alternative facts

Times May Change But Fascism Remains the Same

The Trump administration hasn't brought anything new to the hate game. So why are we so shocked by everything they do?

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Nearly a year before his election, Donald Trump made the campaign promise he is now doing everything in his power to make good on: to prevent Muslim immigration. On his campaign website on December 7, 2015, it was written that: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” It would seem “figure out what is going on” gave him and his brain trust an excuse for their ignorance, since none of them had bothered to research how to implement it or even read the U.S. Constitution. A blanket Muslim ban, they claimed, would just be a temporary measure while Trump’s team “educate” themselves—which, one year later, they have yet to do, and seemingly no intention of doing any time soon.

We saw its first horrendous iteration when No. 45 issued an executive order on the evening of Friday, January 27—International Holocaust Remembrance Day (the White House also refused and still refuse to mention that Jews were killed during the Holocaust, or even so much as use the word “anti-Semitism”), saying that “in order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.” His administration has been told by federal judges, the acting AG Sally Yates (who was fired), and now the Ninth Circuit Court, through their rulings to stay the temporary restraining order on the ban, that it is unconstitutional. As analysts have pointed out, the seven Muslim nations named in the ban have never been implicated in acts of terrorism in the United States. In fact, the predominantly Muslim nations from where the 9/11 hijackers originated were not named in the ban. This has created a sense that Trump’s actions have been arbitrary and capricious—of course, it was not arbitrary at all: Donald Trump excluded countries where he owns golf courses or has other business interests. The list also did not ban entry from countries in Europe—France, for example—where cells of terrorists have carried out attacks. All this to say, Trump, who famously does not sit in on intelligence briefings, does not actually seem genuinely concerned with keeping Americans safe: One out of 1,870 deaths since 2001 on U.S. have been due to terrorism conducted by Muslim extremists. Americans are still much more likely to be killed by drunk drivers, their spouses, or white supremacists—a group Trump is considering removing from terror watch lists. Though Trump says they’re not immediately appealing the Ninth Court decision to the Supreme Court, but nor is he letting this go, either.

It is in this alternative-fact-embracing world that Trump’s supporters seem unable to distinguish one Muslim nation from another. Reading their tweets of support for the Muslim ban indicate their belief that it will make America “safer”—although Trump’s executive order does not indicate how, nor can his supporters offer a convincing argument. Trump, who trades in propaganda, dismisses the press as “very dishonest,” spends hours watching cable news—and skips out on intel briefings, has, with the help of his administration, consistently invented events to back up his hateful agenda: blaming a Muslim man for the mass shooting at the Quebec mosque (the shooter was a Trump-supporting white supremacist, and as a result, the president has refused to denounce him); and the “Bowling Green Massacre,” with counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway outrageously claiming the ban’s justified because ISIS was at fault for an incident that never happened.

Many who oppose Trump’s actions have compared his incendiary, propaganda-driven rhetoric and actions to those seen in fascist Germany in the 1930s, when the National Socialists passed a series of increasingly restrictive laws against Jews that resulted in the “Final Solution,” the extermination of the Jews, along with Slavs, Roma people, lesbians and gays, the mentally and physically disabled, and anyone else deemed to be “undesirable” in the Aryan state.

But Nazi Germany was not the first time Jews were excluded in the formation of new political states. And it’s in looking at how these newly forming communities understood themselves as parts of a greater whole that right-wing antipathy toward Muslims begins to fall into known historical patterns. By understanding how Jews were first “marked” and then eventually expelled that I think we have a better model for understanding Trump’s followers.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church gathered to determine doctrine and prescribe beliefs to its followers. One of the most important aspects of the Catholic Mass, transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of the Mass are literally turned into the body and blood of Christ by the priest, was declared as Church doctrine at this council. 300 years later, during the Reformation, the reality of transubstantiation would be one of the issues that would divide certain Protestant sects from the Catholics and from other Protestants.

The Fourth Lateran Council created many mandates about what Christians should believe, and how they should behave. Christianity was both a belief system and a community of believers. By defining what tenets the Church promulgated, the Fourth Lateran Council also defined for Christians what they were. One thing Christians were not: Jews. The Council actually devotes several of its sections to discussing how to distinguish Christians from Jews, and how Christians were to prevent themselves from being “polluted” by too much contact with Jews.

For the men who wrote the Canons, Jews presented a serious threat to Christians, and the Council mandated various Canon laws going forward that would govern Christian behavior. Christians could not simply expel Jews from Christian lands. Because Christian laws prohibited the charging of interest on loans, a Christian economy could not function. Who would loan money without some sort of security? The interest on a loan created a motive for making a loan in the first place, and Christian communities encouraged Jews to live amongst them so that Jews might provide the moneys to fire the engine of the Christian economy.

But, in order to make certain that Jews would loan money to Christians, many communities, especially those in the city-states of Italy where modern banking got its start, restricted the professions that Jews were allowed to go into. In some cases, banking was the sole profession that towns would allow its Jewish inhabitants to practice. But, the Fourth Lateran Council forced Jews who loaned Christians money to pay any Church tithes that the Christian might not be able to pay because of loan payments, thus forcing Jews to support the Church. In addition, Jews were excluded from the rights of citizenship, so in the same communities where they were expected to loan money, they were prohibited from holding public office.

One of the great fears of this period was that Jews would “pollute” Christians. The biggest source of this fear was that “Jews might have relations with Christian women or Christian men might have relations with Jewesses.” In order to prevent Jews from having sex with Christians, the Fourth Lateran Council mandated that Jews must wear a badge on their clothing that would mark them as Jews. In some cases, this meant that Jews were ordered to wear special types of clothing, such as special hats, or they were ordered to wear a large yellow circle on their tunics. Hitler didn’t originate the idea that Jews should wear a yellow badge on their clothing: the Catholic Church beat him to the idea over seven centuries prior.

One of the most fascinating discussions of the ways that Jews were “marked” in order to be distinguishable from Christians is in an article written by scholar Diane Owen Hughes.  She traces the history of the hoop earring in the northern Italian city-states, such as Florence, Milan, and Venice. For about a century, Jewish women were ordered to wear hoop earrings in order to distinguish them from Christian women. Previous to the passing of these sumptuary laws, Franciscan Observant preachers such as Bernardino da Siena had preached to Christian women that their love of jewelry and fine clothing was leading to the financial ruin of their husbands, leading to the ruin of Christian men who were being forced to borrow money from Jews in order to keep their wives clothed in finery.

In addition to their attacks on women for what they referred to as their “vainglory,” the preachers also stoked suspicion of Jews as people who wished to disrupt and bring down Christian communities. Bernardino da Siena whose skills as a preacher gave him a demagogue-like power over the crowds of thousands who came to hear him preach, warned Christians that any contact with Jews would endanger the Christian’s soul. And, what made Bernardino and his fellow preachers so successful was that they were preaching during a time of cultural change, which meant that there was a lot of confusion and insecurity.

To quote Hughes, “While the appeal of their argument can be partially explained by their rhetorical skill, what ensured their success was a skillful association of the impurity of the Jew with the impurity of urban society, whose spiritual blindness and social numbness crushed the meek and humble of contemporary Italy as that of the Jews had killed Christ.” The Franciscan Observants stoked terrible violence against the Jews.

The preachers ratcheted up resentment and violence against the Jews by associating them with the chaos of the growing urban centers and a sense that life was growing increasingly complex and confusing. In order to find harmony and peace, Christians were told to cleave more tightly to their faith. They also emphasized that women’s vanity, and women’s ability to push around their husbands was leading to a world turned upside down. What was needed was a return to humble and modest wives who obeyed their husbands. Women should reject wearing the types of fancy clothing and jewelry that drove men into debt.

If women were responsible for creating too much dependence on loans from Jews, they were also responsible for the “increasing problem” of sodomy in the cities. Bernardino was convinced that cities like Florence would be destroyed because it tolerated sodomy among its men. And why did men turn to sodomy? Because women made so many financial demands on men that men rejected marriage, and turned to sodomy instead. In a bizarre turn of events, prostitutes were encouraged to dress in lots of jewelry and fancy clothes in order to distract men from sodomy, and as a means of distinguishing good, Christian women from prostitutes, prostitutes were mandated to wear hoop earrings—the same earrings that Jewish women were also mandated to wear. The Renaissance prostitute and the Renaissance Jewish woman were difficult to tell apart on the streets of the Italian city-state.

While we tend to think of the Italian Renaissance as a period of tremendous intellectual and artistic production, it was also a period of great social upheaval. One of the consequences of that upheaval was an intense misogyny and anti-Semitism, which blamed both women and Jews for the pressure they placed on Christian men. The growth of urban areas during this time period was seen as destroying the values of the countryside.

If these arguments seem familiar, it’s because if you substitute Muslim for Jew and American identity for Christian identity, the cultural chaos and the backlash against women and those who are seen as not being part of the community are eerily similar.

Donald Trump emphasizes exclusion and the marking of Muslims as a way of convincing Americans that there are distinctions between “real” Americans and “terrorists.” (The ideas are similar in his rhetoric about “Mexicans” and undocumented immigrants.) Trump’s executive order that banned Muslims from seven different countries was not about keeping Americans safe. His purpose was to convince his supporters that they have a claim to some sort of specialness that is due to having been born on American soil.

While Trump uses different rhetorical structures to separate Americans by gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity, the purpose of his executive order was to create a sense of American identity that was based on one idea. According to Trump, Muslims cannot be true Americans. And, he believes, they cannot be admitted because, “In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

The irony, of course, is that if “acts of bigotry … violence against women … or the oppression based on race, gender, or sexual orientation” are the criteria by which being admitted to the United States will be determined, millions of native-born Americans, including Donald Trump himself, should not be allowed to stay.

It is a primary tool of the demagogue to convince their audience that a secret group lives among them. This secret group plots the larger community’s downfall; therefore, all the members of the community must not only swear allegiance to its chosen leader, they must all be willing to spy on other members of the group and turn them in should anyone suspect that a mole be working to bring them down.


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