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Friday, 6 November 2020

Authoritarian America and How to Avoid It - a post-2020 election sermon

A number of years ago, a cartoon in the New York Times by Paul Noth has a flock of sheep staring at a billboard for a political candidate. The picture of the candidate, who is a wolf, lies next to text saying, “I am going to eat you.” One of the sheep looking at it turns to another sheep and says, “He tells it like it is.”

Many members of this community have publicly expressed shock and dismay that the election result wasn’t a landslide for Joe Biden. They look at the last four years and despair that over sixty million people could vote for four more years of the same. They thought that the 2016 election was an aberration, that Donald Trump was elected because Hillary Clinton arrogantly didn’t visit key states, because she called half the electorate a basket of deplorables, because the FBI dropped a bombshell only days before the election or because Russia hacked the election. These things all certainly contributed, but this most recent election has seemingly confirmed that which many people believe – that there has for a long time been an authoritarian, anti-democratic movement in this country that continues to grow in strength. Despite believing that it had defeated authoritarianism once and for all in the 1940s with the military defeat of Nazism, this recent election is a rude awakening to many liberal Americans that authoritarianism is on the rise in America, and despite the fact that its rise to prominence has seemingly been temporarily halted, unless we address its root causes, it has the potential to overwhelm this country in the future.

The start of the 2006 book American Fascists – the Christian Right and the War on America, by Chris Hedges, contains an essay by Umberto Eco called “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” Of the fourteen ways that Eco explains, at least seven could be applied to the Trump administration. To be clear, I am not saying that the 45th President of the United States was a fascist – all experts on fascism agree that that’s not true, despite a growing number of similarities. I’m not saying that the tens of millions of people who voted for him are fascists – of course they aren’t. I am saying, though, that what we have seen over the last five years by Donald Trump’s campaign and subsequent administration, culminating in this week’s denial of the democratic process by a sitting President, has been clearly authoritarian and has bordered dangerously close to fascism, and that we need to understand where this comes from in order to avoid it in the future.

In Umberto Eco’s essay, the reliance of tradition and the fact that there can be no advancement of learning is the first way that leads to fascism, and we have seen that in recent years by the open and consistent refutation of science not only regarding climate change but also regarding the current pandemic. The second way that leads to fascism is the rejection of modernism and the embracing of irrationalism, as made evident by the explosive growth in QAnon followers, one of whom has now just been elected to serve in Congress. The third way is similar – the belief that thinking is a form of emasculation and that the intellectual world cannot be trusted. We saw that in the President talking about climate scientists following political agendas. The fourth way is the belief that disagreement is treason. We have certainly seen in the last four years the rejection of valid peaceful protests and the vilification of protestors such as Colin Kaepernick as un-American or even anti-American. Eco says that for the fascist disagreement is a sign of diversity but “the first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders.” Again, we have openly seen the Trump administration try everything they could to block what they saw as intruders from Muslim countries. It is points 6 and 7 in that essay that I believe are essential to understanding this election. Eco says “Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” When members of our community don’t understand why tens of millions of people could vote for Trump, it’s very possibly because they don’t understand the depth of despair and feelings of futility felt by vast swathes of people in this country whose jobs were either automated or outsourced to other countries by corporations who were supported by the political class on both sides of the aisle. When Trump promised to drain the swamp, that promise wasn’t against all forms of corruption – clearly - but specifically against the corruption that brought poverty to predominantly white manufacturing workers. And when those jobs were outsourced who did they go to? To people of color worldwide. This is the direct consequence of free trade agreements that say that they’re opening up markets but are actually locking individuals worldwide into a form of contemporary serfdom by only providing employment to those who pay the least and who provide the least protection for the workers and their environment (see Hedges, p.136). This capitalistic global race to the bottom has devastated vast areas of America and left countless millions of Americans feeling betrayed by the political class, the intellectuals who failed to make life better for the electorate and who didn’t suffer from the global recession as they did. Despair turned to rage, and when white American jobs went to people of color abroad, that rage turned into overt racism. Despite the pandemic having killed nearly a quarter of a million Americans in less than a year, despite the clear evidence of systemic racism, despite the continued subversion of the democratic process, despite pending environmental catastrophe, still, despite all those things, the leading issue for voters in this election was overwhelmingly the economy. When you cannot feed your family, when you cannot afford the payments on your home, when you cannot afford your healthcare, then the issues of race that affect black people in cities miles away and the issues of environment that affect polar bears in the arctic become irrelevant to an enormous number of voters. That is the inevitable manifestation of the radical individualism of American society that defines the American dream as personal, and not communal, success, as well as the inevitable product of decades of the erosion of the economic safety nets that are essential to so many Americans.

Umberto Eco adds that “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.” Think of the so-called War on Christmas, the claims of Christian persecution in America, the conspiracy theories, the unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud even four years ago when trump won the election (!), the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us,” the claims of paid crisis actors and paid protestors, the need to constantly talk of the fake news media plotting to undo the Presidency. To those invested in the narrative of a subversive plot, the impeachment of Donald Trump only became more proof that there was a plot against him and his supporters. Regardless of clear evidence of impropriety, the act of impeachment reinforced the narrative of persecution and thus profoundly strengthened the base for this election. Why do so many people buy into that plot, into that feeling of persecution? Because modernity has undermined the social structures upon which such people hang their psychological existence. In that world view, there are men and women and there’s nothing in between. The dismantling of basic concepts of gender has a huge effect on patriarchal America because it leaves the men in particular feeling totally lost and unable to identify themselves. They claim to be worried about physical violence in bathroom stalls by transgender individuals despite no evidence of that happening but it’s not physical violence that they actually fear, it’s violence to their patriarchal norms. It’s violence to everything their society is based on. They fear psychological violence from modernity, and vote against it.

Those patriarchal norms are constantly reinforced in this country by the evangelical right-wing church whose most prominent leaders have since the beginning of this election campaign spewed the most shocking bile as they concoct sinister plot after sinister plot by the liberals. The fundamentalist church has for decades been working to infiltrate the American political scene, and has unquestionably succeeded in its mission because it knew that if modernity continued, it would be rendered irrelevant. The lavish lifestyles of its clergy would have to come to an end. It has, therefore, seized upon the dismantling of patriarchal norms by the secular state – the encouragement for women to work and to have their own voice, the permission for same-sex marriage, the permission for transgender surgery, and more – and reframed them as a war against God Himself – the source of ultimate morality. It has provided comfort to countless millions whose traditional views were being dismantled, by framing those who would dismantle them as working for the Devil. And nowhere has that strategy been more successful than in the abortion debate, where it has succeeded in framing the discussion to be about when life begins as opposed to when personhood begins. It has thus been able to convince millions of people that abortion is murder and that the woman who carries the fetus loses all right to her body as soon as she becomes pregnant because she is now a vessel for another person and not a person in her own right. The deliberate confusion of life with personhood is why we have repeatedly heard the accusation of Democrats being “baby killers” or “murderers,” especially in recent months. It is because where the secular state views morality as an ongoing democratic process that is determined at the ballot box, the religious fundamentalist refers to Scripture for morality and claims that it is unchanging. In that claim, they totally reject the post-modern concept that every text exists in relationship to its reader and that everything is therefore interpretation. No amount of relativity, or evolution of thought, may come into this mindset – there is simply truth and lie. This conflict of religious fundamentalism against the secular state in this country claimed an important public win for the fundamentalists in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty of teaching evolution despite Tennessee’s Butler Act which specifically prohibited it. Although the verdict was overturned on a technicality, the win was empowering for religious fundamentalists in America. They have for a hundred years since then deliberately reached out with their monolithic truth claims to the economically disenfranchised and socially displaced, they have comforted those people by framing their malaise as persecution by globalist elites – read Jews – who do not care for them, and they have helped form a mass social identity of opposition to democracy which has failed the blue-collar masses. Just as that religious fundamentalism is deeply patriarchal and anti-democratic within its own community, so too it manifests itself in anti-democratic norms. Thus, denying Merrick Garland a place on the Supreme Court or denying the validity of an election becomes in their eyes not only a moral position, but a Divinely supported position.

There is another narrative that must be included in any analysis of this election, which is the narrative of race. To millions of white Americans, totally removed from the reality of life for African Americans and Native Americans in particular, there is no racism in America. To them, racism was segregation and that was decades ago. In their minds, all that holds African-Americans back is their failure to manifest their own success – as we saw recently by Jared Kushner’s extraordinary statement that his father-in-law can’t want African-Americans to be successful more than they do. In that way of thinking, their lack of success is nothing to do with systemically racist structures but is their own fault. To such people who have no experience of systemic racism, it doesn’t exist. In fact, many of those white Americans genuinely blame President Obama for bringing racism back where, as far as they believed, it had been resolved! The dismantling of the American dream narrative, which was always a white narrative, coupled with the dismantling of other social narratives upon which so many white Americans had hung their own identities, had to be rejected for their own mental wellbeing. Segregation is not something from the distant past, though – at least one member of our community was arrested for sitting at a lunch counter with a black man. We can see how prevalent racism is in the so-called justice system in this country. We see it in employment figures. We see it in how devastating the pandemic has been in African American and Native American communities compared with the white population. But for those who have no contact with such things, the Black Lives Matter movement becomes just another attempt to undermine the profoundly American narrative of white normalcy.

It is important to clarify that I am in no way saying that everyone who voted for Trump in this election is an economically marginalized, distrusting, racist, white blue-collar Christian fundamentalist. I am absolutely not saying that. There are a multitude of reasons why people in this country vote for candidates from differing perspectives on gun control to voting rights to taxation to regulation and more. But what I am saying is that a now sizeable percentage of the American electorate is, indeed, made up of economically marginalized, authority-distrusting, white blue-collar citizens who unite with a massive voting bloc of misogynistic, democracy-denying, modernity-refuting Christian fundamentalists. Indeed, Christian evangelicals make up nearly 20% of the American electorate, and 75% of them voted for Trump this time. These are people who unite behind charismatic white, straight male figures. Together, they intimidate through fear of spiritual or physical violence, which is the hallmark of fascism. Indeed, this united group fan the flames of physical violence with chants of locking up opponents, with failing to condemn racial violence, and then turn to an authoritarian figure to resolve it through draconian law-and-order measures, like whisking away civilians in unmarked vans, or praising armed nationalists who walk the streets after civil unrest. They do everything they can to “own the libs” because the ultimate goal is the suppression of the new social narrative. They therefore even support what they know to be open lies as an act of defiance against the new social narrative and as a way to bring about a transformed American society that returns them to the time when they alone felt valued, which almost always meant privileged. Make American Great Again is the clarion call of this movement. From a logical perspective, Make America Great Again Again - a call which was made at least twice in this election campaign - is clearly nonsensical. But it actually reveals the deep insecurity of so many Americans who have lost their economic and social privilege and who will do anything they can to get it back. As Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, wrote two days ago, “It’s clear now that far too many of Trump’s voters don’t care about policy, decency, or saving our democracy. They care about power.” As Hadley Freeman recently wrote of Trump, “His white working-class supporters saw in him their own aggrievement at not being accepted by elites who rigged the game; [and] the elites saw a fellow plutocrat who would protect their fortunes.” She quotes John W Dean and Bob Altemeyer’s book “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and his Followers” in saying that there is no defeating Trumpism as so many people thought might happen in this election. There is no defeating Trumpism because it doesn’t exist – it’s not a consistent thought pattern. It is, she says, nothing more than a mere reflection of his followers and their own psychological predispositions. “They look at him,” she says, “and see what they want to see: themselves.” The impulse to authoritarianism, to control, to power, will never be fully slain because it is an all-too human impulse.

Donald Trump is just one head of the hydra. Defeating Donald Trump at the ballot box won’t end the authoritarian impulses of a growing number of despairing people in the American electorate, just as defeating Hitler militarily didn’t end Nazism as an ideology. Without constant care, democracy can easily slip toward hero-worship and authoritariansm, something the American electorate is now only just realizing. Authoritarianism isn’t timebound, and it is only suppressed, never fully defeated. When a crass twice-time divorced man who openly brags about sexually assaulting women and who cannot even quote from the Bible during interviews is held aloft by white evangelicals as the second Divine incarnation, the underlying issue for that vast section of the American electorate is not religious – it is about power… white male-dominated hierarchical power with Divine mandate. It is about the external threat to that power perpetuated in a narrative of persecution that can only be redeemed by a savior figure. The dismantling of that narrative is therefore crucial to the continued existence of American democracy.

Chris Hedges writes (ibid. p.47) that, “not all who fall into despair turn to the Christian Right” but “despair … is the fuel of the movement.” If we are to avoid such close elections in the future, we need to honestly address despair within all sections of American society. We will need to help people across the country not try to seize power to compensate for their own feelings of abandonment. This will not be a conversation of the brain solved by logic, but of the heart, solved by love of the other.

We will also need to address the sources of despair, particularly economic sources of despair. We need to help people feel validated, seen, respected, valued for their contribution to society. Finally, we need to show the benefits of modernity to those who feel threatened by it and to those who think that they have the most to lose by it. The new President-elect can and will talk of the equality of all people, of being the President for all Americans. Karl Popper once wrote, “To tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them.” (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971, 1:96) It is a firm Jewish principle that we are all descended from the same first being so we are all equal. The reality, though, is that not all people in this country are equal. Millions who were in positions of economic and social privilege have lost that privilege and now feel threatened. They do not care for the real systemic inequality in this country that affects others beyond their view and they will do anything to return to their position of privilege, even if it means subverting democratic norms. They will attach themselves to savior figures to do it, and will ignore everything that those figures say or do in order to regain their own feelings of power. They will be like the sheep looking at the billboard, thankful for the honesty of their savior without considering the harm of that savior’s message.

Healing America, then, avoiding authoritarianism, necessitates profoundly changing the American narrative. It means providing economic stability for all in the face of multinational corporations who do not care for American citizens and in the face of the irreversible automation of manual labor. It means speaking to the heart and not just the brain of those who feel threatened by modernity. It means unravelling the personal narrative of the American dream and replacing it with a communal narrative of the American dream. It means abandoning radical individualism. It means that if we are to dismantle systemic patriarchy and racism, we must do so in a way that helps those who benefited from it to learn what we all gain by that dismantling, so that they do not rise up in violent reaction to what must necessarily happen for humanity to progress.

The urge to authoritarianism is real. It is fed by despair and by anti-intellectualism, particularly by white men who wish to protect their own power and hierarchical sense of identity. It is fed by those who cannot see their own persecution of others and who instead see themselves instead as victims demanding a savior. It is not one man, it is a latent seed in the heart of man.

On this Shabbat, we rest. We celebrate the fact that millions more people sought a democratic society than those who tolerated an authoritarian one. We rest. We breathe. We gather our strength. We unify. We thank God for giving us the ability to express our voice at the ballot box. And then after Shabbat, we start the work of protecting democracy, of helping the vulnerable, of dismantling the narratives of privilege and hierarchy in ways that show the benefit of that work to all. We see the pain of the other, and help to remove it, for the benefit of all. We do so because our understanding of religion, of God’s call, is inclusive, loving and empowering. We do so because all of us are made b’zelem Elohim – in the image of God. We do so because the work of helping the other is the work of tikkun olam – of global and spiritual reunification, the core of the Jew. And let us say, Amen.

1 comment:

  1. One piece of feedback that I have received on this sermon which I totally agree with is that I made the mistake by blending economic despair with the despair of losing patriarchal structures. That is clearly in error. The economic devastation caused by free trade agreements has in and of itself been an enormous factor in creating despair in America.

    Another piece of feedback is concern of economic despair leading to racism due to who the jobs go to - people of color. I based this statement on a number of conversations I have had with people. If that is in error, as someone has suggested, then I would really appreciate learning more from others about this. Thank you.