How will fascism come to America

The US is fascinated by fascism

The United States made a major contribution to defeating Hitler's Germany in World War II. Nevertheless, internally they are not free from right-wing radical impulses. The more isolationist the country behaves, the stronger national populist forces become, as Trump's “America First” policy shows.

Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) takes office as the first female president of the USA at the end of the sixth season of the series "Homeland". However, their inauguration is not peaceful. With her intention to refrain from further military interventions in the Middle East, she declared war on the leaders of the National Security Agency after her election victory.

The attack, with which they take revenge on her, is thwarted and the conspirators go to prison. But to the horror of everyone who knew how to protect the future president from these enemies within, she turns out to be a totalitarian ruler. In front of the window of their office in New York, angry demonstrators chant the slogan “not my president”, explicitly reminding of the election of Donald Trump.

Appropriately, the current season of "Homeland" begins with President Keane ordering another drastic cleanup. It arrests all members of the secret service who are even vaguely suspected of having participated in the failed military coup.

If it can only achieve its political goals with an iron hand, this will be understood by the public as authoritarian tyranny. Suddenly a resistance has formed, which also includes the bipolar heroine of the series, Carrie Mathison. She thinks she sees the face of fascism in her previous boss.

Appeals to reason fade away

Now the abrupt transformation of the resolute pacifist politician into a despot who undermines the rule of law may be astonishing. Dramaturgically, however, the television series "Homeland" needs the horror of an unscrupulous ruler so that America's true democratic values ​​can reassert themselves. We can assume that the image of this President will either be corrected or she will be deposed. As the embodiment of fascism, it represents a fascination that also serves as a warning.

Precisely because the much-vaunted liberal constitutional state is in danger, it is important to remember that common sense that rejects willful misuse of the media as well as the use of fear to stir up prejudice. Historically, a fundamental part of the American self-image is not to appeal to violence and deceit, but to reason and decency. Critical voices today like to remember this cultural heritage.

At the same time, however, the fascination of fascism raises the suspicion that this may not be a political impossibility in the USA after all. Rather, it could well be that the seduction that emanates from it hits the core of the American project. After all, the charismatic leader, who mainly addresses the country's population emotionally, is no stranger to them.

One could think of the strict cleric Cotton Mather, who wrote against the weakening of orthodox puritanism in the middle of the 17th century and thus contributed significantly to the condemnations at the Salem witch trials.

His glorious counterpart would be Abraham Lincoln, whose admonition that a divided house could not stand upright ushered in the civil war that would only lead to a rebirth of the nation after four bloody years. His supporters followed him willingly, as military destruction was celebrated as a necessary collective sacrifice.

David Ernest Duke is the board of the
Ku Klux Klan, denies the Holocaust and advocates the ideology White Supremacy.

Richard B. Spencer coined the catchphrase «Alt-Right»
and would like to make the USA an "Aryan" country.

Milo Yiannopoulos was editor of the right portal Breitbart and incites against gays, though
he is one himself.

However, the charisma of a passionate leader never shows itself unequivocally in the American cultural imaginary. As early as five years before the outbreak of war, Herman Melville had shed light on the catastrophic consequences of a blind following in his novel "Moby Dick".

If a miniature of the American nation can easily be recognized in the whaling ship "Pequod", then its captain Ahab appears as an intoxicating caricature of a fanaticist leader. Even the sensible helmsmen of his crew cannot resist his obsession with destroying the white whale at all costs. Drawn into the vortex of his delusion, they instead believe in the end only his noble, albeit deceptive, speeches and go down enthusiastically with him.

The imagined unity can quickly tip over into a mass movement that tolerates neither resistance nor differences

This ambivalent fascination for the enchantment by an eloquent leader can be explained by the fact that American politics must always appeal to the affects of the population. A sensible discussion of real problems is not enough to gain a unifying force from the diversity of this great nation.

The democratic community in the USA is therefore still supported today by a civil religion that fills all those concerns with feelings that cannot be changed through political action alone.

In a world that has become more and more complex, one likes to rely on feelings such as enthusiasm, indignation, fear or anger in order to operate attitudes that can be shared by most members of society. Symbols such as the American flag, the dollar bill or the Statue of Liberty are powerful because they call for a unifying pathos - just like the versatile slogan “United we stand”.

But relying on big emotions in politics also means getting involved in the power of populism. If the belief in a shared vision is to bridge all differences, this is not just equivalent to blind trust that hides the complexity of real life circumstances. The imagined unity can also quickly tip over into a mass movement that tolerates neither resistance nor internal differences.

So it is only logical that the television series "Homeland" brings another fascination of fascism in America into play: that much-discussed tribalism in the media, which anchors the pathos of unity not in the nation as a whole, but in the passionate belonging to one small group of like-minded people.

Distrust in the hinterland

The popular demagogue Brett O’Keefe, whose target audience also includes those "fine people" (Trump) who demonstrated in Charlottesville in the name of white superiority, deliberately relies on the desire for simple opposition with his hate-generating radio broadcasts. And this is also a tradition in the USA.

American policy has always been a tension between loyalty to the nation and an insistence on regional autonomy. And precisely because the men and women in the hinterland have always had a split relationship with the government in Washington, it is easy to stir up an uprising against it. In the rejection of what was decided there, the spirit of the American War of Independence flares up again.

At the same time, however, this populist passion is not clear either. When the rebellious radio journalist equates the unwelcome president with Hitler, he too embodies a fascist horror. He himself takes on tyrannical traits with his call to blind violence. The politician who allegedly undermines the free rule of law and the apostate who incites the masses turn out to be two sides of the same coin.

With her new book “Fascism. A Warning »former Foreign Minister Madeleine Albright throws another spotlight on why fascism is a greater threat today than it has ever been since the end of the Second World War. It recalls the two sides that made this totalitarian form of rule so powerful for the American imaginary.

As a radical attack on democratic values, charismatic fascists are a clear enemy. In the 1940s, they had successfully allied themselves against this enemy. Even then, the fight against fascism was a vision that was able to bridge all differences and create unity. That would be possible again today.

Stepping back from the stage of international politics, in turn, strengthens fascist movements abroad, which know how to skillfully occupy the vacuum left behind. So it's not about trying to recognize a fascist in Donald Trump, but about how his presidency revives the specter of fascism.

Decisive distance to Europe

After all, his slogan “America First” has a past. In 1940 pacifists, isolationists and Nazi sympathizers joined forces and founded the America First Committee to campaign against the USA's entry into the world war.

This passion wasn't new either. A demarcation from the affairs of other countries was at the core of the American War of Independence. If the newly founded nation had claimed to be a unique experiment in democratic rights and personal freedom, American Exceptionalism also set itself apart from Europe.

As Philip Roth recalls in his novel “Conspiracy against America”: The dangers of this primeval American isolationism flickered, albeit with different omens, in the character of the star pilot Charles Lindberg. His sympathy for National Socialism in Germany had made him the figurehead of the “America First” movement.

Fascism, which one does not want to fight in foreign policy, can easily tip over into fascist populism in the interior of the country. The warning continues in its fascination. David Simon, known for having his finger on the pulse of the times, is currently turning Roth's novel into a television series.

Elisabeth Bronfen is Professor of English at the University of Zurich. She has just released the volume «Crossmappings».