On Trump, fascism, and stale social science - Matthew Lyons

Donald Trump's rise as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination set off a flurry of articles labeling him a fascist. These pieces -- which have appeared on sites as varied as Newsweek, Common Dreams, and CounterPunch -- are misguided. Calling Trump a fascist promotes a distorted understanding of fascism and obscures the fact that Trump's demagogic hate-mongering is deeply rooted in mainstream U.S. politics.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 17, 2016

Donald Trump's rise as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination set off a flurry of articles labeling him a fascist. These pieces -- which have appeared on sites as varied as Newsweek, Common Dreams, and CounterPunch -- are misguided. Calling Trump a fascist promotes a distorted understanding of fascism and obscures the fact that Trump's demagogic hate-mongering is deeply rooted in mainstream U.S. politics.

I was planning to blog about this until Chip Berlet, my friend and former co-author, made a lot of the points I wanted to, in a piece entitled "Corporate Press Fails to Trump Bigotry," for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Chip's article (I'll call it "Trump Bigotry") emphasizes the need for historical context and clear analysis, an approach that I strongly support. At the same time, I disagree with some of the specific ideas about the far right that the article presents. These ideas are drawn from recent scholarship about right-wing movements, but I think they make it harder for us to understand -- and effectively combat -- what many rightists are saying and doing today. This response to Chip's article is offered in the spirit of friendly, constructive criticism and moving the discussion forward.

"Trump Bigotry" debunks claims that Donald Trump is a fascist or that he represents "a new force in American politics." The article rightly places him in right-wing populist traditions that go back to Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, traditions that blend scapegoating, repression, and mass violence with distorted anti-elitism. Chip's article also outlines some of the historical dynamics of the past few decades -- ranging from the erosion of traditional social privileges to increased infusions of cash -- that have contributed to the rightist upsurge we see today. As Chip argues, there are dangerous synergies between Trump-style nativism and the fascism of, say, accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, but there are also vital differences between those rightists who work within the existing political system and those who seek to overthrow it.

This delineation isn't just an intellectual exercise -- it's about recognizing qualitatively different opponents so we can respond to them intelligently. As I wrote in the 2007 article "Is the Bush administration fascist?":

"militaristic repression -- even full-scale dictatorship [or racist populism, in Trump's case] -- 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."

Where I take issue with "Trump Bigotry" has to do with the specifics of what fascism and neo-fascism mean and how to delineate different branches of the right. Here Chip relies on recent work by social scientists, especially Cas Mudde, a choice that may largely reflect editorial constraints or the limits of writing a short article for a broad audience. I'll highlight and respond to three quotes from the article:

1. "For many scholars, right-wing populism is classified as part of the 'radical right,' while the term 'extreme right' is reserved for insurgent groups seeking to overthrow the constitutional order."

This statement is accurate as far as it goes, but points to problems with the scholarship that should be addressed. Right-wing populism refers to political initiatives that seek to mobilize "the people" against both oppressed or marginalized social groups and against some image of elite power (Jewish bankers, globalist corporations, the secular humanist conspiracy, etc.). Many, if not most, extreme rightists in the United States, past and present, have embodied some kind of right-wing populism -- and this is in fact crucial for understanding their mobilizing potential. Witness the original Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction Era, which was a mass-based movement of southern Whites that used violence and terror in an effort to resubjugate Black people and overthrow "northern military despotism." Witness the sovereign citizens movement today, a 300,000-strong offshoot of the Patriot movement that claims the U.S. government is a fraud and imposter and urges people to declare their independence from it. There are lots of other examples. (As a secondary point, I take issue with the scholarly terminology: why is the "radical" right called radical if the "extreme" rightists are the ones advocating more radical change?)

2. "In his Ideology of the Extreme Right, [Cas] Mudde wrote: 'The terms neo-Nazism and to a lesser extent neo-fascism are now used exclusively for parties and groups that explicitly state a desire to restore the Third Reich (in the case of neo-fascism the Italian Social Republic) or quote historical National Socialism (fascism) as their ideological influence.'"

Mudde may be "the pre-eminent scholar in this area," as Chip suggests, but his delineations in the above quote are way too narrow, and don't account for the fact that far right politics have changed enormously over the past 70 years. Lots of neo-fascists don't invoke classical fascism explicitly, but hide their true beliefs under a more innocuous veneer. Liberty Lobby founder Willis Carto, for example, made a career of this for half a century. Others have developed new forms of fascist ideology that are very different from, and often reject, those of Hitler or Mussolini. The European New Right is a prime example. Whether or not Mudde acknowledges these developments (I haven't read him, so I can only comment on Chip’s quotes and paraphrases) there are other fascism scholars who do. Roger Griffin, for example, has written about them a lot.

3. "In his book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Mudde lists as common 'extreme right' features nationalism, racism, xenophobia, anti-democracy and the strong state, including a law-and-order approach."

Like the Mudde quote above, this list doesn't adequately describe far right currents today. Sure, some far rightists still glorify a strong state, but one of the biggest developments in far right politics since the 1970s has been the rise of political decentralism -- ranging from the European New Right's vision of autonomous ethnically pure communities to Posse Comitatus's rejection of state authority above the county level to Christian Reconstructionists' dream of a libertarian theocracy, in which God-fearing men rule through local and non-state institutions. Even the emphasis on nationalism, racism, and xenophobia overlooks the dramatic growth of far rightist currents -- such as Christian Reconstructionism -- that want to overthrow the established political system and replace it with a new order centered on religion (and patriarchy), rather than race or nation.

None of this calls into question Chip's basic point that we need to apply terms like fascism clearly and thoughtfully. But it does highlight the need for more scholarship that addresses the full, living reality of right-wing politics. A typology of fascism and more broadly of the far right or extreme right, whatever we call it, needs analytic precision, but it also needs to be flexible enough to account for variations and changes in what rightists say and do.

* * *

After almost a century of debate, there’s still no agreement among scholars, or among activists, about what fascism is or what it encompasses. My own thinking on this question has continued to evolve. In 2007, I offered a descriptive profile of fascism based on four core features: radical break with the established order, totalitarian mass politics, twisted anti-elitism, and autonomy from business control. In 2008 I argued for a synthesis of Roger Griffin’s ideology-based analysis of fascism and independent Marxist class-based approaches and offered a new draft definition: Fascism is a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while bolstering economic and social hierarchy.

More recently, I’ve concentrated more on delineating the far right -- which arguably includes both fascists and non-fascists -- from other currents. In the context of the United States today, I use the term "far right" to mean political forces that (a) regard human inequality as natural or inevitable and (b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system. That covers some (but not all) white nationalists, the theocratic branch of the Christian right, the hardline wing of the Patriot movement, and a few other currents. In other words, I see the far right as cutting across standard political categories, because I think the emergence of a truly oppositional right -- which doesn’t want to just take over the U.S. political system, but bring it down -- is ultimately more significant than ideological differences about race, religion, or other factors.

But oppositional and system-loyal rightists aren't just in conflict. As Chip Berlet points out in "Trump Bigotry," they also fuel each other. For example, "the Trump candidacy and the shooting in Charleston are connected thematically by a mobilization to defend white nationalism while the racial and ethnic face of America changes hue." This is a complex, fluid situation, with different branches of the right both divided and interconnected, and we need a dynamic approach to understand it. Debates about terminology or definitions aside, I know that Chip and I agree about this.

Originally posted: October 25, 2015 at Three Way Fight