Populist bigots need not be fascists

Picture of Donald Trump with his tongue outYesterday there was an article published in the Times by Melanie Phillips (it is paywalled, but a scanned image can be found here), a writer whose rantings against Muslims used to be a favourite topic of mine here. Phillips is, for anyone who doesn’t remember, is a conservative who used to be a liberal and who still calls herself a liberal, who used to write for the Guardian until she decided they no longer suited her, whereupon she took her column to the Times, then the Daily Mail until they decided she was too extreme for them, whereupon she went back to the Times. She labels herself a “neo-conservative”, which means a pro-war Zionist who recycles claims from the Zionist propaganda industry (MEMRI et al) and complains of “bias” when the media fails to show sufficient bias in favour of Israel. Yesterday’s article has a headline that brands Donald Trump’s “attackers”, those who seek to ban him from the UK, as the “real fascists”, but the article really does not bear this out; it does, however, peddle the idea that the popularity of his bigotry gives it legitimacy and claims that “the public have had it up to here with politicians and the intelligentsia refusing to acknowledge the fanatical religious roots of Islamic terrorism”.

To begin with: is Trump a fascist? Probably not. He is a populist bigot in a very American tradition: the rich man who feigns a common touch and is lauded for giving a voice to the “silent majority”. If you can liken him to anything from 20th-century Europe, it would more likely be Pierre Poujade rather than Hitler or Mussolini. An article on Salon compared him to Henry Ford, a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1924, who legitimised anti-Jewish prejudice and, like Trump, posed as an “outsider” who, despite his wealth, could represent the “common man”.

Phillips describes fascism as such:

So, let’s see. Isis are said to be fascists. Le Pen and Trump, who want to fight Isis and their ilk, are also fascists. Ah, so they’re anti-fascist fascists, then. Hello?

There’s actually no contradiction between two fascist leaders fighting each other. Consider that Orwell’s 1984 was set in a time when three identical totalitarian régimes were at war with each other, but in our time, régimes which display characteristics of fascism (e.g. Khomeini’s Iran and Saddam Hussain’s Iraq) have fought each other. (I would, however, dispute the claim that ISIS, whatever else they are, are fascist.)

Fascism is a totalitarian slave-doctrine that deifies the state and its leader, is obsessed with racial purification and is hostile to modernity and reason.

It is certainly totalitarian, but isn’t always “obsessed with racial purification” (Mussolini, despite his atrocities in Africa, did not persecute Jews until he came under pressure from Hitler; Franco refused to involve himself in Hitler’s genocide) and Mussolini and Hitler were not hostile to “all forms of modernity” (they were industry and infrastructure builders, which was what some in that era called progress, not bucolic conservatives who kept people illiterate and tied to the land, although Franco and Salazar were). But cults surrounding personalities or ideologies are certainly a defining characteristic, as is a heavy government hand in the economy. It is also not a “doctrine”, but describes particular patterns of behaviour. This is why people throw around the term so readily to describe everyone from Donald Trump to anyone who has been associated with any group deemed a front for the Muslim Brotherhood.

She continues:

Many suspect — largely because of her racist, antisemitic father, Jean-Marie — that Marine Le Pen is a closet fascist. Maybe she is; but her stated programme makes her merely an uncompromising nationalist.

Trump’s comments were not just ludicrous but also morally and politically illiterate, making no distinction between Islamic extremists and the millions of Muslims who live decent, unthreatening lives. But does anyone seriously suggest he wants to kill all Muslims and turn the US into a totalitarian state?

First, not every fascist is a Nazi. Second, one does not have to intend genocide to be a bigot, or to be responsible for your followers’ violence against a given minority group that you use inflammatory rhetoric against. It is also possible to be against public violence against a minority in public, while supporting it in private. Mob violence, especially organised mob violence (as has happened frequently in India), can still claim hundreds or even thousands of life and cause terror and destruction for the minority targeted.

According to one British newspaper columnist, though, Trump is more dangerous than Islamic terrorists. And more than 450,000 have signed an online Commons petition to ban him from Britain. So the response to Trump’s supposedly hateful call to ban Muslims is — to ban Trump. How liberal or coherent is that?

What a ridiculous comparison. Britain does not let known terrorists of any description into the country (except, of course, leaders of ‘approved’ terrorist states). It also has a history of banning foreign speakers and preachers who encourage intolerance on the grounds that they are “not conducive to the public good”. These have included Americans such as Louis Farrakhan. It is not contradictory to liberalism to keep out a rabble-rousing bigot who does not have an automatic right to be in the country. Banning haters is not morally equivalent to banning those they hate. Phillips would not complain if Jews were the subject of the hatred and any country banned an anti-Semite’s entry, however popular he was there or here.

She goes on to equate popularity with truth or right:

But while Trump or Le Pen may be flawed or worse, the ideas they articulate resonate with millions.

According to a YouGov poll, some 25 per cent of Britons think Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US is an appropriate policy. These respondents aren’t fascists but have understandable, sensible and rational views.

They may seem sensible and rational based on what the respondents have read in the papers or heard of on the news and in gossip on the street or among their friends. As the British and American general public are not intimately acquainted with Muslim society and are not well-read on what the Islamic scriptures and scholarly corpus say about terrorism or any other topic, and do not see Muslims flogging or beheading people in large numbers on the streets of the towns where they live and have experienced terrorism from Muslims only infrequently, they must be getting their ideas about Islam and its relationship (or lack thereof) to terrorism from somewhere.

The British and French public may not care for Trump or Le Pen. Yet they understand that they alone are saying what is all too obvious but mainstream politicians deny.

That is that the European Union is now a threat to both democracy and public safety; and that Muslim society, which pumps out paranoid hatred of the West and of which a sizeable part wishes to Islamise the body politic, provides the toxic sea in which Islamic terrorism swims.

That the EU is undemocratic is not in dispute; its major decisions are made by appointed commissioners and its institutions are far more distant from the average person than even the US federal government. However, in the time it has been in existence, it has only ever admitted democracies and no member state has ceased to be one; it emerged out of a post-war vision intended to unify different countries so as to prevent a return to the destruction of the early 20th century; so far, we have not seen a return to that. It’s not “obvious” that the EU is a threat to safety; it allowed us to opt out of the Schengen accord and to maintain border controls with countries other than Ireland, and that and our island status means we can better reduce the number of refugees and migrants and turn back people suspected of involvement in terrorism, including EU citizens. We are not being flooded. We also benefit from the abolition of tariff barriers, which would be reintroduced if we were to leave the EU, which may be discouraging to foreign owners of British factories. Why is it so ‘obvious’? Because the papers say so.

It’s worth noting that in her book Londonistan, Phillips defended tabloid papers precisely because they were read by millions and reflected popular sentiment while papers like the Guardian represented only an out-of-touch élite. This is the line taken by her former editor, Paul Dacre: it equates the purchase of the paper with a vote for the views expressed in it. However, as people have to be informed by someone about what is going on beyond their neighbourhood, it stands to reason that the popular press may be influencing or reinforcing rather than just reflecting public opinion, or rather, popular prejudices and beliefs, both true and false. It’s true that some people buy these papers for entertainment (and for the human interest and celebrity stories) rather than because they necessarily believe the opinions in it, but not everyone who reads them has bought them, and it stands to reason that papers would not include these opinions if they did not have some influence, let alone were intolerable to the readership.

Next, she raises the threat that if the demands whipped up by the popular press are not met, real fascists will benefit:

The public have had it up to here with politicians and the intelligentsia refusing to acknowledge the fanatical religious roots of Islamic terrorism. They are enraged by the reflexive charge of Islamophobia to silence legitimate concerns.

Who says? Phillips and her friends in the Zionist blogosphere and social media are, perhaps. They have reason to be: because anything that suppresses Muslim power or numbers suits the interests of Israel. The general public in the UK have not been affected by “Islamic terrorism” for years other than by hearing about it on the news (a small minority are affected by it while abroad), so why would they be “enraged” other than because of a sustained propaganda campaign?

Now, the perception that politicians are refusing to address the influx and growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism at source — and worse still, demonising anyone who tells the truth about these issues — is driving the public to snapping point. Enter, therefore, Trump and Le Pen (and, before Ukip imploded, Nigel Farage).

The fact that UKIP ‘imploded’ despite securing more than 4 million votes in the May 2015 election is reason enough to doubt that its politics are that influential; it could not attract the money necessary to continue as a major party and has only two major personalities (Farage and Douglas Carswell) who do not see eye to eye. It’s not true that anyone who publicly draws a link between Islam and extremism or terrorism is denounced as a fascist. The government routinely connects mainstream Islamic views on matters such as homosexuality or the status of women with extremism and uses someone with a background in counter-terrorism policing to lead an inquiry into Muslim activities that are nothing to do with terrorism. These views are in the political mainstream and it is opposing views that are shouted down. “Multiculturalism”, meaning tolerance of ideas that have gone out of fashion in mainstream white society, has been a dirty word in British politics for years.

What makes our intellectual elite demonise such people as fascists? For the answer, look no further than the joy and relief with which the Labour benches erupted when Hilary Benn unfurled the anti-fascist banner last week.

For the left defines itself by what it is not. Anti-fascism is the bedrock of its own identity. It needs fascism so that it can prove its own virtue by opposing it. Without fascism, it wouldn’t know what it was.

While it’s true that anti-fascism is important to the left’s identity (as it was instrumental in facing down both Mosley in the 1930s and the NF in the 70s), a commitment to social justice in the form of equality is perhaps more important. It defines itself against the Tory defence of privileged interests. That anti-fascism is important does not mean every left-winger might seek out every opportunity for glory in “fighting fascists”, especially when he or she will not be the one doing the fighting but, rather, sending other people’s sons and daughters. This was the same self-delusion that motivated the ‘sensible’ (read establishment) left to support the British and American invasion of Iraq in 2003 with predictable, disastrous results.

In fact, last century’s revolutionary Islamist thinkers were mainly influenced by communism, the secular mirror to their utopian project for transforming the world by erasing national boundaries and creating an Islamic brotherhood of man.

As the Iranian analyst Azar Nafisi wrote in 2003, radical Islam “takes its language, goals, and aspirations as much from the crassest forms of Marxism as it does from religion. Its leaders are as influenced by Lenin, Sartre, Stalin and Fanon as they are by the Prophet.” صلى الله عليه وسلم)

The notion of the ummah, the Muslim equivalent of the “brotherhood of man”, is not of Marxist origin; it is a concept that goes right back to the time of the Prophet (sall ‘Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and was referred to in the Hadeeth. National boundaries as they exist today are artificial and so are ‘nations’ like Tunisia, Algeria etc which have more in common (including language and religion) than they have separating them; prior to the invasion of the European colonial powers, you did not need a passport to travel from one part of, say, the Ottoman empire to another. It’s true that many 20th century ‘Islamic’ revolutionaries were influenced by European thinkers and leaders, but this was a product of European influence on Muslim societies. It was only in Iran that they gained power, and even then the thinkers most influenced by Marxism (let alone actual Marxists) were sidelined early on. These observations are true to some extent of the Jama’at-e-Islami and of some elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not true of the likes of al-Qa’ida and ISIS which trace their origins back to Muslims who fought communism in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Muslim scholars from across the spectrum have denounced communism becuase it necessitates the theft of legitimately-held property, because it is heavily associated with atheism, and because it has been highly repressive wherever the Muslims have experienced it (besides the former USSR, this also includes the former South Yemen). They are more hostile to communism than the late pope John Paul II.

I am not convinced Trump is a fascist. But his suggestion that Muslims should have to wear identity badges certainly has a fascist precedent. Nearly all of his much-vaunted policies on Muslims will be struck down at the first hurdle as they plainly violate the First Amendment. Even the most conservative Supreme Court justices will agree with that. In that sense, he is less clever than other bigot politicians who make sure that most of their laws do not blantantly violate the constitution. But it’s not true that Trump, Le Pen or any other politician who runs on a platform of bigotry just “says what people think” and that only a sneering liberal metropolitan élitist would disagree. Muslims are not bringing terror to the streets of Houston or Kansas City where a mass shooter is more likely to be white and nominally Christian, so anyone who thinks Trump is saying ‘obvious’ things that nobody else dares to is simply wrong, or lying. His ideas have been common currency on the biased and often mendacious American right-wing talk-radio circuit for years, as well as in some print newspapers (e.g. the Murdoch New York Post), and Trump is aiming firmly at that audience, much as the political right here exploit the prejudices fostered by the popular press.

Phillips exalts “the people” who are fed up with the indulgence of a minority she dislikes, but however many people believe a lie, it does not become the truth, and the beliefs Trump and other right-wing populists trade on are lies. It is not good enough to say that we must capitulate to the bigotry of those who believe lies, or else we will end up with “real fascists” like Golden Dawn, as Phillips says in her last paragraph. We must challenge and expose the liars, otherwise racists and fascists will be emboldened and make more demands of us. Trump is not a champion of the common man who says what nobody else will. He is a chancer, a bigot and a liar, who trades on ignorance and prejudice. He and his ilk must be fought, not excused, before they can do any damage.

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  • George Carty

    Isn’t the UK a special target for illegal immigrants in particular (as the Calais Jungle demonstrates) — not because of its supposed lavish benefits (as the right-wing press would claim), but rather because it is far easier to hide from the authorities here than in Continental European countries (almost all of which have ID cards and compulsory residence registration)?

    Oh, and I don’t see how anyone could believe that Melanie Phillips is a liberal even discounting her Islamophobia — just look at the strong conservative views she expresses in her columns on education, for example!

  • Well, Phillips was still calling herself a liberal last time I saw her interviewed, in common with other neo-cons who were supporting Bush in the 2000s - Dennis Prager springs to mind (a regular fixture on conservative websites then). They blamed the liberals for leaving them behind rather than them having abandoned liberalism, but it’s hard to detect the liberalism in Phillips’s thought now. As for illegal immigrants, it’s more likely to be because of connections here than the lack of ID cards, but also because some of them want to claim asylum and if they’re successful, Britain has a more liberal employment market than France. More of them speak English than French (except those from former French colonies), also.

  • George Carty

    Dennis Prager is interesting as he’s more friendly with the Christian Right than other Jewish neoconservatives.