I am waiting, ever more impatiently, for my fellow citizens to wake up, to confront that it is happening here and now, that fascism with a reality TV face is upon us. Even though the situation appears ridiculous and often comic, it’s ominous.

I am not ready to declare that “The American Experiment is over,” as Laura Cronk does in her poem pitted against the banality of our evil. Yet, I do recognize a crisis when I see one, and I fear we Americans are not acting accordingly. Cronk declares it’s time to quit, so that we no longer in the course of our daily lives feed the beast. But I see gray alternatives, informed by an understanding of politics as the proper vocation of leaders and citizens opposing post-truth authoritarianism and working to revive democracy. I have in mind Republican and Democrats, leaders and followers, and critical observers beyond two-party identification.

I know that responsible Republicans should play a key role in defending the Republic, but I am skeptical that they will. They perplex me. Their core principles are not mine, but I work to understand them. Their beliefs in limited government, a free market, entrepreneurship, the wisdom of propriety, tradition and religious belief, and “the right to life” are not mine, but I can and do appreciate that they have cogent arguments for their opinions. As I oppose them, I respect them. (Guns are beyond me, though even then I recognize that it’s a cultural thing.) Patriotic fervor concerns me: “My country right or wrong,” “Love it or leave it” and the like are not only not my cup of tea; they attacked the core of my being during the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, I know that Republicans genuinely believe that American democracy is supported as they act according to their convictions.

I, therefore, am bewildered by how readily Republican politicians are abandoning their key principles. As they perceive that a significant segment of their constituents, the Republican core voters, support Trump no matter what he says and does, Republican politicians calculate that they can’t cross him. His vulgarity, libertine lifestyle, naked materialism and bullying have somehow not offended his base, and Republican politicians have thus been reluctant to stand up and be counted. His attack on free trade and the free market, picking winners and losers as his interests and sentiments dictate, has led to expressions of concern, but no action. And these past weeks, as he kowtowed to a Russian dictator and severely criticized democratic leaders, and continued to break just about every norm of foreign policy procedure and undermined the international order that the U.S. created in the pursuit of its interests, there were some expressions of concern, but no opposing action. The most clear and precise Republican opposition has come from one Senator who is dying, from those who are retiring, and from Republican-supporting conservative commentators who have consistently defended principles, but have nothing to lose, and have thus far been inconsequential. Congressional Republicans have revealed a consistent reluctance to support any actions against Trump.

I am surprised and disappointed, but not astonished: after all, politicians calculate what they need to do to stay in the political game. They know that there is great peril in getting ahead of their supporters. Cynicism is tempting. They are apparently all in it for themselves, before anything else. But, I think, as I re-read Max Weber’s classic lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” and watch some principled action, yesterday, prominently Dan Coats’s, that all may not be lost. Republican politicians are trying to balance their responsibilities to their constituents with their fundamental principles. It seems to me that to this point, they are doing so by abandoning their principles, but it is not certain that this pattern will hold. Ironically as Republican voters go, so go their “leaders.”

Weber notes that the successful politician balances an “ethics of responsibility” with an “ethics principle,” that all who take on politics as a vocation must engage with this balancing. Presenting his lecture at a time of revolutionary upheaval, in the aftermath of World War I, in Munich, which was then briefly the capital of the Bavarian Socialist Republic, he was immediately concerned with the dangers of the politics of true belief, of those who “live for politics” and focus on their ultimate political end and ignore the consequences of their actions. This was a presciently appropriate concern given the subsequent horrors of the twentieth century. But Weber worried as well about political actors, who “live off politics,” who lose sight of their principles in pursuit of effectiveness, and their supporters’ narrow interests. Such a situation leads to responsive actions, but potentially without principles.

I see this as the most fundamental manifestation of the social condition of politics, the fundamental dilemma of political action that has no clear solution, as I put it last week, when I offered three cheers for taking responsibility and committing to principle. The Republican leaders’ ability to ignore principle is noteworthy, but I can’t imagine that it is limitless. Voters – Republicans, Democrats and independents – matter.

Republican politicians’ cowardice would be ended if Trump’s support evaporated among registered Republicans, if pro-Trump Republicans were defeated in the polls, or if social and global opposition to Trump became decisive. With this in mind, a few weeks ago I called for a popular front, solidarity and participatory democracy, echoing slogans from the twentieth century. Here I want to add some texture to the call.

Among Democrats, leaders of the party and its supporters, with fundamental principles and the immediate responsibility to move against reality TV fascism, pursuit of fundamental principles is as important as it has ever been, but it must be balanced with the responsibility to act in such a way that the American experiment in self-governance does not come to an end. As Jeffrey C. Isaac emphasized this requires timing, knowing when to give priority to principle and when to give priority to responsibility. The link between the social condition and art, music and much more, is revealed here, as Dominique Suberville has explored. When to confront fellow Democrats for the limitations of their principled commitments, and when to support them despite their limitations: these are the vocational questions for democratic leaders and citizens.

This applies as well to those beyond the two parties, both in foreign and domestic arenas.

I cringe when I observe democratic leaders trying to play Trump, both because it encourages him, and it is so strikingly futile. Trudeau, Merkel, Macron and May, among others, have learned this, evidenced by Trump’s treatment of them and the Trump regime’s treatment of international pacts on climate change, trade and mutual defense. I understand why they make the attempt, given the global role the United States has played, but I also appreciate the need to confront him. It is a matter of timing, they know, but time may be running out.

I also cringe when my friends on the left view recent events as proof that liberal democracy has come to an end. I understand the attraction of utopian projects, of anarchism, radical democracy, socialism and the like. I appreciate “the radical faculty to question what is given,” as Chiara Bottici, Judith Butler and Aris Komporozoz-Athanasiou, the editors of Public Seminar’s series on imaginal politics put it. But I know from my studies of modern barbarism, with Hannah Arendt as my guide, and from the insights Weber emphasizes, that it still is necessary to be responsible to the challenges at hand and not only to the dreams ahead. And I just don’t see any possible positive political alternative that doesn’t start with liberal democracy and then moves beyond it. I ask my friends, am I missing something?

Clearly there is a negative alternative ahead that seems quite possible, illiberal democracy, which is not democratic at all, no matter how you view this, as has been explored here.

As we look ahead at this possible future and reflect upon past experience, then, I hope we act informed by Weber. With this in mind, I note with deep appreciation Martin Heisler’s “Steps outside of the echo chamber” reporting on “the importance of engaging with different perspectives in the age of Trump.” He reports on his efforts to speak to two groups sympathetic to Trump in his hometown outside of Portland, Oregon. He notes that he could exchange opinions and engage in civil conversation, even as he didn’t report any conversions, either of his or of his interlocutors. Yet, it is clear to me that in order for there to be a democratic aftermath of the current crisis, such exchanges are required. Civility is certainly not the only way to resist, militant activism is necessary, as Dan Royles emphasizes. People have to wake up and notice what’s happening and be motivated to act. But for resistance to yield a democratic aftermath the kind of project Heisler embarked upon is required.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

12 thoughts on “On Opposing Fascism with a Reality TV Face

  1. Dear Professor Goldfarb,

    I think you and Prof. Isaac have got it wrong. It’s not fascism; it’s arbitrarianism trading on fascist nostalgia along with a grab bag of other authoritarian, xenophobic and libertarian themes. The moments that remind us of fascism are not organized by an ethos beyond historically preexisting U.S. xenophobia and racism (not new) and do not involve subsumption of the individual in a militant whole nor even jingoism (compare Cheney — that was jingoistic, and much closer to fascism as foreign policy). That means that we are not dealing with fascism, but with something else, something individualistic and opportunistic. The teleology and the relation between the individual and the whole show this clearly. We are mistaken to trade on analogies and family resemblances without getting core parts of fascism as a romantic, totalitarian ethos straight. We aren’t in that time anymore. Arbitrarianism is much more a way of being aligned with the 1990s and beyond.

    Arbitrarianism’s goal is the dismantling of norms. That could pave the way for fascism — something I fully believe Bannon, Spencer and others want — but it is not that. Trump is an arbitrarian who is happy to collude with fascist elements because they give him an authoritarian position, which he occupies as an arbitrarian, and because they feed reactivity in the system, allowing him to blur all norms as the system ramps up with anxiety and chaos.

    What does this precision change? Well, for one, it tries to be accurate, which is needed now in a “post-truth” media culture. For another, it keeps focused on the issue: the maintenance of fair, civic republican norms and basic moral relations of accountability. It also indicates something wrong among “militants” – the view that corners need to be cut in a time of “exceptional” crisis. That, ironically, is also arbitrarian in part, and it feeds the system in its blurring of norms.


    Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

    1. I have no idea who you are, but I actually think . you are right — all the literature on the alt-right and the digital manosphere would point to this analysis.

  2. It appears to me that Goldfarb, Isaac, Potter, and Bendik-Keymer each are right on one register or another. At this point, I must sincerely ask of all the smart people in these forums where are the details of a coordinated strategy to the broader theoretical speculations of our current situation? What does a broader, coordinated strategy look like? As a member of two Indivisible groups, ACLU People Power, DNC and several other local activist groups, I see mostly a fragmented and disorganized response that leaves people exhausted as they are called on to fight fires on both local and national fronts. These average citizens are waiting for better direction and they are ready and willing. They are awake and they are, as foot soldiers, frustrated that there is no coordinated or laser-focused offensive campaign on the Left, only a defensive one. Of course the defensive campaign is important, but without an offensive one we will never right the ship.

    We are in serious trouble and the ones who do recognize the depth of our trouble must not wait for others to wake up, but rather lead the way in developing and disseminating a detailed, coordinated strategy that is not only a reactionary one.

    If you want to know how the Right has succeeded in pulling this off, you need to read two books (one of which I read because it was conspicuously displayed on a bookshelf behind Howard Dean during a recent interview). The far Right has been nationally coordinated in their efforts for decades and they have been LAZER-FOCUSED! Their strategy begins not with the Cold War as many mistakenly believe, but rather as a concerted effort to counter Roosevelt’s New Deal. They have had the advantage of co-opting a nation-wide network of religious leaders who have carefully cultivated their flocks for the mission. These two books detail the Right’s winning offensive strategy.

    ————One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

    ————God’s Bullies by Perry Deane Young. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

    Awake and Waiting

    1. Dear CMuir (please excuse me; I do not know the formal way to address you, and I prefer remaining formal on websites),

      I completely agree. Intellectual analysis is one thing; coordinated action is another. They support each other, but not directly. The hair splitting of analysis can get in the way of relating with people and being pragmatic. In other contexts, I’ve written about the importance of structuring movements about democracy as a relationship — in particular with respect to protest, and in linking protest up with concerted, long-term institutional and policy/legal change. One of my reservations about upping the reactivity on the left is that it makes it harder to understand how to relate with people who differ and to understand that the key word for reclaiming democracy is *persistence.* It’s a long term, patient, and endurance filled, assertive word. Another word is *accountability* — and reactive “radicalism” gets in the way of that, too, as does the social media sphere as a substitute for face to face and community-based, local change linking up to larger caucuses in person.

      To be clear, my debates here are about the analysis. In my own life in Cleveland, my family and friends are working politically in our community and are joining up with the Rust Belt caucus to organize. We are democratic socialists, and I am a civic republican, localist as well. But I don’t let that get in the way of working with people of different parties and trying to keep things plain, pragmatic and morally accountable.

      On this last point, I agree with Susan Neiman that the “Left” needs to reclaim moral clarity, and it won’t do that when it shames or is violent with people. It won’t do that when it is reactive. In the piece on silence which PS published here a couple weeks ago, and which disappeared in silence, I was trying to get into the space of accountability and morality that *draws down* reactivity and asserts equality as a plain and obvious moral attitude.

      Thank you for your critical and constructive response.

      Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

      1. Dear Mr. Bendik -Keymer – Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I take the view that analysis and action can and do directly inform each other. My frustration lies in watching the Left squander one of, if not, the largest grass roots movement in the history of the US. Our numbers are dwindling as people suffer from fatigue and lack of direction. To be clear, I am saying that our reaction to this crisis has been nothing short of amazing. “Upping” participation is exactly what we need, but we can not sustain it without a coordinated, offensive plan. The current model takes us only part of the way.

        I am dismayed and perplexed every time I hear that the Left needs to reclaim moral clarity. What does that mean exactly? There is nothing to reclaim because nothing was ever lost. Our morals speak loudly and clearly in the policies we promote. Healthcare and a living wage as human rights. (Two of Neiman’s virtues, happiness and hope, are not possible without them). The right to be protected from gun violence. Equal rights for all under the law. And so on. How can anyone not see the irony and violence in the death-by-proxy policies of the Right and their hypocritical stance on moral grounds? Shame is theirs as a result of that and not because the Left imposes shame on the Right.

        I agree with your big-tent approach. This too is the legacy of the Left. It is my belief that the vita contemplativa and vita activa are not mutually exclusive. I am grateful to Goldfarb et al for investing in both sides of the equation through their creation of the Public Seminar site.

        All the best,

        1. Dear CMuir,

          I agree with you on the need for a plan. That needs to be worked out collectively. So the # 1 thing that matters to me is for people to get involved in local politics in a face to face way, working pragmatically on institutional issues, not just stances, and to then let the issues and social justice push engagement upwards.

          In a more philosophical vein, I would like to see the plan to be to uproot arbitrarianism from the concept of democracy, which means transforming liberalism and its view of freedom from interference / license in favor of a family of civic republican views, where freedom is freedom from the arbitrary wills of others, from tyranny, from oppression, and from any situation in which we cannot look each other in the eye and be accountable due to threat or vulnerability. The social fabric for such a politics are basic moral relations that establish trust through accountability.

          Moral clarity comes in here, because a clear sense of the need for the rule of law or of fair and equal ordering as well as of moral relations of accountability, reciprocity, and so on are needed. I am happy to hear that your sense of the Left hasn’t lost a view of the moral grounding, but that is not always so with people. Neiman was concerned about the way post-structuralism affected the academy’s theorizing of the social in a way that made plain morality ambivalent for a generation or more of students (all hermeneutics of suspicion, little plain assertion of social justice). Writing a decade later, I am concerned about arbitrarianism in Left politics — particularly anarchism, where I’ve spent time. When I see politically engaged people think that moral obligation is optional, law is bad, and that it is okay to deceive, manipulate and to use force to achieve ends of equality, I am upset. I am also concerned about shaming and eschewing basic interpersonal accountability, because the other is “so bad they don’t deserve it.” No, I’m sorry, but everyone deserves it, and morality is not optional. That is why it is morality.

          This is the kind of thing I was talking about. But we may not have common reference points in experience, and online fora have their limitations in conveying them. The points are often wide and far from the mark, lacking context.

          I hope this response speaks to your question.

          I am signing off from this thread due to work obligations. Thank you for the opportunity to respond.


          Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

          1. It sounds as though you are of Neo-Roman civic republican versus Neo-Athenian. I also detect a strong sense of proselytizing going on here. The hermeneutics of suspicion were key in freeing us from the tyranny of religion which has now reared its ugly head again. You are right — these forums have their limitations and often people end up talking past each other.

          2. Dear CMuir,

            I am sorry to be so brief — but I am in the middle of a tough project. I don’t know what conversion would be here — and I don’t actually understand conversion. So, no, no proselytizing. What I have found, though, is that when people speak clearly about morality, the worry is often that there is something authoritarian going on — for instance, a religious mission trying to change others. That is a symptom of the problem I am arguing against. The Left does not have clear moral language and has ceded that space to the Right, including the religious right. Time to win it back — in discourse space — because it is actually on the side of equality and non-domination.

            The civic republican tradition is Athenian, too, but it is also modern. I bring it up because it does work next to liberalism and the modern form of negative liberty, to which I am opposed. Freedom from domination as equals makes more sense, I think. The reason I mentioned “ordering” is that the basic ideas in civic republicanism need not be Roman or in that lineage. I was especially influenced in thinking about these things by the Potawatomi scholar, Kyle Powys Whyte, for instance, and also by the legal scholar of Stōlo order, Andrée Boisselle.

            Just want to be clear. Thank you for raising your reservations.


            Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

          3. Dear CMuir,

            Please excuse my delay in responding and for sounding as if I were proselytizing. I don’t believe in trying to convert people! But I was arguing in light of some experiences, which we may not share. In those contexts, it can be extremely hard to simply assert a plain truth. Hence, the passion in my claims.

            I agree that the critique of authoritarianism and the vestiges of totalizing thinking in systems of thought, language, and institutional practice has been very helpful. The issue is balance. When I was a student in the early 1990s, it was sometimes unheard of for people in literary theory, philosophy, or critical theory to simply assert plain claims of social justice. I think this is what Neiman was addressing a decade later. Honestly, it made for really messed up discussions and some further messing up of people. Plain solidarity, respect, accountability, and justice — while never perfect, unquestionable, or the like — are still important for orienting oneself and for orienting communities in the world.

            In the 2000s and 2010s, I’ve seen permutations of the problem from the 1990s show up in radicalized friends in anarchist and some socialist communities. Here, there are some very clear commitments to social justice (yay!), but still some real issues at times with: accountability, obligation, consistent respect for everyone, and not reverting to a radical version of the state of exception where force suddenly becomes the thing with which one cuts all sorts of corners — from manipulative thinking to out and out physical assault, stealing from public goods, and more. That’s the kind of space that was on my mind, and I do see a link to the educational environment Neiman was addressing of 10-20 years earlier.

            Last thing: I am probably more Francophone than Roman in my interest in equality under the law. But I also have some North American indigenous modes of moral relations in mind, thanks to work I’ve read and learned from by Kyle Powys Whyte, who is really amazing and brilliant when it comes to opening up forms of sovereignty and the relation between morality, politics, and society. That is why I used the term “ordering” next to “law.” As I understand comparative law in the area, it makes more sense in some indigenous context to speak of “ordering relations.” At least this is the analysis of Andrée Boisselle at York in Toronto, where there is a very strong commitment to the area. She studies the Stōlo Nation near Vancouver (apologies if I have misrepresented anything here).

            Lastly, I agree with Professors Goldfarb and Bottici that we (can/should) discuss these things as friends. I loved reading their replies, which are generous and non-defensive. Such a rare thing on line, even from established academics!


            Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

  3. It’s good to read this discussion. I believe the key issues concern the relationship between analysis, ethics and action, and the imperative that people who don’t agree with each other and every point as a matter of understanding or commitment, none the less work figure out ways to work together. I find wisdom in the discussion, more than on one contribution to it or another. And I concede that calling the present regime Fascist, as I am tempted to do, has more to do with its practices than its substantive ideology. On such grounds I am informed by my understanding of 20th century totalitarianism. That said, I concede that calling Trump the leader of a fascist movement, as I have, is more rhetorical than analytical. I will try to address this issue in my next column.

  4. Thank you Jeff for this piece. The concept of “FASCISM WITH A REALITY TV FACE” is enlightening because it implies that it has a face and thus a reality. I do not think that there is just one way to go, but multiple ones and so we are friends, politically, despite the differences and because of the differences

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