When Benito Mussolini was seen on newsreels in the United States it was as a “rotund, strutting clown, who struck pompous poses from his Roman balcony and tried to upstage Adolf Hitler when they first met, in Venice in 1934.” Much of this impression was established thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film “The Great Dictator,” where the Il Duce character was effectively lampooned by the actor Jack Oakie. This reinforced the widely held public prejudice in England and among many Americans that “Mediterranean Peoples,” especially Italians, were inferior oafs, unintelligent and clownish hotheads. Intellectuals and world leaders would come to regret underestimating the Italian autocrat, who was just the first of fascist and quasi-fascist leaders to wreak havoc on the world.
As with Mussolini, Hitler and the Nazis were first seen as a clown show with their thuggish behavior, mediocre backgrounds, buffoonish uniform-like garb, their appropriation of mythic symbols, and their completely unintelligible and ignorant interpretations of history and society. It was noted that Hitler himself was ignorant, lazy, a self-absorbed narcissist, and overly theatrical in his public appearances. He also effectively tapped into the grudges and nationalistic lies that cleaved German society, finding convenient scapegoats, especially Jews and other vulnerable groups, lumping them in with Communists and external threats to “German-speakers.”
Yet, so effective was the disinformation and propagandist jumble of Nazi ideas and assertions to define themselves and intentions, that even today intellectuals debate the definition of fascism, and whether clearly quasi-fascist governments like those under Franco in Spain and Pinochet in Chile were really fascist governments, despite the not only clear linkage to the methods and ideas of fascism, but the evidence of the dead bodies.
One would think that this debate was closed with Umberto Eco’s definition of Ur-fascism, (who knew about fascism first-hand) but we still get hand-wringing and pearl-clutching from intellectual Mugwumps who continue to want to obfuscate this issue. And for the uneducated on this subject–no–liberals and socialists aren’t fascists (or communists) or even close; especially given that they are usually among the first ones rounded up and murdered by fascist and quasi-fascist thugs along with Jews and others outside the fascist tribe.
Thus, about two weeks ago, I was struck by the comments of Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, regarding Ukraine and the West. He posited an alternative and counter-factual interpretation of history that is astounding in its echo of fascist movements. As he cautioned the West from coming to Ukraine’s aid, he referenced Russian historical continuity, the importance of uniting “Russian speakers,” and warning the West of the so-called lessons from the latest version of Russian ultra-nationalist self-delusional history that puts forth the notion of a single Eurasian people under Russian rule. Here is what he is saying: the various countries and ethnic groups from the border of Sweden down to Germany, and to Moldova, and, perhaps, to Serbia are within Russia’s orbit. He would sweep away these countries and peoples, murdering anyone in his way.
Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be an obviously corrupt kleptocrat, sociopath, narcissist and mediocrity. What he lacks in intellectual honesty and character, he more than compensates with ruthlessness, murderous intent, and links to the powerful oligarchs that keep him in near-totalitarian power. He is a fanatic. Fanatics, as Aldous Huxley noted, can be defeated because they compensate for a secret doubt, but they are also dangerous since any opposition or disagreement is interpreted as a hostile act. When such an individual has nuclear weapons, which this tyrant has been all too vocal in referencing, the situation is dangerous.
But the United States and its allies have overcome existential threats in the past, and make no mistake, Putin and the current Russian government is an existential threat. I served my country in the U. S. Navy for almost 23 years during the Cold War. I deployed to the theaters of contention close to the Soviet Union and Communist China. I also served, at times, as a special weapons courier. My military colleagues, and anyone paying attention, knew and developed the steel to oppose the imperial ambitions of those nations knowing that we were under nuclear threat by hostile powers. We also accepted the fact that in case of an attack on us, that retaliation against these countries would be swift and overwhelming.
Last night Mr. Putin delivered an unhinged and self-deluded speech. He is a clown. The clowns in this world have caused a tremendous amount of human suffering and destruction. As Hannah Arendt noted, evil is banal. The clowns of this world, augmented by our so-called post-truth era, create an environment for banality to thrive. They spread the sickness–the pandemic–of their deranged minds onto the world.
Thus, almost in a caricature of the comedy of life, Donald Trump, the dictator’s sycophant and a man of personal cowardice unknown in any previous U. S. president, praises the evisceration of Ukraine. The man is a Quisling and compromised. He and his followers, who act as a cult, and cult-like, change and contort their minds on a dime to align with his statements, represent a dangerous anti-democratic and–yes–anti-American Fifth Column.
The election of Joe Biden and the corrective of American democracy is the trigger that caused this crisis because Putin thought he had neutralized the United States. His Quisling is in exile, though he has more than a few mini-quislings waiting in line. As all extreme narcissists, he actually believed his own delusion. This is an attack borne of desperation. Unfortunately Ukraine is the pawn he has chosen. It is timed to undermine American democracy and seed division, so that he can realize his other imperial ambitions in threatening our allies and defeating democratic self-government–government of the people, by the people, and for the people–in Europe and elsewhere. He hates what we are. Anyone who supports him shares in that hate.
Wake up. History is calling.