The Supreme Male Head Unmasked

Fascism is unique among political systems in that it treats society as a diseased body that needs to be purified. Certainly, the political left thinks that society is in need of reform, often to the point of advocating revolution, but the distinguishing feature of fascism, especially of the Nazi variety, is its organic imagery—the idea that the body politic is not just flawed but diseased. Where the left proposes political and economic solutions to social problems, Nazis propose a cure of the diseased body politic. Unlike a disease of the physical body, which can be treated with biomedical procedures, fascism’s remedy is the removal of foreign bodies and the collective spilling of blood. Sociologist Klaus Theleweit has explored this body imagery in narratives produced by members of the Freikorps (paramilitaries who inspired the Nazis), while a key premise of Nazi ideology was the organic metaphor of Blud und Boden (Blood and Soil), both of which needed to be purified before Germany could become great again.

In Nazi ideology, blood shed in warfare by a male brotherhood is a life-giving substance that confirms the virility of the perpetrators and restores the vitality of the body politic. In the same way, certain populations of people are construed as carriers of inferior Blud, whereas the blood of warriors runs in the veins of the master race. Those people categorized as inferior become Untermenschen (subhumans) who need to be removed from the national Boden in order to ensure a healthy body politic. Although ethnocentrism and genocide are as old as history, the Nazi’s organic metaphor of the diseased body politic imparts to xenophobia a unique biomedical agenda. In Naziism, the ancient symbolic processes of purity and pollution become scientized, such that Blud is equated with the genes of genetics, while ritual purification becomes the responsibility of biomedical professionals employing ostensibly scientific techniques. Fascists seek to purify the body politic through eugenics by eliminating “inferior” genes from the population.

Nazi ideology appeals more to the heart than to the mind, but many educated people in the United States have been inculcated with a scientific materialism that dismisses symbolic thinking as a relic of the past. For this reason, they cannot take seriously any ideological movement judged by scientific standards to be irrational—which means they cannot recognize fascism when they see it. Many of the Republican policies that appear irrational and unscientific to liberal critics are perfectly logical when viewed through the lens of Nazi ideology. For example, Trump has been roundly criticized for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing it to spread among the population due to his unwillingness to enforce masking, quarantines, and social distancing. However, in Naziism, a healthy society requires the elimination of people judged to be weak, so public health measures in a pandemic should be kept to a minimum. In fascism, weak people are equated with those Trump calls losers, while rich people are not only strong but the bearers of superior genes. From Trump’s point of view, poor Blacks and Hispanics are Untermenschen and by definition losers, which explains their higher death rate from Covid-19. Trump’s followers, however, are by definition Darwinners who can attend crowded political rallies without the need of face masks.

Similarly, when Trump shamelessly touts his own presumed genetic superiority, he is confirming his followers’ own sense of white entitlement. As he told a meeting of business executives: “You’ve all got such good bloodlines in this room. You’ve all got such amazing DNA.” Often Trump’s more virulent racism gets deflected because his words are ridiculed in the media as counterfactual statements instead of being interpreted as symbolic expressions of Nazi ideology. For example, when Trump ruminated that the virus could be cured by injecting people with bleach, he was expressing the premise that the body politic needs to be purified by a whitening agent.

The fascist resistance to pathogens is ensured by the hard male body that is impervious to hazards. Where the female body is conceptualized as a leaky vessel, polluting when not controlled by male authority, a “real” man is by definition armored, as exemplified by the contemporary SWAT team. Thus, any attempt to legislate control of guns, such as Democrats advocate, is seen as an assault on the male body itself. Body-image symbolism also explains Trump’s seemingly irrational insistence on a multibillion-dollar border wall to prevent incursion by would-be restaurant workers and housekeepers. Since the body politic of fascism is a projection of the male carapace, its boundaries should be marked by hard walls impervious to foreign bodies.

Democracy, in contrast, has permeable boundaries, so fascists see it as the enemy. Democracy encourages the incorporation of foreign bodies into the bloodstream and gives voice to the Untermenschen. The precursor to the Nazi regime, the Weimar Republic, which progressives still regard as a hopeful experiment in democracy, was judged by the Nazis to be a diseased organ that needed to be surgically excised. When an arsonist burned down the Reichstag, Hitler blamed it on the Communists and used it as a pretext to seize power. Trump supporters, like Reagan before them, declare government to be the problem, not the solution; and they storm into state legislatures with the bluster of Brown Shirts. Fascists equate power with domination, so political compromise and accommodation show one to be a weakling. From this point of view, the repudiation of treaties that constrain American power is seen as a patriotic act. Government, far from being responsive to citizens and constrained by law, is a manifestation of the will of the Führer. For this reason, any criticism is seen as betrayal.

All human beings think symbolically and all systems of power have ideologies, but fascism’s political niche is dispensing blame while promising to restore order. It flourishes in ominous, uncertain times. The election of 2020 is being held amid a perfect storm of historical fear-inspiring events, even as millions of the electorate are attuned to symbolic language that fosters hatred and dissension while justifying the redemptive shedding of blood. All of this is energized by the speed and anonymity of the internet. This conjunction of the physical and the symbolic provides a unique opportunity for unscrupulous people to consolidate a fascist regime from the wreckage of our own Weimar Republic. When the national id collides with an anemic democracy of platitudes and plutocrats, our next election—whoever wins—could be our last election. Only a more compelling dream can dispel a collective nightmare.

Peter C. Reynolds has a doctorate in anthropology from Yale University. His latest book, Life Without Darwin: Evolution, Religion, and Postcapitalism, is available from Peter can be reached by email at: