US exceptionalism may be a nonsense to most of the world, but at times in its history America has comported itself as a constitutional democracy. After the violence in its capital, Washington, DC, on Wednesday, it is clear that a significant segment of the US population prefers fascism to democracy.
Remember, more than 74 million Americans voted for an incompetent narcissist. As the Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley has written in a recent book How Fascism Works (a compulsory read for anyone concerned about the future of democracy), the US has seen a dramatic movement toward unifying all key public institutions around loyalty to a single leader and where the Republican Party has increasingly been defined by way of fealty to Donald Trump. Stanley suggests that the mechanisms of this kind of politics are built on a myth of the distinction between “us” and “them” based on the romanticised fictional past resentment for a liberal elite who take our money and threaten our traditions.
In this way the morally extraordinary is transformed into the ordinary. In this way, “fascist politics lures its audiences with the temptation of freedom from democratic norms while masking the fact that the alternative proposed is not a form of freedom that can sustain a stable nation state and can scarcely guarantee liberty”.
This alternative reality is not promoted only by the intellectually incompetents like one Donald Trump. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, for example, were educated at elite institutions – Princeton, Stanford, Yale and Harvard. They clerked for justices of the Supreme Court. Like Joseph Goebbels, who had a doctorate from an elite German institution, these are smart people armed with evil intent. They propagate the myth of a fictionalised past. In the US it is to make America great again, which means “make America white again, ignoring the egregious nature of American history”.
Other countries have experienced similar strategies. Viktor Orban has drawn on the fight against the Ottoman Empire to reconstitute Hungary as a defender of Christian Europe against Muslim refugees and Jewish business people like George Soros and a host of the “other”.
(It is of supreme irony that Orban received his UK scholarship from a Soros-funded organisation. Soros even later donated $1-million to Orban’s government to help clean an environmental disaster. – Ed)
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fabricated a version of a mythic past with a pure nation of Hindus and with it a return to a patriarchal, conservatively ethnically and religiously pure past.
In all of these countries democracy is under huge pressure. To what extent does this contemporary assault have consequences for South Africa? The obvious answer is that if a narcissistic autocrat like Donald J Trump can so threaten the stability of a constitutional system that has endured for more than 200 years, it means that the model of constitutional democracy is fragile and much more so in the case of a country that has been ruled under this model for no more than 26 years.
But the threat is even more immediate.
The rise of fascist politics into the mainstream in many countries has much to do with increasing levels of inequality and governmental disregard for the citizenry, save for the short period leading up to an election.
With no more than 40% of the working population being permanently employed and with vast parts of the country being governed by corrupt and/or inefficient and uncaring local government, the conditions for a significant turn to populism are extremely favourable. Needless to say, the national government is hardly innocent of this charge, as the debacle concerning the procurement of vaccines (and PPE) for all who live in this country reveals so clearly. For many, the continued rule under the Disaster Management Act plays into the hands of those in government who are instinctively autocratic and disinterested in accountable democratic government.
The US has Fox News and Breitbart. We have Independent Media and a very active social media through which a particular pernicious discourse can be peddled. Through these media outlets the constitutional project of creating a non-racial democracy based upon human dignity, equality and freedom for all is continuously assailed. The use of race for rent-seeking rather than redistribution or the opposite, being the denial of the role race continues to play in distributional outcomes, dominate much of the prevailing discourse.
And then, as with Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, some highly educated professionals and lawyers in South Africa employ their skills to assail institutions that were designed to keep the country constitutionally honest. In addition we have emerged from a decade when constitutional institutions were shaped to ensure loyalty to the leader. Not all institutions are yet free from this behaviour and even the most cursory read of social media shows the tenacious defence that is articulated in favour of the architects of State Capture.
In summary, there is nothing about which South Africans should be smug when they look at the parlous state of democracy in the United States. A combination of political movements that will exploit the immiseration of the many for their own political advantage, and social media that either justifies this form of politics or defends those who were central to State Capture and thus the plunder of precious public funds desperately required to transform the lives of millions, and the almost total absence of a coherent economic policy to vindicate the vision of the Constitution makes the country a first-class candidate for widespread constitutional delinquency. We need to be on guard. DM