|Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona, 19 March 2016|
I want to start by reading a couple of quotes. This first one is by Teju Cole and it’s from Facebook this past December:
“Trump is a dangerous clown, and we must continue to strongly oppose him and his hateful crowds. But it is important to understand that his idea of ‘banning all Muslims,’ scandalous as it is…, is far less scandalous than the past dozen years of American disregard for non-American Muslim lives…. Trump didn’t murder thousands of innocent people with drones in Pakistan and Yemen. Trump didn’t kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people with bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump didn’t torture people at Baghram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or the numerous black sites across the planet. Trump’s weapons aren’t incinerating Yemen now, and didn’t blow up Gaza last year. No American president in the past fourteen years has openly championed Islamophobia, but none has refrained from doing to Muslims overseas what would be unthinkable to do here to Americans of any religion.”The other quote I want to read is by Mark Rupert. This is also from Facebook, just last month:
“The US now has a massive, institutionalized, globally active surveillance and assassination apparatus…. The President routinely authorizes extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists along with anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. Within the ‘homeland’ we are monitored as never before by the national security state. Our police forces are militarized so that even small towns have armored vehicles and swat teams. People of color are routinely killed by police with apparent impunity. Muslim religious communities have been singled out for surveillance and infiltration by law enforcement agencies at all levels. The immigration enforcement apparatus has been massively expanded, and immigration agents act effectively without constitutional restraints within a zone extending 100 miles from all US borders.
“Now imagine all of that in the hands of a racist, authoritarian narcissist with millions of militant followers who love him precisely for those characteristics and the ‘bold and strong’ actions that reflect them, and who are prepared to scapegoat racial and religious others for seemingly intractable social problems that will not be getting better anytime soon in the absence of radical social change.
“Now add in the real possibility of another major terrorist attack. Or two. Or three. Or urban unrest sparked by concentrated poverty and hyper-policing of these ‘zones of disposability’.
“What kind of America are you imagining right now?”
On the other hand, it’s a mistake to say that it doesn’t matter whether Trump becomes president or not. Because bad as things are now, Trump has the potential to make them qualitatively worse.
Donald Trump has taken naked bigotry and hate mongering to levels way beyond any major presidential candidate in decades. He has called for massive use of state power against immigrants and against Muslim Americans. He has advocated the use of torture. He has called for stifling freedom of the press. He has encouraged his supporters to use physical violence against opponents. And he has presented himself as a political savior who alone has the strength and the will and the vision to lead America back to greatness.
So it’s not surprising that many people have called Donald Trump a fascist. It is surprising that this charge hasn’t just come from leftists and liberals — it’s also come from conservatives, libertarians, and even prominent members of his own Republican party. If people across the political spectrum are calling Trump a fascist, maybe that’s all the more reason to say the shoe fits. One the other hand, if Trump is being called a fascist by mainstream politicians who support a vast national security state, murderous military policies, and big subsidies for wealthy capitalists, are these politicians speaking out of concern for democracy or to make themselves look more legitimate by comparison?
The question of “what is fascism?” is a complex, emotionally loaded topic that we could talk about for hours. Even among leftists, there’s no consensus about how to even go about defining fascism. Is it based on certain ideological characteristics, or a particular relationship of class forces? Is it a political process? Is it stage of capitalism? So let’s talk about fascism, but let’s not get too fixated on the word. Because what’s more important is how we analyze the situation, and what we decide to do about it.
As a political category, fascism isn’t an objective thing — it’s a tool for analysis, a tool for making connections and distinctions between different political movements or regimes. Definitions of fascism aren’t objectively true, they’re just more or less useful in helping us understand political developments, and helping us choose a course of action. Some people say, the only time we should call a movement fascist is if it looks almost exactly like the movements that Hitler and Mussolini led in the 1930s. That’s not very useful, because far right politics has changed a lot since 1945, or even since 1975. Some other people say, any example of right-wing authoritarianism, especially one that’s racist or militaristic, is either fascist or something close to it. That’s not very useful either, because it lumps together widely different kinds of politics under one label. I wrote about this in 2007 in an article titled, “Is the Bush administration fascist?”:
“militaristic repression -- even full-scale dictatorship -- doesn't necessarily equal fascism, and the distinction matters. Some forms of right-wing authoritarianism grow out of established political institutions while others reject those institutions; some are creatures of big business while others are independent of, or even hostile to, big business. Some just suppress liberatory movements while others use twisted versions of radical politics in a bid to ‘take the game away from the left.’ These are different kinds of threats. If we want to develop effective strategies for fighting them, we need a political vocabulary that recognizes their differences.”In my political vocabulary, authoritarian conservatism wants to defend the old order, and generally relies on top-down forms of control, while a fascist movement is a kind of right-wing oppositional politics, which uses a popular mass mobilization in a bid to throw out the political establishment and create a new kind of hierarchical, supremacist, or genocidal system. Fascism is a specific kind of right-wing populism. That means it claims to rally “the people” against sinister elites, but the way it defines elites is at least simplistic (like “greedy bankers”) and usually poisonous (like “greedy Jewish bankers”). Right-wing populism combines this twisted anti-elitism with stepped up attacks against oppressed and marginalized communities. Right-wing populism tends to have a special appeal for middle-level groups in the social hierarchy — notably middle- and working-class white people — who feel beaten down by a system they don’t control but also want to defend their relative privilege against challenges from oppressed communities below.
Most right-wing populist movements accept the established political framework, but fascism doesn’t. Fascism rejects liberal-pluralist institutions and principles and wants to impose its totalitarian ideology on all spheres of society. In this sense, fascism is a kind of right-wing, revolutionary politics. It doesn’t want revolution in any liberatory sense, but it wants to throw out the old political class, build a new system of rule, and transform the culture so that everyone is loyal to the same ideas and the same values. Fascism doesn’t abolish class society, but it may radically transform it, as the Nazis did when they reinstituted a system of racially based slave labor in the heart of industrial Europe.
How does all this related to Donald Trump and his campaign? I’m afraid I’m not going to give you a simple answer, because I think the issue is complicated, and it’s also a story that’s still being written. Trump’s campaign has a mix of fascist and non-fascist characteristics, and it represents several different kinds of threats. If Trump is elected president, he will certainly make the United States a more authoritarian and more supremacist society. I think he would probably do this within the framework of the existing political system, and would not be able to impose a full-scale dictatorship — but I could be wrong about that. And whether Trump wins or loses in November, even if he loses by a lot, his campaign has already helped to revitalize the white nationalist far right in this country. Four more years of another centrist neoliberal president will only make that movement stronger.
Let me unpack all that a bit. Clearly, the Trump campaign is an example of right-wing populism. It’s a vortex of rage defending white, male, heterosexual privilege, but it’s also a scathing rejection of the political establishment, both liberal and conservative. Trump’s positions don’t necessarily follow the mainstream conservative script, but they do closely follow the examples set by earlier right-wing populist candidates such as Pat Buchanan and George Wallace. Like Buchanan in the 1990s, Trump claims to defend native-born American workers against both immigrants taking their jobs and multinational capitalists moving their jobs overseas. Like George Wallace in the 1960s, Trump supports some “liberal” measures — such as protecting Social Security and raising the minimum wage — that directly benefit his white working- and middle-class base. This echoes the standard fascist claim to be “neither left nor right.”
The Trump campaign also has many of the trappings we associate with fascism: the cult of a great leader; glorification of violence; contempt for weakness; an emphasis on emotionally cathartic pageantry over substantive policy; and brazen, systematic lying.
But there are also some important differences. A key part of fascist politics centers on building an organized mass movement, but Trump hasn’t even built much of a campaign organization, let alone any sort of active political network that would live on past November. Also, fascism makes it a priority to impose its ideology on all institutions and all spheres of society, but it’s not clear that Donald Trump actually believes in much of anything except his own importance. Without a committed ideology or an organized popular base, a President Trump would certainly grab as much personal power as he could and use racist persecution and scapegoating to keep his supporters happy, but it’s hard to imagine him leading a fascist revolutionary transformation of society.
But even if the Trump campaign itself isn’t a fascist movement, it’s helping to build one. Trump’s anti-immigrant racism, coupled with his contempt for the conservative establishment, has won him praise from many white nationalist far rightists — the people who want to overthrow multicultural America, or at least secede from it and create an “ethno-state” for white people. Although some white nationalists say that Trump is just another tool of Zionist, Jewish interests, most of them support his campaign. They love that he wants to stop all Muslims from entering the U.S. and end birthright citizenship, and that he has broken the taboo against open racism in mainstream politics. At the same time, white nationalists are clear that Trump is not one of them and isn’t going to make the changes they want. As one blogger put it, “We need to take advantage of Trump, not allow Trump to take advantage of us.” A lot of them are hoping that Trump will weaken or even destroy the Republican Party, to help clear the ground for their version of right-wing politics.
The most dynamic branch of far right politics in the United States today is the so-called “alt-right,” which is short for alternative right. The alt-right mostly exists online and presents itself as new, hip, and irreverent. With some exceptions, most alt-rightists don’t have direct connections with the neonazi and Klan groups of recent decades. Alt-right politics centers on white nationalism but it overlaps with various other right-wing subcultures such as the so-called manosphere, which is anti-feminist and often viciously misogynistic, and the neoreactionary movement, which is an arcane, elitist offshoot of libertarianism. The alt-right ranges from intellectual-sounding journals and conferences to blogs and chat forums that specialize in aggressive insults and mockery. Trump’s candidacy has given them all a big boost.
In return, alt-rightists have helped out the Trump campaign in various ways. The American Freedom Party, which is tiny but has been a mouthpiece for alt-right ideas, funded pro-Trump robocalls in Iowa before the caucuses there. More importantly, alt-rightists have used their internet propaganda skills. In the lead-up to the first Republican presidential debate last summer, alt-rightists on social media promoted the internet meme “hashtag-cuckservative” to attack the mainstream Republican candidates as traitors and sellouts to liberalism. “Cuckservative” combines the words “conservative” and “cuckold,” meaning a man whose wife has sex with other men. It’s implicitly racist because cuckold also refers to a genre of porn in which passive white husbands watch their wives have sex with black men. The cuckservative meme got a lot of attention and helped shift the political climate in Trump’s favor.
A small-scale example happened this Spring at Portland State University, where the group Students for Trump used alt-right tactics to harass anti-Trump protesters. They used anonymous social media accounts to send hundreds of racist, transphobic, and antisemitic messages to the protesters, along with rape and death threats, and also publicized where the protesters lived and worked to make them more vulnerable. These same tactics have been used by manosphere activists to harass and intimidate feminists, as in the so-called Gamergate controversy of a couple of years ago. The Trump campaign has helped bring such tactics back into mainstream electoral politics.
This summer, almost certainly, the Democratic Party will nominate Hillary Clinton for president, and the Republicans will nominate Donald Trump. Ordinarily I don’t give much credence to the argument that leftists should support the Democrats as the lesser evil, because I think the way you lessen evil is by combatting it, by building liberatory movements that make it difficult or impossible for the rulers to do what they want to do. But this year I feel conflicted. If elected, either Clinton or Trump will build up the machinery of state repression even more, widen economic inequality even further, deport more immigrants and refugees, and rain more bombs on civilians in other countries. What I’m struggling with is this: If Trump is elected, I think it’s very possible that meetings such as this one will no longer be able to take place in public. Building liberatory movements will become a lot more difficult than it would be under Clinton, and a lot more of that work will have to happen underground. On the other hand, if we as leftists lend our support to the candidate of neoliberalism, if we ally ourselves with the bulk of the ruling class, we are telling millions of angry, disempowered people that the only real opposition, the only real political alternative, is on the right. And bad as the Trump campaign is, the next version of that opposition may be even worse.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SY 2.0)