BY MATTHEW HERBERT
A few weeks ago I wrote about certain similarities between Trump’s crass, vindictive political style and the contours of fascism.
Today I’d like to note two more unsavory tendencies we are flirting with in this populist revolution of ours.
The first is the contention that the media is constitutionally unable to tell the truth. I hope no one believes this proposition in its full strength, but we all seem to believe it a little bit. The ease with which we apply the label of “fake news” to anything that displeases us belies a reflexive lack of faith in news media.
Lurking behind this attitude is an even more worrisome one, that perhaps there are no objective facts at all, or if there are, they deserve to be overpowered by whatever political imperatives appeal to us most.
So here I go proving that internet theorem true about invoking Hitler so early on in a discussion, but this last idea is something both Hitler and his rival Joseph Stalin believed in deeply–that they could marginalize or destroy the petit burgeois press through the overwhelming popular support of their political movements.
And just in case you think they did not know what they were doing, they did. Or at least their senior advisors did. They didn’t actually believe the press was mostly wrong, most of the time. But they did want the press out of the way, and they had no intention of playing by the rules. The press would be discredited not by a conscientious review of side-by-side claims and facts; it would simply be shouted down.
In one of the best political novels of the 20th century, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler reminisces on how his once-beloved communist party justified this brave new tactic:
We were the first to replace the 19th century’s liberal ethics of “fair play” by the revolutionary ethics of the 20th century. In that we were right: a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity. Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule than the old one, that the ends justifies the means.
Trump’s attempts to discredit the press by summoning faux skepticism and rousing hoots of derision from the masses highlights a second unlovely trend–his open attempts to identify his attitudes and prerogative with the people’s will. Dictators, whether big and successful or forgotten by history, all do this. They all try to persuade the masses that flabby, suspect things like institutions will never disrupt the organic, muscular bond between Leader and People.
For now I am an optimist; I think Trump’s overt aping of authoritarian tactics will put him on the trashheap of history, or that he will even swagger away from his current mode of theater to something that proves easier. But in the meantime, one must face certain facts. These rallies of Trump’s, even if they pale comically in comparison to Hitler’s, serve the same purpose. They burnish the link between Leader and People. They cement the bond that suffers no questioning by institutions, no skepticism, no facts worth checking. They say to the masses, “Nothing will ever come between you and me.”