Once in office, Mussolini purged the government of all opposition, a fact that should trouble anyone watching protesters being beaten at Trump rallies while the candidate intones, “Get ’em outta here!”

While the stars and stripes would do just fine as the fetishized symbol of Trump’s signature campaign slogan, “Make America great again,” there are a number of white supremacist groups eager to volunteer their own flags as a symbol for his movement — a sure sign they are kindred spirits. For its own symbol, Mussolini’s group resurrected an image of the ancient Roman fasce (hence the name, “fascism”) — a ceremonial axe with a handle made from bundled rods carried by Roman consuls. Its message, even for those poetically challenged, is symbolically stark and clear: The state is held together by the sheer power of the leader who sits, unchallenged, at its head.

For most, however, fascism in full flower is embodied in Nazi Germany. Like Italian fascism, German National Socialism — itself a strangely contradictory term — grew out of the factionalism and turbulent economic conditions that roiled post World War I Germany. Like its Italian counterpart, German fascism began in 1919 with a small group of anti-Semitic individuals calling themselves the German Workers Party. At their inception, they were no match for the then-dominant Socialist Party, and suffered a major loss when they — including a young ex-corporal calling himself Adolf Hitler — mounted an ill-fated coup against the Bavarian government on November 8, 1923. Launched in the garden of a large Munich Beer Hall, the “putsch” was immediately put down and Hitler was jailed. But, like Trumpand Cruz supporters of today, there were many silent yet sympathetic advocates of the Nazis’ fascist ideas — one being no less than General Erich Ludendorff. Though sentenced to five years, Gross recounts, Hitler served only nine months and used that time to pen the now infamous Mein Kampf.

The fortunes of the nascent Nazi Party were improved by the brutal socioeconomic effects of reparations imposed on the German economy by the Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I in 1918. In an attempt to satisfy these onerous reparations, more and more money was printed. Consequently, a disastrous hyper-inflation ensued, driving the currency into utter worthlessness by 1923. By 1925, the currency was stabilized, and the Weimar Republic even enjoyed a brief period of prosperity, only to crumble once again in 1929 when the great market crash in the United States reverberated throughout the world, driving economies — including Germany — into a deep depression. The German economy deteriorated quickly. But in the wings, ready to — as Trump acolytes might say, “Make Germany great again” — were Hitler’s National Socialists, anxious to rid the Motherland of all corrupting elements, both foreign and internal, by any means necessary, including brute force.

Once it puts down roots, fascism, like a weed, robs the body politic of constructive discourse and democratic process until it dominates everything with its own agenda. While much has been written about fascism of all stripes, an eyewitness to the rise of Hitler’s fascism was a psychoanalyst by the name of Wilhelm Reich. Written between the years of 1932 and 1934 — a time when Hitler and his Brown Shirts were consolidating their hold on Germany — Reich’s book The Mass Psychology of Fascism deconstructs in real time the fascist mentality and the socioeconomic conditions requisite for it to flourish. The turbulent and volatile environment of the post-war Weimar Republic offered fertile soil, and the fact that the work was banned by the Nazis speaks to its credibility.

Between 1929 and 1932, as the Depression and still onerous reparations drove the German population ever deeper into poverty and desperation, membership in the NSDAP (National Socialist Democratic Workers’ Party, or “Nazis”) exploded from a “mere” 800,000 in the election of 1928, to a massive 17 million by January, 1933. The fact that the population was looking to the purveyors of nationalism for relief rather than to the socialists flew in the face of accepted Marxist economic dogma concerning political consciousness. Clearly, Reich concluded, some non-economic factor was driving the German population into the fascist camp. “The economic situation,” Reich wrote, “is not directly and immediately converted into political consciousness.” It begged another question. “… what has to be explained,” Reich continues, “is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike.” In other words: Why would impoverished and exploited people surrender their fate to the whim of a strong man or dictator rather than assume a more proactive, responsible, even revolutionary role?

The answer, Reich realized, is that the masses are not naturally submissive, and though humans are inherently predisposed to freedom of thought and feeling, these impulses are both anathema to any political or religious force bent on complete control. Appeals to fear are especially effective. “The point,” Reich explains, “is that every social order produces in the masses of its members that structure which it needs to achieve its main aims.”

At the top of the fascist hierarchy is the patriarchy and its preservation at all cost. The principal institution conceivedto ensure this dominance is traditional marriage, as defined by religion. This dates back to the transition in the not-too-distant human past, from a matrilineal to a patriarchal society, one affected and enshrined in that institution. Furthermore, marriage (specifically in its original form, unmitigated by female influence and liberalizing political reforms like the franchise) ensured, by design, that all the property and power held by females would be transferredto the male.

But the terms “female” and “male” are too general to the subject at hand. In terms of fascist ideology, the role of “mother” and “father” are much more consequential, describing more accurately the patriarchal power dynamic that necessarily and urgently ascribes to the father unquestionable authority. The symbolic significance of the mother as merely a vessel for the perpetuation of male power is of paramount importance to patriarchal dominance. For every woman, life in the patriarchy — from cradle to grave — is simply another step in the long slog on the trail tosubservience and male dominance.

This patriarchal hierarchy, then, is the defining feature of the nuclear, authoritarian family, a power structure easily projected outward into the social and even cosmological realm. Thus, committed early on to unquestionable subjugation to the father figure in the nuclear family, the child is trained to bring this blind obedience into the larger political arena with loyalty to a political or religious figure and, in fact, does not know how to act any other way, his/her natural inquisitiveness having been stifled by patriarchal conditioning. “The prototype and realization of the fascist ideology of the hierarchic organization of the state,” Reich states, “is to be found in the hierarchic organization of the peasant family. The peasant family is a nation in miniature…” It is no accident, then, that right-wing anti-choice groups are desperate to preserve this rudimentary patriarchal social unit and very purposefully adopt names like “Focus on the Family” or “Family Resource Council.” For a mind so conditioned, the mother’s significance becomes larger than life, even though she has surrendered all worldly, practical power to her husband. Nevertheless, the emotions centered around her become indistinguishable from the feelings evoked by one’s patriotic attachment to the nation. “In their subjective emotional core,” Reich explains, “the notions of homeland and nation are notions of mother and family.” (Reich, pg. 57) In short, the authoritarian, patriarchal family becomes a replica of the patriarchal, fascist state. This would appear to be the ideological basis for conservatives’ unremitting desire todissolve the boundary between church and state, for in their mind, there is none to begin with.

The Right-Wing Noise Machine

Once a symmetry between the aspects of fascist existence is achieved — that is, a smooth perceptual congruence from the authoritarian family through dictatorial political power, then outward to the stern and all-powerful God of Abraham — a more practical task becomes ensuring and expanding a uniform and persistent message beyond the confines of the family. This is done through propaganda. For leaders of any political or religious bent, left or right, all forms of electronic media have proved to be invaluable in shaping mass psychology. Any electronic medium is, after all, benign. Signals through a radio, TV or computer have, of themselves, no allegiance. But their reach and nature make them a perfect vehicle for transmitting information — or propaganda — of all types. The power of radio, for example, was apparent early on to religious evangelists like Amy Semple McPherson, and political leaders as varied as Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.

What is it about electronic media that makes this so? In his groundbreaking 1964 book titled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshal McLuhan broached a convincing answer. The message of McLuhan’s book goes beyond the well-worn and shallow dictum commonly associated with it: “The media is the message.” What this failsto capture is McLuhan’s much more nuanced conclusion that different mediums, by virtue of their distinct properties and effect on consciousness and the brain, are adequate to a range of communicative tasks and achieve markedly dissimilar outcomes. Because they stimulate different sensory apparatuses, they evoke diverse responses and behaviors.

To illustrate this disparity metaphorically, McLuhan contrasts print-based media with electronic forms by characterizing each as having a “temperature.” The print medium, based on the ancient system of moveable type, is “cold,” requiring the person to dwell privately, intellectually and at length on the written word, unlocking its message only after she/he has brought their own psychic experience to the exchange. Cold mediums are, in this regard, “inclusive,” according to McLuhan. A person quietly reading a book — a Bible, even — alone by a fire might be an example, or someone reading a magazine in a waiting room.

Electronic mediums like radio, TV and internet are, on the other hand, “hot” and, as McLuhan further characterizes them, “exclusive.” They engage the person immediately and viscerally on multiple sensory levels, thus requiring less reflection and triggering an emotional response in the more ancient, limbic part of the brain — that place where anxiety, fear and hatred reside. Certainly, love and empathy reside there as well, but the former are more useful to an evangelist like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, eager to inspire a fear of Jehovah, Satan and socialism; useful as wellto a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz, who are keen to demonize immigrants fleeing brutal economic conditions in the southern hemisphere, or the young woman at Planned Parenthood desperate to take control of her womb and her life.

Since the aim of propaganda is to create an obsessive attachment to a message, it is logical that the more prolonged and extensive the exposure to propaganda, the more it is absorbed into the belief system. Hot electronic mediums — unlike the act of concentration and processing required for reading — are naturally suited to this end. The right-wing commuter who, after a half-hour ride from work listening to Rush Limbaugh, comes into the house and spends the rest of his evening listening to the constant drumming of Fox News, becomes invested in an alternate reality that feeds a stubborn cognitive dissonance. “Followers,” writes author Chris Hedges in his 2006 book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, “…are locked within closed systems of information and indoctrination that cater to their prejudices.” Therefore, in reality, Fox “reports” and “decides.”

Perhaps more than any other factors, the enemy of truth and objective journalism has been radio, television and the internet. Out of the ruins of the wall that once separated the news department from the marketing department, and the layer of professional editing that once ensured factual integrity, a new wild west of distortion and disinformation has emerged. This environment is the perfect breeding ground for fascist inculcation, a virtual place where anyone with a domain name and rudimentary computer competence can dress any hateful idea in a glitzy format of computer graphics and enjoy an audience-reach the newspapers of old could only dream of. Yet, even if these were to go away tomorrow, there would still be the incessant 24-hour droning of Fox News and hate mongers on talk radio, enough tokeep the well of information poisoned indefinitely.

In the ascendancy of Trump and Cruz at the expense of mainstream Republican candidates, the right-wing power structure — i.e. Wall Street; plutocrats like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and their indentured lobbyists — are seeing the fruits of their efforts to sculpt a slavishly reliable conservative base backfire and turn upon them. Their decades-long appeals to the magic of supply-side economics and the virtue of outsourcing and low wages have finally taken a toll on the once reliable, white middle class who have, in the end, been left at the table with nothing. Frankenstein has turned on the village. With their political instincts so bludgeoned and desensitized by decades of right-wing propaganda, their only recourse is to embrace blustering merchants of hate and fear speaking the language of fascism. But don’t expect to see a single swastika at a Trump or Cruz rally. After all, as Upton Sinclair so presciently stated, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”