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The Scarlet & Black

Life During Wartime: authorities on democracy

Max Fenton

The Latin word “fasces” describes a bound bundle of sticks with an axe blade protruding from the middle. In ancient Rome, it was used as a symbol of imperial authority, illustrating the particular jurisdiction of a Roman magistrate. It has since been passed down as a symbol of collective authority, and remains a commonly recognized heraldic symbol, to the extent that it is a wall design on the wall of the House of Representatives. But the fasces has a darker lineage as well. In the 1920s and 30s, the fasces became the symbol for Italian fascist parties in their attempt to display the collective power of the “common people” and to harken back to Italy’s ancient peak. Etymologically speaking, “fascism” comes from the word “fasces.” The Italian Fascists emulated Roman legal principles and iconography, which they saw as a symbol of strength and peoples’ unity. The fasces remains a potent symbol for fascism, though it admittedly lacks the shock value of the swastika. Ultimately, the lasting symbolism of a fasces is its unity — where a single stick is snapped with ease, a bundle cannot be broken so easily.

President Trump is considered by many on the left to be the closest thing to an actual fascist the United States has ever elected. Though we have yet to veer into dictatorship, President Trump’s disdain for the proper institutions of government, his personalistic leadership and his prejudice against people of color, women and perceived enemies suggest dark clouds on the horizon. He is essentially fascist-lite — all of the bravado with none of the power to back it up (yet). But with the recent announcement that President Trump is inviting Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, to the White House, it appears that he is seeking international support for his agenda. Since coming to power, Duterte has overseen a massive expansion of Philippine anti-drug policies. As of April 2017, 9,000 people have been killed by government-backed death squads, who have targeted an imaginary menace of drug users. The overwhelming majority of victims are the poor, who face a corrupt administration that has no qualms about planting evidence, hiring vigilantes and fabricating stories to justify their misdeeds.

Duterte is, for lack of a better term, bombastic. He recently declared he would “eat a terrorist’s liver,” and has criticized the Philippine Congress and media for demonizing him. Nevertheless, Trump likes the cut of Duterte’s jib. Trump wished Duterte’s violent anti-drug policies well and described his phone conversation as “very friendly.” Like fascists before him, Trump is assembling an international coalition of fellow travelers — a veritable fasces of misfits and autocrats. Duterte is not the only authoritarian strongman Trump has embraced. His personal warmth towards Vladimir Putin has been noted in American media. In December, Trump described Putin as “very smart!” while tweeting from Mar-a-Lago. Coupled with unanswered questions about Trump’s ties with Russia, this affection paints a concerning picture for American international commitments as well as our supposed concern for human rights abroad.

Even more bizarrely, President Trump has praised Kim Jong Un, describing him not only as a “smart cookie” but admirable for his ability to take power at such a young age. This flies in the face of conventional knowledge about the Kim family dictatorship in Korea, which has presided over a particularly opaque and repressive state. Kim was able to take power because he inherited it, not because he is a master political operator. Not only condoning but publicly embracing the leader of such a vile regime is intensely concerning. Furthermore, it demonstrates both Trump’s lack of international acuity as well as his authoritarian bonafides. In condoning international strongmen, Trump has laid the groundwork for a new policy of ignorance and autocracy.

The already-questionable American commitment to international human rights continues to rot under the Trump administration. Whether it is authoritarian strongmen in the Philippines, Russia or North Korea, the Trump administration seems happy to praise excesses in power internationally. With the President all but approving of evils overseas, and attempting to commit evils at home, these are dark times for the liberal consciousness. We must challenge fascists at home and abroad, lest these single branches form an unbreakable bond.

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