An essay of mine just published in the Los Angeles Review of Books asks whether the election of Donald Trump augurs the arrival of American fascism — a question I treat more skeptically than not. (Read the piece here.) Writing it, though, reminded me of a piece I wrote in 2003 in which I wrestled with similar questions (then triggered by the mendacious campaign to win public support for the invasion of Iraq) and posited the emergence of something I called digital fascism, in which modern western democracy becomes vulnerable to a form of authoritarian seduction premised on image over substance, celebrity over fitness for office, emotion over rationality. “These have become the guiding aesthetic principles of our evolving screen age,” I wrote, “in which an unscrupulous political machine can, with alarming ease, foster indifference or even tacit acceptance of egregious governmental misdeeds”.
The earlier piece was never published, because the British magazine for which it was written folded between the time it was commissioned and the prospective publication date. The whole piece follows below.
A few months ago, the publisher of Harper’s magazine, John MacArthur, was invited on to Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes show, by some distance the most gladiatorial of American cable television’s unapologetically right-wing talking shops. Theoretically, MacArthur was being asked to explain his thesis that President Bush deserved to be impeached because he had lied “on a grand scale” about Iraq’s weapons programmes as a pretext for war. In practice, however, MacArthur, like countless guests before and since, was there to be ridiculed and humiliated as a perverse form of public entertainment.
Sean Hannity, the attack dog on the interviewing team, did not allow MacArthur to utter a word before dismissing his thesis as “not even really intellectually worth discussing”. When that provoked a testy response, he goaded his guest further: “Name me one lie! Name me one lie!”
MacArthur attempted to oblige, but within seconds of his launching into the now-familiar catalogue (the canard of Iraq’s nuclear weapons, the aluminium tube imbroglio etc), Hannity cut him off, saying: “We don’t have time for a speech.”
The exchange soon deteriorated into a peculiar mixture of inquisitorial baiting and unintentional black humour. “I’ve got to ask you,” Hannity said, “did you call for the impeachment of Bill Clinton?”
“I wasn’t interested in the impeachment of Bill Clinton,” came the reply.
“You weren’t interested? So you’re only interested in the impeachment of Republicans?”
MacArthur stood up to this barrage quite well, squeezing in a few more points about dead US soldiers and betrayal of the public trust, until Hannity finally snapped and told him to “be quiet”.
“The idea here,” Hannity summed up, no longer referring to his guest in the second person, “is he cannot give a specific example.”
“I did give a specific example,” MacArthur countered.
“He’s full of crap,” said Hannity.
“I did give an example,” repeated MacArthur.
But Hannity was having none of it. “Hatred of George W Bush now has become a sport for these guys,” he thundered. And that was the end of that.
For weeks after watching this undignified spectacle, I struggled to think what it reminded me of. Then it came to me: an old Italian film about the rise of Mussolini called La Marcia su Roma (The March on Rome), in which two buffoonish squadristi played by the great comic actors Vittorio Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi burst into a judge’s house, put him through an interrogation about his supposed misdeeds and force him to drink castor oil – a favourite tactic of the real-life blackshirts – only to become incensed when the judge fails to submit to the intimidation and laughs at their efforts to get him to swear allegiance to Il Duce.
The methods and format may have been different, but Sean Hannity’s treatment of his guest bespoke a very similar mixture of unintentional black comedy, aggression and ritual humiliation. The agenda for Fox News, as it was for the early squadristi, boils down to anti-intellectual political bullying. True, MacArthur and company aren’t subject to the criminal indignities of baton beatings (the notorious fascist manganellate) or liquid assaults on their digestive tract. On the other hand, they undergo their humiliation not in private, but before an audience of millions. Opinions and perceptions of what constitutes political normality are built up on a daily basis by the threatening harangues of Hannity and his ilk. This is not media behaviour that easily fits definitions of a democratic fourth estate; it feels much queasier. Given the backdrop of aggressively resurgent US nationalism, and the concomitant with-us-or-against-us mentality applied to enemies and political adversaries at home as well as abroad, it smells inescapably like a whiff of fascism for the digital age.
It has become fashionable, especially in the more heated anti-Bush circles, to draw parallels between the current political climate and the rise of the fascist dictators of the early 20th century. Most of these parallels, it must be admitted, are less helpful than they are crassly over-simplistic. Various schemata, popular on the Internet and on the fringes of the liberal US media, regard September 11 as George Bush’s very own Reichstag fire – a calamity of murky origin ripe for political exploitation – and the Patriot Act, the administration’s follow-up legislation greatly increasing police powers of search and surveillance, as the equivalent of the Nazis’ emergency decrees stifling political opposition, freedom of the press and the rights of assembly and free expression. The absurdity of the parallel quickly becomes obvious, if only in the matter of degree. Where, if the analogy is to hold, are the public book-burnings, the house break-ins and state-sanctioned vandalism, the mass arrests, systematic beatings, torture and multiple murders of political opponents – all characteristic of Nazism in its first few months? “Bush equals Hitler” may be an eye-catching graffiti slogan, but as a tool of political analysis it barely gets out of the starting gate.
How, then, to account for the queasiness, the sense that American democracy is under threat from something which, if it isn’t fascism, certainly seems to share some of its underlying traits? Just look at the questionable manner in which George Bush became president, his pursuit of a hard-core conservative agenda flagrantly contradicting his inclusive, “compassionate” campaign message and any claim he might have to a popular mandate, the pattern of secret arrests and closed-door court hearings for foreign Muslims in the wake of September 11, the designation of “enemy combattants” without legal rights condemned to languish in indefinite limbo at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the phantom intelligence used to justify the unprovoked invasion of Iraq, the emphasis on militarism and war without end, the constant recourse to fear-mongering and patriotic fervour to shore up the administration’s political support…
None of these are reassuring indicators of a healthy democracy. Nor are they helped by the various dark hints dropped into public debate since September 11 that some democratic norms may have outlived their usefulness. The constitution, we are repeatedly told, is not a suicide note. Torture may now be a necessary evil. International law can and should be broken in the interests of self-defence. In a recent interview – with Cigar Aficionado magazine, of all publications — the commander of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, said explicitly he thought that another devastating attack on the United States would lead to the introduction of martial law and an end to the 200-year-old “grand experiment that we call democracy”. He seemed only moderately upset by the prospect.
Bound up in all this are unmistakable echoes of the European historical trends of a century ago. We too are experiencing a revolt against liberalism, and the evolution of a political culture that favours demonstrable action over talking and intellectualising. We too are seeing a renewed emphasis on the military, not only as a fighting force but also as a model for society at large. We too are developing a taste for imperialist adventure to impose our (superior) civilisation on the masses overseas, especially in the Islamic world. Even our intellectual justifications are similar. In a recent essay, the Brown University historian Abbott Gleason traced some arresting parallels between the ideology of the Bush administration and the early 20th-century proto-fascist philosopher Carl Schmitt, who theorised that the state should exist only to stand up to external enemies and to ensure order at home. The state, Schmitt believed, was an institutional expression of the “friend-enemy polarity”; social welfare programmes and other core government activities under the classic liberal model threatened to weaken executive authority and detract from the main task of putting the military on a heightened state of alert. Gleason saw a direct link between Schmitt’s theories and the Bush administration’s seemingly contradictory taste for tax cuts on the one hand and expansionist militarism on the other. In other words, running up trillion-dollar deficits and undermining non-security-related programmes are all part of an ideological strategy designed to dismantle the very concept of government as understood for much of the past century. “Nothing like this has happened since the period following World War I,” Gleason warned.
Of course, there are also stark differences between present realities and the fascist period, and it would be a mistake to push the analogies too far. We are emerging from the slow warp-effect of the Cold War, not the spectacular, all-consuming calamity of Ypres and the Somme. There are (pace Timothy McVeigh and the steady drip of anti- government rhetoric emanating from the heartland) no hordes of brutalised veterans forming violently racist movements and demanding the overthrow of the established political order. We no longer live in the same world of centralised nation-states competing for global influence, but rather are moving towards one governed by a single hegemonic system that preaches at least nominal decentralisation and diminished public-sector control. Western elites no longer have to fear their own proletariats, which have effectively been outsourced to the Third World; instead, they face more nebulous, less predictable threats from the poor and the dispossessed of the planet.
For all these differences, however, there remains the question of style, which is where the historical parallels come most clearly into focus. Fascism, as Denis Mack Smith tells us in his celebrated biography of Mussolini, “originated not as doctrine but as method, as a technique for winning power”. In other words, it is as much about a political culture and style as it is about a specific set of policies or repressive techniques. And we find that we are living, once again, in an age where political trends are dictated by sensation not reason, where surfaces are more important than substance, where belief can count for more than factual evidence. These have become the guiding aesthetic principles of our ever-evolving screen age, in which an unscrupulous political machine can, with alarming ease, foster indifference or even tacit acceptance of egregious governmental misdeeds. The seductions of this political style run the risk, once again, of blinding us to its dangers, to the point where we close our eyes even to burgeoning ideologies of intolerance, repression and mass slaughter. It is not enough to say that Bush is no Hitler and that therefore we have nothing to worry about. The fact that he has not embarked on a programme of genocide, or rounded up his opponents and hanged them with piano wire, does not mean he is not creating a climate in which home-grown forms of fascism can take root and grow.
It is striking how the recently resurgent American right, beginning with Newt Gingrich’s conservative “revolution” in Congress a decade ago and culminating in the present Bush presidency, has tapped into many of the same wellsprings exploited by Mussolini at the start of his career. Like the Gingrich Republicans — or indeed the Reagan Republicans or the Goldwater Republicans before them — the early blackshirts believed they were embarking on a revolutionary enterprise, one which was distinctly fuzzy in the definition of its goals and which operated largely on a visceral level; theory and policy prescriptions were not nearly as important as the excitement generated by the charismatic power of the leadership. Like the populist strain within the new Republican right, their movement was felt to be a grand vindication of the disempowered and alienated, a rebellion against the educated classes and the established political elite. (The fact that the Republicans still rail against the “liberal establishment”, even though they have now become the unquestioned dominant force in US politics, only attests to the power of this rhetorical trope.)
Fascism was propelled at a basic level by anger and violence, impulses which found legitimacy, even beauty, through the transformative ideology of militant nationalism. Although the forms of violence have become more abstracted, the footsoldiers of the new Republican revolution – essentially, blue-collar workers from the Midwest and South who saw their lifestyles and sense of manhood eroded by digital technology and the pressures of globalisation – have acted on very similar impulses, on either side of the September 11 watershed. It used to be that Gingrich’s “angry white men”, bristling with semi-automatic weapons, joined informal state militias and railed against the sinister forces supposedly in control of the federal government and the United Nations. Now, a much wider, ostensibly more mainstream swath of regular conservative guys – the so-called “NASCAR dads”, who like fast cars and cool technological hardware and wouldn’t mind landing on the occasional aircraft carrier themselves – have come to fetishise the US military’s coldly efficient destructive machinery and feel an unmistakable cathartic buzz as battalions of callow young men fly overseas to kill Muslims in the name of American democracy.
The twin pillars of nationalism and fundamentalist religion, built into the very bedrock of the new Republicanism, have been remarkably effective in mobilising a tranche of the US electorate that previously felt entirely alienated from the political process. The old Republican Party, the cigar-chomping champions of big business, had nothing to offer to these people, and neither did the Democrats, whose impotent nods towards working-class solidarity smacked of empty hypocrisy. To them, the political establishment seemed distant and irrelevant, a plutocracy concerned only with different gradations of government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. Now, thanks to “traditional” family values, the anti-abortion movement, the war against terrorism and the glorification of the military, they have something to believe in again. Fear of the other plays a big role in their political thinking, and they have been offered a variety of demons on whom to pin their frustrations and lay blame for their personal problems: blacks, immigrants, homosexuals, liberals, atheists, feminists and – most recently – Muslims, Hollywood peace activists and French people. True, all the talk of “kicking butt” and standing proud for one’s country has not altered basic economic realities. In fact, the loss of manufacturing jobs, cutbacks in healthcare and education, and radical redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich have all left this demographic grouping significantly worse off. But, for the moment anyway, they feel a whole lot better.
In 1995, just as the Gingrich conservative revolution was getting under way, Umberto Eco published a list of characteristics and warning signs of what he called “Ur Fascism”, a whole pot-pourri of political inflections that might be said to constitute the fascist cultural landscape. Nine years later, one can go through his list and, chillingly, tick each item off one by one: the resurgence of religious traditionalism, the scorn for science and intellectual rationalism, the desire to tear down old political structures and disparage long-standing institutions, the mistrust of outsiders and closing of cultural ranks, the growth of a certain paranoid nationalism, the intolerance of dissent, the anger-fuelled re-empowerment of the neglected lower classes, the obsession with identifying enemies and fetishising of warfare as the ultimate societal goal, the taste for macho posturing, the compulsion to create popular heroes, the identification with a single leader as the advocate of the popular will, and the duplicity of political language predicated on Orwellian Newspeak.
Eco underlined the point that these characteristics have a habit of sneaking up on societies in ways that don’t necessarily seem dangerous until it is too late. “It would be so much easier, for us,” he wrote, “if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.”
And so one can – or, perhaps, must – point fingers at the United States of George W Bush. Tearing down political structures? The president himself told the United Nations, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, that it needed to support his call for war or risk becoming irrelevant. The administration disparages “Old Europe” in almost the same terms as Filippo Marinetti, author of the pre-fascist Futurist Manifesto, who once referred to the continent of Goethe and Brahms and John Stuart Mill as “l’anziana signora”, the old lady, berating her for being “too slow to die”. Intolerance of dissent? It has become almost a knee-jerk reaction among Bushite true believers not to engage with the arguments of administration critics – be they academics, foreign journalists, Hollywood actors or the Dixie Chicks – but rather to tell them if they don’t like the way the country is run they should get the hell out. Scorn for science? Even the Pentagon is worried about the refusal to recognise global warming, much less do anything about it. A compulsion to create heroes? Hero-worship has become almost an epidemic, as a frazzled, celebrity-obsessed nation rushes to hail everyone from the genuinely brave (the most selfless of the New York firemen), to the merely unfortunate (the crew of the doomed space shuttle Columbia), to the unwitting tools of a cynical government myth-making machine (Private Jessica Lynch). A propensity for duplicitous language and Newspeak? The reasons given for the Iraq war are, naturally, a case study all in themselves, but so too are President Bush’s explanations of the need to wage war “to keep the peace”, or his rationale that hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy have absolutely nothing to do with the mounting federal budget deficit.
The duplicity of Bushspeak highlights another characteristic that recalls the fascist era: the practice of politics as a form of shadow play, in which the words one speaks and the promises one makes bear only an incidental relationship to the agenda at hand. We saw this as President Bush first took office and promptly broke with his campaign pledges to govern from the centre, to be a “uniter not a divider”, and pursued a hard-charging conservative agenda instead. We saw it again as it emerged that the Iraq war had been a priority for the administration from day one, belying all previous rhetoric about the president’s aversion to “nation-building”. And we saw it in the whole charade about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, never more so than when Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence, admitted that the weapons had been pushed to the forefront of public debate not because they were really the primary concern but “because it was the one reason everyone could agree on”.
There is, of course, nothing new about US leaders playing politics and selling the public a bill of goods in cases where deception strikes them as necessary to achieve their desired goals, particularly in wartime. Politicians who do this usually understand that there is a heavy price to pay if their tactics do not lead to a successful outcome. What makes the Bush administration qualitatively different is the sheer degree to which it has pushed the propagandising of the political dark arts, particularly in the arena of foreign and security policy. It has become almost entirely about amassing power and control, not good governance, and disagreement with the official line is now equated with treachery. The change in tone became clear when Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, made his notorious analogy between the timetable for war in Iraq and the marketing of a new line of automobiles, or again when Congress was asked to vote on giving President Bush the authority to go to war just three weeks before the 2002 mid-term elections, which the Republicans duly won. Politicising a vote of such grave import was not only unprecedented – the elder President Bush, for example, deliberately waited until after the 1990 mid-terms to seek his own vote of approval to go to war against Iraq. It was also profoundly dishonest, because Congress was urged to act quickly on alarmist information about Iraq’s lethal weapons capability that later turned out to be entirely bogus.
One detects a contempt for the gullibility of the American public – and, indeed, of Congress – that directly recalls the propaganda techniques of the fascists. Mussolini once said of the Italians: “To govern them, you need only two things, policemen and bands playing the streets.” Usually, he noted, one could get away with “97 cents worth of mere public clamour and 3 cents worth of solid achievement”. In similar vein, Joseph Goebbels defined propaganda at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally as “a means to an end”. “Its purpose,” Goebbels said, “is to lead the people to an understanding that will allow them to willingly, and without internal resistance, devote themselves to the tasks and goals of a superior leadership.” The Nazis were very clear on this point, even when the “tasks and goals” went as far as waging war halfway across Europe. Hermann Goering told his psychologist at the Nuremberg trials it was easy to drag a people into war, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship. “All you have to do,” he said, “is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”
If this sounds like a line out of the Bush administration playbook in the wake of September 11, it may be no coincidence. Like Mussolini and Hitler, the powerful White House political adviser, Karl Rove, is a noted fan of Machiavelli, or at least the scheming, political games-playing Machiavelli of The Prince. This is the Machiavelli who described how a successful leader, like the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, should be a “great feigner and dissembler”, capable of telling “noble lies” to the public while coolly following his own path. “The great majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities,” Machiavelli wrote, and one could not ask for a neater summation of the thinking behind the Bush administration’s extraordinary bait-and-switch in the summer of 2002, when it led a majority of Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein was a legitimate target in the war on terror because he was somehow responsible for September 11 (which he wasn’t) and had links with Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida (which he didn’t). Even hard-bitten State Department operatives and veterans of the CIA’s Cold War covert operations were appalled by the depth of official deception.
The duplicity has not been restricted to the national security agenda. One disillusioned former domestic policy official, John DiIulio, has described the Bush White House as being filled with “Mayberry Machiavellis” intent on “reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible”. The wonder of it is that, until very recently, the mainstream US media and the Democratic Party went along with the charade, largely accepting President Bush’s line that he was a wartime leader who needed the country to rally around him. The political atmosphere has changed somewhat in the wake of an unexpectedly spirited Democratic Party primary season and a growing awareness in the media of the administration’s deceptions. (Nobody, after all, likes to be lied to.) But that is no guarantee, at least at this stage, that President Bush won’t continue to reap the advantages of incumbency, play on the insecurities of a post-September 11 electorate and propel himself into a second four-year term in November.
Even in the healthiest democracies, of course, political leaders resort to misleading rhetoric and use public office as a platform for artifice and deliberately distracting grand spectacle. Politics is a business preoccupied with the creation and burnishing of public image, so the temptation is both constant and inevitable. That explains why a war-scarred Marxist critic like Theodor Adorno always saw a vestige of fascism at the very heart of western consumer culture. Propaganda may no longer be called propaganda – we prefer such terms as spin-doctoring or marketing — but the principle is the same, and open to the same abuses, especially in societies where voter participation is dwindling and the electorate is only half paying attention. Adorno even argued that “the continued existence of National Socialism within democracy” was more threatening than “the continued existence of fascist tendencies against democracy”, because the former was harder to spot and harder to guard against.
In the United States, the main threat to democracy has generally been perceived as coming from the overweening power of the military. President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address urging vigilance against the power of the military-industrial complex was, in essence, a warning about the fragility of US democracy, and his words have taken on a new urgency in the light of the uncomfortably close interrelationships forged between the Bush administration and private contractors like Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s old company, which have benefited most from increased military budgets and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But there has also been a secondary danger, stemming from what Walter Benjamin, in his definition of fascism, described as the “aestheticisation of politics”. The Machiavellian aspect of the Bush presidency — the telling of lies both noble and ignoble – did not spring out of nowhere but was rather an extension of a long, ever-deteriorating, media-fuelled trend in US politics in which perception has come to trump reality and Boorstinian “pseudo-events” have taken the place of substantive policy initiatives. It has always been true that presidents have performed for their electorates, but somewhere along the line, as Neal Gabler traces in his book Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, the performance ceased to be a function of the presidency and the presidency started to become a function of the performance. Television, a medium singularly well-suited to privileging sensation and emotion over fact and reasoned argument, played a major role in this transformation, inducing candidates and incumbents to craft their programmes around their media images, instead of the other way around. As early as 1968, Richard Nixon’s handlers were plotting his campaign around a series of supposedly spontaneous television shows – produced by none other than Roger Ailes, now head of Fox News. Ronald Reagan took the puppetry once stage further by treating the presidency as the ultimate Hollywood acting role. And Bill Clinton became so adept at playing the media game – when, that is, he was not being forced to star in his own sleazy tabloid soap opera – that he earned the nickname “Entertainer-in-Chief”.
What this adds up to, especially in a period of officially declared crisis like Bush’s open-ended war on terror, is the emergence of a new political aesthetic one might call digital fascism. In the analog version, the version that caused the world to lurch from one calamitous world war to a second, even more destructive one, the political language of fascism was predicated on the deployment of grandiose verbal rhetoric by a charismatic leader, and the replacement of deliberation and policy discussion with parades, songs, uniforms, rallies and so on. In the digital version, the rhetoric is not so much verbal as audiovisual, and the charisma of the individual has been subsumed into the aura of the screen and the concomitant culture of celebrity-driven entertainment. Warfare remains a big part of the aesthetic, but now it is experienced largely through the sanitised window of television — the all bombing, all the time mentality of the 24-hours cable news stations. Unlike analog fascism, which never had much time for the niceties of democracy, in theory or in practice, the digital version prides itself on being an expression of the finest democratic traditions, even when “democracy”, stripped of its media-enhanced platitudes, actually entails dropping bombs on distant lands and effecting regime change without consulting the peoples in question.
This digital fascism is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Its first tangible manifestation, in fact, was in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi was in a unique position to aestheticise his own rise to power following the collapse of the corrupt Cold War gerontocracy in the early 1990s because he enjoyed monopoly ownership of the country’s private television stations. In both of his successful runs for high office, in 1994 and in 2001, he projected a suntanned, showgirl-draped image of self-confidence, optimism and entrepreneurial savvy. His campaigns echoed the speed, energy, audacity and spirit of revolt that Marinetti had glorified in his Futurist Manifesto. (It was surely no accident that his main coalition partner was the recycled neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini, who praised Mussolini on the 1994 campaign trail as one of the great statesmen of the 20th century.) In reality, though, Berlusconi was the opposite of what he made himself out to be. Far from being filled with reformist zeal, he was in fact a creature of the selfsame old order he professed to despise, with a lot of less than transparent business interests to protect. Having lost his old political patrons, he set about filling the void himself, and used the prime minister’s office to pass a raft of legislation tailor-made to block criminal proceedings against his own business empire.
In the United States, perhaps the most striking instance of the digital fascist style has been the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s physique, chiselled and honed like an idealised Roman athlete, comes strikingly close to the Aryan ideal, and his political style is similarly mythical, due in large part to his celebrity status, which causes admirers and adversaries alike to grow weak-kneed in his presence. Leaders certainly don’t come any more charismatic. Thanks to his devoted following, he can legitimately claim to be a champion of the popular will, even as he claims the right to interpret that will in his own way. During the election campaign that brought him to the California governorship, he omitted to give more than the most perfunctory indication of what he would do once he reached office, deeming such explanations unnecessary. Since beginning his term, he has continued to use his star power to cover the voracious fundraising that has made him as beholden to special lobbying interests as any of the “professional” politicians he promised to kick into line. He has assumed — rightly so far — that the voters won’t notice.
Schwarzenegger’a unapologetic fascination with power has caused him, at various times, to express admiration for dictators and leaders of mass religious movements. Shortly before his election as California governor last October, he was lambasted for an old interview in which he had positive things to say about Adolf Hitler. Those who saw this as evidence that he was a closet Nazi were missing the point, however. It was not Hitler’s lust for repression and mass murder that attracted Schwarzenegger, but rather the sheer power he wielded when addressing a crowd. Shortly after he arrived in the United States in the late 1960s, Schwarzenegger acknowledged he wanted to be “part of the small percentage of people who were leaders, not the large mass of followers”. “I was always fascinated by people in control of other people,” he said.
It is too soon to know how dangerous this trend to digital fascism will prove to be. For the moment, it is still rooted in recognisable, if often diminished democratic structures where it continues to compete with other, more orthodox forms of political practice. Berlusconi’s stranglehold on the broadcast media and contempt for the rule of law has certainly stirred anxiety, but he has shown no signs of wanting to overthrow Italy’s flawed republican constitution. Schwarzenegger, for his part, may have twisted the rules of Californian politics with a certain ruthless brilliance, but he hasn’t shown any inclination to break them.
Where the greatest danger arguably lies, and indeed where the historical parallels are most disturbing, is in the marriage of the digital fascist style with a lust for war and empire-building. As the language of politics becomes reduced to small-screen imagery — not so much a vehicle for rational persuasion as a battle over competing sales messages and audience share — it is dangerously easy for war to become a drug that masks the world’s ills as much as it addresses them. The media is the perfect instrument to administer that drug, especially if it abdicates its responsibility to challenge the political establishment and falls unquestioningly in line behind the flag, right or wrong.
The very same dynamic of duplicitous language and militarist ideology led the world to catastrophe in the middle of the last century. Could it happen again? It is worth remembering that Mussolini and Hitler, when they first emerged, were both greeted with cautious optimism by conservative world leaders who saw them as anchors of stability, even moderating influences, in a highly volatile political environment. It was only after Italy and Germany started marching into neighbouring countries that attitudes changed, and even then those US progressives who had expressed alarm about the rise of the European dictators from the start were tarred with the label “prematurely anti-fascist”.
That’s the more alarming lesson of history. The more reassuring lesson is that fascist ideologies have a habit of self-destructing under the weight of their delusions and contradictions; it is surely possible to hope that, in a modern democratic setting, their follies could be exposed within the context of the normal electoral process before they lead to untrammeled disaster. George Bush’s Iraqi adventure offers just such an opportunity for exposure and correction, especially in a presidential election year. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936 he, like Bush, allowed himself to believe that colonial conquest would be a simple matter, conferring prestige and riches on all concerned within a few short years. The very different outcome was the beginning of the end of the romance between the Italians and their leader. Unfortunately for Italy, Mussolini was a dictator and it took another seven years to get rid of him, by which time further disastrous military expeditions had been launched in Albania and Greece and the whole of Europe was ablaze. One can only hope, 60 years later, it will be less painful to recognise and recover from our mistakes.