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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Back from the U.S.A., and they ask me...

If you’re an American abroad, you might sometimes experience this phenomenon as I have. Morning after morning, I walk in to work, or otherwise encounter British people, and someone asks me about whatever the latest news headline from America is. Often this has to do with guns. The perception in Britain is that every mass shooting is “just another day in America,” and statistically, that is true. Other times the question is “why do Americans not want health care?” or, why would Americans vote against their own economic interests?

I can’t fully answer these questions, and I’m weary of them. How should I really understand “Americans” (that monolithic group) when I haven’t lived there for over 15 years? But the latest round of questions has to do with one of the presidential candidates, of whom, let’s be reasonable, there  shouldn’t even be any yet since the election is next year. How, I am asked, did a celebrity previously famous for being mean on a television show (and being rich) get to be an apparently leading contender for the presidency of the United States?

So here are a few thoughts on that subject. I don’t claim that any of these are original; I’m just pulling together ideas for convenience’s sake. And I hope, by doing so here, not to have to post about him any more.

Since I don’t think he deserves any more publicity from me, I’m not going to repeat his opinions, all of which are easily found on the news. In fact, I’m not even going to name drop—I’ll just nickname this guy Far-right Arsehole Saying Crap and Insisting that Satan is Theotherguy (FASCIST for short). A lot of people, including in the U.S., are worked up about FASCIST and his persistent popularity. Should they be?

First, the scary thing about FASCIST is not what he says, but the fact that so many people like what they hear. In America, anyone can say anything. That’s the great thing about freedom of speech (a right that is curtailed in most other countries, including Great Britain). FASCIST is able to say anything that he wants and, in turn, we are free to judge him on that basis. Why are a lot of Americans still judging him so favorably?

Consider why he can afford to say stuff that would sink any other candidate’s campaign: He’s a gazillionaire. Most other candidates depend on donations and, at some point, would become so controversial that those donations would dry up. He’s immune to that. This appeals to many people: the perception that he is a “self-made man,” that he’s free to say what other people only think. In fact, Republican strategists who don’t support him, but would like their preferred candidates to learn from his success, identify this as his number one advantage: the perception that he cannot be bought. (The only other candidate in this position is Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist.)

Second, FASCIST is appealing to two very rich veins in American politics that have existed about as long as the country has. One is anti-intellectualism. The resentment of education has always been stronger in America than the resentment of wealth. People are readier to forgive someone for being richer than they’ll ever be, than for being professorial. (Personally, I think this explains President Obama’s problem more than racism.) This absolutely baffles non-Americans, almost to the extent that the Second Amendment does. Don’t these Americans know that they’ll never be rich like this guy, that his interests are aligned precisely against theirs? Why do they care more about the values he appeals to than their own economic wellbeing?

Because of the value of anti-intellectualism, facts are not effective against his appeal. For example, recent comments make clear that FASCIST doesn’t know what he is talking about in regard to several subjects: London, its police officers, Islam, and for that matter Christianity. So what? His fans do not care in the least. They don’t know London or Muslims, and they already have their own understanding of Christianity which neither he nor anyone else can shake. They care how they feel.

And this is the other rich vein that has always existed in American politics: nativism. Before the Muslim-bashing took off, Mexican immigrants were bearing the brunt of this, but it’s nothing new. Late in the 19th century, the long, rich anti-Catholic tradition in America reached new heights in a movement called, appropriately, the Know-Nothings. The laws and arguments of that era were against Catholics and their churches in an eerily similar way to the attacks on Muslims and mosques now. What name could more glory in the anti-intellectualism of America than the Know-Nothings?

From the first (non-European) inhabitants of America, to African slaves, to Catholics, Chinese immigrants, Japanese-Americans, and yes, Jews; there have always been people who threatened “real Americans’” way of life, and in return, they were persecuted to the fullest extent possible. That ranged from genocide to the terrorizing of black Americans and the World War II internment camps. By those standards, we have seen nothing yet.

I don’t mean that fascism shouldn’t be taken seriously. It always should. But it can’t be resisted, or even fully explained, by facts. Not when people understand democracy to mean that their opinions carry equal weight with facts.

They will understand your arguments to be what theirs are: ideology and emotion. They will believe that you are pushing for your agenda out of ideological conviction or [quasi]religious belief—not because, however reluctantly, you have been convinced by inconvenient facts. So before you argue with a FASCIST supporter or start posting memes, be sure that you have.

I hope that the rest of the world need not fear a FASCIST presidency, because Americans will work this out. My opinion is that after the outlying primary election in New Hampshire and caucus in Iowa, some sort of reason will return to the Republican primaries starting in South Carolina. That’s right—reason will return in the state that gave birth to the Civil War and flew the Confederate flag until this year. Now that’s a scary thought.

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