Thursday, October 07, 2004

Our Commander in Chief
In part three of David Neiwert's new series on fascism and the new Republican Party, he makes the following comments about Zell Miller's frothing at the mouth speech before the Republican convention last month.
Miller expanded on this theme in suggesting that merely running against Bush in the election was a kind of treason, claiming that "our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our Commander in Chief".

Miller's characterization of the opposition to Bush thus deftly identified it with attacks on the national interest by referring to him as "the Commander in Chief." It's a sly way of associating Bush's political enemies with our national enemies -- Democrats with Al Qaeda. Dissent is treason, indeed.

I remember at the time that that formulation, "our Commander in Chief," made my skin crawl. As long as I have been aware of politics, I have cringed whenever I have heard some one bemoaning our lack of leadership or praising a politician as a leader. My first reaction is always, " I can make my own decisions, thank you; I don't need or want a leader." When Zell said "our Commander in Chief" those old hackles rose and I found myself growling at the teevee, "He's not our Commander in Chief. I don't have a Commander in Chief and neither do you, you senile cretin. Civilians don't have a Commander in Chief; we have a President."

This is more than semantic pettifogging on my part. This strain of discourse leads in dangerous and anti-democratic directions. It's not just a curious artifact of European culture that most historical fascist movements called their heads simply "the leader"--der Feuhrer, il Duce, el Jefe, Nagobda. The leader, in the fascist worldview, is no longer an individual human being with an individual name. The leader is a manifestation of the will of the nation, the volk. The leader is a semi-mystical force of history not bound by transient human rules and laws like elections and term limits. To suggest that the leader should be is rank obscenity to the fascist mind.

The Bush campaign has been treading dangerously close to this line of argument and some of their informal supporters have enthusiastically tumbled over the line. A major talking of the GOP in this campaign has been that not electing Bush or even challenging him sends a message of weakness to our enemies and confusion to our allies. When they say we must be consistent, they are doing more than making a virtue of Bush's mule-headed intransigence or pleading for a second term. Their public argument is that we must stay the course during the war. That sounds fine during one election, but what happens if we combine this with their earlier message that the war on terrorism will be a permanent feature of our lives into the foreseeable future? If Bush wins, what will their message be in 2008? Our Commander in Chief, we are regularly told, is the indispensable man, we need his continued leadership to prevail in our unending struggle with the forces of darkness.

This same message is impicit in their scare campaign: vote for us or the terrorists will kill your loved ones. Only Bush can save you.

Finally, consider one other element: Bush's legendary common appeal. In the game of managing expectations before the first debate much was made of Bush's ability to connect with the common people. He spectacularly failed to live up to expectations that night, but that hasn't changed the narrative. We are hearing it aging in the run up to the second debate. Bush and his handlers, of course, work hard to perpetuate this myth. He exaggerates his Texas accent and masterfully uses his photo op ranch display his just-folks bona-fides. His press team relentlessly hammers home the message that Bush understands the common people and they in turn understand him. The language is different than the pseudo-mysticism of twenties and thirties Central Europe, but the message is the same. Our Commander in Chief has a special bond with "real" Americans. By definition, anyone who doesn't share that bond is not a real American or, worse, is a traitor to their nation.

All of these elements--the indispensable man, the special times, the unique bond with the people, and rising above the rules--are classic elements of the fascist concept of "the leader." They have no place in a democracy. They have no place in America.

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