Summary of Umberto Eco on Fascism & Its Connection to Trump

Umberto Eco 1984.jpg

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 27, 2016.)

I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land. ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

Umberto Eco OMRI (1932 – 2016) was an Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor. He is best known internationally for his 1980 novel Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose). Eco grew up in an Italy ruled by the fascist Benito Mussolini. In 1995, Eco penned an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Ur Fascism.” (Eternal fascism) Here are the 14 features of fascism that Eco describes.( Bold text are quotes from Eco’s essay. Indented material are quotes from Brenner’s, “How Autocracy Will Come To America,” the subject of yesterday’s post.)

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.

A time when men worked in automobile factories, steel mills, and coal mines. When no immigrants cut grass, picked crops, wrote software, or attended the country’s best universities. When women were mothers, teachers, secretaries or nuns. When blacks got lynched and didn’t vote.

That obviously is what the slogan “Make America Great Again” is all about. It harks back to some fictional Golden Age when the United States was unanimously declared the world’s No. 1—forever and anon.  When the American Dream of inexorable betterment was a tangible fact; when Horatio Alger was the boy next door; when this truly was the land of the free and the home of the brave; when American soil was inviolate … when John Wayne rode high in the saddle.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.

A rejection of Enlightenment ideals with their emphasis on rationality.

The Orangutan and his minions take a cavalier approach to facts, to the most elementary logic, to consistency. There is no objective truth for them. There is only the truth that is rooted in their angry emotions. That is the sole legitimizer. Genuine fascist movements of yesteryear packed raw emotion into a contrived ideology of some sort. Our crypto-fascists don’t even bother with that. “Americanism” is their sole ideology.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.

Exalting action, especially physical action with a penchant for violence.

Trump’s message is saturated with the words and images of violence. His very manner and gestures convey little more than bellicosity. The meager content is expressed in short, declaratory sentences: I will bomb the hell out of the Islamic State! I will not let Syrians into the United States! I will build the Wall to keep out rapists and murderers!

4. No … faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism … the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

A critic is an enemy—an enemy of the movement, an enemy of the leader, an enemy of America. Standard autocratic stuff. Trump will use all the means at his disposal to intimidate, to cajole, to seduce the media into serving as tacit allies in his campaign to remake the country’s political institutions and culture. All the evidence we have summoned tells us that it will succeed to a very great degree …

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

This connection with Trump is self-evident. Hence his emphasis on the Chinese, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees, non-Christians, etc.

6. 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.

I think this connection with Trump is also self-evident.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is … to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism … the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot … The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.

Hence the call to end birthright citizenship, the global Jewish conspiracy and more.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.

The enemies of the people are Chinese, Arabs, crony capitalists and, most of all, the government. Government doesn’t run well because decadent officials have broken it, ignoring the real reason which is that the nation has failed to properly fund government.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.

There is no need for diplomacy, just “bomb the shit” out of the enemy. Why discriminate between civilians and non-civilians. Why not torture people. After all, America is besieged.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak

Trump views his subjects as his followers. They are weak and deserve to be led; he knows what’s best for them. Trump’s followers view him as their leader, and disregard his extraordinary flaws.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero … This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death … the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death … The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

Foreign suicide bombers and terrorists are evil, but the military who kill and occupy are heroic. Of course neither the leader, his children, or the children of his wealthy minions will fight. They send others to their deaths.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits …

Trump played shamelessly to the macho instincts of the white American male— among the most insecure cohort in the world. It was a coarse, simple message: “they” have been trying to denature you; “they” have undermined your natural prowess; “they” must be put in their place for you to regain your potency. Look at me; Trump personifies the ultimate Alpha male who is surrounded by beautiful, servile women. ”I am the one who can lead you to new heights of manliness. I even can legitimize sexual assault.” The truth of assumptions about male insecurity is confirmed by how many bought into this line of adolescent nonsense …

13. … In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view … For Ur-Fascism … individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as … a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will … Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments.

Notice how the fascist leader attacks the legitimacy of government because it supposedly doesn’t serve the people. When this happens, fascism is near.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak … All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the … form of a popular talk show.

Trump’s speech, estimated to be at about a 4th grade level, limits the need for deep, complex thinking. Moreover, the use of persuasion and propaganda as a means to manipulate his followers is everywhere.

Reflection – Eco lived through fascism and correctly identifies its major elements. The parallels with much of what’s happening today in the USA and other parts of the world are striking. Now it is true that humans are pattern seekers, and I want to resist the temptation to find patterns that aren’t there. But the parallels are just too close to undermine my confidence in mine and Brenner’s analysis. I hope I’m wrong.

6 thoughts on “Summary of Umberto Eco on Fascism & Its Connection to Trump

  1. Well said by Eco and re-posted here. However i would not label things and people simply by rhetoric used for election purposes and political marketing unless seeing the real mcoy (but of course i dont currently live in US so i may be missing things happening there). One can of course express dissatisfaction with one’s rhetoric or other means to climb to power, but not push it too far unless needed, lest one becomes that which one criticises in the first place.


  2. Someone asked in the interweb (rhetoic question?):

    Do you believe there can be a dictatorship in US?

    Personaly no, i dont think there can be a dictatorship in US. Compared with other western democracies, it has many of the features needed. Plus there is the revolutionary past of breaking free from colonial rule.

    So no i dont think there can be a real dictatorship in US (at least in the foreseeable future), lest it will generate a real revolution as a response. That does not mean that there are not ways to circumvent democratic process and manipulate it subtly but definately though.

    However that being said, one is not a democrat simply when looking in one’s mirror. One keeps on being democrat when interacting with others around one as well (for example, sponsoring “pro-west” foreign dictatorships or bombing “non-western” republics, lessens the degree one is an actual democrat, if not obliterating it all together).

  3. I have been unable to keep up with the mass of material you have been posting of late, but I wanted to offer a comment here. There’s no question in my mind that Mr. Trump is indeed a kind of “proto-fascist”. Certainly he would destroy our democratic system if he were not restrained by other institutions. He is far and away the most dangerous man in American history.

    However, I return to my earlier claim that the real catastrophe here is the fact that he was able to win over so many voters. Those voters will remain with us long after Mr. Trump is gone. They are the true threat to our democracy, and the fact that their movement has been gaining strength portends the collapse of the American republic.

  4. You are right, he is possible because so many are susceptible to his brand of fascism. And they are susceptible because of many things: economic inequality, racism, sexism, xenophobia, human psychology and biology, and overall human nastiness. We are a terrible species in so many ways.

  5. There’s a huge irony in all this: one of the major motivating factors driving people to vote for Mr. Trump was the stagnation of their incomes, which in turn was directly due to Republican schemes to favor the wealthy over the middle class. Mr. Trump will exacerbate the problem, while Ms. Clinton would have helped them. Can you sing Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango”?

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