On Tuesday, Philosopher Nolen Gertz (whose twitter account you should definitely follow if you don’t already) tweeted the following picture (I did my own search to verify – it’s real):
Here’s what’s happening in the photo: if you type in the words “Nazis are” into Google, the site will automatically suggest the four following searches: “Nazis are cool”; “Nazis are socialists”; “Nazis are good” and “Nazis are left wing.” It appears as if the debates (and facts) that we thought were long settled, have, in the wake of the presidential election, come unmoored from reality. So, in the interest of our country’s collective sanity, let’s examine each of those assertions from the Google search engine (a rehash that I never thought we’d have to do):
“Nazis are good”
Let’s get this one out of the way before delving into more complex questions: We answer “Nazis are good” with an obvious “no, they are not.” Or at least, I thought it was obvious. But considering the popularity of the search, here are a couple refreshers:
That should cover it – moving on.
“Nazis are cool”
The “coolness” of Nazis is a much more difficult topic to unpack than one might expect. Obviously (or, again, not so obvious now), Nazis are not cool in the sense that cool means “accepted” or “all right,” but in the sense that cool means “fashionable” or “hip,” the discussion becomes more interesting.
Much has been made of the recent wave of “normalization” of the “alt-right” (also known as fascists – but more on that later), with particular ire and ridicule directed at this Mother Jones piece about “alt right” (once again, fascist) thought leader Richard Spencer (Mother Jones originally tweeted their piece with the caption “Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave,” but has since deleted the tweet). The piece was widely lambasted for depicting Spencer more as a Merlot drinking, sushi loving hipster rather than as the dangerous scourge that he is. The Los Angeles Times drew similar ridicule for this tweet, which depicts Richard Spencer as the cool new kid in town.
In response to the two aforementioned articles, New York Magazine’s style section, “The Cut,” ran an excellent piece about the role style plays in the “alt-right” movement. As Anna Silman writes, “For the alt-right, style is a propaganda tool, both to subtly pay homage to the pastiche of far-right movements before them (from the ‘retro 1980s’ all the way back to Leni Riefenstahl) and to present a façade of legitimacy where none exists.” Silman also points out that Spencer and his ilk made the conscious decision to distance themselves from the traditional American conception of “white-nationalism,” that is, poor rural whites, in order to attract a wider audience.
But this aesthetic consciousness should come as no surprise, nor should the accompanying media fascination. In a brilliant essay for the New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag wrote about the enduring allure of the Nazi aesthetic. Sontag wrote of the persistent appeal of Leni Riefenstahl’s (Nazi Germany’s greatest filmmaker) propaganda as indicative of “the cult of beauty” (read: kitsch) and the longing for “orgiastic” community displays (those hours long marathon Trump rallies, anyone?). That Trump’s policies and cabinet appointments seem as if they will be massively deleterious to large swaths of his voter base is immaterial; as long as his supporters have a sense of purpose and belonging, they’re his.
Most important for the present case however is Sontag’s discussion of uniforms, which not only “suggest fantasies of community, order, identity” as well as “competence” and “legitimate authority,” but also act as a form of dress up (Sontag’s discussion goes on to explore the relation between Nazi aesthetics and modern eroticism, specifically sadomasochism, but that’s another story). The donning of a uniform outside of any official capacity is an attempt to infiltrate a group through means of visual association. Spencer and the rest of his “dapper” cronies, with their close-cut suits and innocuous J-Crew sensibilities, are dressing up as those same Washington bureaucrats and effete young liberals that they so despise.
The shrewdness that separates Spencer and the “alt-right” from their more overt (and therefore, less dangerous) predecessors, is that they understand how the game is played. Minds are not won by burning crosses and waving Nazi flags, they are won by good tailoring and policy conferences – this is the facade of legitimacy that Silman references in “The Cut.” It is infiltration, not demonstration, that is the precursor to influence.
Nazis are socialists/Nazis are left wing
The debate around where Naziism ought to be placed on the political spectrum is still not settled, but let’s focus less on the historical debate and more on the way in which it is currently used to deflect accusations of fascism and to denounce the American left.
One of the key arguments levied by those who want to realign Naziism, and more broadly, fascism with the left in the popular imagination is that both the Nazi regime and the Soviet regime were totalitarian states. One of the premises here is that Soviet Russia is the pure embodiment of the left, and that, because Nazi Germany closely resembled Soviet Russia in a number of important aspects, Nazi Germany must also be on the left.
There are a number of problems with this argument, however. First, the understanding of politics as a linear spectrum, seems to me, to be deeply flawed. An alternative, and I think better, understanding is to imagine the political spectrum as a circle. Certainly both the left and the right have had their authoritarian manifestations and, while they are clearly different in their ostensible ideological justifications (look no further than the lyrics to the Horst Wessel Song and The Internationale), those manifestations are difficult to separate in terms of their actual actions. Rather than trying to assign all of them to one side of a linear spectrum, imagine both beginning on opposite sides of the circle, and then extending in downwards until they meet again at the bottom.
But it is not so much the non-distinction between the actual conditions of totalitarian regimes that matter here, but their justifications. Communism and socialism of course served as the leftist theoretical justifications for numerous totalitarian regimes. Naziism however, which officially has “socialist” in its name (“The National Socialist German Workers’ Party”), is not a movement of the left. Despite the “socialist” moniker, Nazi ideology was always nationalist (conveniently, also in the name), as opposed to the internationalist communists (though Soviet Russia embraced fascist style nationalism whenever convenient).
Of course, fascism comes in different forms than just Naziism. We commonly conflate the two words in the United States, but they mean different things. To call Richard Spencer a Nazi is only partly accurate, but to call him a fascist is spot on.
Umberto Eco, the recently deceased Italian philosopher and novelist, wrote one of the most valuable texts for sniffing out fascism in all its varied forms – his essay “Ur-Fascism”. Eco leads us through 13 features which he believes constitute the kernel of fascism as an ideology. I won’t go into the entire list here, but I would like to point out a two key entries:
First, Eco’s concept of “Popular elitism.” Fascism’s “popular elitism,” not intellectual, but national type. In Trumpian terms: Americans belong to the greatest nation on earth, Trump voters are the greatest Americans, every American can and will, one day, see things his way. It follows: liberals are not Trump voters, and are thus lower on the totem pole, immigrants are not American, and thus rank even lower than liberals.
Second is Eco’s discussion of “machismo.” Tied to fascism’s love of war, is a love of masculinity (as it’s traditionally understood). Accompanying this love of masculinity is a hatred of its opposite, namely, femininity. Trump has routinely played upon misogynist tropes (which are simply the negative reflection of machismo) to rile up his base, and his stated policies regarding abortion also signal an attack on women. That so many of Trump’s misogynist attacks are sexual in nature (remember when “pussy-gate” was the worst of our troubles?), speaks to the repressed and angry sexuality of the “gamer-gaters” and “men’s rights activists” who gravitate towards Trump and the “alt-right.”
The alt-right’s insisted repetition of the idea that “fascism is of the left” (consider this Breitbart piece and this Washington Times piece) is nothing more than a deflection. It’s a classic “tu-quoque” (which translates to “you also” in latin) – an argument strategy which seeks to discredit the opposing side by pointing out hypocrisy (i.e. “you levy these accusations at Trump, but just look what Soviet Russia did!”). The problem here is that two statements can be true at once (“Trump is a fascist” and “Soviet Russia repressed freedom of speech” are not mutually exclusive).
The important feature of the “tu-quoque” argument here is that those who employ it do not dispute the premises that comprise the accusations of fascism, they simply change the subject. No one on the “alt-right” would argue against the claim that they hate feminism, they would simply say that the Soviets had restrictive abortion laws as well, thus reorienting the discussion – don’t allow it.
Once we get past the initial, darkly comic, reaction to the Google search suggestions, we can see that their popularity points towards the beginning of a reeducation on Naziism and fascism in America. Reeducation, which is followed by infiltration into government, by acceptance, by control – we cannot let this happen. Those in the “alt-right” who rebuff the label of fascism either do not know their own movement, or do not know the meaning of the word — now is the time to teach them.