Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Fascism Gets Good Ratings
"Fascist" is a word that gets flung around and I don't care to indulge in the mongering of scare words. "Communist," "socialist," "fascist," etc. are all tossed around in American political discourse as pejorative terms with little interest in the terms' actual meanings. This is particularly slippery when alluding to fascism, which is an especially slippery term. I do not intend to use it pejoratively, but descriptively.
Precise definitions of fascism are elusive but there is consensus about some of the broad characteristics, many of which are present in American politics - many of which Donald Trump exploits successfully in his primary campaign for president. Even if he does not become the Republican nominee, the popularity of his campaign (buoyed by the media's fascination with him, and the free media coverage he has gotten as a result) indicates where we are as a nation.
What are some of these "fascist" characteristics? Endless nationalism. Scapegoating and dehumanizing of certain groups, ethnic groups in particular. Male chauvinism (with consistent, sometimes remarkable graphic verbal attacks on female journalists who question him). A retributive attitude toward journalists and media. Love of corporate power. Disdain for safety nets, welfare policies, humanitarian aid in competitive capitalism ("giving stuff away"). Disdain for the humanities and intellectuals. A need for a national myth in which the homeland is being humiliated, has become decadent, is a victim, is in need of rebirth. A selective populism crafted to appeal to frustrated and frightened elements of the working class and middle class. Prizes decisive action, especially "tough" or military action, over deliberation.
These are elements Donald Trump has exploited in his campaign with popular success. Some of it is craven - his professions of religiosity, limited to stating "I love the Bible" over and over, sounds hollow but it plays well with his select audience. Other elements seem quite congruent with Trump's personality as we observe from his long career as a public figure: the obsession with winners and "losers," his almost exclusive interest in opinion polls and ratings rather than content or details of policy, the sense that every human interaction is a competition - life is an unending battle.
So yes, I think it is fair to say there are multiple elements of fascism present in Donald Trump's campaign, and it is not really news that these elements play well to a lot of American citizens. Trump is no Mussolini, but the response to Trump suggests that if someone of Mussolini's caliber emerged he would be quite popular in today's U.S. There are plenty of people willing to enlist themselves as blackshirts, as we saw in the incident where two brothers targeted someone described as "Hispanic" for assault, and who said upon their arrest "Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported." Ironically, the surname of the two brothers was Leader. And Trump's response when informed of the incident, including their claim to be inspired by him, was to say, "people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate."
The NBC late-night comedy institution Saturday Night Live raised eyebrows when they invited Trump to be a guest host, but it is hardly surprising. Trump is a highly prominent New Yorker, closely identified with the city for decades, and is a front-runner for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. When Hillary Clinton, then a Senator from New York, ran for president in 2008 she, too, was invited onto the show.
SNL is a business. They deliver entertainment in order to earn revenue for NBC. Because of his prominence, by those who love him and those who despise him, he makes for terrific ratings and indeed, his appearance was SNL's most watched show in years. Some 400 protesters marched outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza to protest Trump's appearance, but the show went on.
Up to this point I did not give the controversy much attention. SNL can invite who they want on their show. They're going to do their thing. People can protest and criticize it and ask them to reconsider - they, too, will do their thing.
Then I heard - and looked up clips online to confirm - that SNL's writers had actually made a joke of the protesters. In one bit, Larry David interrupted Trump's opening monologue to call him a racist and then try to claim a cash reward he'd been promised for saying that, neutralizing the moral case protesters were making. In another case, Trump participated in a skit where he thanked the president of Mexico for making Telemundo broadcast in English and accepted a check to pay for Trump's border wall. Having Trump participate in these skits, allowing him to be in on the joke, does not make him the butt of the joke. It mocks those who criticize the deplorable things he says and the preposterous policy proposals that will never come to fruition. It makes light of our smoldering fascism.
That might be pretty disappointing but let's not forget this is Lorne Michaels's kingdom. For example, producer Michaels banned Elvis Costello from the show for some 12 years because Costello switched songs during the broadcast and played "Radio Radio," a song that criticized corporate broadcast media. Lorne Michaels and his SNL brand are politically "faux neutral," the kind of neutral that leaves the social order unchallenged and is therefore not truly neutral.
(Footnote: Yes, it is true that Costello was forgiven and played on the show again - in fact, he was invited on to play "Radio Radio" again in a skit that satirized what he had done and why he had been punished. This is what politicians do when they mess up: go on TV and joke about it. It's a ritual of ablution - not so much for Costello in this case as Lorne Michaels himself.)
SNL exists to make money. It is not interested in espousing justice. This isn't the job of a comedy show on a corporate network. Far from it. Even Jon Stewart, the funnyman on Comedy Central who occasionally engaged in serious media criticism and did advocate for justice once in a while (on behalf of 9/11 first-responders for instance), reportedly told Daily Show successor Trevor Noah that they are in the comedy business first.
And in this chapter of our history, SNL knows fascism is good for business.