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Fascists, they're (not) just like us!
Finding unexpected hope in Blake Masters' flailing attempts to appear normal
Top notes: Thanks to everybody who registered for Barnraisers Fall Cohorts. It’s a great group! If you’re reading this and kicking yourself for not joining, toss me an email. We’ve got a nice full house but as a frequent late-registrant for things myself, I get it. Otherwise, sign up for our interest list to make sure you know when I offer again (TBD but likely winter/spring 2023).
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As for where my money is going this week: To Jackson, MS, and specifically to organizers who are both meeting basic needs during the current crisis and building and imagining better futures. Shouts to Cooperation Jackson.
Also (perennially) to bookstores, in my case specifically to buy the newest from Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie.
Ok, let’s make fun of some weirdo ads.
This is an essay about a bunch of failed campaign advertisements that I find immensely funny, even as I find the candidate making them very dangerous. I don’t normally write essays like this. I try to avoid easy jabs at specific people, even public figures. There’s enough of that out there anyway, and a lot of it is smug and cheap. And that may be all this piece is as well. But there’s a reason why I’ve watched these particular ads dozens of times. We’ll get there. Heck, we’ll get to the ads too.
But first, let’s talk about fascism.
My take on fascism I’m against it. Fascists too. I’m anti them, you might say. My main opposition to fascism, as an ideology, is its legacy of genocide and oppression. Pretty open and shut case there. I mean, I don’t really need any supporting arguments, but humor me, if you will, for a second.
Fascism produces abhorrent, anti-human actions because it is, at its core, an anti-human belief system. And by that, I don’t mean just that it is an ideology that dehumanizes collective scapegoats (Jews, Blacks, immigrants, gay and trans people, etc.). I mean it’s an ideology that asks its adherents to have a deeply pessimistic take on humanity in general- to lean towards distrust for the masses, to extinguish all hope of cooperation and trust and to replace it with a belief that salvation will come through the rule by a small group of our societal betters.
That’s pedantic, but it’s worth saying because the term “fascist” can often be reduced to an easy tautological taunt. Somebody you don’t like politically is a fascist merely on the basis of how little you like them. We throw the term around a bit, is what I’m saying.
And that’s a problem. Not because fascism isn’t a real threat but precisely because it is. We live in a world where fascists hold power in an increasing number of countries. We live in a world where rich adherents to fascist worldviews bankroll at least nominally smooth talking candidates for public office. We live in a world where their worldview is parroted back by young people online. And because we live in a world where there are fascists who need you to vote for them, that means that we live in a world where fascists want to convince you not only that they’re relatable, but that their worldview is relatable.
The greatest trick the devil ever played is getting us to believe that we’re all devils too.
The greatest trick that human-hating misanthropes ever played was convincing us that we’re all as selfish and uncooperative as they believe us to be. They stole the term populist from the cooperativists even though there is nothing populist about how they see the world. Theirs is the old Lord of the Flies gambit- if you only tell people the worst possible story about ourselves, we’re likely to believe it. It is, of course, the core concept of patriarchy, of White supremacy, of heterosexism: Turn off the part of your soul that loves all of humanity and in return maybe, just maybe, you’ll be considered as one of the few who get to rule us all.
The stakes of the fascists getting away with Operation Normalcy are massive. And so, in turn, when the people-who-hate-people-but-who-have-to-get-elected-and-therefore-pretend-they’re-like-us fail, oh goodness, it’s a victory for all of us.
Have you met Blake Masters? You probably have, at least in the “oh yeah, that guy” sense. He’s running for Senate in Arizona, a state for which I have a good deal of affection and at least a small slice of guilt (the latter because a lion’s share of its most reactionary elements are due to transplanted White Midwesterners, which of course are my people). You may know Masters because he recently caught flack for scrubbing his website so that you wouldn’t know where he stood on abortion a week ago. You may also know him because he has a history of saying deeply retrograde things, holding deeply retrograde beliefs and both attracting and being attracted to deeply retrograde personalities.
In his twenties, Masters was a libertarian blogger with a penchant for virulent anti-semitism. He then went to Stanford and started following noted humanity-hating anti-democratic billionaire Peter Thiel. They wrote a book together about how people like them are smarter than the rest of us. Years back, he praised Joseph Goebbles. He still quotes (and accepts campaign donations) from Curtis Yarvin, an “absolute monarchist.” I am sure that the Masters’ campaign would object to me labeling him as a fascist, but back in 2006 I objected to being called a hipster despite having once made a mixtape consisting of six different versions of “Ceremony” by Joy Division. In both cases, the weirdo White guy doth protest too much.
That’s a joke, and there will be more to come, but Masters isn’t joking. He’s a dangerous guy.
Anyway, now Masters wants very badly to be a U.S. Senator, which means he needs to run a lot of advertisements. For a while, his bread and butter were ads where he said scary things about immigrants while standing in a field. More recently, though, he’s settled into a very particular milieu, which can only be described as “Oh, I didn’t see you there, I was too busy being a normal dad” ads.
Here’s a great example.
You don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to. The message is “I’m proud to be called a nationalist, because that just means I love this country!” Oh man… ugh (again, apropos of nothing, I used to proclaim that I wasn’t a hipster while literally wearing a tight-fitting ironic t-shirt that said “39 Forever!” on it). What’s important isn’t the message, it’s the fact that it’s delivered mid-Monopoly game, in the middle of a living room that is notably not-too-clean-but-not-too-messy. What’s even more important is that the ad doesn’t end after Blake’s federally-mandated “I approve this message” outro. After the camera pans out, we get to watch his family, who has been silent throughout Masters’ "me! a fascist?” monologue, suddenly spring into authentic domestic action. Masters kisses his son, who has been going to town on a piece of chocolate cake (note: there are three children in the ad, but only one child gets a piece of cake! That seems wrong! Is the cake-eating child the only one with enough entrepreneurial spirit and Protestant pluck to deserve dessert?). Whatever, I’ll give it a pass. He then turns his attention to the game, just in time for both adults in the room to throw out bizarre non sequiturs at each other.
Catherine (Blake’s wife): “Community chest! My favorite!”
Blake (super amped at the fact that his wife has land on a very common Monopoly space): “OOOOOH, NICE!”
Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m clouded by my effete leftist distaste for Silicon Valley fascism. Maybe it’s normal for grown adults to have favorite Monopoly squares. Maybe this is how couples talk to each other. Maybe the large square-shaped plate with what appears to be five individual green vegetables socially distanced from one another around a wildly unappetizing-looking dip are just as delicious as cake.
Let’s go to another ad.
Again, you don’t have to watch this one. The message is that inflation is bad, that Democrats are bad because they love inflation and that Blake Masters is good because he thinks that “we gotta stop this inflation.” Good. I agree, Blake. I’ll look into getting a wall erected.
It’s a snoozer of an A-plot, but it’s got a doozy of a B-plot, a classic Blake and Catherine two-hander. As Blake talks about how I won’t be able to retire, Catherine is engaged in the most inefficient display of meal prep I’ve ever seen on screen. She appears to be chopping something on a cutting board next to the sink, which she then delivers ONE PIECE AT A TIME to a frying pan on the other side of the kitchen (where, for the record, there are closer, more convenient countertops for cutting). It’s pretty maddening, though it does pique my interest. I want to know what delicate, likely gossamer-based food item Catherine is carrying across the kitchen in artisanal small batches.
Fortunately, Blake doesn’t leave me hanging. As soon as he finishes explaining that only he can save me from inflation, he embraces Catherine with all the intimacy of two under-ten soccer teams in a high five line and then yells out— in a comically deep, off-brand Muppet voice— a single word…
Ok, you should watch that part. It’s so funny. Or, at least I think so. Catherine apparently agrees with me, because she starts laughing and replies (clearly eating this moment up), “hahahaha you want some zucchini?”
Blake doesn’t answer the question. His work here is done. He’s provided his wife with a moment of joy so real and pure you’d think that she just landed on Community Chest. He gives Catherine two separate approving pats on the lower neck and upper back, turns and gives the camera a very clear “NAILED IT!” grin and then walks away before realizing that he’s trapped in his kitchen and doesn’t really have anywhere to go.
The ad fades to black before Masters can realize, in horror, that there’s no cake because they let their one beloved son eat it all so dinner is just gonna be a big pile of meticulously stir-fried ZUCCHINI.
You’re getting the picture now, so we can speed run through this final ad, which is the one that’s gotten the most attention (understandably so, because its message is “Hi, I’m Blake Masters and I would like to lie to your face about my beliefs about abortion”).
Catherine is absent from this one, which is a shame because she really shone in the other two. The boys are back, though, and they’re joined by the world’s weirdest couch fort (it’s neither cozy nor secretive; it’s just a big empty triangle void). Anyway, Blake and the young fellas are playing with both blocks and Star Wars toys. Or at least the older two are. The younger one is playing a game called “you’re allowed to climb on the table and do whatever you want, and you can even knock over a glass ‘accidentally,’ but only if you wait to do so until the exact moment your father finishes talking about partial-birth abortion.”
Jeez the Masters boys are great at wanting only a very specific level of attention from their father, and only at the exact moment he is done talking about his opponent’s radical beliefs that aren’t in line with average Arizonans like him. The only interjection (I swear to God this is true) is when one of them yells “GO CHINA!” at the mention of scary countries that love abortion. Guess which child isn’t getting any Solitary Cake tonight?
The MVP of the ad, though, is the kid who waits until Blake has finished to hand him a Star Wars ship, thus setting our protagonist up to dispassionately mutter “TIE fighter incoming” before immediately putting it down again (NARRATOR: “the TIE fighter was not, in fact, incoming.”). He then looks around a bit, trying to appear proud of his children but realizing that they’re not doing anything that he finds interesting (like inventing PayPal or translating the Turner Diaries into Hungarian).
It is not clear from watching these ads if this was the first time Blake Masters and these children met each other. I don’t know enough about science to know the term for an absolute absence of chemistry.
As far as I can tell, these represent most of Blake’s professionally-produced ads since winning the Republican primary. There’s obviously a strategy at play here: these are not cheapo, fly-by-night productions. The weird woodenness with which Masters interacts with his family and the clearly choreographed stabs at authenticity stand out not because these are amateurish productions, but because they’re so obviously going for something that they can’t quite pull off.
Let’s just say it. These ads pull out all the stops to show that an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Black and anti-democratic protege of Silicon Valley’s most misanthropic egoist is just like you: a slightly harried but loving father, a husband who shares goofy inside-jokes with his relatable wife, a goofball with a heart of gold.
And they fail. They don’t have the juice. Every time they try to make Blake Masters appear relatable, it comes off like a foreign phrase that has been put through a rickety online translation program one too many times. Blake Masters is an uncanny valley everyman because of course he is! He grew up admiring historical Nazis, then found our country’s modern day Henry Ford (meaning: our country’s richest neo-fascist democracy hater) and attached himself squarely to his hip.
He isn’t like you!
He isn’t like you because, even in a world of White supremacy and patriarchy and a million lies to the contrary, it is not actually normal to be a fascist.
Fascists aren’t just like us because I don’t believe (and I’m backed up by biology and neuroscience and anthropology and psychology here) that, for all our failings as a species, we are not actually that selfish. When fascists run for office they need to convince the population about their relatability so that we also believe that the smallest, most fearful parts of our psyche (which, of course, are present in all of us but especially those of us reared in systems of power and privilege) are all there is to our being. Tragically, of course, they often succeed in pulling off the lie. But not always. And not inevitably.
Every liberal and leftist in America has a theory about “what we did wrong that enabled the rise of Trump.” As with all theories, those are usually more revealing of our own biases and bugaboos than anything else. One thing I can’t get over, though, is how much our natural inclination was to jump towards mass incrimination of every Trump supporter (note: I shouldn’t be writing this in the past tense, as its a very present tense phenomenon). It’s not surprising that the message “you are bad for being attracted to this political personality who is desperate for your affection” has consistently been such a losing pitch. And, sure, perhaps the message “listen, you’re so much better than this guy; he may be speaking to you, but you’re not as selfish and weird as he is” would have failed just as much.
All I know is that—after watching far too many ads from an actual fascist who desperately wants White Arizonan parents to believe that he is one of them—it brings me intense joy to see how poorly he pulls off the con.
I have no presuppositions about how willing White America is to listen to its worst instincts, to protect its power at all costs, to take the huckster’s bait. More often than not, that’s what I write about here. But there’s a difference between knowing how low we’re able to go and believing we’re cursed to have that be our only destination. We may not have yet proven that we’re collectively better than the fascists. Goodness knows there’s plenty of evidence of us falling for the trap. But every time the fascists open their mouth, what becomes clearer and clearer is that there is nothing normal about them or their worldview.
And there’s the hope. That which isn’t normal isn’t inevitable. The fascists are bad. They’re also really goofy. The two are related. Their goofiness stems from their unnaturalness. They aren’t like us. Or, better put, it is our immense duty to remember that we aren’t actually like them.
This week’s song: I mean, you should listen to at least six versions of “Ceremony” by Joy Division/New Order but let’s go with “Found Out About You” by Gin Blossoms. Since the Gin Blossoms were famously from Tempe, Arizona, I assume this song is about finding out that your Senate candidate is both a fascist and a weirdo. Whispers at the bus stop, indeed.
This week’s subscriber-only discussion: Last week, we had our most active discussion of all time (which was great!) but there’s something about the slow burn of this week’s that has been a treat. We’re sharing beautiful, gorgeous (maybe inspiring, maybe heartbreaking, maybe funny) sentences with each other. Prose, poetry, songs, nonfiction, fiction, spoken word, whatever. Every single one has hit me in the gut in the best way.
As always, while I appreciate new paid subscribers very much, if you want to join our community and are (a). a previous Barnraisers donor, (b). a Barnraisers participant or alum or ©. just somebody who isn’t in a position to pay right now, no explanation needed… just send me an email (email@example.com) and I’ll add you.