Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Schwarzenegger and the appeal of fascism

I was going to blog something along these lines, until William Rees-Mogg beat me to it – and said what needs to be said much better than I could have. He not only wrote calmly around a hot-button issue (and I’m not referring to Arnie’s hoovering hands), he managed to avoid including the near-irresistible, but overall-unhelpful jibe: “What is it with populist politicians from Austria?”.

Equally impressively, despite the misleading title for his Op Ed, Rees-Mogg gives the 'Gropernator' angle short shrift – not because it doesn’t matter, but because there are better, bigger reasons for opposing the rise of Arnie. To which I’d add that Bill Clinton and Monica-gate surely showed once and for all that there is little point is seeking to punish through the ballot box men who misuse office (or in Arnie’s case, fame) for sexual perks. In the Clintons’ case [note plural], Monica-gate was ultimately a big plus for capturing the female vote, thanks to the pivotal, career-defining role played by Saint Hillary – a role that Schwarzenegger’s wife is, of course, even better-placed to play to perfection, if and when the need arises.

The corollary to Rees-Mogg’s anti-Arnie argument is the rather bleak set of economic fundamentals in the US accounts, which everyone kind of knows about already, but is otherwise not allowed to be raised at the political dinner table. If nothing else then, Schwarzenegger's rise serves as a useful reminder that the kitty is truly empty this time. Simply put, the once-great USA – through its forward-scouting proxy, California – is plainly, irrefutably looking for strong leadership, no questions asked and no holds barred.

Schwarzenegger’s problem is not particularly that he hails from the entertainment industry (in whose jargon he is a “pre-existing asset” and “master franchise”). Hell, Ronald Reagan set the precedent for B-movie actors morphing into “character” politicians decades ago (Governor of California 1967-1975). Rather, it is today’s combination of Schwarzenegger’s peculiar character (screen-derived, but not confined) with a visible meltdown in the twin institutions of democracy and economic progressivism which makes the Schwarzenegger juggernaut so disturbing. Here’s Rees-Mogg’s nutshell take on this:

[Schwarzenegger] relies on catch phrases and on empty generalisation. He does not debate the issues. His campaign exists outside rationality, in the world of celebrity and sensation. The politics of mass emotion are the politics of fascism. The core of all fascist movements is the direct relationship between the leader and the masses, not mediated through the institutions of democracy.

What does the leader do? He provides leadership. What allows him to provide leadership? The strength of his will. What is the evidence of the leader's will? The exciting feeling he creates of ultimate ruthlessness.

Finally, the gist of Rees-Mogg’s argument should serve as a wake-up call for Australians, that fascism doesn’t aways present itself in the obvious garb of xenophobic nationalism, aka Hansonism. For what it’s worth (and of course the whole point is that it hardly matters, once you start going down the “strong leader” road), Schwarzenegger appears just slightly left-of-centre – a Tony Blair on steroids, and without even New Labour’s pretence of being the electorate’s agent, of doing the people’s bidding.

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