FINTAN O’TOOLE. Trial runs for fascism are in full flow.

Babies in cages were no ‘mistake’ by Trump but test-marketing for barbarism.

To grasp what is going on in the world right now, we need to reflect on two things. One is that we are in a phase of trial runs. The other is that what is being trialled is fascism – a word that should be used carefully but not shirked when it is so clearly on the horizon. Forget “post-fascist” – what we are living with is pre-fascism.

It is easy to dismiss Donald Trump as an ignoramus, not least because he is. But he has an acute understanding of one thing: test marketing. He created himself in the gossip pages of the New York tabloids, where celebrity is manufactured by planting outrageous stories that you can later confirm or deny depending on how they go down. And he recreated himself in reality TV where the storylines can be adjusted according to the ratings. Put something out there, pull it back, adjust, go again.

Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.

One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialled in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.

Moral boundaries

But when you’ve done all this, there is a crucial next step, usually the trickiest of all. You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.

People have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group

It is this next step that is being test-marketed now. It is being done in Italy by the far-right leader and minister for the interior Matteo Salvini. How would it go down if we turn away boatloads of refugees? Let’s do a screening of the rough-cut of registering all the Roma and see what buttons the audience will press. And it has been trialled by Trump: let’s see how my fans feel about crying babies in cages. I wonder how it will go down with Rupert Murdoch.

To see, as most commentary has done, the deliberate traumatisation of migrant children as a “mistake” by Trump is culpable naivety. It is a trial run – and the trial has been a huge success. Trump’s claim last week that immigrants “infest” the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course “vermin”. And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. It was always an experiment – it ended (but only in part) because the results were in.

‘Devious’ infants

And the results are quite satisfactory. There is good news on two fronts. First, Rupert Murdoch is happy with it – his Fox News mouthpieces outdid themselves in barbaric crassness: making animal noises at the mention of a Down syndrome child, describing crying children as actors. They went the whole swinish hog: even the brown babies are liars. Those sobs of anguish are typical of the manipulative behaviour of the strangers coming to infest us – should we not fear a race whose very infants can be so devious? Second, the hardcore fans loved it: 58 per cent of Republicans are in favour of this brutality. Trump’s overall approval ratings are up to 42.5 per cent.

Fox News mouthpieces outdid themselves in barbaric crassness: making animal noises at the mention of a Down syndrome child, describing crying children as actors

This is greatly encouraging for the pre-fascist agenda. The blooding process has begun within the democratic world. The muscles that the propaganda machines need for defending the indefensible are being toned up. Millions and millions of Europeans and Americans are learning to think the unthinkable. So what if those black people drown in the sea? So what if those brown toddlers are scarred for life? They have already, in their minds, crossed the boundaries of morality. They are, like Macbeth, “yet but young in deed”. But the tests will be refined, the results analysed, the methods perfected, the messages sharpened. And then the deeds can follow.

This article was published by The Irish Times on the 26th of June 2018. 

Fintan O’Toole has been an op-ed columnist for the paper since 1988. His column on political and social affairs appears every Tuesday. He also writes for the Weekend Review section on Saturdays. A former literary editor of The Irish Times, he has written more than a dozen books; most recently he edited the book of the newspaper’s series Modern Ireland in 100 Objects. His awards include the AT Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism, the European Press Prize and the Orwell Prize for Journalism.


Fintan O'Toole is an Irish columnist, literary editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times, for which he has written since 1988.

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6 Responses to FINTAN O’TOOLE. Trial runs for fascism are in full flow.

  1. Anthony Pun says:

    Mr O’Toole paints a sobering picture of American democracy heading towards a new “pre-fascist” era in US politics. Although the average citizen is concerned about the pendulum swinging to the extreme right, it is real worry some that counter measures against extreme swings in politics are not in place despite the political polarization in the US is at its extreme.
    This political polarization could be a result of the rise of nationalism, the fear of immigrants and new agenda to maintain power in the US as depicted by Mr O’Toole.
    Some political observations in Australia seems to suggest that we are being infected (see MUNGO MacCALLUM. Abuse of and in JM Pearls & Irritantion). Are moral and ethical considerations in legislation sufficient to counter such swings in Australia?

  2. Greg Bailey Greg Bailey says:

    This is a disturbing article because it rings so true. What O’Toole describes is happening here under the tutelage of a PM who most people still want to perceive as a small L liberal with tolerant values. In truth, he is nothing of the kind and is enabling those in his party who wish to institutionalise authoritarian structures and attitudes to have their way.

    As one sign of how this is being prepared by the mass media, one simply has to consider the number of television “documentaries” dealing especially with border protection, highway patrol and others detailing petty crimes. All these involve actual police and immigration officers and have only appeared in the last five years or so. Another sign is the number of extreme right wing messages now sent to the blogs on the opinion pieces of the MSM. These people–who have a right to express their opinion–have come out of the woodwork under the influence of their hero, Trump, and the political shift to the hard right in Australia.

    I fear this will only worsen if economic inequality becomes more apparent to the average voter, who will seek someone to blame, without knowing the full macro-economic causes of the inequity. Equally, refugee flows can only become more acute under the pressure of climate change and this too will harden up people’s attitudes who seek for simple explanations.

    I am not sure how this can be turned around given our highly irresponsible mass media which refuses to educate people in a critical manner. The situation is different from Germany and Italy from 1932 onwards, but there are clear parallels as O’Toole so eloquently points out.

  3. Sandra Hey says:

    Thank you for such an informative article, as a 70 year old single person, I feel lucky to have at least enjoyed some stability during the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The trust factor has been destroyed and goodness knows where humanity will end up. I rightly or wrongly understand where Xi Jinping is heading in an indeavour to starve off the demons of capitalism. In my informative years I always thought very highly of Lee Yuan Yew in his life time effort of turning around the fortunes of Singapore from the rat in fested days of British Colonial Rule. He was tough, a benevolent dictator, he spent his life on the principle of “Excluding Ones Eye” Xi Jinping values appear to be along the lines of Confucianism. I challenge any person who has some 1.2 billion people as a responsibly to produce government polices for the common good of all. Anna Sun, has written a book “Confucianism as a World Religion” It is very enlightening for those of us who are at all interested in wanting to have some appreciation of an ancient culture.

  4. R. N. England says:

    I don’t think it helps to blame this evil on an individual. Trump is one of any number of scoundrels that could have been selected by a sick culture. The collapse of a culture involves great suffering, producing waves of hate that any number of jerks will try to ride.

    With no hope of getting a decent-paying job, millions of Americans have tried going into business, had loans pushed on them, and then lost everything. They have been sucked in and spat out by a deceitful, chauvinistic culture, which then induces them to lay the blame elsewhere.

    These are interesting times. Rather than “Who went wrong?”, it is better to keep our cool and ask ourselves, “What went wrong?”

  5. Jim KABLE says:

    …against Palestinians…

  6. Jim KABLE says:

    Fintan O’Toole has an impeccable and ethical journalistic and writing career! When he says to sit up and take note – it is beyond time to do so. Just recently I noted that Mike Godwin, the creator of Godwin’s Law back in 1990, had stated that his premise no longer stood – that was in August last year – with untoward marches by Neo-Nazis in Trumpian Virginia. And the behaviour of the NaZionist Israeli Government and Military against Palestine – beyond dispute that Godwin’s Law is quite defunct.

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