The November election of Donald Trump will undoubtedly prove to be one of the more significant events in recent American memory. We Americans are now standing in a unique place in history: we are living under a regime that inarguably has fascist characteristics and now must decide how best to face that threat. It is absolutely critical that in the very near future we develop strategies for coping with the damage the Trump administration has already done, mitigating the future damage he has planned to cause, and ensuring that something like this cannot happen in America again for a very long time. Looking films that deal with the rise of fascism and responses to it can provide us with interesting and topical information on how best to understand and respond to the fascism presented to us in the present day.
A Face in the Crowd (1957 dir. Elia Kazan) offers a sobering and realistic take on the potential rise of a fascist or proto-fascist leader. Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes is a fiery blues and country artist who, upon being discovered in prison by a small radio program uses his considerable rhetorical and musical talent to grow his influence and power to extreme heights. The film portrays Rhodes slide into Fascism in a brutal and unflinching way. Easily the most relevant and disturbing aspect of his transition is how silently every other character in the film takes it. Anthony Franciosa’s Joey DePalma best voices this frustrating inaction in a short piece of dialogue towards the end of the film: “all those months he was calling me ‘Vanderbilt ‘44’ and ‘Frontal Lobe’, I should’ve been punching him in the nose”. But DePalma does not punch Lonesome and so he is free to continue spewing his vitriol on the public airwaves.
DePalma plans to reveal the truth about Rhodes in a book he is writing, but even this proves insufficient. It is Lonesome’s poor manipulated manager/girlfriend Marcia Jeffries who takes him down by directly interfering with his show, exposing him to the masses for what he really is. Even then Marcia’s responses to Rhodes earlier in the film are so detestable that her final action is not nearly enough to absolve her. When she is trying to rationalize her tacit acceptance of fascism to DePalma she finally remarks: “and well, there’s an awful lot of money at stake”. Jeffries and DePalma allow Rhodes to continue on his trajectory because it is profitable to them. At the end of the day, Marcia’s desire to stay with Rhodes in order to help reign in his wilder impulses only enables Rhodes to grow to further and further heights. The film condemns both Rhodes and the milquetoast response to his growing influence. Collaborating with fascists, even in an attempt to control them, is hardly a worthwhile pursuit. Think of how easily the democratic party and the #nevertrump republicans folded and either demanded that the public give Trump a chance or ended up voting to appoint his disastrous cabinet choices. This is a perfect example of precisely what the film warns against: you cannot expect to reform fascism from the inside, and that anyone who collaborates with a totalitarian government is ultimately doing it out of their own self-interest and cannot be trusted to lead any sort of effective political resistance to fascism. Going with the flow, or attempting to keep out of trouble tacitly supports the status quo; when the status quo is dangerously nationalistic, xenophobic, oppressive, and violent then supporting it is one of the most dangerous things anyone could do.
Casablanca (1942 dir. Michael Curtiz) provides a much more concrete example of acceptable responses to fascist or totalitarian regimes. The antagonists in the film are literal Nazis, so there are absolutely no disguised or muddied definitions here: they are explicitly fascist. Like A Face in the Crowd, most of the people appear to tacitly accept the existence of fascism. Humphrey Bogart’s Rick spends most of the film trying to keep his head low. He profits directly from the terror the Nazi’s inflict on the refugees there by selling them exit visas despite his history as a committed anti-fascist. Captain Renault is far, far worse, using his position of influence and power to extort money and sex from helpless refugees while not hesitating to sell any of them out to the Germans.
However, there is a much stronger undercurrent of rebellion in Casablanca than in either of the other films. Rick’s jaded cynicism is eliminated by his connections with other human beings, most notable Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund and Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo. Laszlo, an escapee from a German concentration camp, is open about his desire to escape occupied Europe so he can more effectively lead resistance against the Nazis; he continually acts in the best interests of the oppressed even when it endangers his life. It is Laszlo’s revolutionary conviction and Ilsa’s profound love for others that convince Rick to take the fight to the fascists. Rather than be cowed or act in his own self-interest Rick risks his life to ensure that the resistance leader can escape and in a striking act of moral fortitude he does not hesitate to shoot the Nazi Major Strasser when he attempts to interfere.
While Rick does delay in deciding to help fight, it is only for a few days and not for a few years like in A Face in the Crowd. Bogart identifies the fascist menace and takes the necessary steps to ensure that it is weakened. In the face of a more and more tyrannical state Casablanca reminds viewers of the power of human connection and interaction. In essence, Casablanca proves the necessity of strong personal action in the face of fascism while remembering that these actions are more effective if they are organized and directed. By betraying the fascists, Rick immediately joins a huge community of others who oppose fascism. Even the crooked Renault is somewhat absolved by Bogart’s cleansing violence. He orders his men to carry Strasser’s body away without reporting Rick, putting his responsibility to fight fascism above his own desire for personal greed.
In order to effectively combat Trump’s fascism, we will need to place our own moral responsibility over many of our other desires. As Casablanca and A Face in the Crowd suggest, if you are not actively making trouble for the fascist state you are implicitly supporting it. There is no longer an option to stay uninvolved, you either openly oppose fascism and are willing to organize against it or you tacitly support fascism by supporting the fascist status quo. Trump’s America is both cruel in its message like Lonesome Rhodes’ television shows, and oppressive in its action like the Vichy regime in Casablanca. Effective resistance can only be achieved through concrete organization with other people and a willingness to engage fascism not just within the system but outside of it too. It is not enough to, like Marcia Jeffries or Joey DePalma, let fascist action slide in order to avoid making waves or losing money. Trump is a bully; he is obviously smart enough to manipulate an enormous part of the country to support him and his message is increasingly violent and dangerous. In order to oppose him it is imperative that we act more like the active and organized heroes of Casablanca and take the fight directly to fascism every day and in every way we can.