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Growing up in Mussolini’s Italy, the late novelist, social critic, and philosopher Umberto Eco learned a thing or two about extremism — which helps explain why, when he published an essay in 1995 outlining 14 properties common to what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism,” his words carried weight.
Eco recently came to mind in light of Republican Representative Paul Gosar’s latest tweet, in which he fantasized about physically attacking his infinitely more distinguished colleague, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He did this by posting an edited anime with the faces of himself and AOC superimposed, making it look as though he was killing his Democratic candidate in the cartoon. Gosar’s digital director, Jessica Lycos, made light of the tweet, suggesting that it was a joke and “everyone needs to relax.” If anyone feels relaxed after seeing that deeply odd cartoon, then let me know.
(To no one’s surprise, Ocasio-Cortez quickly and effortlessly shredded Gosar, noting that “a creepy member I work with… shared a fantasy video of him killing me … This dude is a just a collection of wet toothpicks.”)
The fringe-right rot in the GOP, however, has spread well beyond unhinged conspiracy upchuckers like Gosar. From likely-soon-to-be-indicted-for-sex-trafficking Florida man Matt Gaetz to QAnon kook Marjorie Taylor Greene to sedition apologists Jim Jordan, Mo Brooks, Lauren Boebert, Josh Hawley, Madison Cawthorn, and so many others, Republicans are now pushing boundaries which haven’t been pushed before.
How clear is it that many Republicans and their twice-impeached Goblin King are flirting with most, if not all, of the characteristics of fascism that Eco laid out three decades ago? Let’s take a look:
1. “The first feature of Ur-Fascism,” Eco wrote, “is the cult of tradition.” Of course, a sense of tradition in and of itself is hardly fascistic. A society without traditions isn’t one that most of us would want to be a part of. But when a political party exalts an ingeniously vague refrigerator-magnet slogan — Make America Great Again — into an article of faith, the very notion of tradition goes out the window.
2. The second feature is, in Eco’s words, a “rejection of modernism.” For fascists, Eco argues, “the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.” Of course, for some Republicans, modernism is synonymous with an unending torrent of “leftist” depravities like paid family leave, critical race theory, taxing the rich, fighting climate change, or getting vaccinated. How do we Make America Great Again? Turn back the clock, ideally to around the 1800s.
3. Eco cites “the cult of action for action’s sake” as a key trait of Eternal Fascism. (Cultism, one finds, is deeply entwined in Eco’s conception of fascism.) “Action being beautiful in itself,” Eco notes, “it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.” We’ve all heard far-right figurines bleating in recent months about what they see as the “emasculation” of American boys and men. But when seeking an example of mindless “action for action’s sake,” is there a clearer, more mind-bendingly rash example than the former president’s bogus, ineffectual border wall? As a defense against pretty much anything at all, though, it’s a bust. But hey! Action!
4. “At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology,” Eco argues, “there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.” Compulsory victimhood has become a big part of the GOP of late. Can’t win a fair election? Screech that it’s “stolen.” Frightened of a vaccine? Vilify that notorious Big Pharma stooge, Big Bird. Caught on video waving Confederate flags and wearing MAGA gear while violently attacking the Capitol and killing and maiming cops? Blame Antifa, Soros, and the cops themselves. For today’s perpetually aggrieved far-right, the plot is everything — the more convoluted and ludicrous the better. (“You can’t PROVE that there aren’t lizard people in Congress who drink kids’ blood for breakfast. Can ya? Huh? Can ya?”)
5. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus,” Eco writes, “the enemies [of fascism] are at the same time too strong and too weak.” This maps nicely with, say, endless warnings about “socialists” taking over our schools, from kindergartens to universities, while simultaneously depicting those same usurpers as soft, decadent eggheads and elites.
More of the properties that Eco identifies as fascist, or enabling of fascism, include “fear of difference,” “appeal to a frustrated middle [or working] class,” “contempt for the weak” (e.g. undocumented refugees fleeing war, famine, mass rape), and the cult of “machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality).” All of these, in some form or other, underpin the rhetoric and reflect the politics of today’s Republican Party.
No sane person believes that every single Republican in America is a fascist. But everyone who downplays the insurrectionist violence of January 6th, or furthers the seditious myth that the 2020 election was “stolen,” or supports a disgraced former president who to this day is trying to spearhead an extremist coup before our very eyes — every single one of those people is playing a risky game.