By now many people have seen Donald Trump’s mocking imitation of The New York Times reporter who suffers from a disabling ailment that prevents him from using his arms fully and who asked Trump a question that offended him. Trump’s performance reminded me of a scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s great film “1900,” which tells the history of Italy for the first half of the 20th century through the stories of two boys born on the same day, one a peasant and the other a landlord. In the film there is a scene in which Donald Sutherland, playing the chief of a band of blackshirts in a small town on the eve of the fascist seizure of power, rams his head into a wall, killing a kitten being held in place by one of his followers. The point of his exercise is to impress on them the need to root out all human feeling, all softness. I don’t intend to weigh in on whether Trump or the Trump movement is fascist. It is partly a matter of definition: clearly he embodies some elements of fascism, and could be a bridge toward the emergence of a developed fascist movement. What struck me about his response is that to a degree not seen since, well, fascism, it represented an embrace of cruelty and a trampling on common standards of decency, which at least demand that kittens not be crushed against a wall and the disabled not be mocked.
The Clinton campaign has so far not descended to such depths of open depravity, but it is not far behind. It has produced a TV ad showing Trump waving his arms erratically. What message is that intended to convey to those unaware of the context? And how different in substance from Trump’s mocking a disabled man, behavior condemned by all civilized and indeed uncivilized societies, were the chants of U-S-A, U-S-A in response to delegates at the DNC calling for No More War? All part of the Big Tent Democratic Party.
It is to the credit of the Italian people, the heirs to Dante, Leonardo and Verdi, that they never embraced the fascist ethic. Twice in the twentieth century the Italian capitalists sought to enlist the workers and peasants of Italy in imperialist wars, and both times they failed. Their failure is reflected in the jokes about the high rate of desertion and surrender among Italian soldiers, which show their refusal to follow their rulers. Even during the horribly one-sided war against Ethiopia there were reports of Italian soldiers halting military action to help Ethiopian farmers bring in their crops. But while not forgetting this history, it is also important to bear in mind that fascism did pulverize them and crush their resistance, at least for a time, and that its ruthlessness, its unbounded cruelty, was at least as much a help to its project as a hindrance. (We see the same phenomenon with ISIS.) As “1900” shows, one of the reasons fascism triumphed was the inability of the established Italian bourgeoisie to offer an alternative.
Unlike Italy, the U.S. is not known for its gentle tradition. This is the United States of Lyncherdom, the land that takes second place to none in its record of cruelty. That tradition has deep roots in the national consciousness: U-S-A, U-S-A. At the same time, there is Merrymount, Bacon’s Rebellion, the Seminoles, John Brown, Newt Knight, the IWW, SNCC and Freedom Summer. It remains to be seen whether the unbounded cruelty visible at Trump rallies overwhelms the decent impulses which yet survive the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. A Clinton victory will fuel the worst features of Trumpery. Socialism or barbarism.