There has, lately, been a rush of interest in cultural offerings premised on the return of fascism. The Man in the High Castle, loosely based on the Philip K Dick novel, is back for a second series. In it, the Nazi regime lives in fictional Technicolor suburbia, occupying the half of the US not occupied by co-victors of World War II, Japan.
A revival of the 1935 play, It Can’t Happen Here, was staged in Berkeley late last year. The original novel by Sinclair Lewis charts the populist rise in the 1930s of a US fascist promising a return to American greatness. It reportedly sold out on Amazon.com the week after the election of Donald Trump.
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Many have revisited Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, in response to which its author came out of retirement to comment on his fictional work’s relevance to current reality. The book dramatises what might have happened if the aviator and Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh, who first talked about “America first”, became a fascistic US president.
And a German play, Winter Solstice, features a Nazi who turns up in nice, leafy suburbia, at the home of an educated, liberal family. This family never votes for right-wing parties. One of them writes history books on fascism, for heaven’s sake – and yet they cannot recognise its hallmarks in their kindly, elderly visitor who spouts nationalism and cultural purity.
Is history repeating itself?
Two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, the “fascist” label is invoked more frequently – thereby adding to an already loud debate over the issue during his hyper-nationalist, aggressively nativist election campaign.
Trump’s Muslim ban, attacks on a free press, overt lying, purging of the State Department’s senior staff, firing of the acting attorney general, undermining of a democratic election process by claiming voter fraud, and attacks on the US judiciary – all evoke fascist hallmarks.
But at the same time, we are still undergoing the same reactions that all those cultural depictions of fascism try to warn us about: paralysis over fascism’s sudden, casual entry into the political mainframe, and the inability to recognise it once it takes hold.
Even as these plays, books and films ask us to ponder the question, there can be a neutering, self-protective distance between our full comprehension and the horrifying reality we’re asked to consider. We are taught, rightly, that Nazi horrors, while uniquely heinous and specific, are premised on potentially universal causes and processes.
And we know, per English novelist Michael Rosen’s poem, that fascism doesn’t first arrive in jackboots. But still, there is an assumption that the fact of it happening historically protects against a recurrence, in any format. How could it, when we know what we know? Not now. Certainly not here.
Writers have long described a human impulse to normalise the not normal – perhaps because the alternative is so irrationally horrible that it eludes full description.
As one historian notes, in the 1920s and early 1930s US newspapers were downplaying Hitler, seeing him as a joke, or someone who would be moderated by the system.
In 1922, The New York Times noted reliable sources “confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded”.
It is almost impossible to read this today. And it is unsettling in the context of assurances during Trump’s race-baiting campaign – he didn’t literally mean a Muslim ban, we were told.
Trivialisation of Nazism
These things are separate but bound by an enduring question that we still grapple with: why do warning signs that are so easily identified in hindsight elide recognition contemporaneously?
Historians have been divided over whether to describe Trumpism as fascism. As Gavriel Rosenfeld, professor of history at Fairfield University, told me by phone a few weeks ago, this is a good thing: a rigour in the face of an unfolding situation. It’s also true that overuse of the term “fascism” undermines its effect. In understanding “never again” as a statement of fact, rather than as an instruction to remain on guard, it is possible we may have grown complacent and perhaps opened the door to misuse: these days, everyone is a fascist.
Reaching for the term 'fascist' isn't about applying the ultimate insult, so much as preparing for the right response. It would mean not taking a government or leadership as normal.
Rosenfeld, whose book Hi Hitler! explores the trivialisation of Nazism, says the internet has played a role in this sort of neutering effect by turning Hitler into a meme, a punchline, or a series of cats-that-look-like-Hitler pics.
Leaders with tendencies that can credibly be defined as fascistic may now, for some people at least, elude such description because the term has been defanged.
Between normalisation and alarmism
So we are caught somewhere between not wanting to belittle history, nor make inaccurate comparisons – but also not wanting to underplay current realities either. We struggle to find a useful space between normalisation and alarmism.
But maybe we should just accept that even an accurate invocation of fascism will sound exaggerated, in a world that doesn’t believe it possible for there to be a modern-day, Western application.
Reaching for the term “fascist” isn’t about applying the ultimate insult, so much as preparing for the right response. It would mean not taking a government or leadership as normal.
And, in broader terms this would be the anti-fascist argument: that fascism, once identified as a political and social force, requires an altogether different form of opposition.
If that’s the case, judicious caution in using the term may be keeping us locked into ineffective responses. We remain in the realm of rational debate – itself essential, itself in need of robust defence in a post-truth world.
And yet, hate and bigotry can overwhelm societies when the reasonable are tied up in knots worrying about displaying intolerance or denying extremist haters a megaphone.
Time and focus is exhausted in trying to debate a tide of violent racial superiority, while it is only ever amplified and legitimised by such encounters.
It has potential to overwhelm, this urge to habituate, to be measured in the face of current reality. But sometimes this reasonable, polite response won’t cut it.
Sometimes the most effective tool we have is a forceful humanity – one that draws a line, resists the tide to normalise and ensures that far-right hatreds do not find any space to breathe in our societies.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.