How Will the Professors Act When Fascism Comes to America?

Increasingly, one hears the view that not only is Donald Trump a fascist but that he will be elected president. I don’t know what I think about these claims, but it seems to me that if we truly believe them, we’re obligated to ask the question: What will we do once Donald Trump is elected president?

Woody Allen offered one answer in Manhattan.

Whatever one thinks, I’m struck by the mismatch between the easy avowal, which you see around various precincts of the internet left, that the future looks bleak and the failure to consider the logical next question: What is to be done?

It may be that I’m over-reading the discussion because I’m going through one of my periodic late-night reading binges about Nazism and fascism. Right now, it’s Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood, which inspired yesterday’s blog post, and Victor Klemperer’s diaries.

Klemperer’s voice speaks to me at a very personal level. Born Jewish, Klemperer was a professor in Nazi Germany who, despite the world crumbling around him, remained fixated on a few familiar (to me, at any rate) obsessions: his real estate woes, his publication woes, and his wife’s love of cats.

Tetchy and depressive, Klemperer had a keen eye for the weakness and cowardice of his fellow academics. He could be positively scathing about his friends and colleagues, many of whom wound up supporting the Nazis. One entry from March 1933 seems representative:

But unfortunately on Tuesday evening we had the Thiemes here. That was dreadful and the end of that. Thieme—of all people—declared himself for the new regime with such fervent conviction and praise. He devoutly repeated all the phrases about unity, upwards etc. Trude was harmless by comparison. Everything had gone wrong, now we had to try this. “Now we just have to join in this song!” He corrected her vigorously. “We do not have to,” the right thing was truly and freely voted for. I shall not forgive him that. He is a poor swine and afraid for his post. So he runs with the pack?….We have been mistaken in Thieme’s intellect. He has a partial mathematical gift. Otherwise he is absolutely at the mercy of every influence, every advertisement, everything successful. Eva [Klemperer’s wife] already realised that years ago. She says, “He lacks any sense of judgement.” But that he would go so far…I am breaking with him.

So filled with rage and contempt for the professoriat was Klemperer that by August 1936, he would record this in his diary:

If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honourable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.

I’m not sure what one is supposed to do when fascism comes to America, but of one thing I am fairly certain: don’t look to the professors.

Update (10:30 pm)

I think some of my befuddlement over the state of the current discussion is similar to what Susan Sontag expressed, at a similar moment of democratic crisis, in a symposium on violence that included Arendt, Chomsky, and others.

It’s personally hard for me to understand how in December 1967 in New York the discussion has at no point turned actively to the question of whether we, in this room, and the people we know are going to be engaged in violence. Only Mr. Chomsky in one sentence — breathtakingly short — said: Of course, it goes without saying that we in the peace movement in America should not use violent means. That’s the issue I think we ought to be discussing here.


  1. Roqeuntin December 9, 2015 at 10:39 pm | #

    There are a lot of angles to look at this from, but the old fashioned Marxist in me wants to make this sort of case: With the increasing concentration of capital in few and fewer hands, a social contract in a society this unequal can only be maintained by mobilizing increasingly regressive segments of the population. The old social contract, which allowed for a repression of these elements is now a bridge too far. As I understand it, this generally has been the Marxist take on fascism and recent events cohere with it.

    Paul Nizan had similar ideas about academics and fascism to those you posted above. “Les Chiens De Garde” was about this subject (which I admittedly haven’t read). Having seen both sides of it, belonging to the fascist Action Francaise in his youth, he had a unique perspective on how ideology functioned. Given the recent victory of the National Front, his perspective seems more relevant than ever. Sartre shared a dorm with him in college. He had wild stories involving Nizan’s obsession with death. I’ve always had the impression that his death during combat at Dunkirk was his attempt to atone for the sins of his youth.

    • Will G-R December 10, 2015 at 10:53 am | #

      As long as we’re talking about professors, the older social contract is also the one stipulating large-scale public subsidy for an intellectual class in the first place. Granted that in our old-fashioned take, the crises that make regressive elements necessary for capital are ultimately a matter of increasing poverty and unemployment that results from increasing productive efficiency, what sort of crisis results when this tide of productive efficiency drowns the professors themselves?

      Let’s assume a not-too-distant future in which job training for “brain labor” is cleaved from the traditional structures of higher ed, delegated to some combination of digital and online trainings administered by outsourced/Taylorized cubicle workers, and that these workers have more or less replicated the economic function once performed by a higher-paid, secure class of tenured faculty. To be fair we can assume there would still be a rump class of tenured intellectuals whose public purpose is increasingly tied to the role of a syncophantic TED talk celebrity, made up of folks like Niall Ferguson and Steve Pinker, but we can also assume the rank-and-file work of the intellectual class will look more like Facebook content moderation than like Plato’s Academy.

      In that scenario, “how will the professors act?” becomes a fairly irrelevant question, because when the proverbial barricades go up, the remnants of a class whose full-time profession was to research, teach, and publish in freedom and security will have about the same level of practical importance as the British royal family.

  2. Glenn December 9, 2015 at 11:56 pm | #

    The question of whether or not one should use violence attains clarity only after the opportune time has passed and the consequences of violence or non-violence have become apparent.

    Gandhi believed a person should have both the capacity to do violence and the strength of character to actively resist the move to violence in the face of violence by another, rather than the passive resistance of being too weak to do violence.

    Not doing what you can’t do is no virtue. So much for unconditional non-violence.

    Being weak and fearful will encourage an attack by an animal or a bully.

    William Gass, in his novel “The Tunnel”, repeats “Mass man is mass murder.”

  3. Nile December 10, 2015 at 2:54 am | #

    What did the professors do during the McCarthy years?

    A hint: if there are no records, and nobody alive at the time will discuss it, you have the answer.

  4. Alice Bullard December 10, 2015 at 6:50 am | #

    I left a tenured professorship to engage in human rights work, but from my point of view professors have refused to wield their power even within universities and as a consequence administrators have taken over universities, emptied out the faculty roles and hired on low payed temporary lecturers. So, the “professors” have already more than proven completely politically inept. My guess is, if Trump were elected (which I do not believe will happen, but to engage the scenario you present) professors will just shove their heads ever deeper into the sand.

    But they do love to pontificate and theorize. They can’t mobilize to lobby their local senators or statehouse, and they generally don’t organize voting registration, why is that? But they will publish hundreds of pages that demonstrate their stunning insights into any number of issues.

    Consider the new state laws allowing guns on campuses. Why do professors not organize and refuse, absolutely refuse, to teach if guns on allowed on campus? Why are they not storming the statehouses that vote for such laws? Or do they want the kid upset about his grade showing up at office hours with a side-arm?

    Most professors in the U.S. are alienated from the communities in which they live. They do not organize effectively. They do not try to influence their local representatives. They do not themselves run for office. In general, professors do not participate in the community around them. They view themselves as somehow above all that gross normality. They even sometimes revel in their own political impotence. There are exceptions to this, but in general professors keep their noses in their books, refuse to engage in contemporary struggles, and will do that as long as possible.

    And yet professors have access to valuable tools and resources to change our culture, that is, if they would deign to consider the commoners and not only the intellectual elite.

    • Irami December 10, 2015 at 8:47 pm | #

      Political organizing is a different skill set. It takes a quality of spine and an embrace of vulnerability that are different from the rigors that belong to the profession. The career ladder’s structure doesn’t help. I also suspect that too many professional incentives push towards a kind of minimal citizenship. Unfortunately, this push for minimal citizenship even punishes teachers for teaching, since teaching is a form of active citizenship.

    • David Green December 11, 2015 at 3:34 pm | #

      I basically agree with your comments on the basis of my experience as an activist in a college town, although I must admit that I would have been reluctant to make them myself, lest I be accused of over-generalization and/or petulance.

  5. Barbara Winslow December 10, 2015 at 6:55 am | #

    I wouldn’t quote Gandhi on fascism. he said the Jews should march passively and with love in the hearts into the gas chambers,

    IAs to professors, prefer Brecht’s poem which begins “Out of the libraries stride the slaughterers…”

    • Glenn December 10, 2015 at 9:39 am | #

      I would look at him and his life critically. He was not so much in favor of exposing himself to possible violence.

      Katheryn Tidrick’s “Gandhi” reveals the man found in his own writings.

  6. JW Mason December 10, 2015 at 8:38 am | #

    It’s funny, I read that same exchange — thanks for linking it! — and came away with a very positive impression of Chomsky’s comments there. He took the realities of fascism and imperial war very seriously and wasn’t at all dismissive of violent responses to them in principle. He even took seriously Fanon’s thesis that even if it is totally ineffective or counterproductive in its immediate effects, violence is necessary to give a sense of political agency to the oppressed. So he wasn’t re flexible pacifist (or passive) and generally came across as way to the left of anyone in today’s discussions. But he was unequivocal that for American leftists violent political action was a dead end, and I think for very good reason.

    In this case, it seems to me that the kind of political activity required by the possibility of president Trump (which I personally still don’t think is at all likely, but that’s irrelevant here) is exactly the activity we should be carrying out anyway. We should be using our academic resources and privileges to support popular movements against property and power, wherever they exist and where we are best positioned to be part of them. (Which you personally are an admirable example of.) I don’t really see how Trump changes the specifics of this at all.

  7. JW Mason December 10, 2015 at 8:42 am | #

    I should add – on the specific question of violence, it’s stupid for intellectuals as such to be contemplating violent activity, for the same reason we shouldn’t be contemplating any kind of poetical activity in our own private capacity. Our job is to support the movements that actually exist. Now, if a critical mass of immigrants or black people find that the only effective challenge to the violence of the state is violent action of their own, we can debate what kind of support we can or should give to that movement. But for people like you or I (or Susan Sontag!) to talk about violence as something “we” would carry out, is just narcissism.

  8. Geoffrey Skoll December 10, 2015 at 8:52 am | #

    What DID Woody Allen say?

    • G Hiatt December 10, 2015 at 10:03 am | #

      I think he was paraphrasing Karl Popper’s “The Paradox of Tolerance” which said that to tolerate intolerance will only lead to an intolerant closed society – therefore, an open and tolerant society must be intolerant of intolerance.

      The trick is where to draw the line on intolerance.

      It’s easy with Nazis because they have a proven record of actual violence, but what about Trump?
      Personally, I feel like he can only do irreparable harm to the Republican right wing…but then again, that’s what the Communists thought about Hitler and the German right wing.

      • The Raven December 10, 2015 at 12:47 pm | #

        He can also rouse the violent.

  9. The Raven December 10, 2015 at 12:47 pm | #

    he is rousing the violent.

  10. Patrick Sullivan December 10, 2015 at 3:01 pm | #

    Speaking as a non-academic, I would offer that academics should start preparing the populace by explaining fascism, delineate lines which, if crossed, would signal actions inconsistent with our democratic state and educating us on what responses would be indicated or supported by our political theory. It would seem to most people with a high school education that the Declaration of Independence is sort of a handbook for dealing with governments that deny basic freedoms: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”, etc. Trump is already offering his own take on our history of immigration restrictions and internment.
    Why not have an academic conference on how to deal with the potential onset of fascism?

  11. Nqabutho December 12, 2015 at 4:28 am | #

    Seth Weinberger over at Duck of Minerva has issued an “Anti- Trump call to arms”.

    A related problem that we have is with what people call “media centrism”: the right wing could be riding us deeper and deeper into hell, violating accepted rational and ethical standards left and right, and the media would continue to report their fantasy world where all is business as usual and right wing rubbish is made to sound sensible. Can academics enlighten journalists about critical standards and demand that the press adhere to them? E.g., when Republicans are interviewed, either demand answers to a series of probing questions, or don’t put them on at all. Interviewer: “Would you go after the families of the perpetrators of this [San Bernardino] attack?” Trump: “We’d go after a lot of people.” The interviewer should then have asked(but didn’t): “What about the families of Farook and Malik?” And “What about the family of the non-Muslim terrorist Dear?” It’s enough to cause some of us to talk back to inanimate objects like TV sets. This is a serious problem requiring a deep analysis; I’ve only mentioned it.

    Weinberger’s problem of course is the restriction on free rational and critical truth- seeking inquiry and the making of critical judgments in academic discourse under right wing intimidation. This should be rejected unequivocally by university departments and administrators, and the case should be made clear.

  12. Geoffrey Skoll December 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm | #

    Although I think getting off about The Donald is off the subject, I cannot resist pointing out why I like The Donald. He is far less hypocritical than any other national politician, except for two members of the US House, one from Florida and one from Hawaii. Of course he’s racist and sexist–they are basic ingredients of US culture. That he called for banning Muslim immigration should be compared to the overwhelming popular, media, and intellectuals’ support for murdering Muslims. So many of the New York Times, The Nation, and Harper’s reading public supported George W Bush’s explicit call for a (Christian) US crusade, a declaration of religious war. Granted, Bush stopped using the word ‘crusade’ because his pols reminded him that he and the Party get a lot of money from Muslims, but still, it was out there. Stopping immigration versus murder; which is more fascist? This is an example of how the professors will act, because fascism already has come to America.
    By the way, no one has yet told me what Woody Allen said in the movie Manhattan.

  13. mtw December 13, 2015 at 12:32 am | #

    The story of the German atomic bomb project gives an interesting window into how a narrow portion of the professoriate reconciled itself with the moral depravity of the Nazi regime. It was a sad combination of racial & national triumphalism and naive self moralizing that “saving German physics for the future” from the influences party members somehow washed away the sin of being a collaborator on a major weapons project. Also include a heavy dose of self-delusion.

    While academia is a varied and somewhat amorphous collective, I am curious how much of sciences & engineering in particular would acquiesce in an effort to protect their projects and research programs.

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