Jan 6, 2016

Fascist revolution doesn’t turn back the clock: a reply to Alexander Reid Ross on Trump

Part 4 of Alexander Reid Ross’s series on “Trumpism” on the website It’s Going Down is largely a reply to my piece “Trump’s impact: a fascist upsurge is just one of the dangers.” Reid Ross makes some valid criticisms and other good points, but he also he misrepresents my position and fails to address my main criticism of his.

In “Trump’s impact” I argued that Donald Trump’s campaign embodies important elements of fascist politics, has fomented racist and Islamophobic bigotry and violence, and promotes many themes that help organized fascists do their work. I also argued more generally — as I’ve argued for years — that it’s a serious mistake to treat fascism as radically separate from other forms of right-wing populism and authoritarianism. So I’m mystified by statements such as the following, near the end of Reid Ross’s article:
“the claim [by Lyons]… that Trump’s campaign is interconnected to fascism, but that Trump, himself, can remain pure and clearly describable as ‘not fascist’ seems inconsistent. To detach the proximity between Trumpism and people like the Leader brothers [who assaulted a Latino homeless man in Boston in August] or [William] Celli [a Trump supporter who apparently set up a bomb-making enterprise in his home] so cleanly seems like an error. And that’s the main point: the radical right is not as simple as a cluster of autonomous ideologies perfectly honed and starkly differentiated.”
This is a total distortion of my words. I didn’t make any of these “pure,” “clean,” or “starkly differentiated” dichotomies, but in fact argued squarely against them.

In “Trumpism, Part 4,” Reid Ross emphasizes the “gray area” and “hybridization” between fascist and non-fascist forms of right-wing populism. In itself, this isn’t that different from my argument that Trump’s campaign displays a mix of fascist and non-fascist characteristics. Where we disagree, as I wrote in “Trump’s impact,” is that I think it’s a mistake to see such mixed political initiatives as having an inherent tendency to move toward full-fledged fascism. This was my one direct criticism of Reid Ross, but in a 3,800-word reply he never addresses it. He finds it strange that I disagreed with him while endorsing David Neiwert’s "similar" approach, but the key difference is that Neiwert made no such claims about inherent tendencies.

Reid Ross only considers his gray areas as stages in the “creep” toward fascism. He offers no framework for addressing other potential outcomes, such as the possibility that Trump’s campaign might lead more white nationalists to work within the existing system. This narrow focus is strategically dangerous, because it limits our ability to understand and respond to multiple possible threats.

I agree with Reid Ross that Trump’s campaign might develop into a more consistently fascist initiative. But it’s more likely that Trump will remain a champion of increasing repression and ethno-religious scapegoating within the existing political framework — which is plenty bad enough. Look at past history: before Trump, there were three major presidential candidates over the previous half century — George Wallace, Pat Robertson, and Pat Buchanan — whose politics resembled fascism to significant degrees. All of them inspired and emboldened far rightists, but all of them ultimately remained loyal to the established order and helped make it worse. Given these precedents, the burden of proof is on Reid Ross to explain why he’s confident that Trump will develop differently.

On a secondary level, I have to concede certain points to Reid Ross. He is right that fascist movements don’t necessarily involve an organized paramilitary force, and it was a mistake on my part to suggest that they do. Also, I overgeneralized when I wrote (paraphrasing Neiwert) that fascists are “absolutists who demand ideological purity.” As Reid Ross points out, in Italian Fascism’s early years Mussolini embraced ideological “inconsistencies and contradictions.” I would argue this was largely calculated bravado on Mussolini’s part as he worked to weld multiple factions into one movement, and that his ideology was already significantly more thought out and committed than Donald Trump’s. But it’s true that fascist movements don’t or can’t always demand ideological purity from their followers.

On the issue of fascist populism, Reid Ross misunderstands my argument that “fascism seeks to actively and permanently mobilize large masses of people.” I didn’t mean that initiatives don’t qualify as fascist if they don’t succeed in building a mass movement. I meant fascists try to get people involved in active, ongoing activities (not just call them out as occasional spectators at campaign rallies) both to mobilize support and enforce control. This type of mobilization isn’t unique to fascism, of course. If you want an example, look at the Christian right, which has painstakingly built an elaborate organizational web, based at the level of church congregations and living room prayer circles. Again, I see no efforts along these lines from the Trump campaign.

Replying to my argument that Trump isn’t fascist because he doesn’t advocate a right-wing revolution, Reid Ross asserts that Trump does indeed have “revolutionary leanings” because (a) some conservatives say or imply that he does, (b) he called for “a revolution” after Obama’s 2012 re-election, (c) Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says that Trump is in some ways more extreme than many white nationalists, and (d) implementing Trump’s proposal to deport 11 million people would require a massive project of “totalitarian social engineering.”

I guess it depends what we mean by revolution. To me, a fascist revolution goes far beyond events like the “Gingrich Revolution” of 1994 (in which Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in decades) or even the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s (which dramatically reduced the welfare state, transferred billions of dollars from lower- and middle-income people to the wealthy, and intensified U.S. attacks on leftist and popular forces worldwide). Fascism is revolutionary in the sense that it
“implies an effort to bring about a fundamental, structural transformation of the political, cultural, economic, or social order. Fascism seeks, first of all, to overthrow established political elites and abolish established forms of political rule, whether liberal-pluralist or authoritarian. Second, fascists also attack “bourgeois” cultural patterns such as individualism and consumerism and aim to systematically reshape all cultural spheres — encompassing education, family life, religion, the media, arts, sports and leisure, as well as the culture of business and the workplace — to reflect one unified ideology. Third, some (not all) forms of fascism promote a socioeconomic revolution that transforms but does not abolish class society — as when German Nazism restructured the industrial heart of Europe with a system of exploitation based largely on plunder, slave labor, and genocidally working people to death.”
Fascism’s revolutionary vision invokes an idealized image of the past, but it does so in the service of creating a new order, not just restoring old traditions. Yes, as Reid Ross tells us, Italian Fascists “harkened back” to the 19th-century Risorgimento (as well as the glory days of Ancient Rome), but they envisioned a forward-looking industrial society where capitalists and workers would work together for the good of the nation. Yes, Hitler “looked to” the military greatness of Germany’s Second Reich and Prussia’s Frederick the Great (as well as the paganism of ancient Germanic tribes), but he wanted a new, racially pure settler-colonial empire and had no interest in restoring the monarchy or deferring to the old Junker aristocracy.

Similarly, it’s not true that white nationalist far rightists in the U.S. “have always upheld segregation and a racialized caste system as an ultimate ideal.” Actually most of them moved beyond old-style segregationism decades ago, toward newer visions, such as creating a white separatist enclave through secession, dividing the entire U.S. into apartheid-style racial homelands, or exterminating Jews and people of color entirely. Compared with these ideas, Trump’s proposals to make (white) America great again represent a much more limited challenge to the established order. His most extreme structural proposal, abolishing birthright citizenship, would intensify racial and national oppression, but unfortunately this change is all too compatible with liberal “democracy” as practiced everywhere outside the Americas.

It is true, as Reid Ross argues, that deporting 11 million people would involve a big expansion of the state’s repressive apparatus. This would be disastrous in all kinds of ways, but it would not require any fundamental break with the existing institutional framework. In the 1950s (under moderate Republican Dwight Eisenhower) the federal government rounded up an estimated 1.1 million people through the odiously named “Operation Wetback” deportation program. In the 1930s (under liberal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt), upwards of one million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported, when the U.S. population was about 40 percent of what it is today. Trump’s proposal is bigger than these precedents, but it’s not qualitatively different.

Alexander Reid Ross accuses me of obscuring Donald Trump’s fascist particularities under the vague category of right-wing populism — of “missing the tree for the forest.” But a forest has many trees, and Trump’s candidacy points to different kinds of threats — some at odds with the established political order, others loyal to it. If we only see one threat we will be in trouble.

Related posts on Three Way Fight:
"On Trump, fascism, and stale social science" (25 October 2015)
"Trump's impact: a fascist upsurge is just one of the dangers" (22 December 2015)