With General Kelly’s Press Conference, Fascism Has Come out of the Closet in America

If you were wondering when America’s transition into a full-fledge fascist state would be publicly announced, you need look no further than General John Kelly’s press conference on Thursday.

Here is the key paragraph of his speech:

“You know, when I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred. Looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we’ve seen from recent cases. Life was sacred. That’s gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die in the battlefield, I thought that might be sacred.”

If you were under the illusion that certain members of Donald Trump’s cabinet or staff would act as a restraint on him (Mattis or Kelly), I’m sorry to destroy your illusions, but Trump’s entire regime rests upon fascists, and it’s fascists all the way down. This paragraph, after all, offers the same narrative of decline, decadence, and degeneracy that animates all fascist movements. Here are the totemic items supposedly held sacred during Kelly’s childhood:

Women

Life

God

Sacrifice

Let’s start with women. Gender norms constituted a significant preoccupation in fascist politics. Fascism posits itself as the reinstitution of proper gender boundaries and properly gendered behaviors after a period of confusion and flux typically termed “decadence.” We must have the return of strong, virile men and submissive women in order to right our ship of state. These gender norms are heavily implicated in the centrality of race and purity in the typical fascist vision of the nation, for the decadence we must overcome is often linked to the “mongrelization” or “miscegenation” said to have weakened the racial stock. Women are the bearers of the pure seed of our people and, as such, must be protected by these strong, virile men from all those swarthy outsiders who would come and impregnate our women with their vicious, viscous seed.

Women are held as sacred (not in and of themselves, but for what they represent) because the life of our (narrowly defined community) is sacred. God is the one who ordained this, and noble is he who sacrifices his life for the sake of the community. Blood and Soil, baby.

Okay, so Kelly’s not out there with his tiki lamp chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” but these few sentences hit many of those fascist touchstones. Political scientist Manus Midlarsky identifies narratives of decline as one of the drivers of political extremism—what historian Ben Kieran calls a “golden age” mythology that holds our highest point in the past, a point that fascists insist we recover or recreate. As Aristotle Kallis writes, “the core of fascist utopianism consisted in an uncompromising effort to reclaim an ideal Fatherland for the reborn national community.” And by no accident did Kelly repeat and repeat the word “sacred” in his little speech, for as Emilio Gentile has shown, fascism constitutes a political religion that imbues the regime with a sense of the sacred in its attempt to sell very specific modes of salvation for the political community.

As I’ve written before, Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign was a fascist enterprise, but I think many people imagined that “the system” would somehow constrain these worst impulses of his. But it’s no accident that, once he secured the nomination, the entire Republican establishment bent toward his will; at the individually level, Republicans began to replicate his narrative of collective decline, for there has always been a fascist core at the heart of most social conservative movements. After all, evangelical protestantism is built around the impulse toward revival and renewal, also offering a “golden age” mythology linking the present moment to the distant past, seeing the 2,000-year interlude as an era of decline and decadence that must be overcome. Moreover, social conservatism preoccupies itself with controlling the private lives of the citizenry, so as to draw darkly those boundary lines that tend to be a bit fuzzy around gender or race or class. Christians in America aspire less to be the shining city on the hill to which all others look in awe and wonder and instead now obsess over the minutiae of your daily life to ensure that all women of child-bearing age are properly fertile and that no men are “little sissy boys.”

But all this has been said before. However, there is something I believe many scholars have overlooked, and that is the place of the exception in the fascist worldview. It functions a bit like the role of the exception in religious communities—the people who exempt themselves from specific rules privately as long as they give public voice to propriety and righteousness. In the Catholic Church, for example, a priest publicly acknowledging his current sexual relationships “gives scandal” to the Church, but a priest confessing those privately has a much lower hurdle to clear because he still at least upholds the order of things. Here in Little Rock, a few years back, a woman was fired from Mount St. Mary’s Academy after marrying her lesbian partner of many years quietly in another state. She was already well known as gay by her peers, but it was the potential scandal of the publicly acknowledged relationship that had to be punished—not her sexual orientation itself. Likewise, many a Baptist preacher has exempted himself from prohibitions against alcohol or pornography and, with a clear conscience, preached the next day against those very sins. Private hypocrisy is tolerable as long as the public form is maintained.

Very little has been raised publicly about the extent to which Donald Trump embodies the Exception in our modern American fascist movement—and he very much does. Military communities prize honor and valor, while religious communities hold purity as central. So here is Donald Trump, recipient of five draft deferments, four for college and one for the “bone spur” epidemic that swept America’s elite populations during the Vietnam War. (Quick joke: How is Donald Trump not like Adolf Hitler? Hitler actually served in the army.) Donald Trump, who openly bragged that he spent the war years sleeping with as many women as possible, that STDs constituted his own “personal Vietnam.” Donald Trump, who has openly bragged about his adulterous conquests and participation in orgies (and who enjoyed the company of child rapist Jeffrey Epstein) and has gone through three wives now and openly brags about sexually assaulting women. Donald Trump, who openly offered disdain for former POW John McCain and the loss—dare we say “sacrifice”?—of a Gold Star family. Donald Trump, who increasingly seems to have collaborated consciously with Russian intelligence in order to aid his political campaign.

In other words, the man the fascists have lined themselves up behind is the one who least embodies the virtues of heroic masculinity at the core of fascist ideology, but they are more than happy to embrace the exception as long as it promises to uphold the rule.

General Kelly, you have made yourself the slave of a draft-dodging, reprobate, cowardly, dishonorable, treasonous piece of shit. And the fact that you are willing to make such an exception of such vermin tells me that you are basically exactly the same person down under.

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Mass Shootings as Terrorism

There has been much discussion in the media (and in my own social media feeds) regarding whether or not we should describe the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas as an act of terrorism. As it happens, I am currently working on a book chapter that analyzes lynchings, in part, in relation to scholarly definitions of terrorism, and much of that is applicable to the current debate. Therefore, I am excerpting some of that material below with my own conclusions on how best to label the event in Las Vegas:

The over-application of the terms “terror” and “terrorism” for rhetorical advantage have practically drained them of meaning over the last two decades. As Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart note, “Whereas ‘terror’ is a term that refers to an emotional response, even though its more specific components, manifestations, and triggers may vary culturally and historically, ‘terrorism’ at one evokes political rhetoric,” the term being used to delegitimize certain violent actions while legitimizing the response to those actions. However, not all acts of violence are equal producers of terror—a critical component for the production of terror is the imagination and expectations about the future. Terror, in fact, is “based on an interlocking feedback between memory and anticipation, the same nexus that makes possible continuity in human interaction generally. Here, however, the feedback is based on a sense of rupture. Terror consists precisely in intrusions into expectations about security, making moot the mundane processes on which social life otherwise depends. Repeated ruptures shift people’s perceptions and render them progressively more anxious and vulnerable to disturbance.

This terror can either be produced by challengers to the state, whose attacks upon civilian life are intended to call into question a society’s collective sense of security, or it may be produced by the state itself through the use of special police or paramilitary units who engage in kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial execution. Indeed, these are often related. As Mikkel Thorup writes, “state and terrorist share the same cultural, structural and legitmatory environment,” meaning “that one has to write the history of terrorism as a dialectics or ‘dialogue’ between the state and its violent challengers.” State policies can produce pervasive social and economic injustices, often concentrated in particular “disturbed areas,” such as slums or sites of intense resource extraction, and resistance to elite-driven priorities that produce such inequalities can give rise to resistance, both violent and non-violent—resistance that is often labeled “terrorism.” And as Tasneem Khalil writes, “those in the disturbed areas who try fighting the structural violence or protest against socio-economic injustices are the first group of targets of state terror. These are the political opponents of the state: dissenting intellectuals/activists and armed rebels/insurgents.”

The state is classically understood to possess the monopoly on legitimate violence, and legitimate violence is primarily defensive; according to Sonja Schillings, “Whoever claims legitimate violence marks something as worthy of protection—say, a community—and simultaneously formulates the expectation that even those who are (potentially) the target of violence accept this community’s basic worthiness of protection. In this sense, an act of legitimate violence does not begin but ends the conflict; it simply reacts to a violent attack that transgresses a boundary and everything ‘behind’ it.”

Legitimate violence is often constructed in relation to the concept of hostis humani generis (the enemy of all humankind). The function of this concept “is to describe conflict with a perpetrator whose actions against certain people or groups are thought to betray a fundamental hostility toward humankind and the laws that govern humankind,” and because these people are viewed as inherently violent, and their violence inherently legitimate, “violence against such perpetrators is, in turn, inherently legitimate,” serving to preserve community boundaries. According to Mikkel Thorup, “The other is violence incarnate, while I am only violent incidental. This leads to the utmost important conclusion: the violence of the other perpetuates and perhaps even universalizes violence, whereas my violence promises an end to violence.” This, from the perspective of the possessor of legitimate violence, is the difference between terrorism and state terror.

Now, do mass shootings fit into the scholarly discourse of terrorism? Sometimes, these activities have the superficial trappings of anti-state violence, especially violence directed against such components of our commonwealth as public schools, but we should not be deceived by this; as Thomas C. Wright observes, “Terrorism against the state is designed to force the government to modify its policies, to overthrow the government, or even to destroy the state”—none of which was a goal, stated or implied, expressed via mass shootings. Neither do such actions fit into the category of state terrorism; Wright again: “The intent of terrorism by the state is to eliminate some or all of the people who are considered actual or potential enemies of the regime, and to marginalize those not eliminated through the fear that terrorism instills.”

Mass shooters are not state actors, and neither are they explicitly targeting the state. However, they often do share a particular culture with one another. For example, the mass shooters who targeted women at Montreal and San Bernadino left behind manifestos decrying how feminism had ruined their lives, and so while they were not part of a defined political organization with a stated political program, they did have as their explicit goal the terrorizing of women, perhaps even seeing their acts of murder as a stepping stone to the re-subjugation of women. There are actually entire web forums devoted to reveling in—and encouraging—mass school shootings, and the theme of many posters is a desire for revenge against whatever elites they feel to be wrongfully elevated in their society (say, the “jocks” who were targeted at Columbine). Many such people become “self-radicalized,” to use the term now in vogue, imbibing particular ideologies or fantasies through online sources rather than interpersonal, and in this respect there is a lot of overlap with current trends in terrorism as practiced by the Islamic State. ISIS and related groups no longer seek to bring recruits to training camps in Afghanistan and instruct them in bomb-making and marksmanship. Instead, they advance a narrative of grievance that strikes a chord with people already living in the societies ISIS wishes to disrupt, and those people then, independently, commit a low-tech act such as driving a rental truck over people or stabbing someone, and then ISIS claims the act and lets the west imagine the vast power of this international terror group. However, the current model Islamic terrorist actually overlaps quite a bit with the current American mass shooter—disaffected lonely men, typically with a misogynistic streak, who imbibe media that assures them that they would be recognized as the champions they are if only some exterior obstacle (western imperialism, feminism) were removed.

None of this necessarily answers the question: should the Las Vegas shooter be considered a terrorist? Did his act produce terror, and will it produce a feedback loop, leading to people likely changing their habits in anticipation of future such atrocities, remembering what happened in Vegas? No doubt. But then volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes also produce similar changes in individual and collective habit. Did the shooter have a particular message he wanted to convey? We do not, as yet, know his political leanings, but it would seem to me that every mass shooter has a very specific political message he intends to convey—namely, the state cannot protect you. The state is supposed to be the incarnation of our collective will, and one of the responsibilities of the state, according to classical social contract theory, is the protection of citizens from foreseeable acts of violence. However, each time such mass violence occurs in the United States, the state, in its current incarnation, actually works to reinforce the message of the shooter—we cannot help you, we are helpless in these matters, and moreover it is not our responsibility. Mass shootings do have a political message, and that political message is currently amplified by our representatives and senators, our governors, and our president.

In other words, the terrorist is not just the man who pulls the trigger.