The 2016 US presidential election was extraordinary – practically the entire political leadership class from neo-cons to liberals united around a single candidate. Of the leading newspapers in the US, 57 endorsed Clinton, 4 endorsed the Libertarian candidate Johnson, and only 2 endorsed Trump. While the official presidential contest is nearly always de facto restricted to a two-horse race, usually the establishment is divided among the two contestants or at least they hedge their bets. This time around we saw near unanimity under the Democratic Party’s big tent.
Clearly the pundits and politicos were wrong; Trump won. Less clear is what the consequences of a Trump presidency will be.
Some have suggested that Trump may be a harbinger of fascism. Surely central casting could not have served up a better stereotype of a fascist than Donald J. Trump himself. But what of the substance of that allegation?
The quintessential aspect of historical fascism was not anti-Semitism. Mussolini had Jews in high places in his government until pressured to remove them by his German ally. Neither was it anti-humanitarian propensities. The allied side had plenty of those such as Truman’s bombing of the civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the Japanese were ready to surrender. Rather, the quintessential aspect of historical fascism was its fundamentalist anti-communism and a particular form of capitalism involving the corporatist state.
Fascism arose in Europe of the 1930s coming out of the crisis of capitalism caused by the worldwide Great Depression. In each of the European fascist countries, the political condition which led to fascism was a serious contestation for state power between capitalist parties and communist/socialist parties.
The owning classes (e.g., Krupp) would rather tolerate an authoritarian rule over their own prerogatives than risk a socialist alternative that would have threatened their class hegemony. They would not have needed fascism to ensure their class rule had not the balance of class forces included the possibility of a socialist ascendency in Europe.
Given the alternative, the owning classes accepted fascism in Spain, Germany, and Italy. Under fascism, class rule continued, but bourgeois democracy was replaced by authoritarian rule. No longer would factions within the ruling class have the freedom to contend for power amongst themselves.
Decoupling Anti-Communism from Fascism
In the aftermath of World War II and the military victory of the allies over the fascist states, the US emerged as the uncontested world superpower. The US commanded a monopoly of nuclear weapons and had demonstrated a willingness to use them.
George Kennan writing in 1948 from the Truman State Department posited the basis of US empire:
“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 of its population…Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction.”
As the self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Free World to defeat communism, it was inconvenient to associate fascism with anti-communism, especially so as the US incorporated former European fascists into its national security apparatus.
De-politicizing and Psychologizing Fascism
The popular conception of fascism was made over into a personality disorder independent of historical circumstances or political content. Everyone agreed…Hitler was a “madman” – end of story.
Along those lines, Theodor Adorno and his associates at UC Berkeley developed the F-scale (F for fascist), which purported to be a psychological test for identifying fascists. Later to be published in 1950 as The Authoritarian Personality, the work has been largely discredited by mental health professionals, but served as a scientific gloss to the notion that fascism is a psychopathy.
Fascist Europe Compared to Current US
In comparison to Europe of the late 1930s, there is little to suggest that capitalist rule is imminently challenged by a socialist insurgency today in the US. In the last presidential election, the two parties of capital won about 95% of the vote, while the Libertarian Party picked up around 3% and the Greens got 1%.
Contemporary American politics are plagued by many disorders, but the threat of fascism – I would argue – is not currently one of them. The owning class can be secure in knowing that one or the other of the parties of capital will prevail.
Anti-immigrant and White Nativist Threats
Neoliberal austerity for working people, war without end abroad, and the surveillance state may have been among the incubators that have allowed such an unlikely person as Donald Trump to rise to prominence.
For those who fear Trump as a fascist yet wax nostalgic about the liberal golden age of the New Deal, remember that it was the party of FDR that imposed a reign of Jim Crow terror on its black citizens depriving them of the right to vote and then some. Virulent racism and violence are not at all incompatible with bourgeois democracy. To simply equate extreme repression with fascism is to disarm ourselves to the manifest dangers of our present system of governance.
Surely Mr. Trump has been accused of associating with any number of anti-immigrant and white nativist forces. Unfortunately, electing Democrats to office is no firewall against ethnic cleansing. President Obama has the distinction, for instance, for deporting more immigrants than all previous presidents, and nobody is accusing him for being a proto-fascist.
Democrats Rediscover the Working Class
All of a sudden the working class has been rediscovered by the Democratic Party, which of late spoke only of an all-encompassing “middle class” that incorporated everyone including the super-rich. Having made the discovery of the working class’s existence doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party is necessarily about to embrace them back into the old New Deal coalition. No, some of these folks are what Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables.”
The presumed racist white working class who voted for Trump –according to the Democrat’s litany – are defined as being poorly educated. The reasoning is as follows: the poorly educated are not as intelligent and therefore do not understand that their true interests would be to support Democrats. Informing this view of working people is a smug class bias, which confounds education, intelligence, and political understanding.
BTW, Yale and Harvard alumnus George W. Bush – the so-called village idiot according to the Democrat’s litany – lost his first political foray in 1978 in West Texas to a “good old boy” because hecame off “over-educated,” “too quick,” and too “darn intelligent that a lot of what he said went over people’s heads.” That was not a mistake that W was about to repeat, much to the miscalculations of his Democrat opponents.
Trajectory of Neoliberalism
Neoliberalism has had an unbroken trajectory moving the US ever to the right, whether under a Democrat or a Republican president. The Reagan/Bush-the-father “revolution” had its antecedents with Carter. Clinton continued the trajectory with NAFTA, ending “welfare as we know it,” deregulating banking, disassembling socialist Yugoslavia, etc. Bush-the-son followed by Obama continued the trajectory of neoliberalism lurching to the right, making one nostalgic for the reign of Nixon.
At each juncture between presidencies, the Democrats offer us lesser-evilism, touting themselves as just a little less venal than their Republican opponent. The problem with the lesser evil is that it continues the trajectory to the right without an end in sight.
Bill Clinton could “feel your pain” but inflict it anyway; Bush, not troubled by empathy, simply inflicted. In the long view, the difference between neoliberal Democrats and neoliberal Republicans is more of style than substance. Continuity – as with Obama’s retention of Bush’s Secretary of Defense Gates and Federal Reserve Chair Bernanke – has been the main trust of recent US presidential politics.
This continuity results not in each successive presidency being the same as the last, but in each moving further to the right of its predecessor. Not only did Obama fail to permanently withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, but he expanded the wars to Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, etc.
Bankrupt liberals have abandoned promoting the good, promising us at best they’ll be just a little less bad. As Corey Robins explains, “today’s liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.”
Formerly “independent” Bernie Sanders has joined the Democratic Party leadership as the chief sheep dog and token liberal. In return for membership in this millionaires’ club, Sanders gets to rail against millionaires who are not Democrats while preaching the gospel of lesser-evilism.
The lesson of the 2016 election is that supporting Democrats is precisely the wrong direction to oppose what Trump represents. Rather, the need to build a left alternative that speaks to the disaffected Trump constituency is the key take-home message.
Danger of Fascism in the US
Trump or some other person with authoritarian tendencies is not about to will fascism on the US, when the objective political forces still allow for a thriving bourgeois democracy. In America anyone can run for president as long as they can raise a billion dollars and everyone has freedom of the press who can afford to buy one.
If a left insurgency gains momentum in the face of the looming possibility of a greater great recession coming down the road, fascism may appear to be a more attractive option to elements of the current rulers. But beware, that threat may not necessarily come in the form of a scowling Republican but from a smiley Democrat.
The present danger of being a premature anti-fascist is that:
* it disarms us into underestimating the basic perniciousness of everyday capitalism, and
* it diverts the struggle to build a good society into the unending regression of lesser evilism.
If Trump were really the Mussolini from Manhattan, the harbinger of fascism in the US, then considering uniting with the lesser evil of the Democrats might have some validity. But the real danger of Trump is that he will continue the rightward trajectory of neoliberalism. The threat is not so much that Trump will reverse Obama, but more that he will carry Obama’s policies to the next level (e.g.,privatization of public education).