December 16, 2016

Donald Trump and the F-Word: The Growing Elephant in the Room

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

When most of us think of the F-word the first thing that comes to mind is probably the vulgar term for sex that rhymes with duck. Adding Donald Trump to the mix probably just reinforces this thought because we know that the president-elect has used this expletive in his outbursts and exhortations. However, the F-word that I am referring to here is not the four-letter obscenity but the seven letter description of one of the most frightening political ideologies: Fascism.

In case you were absent on the day fascism might have been discussed in your history class, here are two explanations of the term. First, is a very brief definition from Meriam-Webster:

A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

Second, is a more elaborate description from former New York Times war correspondent, Chris Hedges:

Fascism, at its core, is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity. It allows disenfranchised people to feel a sense of power and to have their rage sanctified. It takes a politically marginalized and depoliticized population and mobilizes it around a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance and an anointed political savior. It is always militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy and replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as diseased enemies that must be physically purged to restore the health of nation.

If we consider these two definitions and use them as a lens through which we view Donald Trump, then it seems pretty clear that he embodies many of the components of a fascist:

It is often said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and nowhere is this truer than when considering the fascism of Donald Trump. As sociologists we are primarily interested in studying patterns and trends, instead of singular or anecdotal cases, to understand the dimensions and processes of social life. Looking at the pattern of Donald Trump’s words and actions, and taking them together as a whole, it seems undeniable that he is trending toward fascism; at the very least, he seems destined to try to govern as a fascist when he assumes the presidency.

So why, then, is there a reluctance to use the F-word when referring to Donald Trump? Why don’t we hear him being a called a fascist on a regular basis—by journalists, educators, politicians, and even friends and neighbors? Although some have publically questioned or proclaimed his fascist tendencies, the alarm bells alerting us to a real and present danger to our democracy and to the Constitution seem to be eerily muted.

In trying to understand this aversion to calling Trump a fascist, I keep coming back to Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Elephant in the Room, a sociological analysis of how people collectively avoid the truths that are so plainly evident. As Zerubavel details in this concise and insightful book, such “conspiracies of silence” persist for a multitude of reasons. Some of us would rather ignore the truths than deal with the messy fallout; some are oblivious to the truths because “what we are aware of is partly a function of how much power we have”; and some are clearly benefitting by the perpetuation of the silence and denial.

The refusal to make Trump’s overt fascism the central part of his identity has shades of all of these dimensions. But I think there is a related sociological process at work here that contributes to our inability to see the elephant in the room: Emile Durkheim’s concept of collective conscience. Durkheim used this term to capture “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society.” In other words, the collective conscience is the set of ideas that unite us communally, that give us a shared identity, and that reinforce the perception of who we are collectively.

A central narrative of the American collective conscience is that we are a free, open, and democratic republic. Despite our differences and conflicts, we always have our democratic ideals to unite us. The notion that the president-elect of the United States could be a fascist is so antithetical to our collective conscience that it’s not even possible for most people to consider. If anything, we have been taught to believe that fascism occurs in other places—Europe, Asia, and South America; it never has nor can it possibly ever occur here. Right? Herein lays the problem that Zerubavel warns against in The Elephant in the Room.

History is full of examples of atrocities being committed while everyday people stood by silently in denial. The Holocaust is the most famous example that Zerubavel cites but it is by no means the only one. We can also point to the killing fields in Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, and the war in Darfur. And of course, we can also find countless examples of silence and denial in our daily lives as we turn a blind eye to hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse, and drug addiction.

A major obstacle to breaking the silence is that in all of these examples—whether they be on a macro-historical level or a micro-local level—we tend to believe that it can’t happen here or that it can’t happen to us. Our collective conscience no doubt has something to do with this especially when we are trying to come to terms with the possibility of fascism in America. But until the silence is broken and we make the “elephant’s presence part of the public discourse” the cycle of denial and avoidance will continue to grow. As for Donald Trump’s fascism, the longer we remain silent the greater the likelihood that we will wake up one morning and realize that we are the past tense of that more commonly used four-letter F-word.

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