Call me a fascist: from Melania Trump to Ayelet Shaked

by Abigail Akavia

A parade of the Giovani Italiene, a fascist organization for young women. Italy, ca. 1935. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Israel’s minister of justice stars in an ad for the perfume Fascism—if you follow Israeli politics even superficially, you probably have heard about this election campaign video for the New Right party, which sparked controversy in Israeli as well as international media. If you’ve actually watched it, you may have realized it is (or purports to be) ironic, though you would need the subtitled version to make the irony clear. To a non-Hebrew speaker watching the non-subtitled version, Ayelet Shaked seems to seductively model the perfume Fascism. Shot in black-and-white, she has the affectations of a sultry film star, complete with hair flip, donning of blazer (at least, thankfully, she is not filmed taking the blazer off), and caressing of a stair railing. A sexy female voice-over croons Shaked’s proposed measures for the restraining of judicial powers, a “judicial revolution” which has been her main goal as justice minister, and which she hopes to further in the next administration, to be assembled following the upcoming elections for parliament tomorrow (April 9th). Shaked has been vocal and active against what right-wingers have long considered the ultra-liberal tendencies of Israel’s Supreme Court—namely, its concern for the liberties and human rights of Palestinians.

For example, the ministry under her lead has transferred the jurisdiction of the occupied territories from the Supreme Court to the Jerusalem court of administrative affairs, especially in matters pertaining to building and construction, and entry and exit. She has also pushed for a law that would allow the parliament to override the Supreme Court’s authority to disqualify any law contradicting The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which enjoys super-legal status (Israel does not have a constitution, but a set of Basic or Constitutional Laws that can only be changed by a supermajority in parliament). That the Supreme Court should uphold the Human Dignity and Liberty of individuals and groups that are not part of the hegemonic majority (i.e. non-Jewish) is anathema to Shaked and her far-right party members. In an Israel which is clearly more right-leaning than ever, the sentiment that Palestinians in the occupied territories (in itself a term that is falling out of the norm and into the purview of the “delusional left”) are undeserving of basic human rights or simple human dignity, is becoming alarmingly common.

But back to the perfume ad: is Shaked simply saying, “I am a proud fascist”? The controversy, no doubt deliberate, revolved partly around this issue: that the subtle irony of the video, not to mention its actual punch-line, might be lost on anyone who mistakenly takes the ad at face value. I’ll suggest below how we might unpack this irony, both in its local context and by comparing it to Melania Trump’s infamous “I really don’t care” jacket, another instance of a plausible fascist performance with multi-layered significance.

The more straightforward punchline, delivered in Hebrew by Shaked as she looks straight at the camera, is “smells like democracy to me.” Her measures to limit the judicial powers of the Supreme Court are touted as necessary to ensure Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character. (The court is still widely perceived to be a bunch of unelected lefties, even though several conservative judges have been appointed in recent years.) The growing tendency in Israeli political life to interpret “democratic” as “for Jews only” is, precisely, proto-fascist. Thus, commentators have written that, under the thin veil of a tongue-in-cheek prank, Shaked is in fact unabashedly campaigning for fascism. Even as she is claiming to “smell” something else—as if trampling on human rights is a matter of aesthetic perception—Shaked advances a clearly fascist agenda. As a mobilizing message to Shaked’s electorate, however, the ad is meant to mock the Israeli left for their opposition to her measures. In Israeli idiom, “fascist” is the go-to outcry of lefties against nationalistic extremism, almost a knee jerk reaction to right-winger’s contempt for minorities and aspirations to promote a Jewish nation-state. The term marks its user as a universalist liberal, one who would have Israel be “democratic” first and “Jewish” second rather than the other way around. The colloquial counter-pejorative is, simply, “leftist” (smolani), which has evolved into a veritable derogatory term in contemporary Israeli discourse (with or without the add-on “traitor”). Indeed, Shaked promoted the video on Twitter with the tag “the perfume that leftists won’t like.” Shaked’s ad taunts her opponents with their own term of abuse, essentially saying, “you can call me whatever you want, but I’ll keep doing my thing.”

In 2013, historian and cultural critic Ofri Ilani could still write that fascism hasn’t truly come to Israeli society. This was his conclusion precisely because of the ubiquity of the anti-fascist rhetoric among the upper middle class. This rhetoric was, at the time, a partly effective strategy that allowed the upper middle class the luxury of feeling politically active while defending their cushioned liberal life-style. Six years later, when Benjamin Netanyahu aka King Bibi might plausibly win a fifth term as prime minister even as he is faced with charges of bribery and fraud, and when far-right ideology is more entrenched in the government than ever—for example, Shaked and her partner at the helm of the New Right, Naftali Bennett, are openly anti-gay, and are advancing not only a judiciary revolution but also public education that conforms with nationalist ideals and orthodox Judaism—the danger of fascist bigotry and jingoism taking over national politics seems much more imminent. Another big difference between Ilani’s 2013 perspective and where we are today is, of course, the difference in world politics. Israel would not become truly fascist as long as Barack Obama was leader of the free world, wrote Ilani.

In the age of Trump, the image of Shaked looking liberals in the eye and daring them to call her fascist is a more concrete threat. That the packaging is blatantly sexy and “democratic” makes it all the more terrifying. Indeed, that a totalitarian regime can be advanced by democratic means is part of the dangerous appeal of such populist means. As Slavoj Žižek wrote in 2016, under the conditions of global capitalism, the democratic nation-state cannot stand up for itself without “opening itself up to rightist populism.” Shaked’s proposed judiciary revolution, along with her vehement stance against asylum seekers, reminds one of nationalistic tendencies in European countries such as Poland and Hungary, whose democratic regimes are quickly dissolving into autocracy, and with whose leaders Netanyahu is happy to tighten relations, along with his closeness to Trump and Putin.

Within an international frame, the irony of Shaked’s ad is (probably unintentionally) complex, for it at once signals a relationship between the Israeli far-right and global trends, and situates the Israeli version as separate from the global context. Fascism, in theory, is not indigenous to Israeli culture, for it is marked as a European phenomenon, antisemitic in the traditional sense, and so antithetical to Israeli-ness. Claims of fascism can easily be dismissed by the Israeli public as culturally irrelevant; signs of proto-fascism don’t press the collective panic button with the same urgency that one might expect. It is this that international audiences find so horrifying and mind-boggling about contemporary Israeli politics, along the lines of: how can Israelis be so blatantly abusive of minority rights after what the Jews have suffered in Europe. Indeed, for the most part, Israelis still view themselves as victims, and almost revel in their own sense of localism. Such victimhood and tribalism have been cultivated by Israeli leadership in the last 25 years. Thus, those for whom “fascism” is a problem are marked as “not-us”, champions of a universalist-humanistic worldview that is not “of here.”

On the other hand, the Trump regime and our current era of fake news is the unavoidable global context in which Shaked’s gesture should be understood, both in how it manipulates appearances for political gain (I’m not a fascist! Yes, I am!… hmmm, what does it smell like to you?) and in its reflection of the right’s willingness—eagerness, almost—to withstand what the Left sees as its most vilifying slams. These are two sides of the same phenomenon, which the Trump administration so clearly models in its mastery of spinning critical media coverage. Shaked’s video was quickly compared to Saturday Night Live’s 2017 parodic perfume ad starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump, “Complicit: the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t.” But I was reminded of a different episode in which Trump and his family drove the media crazy with “mixed” messages of fascism bound up in a pretty, fashionable package. In June 2018, at the peak of the humanitarian crisis at the US southern border (a crisis which is ongoing, we should not forget), Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit migrant children in a detention center in Texas. She was wearing a Zara military-green jacket with the phrase “I really don’t care, do U?” printed, graffiti-style, on its back. The astounding fashion moment caused an uproar and a media frenzy, with some commentators attempting to excuse the First Lady for an unfortunate but unintentional choice of garment, and others pointing to the absurdity of the idea that a former model and professional luxury-clothes wearer such as Mrs. Trump would inadvertently wear a $39 jacket in public, and one that happens to have an appallingly inappropriate phrase written on it at that. Months later, Mrs. Trump said in an interview that she “obviously” didn’t wear the jacket to meet the detained children, but only to go on and off the plane, precisely in order to enrage the media. “It was … for the left-wing media who are criticizing me,” she said. “And I want to show them that I don’t care. You could criticize. Whatever you wanna say, you can say.” Indeed, at the time of the incident similar claims had already been made, for example by celebrity-fashion analysts and bloggers Tom & Lorenzo, to the effect that Mrs. Trump’s actions were a deliberate trolling, a successful attempt to divert the conversation away from her husband’s actual policy. The influential bloggers further suggested that this move was in accordance with the administration’s strategy of throwing women (Melania, Ivanka, Sarah Huckabee Sanders) into the line of fire by saying or doing something outrageous (e.g. Ivanka’s posting of images with her children while families were being ripped apart at the border).

So, there are two, not mutually exclusive, critical claims here: one, that “there is no hidden message” because Mrs. Trump was wearing her heart on her sleeve—that she in fact meant to say, I don’t give a hoot about asylum seekers being caged and toddlers being snatched away from their parents. Second, that she was doing her job as the administration’s professional pretty face, and that the words on her jacket were only meaningful for their shock value. These words bait the media to talk about what she’s wearing, only to then allow Republicans to theatrically roll their eyes and decry the superficial concerns of the fake-news media. Both claims give Mrs. Trump a measure of agency, rather than assuming she is an illiterate puppet (how else can one say that she wore this particular jacket in this particular occasion by mistake?). It is interesting to see how, especially if we accept the second claim, the representational role of First Lady evolves under such a system of theatrical government from its traditional confines into an insidious force for harm. Mrs. Trump’s role, inasmuch as it is focused on superficiality and (misleading) appearances, is perhaps just as limiting and limited as the traditional one, even though no fashion choice imaginable could signal a clearer break from First Lady representability.

What has been less frequently discussed in the coverage of Mrs. Trump’s I really don’t care appearance is that the phrase can be considered a fascist motto. It is an English version of the Italian me ne frego (tonally closer to “I don’t give a damn”)  which became a fascist call for arms since the end of WW1. Italian writer and translator Giovanni Tiso describes the history of the use of the phrase, from the time it was chanted by Italian special forces to signify that they didn’t care if they should lose their lives in battle, through Mussolini’s elevation of the slogan to “the philosophy of his regime”, signifying an acceptance of violence and, later, a detached moral autocracy. The phrase has survived as a marker of ideological nostalgia, and can be found nowadays on t-shirts and other neofascist merchandise. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor of education and sociology based in Washington, conducts research about far-right youth culture. She has recently written about the way that high-end fashion items are used to mobilize the far right. The image of the far-righter as a skinhead in combat boots is changing; the extremist today is trendy, wearing expensive clothing embedded with far-right symbols. These coded messages, including e.g. Viking symbols, and English texts and phrases like Hate Club or White Fist, create and signal the fact of belonging to a specific, often underground, political community. Some of these coded messages, according to Miller-Idriss, deliberately sit in a gray zone of literal significance, offering plausible deniability to law enforcement, parents and other authorities. For example, “a purple T-shirt that says, in big white block letters, my favorite color is white, could be read as a white supremacist message or as a humorous play on the color of the shirt.” The I really don’t care jacket arguably falls into this gray zone category. To one less familiar with fascist history and/or who doesn’t know the Italian phrase, it may sound simply like a statement of cheeky (if juvenile) indifference. To those in the know it resonates with and further amplifies the sense of nationalistic mobilization and valorization of violence. Even if Melania Trump herself, who speaks Italian, was not aware of this historical context, it is improbable to think that no-one around her, in an administration notorious for its far-right sympathizers, recognized the phrase and its references. And if they have, they must have found the occasion of her visit to detained immigrant children suitable for sending a fascist-themed message to Trump’s far-right support base.

A final note of comparison between the two cases of political propaganda I discuss here. Since I did hint at the chauvinistic norm that invites scrutiny of Mrs. Trump’s clothing—on which Trump’s administration was capitalizing, of course—I will allow myself a brief comment on the question of the sexism of Shaked’s ad. Of course the perfume ad as a genre is inherently sexist, and Shaked allows herself to be objectified in her campaign video, even if it ultimately amounts to a joke. For it is undeniable that part of the delectability of this joke comes from the genre in which it is told and the prettiness of the face that tells it. Both Melania Trump and Ayelet Shaked use their looks to say “call me a fascist, I really don’t care.”