I’m something of a hypochondriac, and in the past few years have had at least seven different types of cancer diagnosed by Dr Google. Many, many things resemble the symptoms of the disease, most of which are benign, but if you know of family members who’ve suffered and read about it, then it’s natural to see the Big C everywhere.
Likewise, if a civilisation has suffered from a uniquely appalling trauma, then anything that vaguely resembles its early symptoms will cause people to fear it’s all happening again. Just like real health anxiety, political hypochondria is spread by the internet, with commentators and activists the equivalent of those dubious American health sites warning that your headache is going to kill you. But instead of cancer, we have fascism, a disease the commentariat can diagnose everywhere.
As with health anxiety, political hypochondria has risen with the invention of the iPhone, reaching a new intensity after Donald Trump’s secured the Republican Party nomination five years ago. After that, and his subsequent election, America’s commentariat whipped themselves into a hysteria that the country was on the verge of a fascist takeover.
Trump’s presidency produced a booming literature in fascism-is-coming literature, among them Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning, Cass Sunstein’s Can It Happen Here? and How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Entertainment also ran with the idea, with HBO’s adaptation of The Plot Against America imagining what a fascist United States would look like.
But while Trump’s political demise has caused a collapse in his symbiotic media haters, the fear of fascism will remain a constant, especially if, as he warned last week, he returns in 2024 (or, who knows, maybe earlier).
Just in the past few months Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor and highly-respected historian of the Second World War and Holocaust, warned in The Road to Unfreedom about growing threats to freedom in the West, while Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works focused on the ideology, its evocation of a mythic past, victimhood and use of scapegoats.
Britain’s Paul Mason also has an upcoming book, How To Fight Fascism, in which he warns: “The core of fascism’s belief system today is clear: that majority ethnic groups have become the ‘victims’ of migration and multiculturalism; that the gains of feminism should be reversed; that democracy is dispensable; that science, universities and the media cannot be trusted; that nations have lost their way and need to become ‘great’ again; and that there will soon be a cataclysmic event which sets things right.”
Mason is a veteran of Left-wing political activism from the days when the Anti-Nazi League had punch-ups with Britain’s extreme-Right. He writes, with a great sense of urgency, that we’re replaying the terrors of the 1930s; but then he’s been saying this for years, and the Lupine Vigilance Committee declaring the imminent arrival of the wolf is not startling news for most of us. Yet as we head towards the French elections next spring this fear of fascism will no doubt grow, helped by gains for populist parties in Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
It would be easier to take these warnings more seriously if they hadn’t been made so often before. Before Trump, George W. Bush was also routinely accused of undermining American democracy and having a plan similar to Hitler’s, although this has all been forgotten now that he’s recast as a cuddly imbecile who draws nice pictures of immigrants.
Those fearing Bush’s anti-terror legislation to be a modern-day Enabling Act were spurred by the sensationally popular 2003 article listing “Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism”. Author Lawrence Britt identified symptoms such as “Identification of enemies/scape-goats as a unifying cause”, a “Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism”, “Disdain for the importance of human rights”, “Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts” and “Obsession with crime and punishment” as signs of fascism. And it all sounded eerily like what was happening.
The fear grew after the financial crisis of 2007, because we all know that Hitler’s rise began with the Wall Street Crash — and indeed, the rise of national populist parties across Europe seemed to confirm all the old fears that fascism might return.
Yet sometimes the lump is just an unexplained lump. Or maybe it’s something unpleasant, but it’s not going to kill you.
National populism is not the same as fascism. It’s a particular response to recent, unprecedented levels of immigration, populist support correlating with rising diversity. While fascism is expansionist, violent and consciously elitist, populism tends to be defensive and democratic, even egalitarian. Fascism was youthful, the product of a young society, espousing vigour, action and the nobility of youthful sacrifice.
Populism, on the other hand, is focused on welfare benefits, the product of an ageing — and in places like the former East Germany, dying — population. Today’s western world, with a median age now well over 40, is just too old for fascism, and also too rich, Weimar Germany having a GDP per capita of around £3,000. We’re all too fat to fit into size XXL black shirts, and a country in which 36% of adults are clinically obese is not going to march anywhere any time soon.
There are fascist parties today in Europe, such as Golden Dawn of Greece, and Jobbik of Hungary, but not many. As for Right-wing street protest groups, English Defence League marches gather literally tens — sometimes ones — of people. Even an ageing Paul Mason could probably take them on. Sure, there are fascist organisations and groups, just as there are groups dedicated to shoe fetishes or translating great works of fiction into Klingon, but in countries comprising tens of millions of people it’s not especially noteworthy or frightening that a few thousand people are interested in a dead political cult.
In cognitive behavioural therapy, you are taught to avoid the tendency towards seeing the worst possible scenario, something I’ve always done. I can’t get on a plane without picturing it blowing up in mid-air and all my fellow passengers being plastered over the papers underneath the headline “TRAGEDY OF DOOMED FLIGHT”. In politics, we have an entire industry set up to do just that, equating every move away from runaway globalisation as being the start of Au Revoir Les Enfants. We saw it during the Brexit debate, when some of the hysterical reporting clearly frightened people into thinking they were going to get deported.
Much of this political hypochondria stems from the work of Theodore Adorno and his “F Scale” test, which was used to assess fascist personality types, asking questions about obedience, sexual relations, lifestyles and so on. The F Scale was tested in post-war America, where it was found that fascism was latent everywhere. In the 1950s Adorno warned that fascism was the real danger to America — despite that whole Communism thing — and was convinced that fascism was finding “a new home” there. Soon his prophecy turned true, and America famously fell to fascism, with the Civil Rights act, Flower Power and Woodstock.
What the F Scale was measuring was not fascism but conservatism, and to a political hypochondriac it’s easy to mistake them: conservativism is, after all, parochial, drawn to attachments that are local and national rather than global. Conservatism is defined by more traditional gender norms, a greater respect for parental authority, a harder line on crime, and it has a certain disdain for intellectuals — which is unsurprising when you consider the insane ideas thought up by intellectuals.
Labelling all conservative politicians as fascist is a political tactic often used by Communists — they even called the Berlin Wall the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart — but this isn’t the main reason for the proliferation of this phobia.
One of the curious things about the Trump era was that so many American journalists seemed to fear a fascist dictatorship that they actually desired it. They longed to be part of a heroic struggle against the forces of darkness, one in which all doubt and anxiety and everyday blandness was washed away — ironically like so many bored young men of the Belle Époque.
Everyone needs to be the hero of their own narrative, and it’s far more comforting to imagine you’re Indiana Jones battling Nazis when cheering someone being punched in the street, or the ousting of an academic you might disagree with. The truth, that we’re living in a free society and that the path to heroism has been cut off; that we have nothing greater than the worries and regrets of our everyday life, is too much to bear.
And so Trump’s opponents retreated to a world of fantasy, citing quasi-mythical modern folk tales in which good vs evil is binary and uncomplicated; on the one hand Harry Potter, and on the other Star Wars. This fantasy caused people to refer to themselves, without any irony or embarrassment, as “the Resistance”, a reference both to the Lucas space opera and to occupied France. But the point about being part of the “resistance” is you can’t openly talk about it; otherwise you’re not really resisting, you’re indulging yourself.
Trump was a bizarre, unpredictable figure totally unsuited to the role; his embarrassing time in the White House ended with the outgoing President inciting some of his followers to march on Washington, a dangerous and deluded finale to a four-year ego trip and personality cult. But it was never going to be a “coup” any more than his regime was going to be the Fourth Reich; the clown act turned deadly in the end, but it was still a clown act that never seriously threatened a 250-year-old constitution.
In my experience, the only way to avoid hypochondria is to just stop worrying and focus on other things, and maybe something else will kill you in the meantime. The same, I suspect, is true of our civilisation.