by Geoff Olson
p style=”text-align:left;”>There’s a brand new dance but I don’t know its name
/That people from bad homes do again and again/
It’s big and it’s bland full of tension and fear/
They do it over there but we don’t do it here
-David Bowie, Fashion, 1979
Last Tuesday night, I parked my butt on a barstool and watched slack-jawed as the US election results rolled in on a big-screen TV. Inconceivably, Thing One was trumping Thing Two. By the time I stumbled home it was game over: Lady Macbeth had lost to a former reality TV star with an Art Deco ‘do and 70 active lawsuits against him.
One thing you can say about Donald Trump: he and his successful train wreck campaign have been yuuugely fascinating. Morbidly, perversely… but fascinating nonetheless.
“Fascinate” means to bewitch or enchant. It originates from the 15th century Latin fascinus, meaning “a charm, enchantment, spell, witchcraft.” It was once believed that witches and serpents could render one unable to move or resist through a spell or a mere gaze. According to the Century Dictionary, “To fascinate is to bring under a spell, as by the power of the eye; to enchant and to charm are to bring under a spell by some more subtle and mysterious power.”
News watchers were spellbound by the media’s fixed focus on Trump’s dickish exploits and outrages, any one of which would have been enough to sink a traditional candidate from either party. Yet the Rethuglican candidate was nothing of the sort, unless you consider sexual harassment and an endorsement from the Klu Klux Klan to be “traditional”. The press couldn’t look away, and neither could the rest of us.
In any case, once you start investigating word origins, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. A word closely related to fascination, with its associations of spells, paralysis and power, is the f word: fascism.
Fascism is drawn from the Latin noun, fasces, meaning “a bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting.” A Roman magistrate would carry these before him as a symbol of violent authority: “the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe-head execution by beheading. Hence in Latin it also meant, figuratively, “high office, supreme power,”” according to the Online Etymological Dictionary.
The Italian fascists explicitly took their name from fasces. A perched eagle clutching a fasces was a common symbol used on their uniforms. The British Union of Fascists also employed the image in the 1930s.
Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Needless to say, American immigrants are not the only ones now worried about the rise of domestic fascism in the US. (Whether or not Trump abides by his protectionist “principles” and projects military violence into the world, a la Clinton/Obama, is another matter.)
Tellingly, fasces are all over American iconography. There are two fasces on either side of the US flag behind the podium in the United States House of Representatives. Fasces decorate the base of the Statue of Freedom on the United States Capitol building. The National Guard employs the image as well.
You can read as much or as little into this as you like into this, as either symbolic acknowledgement of America’s violent underpinnings or irrelevant decorative fashion. Yet fashion itself is a word lexically related to the terms above. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word has roots in the latinate term for a “group of people acting together,” from facere, “to make.”
In a 1979 song, David Bowie drew a comparison between mass trends and totalitarian movements. Was he consciously working a lexical link between fashion and fascism? I don’t know, but his invocation of fashionistas marching in lockstep is both danceable and disturbing. A David Duke campaign song for 2020, perhaps?
Fashion!/Turn to the left/Fashion!/Turn to the Right/Fashion!/We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town/Beep-beep! – David Bowie, Fashion
Did you hear the one about President-elect Trump’s off the record meeting with 30 to 40 media representatives? No joke. “It was like a f–ing firing squad,” an unnamed source told Mother Jones last week. “Trump started with [CNN chief] Jeff Zucker and said ‘I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed.”
Trump is halfway right for the wrong reasons. Consider past mainstream media reporting about the Mideast alone, from Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs to the existential threat from Libyan leader Gaddafi to the ‘moderate rebels’ fiction in Syria. Inconvenient facts that don’t fit the narrative have long been dispensable.
In contrast, the news monoliths’ straightforward recitation of Trump’s serial lies and contradictions constituted some fairly consistent truth-telling.
Faith in traditional media is at an all-time low in the US. As a result, Trump supporters were inoculated against verifiable information about their idol from The New York Times and other bastions of the so-called “liberal elite” (outlets that truly did give the venal Hillary Clinton a free ride, by the way).
Mix this curdled attitude toward old-school newsmongers with social media, where algorithms offer news items tailored to users’ browsing patterns. Sprinkle in some disinformation from Internet trolls, heat with divisive commentary from bloggers left and right, and let sit for an election cycle. That makes for one spicy stew of Confirmation Bias.
Eat up, ‘Murica. The facts have been fudged for your convenience; you just can’t be sure which ones.
The US federal election offered voters a choice between a cataclysm and a catastrophe. The Democratic Party owns this one, having put forward one of the worst presidential candidates in living memory. They can hardly call cry foul over suspect voting patterns in some US states (with Trump winning by highly improbable one percent margins) when they stole primary votes from Bernie Sanders to anoint the Queen Bee.
The hawkish Hillary hardly made the odious Trump shine in comparison. The problem with lesser-evilism as a political philosophy is that better options – the Naders and Steins – are consistently marginalized by the press during elections yet cursed afterwards by electors as self-indulgent, divisive vote-splitters.
So now we have tweeting Trump twice demanding an apology from the cast of the Broadway play Hamilton, for an after-performance speech directed at Vice President-elect and playgoer Mike Pence. This is something new in America: a president in waiting issuing direct commands to particular citizens to behave, like some tinpot dictator wielding a bullhorn and enemies list.
Short of military invasion, US foreign policy has long been about supporting authoritarian regimes, fronted by strongmen willing to sell out their country’s resources and assets for the benefit of themselves and international banksters. Batista, Somoza, Pinochet, Rios Montt, Noriega, Stroessner, Suharto, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, Marcos, Hussein, Mubarak. That’s just the short list of US-supported thugs from the past sixty years.
American mainstream media commentators have long pitched foreign invasion and covert ops as spreading freedom (at best), and the failure of good intentions (at worst). And last week some of these stenographers to power gathered to be harangued by an orange-skinned creature from reality TV. However could this ever have come to be?
Well, vast stretches of the US are now functionally at Third World levels, so who better to take the reins than a despot-in-training? Trump’s infamous tag line – “you’re fired!” – is just right for deindustrialized America.
The Banana Republican’s bluster has yet to be field-tested in the oval office, but he will be backed by the National Defence Authorization Act, signed into law by Obama in 2011. The point is not that Trump WILL take advantage of a bill that supposedly allows the president to detain Americans indefinitely without trial. The point is that he CAN.
The “cult of American exceptionalism” did not impress the late, great American writer Joe Bageant, who wrote on how a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations had exploited the US rural underclass for decades. “Arrogance is experiential and environmental in cause… Human experience can make and unmake arrogance. Ours is about to get unmade,” he wrote shortly before his death in 2011.
The Vancouver Courier, December