Fascism 2.0 in eight lessons
This text, by a global reference in the social sciences field,
is missing a few names, for example Daniel Ortega,
a splendid student of the eight lessons of Fascism 2.0.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Today, November 16, 2020, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the United States over the coming weeks. There are many critical questions floating around that, for now, have no answer.
Was there election fraud? If so, was it enough to change the results? Will the transition from Trump to Biden turn into a transition from Trump to Trump? Or a transition from Trump to a compromise agreement in Congress like the one where, following disputed presidential elections in 1876, the winning candidate became President by accepting an extra-electoral commitment? Will there be violence in the streets, given that any solution will sideline a significant segment of a polarized society?
For now, these are all question marks. However, there are some very sobering certainties for the future of democracy. I will focus on one. I am referring to the crash course in Fascism 2.0 that Donald Trump has taught to aspiring dictators, authoritarian leaders and fascists around the world over the last four years.
The course had its decisive moment during the master class Trump began giving from the White House on November 4 at 2:30 a.m., Washington DC time. The course’s general topic is “How to use democracy to destroy it” and it is divided into several sub-topics in eight lessons.
Here I will briefly cover the main points. The first three lessons refer to elections; the remainder, to politics and government. The general course objective is to instill the idea that democracy is only good for gaining power. And once in power, neither the type of government nor democratic alternation in office are acceptable.
Lesson 1: Rejecting
unfavorable election results
The topic of the November 4 class was how to reject election results when they don’t suit us: how to create confusion in citizens’ minds by fabricating suspicions of fraud which, regardless of the facts—though these may exist—will have the desired effect. The lesson teaches that these suspicions must be formulated in the most extreme and fantastical way.
Trump had already broached this topic in the 2016 election campaign, and the lesson has been put into practice by his star pupils, whom he considers personal friends: Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. By September 2018 Bolsonaro was already declaring: “I will not accept any result besides my election.”
Many of the remaining students were very attentive on that early November morning. They included Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom Trump considers “my favorite dictator;” and Narendra Modi in India. Another eager student was Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda since 1986, who intends to run as a candidate once again in 2021.
The class has many students in Europe, including Viktor Orban (Hungary), Matteo Salvini (Italy), Marine Le Pen (France), Santiago Abascal (Spain) and André Ventura (Portugal).
Lesson 2: Turning
majorities into minorities
Any time electoral majorities are unfavorable to the fascistic cause, it becomes urgent to make them sociological minorities. This way, elections lose legitimacy and democracy becomes a ploy of big economic and media interests.
The Portuguese student André Ventura learned this lesson more quickly than the others. In declarations to the Expresso newspaper on November 7, he stated regarding Biden’s victory: “I’m afraid the voice of minorities who prefer to live at the expense of others’ work has won.”
Lesson 3: Double standards
None of what is unfavorable for the cause can be evaluated using the same standards applied to that which is favorable. For example, if it is clear that the large majority of mail-in votes will probably favor the fascisticizing cause, these must be considered not just legal, but particularly recommendable during a pandemic.
Otherwise, it must be insisted that these votes are an instrument of fraud that snatches from voters the unique democratic experience of physical and social proximity. The proof of this supposed fraud doesn’t matter, as long as the suspicion is immediately cast, accompanied by the fabrication of imaginary fraudulent strategies.
Lesson 4: Speak not for the country,
but only for the social base
This lesson is crucial because it’s the one that contributes most directly to undermining the legitimacy of democracy. If the idea is to promote an anti-systemic groundswell, it makes no sense to govern for those who, despite their complaints, still haven’t given up on seeing their needs met by the democratic system.
Ideally, the social base should be at least 30% and their loyalty must be unfailingly cultivated over time, whether one is in opposition or in government. Contact with the base must be direct and continuous. The base will stay united and organized to the extent that it stops trusting any other source of information.
Facts that contradict the leader thus become irrelevant. Over four years, Trump was able to maintain his base, as was Orban in Hungary and Modi in India. The same can be said of Bolsonaro.
The social base’s self-esteem is the only serious policy. Slogans that draw on self-esteem and grandeur must be recycled. “Make America Great Again” was a phrase already put to use by Ronald Reagan. The slogans of dictatorships can also be recycled, especially because they have gained legitimacy over time. The recycling can be wholesale (“Brazil: Love it or leave it”) or partially modified (“Portugal is ours” instead of “Angola is ours”).
Lesson 5: Reality doesn’t exist
The leader mainly displays control of events when he stops a supposedly adverse reality. Or when, failing to stop it, he strips it of its drama.
Trump showed the way: the pandemic stops when he stops talking about it. And to make it less serious, just end intensive testing. Fear of the pandemic is a sign of weakness. Trump wanted to leave the hospital wearing a Superman t-shirt. According to Bolsonaro, being afraid of the pandemic is for “sissies.”
At the same time, the pandemic loses currency in the minds of the base when compared to the pandemic created by the system (unemployment, loss of sovereignty, lack of access to health services, etc.). Or, in the tropical version, by referring to the inevitability of death (Bolsonaro: “One day we will all die”).
Since for fascism, lies are as real as truth, the more dramatic the fabrications contrast with the truth, the better.
There are many examples of “irrelevant” truths that must be hidden. Rather than reducing social inequalities, the Trump administration increased them: during the pandemic the wealth of multi-millionaires increased by US$ 637 billion; 40 million US citizens lost their jobs; 250,000 died of Covid-19, the highest death rate in the world; hunger among families tripled and the number of malnourished children increased by 14%; and the moratorium on evictions was lifted, throwing millions out on the street.
This lesson explains that anything that cannot be denied is either natural or impossible for humans to control. The incredibly high number of deaths in Brazil is the hand of fate, just like the fires in the Amazon, since, by official definition, wildfires are uncontrollable, and no one is responsible for them.
Lesson 6: Resentment is the
most valuable political tool
Governing against the system is impossible since part of that very system finances Fascism 2.0. Thus, it is essential to hide the real reasons for social unrest and make the system’s victims believe that other victims are the true aggressors.
The organized base wants simple ideas and zero-sum games: intuitive equations between winners and losers. For example, they have to be told that the increase in unemployment is due to the entry of immigrants, although the latter’s true numbers are minimal and actually irrelevant. The impoverished White worker must be made to believe that his attacker is the Black or Latino worker who is even poorer. The crisis in education and values must be painted as due to the cunning of the poor who, thanks to “human rights entrepreneurs,” have more rights, be they women, homosexuals, gypsies, Blacks or natives. There must always be a scapegoat; you just need to know how to choose them. This is the fascist leader’s greatest skill.
In addition to scapegoats, the politics of resentment demands conspiracy theories, demonizing of opponents, and systematic attacks on the media, science and any knowledge requiring special expertise. They also require inciting violence and hate to eliminate arguments. Above all, they call for self-glorification of the leader as the victim’s sole trustworthy defender.
Lesson 7: traditional politics
is unwittingly the best ally
From the moment the socialist alternative disappeared from the political stage, politics lost credibility as an exercise in convictions. This moment coincided with the strengthening of neoliberalism as a new version of capitalism.
This version, one of the most anti-social in the history of capitalism, led to the destruction or erosion of social protection policies and of middle classes wherever they existed. It also provoked the increasing concentration of wealth and an acceleration of the ecological crisis.
The liberal values of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, brotherhood) were losing meaning for large swaths of the population, which sees itself as neglected and marginalized, regardless of the party in power.
With the discrediting of liberal values, the democratic ideologies associated with them—peaceful co-existence, respect for political adversaries, moderation and contradiction in arguments, rotation in authority, consensus and negotiation—lost their meaning.
These values and ideologies, which have always matched the practical experience of only a small segment of the population, are now historical trash that must be swept away. The vacuum in values gives way to both scorn for truth and the imposition of alternative values, prioritizing the family, racial hierarchies, ethno-religious nationalism and the myth of the “Golden Age” of the past, even though in reality the past was made of lead. This is the breeding ground for polarization.
Polarize, always polarize
Political centrism has died and only radicalization can fill the gap. In current circumstances, polarization always reinforces the Right and far Right. Polarization is no longer between Left and Right. It is now between the system (Deep State) and the disinherited majority, between the 1% and the 99%. This polarization was attempted in recent years by the institutional and extra-institutional Left, but some of these left wings ended up servilely submitting to capitalist institutions.
When centrism revolted, it was neutralized. This cannot happen to Fascism 2.0 simply because, far from being against the 1%, it is the 1% itself that finances it. The fascist polarization against the 1% is merely rhetorical, attempting to disguise the real polarization, which is between democracy and Fascism 2.0.
The old guard Right thinks it can domesticate the extreme Right. But in fact, the reverse will happen. In an example from Portugal, the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) is willing to ally with the extreme-right Chega party, “if the latter becomes more moderate.” The Chega leader responded immediately: Chega will not become more moderate, it’s the PSD that will become more radical.” In this case, the Fascism 2.0 apprentice is the epoch’s best prophet.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a Doctor of Sociology from Yale University, Sociology lecturer at Coimbra University and the University of Wisconsin/Madison.