I took a poll on Twitter asking whether I should write about the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev or my beef with Atlantic writer and Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid. My followers indicated they’d rather read about Gorbachev than hear me gripe, but ultimately I decide what to do here, so here goes.
Full disclosure: I have developed a strong dislike of Hamid. I think he’s smug, arrogant, and condescending while at the same time being shallow, unimaginative, ill-informed, incapable of rigorous thought, evasive, and even downright intellectually dishonest. He puts on a kind of lordly pose, demanding discourse be both “substantive” and courtly, while disqualifying responses that don’t meet his arbitrary standards. I lose my temper with this stuff really quickly and I admit I’ve been very rude to him, which has made him less disposed to respond to what I have to say. And that’s fair. But Hamid has also not endeared himself to me by being insulting and dismissive: saying that I haven’t the credentials or intelligence to merit a response because I am just some schmuck on Substack, not a real scholar or expert. Now that may be true, but I resent it nonetheless.
Unpopular Front is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The fact of the matter I don’t know Hamid or really wish him ill, but to me he emblematizes a certain public mode of expression that I’ve grown to detest: the banalities of the pundit class disguised as daring counterpoints to popular delusions. These are always sprinkled with brow-furrowed concern that whatever the public seems to be enthusiastic about in the moment will lead to some disaster. In the construction of his arguments he closely follows something similar to A.O. Hirschman’s famous theses from his Rhetoric of Reaction: the “perversity thesis,” where any action actually result in the opposite of its intent, the “futility thesis,” where any action will actually accomplish nothing, and the “jeopardy thesis,” where any action will threaten some already accomplished social good. These three simple guides provide a template for the pundit for a long career in journalism. They give the appearance of thoughtfulness and counter-intuitive brilliance, when they are just methods to generate rote responses.
This is what angers me so much: this is all about posing as an intellectual without actually saying much of anything of actual substance. Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue writes that bureaucratic expertise is a kind of theatrical performance. Something similar takes place in the worlds of prestige journalism and Ivy League academia, especially when they are close adjuncts to the policy-making apparatus. The think-tanker, the pundit, the talking-head, the tenured columnist, etc. many of these have become first and foremost stock characters, and resort to the clichéd turns of phrase and conceptions expected from their role. Allow me my own form of pundit’s brow-furrowed concern: I think the fact that shallow posing and position-taking now dominates so much of public discourse constitutes a much more serious problem than the lack of civility. This to me is the real problem with our elites: the incapacity for real thought and imagination, the reliance on worn-out formulas and accepted wisdom, and the performance of expertise. Being flat-out, empirically wrong is not disqualifying or the occasion for serious self-reflection. The script must be followed. The show must go on. No wonder we are in an era of populist discontent and resentment of elites.
This brings me, finally, to the present issue. It concerns Biden’s comments about MAGA being “semi-fascist,” a notion that he thinks is preposterous:
“Semi-fascism” grates on me because it doesn’t actually have any substantive content. If by "semi-Communism," you simply mean a little bit Communist or somewhat Communist, then what are you really even saying? If something is just a little bit Communist, then it's not in fact Communist. In short, once you start using the qualifier "semi-" for an ideology, it is no longer the ideology in question. Yes, yes. Maybe I’m being pedantic. I should get with the times. It is no longer fashionable to associate words with a distinct, intelligible meaning. With enough devotion, we can will words to be something other than what they are. We are all post-modernists, the bastard children of Derrida and Foucault.
Let’s begin with the conclusion here. This is the laziest reflex of the pundit class in operation: “I’m standing up for common sense against some cultural bogey, in this case post-modernism. Ah disagree with me? Maybe you’ve just filled your head with all that French mumo-jumbo.” This is such a reversion to hoary cliché it could have been written at any time for any center-aligned publication in the past 30 years. Thinking things have aspects of, or approximate, or have some qualities of but not others, is not postmodernism, it’s a normal feature of judgment. This is how comparisons work. It is not in any sense meaningless to say things are partially something, even if it might be rhetorically hedging.
I want to point out here that “semi-fascist” is actually used by scholars—you know those people who Hamid claim to take seriously over guys on Substack. In Stanley Payne’s A History of Fascism: 1914-1945, the author employs it several times and invests it with real content. In fact, semi-fascism was a common phenomenon because fascist movements had so much difficulty obtaining popular support and had to meld with conservative allies and existing institutions. In most places, fascist movements either failed or became a junior tendency in a broader political context:
Thus in the absence of a plurality of generically fascist regimes and systems, it is possible to refer only to a number of semifascist or would-be fascist regimes, while in turn distinguishing between the character and structure of each type and subtype both among themselves and in comparison with diverse kinds of conservative (or at least nonsocialist) nonfascist authoritarian regimes.
One of Payne’s primary examples of “semifascism” is Franco’s Spain: “That early Franquism contained a major component of fascism is undeniable, but it was so restricted within a right-wing, praetorian, Catholic, and semipluralist structure that the category ‘semifascist’ would probably be more accurate.” That is to say, in Franco’s Spain, hardcore fascists were part of a broad coalition of a more traditional authoritarian right and were subordinated to the role of junior partner and eventually swamped by the regime. You can also see similar processes take place in Legionary Romania, Horthy’s Hungary, Vichy France, and Salazar’s Portugal. Even Mussolini’s Italy had to make serious accommodations with conservative forces and kept aspects of the constitutional order in place at the beginning of the regime.
So, that’s regimes, but what about movements? Surely those must be more ideologically pure or clear-cut? Well, how would you characterize Action Française, Croix de Feu, or the Ku Klux Klan for that matter? The America First Committee contained Nazi sympathizers and others who were just sincerely anti-war. So, it was quite literally “semi-fascist.” Huey Long was not really a fascist, but he attracted a number of fascist followers, like Lawrence Dennis and Gerald L. K. Smith, because he looked close enough to them. They thought he could be turned into a more full-blown fascist, which was probably similar to the attitude of people like Bannon towards Trump. Suffice it to say, there are many historical movements that anticipate fascist-style mobilization and themes, or copied some aspects of fascism while being more traditionally conservative in their desired outcome, or that excited and inspired fascists without fully delivering.
Shadi speaks of fascism as an ideology like Communism or liberalism, but as the highly-respected scholar Robert Paxton points out fascism is less a coherent ideology than a set of “mobilizing passions:”
a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual
the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
Now obviously some of these features apply more to Trumpism than others, so “semi-fascism” seems to be right on the money.
The fact of the matter is this: Trumpism at its core is a movement fixated on restoring national greatness through the charismatic leadership of a single providential individual who “alone can fix it.” It is obsessed with national decline and attacking internal enemies. Although more loosely organized and weaker than those of the classical Fascisms, MAGA also has paramilitary formations that have tried to carry out this project to the point of attempting the overthrow an elected government. From the very beginning of his political ascent, he attracted the interest and enthusiasm of the extreme right: he was the kind of thing they’d been looking for for a long time. Perhaps now a disappointment, perhaps now a failure, but certainly a step in the right direction as far as they were concerned.
Biden was probably hedging: his aides were concerned if he said “fascism” it would be too strong. But he was landing on a pretty reasonable interpretation of the case. I am not the only one who thinks so either. Damon Linker, who is not a raving lefty postmodernist by any stretch of the imagination, calls Trump “Fasc-ish” in a well-argued piece.
Part of Hamid’s argument is that it’s both dangerous and absurd to call Trump fascist in any way because then that consigns tens of millions of his supporters to being fascists and creates a situation of national emergency thereby. This is not a good argument. It is cartoonish in its assumptions about both history and politics. Saying someone is fascist or semi-fascist does not make all their supporters to be goose-stepping stormtroopers or say they deserve to be in the dock at Nuremberg.
Many normal people, including conservatives and even former leftists, at one point or another supported Europe’s fascist regimes. They did so because one or another part of their appeals sounded good to them, or they did it as a protest vote against a system that wasn’t functioning well; many sensible and educated people thought of fascism as essentially technocratic solution to the ills of liberal democracy. Fascism was, at one time, and as I fear it is becoming again, attractive and persuasive, not just brutal and overwhelming. The problem was that it was not a solution to any of the crises that beset these democracies: it was a disastrous series of lies and delusions. And that is the reason to call this for what it is: to say, “Look, we’ve seen this before. It doesn’t end well. I know some of this propaganda seems to meet the moment, but here is the reality of it.”
I’m not really filled with a lot fear and hatred for the vast run of people who voted for Trump. Using fascism as a designator is not meant to condemn them all to hell. But I do think there are a hard-core of motivated figures that are more or less self-conscious fascists in Trump’s orbit and in the contemporary GOP, and I don’t think it’s a sign of prudence or wisdom to not identify them or their propaganda as such. To me, it’s both true and politically important. Does that mean it’s the most important or overriding message we should adopt and Biden just has to keep beating that drum above all others? No, of course not, politics requires a lot of suppleness and subtlety, and probably most people care about feeding, clothing and housing of their loved ones than grand battles against the forces of darkness. That’s what I think the administration should attend to first. But are we really gonna castigate a politician for speaking the truth for once?
Unpopular Front is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
There are basically four pundit personas / career tracks and he has chosen the George Will one (who is just a degraded version of Buckley and Safire himself). Sound erudite, act haughty, and let shallow people use those superficial characteristics to conclude that you must *really* know what you're talking about.
You are smart, informed, funny, and consistently right. I'm grateful to have discovered you. And if anger provokes you to write columns as good as this, that's good. But never let the criticisms of lesser minds drag you down. Remember—you are a contemporary Voltaire. Don't share his weakness:
"Instead of the silence, composure, and austere oblivion, which it is of the essence of strength to oppose to unworthy natures, he habitually confronted the dusty creeping things that beset his march, as if they stood valiant and erect; and the more unworthy they were, the more vehement and strenuous and shrill was his contention with them. The ignominy of such strife is clear. One thing only may perhaps be said. His intense susceptibility to vulgar calumny flowed from the same quality in his nature which made unbearable to him the presence of superstition and injustice, those mightier calumnies on humanity. The irritated protests against the small foes of his person were as the dregs of potent wine, and were the lower part of that passionate sensibility which made him the assailant of the giant oppressors of the human mind."
—John Morley, Voltaire (1885)