Fascism thrives in an eternal, mythologized present, where the burden of past constraints cannot encroach on the fantasy of power.
Social norms, political conventions, established institutions, and expectations of decency are all thrown off in mass rallies where followers fuse themselves to the will of the leader to feel themselves a part of something greater. Fascist rites are reminiscent of Dionysian orgies and spontaneous mobs, where impulses reign supreme.
The fascism of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Benito Mussolini each differ in their own ways, but they all involve uneducated followers conforming to the will of a big man, who prides himself on flouting the rules and carries the threat of extra-legal violence, which shocks elites and worries liberals, thereby contributing to the leader’s virility.
Trump brags about his penis for a reason: fascist followers yearn to partake in their leader’s greatness. The fascist follower is weak and insecure; he is unprepared for life in an overwhelming world, and so he seeks security in the greater will of the leader. By magically swallowing the big man’s mojo, through a sort of sympathetic magic, he imagines himself growing his own. But for the transference to succeed the leader must make himself appear larger than life. He is the richest, the smartest, the most potent. Shameless bragging makes him seem the biggest truth-teller as well. Who else would show the coming emperor in all his naked glory?
Fascist braggadocio is part of a magical rite in which small followers feed on the bigness of their fascist father. The stronger his image, the more they might give themselves over to his will; fascism is born everywhere man seeks to be in chains.
Hence, the fascist inflates his ego to gargantuan proportions. No matter that his hands are small and he is unfit for office, Trump supporters are entranced, and sustaining the trance requires that the past be obliterated so the future might be laid bare. But the real magic of fascism lies in the present moment, where the self can dissolve in the long march into a fantasized future.
There is a nihilism to the movement supporting Trump, a gleeful offensiveness and revelry in destruction. It can often seem as if his followers are not really concerned with the outcomes of their actions, do not even care whether he is telling the truth. There is something uniquely human in this compulsion to self-destruct. Lemmings do not actually gather together in mass-rallies to jump off cliffs, like Thelma and Louise, in a nihilistic blaze of glory; but sometimes people do.
Freud called it Thanatos—the death drive. As social anxieties build, many long to be part of the frenzied herd, where they might forget their cares and throw off reason. Self-destruction can energize the hopeless; destroying the works of others can make a person feel powerful. And this death-wish is a sentiment that can be sensed equally in the movement to elect Trump, the glory in Putin’s machismo, and the English yearning to abandon the world. Trump is the reality show-host to a mass-neurosis that is taking America and the world over the edge.
The fascist moment is not the same present spoken of by Eastern spiritual teachers. But it is similar, and access to it may rest on many of the same social conditions. Whereas the spiritual present transcends the ego, the fascist present submits it to the movement; whereas the spiritual present dissolves the human-built-world, the fascist present disdains it as worthy of destruction; whereas the spiritual present is pure awareness, the fascist present is mindlessly unconscious.
It is hard to think, hard to carry the burden of past responsibilities, hard to push projects from the past into future fulfillment, and immersion in the present eases the strain. But the present moment is a space of possibilities, and in times of great change it is a place of refuge. And yet, we are not simply taking refuge in the present; everything seems to be pressing us into a claustrophobic moment.
Information overload condenses reality into an eternal present, for when the whole historical record is written, every year takes on a special meaning, every place its own significance, and it all dissolves in imponderable specificity. Social media condenses conversations into an eternal present, for when everyone is debating, the social body is sucked into the whirlpool or streaming disorder. Meditation condenses experience into an eternal present, for the senses become opened and the self connected to everything.
A space of possibility has been opened in the public sphere, a magical space in which truth and reason have been thrown off. It is a space open to other ways of knowing, yet it is also a space in which the mob has been set free. But political communities must reason; they must reason to sort through their differences, and bring into alignment the interests of people widely scattered across space and time. Political communities must reason together or else risk being either scattered or condensed into a single will.
There is a hedonism, that is not so different from fascist revelry, to the spiritualized notion that nothing matters but the present moment. And while it is a hedonism more likely to result in love than war-making, a hedonism more likely to deepen empathy than the breakdown of democracy, it is a hedonism that has played some part in paving the way to fascism. There is a shadow to the eternal present, and like most shadows, it is the last thing we would like to see.
Author: Theo Horesh
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Editors: Travis May; Caitlin Oriel