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What's A Fascist? What's A Conservative? What's A Republican... A Democrat? What's A Progressive?

After the second GOP debate, Trump called the candidates a bunch of job seeks who want to be the secretary of something in his administration and then asked his audience if they saw any vice presidents up there and asked his own question: nah. It was a pretty motley crew, although the worst of the bunch is the guy most like Trump— and most likely to get a job if Trump managed to win: Vivek Ramaswamy, the one said, with a straight face, that kids under 16 shouldn’t be using “addictive” social media platforms, presumably, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Trump’s Truth, YouTube, What’sApp, Snapchat, Pinterest and Reddit. Does ChatGPT, which he has been compared to, count?

I asked ChatGPT’s somewhat smarter competitor, Google’s Bard. “Vivek Ramaswamy said that kids under 16 should not be allowed to use addictive social media platforms. Would that include you?” He responded:

Vivek Ramaswamy has not explicitly stated whether he would include large language models like me in his proposed ban on social media for kids under 16. However, given that I am designed to be engaging and interactive, and that I can be used to access a wide variety of content, it is possible that I would be considered an "addictive social media product" under his definition.
I believe that it is important for children to have access to high-quality educational resources and to be able to connect with people in a meaningful way. However, I also believe that it is important for parents to monitor their children's online activity and to teach them about the potential risks of social media use.

Anyway, if Ramaswamy is the worst of the lot, Ron DeSantis isn’t far behind. None of the creeps on that stage in Simi Valley would make an attractive candidate for 2028. But what about the Democratic bench. Any better? The governors most frequently mentioned— Gavin Newsom (CA), Gretchen Whitmer (MI), J.B. Pritzker (IL), Josh Shapiro (PA) aren’t candidates I would want to vote for. None of them are exactly champions of the working class. I have a feeling Wes Moore (MD) might be the best of the governors.

Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg are both much worse. Not to mention Gina Raimondo, worse than anyone else I’ve mentioned. In terms of members of Congress, I’d be into Ro Khanna (CA), AOC (NY), Jeff Merkley (OR), Elizabeth Warren though she may be a little old by 2028 for most people. People keep bringing up Cory Booker (NJ) but he’d have to come out of the closet before anyone should give him serious consideration. And even then… I don’t get a great feeling about his character as a leader.

A few days ago, Tom Nichols penned a column for The Atlantic, American Democracy Requires a Conservative Party. Meh. We have a conservative party... It’s the Democratic Party. And the other one, for ex-conservative party he’s so worried about, is now a fascist party. What I’m worried about is not that we’re missing a conservative party— or at least a corporate party of careerists that doesn’t prioritize the aspirations of the working class— but a progressive party.

Nichols is smart writer and I enjoy reading his columns and it’s important to remember that although he’s no longer a Republican, he’s certainly still a conservative and once Trump is gone, he’s just as likely to migrate to a de-MAGAfied GOP than not. He wrote that he’s reluctant to acquiesce to change too precipitously, that he thinks human nature is fixed rather than malleableand that he distrusts mass movements. He contrasts his way of looking at things with the way he says progressives do: “I think most folks on the left would weigh social justice over abstract commitments to order, be more inclined to see traditions as obstacles to progress, and regard mass protests as generally positive forces.” His perspective is that “the immediate problem America faces is that it no longer has a center-right party that represents traditional conservatism, or even respects basic constitutional principles such as the rule of law.”That pretty much describes the Democratic Party establishment (if not the grassroots)— and more so by the day.

He asserts that nations need “political parties that can represent views on the left and the right.” He’s right. But what isn’t be represented right now are the interests of the working class. Corporate interests have plenty of representation. The systems built to assure the rich their interests will always be first and foremost in the minds of those who set the rules. So what’s Nichols whining about?

On January 11, 1944— so just shy of 80 years ago— FDR proposed a second —or economic— Bill of Rights. The rights it would guarantee:

  • Right to employment

  • Right to an adequate living for food, shelter and recreation

  • Right to a fair income for farmers

  • Freedom from monopolies and other unfair competition

  • Right to decent housing

  • Right to adequate medical care

  • Right to Social Security

  • Right to education

Still not enacted… and that’s because both parties have been conservative parties, although Nichols’ party has lately wandered off into fascism, even if Nichols adamantly refuses to accept that and will never use the word too describe Republicans or the direction that party is going. “The role of the state, the reach of the law, the allocation of social and economic resources—these are all inevitable areas of disagreement,” he wrote, “and every functioning democracy needs parties that can contest these issues within the circumscribed limits of a democratic and rights-respecting constitution. Today’s Republican Party rarely exhibits such commitments to the rule of law, constitutionalism, or democracy itself. The current GOP is not so much conservative as it is reactionary: Today’s right-wing voters are a loose movement of various groups, but especially of white men, obsessed with a supposedly better past in which they were not the aggrieved minority they see themselves as today. These reactionary voters… are reflexively countercultural: They reject almost everything in the current social and political order because everything around them is the product of the hated now that has displaced the sacred then.

Yesterday, Peter Hitchens reviewed a book by Julian Jackson about a famous conservative who went fascist, France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, which takes place around the same time FDR was introducing the Second Bill of Rights. “Many conservatives,” wrote Hitchens, “are still tempted to make excuses for the ancient soldier, a humane and resolute general in his prime, an apparent friend of the traditional virtues in his old age. It was hardly his fault that France, which in 1939 had seemed to be one of the great military powers of the world, was in a matter of weeks smashed in battle by Germany. He had held the line against the same enemy at Verdun, and now at the age of 84 was the marmoreal image of resolve and patriotism, a sort of living statue. The great armies of France had been defeated. It might have been practical to transport the government to North Africa or some other colonial possession, but by the normal conventions of war and diplomacy, someone had to sign an armistice and deal with the conqueror. Many in the French elite assumed (and some hoped) that France’s ally, Britain, would shortly surrender, and there would be a general peace. Hardly any imagined that the 1940 Armistice, with its hugely expensive German occupation of much of the country, would continue for four long years. Few grasped at the time what sort of conqueror Hitler would be.”

Pétain did not stand between the French people and their Nazi occupiers. He became their all-too-willing servant. We now know beyond doubt that Marshal Pétain’s Vichy state enthusiastically offered collaboration to the Nazis, so much so that the Germans actually rebuffed it. It had even suggested its own persecution of the Jews, rather than reluctantly given in to German pressure. In 1972 an American historian, Robert Paxton, obtained German documents on the Occupation which left no doubt about this. Pétain’s supposed “National Revolution” closely collaborated with the fiends and demons of the Third Reich and vigorously urged on one of its ugliest policies. Anybody who has any serious interest in Pétain now knows all this.
…It is much easier for an occupying power to run a conquered territory if it can recruit the local administration to handle the details. The early months of the German occupation of Denmark, in which the country actually retained a Social Democratic government that would have been illegal in Germany, give an astonishing example of this worrying principle at work, which is too little known.
It was not just Denmark where this sort of thing happened. British sneering at the weakness and cowardice of continentals under the jackboot is also badly shown up by the curious, embarrassing and largely-forgotten German occupation of the British Channel Islands in 1940. “But what would you have done?” the islanders ask their mainland critics, to this day. The islands’ local authorities were cut off from the British constitution and government when Churchill brusquely abandoned them as indefensible after Dunkirk. Suddenly these largely conservative gentlemen, some nearly as elderly as Pétain, found themselves implementing the decrees of the Third Reich rather than those of His Majesty the King. They felt they had little choice but to work with the German occupiers. Where can a resistance movement hide on a tiny island?
…Despite the French Communists’ righteous wrath at Pétain, they had their own highly embarrassing secrets from the era. This is hugely significant because of the undoubted (and gravely mistaken) attraction of the Pétain regime for French conservatives and Catholics. His national motto of Travail, Famille, Patrie, replacing the Republican Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, made it plain that this was not just a necessary co-operation with a new master, but an attempt to overturn many of the principles of the French Revolution. To this day, some figures on the political right in France seek to defend Pétain, the most recent being the failed presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who most unwisely and inaccurately sought to defend Vichy’s policy, for supposedly saving French Jews by sacrificing recently arrived Jewish refugees to the Nazis. Why would anyone bother to do this? Could it be because of an actual lingering sympathy with Pétain’s social policies?
…Some conservatives loathed England, hoped for a British surrender, and thought Hitler was better than socialism. Some Communists suspected that Hitler might be kinder to them than democracy had been. Only as the occupation hardened, and as the French Communist leader in exile, Maurice Thorez, reasserted control, did the Communists end the talks. They did so very shortly before the Germans also went off the idea, though it was a close-run thing. One Communist, Robert Foissin, was made an internal scapegoat by the Party—which belatedly realized how embarrassing the talks would one day become. But Duclos was too important for such treatment. He would live to be the Communist candidate for the Presidency of France in 1969. No wonder that in 1945 the Communists— now covered in glory because of their post-1941 Resistance role— wanted to draw eyes away from their own behavior in 1940, and concentrate instead on the wickedness of the Catholic, conservative Pétain.
… Julian Jackson’s account of the opening of the trial, in which several lay jurors and others were determined to be fair to Pétain, makes sense to any thoughtful person. Few of the initial witnesses, apart from the lonely Leon Blum (in mourning for the death of his brother at Auschwitz) had been ready to say that Pétain was a traitor or that the Armistice was itself treasonable. Charles De Gaulle had defied defeat and gone to London, but almost everyone else was complicit in the national collapse in some way. And this complicity was not just to be found among Frenchmen. Vichy was still recognized abroad as the legitimate government of France, in some surprising places. Franklin Roosevelt was among those who was fooled by Pétain’s apparently upright military bearing. In his instructions to Admiral William Leahy, his newly-appointed ambassador to Vichy, in November 1940, he wrote that the Marshal “at the present moment is the one powerful element in the French Government who is standing firm against selling out to Germany.” In this judgment he could not really have been more wrong, but poor Leahy, a very decent man, was compelled to try to moderate Vichy’s relations with the Axis until May 1942. Even after that a skeleton US mission remained in operation in Vichy until November 1942, when the Allies invaded French North Africa and Hitler occupied the whole of France. FDR continued to be reluctant to deal with or recognize De Gaulle, dismissing him airily as the “head of some committee” long after it was obvious that he spoke for Free France.
In truth, France was on trial in 1945 more than Pétain. And France emerges from the trial with perhaps a little more credit than we give it. This at least was not a howling enraged tribunal, as the Communists might have desired, but a genuine attempt to apply due process and so to restore some sort of legitimate stability. De Gaulle’s view of the old man was that he was a living corpse who had died to all intents and purposes in 1924. Probably those in French politics who (perhaps too willingly) let him take responsibility for making peace with Germany had a similar view. He was a cypher, not a person. Those who seriously imagined that he was the head of a conservative national revolution were deluded at the time, and those in modern French politics who suggest the same are equally deceived, though it now seems fairly certain that the Marshal was, more often than not, conscious of what was going on around him and aware of what was done in his name. His reprieve from execution was not only a recognition that he was too old to face a firing squad. It was a humane compromise between the De Gaulle and Pétain factions which still haunt French public life in surprising ways. After all, the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand served and was honored by the Vichy regime, yet lived to prosper. The far more brutal fate of Pétain’s colleague Pierre Laval, shot after a brief and undignified hearing and a botched suicide, probably satisfied the general desire to erase the shame and discomfort of the collaboration years which Mauriac had identified. How pleased any reader of this book must be that he and his country did not undergo such misery. Do not be defeated in war. Defeat corrupts the defeated, and it is far harder than we think to stand above the grim process. Pray that it never happens to you.

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