How Does Fascism Sneak Into Pop Culture?

The author of a book on "fascist creep" provides some historical perspective.
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The author of a book on "fascist creep" provides some historical perspective.
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks onstage during the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17th, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks onstage during the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17th, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

Donald Trump's rise from real-estate businessman and washed-up reality television star to United States president has many people thinking anew about fascism. There's debate over whether or not the president is a fascist or has fascistic tendencies, but it's clear that some of his most vocal supporters on the so-called "alt-right," such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, hold views and incite actions that are characteristic of white nationalists and fascists.

In the last two months, at least two Trump supporters who have been accused of fascistic tendencies have attended some of pop culture's buzziest events. In August, Yiannopoulos attended MTV's Video Music Awards; in September, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer showed up onstage at the Emmys. Both appearances alarmed anti-fascists: Despite the dangerous and extremist nature of fascist ideology, and the violence inherent to fascism and fascistic movements, history has demonstrated that fascists are able to make homes for themselves in mainstream culture and, on the left, sometimes via artistic and cultural avenues.

Alexander Reid Ross, a geography instructor at Portland State University and author of the February 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep, explains that, historically, fascists have infiltrated mainstream culture because fascism focuses on the idea of “rebirth both from left- and right-wing ideologies.” In the case of the arts and humanities, fascists have sometimes usurped ostensibly progressive movements, such as Romanticism, and used them to advance their agenda. Fascists have traditionally physically interrupted performance art in order to spread their message as well.

The fascist tradition of using the arts as vehicles for expanding the movement is visible in the U.S. today, in some cases in eerily similar ways to the original rise of European fascism in the early 20th century. In an interview with Pacific Standard, Ross discussed the ways fascists have historically snuck into mainstream cultural milieus, why progressives sometimes fall for fascist infiltrators, and how entertainment media played a role in the election of Trump.

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What are some early examples of fascist creep via cultural milieus?

In Futurism, we see some early examples of "cultural fascism," if you will. Filippo Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, would be a good place to start. Futurism was founded in Italy in the early 1900s, and was one of the earliest proto-fascist and, in some cases, fascist movements. The idea [of Futurism] was to return to the noble myth [of] the new man who stands for family and tradition, but in a super-powered world of dynamism and adventure.

Later in Germany, the Expressionist movement was broadly seen as somewhat anti-fascist and a very nihilistic, anxiety-ridden reaction to the horrors of World War I. However, there was a poet named Gottfried Benn [who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature on five occasions], who moved toward fascism. Because Benn was such a powerful poet in Germany at the time, his turn to fascism was, in a way, a connector between the Romanticism and Idealism of the 19th century and the fascist usurpation of those traditions in the 20th century.

The Volkisch movement [in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries], where the "Blut und Boden" [or] Blood and Soil ideology comes from, was like a "back to the land" movement, almost like a hippy movement. It included lots of poetry and arts and crafts. It became sort of a touchstone for the left to return to the people and organize revolution, and also for the far right in terms of patriotism and the ultranationalist concept of a right to territory through bloodlines. The Nazis appropriated a lot of that line of thinking.

Recently, Milo Yiannopoulos attended MTV's Video Music Awards, and, later, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer spoke onstage at the Emmys. How do appearances such as these play into the fascistic agenda in the U.S.?

It's a double-edged sword. The first thing these appearances accomplish is normalization. These guys who have extreme views are pulled up into the limelight and generally it appears they are being accepted. On the other hand, it's normalization insofar as perhaps their character or persona becomes more moderate as they are accepted and introduced through functioning institutions.

But if you look at the emergence of fascism and the development of fascism in its original form, one of the interesting things that you see in cultural avenues is that they are often primarily interested in disruption. For example: a group of Mussolini's supporters disrupting an opera performance at La Scala theater in Milan, Italy, in 1922. [Alt-right conspiracy theorist] Jack Posobiec and a woman named Laura Loomer did something similar this past summer when they interrupted a production of Julius Caesar in New York.

And, inevitably, there are liberals in mainstream institutions who accept the expressions of [fascist disruptors] insofar as it is expression, and insofar as it's good to explore the arts and humanities. So there's a tendency to accept these movements to some degree, and perhaps even adopt some of their mindsets under this position. This is incredibly dangerous, because fascism is so vitriolic and mercurial that it's difficult to contain. You can definitely end up stabbing yourself with your own strategy on how to deal with them if the defense is anything other than, "No, keep it away; destroy it."

Why do so many progressives tend to embrace, or at least not outright reject, fascistic or authoritarian figures when they appear in artistic and cultural arenas?

Part of it might be a phenomenon of class. Once someone is as prominent and powerful as a media representative for the president, they assume a class and a power that is inevitable. So one might think, "Well, we're going to have to deal with these people anyway, this is the new normal." And coming to terms with that, and trying to promote an open society of forgiveness and acceptance in front of the cameras, could help address issues of disharmony.

In a way, [these liberals] are probably trying to induce a kind of harmony in society. When Spicer gets hugged and vetted by Hollywood elites, some people may think, "OK, this isn't some cultural war that is really as high stakes, like some people say it is." The same goes for Milo. Making a big show of unity or friendship, or really at least a tepid acceptance, it's like two leaders of countries that have bad relations coming together and shaking hands in front of the camera. They give the impression that war is not imminent and everything is OK. They're trying to smooth over some of the more spiky areas and get people back to movie theaters and concerts.

How did entertainment television play a role in the election of Donald Trump, who set an authoritarian and nationalistic tone for his campaign from day one? Trump certainly had a softball interview with Jimmy Fallon and hosted Saturday Night Live.

I definitely think that giving him such broad access helped him perform his identity as a family man and as a guy with a sense of humor. A lot of it might have had to do with ratings and getting more viewers who are not necessarily liberals. Putting Trump on these shows was, again, perhaps an attempt to placate some of the conflict in society and smooth over people's social grievances so people would go to the polls instead of rising up in anger against the entire political system. Giving Trump a microphone allowed him to pass, for some people, as far less malevolent and dangerous than his policies actually are.

Does history offer any lessons on how to prevent or resist the fascist creep in cultural settings?

I think most effective has been accepting a basic set of principles across political differences: a commitment to freedom and creating a culture of intolerance for people who preach inequality and hatred. We have seen some of that in arts and culture under Trump, but we've also seen a tendency of those who are perhaps most responsible for shaping dominant political narratives—editors of news magazines—to pretty fiercely attack [resistance] groups that they don't really understand or know much about. So there needs to be a better understanding of what antifascists actually do.

I think that returns to questions of justice and reason, which can always serve to help society cast out these kinds of demons. It comes to the way people think and act in everyday life, and return to the values of mutual aid and solidarity with other human beings is a huge part of breaking down fascism before it even happens.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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