In his essay “A Credo for the Living”, Norman Mailer reminded readers of the great Russian boogeyman.
“It is my diffident opinion that Russia is neither Arcadia nor a black police state in which every man slaughters his brother. It is an immense nation with wonderful things and bad things, and it is a state which like all states is in the midst of a historical process, and is moving and changing.”
American leaders, wrote Mailer, temporarily satisfy the “spiritual frustration” of life in the USA by promoting campaigns that stigmatize Russia, that promote “anti-Russian hysteria”.
At heart, he said, the success of these campaigns was (and still is) a reflection of America’s own neurosis, an attempt to sidetrack intractable problems by blaming them all on a foreign power.
“America is in a moral wilderness today, torn between a Christian ethic now enfeebled, a capitalist ethic, and a new sexual ethic whose essence is sadistic. When one contemplates the staggering frustrations and animosities of American life, I think there is hope to be found in the fact that there is resistance…”
“Hope in resistance” could even serve as a motto for those today who resist Donald Trump. Yet according to Mailer, resistance in itself still won’t resolve the nation’s biggest crisis, “its spiritual problems”.
Hope, of course, brings with it endless promise. So despite what Mailer called the “corruption and sickness” that characterized America’s war with itself, there were still signs of “yearnings and inarticulate strivings for a better world, a life with more dignity.”
These yearnings, of course, are what Trump (and many other demagogues) seize upon, for ‘hope’ can move masses. Though many journalists described Trump as a “no hope” politician, for many voters he was the biggest hope of a generation. Hope that politics ‘as usual’ take a back seat. Hope that illegal immigration be contained. Hope that jobs be saved.
But ‘hope’ without profound reflection easily veers into populism, converting otherwise legitimate demands into a divisive winner-take-all war against false enemies. This type of fear-driven hope was not just manipulated in the U.S. elections in 2017. It’s now everywhere.
How real is fascism today?
My point is that fear of fascism is nothing new in America. Or perhaps I should say the fear and hope of fascism. For this false hope is what seems to animate many who support Donald Trump.
I would actually call it “double-edged” hope, made up of two parts: those at the bottom who long for traditional order, and those at the top all too willing to exploit this longing.
These forces animated America’s war with itself during Mailer’s time, and they continue to animate our current political battles. For the mid-20th century writer, Americans’ growing anxieties about the future, their fear of the present, their addiction to comfort and material gain – could only be solved by a radical approach, their collective will to step out of the comfort zone.
How many Americans at that time were willing to do this?
Answer: not many. Yet Mailer still hoped, writing speeches and campaigning for politicians who shared his vision. At one point, he ran for mayor of NYC. “We shall all find our courage,” he wrote. “The beauty in man is that under the press of circumstances he develops what he must possess.”
That may be true, but it seems America is still not ready. Even after WWII, when character and courage were valued much more than today, Americans were decidedly not willing to sacrifice their self-interest for the sake of the so-called ‘collective’. The whole notion reeked of communism.
Today, the idea seems more remote than ever.