by Prof. Jen Mercieca
Fascists have but one goal: to control nations. Some—like Hitler or Mussolini—gain that control through violence, but for most, violence isn’t necessary. The easiest way for fascists to rise to power is by controlling political language. Sometimes fascists might go to extreme lengths to control language —like the “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that sought to limit and purify language in order to control thoughts. But most of the time, Newspeak isn’t necessary either. Fascists can easily control our thoughts and behavior just by using rhetorical tricks.
Fascists use language to undermine democracy and control our political discourse. Their strategies cause the public to fear for their own and the nation’s safety. The fascist then promises to use force to save the nation. For example, in the 1920s and 30s, Mussolini created a panic about the threats of communism and socialism in Italy, inventing fascism and promising to crush the nation’s enemies once in power. It’s a savvy strategy. After all, people are more likely to give their power to a strong leader if they’re afraid, and they’re less likely to resist fascism if they think they’ve actually chosen it.
“Mussolini did not have any philosophy,” explained Umberto Eco, “he had only rhetoric.” As Mussolini found, there are countless ways to control public discourse. Fascists can control access to the means of communication (the channels, apps, algorithms) as well as use rhetorical tricks like conspiracy theory or outragebait. Not only do fascists use scary fear appeals, but they use communication itself as a weapon; their information warfare strategies are designed to frame, normalize, and move the Overton Window toward fascist thought, actions, and policies.
Fascists use language to normalize fascism. Democrats can fight back by using language to “weirdify” fascism and normalize democracy. The goal is to disrupt, critique, and expose anti-democratic communication to diminish its power and effectiveness.
We weirdify whenever we make things weird—make them more complicated, less natural, less understandable, and less normal. For example, recall the 2000 presidential election’s culture-jamming-inspired “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” campaign. In the early days of the modern internet, the campaign used absurdist humor and now common viral strategies to critique the relationship between wealthy donors and presidential elections–arguing that it didn’t matter which candidate won the election; either way, the billionaires who funded campaigns would actually win. The Billionaires protests sought to bring attention to problems in campaign finance, to force Americans to take a critical look at their election process and see that campaign contributions from the wealthy elite made elections less democratic than they appeared (a problem that has gotten much worse, unfortunately).
Weirdifying fascism is a delegitimizing strategy that functions a lot like pulling back the curtain to reveal that the Great and Powerful Oz is actually a tiny man with a large microphone.
Once we can see how fascist communication tricks work, they have less power over us and less power to subvert democracy. Fear appeals, for example, are less effective if folks don’t really believe that the imagined threat is real. Thanks to scholars like Umberto Eco, Jason Stanley, and Ruth Ben-Ghiat, we know a lot about how fascism works. Fascism thrives by appealing to a cult of tradition, by rejecting modernity, and by creating a political community where nationalism is prized, xenophobia is encouraged, and dissent is treason. Fascists accomplish their goals by telling the nation a simple story: life is permanent warfare, they say, and we have been humiliated by our enemies (who cheat). Fascists use these strategies to appeal to a frustrated nation while cultivating contempt for the weakest and defenseless, promising to purge the nation of outsiders, weirdos, and others framed as “hate-objects” and less than human.
To fight fascism, you have to make what is presented as simple, weird. Weirdify. Fascist leaders are obsessed with creating a very specific understanding of who or what is “normal” and should be included in the nation and who or what is “weird” and ought to be fought and destroyed.
There are three steps to weirdifying fascism: disrupt, critique, and expose. I’ll explain more about these in future Rhetorical Tricks columns. Briefly:
Disrupt: any form of disruption is part of a democrat's “repertoire of contention”—those tactics and strategies that are available to use when the moment is right. You might disrupt fascist rhetorical tricks by using passive resistance, carnivalesque, and/or confrontation, or other strategies—depending on the situation.
At times you might use a passive resistance strategy like Henry David Thoreau’s version in Civil Disobedience, Herman Melville’s version in Bartleby, the Scriver, or Mahatma Gandhi’s version in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. While at other times, it might be more prudent to use a carnivalesque technique that seeks to delegitimize the fascist’s aura of power through mockery. For example, lampooning Trump with a ginormous chicken balloon or playing a circus march on a sousaphone while neo-Nazis try to menace and intimidate by marching through your town. Or, perhaps you might judge that it would be best to disrupt the fascist through confrontation like the civil rights and student protests movements did in the sixties, as ACT-UP did in the late eighties and early nineties, and like the Black Lives Matter movement does today.
Critique: show how the fascist’s strategies work by using critical thinking and rhetorical and propaganda analysis to debunk and prebunk. Your goal is to show the internal mechanics of how the fascist rhetorical tricks work and why they’re anti-democratic. While the general strategy is to break apart the fascist rhetorical tricks, the specific strategy will change in each case. You have to assess the best argument for breaking apart the fascist rhetoric for your specific context and audience. Learn how fascist rhetorical tricks work so you’ll be prepared to recognize and critique them.
Expose: after you’ve disrupted and critiqued the fascist rhetorical tricks, you want to show the game for what it is by focusing on the big picture. What’s really at stake here? How do these fascist rhetorical tricks help the fascist and hurt the people, the nation, and the cause of democracy? Who profits from these rhetorical tricks? What’s really going on behind the scenes? Fascists present the nation’s problems as black and white, as simple—and they offer simple solutions. But that simplicity is a lie. Show how the lie works and how it is constructed. Show how the lie benefits the fascist.
It isn’t very helpful to merely call something “fascist”—you have to disrupt, critique, and expose the fascist game. Fascists want to seize power by normalizing their ideas and tactics. They want to control political discourse—both what we talk about and how we think about it. To save democracy we have to disrupt, critique, expose—weirdify—what fascists would make normal.