The president-elect of the United States is a fascist. We don’t live in a true fascist state yet, but I believe that Donald Trump and his cabinet will accelerate the decades-long creep of our government toward a fully authoritarian state. This breathtakingly vast nationalist turn, visible in every major nation-state, is to the right, but fascism isn’t constrained by ideology. Fascisms of the left have also murdered millions. As Alain de Botton wrote in the New York Times the day after the election: “…the default state of almost all nations is…authoritarianism, bullying, demagoguery, corruption, monopoly, racial segregation and state-sponsored aggression and murder.”
The world will continue to experience authoritarianism from the right and the left beyond the lifetime of my 10-month old nephew. The people will demand it. Technology will eliminate more and more jobs. Wealth will continue to concentrate in the hands of the well-educated while the poorly educated sink deeper into poverty. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers suggests that by 2050 one in three working-age men will be unemployed, and the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2020 five million current jobs will no longer exist. Place these estimates next to the fact that there are more than three hundred million guns in the hands of American citizens, and the pulse quickens.
In 1996 the philosopher Richard Rorty speculated about the fate of the United States during the 21st century in an essay titled Looking Backwards From the Year 2096. He writes:
Our nation’s leaders, in the last decade of the old century and the first of the new, seemed never to have thought that it might be dangerous to make automatic weapons freely and cheaply available to desperate men and women—people without hope—living next to the centres of transportation and communication. Those weapons burst into the streets in 2014, in the revolution that, leaving the cities in ruins and dislocating American economic life, plunged the country into the Second Great Depression.
But Rorty’s incredible faith in the Western ideals of equality, fraternity and liberty lets him imagine that in 2044, the American people begin to rebuild civil society, out of what he calls the Dark Years—a decades-long military dictatorship. I’m less optimistic, but whatever the future holds we can expect continuing populist tribalism, increased police militarization, swelling prisons and less freedom of expression. We should not be surprised when, in the years to come, grocery store shelves grow sparse and riot police open fire into unarmed crowds. We’ve crossed the Rubicon.
In the week since the election I’ve read several statements from artists and writers who vow to resist the kind of paranoid, violent society that is guaranteed to emerge under a fragile government led by a insecure, fascist clown. But even as they warn their fellow artists not to normalize our Pizza Hut Putin, they seem to hold on to an even more normalizing premise—that it’s Donald Trump, his administration and his racist supporters that we must resist.
Like all ghouls, the fascist figure doesn’t just appear; we summon him. Lacking a true inner-self, and always deeply insecure, he represents nothing more or less than the narcissism, greed and violence of the society from which he’s allowed to emerge and take power. Any form of fascination with this figure’s often-comical persona strengthens him. Statements of admiration and disgust alike flatter fascist vanity. Attention is all that matters. We build him up in the form of a half-despised, half-envied celebrity, and then claim surprise and indignation when he turns on us, his creators. Donald Trump is not the enemy—we are.
If American artists are to carry on, they’ll have to learn to cope not only with the fear and deprivations of life under fascism—the struggle for basic goods and services—they will also have to develop a clear understanding of the self-imposed nature of this terror in which they find themselves. He’ll have to shed the self-righteousness that allows him to believe that he played no part in the disintegration of his society. And above all, he’ll have to take pleasure in the mean life that allows him to construct his narratives, because depression smothers creation.
Artists will continue to resist oppression by doing what they’ve always done; bearing witness to human experience. The job will still be to create beauty and knowledge out of ugliness and stupidity for no good reason—after all, none of the great works of art were able to prevent our society from degenerating into this sad idiocracy. Some artists will mock the terror and stupidity and create comedy, while others will empathize with the pain of those lost to misfortune, and create tragedy. The best among them will find a road between the masks. If there was never any real expectation of compensation for this calling, there will be even less in the years ahead. As long as art remains a helpless, inexplicable labor of love, there’s hope to rebuild on the ruins.