The poet Thom Gunn said that those who are totalitarian routinely mistake human beings for “gods or vermin”. The great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century seem to have passed away. They had their own foundational texts, plenty of rituals and well-defined belief structures. Like all great movements, at various points, the three components get mixed up and one achieves prominence over the others. Beliefs obscure ritual, or rituals obscure belief, or texts become more prominent again. In broad terms, this is the story of Marx and Marxism and the story of Hitler and Nazism.
What remains of fascism in particular is reviled, and unpopular. In this country, the ideas of Nick Griffin, the EDL and Britain First attract little to no influence, democratic representation and media influence. In fact, those who identify with these groups expect to and receive exclusion from civilised society for their beliefs. It is no coincidence that explicit neo-Nazis often choose to adorn their bodies with bright and obvious tattoos declaring support for such and such a strain of the far-right, or invoking the imagery of the thirties. In short, the ideas that underpin explicitly extremist movements may be simplistic and yet are often accompanied by complex and demanding rituals.
Two American success stories of the noughties and the followers they generated tell very different stories. But, they too produced movements which were inclined to mistake other human beings for “gods or vermin”. Cycling has always been popular in Europe. As a professional sport, until the nineties, it had a highly dedicated support base, but never extensive, global appeal. In the nineties, the races got faster, more American riders toured in Europe and more commercial opportunities became available. Even American races now commanded big money prizes such as the million dollar bonus awarded for victory in the Corestates race in Philadelphia. It was Lance Armstrong, a young and talented cyclist who won that race in 1993.
The story of his dramatic rise and fall is now legend. In two respects, Armstrong became much bigger than the sport. His performances meant that cycling gained supporters beyond its traditional support bases. In the long run, the sport paid a far heavier price.
Those who opposed him or wished to uncover his doping were ridiculed and shunned by Lance and also by powerful figures in the cycling world. Emma O’Reilly, the masseuse for the US Postal Service team, was labelled an “alcoholic whore” after she testified against him. Journalists who questioned his record were treated with contempt. Paul Kimmage who has dedicated his life to the exposure of drug abuse in cycling, was told in a press conference: “You are not worth the chair that you’re sitting on”.
Armstrong became more than a cyclist. His followers shared some common beliefs, and obeyed certain rituals. In his acceptance speech after winning the tour for the last time, his eloquence soared: “Finally, the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles”. Lance was God. And his followers believed him. It was easy to be a Lance supporter. Wear a yellow rubber wristband, hate cancer and live strong.
In these respects, Armstrong foreshadowed several developments in the world of politics. Donald Trump has learnt the lessons of the cyclist’s success. His public statements deny complexity: His enemies are “losers”; his supporters “beautiful”. Women who cross him are seen as “pigs”, and “dogs”. It is not hard to be a Trump supporter. Read the sacred texts, namely the “The Art of the Deal”, and believe in the Donald.
Emptied of the commitments that support for political movements used to mean, the support of a new political label has become a flimsy expression of personal choice, no less authoritarian than the mass movements of the twentieth century. The shifting landscape of popularity spikes that now passes for modern politics is suited for such figures. It is interesting that the personality politics of the Trump movement has aroused so much outrage. Perhaps, this choice is not one of policy opposition, or a belief in a well-defined programme for change, but more worrying and insidious. It is another sign of the personality politics of self-loathing, for it is figures of his ilk which have long been feted in public life.