As some readers of this blog will know, for the last four months I’ve been heavily involved in the One Day Without Us campaign, which came to an end last Monday. For much of this time my normal life has been on hold and pretty much everything has revolved around the campaign. This has meant that I haven’t had time for a lot of things, including blogging. This is a pity, because a lot of things have happened since the campaign first started last October that I would like to have written about. Take the Bowling Green Massacre, which Donald Trump’s disturbingly spooky amanuensis Kellyanne Conway referred to on Feb 2 as a justification for her boss’s ‘Muslim ban.’ Now some of you might argue that I needn’t regret not commenting on something that never happened, and that there isn’t that anyone can say about a non-existent massacre except that the person who referred to it is either a liar or an idiot.
Nevertheless I can’t help thinking that the Bowling Green massacre is more significant than it might appear, and that it represents a new cultural/political threshold. It isn’t just the fact that Donald Trump and his entourage are liars and fantasists. That isn’t entirely the novelty it seems to be. When we talk about our supposedly new era of ‘post-truth’ politics we forget that it wasn’t that long ago when George Bush – aided and abetted by our own prime minister – ignited a war on the basis of ‘smoking guns’ that never existed in order to prevent imminent attacks that were never going to happen and that he and his entourage knew were never going to happen.
So we shouldn’t get too nostalgic for some imaginary good old days when presidents and their counsellors told the truth and the statements they made were submitted to careful rigorous scrutiny. Nevertheless the Bowling Green massacre is a sign of different times, or perhaps it’s a symptom of a disease that’s simply got worse and worse over the last sixteen years.
After all, even Bush and Blair had to ‘prove’ their case to the public – even if the proof was mostly fabricated, imagined and invented. But now Trump and his team can tell the most bare-faced idiotic lies repeatedly – virtually on a daily basis – and refer to things that have never happened, without the need to prove anything or come up with evidence or defend themselves and apologise when they are caught out.
We are in new territory when Trump can say that the White House Mall was packed, even when photographs show that it wasn’t; when Kellyanne Conway can describe his lies as ‘alternative facts’ as if there were some other kind of facts that are as valid as the actual facts; when she can refer to a massacre that never happened and her boss can refer to what happened last night in Sweden even when nothing happened last night in Sweden.
It’s tempting to conclude that these people are merely passing idiots who can be safely laughed at, but that would be a little too comforting. Trump might not be an intellectual giant but he knows his base. His lies are not aimed at people who think and assess things carefully before deciding whether they agree or disagree with them. They are aimed at people who agree with him whatever he says.
Most importantly they are aimed at people who feel the same kind of feelings that he feels; who believe that even if the Bowling Green massacre didn’t happen, it could have happened; that something must have happened in Sweden and that anyone who says otherwise or says anything the president doesn’t like is merely ‘covering up’ or disseminating ‘fake news.’
In this sense, we have entered new territory. The conspiratorial far-right fringe has gone mainstream and emotions are more powerful than thoughts – as long as they are the feelings of rage, hatred, fear, self-pitying victimhood, resentment and bitterness that Trump played upon during his campaign and which brought him to power.
These are the emotions that he continues to reach for every time he lies. Politically speaking, these are dangerous emotions to play with. In his great 1995 essay on ‘Ur-Fascism‘ Umberto Eco lists ‘irrationalism’ as one of the recurring intellectual characteristics of fascism.
For Eco, irrationalism is characterised by ‘ the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.’This is the world of the Bowling Green massacre, and this is the audience that Trump’s lies are aimed at – people who are averse to critical thinking and regard the whole concept of critical analysis as some kind of elite liberal project. That doesn’t mean that Trumpism is fascism – yet – but his unlikely rise to power suggests that we have entered a cultural and political environment in which some kind of 21st century fascism is possible.
So it’s no good simply ridiculing Trump, Conway or the other liars in his team. Nor is it enough to simply call them liars. To counter them requires more than facts or arguments. It requires politicians and political movements capable of arousing and appealing to different emotions and beliefs, based around a different notion of the common good than the malignant and sinister dystopia that is unfolding in front of our eyes.
So far the ‘left’ – in the broadest sense of the word – has failed to do this. And that is one reason why it is being persistently defeated by demagogues and frauds like Trump who are able to fly with no moral or intellectual compass, and have no compunction about referring to massacres that never happened because they know that their intended audience doesn’t actually care if they did or not.