If you haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 gallows humor classic of a movie, “Dr. Strangelove,” now is the time to do so, preferably before Vlad the Impaler of Nations decides to play Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in real life. The movie includes an extended joke alluding to the 1960 presidential campaign, which Saint Jack Kennedy narrowly won in considerable measure by running to then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s right on national defense. Among other things, Kennedy falsely charged that President Eisenhower had let the Soviets gain an advantage in long-range nuclear-tipped missiles, a “missile gap” that he would close posthaste if elected. Four years later, Peter Sellers as the titular Dr. Strangelove with the fixed crazed grin is telling President Merkin Muffley, also played by Sellers, that important officials like themselves can survive the impending nuclear war and go on to repopulate the world by hiding in mine shafts with beautiful women. This sets off the incomparable George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson on a rant about how “there must not be a mine shaft gap” between America and the Soviet Union.
The ghosts of fascism haunt Dr. Strangelove, with its mad protagonist based on the disturbingly real American effort to snag Nazi war criminal scientists like the infamous Wernher von Braun and draft them into our Cold War against the Soviets, who were doing the exact same thing. In our time, those ghosts have come back to life, and we are once again confronted with a worldwide struggle against ultra-nationalist demagogues leading untold millions who have given their hearts and sold their souls to murderous lies about the already disadvantaged and persecuted. What is the secret of fascism’s appeal?
It has long been known that an important part of the answer was discovered in the late nineteenth century, when Hitler was still a malevolent twinkle in his father’s eye. A German sociologist named Ferdinand Tönnies distinguished between two types of community, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, a distinction later developed by the better-known German sociologist Max Weber. The basic idea is that “Gemeinschaft” is a rich type of personalized community, the idealized small town or old “ethnic neighborhood” of a larger city where everybody knows everybody, everybody speaks the same language and worships at the same church, you can borrow a cup of sugar or request emergency babysitting from your friendly next-door neighbor at any hour of the day or night, and people all band together to help a community member who has lost her home in a fire or firmly escort away a member of a different Gemeinschaft who has wandered into town by mistake. In “Gesellschaft,” such ties are much weaker, as the community is based on fair and impartial but impersonal law, and your neighbors are strangers to you and might be perverts or even worship the wrong god. People find this alienating and start to drift around in a state of anomie, becoming easy prey for any political or religious cult led by a mountebank.
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s easy to see that we nasty little primates spent all of prehistory in small, mutually hostile bands, and a couple hundred generations of “civilization” is far from sufficient to enable us to adjust to larger groups wherein we don’t all know one another personally. Utopian dreams all propose various schema to make our enormous modern-day societies into giant, cuddly teddy-bear versions of the old hunter-gatherer bands and Little Italies. Unfortunately, whenever revolutionaries try to put such a scheme into practice, they tend to go all-in on the part that involves persecuting non-tribe members while only paying lip service to the warm and loving neighborly ties. Fascists have discovered that it’s easiest to minimize the hypocrisy and put all the emphasis on the foreigner bashing from the start. Poor old Gesellschaft democracy can hardly compete, and so here we are, with a Gemeinschaft gap the size of the Centralia coal seam fire.
Those old-time German sociologists may have diagnosed the problem, but they didn’t have any solutions for it, and neither did the Frankfurt School sociologist refugees from Nazi Germany who analyzed how their persecutors had preyed upon this universal yearning for community. During those postwar decades when we thought fascism was confined to the history books, other social critics occasionally warned that the unfulfilled yearning for Gemeinschaft community posed a threat that right-wing entrepreneurs were all too eager to exploit, and that something should be done about it. One such was Michael Lerner, founder of the left-wing American Jewish Tikkun magazine, which I contributed a few essays to in my salad days. This veteran of the mid-1960s Berkeley Free Speech Movement was always banging the drum for what he called “the politics of meaning,” but although he momentarily attracted the notice of the Clintons, he didn’t get very far with it. Mainly this was because he also had no real solutions to offer, although contributing factors probably included his willingness to publish such toxic tripe as an earnest interview with the former head of the East German Stasi secret police on the virtues of socialism and 9/11 “truther” conspiracy theories. I also happen to know that he once fired an editor by fax, in a caricature of the worst aspects of Gesellschaft impersonality.
I caught a glimpse of the kind of solution we need in an Election Day 2020 voting rights protest I attended in the little town of Graham, North Carolina. Local African American Reverend Greg Drumwright had been arrested for leading previous protests, and undeterred was leading another peaceful march that day. He and others addressed the multiracial crowd, invoking the civil rights movement phrase, “the beloved community.” I think we all felt it as we set out on our walk to freedom in the town square. The MAGA fascists fear the beloved community quite as much as they revile it, for our Gemeinschaft of love can grow deeper and more powerful than their fraudulent Gemeinschaft of hate. But it requires our unremitting effort to make it so.