March 27, 2023 Glenn Stewart
“First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” When “Dick the Butcher” bellowed his famous declaration in Henry VI 400-years ago, Shakespeare was showcasing the fascist playbook. “Butcher” is apropos, as “Dick” was a terrible, brutish man; a murderer. His partner- in-crime is Jack Cade, who’s fixated on placing himself on King Henry’s throne by any means necessary. In these men, Shakespeare concocts the most cunning, anti-intellectual characters ever to appear in his, and possibly anyone else’s work.
Dick and his compatriots kill everyone they find who can read, and they burn books and all other written documents wherever they find them. All that stood between the insurrection (Shakespeare calls it a “rebellion”) and victory for Shakespeare’s coup-plotters was the rule of law— “the lawyers“. An ignorant population unaware of, or at least undefended in their rights, was the only way for Dick the Butcher to achieve his endgame. The lawyers, that is, the courts and the rule of law, had to go, and Shakespeare knew it.
Pakistani intellectual Tariq Ali agreed with other scholars that history doesn’t repeat, “but,” he wrote, “its echoes never go away.” Donald Trump, in modern vernacular rather than Elizabethan English, is today an echo of “Jack Cade,” who, in Act II speaks to the crowd just before Dick incites them to riot…
“Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hoop’d pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king– as king I will be–” (emphasis mine)
“I am your retribution…”—Trump
It’s notable that Cade vows “reformation” of the monarchy, while Trump, in a recent campaign speech vowed something far more aggressive, more ominous—“retribution.” And while Trump is a problem, he’s not the problem.
Trump was mostly bloviation, with virtually no legislative record, though there were many promises. His leading opponent on the other hand, Ron DeSantis, has said and promised much of what Trump said and promised, the difference is the demagogic Florida governor has converted the third-largest State fully to his vision by passing legislation.
We have long-since moved into the world of Trump-2.0. For now, in the “blue” States we’re still largely spectators to the horror shows that are Texas and Mississippi and Florida. But those folks are taking their grievance-caravan on the road, they are vying as never before for national hegemony. Others, most notably DeSantis have picked-up the mantle of Trumpism, and are running faster than the orange-man was ever able to run.
The horror that is Trump is his ability to pollute the national conversation, to divert the body politic by any means necessary to his own ends. He is a simple man, and a simple cliche, “The wreck on the side of the road,” explains his success as the “lead that bleeds,” the driver of news cycles, a celebrity. A wreck there was, and a wreck he is. We’ll be cleaning up his mess for a long time as a society.
The new incarnations of Trumpism are far more than “debris” to be removed. DeSantis, and fellow-Trumpists in other States are rapidly signing into law their Soviet-style approach to public policy. Ironically, while they cull the public domain of books to which they object, and seek to write their own sectarian religion into public school curriculums, they are informed about authoritarianism, wittingly or not, primarily by books.
Their patron saint Trump, famously does not read books, which is evident in his clumsy and failed attempts to achieve the autocratic strongman role he craves. Putin, for whom Trump is the quintessential ‘idiot’ in “useful idiot,” rules Russia with an iron fist, without any meddling by the Courts or legislature, which means he has achieved Trump’s dream. That’s why our former president and current contender for the office admires a Russian psychopath, who just recently joined Khieu Samphan, leader of the Khmer Rouge, as an indicted defendant for the crime of genocide.
Most of the candidates, as well as the voting public, either weren’t alive, or weren’t adults when fascism and other authoritarian brands made their last serious play for world dominance. Because of that (and again, ironically) history, and more broadly writers-of-books, provide authoritarians a roadmap to their destination. “The rest,” if one can read, which Trump’s disciples most certainly can, “is easy.”
Florida is not the United States…
The Republicans’ newest “Great White Hope”* is DeSantis, though a small part of their base remains loyal to a fading Trump. DeSantis is an especially pernicious manifestation of Right-wing populism, far more so than the orange abomination we voted-out. His breed of populists espouses a belief in the virtue and competence of a nebulous coalition called “the people.” Their nostalgic-myth is dangerous precisely because our system is founded first and foremost on the inherent rights of individuals, and not upon whatever raw-majorities think is right at any particular moment.
DeSantis re-tells the “power to the people” myth, or lie, over and over while systematically injecting himself, and imposing his will, deeper and deeper into the personal and civil lives of more and more Floridians’ every day. His pandering to insular, low-information, factional voters highlights the now familiar malignant-narcissism on the Right—“I was born to lead, and I’ll do anything to fulfill my destiny.” The “Divine Right of Kings”?
DeSantis, unlike most of his acolytes, was educated in the best tradition of modern liberal pedagogy—He graduated from Yale in 2001 with a B.A. magna cum laude. We may assume he read a lot of books in order to succeed at Yale, and so we may also assume he knows what he’s doing: A wealthy graduate of Yale, and his compatriots on the far-right espouse a populism that consists mostly of whining about being “looked down upon” and insisting the “liars and betrayers” must pay.
The massive Fox lying scandal revealed a loathing for their audience and a nearly traitorous disregard for the health of our Republic. Right-wing media and the Republican Party (it serves) have patronized their audience, declaring day after day that no one else is to be trusted, all while yelling about corrupt institutions and rigged-elections (just not the ones they win).
Fox, we now know, did all of this while rolling their eyes in contempt at their viewers. As Tom Nichols of the Atlantic (who himself was tired of being called “elitist” by Righties) aptly put it, “Fox news personalities have admitted that they fed the rubes all of this red, rotting red meat to keep them out of the way of the Fox limos headed to Long Island and Connecticut.” I’ll get to Right-wing accusations of “elitism” below.
We know why they do it, but it’s still not clear how they’ve been able to sustain it, or even grow their audience all these years.
Did we fool ourselves?
It would have been virtually impossible for the Florida governor to earn a B.A. at Yale without reading the most famous guidebooks-to-fascism—Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World. Those books would have been part of his education, just as they were of mine, (I was in high school when required to read them).
The leadership of the Right, including DeSantis, enjoy the benefit of the masters’ prophesies, and we know that because they’ve embarked openly and unabashedly upon a project to implement an unmistakable hybrid of the two author’s dystopian visions. After all, Republicans weren’t born knowing how to undermine a democracy.
I say “hybrid” because although Orwell and Huxley penned very different prophesies, their visions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Orwell and Huxley seem both to have been right, though Huxley’s insights now ring-true more so than Orwell. Per Orwell, the Right is banning publication of the truth the old-fashioned way, by banning books. But they require a susceptible following to go along, and that’s where Huxley comes in.
Neil Postman, in his wonderful book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” (1985) concisely explains why Orwell’s vision requires Huxley’s vision regarding the glaring reality about human beings in order for 1984 to be made manifest.
Orwell’s prophesy— that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression, is only partially correct. In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, self-awareness, and history. As Huxley saw it, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Postman zeroes-in on the symbiosis—and the distinctions between Orwell and Huxley’s warnings with one of the most important (dare I say “prophetic”?) paragraphs of the past few decades:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…”
The Right founded their mission by first going after the “Elites,” and dumbed-down their argument from there. But their own elitism is palpable and wholly contemptuous. The DeSantises, Stefaniks, Boeberts, and Cruzes don’t care about their voters, but they know what is required to placate them. Their mindless speeches about trans people and critical race theory are performance politics designed to carve out votes from the lowest common denominator of the Republican base. Elitist indeed.
I’ve been called an “elitist” by Republicans, and they’re not wrong. They’re just right for the wrong reasons. I am guilty of “looking down” on Trump voters, though most often I simply refuse to engage them. And so what? They may complain endlessly about Liberals’ open contempt for them, but I’m not here to make them feel better while they gleefully call me and mine traitors, perverts, and “human scum.” Still, it’s true, in a breathtaking, nearly laughable display of hypocrisy, the Republicans feign deep hurt at the slightest criticism. “Snowflakes”?
My elitism is rooted in the fact that Trump supporters are making a conscious choice that’s morally flawed. They continue to support a sociopath, and a Party loaded with seditionists and unashamed liars—Yes, from my elitist-perch I declare them wrong. What I have not done is patronize them. And I never tried to persuade them of anything I myself did not believe.
The elitism of the Right is horrific in both its nihilism and alarming success. But greed, cynicism and moral-bankruptcy only goes so far in explaining their success. Theirs is a dehumanizing elitism. They fancy themselves the “truth tellers,” while privately admitting they lie all the time to people who trust them. Fatal belief in a liar doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it means you’re a victim of someone (an “elitist”?) who sees you as less than fully human.
I’m an elitist, of a sort. I do indeed believe some are better at certain things than others. I also believe that some opinions and life choices are better than others. Indeed, the equality that’s sacred to my own beloved Progressive Left is sometimes an excuse, inexplicably, to declare that anyone’s opinion must be accepted as equal to everyone else’s; a precarious, even dangerous fallacy.
What I do not do is try to reassure anyone that an opinion is a correct assessment of reality when that opinion is demonstrably, perhaps tragically wrong. To take any other course I would have to lie. That would be elitism of the most malicious kind. Many of the most powerful in the Right-wing ecosphere have (involuntarily) admitted to doing just that.
What I know to be true is that individual rights are the foundation of our system, even if we haven’t realized those rights for everyone. Our history is replete with inconvenient, unflattering truths about our ancestors’ slow-crawl to a “more perfect Union.” It is also true that those determined to force their preferred version of history and religion on the rest of us, are nearly all descendants of the historically dominant class, and not those who were historically relegated to second-class citizenship. The populism of the Right is rooted in lies, mob-rule, violent rhetoric, and promises of “retribution.” For anyone who disputes that, I would say: Don’t bother, we quite literally have the video. Years of it.
What the neo-Right Republican Party promise openly to deliver, should they prevail, is found at the end of 1984, wherein ‘Winston,’ having finally succumbed to Big Brother, sits at the Chestnut Tree Café and traces “2 + 2 = 5” in the dust on his table.
* This racially-charged expression dates from the early 1900s, when, according to Wikipedia, “heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was black, seemed invincible, and the term was used for any white opponent who might defeat him.”
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