You’ve heard about the stream-of-consciousness technique popularised by writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. It describes a range of miscellaneous thoughts going through the mind of a narrator and is a common phenomenon in contemporary literature.
But what about the stream of unconsciousness? It appears that the US President Joe Biden threw the switch to this particular narrative when he addressed a reception for the Democratic National Committee in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 25. The function was held in the multimillion-dollar private residence of a supporter of the Democratic Party.
It’s fair to say that, when it comes to speeches, Biden has a few good days and many that are not so good. His address to the DNC in Bethesda fits into the latter category. The film of the event depicts the President, microphone in hand, delivering a long and at times incoherent address to the Democratic faithful.
Early on, however, Biden did get out his message. The President said the aim of his administration was to do “three things”; namely, “to restore the soul of this country”, “to restore the middle class, the backbone of the country” and “to unite the country”.
That’s clear enough, if somewhat vague. But then the President hit the hyperbole button when he said: “And what we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA (Make America Great Again) philosophy. It’s not just, it’s not just Trump. It’s the, it’s the entire philosophy that underlines – it’s, I’m going to say something, it’s almost like semi-fascism, the way in which it deals.”
Now, that’s a stream of unconsciousness. A very divisive and disturbing one, indeed. The US President appears to have said that close to 50 per cent of American voters, who supported Donald Trump at the 2020 presidential election, are semi-fascists – whatever that might mean.
Soon after the speech, Biden was doorstopped by a journalist who asked what he meant by semi-fascism. The President replied: “You know what I mean.” That was all. The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, didn’t fare much better, suggesting that “the definition of fascism” involved the taking away of “our voting rights”.
In contemporary word usage, to say that someone is a semi-fascist or a full-blown fascist essentially means that a person is referring to someone they do not like and with whom they disagree.
American scholar Robert O. Paxton, who has written important works on French fascism and the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during the early 1940s, covered this issue in his 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism (Penguin).
Initially, Paxton traced the concept of fascism to the Italian word “fascio” – a bundle or sheaf. From this, Benito Mussolini coined the term “fascismo” to describe the mood of his small band of revolutionary followers who had gathered around him intent on acquiring power in Italy – which they did in October 1922 following the famous March on Rome.
The words fascist and fascism make sense when used with respect to Mussolini and his regime, which lasted until mid-1943. But that’s about it.
As Paxton wrote in 2004: “Fascist movements varied so conspicuously from one national setting to another … that some even doubt the term fascism has any meaning other than as a smear word.”
Paxton then spent about 300 pages attempting to define a modern version of fascism, bereft of single-party totalitarian rule or an official ideology. But he provided no examples. Two decades after Paxton wrote, however, the concept of fascism has moved back to what he referred to in the introduction to The Anatomy of Fascism – namely, a smear word.
And that’s the problem with Biden’s use of semi-fascism in the current context, where Trump and his supporters give the impression he will attempt to win the Republican presidential primaries and contest the 2024 election against Biden or, possibly, another Democrat.
Biden is one of the four best known Democrats in US politics, along with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – three of whom have spoken with considerable disrespect about the large proportion of fellow Americans who are less wealthy and less educated than the quartet.
In April 2008, when talking about residents “in small towns in Pennsylvania and … in the midwest”, Obama commented that “they cling to guns or religion”. In September 2016, Hillary Clinton declared that half of Trump’s supporters belonged to a “basket of deplorables”. And now Biden has evoked the semi-fascist smear. Only Bill Clinton has refrained from exhibiting a certain contempt towards around half his fellow Americans.
It would make sense for the Republican Party if Trump chose not to contest the 2024 election and announced this before the midterm elections in November.
Whether he does so or not, the fact is that the former president has significant support within his country.
This is not always understood by commentators in and outside the US. For example, ABC TV’s Michael Rowland recently presented a program titled America Divided that focused on the Republican Party. The implication was that divisions within the US are due primarily to conservatives or the right of centre.
America Divided provided no fresh insights into American politics. All four interviewees were critical of Trump to a greater or lesser extent: namely, former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, Republican “Never Trumper” Amanda Carpenter, Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne Jr and political analyst Steve Clemons.
It was much the same on August 20 when ABC Radio National Saturday Extra presenter Geraldine Doogue discussed American politics with the Brookings Institution’s Thomas E. Mann and former BBC Washington correspondent Nick Bryant. Both are critics of Trump.
Certainly, the US is a divided nation right now. Yet divisions exist in all democratic nations, that’s what democracy is about.
Whatever the outcome of the 2024 election, many millions will continue to support the idea of Trump as an anti-government politician with populist appeal. It is foolish to dismiss Trump’s supporters by ignoring them or smearing them as semi-fascists. It’s only the politically unconscious who deny reality.