Photo Credit: Reuters
“We will do what we can to help them fight this scourge, and redouble our efforts to make sure it does not happen here. We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” TED CRUZ
Ted Cruz’s response to the Brussels’ terrorist attacks has been rightfully and roundly criticized by liberal media outlets and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. However, what the liberal outrage gets wrong about Cruz’s suggestions is that such measures would be out of step with American traditions and security policy. As recently as 2014, the NYPD had a special branch of its intelligence division, the Demographics Unit, dedicated to running surveillance specifically on the NY-metro area Muslim community at large, from kebab stand workers to mosque attendees to Muslim student associations as far off as Philadelphia. This is to say nothing of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) of the late 1950s-1970s that infiltrated and tried to disrupt the activities of, among others, left-wing student organizations, anti-Vietnam War protestors, and members of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. To “patrol and secure” whatever the majority of the American population happens to fear at a given moment is firmly within the traditions of American security policy. Ted Cruz’s call for specialized surveillance of an entire group of the American populace for the sake of security is actually the reappearance of an old theme in American history. Recall that the first organizations that resembled police forces in America were the mounted slave patrols that were tasked solely with finding African Americans. To identify and watch over a particular swath of the population is not some sort of aberration but rather the norm in the American way of security. This is American policy on autopilot—cruise control is Cruz control.
To register that such an approach is within the traditions of American policy-making and execution is, of course, not to endorse it. Such ways of providing security have been and will be disastrous to the American Muslim community. They should be opposed on moral, pragmatic, and legal grounds, and in that order. The reason for this is that while the US has had a relatively short history of dealing with terrorism done in the name of Islam, the example of French security policy vis-à-vis its Muslim community across the 20th century can point us to the folly of adopting such an approach.
“To identify and watch over a particular swath of the population is not some sort of aberration but rather the norm in the American way of security. This is American policy on autopilot—cruise control is Cruz control.”
From 1925 until approximately 1980, the Paris Prefecture of Police had a specialized unit whose only tasks were the political surveillance and criminal investigation of Muslims from France’s North African colonies, Morocco, Tunisia, and, most importantly, Algeria. This police service had number of monikers but was generally referred to by police officials and the press as the North African Brigade. Its main task was to collect information on the entirety of the Muslim community in Paris and repress anti-colonialist and nationalist feeling. It didn’t work. What it did do was further entrench a hierarchy of belonging in France. After 1947, Algerians living in France were by law French citizens. However, with the specialized policing program they were not treated as such, and this fact was not lost on them. Thus, not only was it deeply immoral to treat an entire segment of the population as suspects rather than citizens based simply on their identity, it also did not produce the intended results. That is to say, all three North African colonies gained independence, and North Africans in France became increasingly wary of any interaction with the French police. While legal opposition to such policies might be useful insofar as they constitute opposition per se, what French and American history demonstrate is that the laws can always be tweaked in times of crisis to legalize government actions. The French invented the “state of emergency” during the Algerian War to provide the government security forces with a freer hand, and the US passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, aka the USA PATRIOT Act, in 2001. Shortly thereafter, American lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel redefined torture, which, incidentally, the French had also used extensively in Algeria in the late 1950s.
America has some great traditions. The demonization of entire communities in the name of security is not one of them. Ted Cruz’s proclamations about essentially criminalizing Muslim identity should be rejected. But don’t waive the Constitution in his face to denounce such recommendations. There could well be a process whereby Muslim surveillance becomes constitutional given what has been approved by our legislature and judiciary. The September 18, 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and the November 13, 2001 Executive Order on Military Commissions have created the grounds for perpetual war coupled with the near suspension of habeas corpus since 2001. The fragility of law during times of emergency, real or imagined, has been known since antiquity. The Roman statesman Cicero noted, “In times of war, the law falls silent.” Events like these terrible attacks in Brussels, which involve equal parts tragedy, fear, and anger, are a test for American society. They can also act as a reminder to mobilize the forces of collective morality so we can hopefully get out of cruise/Cruz control.
( Photo credit: Robyn Beck/Agence France Presse)
Is Donald Trump a fascist? He certainly sounds like one.
So strong are the parallels of Trump’s language to the fascist rhetoric of the 1920s and 1930s that I shifted my history curriculum to compare Mussolini and Hitler’s speeches and policies with those of Trump and other members of the political class.
Case in point: On Sunday, November 15, 2015, Jeb Bush argued that only Christians should be allowed into the country; Ted Cruz concurred. The next day, Chris Christie stated that Syrian orphans under the age of five should not be allowed into the US. On Wednesday, the Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, issued a statement suggesting Muslim refugees meet that same fate as Japanese-Americans who were herded into concentration camps during WWII. Finally, on Thursday November 19th, Donald Trump proposed that Muslims in America be specially registered and identified. So, in the span of five days, senior members of the American political class (all Republicans barring Mayor Bowers) called for religious exclusion at the borders, concentration camps, dual legal and surveillance regimes for Muslim Americans, and special insignia.
The most outspoken of the lot, Donald Trump, has emphasized his belief that Muslim immigration to the US should be explicitly banned—call it a Muslim Exclusion Act.
It sounds fascist, right? No, says Vox Media.
The constellation of academic stars Vox queried about whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist categorically rejected the label. Ranging from the usual excruciating academic jargon (“Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism”—Roger Griffin) to much more useful arguments (describing fascism as a type of politics “obsessed with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood”—Robert Paxton), each highly respected scholar rejected the descriptor “fascist” for one reason: Trump continues to embrace the democratic process. They argue that because Trump has not questioned the political legitimacy of democracy itself, he cannot be a fascist and thus has much more in common with the “right-wing populism” of France’s Front National. But this conclusion is problematic, and overlooking its deep flaws might well be contributing to what seems to be Trump’s irresistible rise.
“The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler.”
First, the term “fascism” need not be rendered an ineffective description just because it is not an exact mirror of the classical fascism of the 1920s and ’30s. Should Bernie Sanders not be called a democratic socialist because his platform isn’t a carbon copy of, say, the Weimar Republic’s Social Democrats? Conservatism also means something quite different today than what was articulated by Edmund Burke, but the term is still useful as a category to identify a certain body of thought and action. As Mark Twain noted, history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.
No, Trump does not have an army of Trumpshirts beating political opponents in the streets, but he has responded positively to violence committed in his name, suggesting that his followers are either “very passionate” or that the victims might have deserved to have been “roughed up.” Coupled with statements about a specialized legal regime for certain citizens and a motto that emphasizes reanimating a latent, authentic America, Trump has the rhyme and meter of fascism down pat.
Second, while Mussolini and Hitler were not voted into power and relied on the use or threat of force to engineer executive appointments, their parties did use the democratic process to field candidates, thereby gaining popular legitimacy and shifting their ideologies from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream. The anti-democratic nature of fascism reveals itself as such only when it hits the limits of democratic processes. Currently, these processes appear to be going just swimmingly for Donald Trump.
Lastly, it’s true that Trump’s campaign may have more in common with the reactionary right-wing populism of France’s Front National than Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento. However, it’s true only insofar that these are different political movements in different national and historical contexts. The flaw in this analysis hinges on the fact that 1) fascism is always paired with a heavy dose of right-wing populism, but, more importantly, 2) it forgets the fascist origins of the Front National itself. The Front National’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has a long list of fascist sympathies, from his admiration of the Vichy collaborationist leader Marshal Philippe Pétain to being fined for having sold records of Hitler speeches. Additionally, when the Front National was founded in 1972, it was a mélange of violent, extreme-right wing, neo-fascist groups, such as l’Ordre Nouveau (The New Order). Le Pen viewed the jack-boots and violence as not immoral but unproductive and by 1974 convinced the membership to start wearing respectable suits. He also eschewed the language of anti-democracy and instead repurposed the rhetoric of French republican universalism to identify those—Muslims and former colonial subjects—who were too particular to be worthy of inclusion in French society and politics. In a deft piece of political jujitsu, Le Pen re-invented the republican tradition and used its themes of assimilation and the separation of church and state as a rationale to exclude certain people at the borders and to draw internal borders in French society.
This should be a warning to those who want to write off Trump as simply an American Le Pen. Le Pen’s Front National is an illustration of how fascist ideas can easily coexist with and utilize democracy to further entrench these ideas. The recent electoral success of Jean-Mare Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, is a testament to the political evolution of fascism: fascist in content, democratic in form.
The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler. The great German-Jewish philosopher, and refugee, Hannah Arendt warned of becoming so obsessed with totalitarianism as the ultimate in evil that we become “blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved.”
In essence, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies are these small evils and must be resisted at every step. It’s deeply troubling that though many in the Republican establishment have disavowed his remarks, many others have also said they would support him should he become the presidential nominee.
When in power would Trump dismantle the US government with an Enabling Act, demand an oath of personal fealty by the military, or institute anti-Muslim legislation? I’m not sure. Unlike former president George W. Bush, I make no claim to be able to see into men’s souls. However, I am sure that it is the duty of all Americans to resist the rise of Donald Trump to ensure such questions remain in the realm of theory and not practice.