The Old Granfalloon Party
granfalloon — n. a proud and meaningless collection of human beings.
The trailer of the new film Dinesh D’souza film Death of a Nation opens with what looks like a prescription drug ad. Abraham Lincoln is walking through a wheat field, eyes on the distant horizon as if he’s thinking about the future.
Dinesh starts talking:
Lincoln was elected to unite a country and stop slavery.
Democrats smeared him.
Went to war against him.
Now their target is Trump.
A video of Trump’s inauguration plays followed by a college student from one of those “triggered lib” memes, who screams:
They say he’s a racist. A fascist. But who are the real racists? Who are the real fascists?
On the word “racist,” it jumps to a Movie of the Week recreation of the whipping scene from Roots.
No one really buys this whole “Party of Lincoln” shtick, so why do Republicans keep doing it?
One reason is that they’re hard up for heroes. You have to go back more than a century to find someone from the party with any semblance of decency or claim to righteousness, so the result is always some desperate reach, like calling Harriet Tubman a “gun-toting Republican.”
They announce the party affiliation of abolitionists and black politicians from the period as if it were some amazing revelation.
One could chalk it all up to bad faith — hacks misrepresenting history to serve a partisan agenda — but there are many who do genuinely believe there is continuity between the party of the 19th century and Republicans today.
In the book Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut introduces a religion called Bokononism. One of its key concepts is the karass, a team of people spiritually linked together to “do God’s will.”
Then there is what Vonnegut calls a granfalloon, or a false karass.
His examples: “the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company — and any nation, anytime, anywhere”
A granfalloon is a group whose sense of shared identity is based on something entirely meaningless. Vonnegut’s favorite example was Hoosiers.
If Vonnegut were alive today, he’d get a kick out of seeing some reactionary goober like Charlie Kirk bragging about how the Republicans “freed the slaves.”
Kirk, who punctuates most tweets with the hashtag #BIGGOVSUCKS, fails to see any contradiction in being proud of the fact that Republicans “deployed the 101st airborne to end school segregation.”
Part of it is self-delusion, but at the same time, it also says something about the superficial way conservatives view politics.
For the GOP, ideals are just a set of hollow words to rally around. Being a “Republican” who loves “liberty” and “small government” has about as much substance as calling oneself a “Hoosier.”
“America is a republic NOT a democracy”
You might see this phrase in some article about how the Founders didn’t trust the plebs with too much democracy because they feared the masses would get duped into electing some unqualified, authoritarian demagogue. Thankfully, republican institutions like the electoral college prevent this from happening.
But you’re more likely to see the statement made in random arguments online apropos of nothing — as if that fact in itself is a victory because the word “republic” is in the party’s name. That’s the level most are working on, which explains why so many conservatives (like Dinesh) think fascism is leftwing because Nazi is short for National Socialist Party.
Try to imagine a liberal Dinesh D’souza from a parallel universe. B’zarro B’souza would write books like “Irish Republican Army: The Conservative Roots of Irish Terror.”
Words like “republic” and “liberty” don’t meaning anything to Republicans and neither do the historical figures these necromancers resurrect to fight in their undead army. What anyone in the past believed or why they believed it is inconsequential so long as Republicans can cop some greatness by association.
Conservatives want to lay claim to some kind of pedigree through the most tenuous connection with someone who symbolizes those vague ideals they claim to stand for. They don’t care that Thomas Paine literally wanted to give everyone in the country free money just for being born. Republicans use him for their Twitter avatars anyways because he was a Founding Father.
Though today it is mostly just a label, people used the word “republican” all the time in 19th century discourse with a definite sense of what it meant.
Here’s an excerpt from a speech Congressman Thaddeus Stevens gave to the House:
No people will ever be republican in spirit and practice where a few own immense manors and the masses are landless.
He was making the case for expropriating 70,000 former slaveowners and awarding their private property to freedmen.
As the leaders of the Radical Republicans, Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner believed in the need for a strong federal government to redistribute white wealth to black people. You know, “republican” stuff.
Radical Republicans had a grasp on the Southern political economy. They knew phrases like “equality of opportunity” or “equality under the law” were meaningless so long as economic power remained concentrated within the hands of a wealthy white elite.
If Dinesh D’souza made a movie about the great “conservative” abolitionists, the only mention of the Radicals would be Charles Sumner’s famous caning by Preston Brooks:
[ Fife and drum band playing “Yankee Doodle” in the background]
Dinesh starts to narrate the story like he’s telling it to a 5 year old:
One day, Republican Charles Sumner was giving a speech to the Senate about how freedom was good and everybody should have it — even black people.
As he listened, Democrat Preston Brooks grew incensed. Sumner’s Republican passion for liberty awakened rage inside Brooks’ cold, racist Democrat heart.
But historians say what ultimately drove him to violence was Sumner’s exercise of free speech. Of the many freedoms Democrats hate, this is the one they truly can’t abide.
Today, not much has changed.
[“O Fortuna” abruptly starts to play]
A montage of someone stomping on a MAGA hat, protestors shouting down Ann Coulter, obligatory black-clad antifa and a clip of Trigglypuff. Then Dinesh would move on to how Sojourner Truth actually thought private prisons were a smart way to reduce the deficit or something.
Whence the wampeter?
In Bokononism, a wampeter is described as “the pivot of a karass, around which the souls of the members of the karass revolve.”
The wampeter is the purpose of the karass, and the Republican Party has none, hence it is a granfalloon, connected by nothing but a name.
When the Republican Party was founded, its ideology was expressed in the simple slogan “free labor, free land and free men.” Slavery was the most important political question of the day, and the party’s identity was largely defined by opposition to it.
After the Civil War, the GOP became unmoored from the anchor of a clear mission, paving the way for a series of shifts and realignments over the next century. It ultimately coalesced around the politics of fiscal and social conservatism, and the great evil of slavery that the original party stood against was replaced by a new enemy: big government.
But the fidelity of the Republican Party to these lodestars is also suspect. The party of “liberty” and “small government” oversaw the rapid expansion of the surveillance state and security apparatus in the wake of 9/11, eroding civil liberties in the process.
Under Bush, these “fiscal conservatives” turned surplus to deficit. Taxes were slashed while defense spending skyrocketed to pay nearly 8 trillion in war debt.
Without roots in principles or a clear, consistent ideology, conservatives are bound together by nothing but “proud and meaningless” associations — party, nation and race — and the dangers of this are obvious.
What fills the void is the reactionary politics of crude traditionalism, idealization of past glory and sanctification of empty symbols. In other words: fascism.
Political scientist Robert Paxton noted that unlike the various “-isms” of the 19th century, fascism has “no formal philosophical positions with claims to universal validity.”
They subordinate thought and reason not to faith, as did the traditional Right, but to the promptings of blood and the historic destiny of the group. Their only moral yardstick is the prowess of the race, of the nation, of the community.
Fascism is the ultimate granfalloon ideology. Among what Paxton calls the “mobilizing passions” of fascism is “an enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces the self-esteem of the individual.”
Raised in Mussolini’s Italy, the writer Umberto Eco referred to fascism as a kind of “popular elitism:” “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism…Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world.”
Being fundamentally anti-intellectual, fascism relies not on grand ideas to unite people but shallow signifiers of group identity. Paxton argued that an American fascism would take shape around familiar symbols like the flag and the cross.
The visceral reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s protest demonstrated just how far along on this path we’ve come. Though racism was the major factor, their outrage was compounded by the affront to those symbols they hold dear. Sacred nothings like the flag and the Anthem are more valuable to them than the rights of black people to express themselves — or to live.
The Constitution itself has been rendered into another meaningless symbol of Americanism. Members of the Tea Party movement, the forerunners to Trumpism, carried around copies of it in their pockets, valuing it not for its role as a guarantor of rights in a liberal democracy but as a badge that signifies a “real American.”
A group called the American Guard founded by notorious skinhead Brien James now bills itself as “Constitutional Nationalists.” Many of the organization’s members are white supremacists, including current or former members of the Vinlanders Social Club, a skinhead group James also founded.
Who are the real fascists?
Like Dinesh’s attempts to portray today’s GOP as the heirs to Lincoln, his efforts to tie the Democratic Party to the Nazis don’t exactly hold up to scrutiny. However weak they are, these arguments did manage to convince at least one person: Donald Trump, Jr.
After viewing Death of a Nation last week, Junior said: “You see the Nazi platform from the early 1930s … look at it compared to the DNC platform of today, you’re saying, ‘Man, those things are awfully similar’ to a point where it’s actually scary.”
Politifact, which rated the claim “Pants on Fire,” noted that almost nothing of the platform resembled that of the Democrats. The few statements that are similar to the DNC platform — “The state must ensure that the nation’s health standards are raised” — are found in Republican policy statements as well.
Dinesh displays a misunderstanding of fascism that is born of both malice and ignorance. Even assuming that many of the comparisons are accurate, it’s not specific policies that make a fascist — and most definitely not ones like universal healthcare. In his 1995 essay, Eco described what he called Ur-Fascism or “Eternal Fascism” which exists independent of systems of government.
In “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Paxton discusses the Nazis’ Twenty-five Point Program, which forms the basis of many of the claims made in D’souza’s book The Big Lie and Trump Jr.’s recent comments. He says the words of fascist intellectuals “correspond only distantly with what fascist movements do after they have power.”
Paxton notes that the original platforms of both Italian and German fascists made overtures to popular progressive reforms, citing Mussolini’s 1919 program, which included things like 8-hour workdays, universal women’s suffrage and workers’ participation in industry. The anti-capitalism present in the Nazis’ early policy statements was largely jettisoned in favor of a “strained though powerfully effective collaboration for rearmament between German business and the Nazi regime.”
What makes a fascist a fascist is allegiance to the great granfalloon of the nation and all the things that come along with that. Eco observed that fascism is about establishing an identity in contrast to outsiders — an “us” in opposition to a nefarious “them” — making it inherently xenophobic and racist.
He goes on to say that fascists are naturally obsessed with plots. For the Nazis it was the “stab in the back;” for Trump it’s the machinations of the “Deep State.” Dinesh curiously chooses to focus solely on the planks of the Nazi program that aren’t peculiar to it, while neglecting those that are, such as №23: “We demand legal opposition to known lies and their promulgation through the press.”
Trump’s “fake news” attacks on the media are notorious by now and echo Hitler’s “lugenpresse” label, which his alt-right supporters have since adopted. The UN recently warned that such rhetoric could provoke violence against US media. Conservatives in general have also adopted a variation of an old Nazi slander — “Cultural Marxism” — which is now regularly used against academics, embodying what Eco referred to as a Ur-fascist “distrust of the intellectual world.”
The Never Trumpers of the GOP delude themselves into believing that Trump doesn’t represent what the party stands for, but it’s fairly clear that it hasn’t stood for anything in a long time. It’s a granfalloon, an empty vehicle, and it was only a matter of time before someone like him stepped into the driver seat. █