The Fascist’s Fork

So I’ve been thinking about the nature of fascism and of the forces we might bring to bear in opposing it, and it occurs to me that I, at least, had been thinking about it all wrong.

See, I’d thought that the opposite of fascism is pluralism, that the opposite of bigotry is acceptance. But this misunderstands the fundamental nature of fascism, the conditions necessary for it to take root. It’s rooted not in racism or bigotry or politics or ideology of any sort — it’s rooted in the belief that there exists such a thing as Truth and that we know what the Truth is. Without this foundation, it is impossible to feel unequivocally superior to another, to believe that one is unequivocally right and another is unequivocally wrong.

The opposite of fascism isn’t pluralism — the opposite of fascism is skepticism. Uncertainty is what creates room in us for compassion, for saying “I don’t understand your experience but I recognize your pain,” for perspective-taking and bridging the infinite divide between the Self and the Other.

For most of us, the process of growing up involves (or, indeed, consists of) the erosion of our sense of naive realism. This process, like growth often is, is uncomfortable. The world makes less sense. It’s harder to form a coherent narrative that explains the things that happen to us. But we find ways to live with each other, and ourselves, in a world where the answer to almost every question boils down to “it depends” or “it’s complicated.” In short, we make do. Most of us.

Thinkers of every stripe and tradition will tell you that reaching-towards-Truth is, perhaps, the unifying human experience. But it’s more than mere reaching, for us, especially today — it’s a grasping, a scrambling, a frantic and urgent and desperate attempt to cling to the security of certainty. Coming through the other side of that, I think, is what it means to come of age. Some people square that circle through faith. Some get there through philosophy. Some fill that void with pleasure or with service or with work. Some just stick that dismount with preternatural talent, and some — try as they might — are broken by it. In short: it depends, it’s complicated.

All this, though, is a big part of why we’ve seen such a stark uptick in fascist ideology, activity, and recruitment since Trump took the stage in the presidential campaign. Of course his rhetoric has served to embolden existing fascists, but even more than that, his campaign — both in its rhetoric and in its very existence — has served to undermine the idea that there exists a meaningful and coherent narrative about the world, that there exists a Truth.

That sounds backwards, I know. I just told you that fascism is born of a belief in Truth, and then that Trump’s rise has increased fascism by undermining Truth. But think, again, about children — their naive realism yields selfishness, and it’s hard to dispute that children are little tyrants, but we’d be hard pressed to think of them as fascists. Why? Because Truth in itself is relatively harmless; a belief in it leads often into error, but more rarely into wrongdoing.

The real danger is a person whose sense of Truth is besieged, whose first instinct is to grasp — scrambling, frantic, urgent, desperate — for anything that promises the security of certainty.

So why, then, aren’t all of us fascists? For most of us, naive realism is eroded — it happens gradually, in stages, over time, as our Truths are challenged in small ways and large. The world impinges on our Image of the world and we develop the skill of revising our narratives; we develop coping mechanisms and the expectation that we’ll have to revise them again in the future.

Look, now, to where the majority of fascist recruitment happens: white men, aged 18–24. Can you think of any group of humans on whose Truths and experiences the world has impinged less? Who’ve had fewer opportunities to learn the coping mechanisms and the skills of living in a Truthless world?

This, then, is the fascist’s fork — the fascist casts someone, unprepared, into “alternative facts” and the sudden panic of uncertainty, and then gives them the smallest nudge towards the first and simplest and most comfortable Truth: “I am the best kind of person.” They flail, they grasp, they latch on. After that, the rest of the story writes itself.

Now, I don’t know what can be done about the Donald Trumps and Richard Spencers of the world. And to be clear, we do have to set about doing something, though I know not what, about the fascists we’ve already got. But we should also be working to cut that supply off at the source, to prepare young people, especially young white men, to live in a world that doesn’t cohere.

I think it’s too late now for us to get away from the world of “alternative facts,” from the world of double-speak and dogwhistle politics… but it’s not too late for us to learn, and to teach others, how to live in that world. It is, after all, the world we’ve always lived in.

I don’t know that this insight, such as it is, is true or True or sufficient to get the job done — it depends, it’s complicated — but I hope it’s a place to start while we’re figuring out the rest.

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Peter Kovalsky

Lawyer and translator of legalese into plain English. Also a cishet white dude trying to unlearn a bunch of baggage.