by Russell Dobular
No sooner had Donald Trump won the Presidency than centrists launched an all-out assault on every external force they could think of that would deflect responsibility away from themselves and their anointed candidate. Russia, racists, and third parties were the preferred boogeymen, and the number of reassuring articles written in the first six months after the election blaming one, or all, of these factors for Clinton’s loss, was truly staggering. But no matter what cause that in no way involved Clinton’s missteps, DNC rigging, the failure of neoliberal policies leading to the hollowing out of the middle class over several decades, exploding Obamacare premiums, low black voter turn-out, etc., any given pundit chose to explore, the theme was always the same: people who didn’t vote for Clinton were dumb, and people who did vote for her were smart. Those dummies out there off the coasts had either been duped by Russia, seduced by white supremacy, or maybe worst of all, been perverse enough to vote for candidates like Stein and Johnson who had no chance of winning. Nowhere outside alternative media did anyone stop to consider the idea that in a country where 63% of the citizens say they couldn’t afford a $500 emergency, a lot of people decided that given a choice between a candidate who not only defended the status quo, but explicitly ran on the promise of maintaining it, and one who at the very least would function as a big “Fuck You,” to an establishment they had grown to despise, enough people in enough key swing states found the Fuck You option irresistible to make Donald Frikkin’ Trump the President.
In the years since the election of doom, centrists have gone on to launch a rabid campaign against non-establishment voices and figures, from the suggestion that the Democratic Party should change its rules to not allow independents like Bernie to run as Democrats, to the suppression of alternative media through the use of draconian algorithms on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Google, to the oh-so-effective tactic of attacking third party voters and politicians. All of these suggestions and methods are aimed at suppressing free speech and limiting participation in democracy in order to achieve a desired outcome – that outcome being the triumph of the smart people.
It’s truly bizarre to see liberals, who have traditionally been sympathetic to the idea of supporting unpopular speech and tolerating, if not appreciating, third party voices, turn towards what are essentially fascist solutions for limiting opinions and political activity. But in the end, it’s the inevitable outcome of a worldview in which you believe that all the smart people hold similar opinions within a very narrow spectrum of acceptable beliefs, and that anyone whose beliefs fall outside of that spectrum is stupid. If you believe that the only reason your side loses elections is because too many of the stupid people get to participate in democracy and that a lot of those people are also too stupid to see through Russian propaganda and Kremlin-influenced alternative media (in this paradigm, all alternative media outlets are an arm of Russian intelligence), then the logical solution is to suppress that media and narrow the intellectual landscape of those voters. In this view, Bernie’s voters don’t support him because he’s offering solutions to long-standing problems that appeal to them; it’s because they’re too stupid to see that their government is far too broken and inefficient to ever deliver any of those solutions. The “smart people” understand that the best we can hope for is a “pragmatic” neoliberal centrist who wants universal healthcare deep down in his or her heart, but will settle for a reduction in prescription drug costs, because that’s how the system works. If in the course of waiting to enter the Valhalla of a permanent demographic majority that’s always just around the corner for Democrats, you happen to be bankrupted by illness, well, that’s the fault of all those stupid people who vote for Republicans. If it wasn’t for Republicans after all, Nancy Pelosi would tell her donors to piss up a rope and go full Norway in an instant.
The thing that liberals are missing in their newfound zeal for the undermining of free speech (ie, protecting the “stupid” people from Russian propaganda) and the accompanying lionization of our intelligence services (after all, they’re protecting us from the Russians) is that they’re helping to build a fascist police state that will turn on them the second it comes into power. From the Patriot Act’s elimination of Habeus Corpus, to the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras on city streets, to the way every aspect of our online activities are being tracked and monitored, we’ve already set up all the infrastructure required for a fascist government to exert a level of control over the population that the Nazis could only have dreamed about. Liberals stayed silent as Democrats in Congress supported all of these threats to our most fundamental legal protections, and now they are the loudest voices arguing for the suppression of third parties and online speech that they disagree with. Just as with the other assaults on democracy that they’ve supported over the years, the potential long-term ramifications seem to escape them, even now that the thing more sober-minded and less MSNBC-indoctrinated people warned of as Obama was busy expanding the surveillance state has come to pass: a fascist is in the White House, and he’s inherited all the NSA toys we gave him.
Right now there are still too many functioning vestiges of divided government for Trump to make full use of the terrifying powers we’ve imparted to the state since 9/11, but one major terrorist attack on US soil, or the outbreak of a serious war, and its only a short step to indefinite detention for activists and opponents of the regime, many of whom will be the same liberals who cheered the arrest of Julian Assange and want to see Edward Snowden put on trial. And thanks to the Patriot Act, which Congress quietly renewed last week, as long as the government labels the detainees “terrorists,” it will all be perfectly legal.
Sinclair Lewis is often cited as the source of the famous observation, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” But the cross and the flag have never really represented the animating spirit of the country. A better formulation for our times would be: “When fascism comes to America it will be holding an iPhone and waving a credit card.” Capitalism and consumerism are the things that drive us. Its no accident then that we’re building our prison one Amazon purchase and Google search at a time. Its also no accident that W’s response to 9/11 was to tell the American people to go shopping. He was never as dumb as advertised; W understood the dangers of harnessing the great desire for civic and community engagement that bubbled up in the wake of such a great national tragedy. When people get together and start helping each other, pretty soon they start asking questions about why the people they’re helping need the help. They start organizing and trying to improve conditions. They become politically engaged. They begin to notice the great gulf between what they’re being told the country is and what it actually is: a white supremacist shopping mall where a few people benefit while most people struggle. Consumerism keeps us all siloed off behind walls of greed, desire, and superficial differences in taste. Better to have them go shopping then, than to have them try to do anything that might connect them to their fellow human beings. Ultimately, fascism is nothing more than an unholy alliance between capitalism and nationalism, combined with a lack of meaningful civil rights and the scapegoating of an “enemy.” As long as you aren’t the enemy, its easy to go along with. So, liberals mostly go along.
But there are other reasons why neoliberal centrists are even more hostile to democracy than their ostensible foes on the right. One is that they mistake their social justice positions (the only positions they hold that can be reasonably construed as “left”), as inherently anti-fascist. This is because our idea of fascism has been almost entirely shaped by the version of it that arose in Germany. But there’s no reason that the “enemy” in a fascist state needs to be a member of a racial, or religious minority. The suppression of ideas is paramount; the way that you get there is negotiable. It doesn’t really matter if you’re ruling certain ideas and speech out of bounds by labelling them “Jewish,” or ruling them out of bounds by labelling them “Russian.” The end result is the same; the dehumanization of certain classes of people, under the pretense of protecting the state. This is why liberals remained silent even as Chelsea Manning was being tortured for revealing American war crimes in Iraq. The fact that Manning is also transgender reveals the hollowness of even the identity politics that liberals claim to care so deeply about.
The other reason centrists are so supportive of anti-democratic policies is pretty simple: they don’t think the black hoods and the zip ties are ever going to be used on them. Centrists are centrists because the system is working for them. It always has in most cases. They can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t. It’s easy to give away protections and freedoms that you believe you yourself will always continue to enjoy. Just like its easy to support Medicare For All as an abstraction to be achieved at some point in the distant future, if there’s no chance your own family is ever going to be financially wiped out by an illness. Quite simply, they believe that no matter what happens, they’ll always be spared the worst of it.
One final update to the classic formulation then: When fascism comes to America it will holding an iPhone, waving a credit card, and be wildly popular with the liberal class, just so long as the stormtroopers are diverse and their targets have “Russian” ideas.