During the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, prompted by the pro-Trump armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, several historians contributed new positions to the ongoing “fascism debate.” Robert Paxton, an emeritus Columbia historian of Vichy France and the author of an influential book on fascism, wrote that while he had long hesitated to call Trump a fascist, the Capitol insurrection crossed the red line when armed rioters stormed the seat of government. The historical analogy Paxton invokes is not the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 but the “openly fascist demonstration in Paris during the night of February 6, 1934,” in which “thousands of French veterans of World War I, bitter at rumors of corruption in a parliament already discredited by its inefficacy against the Great Depression, attempted to invade the French parliament chamber, just as the deputies were voting yet another shaky government into power.” This is not the first time Paxton has identified fascism in America. As Sarah Churchwell notes in her New York Review of Books essay, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here,” Paxton observed, in her words, “that a strong argument could be made for the first Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction South being the world’s earliest fascist movement.”
On the other hand, Cambridge historian of Nazi Germany Richard Evans is far more circumspect about using “the f-word.” Evans declared that Trump is still not a fascist, for he sees many distinguishing elements of interwar European fascism still missing from the present situation, notably the volatile context of young and untested democracies, economic depression, revolutionary political prospects, and the ruin of war. To Evans, January 6 was not a coup but an armed insurrection. He warns that while American democracy faces formidable challenges, they should not be mistaken for “a rerun of the fascist seizure of power,” all aesthetic similarities aside. “You can’t win the political battles of the present if you’re always stuck in the past.”
A capstone, if not the conclusion, to this debate can be found in the productive discussion that took place around the same time between Jason Stanley, Samuel Moyn, Jodi Dean, Daniel Bessner, and Eugene Puryear on Katie Halper’s podcast. It spells out compelling reasons for taking both stances in this sometimes pedantically academic debate and unpacks their real-world consequences. Stanley and Dean, speaking from very different political orientations, support the fascist designation to describe not only Trump but also broader right-wing currents in America, whereas Moyn and Bessner uphold their well-known rejection of the “Weimar analogy,” worried that it “Trump-washes” America of deeper problems such as racism and inequality, of which Trump is more a symptom than a cause. With Trump out of office, I’m almost sad to see this era of pressing engagement by public intellectuals come to an end—for now.
I’d finally like to share recordings of a number of illuminating academic events that took place since our last reading recommendations. First, the Jewish studies scholar Susannah Heschel presented the tenth Frankfurt Martin-Buber-Lecture in Jewish Intellectual History and Philosophy, entitled “Racism in America: The Past and Future of Black-Jewish Relations.” Several influential theorists and students of Fredric Jameson, including Ian Balfour, Andrew Cole, Jonathan Culler, and Sianne Ngai, reflected on their teacher’s classic work The Political Unconscious, followed by a reflection by Jameson himself. Finally, Geneviève Zubrzycki presents “Nationalism, Mnemonic Wars and Poland’s ‘Holocaust Speech Law’” at a time when trials about national memory are currently ongoing against Holocaust researchers in Poland.
Earlier this month, soldiers were quartered in the Capitol building for the first time since the Civil War. Comparisons to other historical crises have abounded in the past weeks, particularly to the turbulent political situation in Weimar Germany in advance of the Holocaust. In his 2010 publication The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner offers another analog, considerably closer to home. His portrait of Lincoln and the cataclysmic political context within which he operated offers an interesting meditation on how a single president and the broader environment may interact on each other and on the country. Not only is the specific historical moment of the Civil War useful for throwing our own current events into relief, but the foci and analytical approaches Foner uses in this book may help us draw conclusions about the impact a single individual in a single office may have on the government and the nation’s history moving forward. In these pivotal few weeks at the very start of the Biden administration, that is surely the most pressing question for all of us watching.
Investigating the divides– political, economic, regional, and otherwise– which have made politics so explosive in recent years is just as important as understanding and drawing parallels about our immediate situation. This question led me to Stephen Stoll’s 2017 volume Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, which points out the growing rift between rural and urban parts of America by placing Appalachian rural society into a broader global pattern of agrarian dispossession. While the notion that all the virulent racism and xenophobia motivating the attack on Washington stems entirely from economic anxiety is oversimplifying at best and apologist at worst, it cannot be denied that understanding and interrogating the stark divides between large groups of Americans is as productive now as it has ever been. By crafting an enlightening (and often enraging) history of land taking and expropriation in Appalachia, Stoll sheds light on some of the tensions that led us to our current position.
Lastly, I turned to literature, and placed my feelings in the hands of Franz Kafka and his unfinished manuscript The Trial, published posthumously in 1925. It describes the plight of one Josef K., who is indicted for an unidentified crime. Information about his crime, and about the trial ahead of him, and even about the court accusing him, is unforthcoming; it quickly becomes clear that this is no real court, and then becomes unclear again when we start to ask what a real court even is. The novel is unsettling, infuriating, and deeply unsatisfying; the text even reads, in certain places, like an unfinished and unedited manuscript, with confusions between characters and locations. My own distress about current events, my feelings of powerlessness, my inability to form any complete or satisfying explanation for what was happening or why– all of that came through in Kafka’s brisk, detached prose and the winding, confusing nature of the plot. I don’t feel any better about this past month, or indeed about this past year, or the past four years, after reading The Trial— but I do, at least, feel less alone.
When I read The Rest is Noise, a gripping account of classical composition in the twentieth century by the critic Alex Ross, I was struck by the resonances between writing historical music criticism and writing intellectual history. The beauty of the book lies in Ross’s skill in describing the sometimes technical stylistic innovations in a language that lets even a novice like me see — and hear — why a particular movement of a symphony might have sounded so discordant to its first audiences. Tension between the pressure to appeal to wider audiences and the resistance to conformity in the market drives much of the drama for the form over the last century. Likewise, engaging histories of ideas can articulate the novelty of an intellectual intervention and reconstruct the contested social positions of the thinkers making them.
Ross’s most recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, vividly illustrates the close relationship between these two, and not just by analogy. The book ranges over the most important aesthetic movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and finds in each direct references and unmistakable engagements with Richard Wagner’s music and the theory behind it. Wagner’s trademark commitment to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art that eschews formal boundaries, finds a parallel in Ross’s approach to a potentially limitless subject. He traces direct and indirect responses to Wagner in painting, theater, dance, and most recognizably, film. Wagner’s works and his writings that justified them came to represent a transcendent spirituality, a primitive simplicity, a revolutionary liberalism, or an Aryan supremacy. In showing these jostling and sometimes surprising receptions of Wagner’s operas, Ross gestures to broader arguments in the history of art and aesthetics. The characteristically modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ of the early twentieth century starts to look like innovations in symbolist poetry of the late nineteenth, which — sometimes intentionally — emulated Wagner, who could also be a paragon of bourgeois late-nineteenth-century taste. Ross draws from and contributes to a rich body of scholarly literature, for instance, on the origins and characteristics of an “avant-garde.” Wagnerism, as one interview with Ross points out, is a refreshing example of trade nonfiction that rigorously cites scholarly sources and points the reader in the direction of any of the many literatures that the author traverses. With that facility in showing his sources, Ross proves how one critic can solve that problem of appealing to a broad audience without sacrificing the work’s novelty.
Reading about the rise of the feel-good feel-bad pat-on-the-back story led me down a Liberalism Rabbit-Hole covered in William Morris’s finest wallpaper and endless cups of tea. The feel-good feel-bad story is an inspirational story that enables a burst of endorphins upon reading it until you step back and realise how utterly awful late-stage capitalism can be. It “papers” over the real experience of poverty, social-inequality, and violence to claim hope is just around the corner if you squint really hard (or work really hard). The reader is brought on an uplifting journey, and thus, willingly forgets the circumstances that lead to that desire to be uplifted. On cup of tea number one, I delved into Reinhold Niebuhr’s Liberalism: Illusions and Realities (1955) paired with Timothy A. Beach-Verhey’s H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Public Life. Niebuhr was widely acknowledged as the father of Christian realism and an uncompromising critic of political pacifism. I find the notion of “Christian realism” an oxymoron, or to use Niebuhr’s favorite expression, a paradox. This cognitive dissonance, where, on the one hand, the ethics of love and self-sacrifice exists as a path to the Holy Grail. On the other hand, it is “wallpapered” with the doctrine of compromise and pragmatism to accept the world as it is. A world that is not amenable to perfection, redemption of salvation, but rather constitutes an environment governed by contingency, competing interests, and an uncontrollable (market) force. Beachy-Verhey explores the impact that NIebuhr had on the problem of Christianity’s relationship to American public and political life. The author’s main argument is that Niebur, as a religious elite, resides in a Liberal liminal space where religious faith cannot be removed from political life. The author argues that state and market dominate current American life and produce a shared value system around “self-interested individualism, commodification, and utilitarian rationality” (2). While this culture can allow for individual rights and freedoms, it provides little basis for the solidarity and “work” that accompanies freedom and equality. Thus liberalism in this form fails to create societal cohesion.
John Milton Cooper’sThe Warrior and the Priest. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1985) presents a curious joint biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The book flips between the two men, from chapter to chapter, forcing (encouraging) the reader to begin to locate patterns of convergence and divergence between the two men. Cooper explains the differences between Wilson’s New Freedom and Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. While they both focused on the need for a much more active government role in society and the economy, Wilson’s enthusiasm toward the role of the “broker state” was in sharp relief to Roosvelt’s deep seated fear and suspicion of such groups within American life. Although Cooper aims to demonstrate how these two men shaped the major ideological dimensions of twentieth century politics, Coopers focus on their overlapping biographies, cannot really explain why voting notification fell off during the presidencies of these two charamatsic men. Using these two men as a lens on American culture we cannot fathom why half the american pivoting population became alienated from these ideological ideas. The view from the top is quite cloudy, but a book worth the read and cup of tea,
In The Promise of American Life (Princeton University Press, 1909) by Herbert Croly inspired Roosevelt to create his New Nationalism vision, and with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Croly, the founding editor of the New Republic, is considered the first important political philosopher and intellectual elite in the United States. I really enjoyed reading this book because it brings you on the history of America, its political ideas, the ills of the day, the concerns of its citizens, and how rampant economic inequality and the rise of unchecked corporate power interact. Croly’s insight led him to argue for a strong federal government to ensure that equity and equality remained American core ideological and political values. This book resonants today even a century after its publication and offers a way into liberalism for the undergraduate student.
And finally with no more tea in the teapot, I read Liberalism, The Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcet (Princeton University Press, 2018). Fawcett satisfied my need to understand “isms.” This fascinating book lays out, in a really useful and readable way, liberalism as it flourished and moved across Europe and the United States since the 1830s. Fawcett shows how liberalism is less about freedom, and more about equality. Liberalism, Fawcett says, is “a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power”(10). In the desire for order, power always requires to be checked by a refusal to submit to the domination of any one single interest, faith or class. Fawcett is mindful that freedom is a key element to the algorithm but the element of equal respect is constant and non-negotiable. This device enables Fawcett to integrate both the positions of philosophers but the positions of liberal politicians as well, and thus, is a really good insight into liberal politics and liberal ideology. From the main actors—Keynes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gladstone, Fawcett brings in cameo appearances from Leonard Hobhouse, Hayek, John Rawls. In reading this series of books I ponder on how liberalism always purported to be a platform of inclusiveness, but in no way did it need to be wedded to democracy. Fawcett’s book shows how these two visions operate decoupled from each other in ways that resonant today. Fawcett is a British journalist and really succeeds in showing how liberal democracy is not just abstract ideology but how legislation enacts the shape of liberalism.
Featured Image: Nieuwjaarswens van Octave Uzanne voor het jaar 1897. Georges de Feure, 1896. Courtesy of The Rijksmuseum.