The Fascist Program
In his 2002 book Fascist Ideology, scholar Aristotle A. Kallis presciently wrote, “[Mussolini’s] only programme was to govern and make Italy great again, both domestically and internationally.” That is precisely the rhetoric Trump is grabbing at, as is obvious by the title of his new book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. The notion of returning to health, energy, vigor after being hobbled by injury and suffering in degeneracy and decadence is a hallmark of fascist ideology, and Trump’s ridiculing of people with disabilities highlights his sick perception of what vitality might mean to him.
The critique from the left that focusing on Trump gives Hillary a pass seems to miss the fact that recognition of the enemy remains paramount: we can identify Hillary as a neoliberal, because that’s always what she’s represented. Trump is a different beast, and should be analyzed as the kind of figure the US hasn’t seen in popular politics since George Wallace in the 1960s—and even then, Wallace represented traditional conservative politics, which strives to maintain an existing status quo, while Trump and his followers perceive themselves amidst a world of terrible decay that must be set to rights through violence.
Trump’s followers see an epidemic spreading over whiteness, with the white working class stumbling to find a kind of rebirth or new life. Suicides, cancer, drugs, despair is sweeping a white world that in the Reagan years prided itself on humble family values. It would appear to the left that, after decades of the ravages of the big box economy that signaled the gutting of middle America, this bloc of voters would begin acting in “their own class interests,” but the problem is that they do—and that’s what Trump represents.
Class interests are always defined on a complex terrain of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual politics. To unite with other workers in opposition to the ruling class would actually imperil the traditional interests of many white workers, who seem themselves as belonging in a natural, patriotic hierarchy of God and flag. Class interests then take the form of racism and anti-Semitism where privileges enjoyed by white workers over others signal a kind of status elevation, a dignity manifest in tired slogans Trump drags around the country, like “You built this country!”
The image Trump projects is not simply of recovery, but revenge. In the perspicuous words of Sakai, “To the increasing mass of rootless men fallen or ripped out of productive classes—whether the peasantry or the salariat—[fascism] offers not mere working class jobs but the vision of payback. Of a land for real men, where they and not the bourgeois will be the ones giving orders at gunpoint and living off of others.” With his “mad as hell” rhetoric against Wall Street, his promise to deport 12 million people, and halt immigration of Muslims, Trump promises an official satisfaction for the feelings of resentment and animus of the white working class. His other promises at mollification lead to his position as the only Republican candidate supporting unions and promising to maintain Social Security, placing Trump’s campaign at a junction point between poor whites and a middle class afraid of losing its privileges.
Trump’s prescription for greatness is a kind of economic gangsterism. The promise of Trumpism for those who believe is a militarized economic jolt that will shock the world. He will use the military to “make great deals,” effectively extorting money out of countries like Saudi Arabia and South Korea in exchange for protection. Of course, this is a long standing racket (often called the Mafia Doctrine), but politicians are usually more coy. Trump’s affective economic demagoguery is all the more intense for “Middle-American Radicals” (MARS), bringing about a mixture of middle-class anxiety and raging radical right politics. Instead of telling Middle America that a “belt-tightening” is in their future, as with neoliberals since the 1980s, he seems more intent on the rhetoric of warmongering. The most extreme side of the MARS movement in the US, represented by Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, has called Trump “our last chance“; its avant-garde represented by neo-reactionary RamZPaul, who commends Trump’s “glorious” policy against Muslim immigration, exclaiming, “Hail Trump!”
Making the Deal
It is worth while to investigate the reasons Trump was jeered for using the traditional anti-Semitic figure of the Jew as consumate haggler in his address to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Presumably the audience rightfully observed that Trump’s anti-Semitic rhetoric could simply take on the shade of hatred after his victory. In inter-war Austria, for example, the idea of the Jew as haggler was associated with the Ostjuden, or Jew immigrating from the East (Poland or Hungary, for instance) . Although there were very few Jews in Austria, comparatively speaking, the common nationalist narrative under Austrofascism insisted that these foreigners moved into Austrian cities and undersold their competitors, so that even local Jews were being forced out of business. Likewise, in inter-war France, the Jew was considered a kind of invader who would weaken the interests of the working class with their skills of negotiation. Not only does the anti-Semitic idea of the Jew-as-bargainer brings back painful memories of blaming the victim of dire poverty, but Trump’s image of a “negotiator” in this case bears the implications of a gangster with whom the audience doubtless would rather not have association.
Trump’s attitude of aggressive bargaining power matches what Else Frenkel-Brunswick tracks in a survey of men in The Authoritarian Personality. One man seemed to sum up a trend, she wrote, of “successful techniques of ‘driving sharp bargains.’ ‘Certain ordinary ways of doing business,’ he said, ‘are too damn slow for me.’” She concludes, “Being successful by outsmarting others in the competitive struggle is part of the ego-ideal of the prejudiced man.” That Trump projects these traits onto Jews who may be employed in any number of occupations that do not require negotiating (doctors, scientists, musicians, or writers, for instance), speaks volumes to the emptiness of his own powers. It was recently revealed that, had Trump decided not to play the role of a negotiator and simply invested his father’s money in index funds, his fortune would in fact have been far greater than it is today. Perhaps Trump’s own insecurities as a man are the source of his macho, casino-style “deal making” bravado, his misogyny, as well as his prejudicial attitude toward people of other backgrounds, religions, races, and ethnicities.
While Frenkel-Brunswick and associates have been accused of providing an overly-flexible definition of what they call “the pre-fascist personality,” in more concrete terms, the important observations of scholar Zeev Sternhell show that the kind of economic thinking underlying fascism and corporatism does not fight capitalism, but the functionaries, plutocrats, and middlemen seen as clogging and distorting the machine. It represents the will to power and the great “new man” who knows how and when to act. Indeed, numerous early fascists, like Hitler, José Antonio, and Oswald Mosley, were either aristocrats, themselves, or received generous subvention from nobles. The notion that fascism is exclusively consigned to revolutionary strategies of coups and putsches overlooks groups like the Estonian Association of Freedom Fighters, who attained a majority of the electoral vote, as well as the designs of neo-Nazi politicians and organizers like David Duke and Willis Carto to attain victory through the electoral system.
Although scholar Roger Griffin has contradicted this point in his recent writings, I would argue that Trump’s form of populism is what Griffin called in his magnum opus The Nature of Fascism, “elitist populism” specific to fascism: “In a mystic version of direct democracy, the representation of the people’s general will in a fascist society would mean entrusting authority to an elite or (especially in its inter-war versions) a leader whose mission it is to safeguard the supra-individual interests and destiny of the people to whom it (or he) claims to be linked by a metaphysical bond of a common nationhood.” This elitism, or “populism from above,” as some call it, is essential to the sense of planning and heroic enterprise ideated by Trump.
Artist Roger Peet told me something interesting: Trump wants to run the country “like a Hotel. You have your top level, your middle level, your lower level, and your basement (do we even have that?). And if you have any problems, security will show you the exit. If you’re rich, you can leave through the front door; if your poor, you get to find the back door.” This seems like a good analogy for Hotel America under Trumpist rule: the House always wins, the working class slides further into the rentier economy as the former promise of the middle class “American Dream” is eroded, and the prison and detention industries skyrocket. Meanwhile dissenters are dealt with in a more brash and brutal fashion than has been seen in generations, as displays of patriotism take the form of military mobilization, an increase in daily patriarchal violence against women, and unimpeded civil violence against people of color scapegoated for economic decay.
Indeed, the Trump vote can be seen as a re-enactment of old-school anti-communist rallies, emerging in virtually symmetrical relation to the rise of the milquetoast challenge emanating from the Sanders campaign. In early-August, one of Trump’s advisors called Obama a “Marxist,” and in mid-October, Trump denounced Sanders as a “maniac” and “socialist-slash-communist,” bringing to the surface a key intersection of anti-communism and anti-immigration. In one comment typical of this current, an anonymous Trump supporter posted the following chilling screed on a Wall Street Journal article:
“The White people are becoming minorities in their own countries and are losing their culture and self respect to ‘Cultural Marxism.’ California alone has 38 million people and over 30% live on welfare brought to you by hard earned tax money from the white middle class. Europe and America must unite and save the fatherland and all countries from international Marxism. Since [World War Two] over 80% of immigration is from 3rd world countries. Mass 3rd world immigration is part of the interlopers agenda to introduce a new advanced genocide of the Aryan people and his qualities that built 90% of everything you touch. What more do white people need to unite and save the country? The problem is that Obama is a international Marxist and and even the white liberals with no culture that voted for him don’t even like him anymore. When you try to pass laws without congress or replace Americans with third world invaders you get MILLIONS of angry white people who feel like they’re being taken advantage of. It is no coincidence that only traditionally white countries are being immigrated too [sic]. Ask your self if these immigrants would give you the same rights in their countries and imagine how your country will be when they are the majority. To all white brothers and sisters the time has come when you must put differences aside and unite. This is no longer a choice, this is your duty.”
The only thing that distinguishes the rhetoric of this commentator from Trump is the more open usage of the terms “Cultural Marxism” and “Aryan,” which simply underline the fascist trend of thought.
Returning to the Question
Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether or not Donald Trump is as fascist as many of his followers. The leftist media seems united in singling out Trump’s fascism, with Salon and Truthout leading the charge, and Newsweek, the LA Times, and the Telegraph joining in. However, many scholars, pundits, and academics have taken a more cautious track.
As someone who has written three articles now identifying the fascist tendencies and roots in Trump’s campaign, I have been humbled by some of the more profound responses. Two of the authors who engaged me early on, Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons (co-authors of the excellent Right Wing Populism in America), have supplied particularly insightful critiques. Both maintain that Trump is an authoritarian-conservative, however both have added to their original terms in new and insightful ways.
Berlet has produced a useful definition of Trumpism: “Using right-wing populism to mask fascistic appeals to demonize targeted groups.” Yet, Berlet stands by his original position that these “fascistic appeals” do not formulate a viable fascist position. At the same time Lyons has cautioned me against using a “teleological” approach to fascism, by which he means that one should not attempt to predict the direction that a populist movement will take, fascist or not.
The latter comment is particularly important, and in fact I concede that Lyons is right—a deterministic view of whether or not Trump’s government will become openly fascist in five years does not change the definition by which he should be identified today. However, I think that we will agree that there are red flags and reasons for concern, which ought to give us pause.
Berlet’s definition of Trumpism is also deeply insightful, because it touches on fascism in a kind of second-degree. Professor Mario Sznajder at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem calls this “quasi populism“—”when some populisms adopt certain features of populism without becoming fascist movements, or without having the ‘ineliminable’ features of fascism or reaching a ‘fascist minimum.'” Roger Griffin calls it “parafascism”—”a radical right regime with fascist trappings.” However, I would argue that within this taxonomy we are still watching fascism develop without recognizing it, because we are looking for it to appear in some image of a “full form.”
To deploy the concept of of Julie Thorpe, we should instead look at fascism as a “process” rather than an “outcome,” or as Kallis states, “it is more accurate to describe fascist ideology as a powerful trend, appealing to the most utopian and extreme nationalist vision and articulating suppressed energies which had previously no place in the conventional political agenda of either conservative or liberal nationalism.”
To Lyons and Berlet, then, I would concede perhaps that Trumpism as it appears today has the necessary components that make it a fascist ideology, but it has not manifested full form in power. This means that, if Trump can be said to manifest what Arun Gupta has called “pre-fascism,” and I would prefer to call “proto-fascism,” it is only in direct relation to fascism, and as an important and necessary stage of fascism. Is it then necessary to conceive of Trumpism in the ambit of fascism as the makings of an “ideal type” that are not yet fully assembled?
Bargain Basement Totalitarianism
The greatest problem with the view that Trump seems like an authoritarian conservative who may open the door for increasing fascism in the future, but does not constitute as much yet, is that many analysts expect fascism to present itself from the beginning as a totalitarian dogma when in fact the Italian Fascists did not even use the term totalitarian until years after Mussolini coined the term in 1915, the Nazis only used the term “total state” for a year or so, before it was trumped by the ideology of decisionism, and Spain’s Falange openly rejected the ideology of totalitarianism.
The difference between the “total state” and “decisionism,” as ideated by the crown jurist of Nazism, Carl Schmidt, lies in the former’s creation of a semi-autonomous “people” who operate in homogenous and intuitive relation to the leader, whereas the latter simply follows the dynamic and transformative dictats of the leader. While the difference seems somewhat negligible, and both appear to be aspects of the same broad totalitarianism, it is important that such esteemed scholars as Franz Neumann could write in 1942 that “to the extent that political power has increased, the ideology of totalitarian state has been rejected.” Hannah Arendt even denied that Italian Fascism could be considered totalitarian. Regardless, for Italian and German fascism, totalitarianism was always an ideology that never came close to fruition; for Spanish fascism, totalitarianism was rejected outright, even in ideological form.
The Trumpist vision of the “deal making” elite is much closer to decisionism, where accountability to the public is suspended in favor of an inspired power elite who lead not by the concretion of a kind of ideological formalism, but by the example of “low-cost signaling” through which ordinary people can recognize their place in the hierarchy and how to get ahead (the latter is related to fascist leadership by Roger Eatwell and Roger Griffin in Fascism Past and Present, West and East). In this way, I would suggest that Trumpism can be seen as a manifestation of sufficient “fascistic” positions to qualify it not just as “proto-fascist” but as part of a process of “fascist creep,” meaning a radicalization of conservative ideology that increasingly includes fascist membership while deploying fascist ideology, strategy, and tactics. As the neo-Nazi Vanguard News Network recently declared, “Trump is beginning to sound like a white nationalist.” The Daily Stormer put the sentiment succinctly: “Hail Trump!”
The other major problem with the perspective that Trump does not represent fascism “yet” is the reliance of many theorists on the “revolutionary” quality of fascism. For a number of thinkers, Trump would have to present something truly “revolutionary,” although that term seems ill defined. This perception is flawed for a number of reasons, to which I will turn in the next chapter.
Originally posted: December 11, 2015 at It's Going Down