By: Jared Marcel Pollen
What does fascism smell like? It’s a question the late Christopher Hitchens used to ask, and one that’s worth revisiting. In 1945 it might have smelled like Zyklon B, whose reportedly almondy aroma rose with the ashes from the brick chimneys of Nazi death camps into the skies of Europe. In 1988 it might have smelled like the sick yellow waves of chlorine gas that swept over the northern provinces of Mesopotamia during the Halabja massacre, when the Baathist regime tried, not for the last time, to eliminate the Kurdish people of Iraq. Americans in New York and Washington DC certainly knew what it smelled like in September 2001. Last Friday though, it took on a seemingly more innocuous smell, one that could have been synonymous with any other summer night in America: the bitter odor of a thousand citronella torches in the streets of Charlottesville. 48 hours later, the President proved himself incapable of performing the most basic of moral duties: to stand behind a podium for a scripted ten-minutes and call this stench by its name.
I’ve scanned enough Facebook fights to have seen the word “Nazi” appear somewhere in my feed at least once a month, and I’ve been to enough rallies to have seen a black toothbrush mustache smeared on the face of at least every major world leader, regardless of context. The problem with throwing around hyperbolic clichés so lightly is that they lose what little currency they already have in discourse. Indeed, what makes clichés so tyrannous is that they’re true but useless. As a writer, I have a visceral aversion to platitudes perhaps more than the average person, and the reductio ad Hiterlum approaches the very top of my list. But the cliché of calling someone a fascist is somewhat supported by the fact that fascism is itself a cliché. The irony of the events in Virginia last week and the President’s colossally mishandled response to it, was that this banality was conspicuously absent precisely when it was called for.
The term “alt-right” may be one of the most egregious misnomers in recent political memory. Journalists have accepted it without question, seemingly unaware of its insidious euphemism, along with the idea that it represents a rebellious, heartland libertarianism. Who were the people in Charlottesville if not radical statists, blackshirts in waiting, the foot soldiers of the establishment the second the establishment appeared to be in harmony with their interests? There is nothing remotely anti-establishment about them, just as there was nothing remotely anti-establishment about an aging aristocrat-cum-celebrity trying to gain access to the White House, or the team of moneyed elites he installed there.
And who are Steve Bannon and Rush Limbaugh and the people at Fox News et al. but the stokers of xenophobia and merchants of the insidious national myth that is “the Real America”––that spirit which exists only in the middle provinces, representative of a great country tragically taken away. When, and from whom? The people who were in the streets of Charlottesville chanting, “blood and soil” (a Nazi slogan) and “Jews will not replace us,” have claimed the property rights. Used as nostrums for humiliation and lost glory, national myths laced with racial undertones provide fascism with its mise-en-scène, and while I’m fairly certain Donald Trump is not a fascist, just as I’m fairly certain he doesn’t know what the word fascist means, his entire candidacy consisted of set dressing and embroidering this legend.
As an individual, the President himself possesses many of the traits requisite for an authoritarian personality. The phrase “Authoritarian Personality” was coined by Theodore Adorno and his collaborators in a 1950 book of the same name. Aggression, superstition, stereotypy, cynicism, machismo and obsession with sex all place one firmly on the F-scale. Not coincidentally, in The Culture Industry, written years earlier, Adorno unpacked how the methods of popular entertainment primed people for totalitarianism through collective deception and pacification, by incrementally lowering intellectual and critical standards, allowing a demagogue to ascend to pop star status. It should come as no surprise then that Trump became one of the great archetypes of reality television (another egregious misnomer), the ultimate program of mass illusion. In January, the program moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, complete with live updates directly from the President’s brain, and the option of changing the channel appears to have been removed.
Add to this his ahistorical, or unhistorical assertions about the country’s past, his attempts to falsify reality in the presence of ready empirical data (such as the turnout at his inauguration) and an almost fantastical solipsism from which he appears incapable of being rescued. It seems to fit the bill, yes? In the early days of his campaign, when psychologizing didn’t yet feel like a wasted effort, people wondered whether Trump was cunning or just stupid, malicious or simply oblivious. But these are not mutually exclusive and do not disqualify each other. We know enough now about the President to know that he is all of the above. He is not a moral man in any respect. He is not moral politically (as evidenced by his presidency), he is not moral publicly (as evidenced by his celebrity) and he is not even moral privately (vis-à-vis the Billy Bush recording). But are we to believe he truly sympathizes with the thugs and bigots who helped carry him into the oval office?
In the worst of all possible worlds, the President is a white-supremacist. In the best of all possible worlds he is not, but is merely being strategic in not wanting to alienate a key part of his base and ruin his chances of reelection. Both are contemptable. There is however a third possibility, a more innocent albeit no less horrific one. Which is that the president is simply pathologically incapable of good judgement, even when what is right and wrong is demonstrably evident. In her report on Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt pointed out that it was not stupidity, but “sheer thoughtlessness that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period,” highlighting his inability to reason clearly or even defend himself with consistency, as he unknowingly contradicted himself numerous times throughout his trial. It is this evacuation of self-awareness, combined with extraordinary incompetence and remoteness from reality that can walk hand-in-hand with fascism. But, whereas Eichmann may have only been playing the fool, the President is almost certainly a fool in earnest, and though he may not be the ideological equivalent of his supporters in Virginia, the persistence of his own self-deception together with the poverty of his language and thought produces a distinction without a difference. His failure to be unambiguous is as good as an endorsement. This failure extends to the Republican party as well, which once again has stopped short of rebuking the President by name, and the few who have, like John Kasich, could still not bring themselves to declare they no longer have any confidence in Trump’s ability to lead.
In the last week, there has been much hand-wringing about what kind of precedent this sets, what will it mean for the future of the administration, as well as the nation. An insight might be found in Philip Roth’s brilliant and now absurdly relevant novel, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh, the folk hero and leader of the populist “America First” movement (a phrase echoed by the Trump team during the campaign) defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election. This alternate reality is navigated by the persona of Philip Roth as a child growing up in the Weequahic area of Newark, NJ. Lindbergh, a known anti-Semite and visitor to Nazi Germany in the pre-war years, runs an isolationist campaign and promises to keep America out of the war in Europe at all costs. Following his election, he signs a non-intervention pact with Germany (known as the “Iceland Agreement”) and then Japan (the “Hawaii Agreement”) before retreating to become an aloof and laconic president. Flying around the country in his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, Americans watch him from the ground and cheer on “Lindy!” When he does appear, he says little more than––our nation is at peace, America is not at war, people are working, we are safe.
When assimilation programs for young Jewish boys begin shortly after his inauguration, and the forced relocation of Jewish families to the Midwest months later, the Roth family plans, then abandons an attempt to emigrate to Canada. Throughout, the President remains silent. When Jewish radio gossip Walter Winchell, a wag and critic of the President, announces he will run against Lindbergh in the ‘44 election, a surge of pogroms spread across the country––Jewish shops are smashed, synagogues are set ablaze and Winchell is gunned down while making a speech in Kentucky.
Shortly thereafter, The Spirit of St. Louis goes missing somewhere over Appalachia. Lindbergh disappears. Another wave of anti-Semitic violence follows, as German radio broadcasts a conspiracy that the disappearance of the President and the kidnapping of his son years earlier were part of a Jewish plot to topple the American government. Philip’s aunt––who’d married an administration insider––forwards a counter-theory that the Nazis kidnapped the Lindbergh’s child shortly before the putsch in 1933. Lindbergh’s son remains alive in Germany, raised as a member of the Hitler youth and was used as a bargaining chip to force cooperation between the United States and the Third Reich. Philip’s aunt goes on to explain that when Lindbergh refused the Nazi’s proposal to the bring the Final Solution to America, he himself was kidnapped. Having taken the crisis to its terminus, Roth (the author) installs a trap door in his narrative and has Roosevelt announce an emergency presidential election, which congress grants. Roosevelt is reelected and the United States returns to the mainstream of history.
The wisdom of Roth’s novel is in its faithful realism and its devotion to a tamed imagination. In many ways, American democracy is too robust, its checks and balances too well designed, its free press too strong to allow the country to descend into true despotism. But an inept and bigoted populist may still be elected, the integrity of the Republic may still be damaged, anti-Semitism can recrudesce, the hateful and the native may reveal themselves once again with new ferocity and a lingering conspiracy can lurk in the American mind for years to come. It’s not a dystopia so much as a picture of what is genuinely possible.
Before last November, those of us who saw Trump for what he was, what he is, believed we understood the reality of American life; we knew what was probable, what was tolerable and achievable within its parameters. Surely something like this could never happen. It couldn’t. Our dignity and moral seriousness would kick in before we’d let it. Now it has happened, and each week we seem to reach a new nadir, a mere seven months into this administration. What will next summer look like? And the summer after that? How far do we have to descend before we find the bottom? And will we know it when we see it? As of this moment we’re doomed to wait and see. If the most the President can muster in response to Charlottesville is that there is blame “on many sides,” I wait with cringing anticipation of what his response will be if America experiences its own Kristallnacht. What will Trump say then? That there were some ‘fine people’ in the mob too? That they were simply defending their heritage? There is no reason to believe any of this is impossible when the reality of American fiction paces the unreality of American life. The acute horror of Roth’s tale is in revealing to us that what we believe to be the alternate reality can quickly become indistinguishable from our own. It’s not alternative at all.
The last section of the novel is titled “Perpetual Fear,” the prolonged exhale of a conspiracy that will be an undercurrent in American life for generations. In our own alt-reality, we now know that the President is morally and intellectually incapable of calling fascism by its name, even when it flaunts itself in the streets. We also have an ongoing investigation about collusion with a hostile foreign government, one that is turning the nation paranoid. And let’s not forget the President’s inclination towards conspiracy as well––whether its saying that there were thousands of Muslims cheering in the streets of New Jersey on 911, claiming that there are terrorist attacks the media doesn’t report, or that three million people voted illegally in the last election, or that the previous President tapped his phone. What are the odds that if Trump is found guilty and impeached that he will go quietly? Who’s to say he won’t fabricate some further intrigue to explain his exodus, leaving his supports in a state of revolt? Freshly sacked Steve Bannon has announced that he will “go to war” to keep the President’s agenda alive. Adding, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons.” Get ready.
Conspiracy is the texture of fascism, the dream fabric with which we wrap ourselves in bad faith, and if this is allowed to reign over an ethnically-tinged, quasi-romantic nationalism it will remain a toxin in the American system for years to come, even when this President leaves office, as he one day will. The cliché of “fascism” may never be institutionalized in an advanced democracy like the United States, but its spirit can lurk within its liberal structure, like an animal died within the walls. You may not always be able to see it, but our noses will know when it’s there.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, 3:AM Magazine, Eternal Remedy and Salo Press (forthcoming). He currently lives in Prague.
 Eichmann and the Holocaust, Penguin Great Ideas