Barring some extreme changes in the political climate the following will be true of the American electorate in 40 years: There will be no living memory of a time when real income rose for anyone but the super wealthy. No one, save the oldest citizens will have had a post-9/11 adulthood with all of the normalization of war that entails. Schools will be understood as prime targets for extreme acts of violence even as rates of property and violent crime fall in the aggregate. The total lack of confidence in all established institutions with the exception of police, military, and small business will continue as major cities are washed away as governments look on and refuse to invest in any kind of infrastructure. This will also be happening as America reaches a major demographic milestone: whites (as we presently define them) will no longer be a statistical majority.
Given this sort of potential future, we should take a look at how younger people, respond to the kind of political rhetoric that is endemic to crisis, uncertainty, and fear: fascism. Everyone from Jeb Bush to your favorite anarchist barista knows and has said in no uncertain terms that Donald Trump is a fascist. One might be heartened to see that younger voters have not responded well to Trump’s campaign. According to RealClearPolitics, less than 2 percent of Trump’s supporters are under 30. According to Pew, only a third of millennials identify as Republicans while half identify as Democrats. An optimist might see this as a younger, more politically progressive electorate rejecting hate and fear mongering but I am more skeptical. Afterall, there is not a whole lot of ideological space between Trump’s “ban all muslim immigrants” and Democratic candidates’ universal agreement around the continued bombing of muslims using flying robots. Would if it’s just the messaging that turns Millennial away? Would if people who have spent most of their lives in the 21st century, do not respond the same way to 20th century authoritarianism? Any surprise at the popularity of the Trump brand is rooted in a willful ignorance of widespread, explicit white supremacy. What is more terrifying still, is that there are probably hundreds, if not
thousands millions of Americans that think Trump does not go far enough. Even if Trump loses this time, we should take note of what his campaign reveals: a nascent and likely growing nationalist movement in America. One that I suspect will be fully baked and equipped with more effective messaging by the time post-millenial generations make up the majority of the voting public.
At its core fascism is reactionary in the face of uncertainty while more radical or simply progressive responses seek to find new and creative solutions to even the scariest or most dangerous circumstances. Whereas a radical left response to the trends I described above are difficult to predict because they are, by definition, a result of creative thinking brought to bear on the root causes of problems, a reactionary hard right response is tragically predictable: It tells a story of embattlement wherein an elite group is besieged by inferior outsiders and salvation is only possible through the prioritization of the collective nation over any one individual, especially the ones marked as part of the problem. Such a narrative will require significant alterations if it is to appeal to a nation with no clear national ethnic majority.
Whiteness, I should say, is negotiable. It is completely possible that race politics shift in the next half a century to include a particular complexion or national identity such that the newly expanded category stays in the demographic majority. Such was the case for southern European immigrants a hundred years ago. Whiteness is always willing to let a few more people in, in exchange for continued domination.
It is possible though, that whiteness cannot morph fast enough, in which case fascist hopefuls of the future may instead look to apartheid-era South Africa for historical examples of how a white racial minority was capable of holding power for nearly half a century. However, given the massive size and historical differences between the two countries even this playbook might be outmoded. Instead, I suspect Millennial fascism will look a lot like what Tom Whyman, described in The Guardian last year as “Cupcake Fascism.” Whyman posits that the overt racism and dramatic iconography of 20th century fascism would not work today…
But you could get a huge mass of people to participate in a reactionary endeavour if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cupcakey imagery, and persuaded everyone that the brutality of your ideology was in fact a form of niceness. If a fascist reich was to be established anywhere today, I believe it would necessarily have to exchange iron eagles for fluffy kittens, swap jackboots for Converse, and the epic drama of Wagnerian horns for mumbled ditties on ukuleles.
This seems fairly spot-on, albeit only half of a potential strategy. Such a dramatic shift from using displays of masculine strength in response to manufactured fear to galvanize support; to the velvety, paternalistic persuasion of state-sponsored concern trolling, may not survive a one-to-one replacement. Whereas I can scare a stranger just by convincing them that an obviously dangerous thing is out to get them, I may have a harder time comforting a stranger. Therefore, the future Millennial fascist will need to employ a highly adaptive messaging system enabled by what Zeynep Tufekci has called “computational politics”.
Computational politics allows political leaders to portray themselves very differently depending on whom they are talking to. By using finelytuned algorithms fed by enormous databases of our past decisions, leaders will find a way to promise exactly what matters to you. Hitler may have been limited to a single message of strength but future fascist will be capable of deploying multiple messages of softer and more comforting propaganda. Instead of a single, one-size-fits-all message of brute strength, cupcake fascism will find what makes you feel comforted.
Cupcake fascism augmented by computational politics is not just different wrapping on the same rhetorical structure. It dispenses with the unitary collective all together and asks you to embrace a juiced up but well-worn brand of uniquely American individualism. It can offer the palliatives of a Tumblr featuring hot drinks on cold nights in a safe and clean home. It can serve up promises of new applications for masculine discipline, courage, and strength even as war and industry are increasingly automated. It can make up a hundred more emotionally evocative messages that all end in a promise that theses promises can be real if this single candidate is elected.
Trump will probably not be president. His domination of a crowded field of Republican candidates only proves that his campaign has done excellent job of monopolizing the nationalist narrative that the Republican Party has been cultivating for decades. We should, however, take this as a warning that America is ready for a fascist leader. A future fascist, one that appeals to the unique challenges faced by post-millennial Americans may choose instead to employ a kinder, sweeter sort of state paternalism that plays off of a widespread desire of stability and safety without appealing to overt displays of strength. Rather than depict a single group with an unbroken history that needs a champion, cupcake fascism will appeal to individuals’ personal histories and promise a platform upon which you can accomplish your own goals. What will remain hidden of course will be the backs upon which that platform sits.
David is on Twitter.
Headline image source.