An underexplored question in the wake of the NPI “Hail Trump” controversy: what is the purpose of a salute? What effect is it supposed to have?
There is a whole set of discussions you can have about the pros and cons of throwing up a Roman salute that remains entirely within a sophisticated, ironic frame where the only relevant considerations are the intentions of the saluters, and the assumptions of the observers about the intentions of the saluters, and the predictions of the saluters about the observers’ assumptions about their intentions. In this (sophisticated) discussion we would talk about counter-signals and purity spirals, controlled oppositions and cuckoldry, the Overton Window and the role of Roman symbolism in Western history.
That would be an interesting discussion to join! I don’t want to belittle the people who are participating in it, and it’s only with difficulty than I’m holding back from giving my hot takes. But I’ll refrain to focus on the question no one seems to be asking, even though it would seem to be the most basic question of all: Why did the fascists originally adopt the Roman salute, and how did they use it? What was its meaning and function for them? It seems unlikely that the fascists chose rituals and symbolism based on their historical association with fascism.
Look at the image in the first paragraph. Look at it closely. What do you see? Spend at least a minute thinking about it.
If you showed someone that photo out of context they might see two gunners playing a game of “Teacher, teacher, pick me” or maybe two nerds getting ready for the Q&A portion of a public speech. They would never tell you that they see group cohesion directed by an iron will, or political solidarity forged within a long and painful struggle. They would never guess (unless they had seen the photo already!) that these are “fascists” putting on a public demonstration of their numbers and unity.
Everyone understands that if you throw a party and only one or two people respond to the invitation, you’re a loser. They equally understand that if you throw a party, a fair number of people come, but when you turn on the music only one or two people start dancing, it’s a lame party. If you call for a rally and only a few dozen people show up, you’re a loser. (Think: Hillary Clinton.) If you have a few hundred people at your rally and when you try to start a chant or a cheer only a few dozen respond, you’re a loser. (Think: “Please clap.”)
Let me state this in a general form: Any occasion for coordinated group action calls the power of the group into question; if the group overwhelmingly responds, the response demonstrates the power of the group and thus increases it, but if the group gives a ragged, paltry response, this is a sign of weakness which weakens it further. In light of this, it isn’t hard to understand the pageantry of mass political rituals. Giving a Roman salute is powerful only because a crowd of five hundred people giving a Roman salute at a predetermined signal demonstrates five hundred people acting as though they were animated by a single will, guided by a single purpose, driven by a single iron-hard spirit. The fact that the salute is a Roman salute, or some other kind of salute, or something else entirely (clapping, or yelling, or raising a fist, or…) is mostly irrelevant. The ability to demonstrate the unity and discipline of the group through a collective gesture is fundamental. The exact gesture and the signal which triggers it are not afterthoughts, exactly, but they are of derivative importance.
Coordinated group action is a sign of power (and uncoordinated action is a sign of weakness) for groups of every political tendency, and indeed for entirely non-political groups as well. However, the insight that power flows from unity and public commitments to unity is supposed to be a special preoccupation of fascism. The fasces themselves are symbols of the strength of unified groups. One stick will snap as easily as a twig, but a bundle of sticks tied together will stay strong.
What you saw at NPI was not nascent fascism, it was degenerate twiggism. In all of the back-and-forth about who should or shouldn’t use fascist symbolism, and what symbolism counts as fascist, and defending versus disavowing versus ignoring versus reframing, it appears no one taking part in the discussion had the sincere affinity for fascism to call a nog a nog. The problem with the Roman salutes at the end of Spencer’s NPI speech wasn’t that they “went too far” or that they associate the alt-right with fascism, it’s that they were the very opposite of fascism. They were uncoordinated and awkward. They were spontaneous, yet half-hearted. Someone with a serious commitment to fascism should understand this better than anyone else! People discussing the “Hail Trump” moment at NPI seem to assume that either the jokers who thought they should salute like a ragtag band of misfits were the most dedicated fascists in the room, or they were plants acting like the most dedicated fascists in the room. But in reality they are lukewarm fascists, awkward geeks who probably can’t lead a girl across a dance floor any better than they can lead a crowd in a salute. An actual fascist is the most eager to join a room in a joint salute, and the least likely to start a failed salute that makes the group look pathetic and weak. (And if Spencer – who seems to have been intending something more like a toast to Trump when he raised his water bottle – were a fascist, he would have had those five guys thrashed for ruining the theatricality of his big moment. But he isn’t so he didn’t.)
This isn’t to say that things are hopeless. Everyone has seen Triumph of the Will. Few have seen Victory of Faith, but it’s actually a more instructive film for TCY. Triumph of the Will shows the NSDAP confident, poised, and disciplined, at the peak of the party’s power and prestige. Victory of Faith shows… something different. Watch clips from it if you have the time and the inclination. Even if you have zero interest in right-wing politics, the slapstick is great. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and the political equivalent of bootcamp begins with a thousand chuckleheads who can’t figure out how to march in a straight line.