Refusing to name Trump’s racism normalises it — and the next stop is fascism
From ‘Lock her up’ to ‘Send her back’ in three short years. The misogyny of ‘Lock her up’ was deplorable enough. But if the chants from Trump’s rally in North Carolina aren’t chilling your bones yet, I’d recommend watching it on a loop until they do.
And if they do, but you think it couldn’t happen here, I’d recommend you find some footage of Trump’s pal, Nigel Farage, addressing recent Brexit Party rallies and swear to yourself that such chanting is impossible to imagine.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone who attends a Brexit Party rally – or a Trump rally – is a fascist. I don’t have to. That’s not how fascism works. We know from history that it festers before it flourishes — and then, in the blink of an eye, it’s too late.
And what helps it flourish is a process of normalisation. Which brings me back — again — to Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is a semi-autobiographical account of his life in the city in the early 1930s. The book is notable because it epitomises what happened next and why. Its six stories slice through the social strata of the city during the decay of the Weimar Republic.
And its most powerful message is about normalisation — what people will put up with, in the context of decline and what they will accept as normal. People like the Nowaks, who live in cramped and debilitated rooms, and whose unwitting complacency about the coming terror is excruciating to read.
‘When Hitler comes, he’ll show these Jews a thing or two’ remarks Frau Nowak to Herr Christoph, before going on to say, after he challenges her, ‘they’d never turn out the Jews.’ Frau Nowak, though, doesn’t ‘understand (Nazi) politics (herself).’ Rather she says ‘why can’t we have the Kaiser back? Those were the good times, say what you like.’
The UK is a long way from there, you might say. You might — just about — be right. But if it doesn’t sound horribly familiar in the context of Trump’s America, I’m afraid you’re deluding yourself too. Read today by anyone, with even the sketchiest understanding of 20th- century history, Isherwood’s book is a reminder of the clear and present danger we face.
Ever since Trump was elected, a debate has ensued about whether he’s a malign autocrat or a mad fool. What threads through this discussion is whether it’s permissible to use the ‘F’ word to describe him.
Bandying the term around without good reason is clearly unhelpful. I used it the day after he was elected and then ruminated on whether it was the right thing to have done, despite that fact that even a seasoned conservative commentator on American politics like Andrew Sullivan had already done so. Since then, amongst a steady stream of opinion, former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, has published her book, Fascism: A Warning.
Albright’s premise is that the fascism the 20th century experienced was not atypical and could return. The rigour of her analysis has been questioned and yet her assertion that what we are experiencing now can ‘feel like signposts on the road back to an era when Fascism found nourishment and individual tragedies were multiplied millions-fold’ reminded me of Isherwood’s stories.
Closer to home, Jonathan Freedland has warned that the world could be heading back to the very time that Isherwood depicts. And Fintan O’Toole has cautioned us that ‘trial runs for fascism are in full flow.’ The point about both of their warnings is that they are actually not just from history, they are from here and now.
In all this soul searching, about whether it’s right to use the F word, there is a horribly mistaken assumption that we will know what fascism looks like when it comes next. And that in the muddle about whether it looks like the past, we miss the true significance of the very thing that’s in our present midst.
Look — again — at the rally from North Carolina and then look at the hustings for the Conservative Party leadership at which both candidates refused to name Trump’s recent language as racist. The discrepancy should chill you as much as the scenes themselves.
Holding back from calling Trump a fascist is one thing. But refusing to name his racism is quite another. It’s a gift to a proto-fascist moment — where the ideologies and cultural movements which create the conditions for fascism thrive.
If the UK wants to be seen as beacon of tolerance in the world, we cannot afford to be lead by a politician who connives in making such a gift. Failing to challenge such complicity is precisely how normalisation happens. If it’s okay there, it’s okay here, Mr Farage.
If we care about the consequences — not just across the pond but here too — our role should be to use every diplomatic sinew at our disposal to help America to think again. Openly and in the name of the British people.
I’ll leave the last word to Isherwood. At the end of the book, he encounters his former landlady, Fraulein Schroader, who within weeks of Hitler coming to power is a lost cause. Already reverently talking about ‘Der Fuhrer’ before he was, she is ‘adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime.’
‘Today’, he says, ‘the sun is brilliantly shining; it is quite mild and warm. I go out for my last morning walk, without an overcoat or hat. The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city…
No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened…’