The F-word is back.
No, not that F-word. That word never left the conversation. The F-word making a comeback is fascism. It was the second most-searched term in the dictionary last year. (Socialism, by the way, was first.)
And no one can take more credit for its comeback than Donald Trump. Not since George Wallace’s presidential primary bid in 1968 has such an over-the-top, in-your-face racist, nativist, misogynist, bellicose, bullying, and demagogic candidate run for president and received such attention.
In a few short months, Trump has, big assist from the corporate-owned mass media, polluted the public discourse, incited violence against his opponents, and fractured the electorate and the Republican Party, all while developing a loyal following of unruly supporters. At one rally, according to the Washington Post, they cheered when he exclaimed: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible.”
What makes this scary is that Trump is currently the front-runner for the nomination, and could be the next president. His commanding victory in New York brings him closer to both.
Taken aback by this unexpected turn of events, quite a few political commentators have concluded that the word fascist fits his persona and politics. As they see it, Trump isn’t simply one more irresponsible and dangerous demagogue like Wallace; he’s also a cat of a different color – a fascist. Some even wonder if it is time to rethink the conventional wisdom that “it (fascism) can’t happen here.” (See Robert Reich, Sasha Abramsky, Ezra Klein, and Jamelle Boule, Lizza Ryan among others.)
Classical fascism and the modern parallels
It is easy to see why they do. Trump does exhibit behavior and echo themes of fascists of earlier eras. His message of national decline and renewal, internal enemies and traitors, racial hatred, nativism, misogyny, homophobia, hyper-nationalism, bellicose militarism, disgust for traditional parties and politics, victimization and revenge-seeking, glorification of violence and “manliness” were the stock and trade of the fascists of yesteryear.
He never misses an opportunity to mention the singular importance of political will and the role of the great leader. Nor does he fail to remind his audience of a time when America’s word and power sent shivers around the world.
Moreover, his constituency (and this too is typical of earlier fascisms) isn’t specific to one class, income, demographic, gender or religious grouping, although it is largely male and overwhelming white. It includes the economically beaten and battered, but also the well-off and very wealthy. His supporters can be found in rust belt cities, inner-ring suburbs, and small towns, as well as the exurbs and gentrified neighborhoods of major metropolises. His largest following lives in the South.
It is this heterogeneous mix that accounts in no small measure for the eclectic nature of his political talking points. Not every politician has the virtuosity to do such political juggling. But Trump does; he is a superb demagogue. Few people in present-day politics are better at exploiting people’s resentments, giving voice to hot button issues, and retailing themselves as the “One” to “Make America Great Again.”
He also deftly combines a sense of the profound shifts at the political, economic, and cultural levels that have caused an upheaval in the way tens of millions live and think. He does it all with a showman’s flair, shining a harsh light on the failure of both parties to address the mounting turbulence of everyday life accompanying these shifts.
When he rhetorically slays both parties and their presidential candidates on the unending war in the Middle East, the weaknesses in the economic recovery, recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S., legislative gridlock and suffocating bureaucracy in Washington, China’s rise, “porous” borders, “free” trade and job losses, and corruption in high places, his supporters roar approval and more than a few scream hateful epithets.
However, unlike fascists and fascisms of the 20th century, the specter of socialism is seldom heard in Trump’s stump speech. And the reason is simple. Notwithstanding the Sanders campaign and the growing popularity of the term itself, socialism isn’t beating down the gates of U.S. capitalism. If anything, a harsh right-wing regime is a more likely possibility. In fact, it could be only an election away.
Nor does the real estate developer, to use New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s mocking term, confine his rant to the poorly-performing economy. Trump is aware that people live on multiple terrains – political, social, cultural, religious and, not least, economic – that interact in complicated ways and shape people’s attitudes. Thus, he appeals to them accordingly. Robert Kagan, a noted author on the right, makes much the same point::
“We are supposed to believe that Trump’s legion of ‘angry’ people are angry about wage stagnation. No, they are angry about all the things Republicans have told them to be angry about these past 7½ years, and it has been Trump’s good fortune to be the guy to sweep them up and become their standard-bearer. He is the Napoleon who has harvested the fruit of the revolution.”
So is Trump a fascist?
But does all this make Trump a fascist? New Yorker columnist John Cassidy doesn’t think so:
“Some people have gone so far as to suggest that Trump, in whipping up popular resentments and stigmatizing immigrants and Muslims, is exhibiting Fascist tendencies…but is ‘Fascism’ the best way to describe the Trump phenomenon? I don’t think so.”
Cassidy goes on: “Originally used as a collective noun for the murderous, revolutionary hypernationalist movements that emerged in Europe from the embers of the First World War, the word is often employed today as a catch-all term of abuse for right-wing racists and rabble-rousers. Trump certainly qualifies as one of the latter, but calling him a Fascist serves to obscure rather than illuminate what he is really about.”
Cassidy is on to something here. Trump is exceedingly unruly, over-the-top, narcissistic, divisive, and dangerous. About that there is little disagreement. But he has no all-consuming and consistent worldview. He doesn’t speak, as Nazi propaganda did, of creating a unitary, exclusivist community free of conflict under the authority of a single all-powerful leader, superintending a fascist state that penetrates into and presides over every nook and cranny of civil society.
Nor is he the leader of a separate party/movement that is guided by an overarching (ugly and anti-human) worldview, thinks strategically and tactically, and thrives on mass, often violent, actions. Zealous supporters, which Trump has, are one thing, but a fascist party steeped in ideology, politically adroit, equipped with a deep, broad, and skillful leadership, and steeled in struggle isn’t part of the mix.
Furthermore, Trump has few elite supporters in the Republican Party or the capitalist class. And the rise of fascists and fascism depends on such supporters facilitating its ascendancy, even if fascist dictators, like Hitler and Mussolini and their respective parties, operated with a considerable degree of autonomy from the elites of their time. (See Ian Kershaw and Robert Paxton)
Fascism, capitalism, and democracy
Finally, U.S. capitalism is in a crisis, but It’s not in its death throes. Nor do the class and social forces challenging it possess the breadth, depth and maturity of understanding and organization to contest its hegemony. The Sanders campaign, as exciting and significant as it is, is nowhere close to constituting a political movement that can successfully upend existing capitalism. And until there is such a party – not simply a movement – that possesses that capacity, fascism will likely remain on the sidelines. Only in the most dire circumstances when capitalism is being seriously contested does it become the preferred option of significant sections of big capital and right-wing extremism.
And it’s not because of their unshakable loyalty to democracy. Their first commitment is to the reproduction of capitalism and their political hegemony. But, all things being equal, a democratic capitalist state, with a measure of what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called popular consent, is their preferred framework for economic exploitation and political governance. In fact, if you listen to the apologists of U.S. capitalism – and not just Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan – free markets (read: capitalism) and democracy are two sides of an organic, indissoluble, and historically constituted whole.
Moreover, this marriage of markets and democracy, these apologists go on to say, turned a new nation, occupying in its early years the eastern shore of a much bigger land mass populated for centuries by indigenous people, into “last and best hope for humankind, and “exemplar of freedom and beacon of hope. This ideological notion provides the main justification for the political hegemony of U.S. ruling elites on a national and global scale. So much so that the shattering of this legitimizing notion of their rule, which a descent into fascism would do, is something that they would avoid except in the most exceptional circumstances.
But between the ground of fascism and the ground of democratic governance that we now occupy, albeit limited and restricted, there is a terrain of class rule and political governance that is authoritarian, abnormal, and anti-democratic, but still short of fascism. Such a terrain would be wrapped in the rhetoric of personal responsibility (not collective rights), family values, free markets, limited government, “protection” of the unborn, “color blindness” and reverse racism, sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, reward work (not dependence), America for Americans, Christian virtues, and national greatness. And it is precisely this terrain that the Republican Party is eager to occupy.
The GOP’s worst nightmare
Which brings me back to Trump. If he isn’t a fascist, where does he sit on the political spectrum? Trump, in my view, is a right-wing extremist and demagogue, with some fascist overtones. He’s not alone, however. He occupies that space with the likes of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and the Republican Party leadership at the national and lower levels.
What distinguishes Trump from his mates is his reckless, unreliable, and unpredictable behavior. He’s not a team player, but a rogue. He knows one tune – his own. And his class and political ideology is inconsistent, sometimes all over the map. Not surprisingly, the top circles of the Republican Party and capitalist class find this very troubling.
While a degree of autonomy usually operates in the relations between those who rule (capitalists) and those who govern (politicians), as well as between the president and his or her (for the first time if Hillary wins) party, it is limited and relative. But the fear in elite circles is that a Trump presidency could rupture this dynamic altogether, that he could become completely unhinged, thus running the risk of introducing a highly destabilizing force into politics, economics, culture, and the dominant ideas that frame capitalist rule.
But more immediately, the concern in Republican circles is that a Trump presidential run could result in massive defeat up and down their ticket in November and irreparably damage the entire right-wing political project and the party’s long term standing.
In short, Trump is the GOP’s worst nightmare.
Thus, the money bags of the Republican Party are sparing no expense to cut Trump down to size and deny him the party’s nomination. Whether they will succeed and crown Cruz or someone else to lead them into the fall campaign is unclear. In any event, it seems likely that the Republican Party will leave its convention fractured, perhaps badly so. Whether it can recover for the fall elections and what it will look like over the longer term is a matter of conjecture, but it is fair to say things are not looking promising for the GOP.
This intra-party bloodbath should give a big leg up to the Democratic Party and the broader democratic coalition – labor, people of color, women, youth, seniors, and social movements – in November. But only if they dodge the bullet of their own contentious nominating process and enter the general election this fall united behind their nominee. And after yesterday’s primary victory in New York, it appears that Hillary has a lock on the nomination.
What Bernie does between now and the convention isn’t yet clear. No doubt he is feeling pressures from all sides. A few in his campaign and many more in Hillary’s are urging him to call it a day and turn his attention to his role at the convention. Others are counseling him to stay the course until every vote is counted and every primary is completed. And of course a few are advising him to go the independent, third-party route.
I can’t imagine him choosing the third-party option. And it appears he will stay in the contest for a while anyway, maybe to the very end. In any case, what is of paramount importance is that he and Hillary tone down the harsh rhetoric directed at each other, make Trump the main target of their polemics, and find common ground heading into the convention. That will take a measure of restraint and common sense on both sides. And Hillary, assuming for the moment that she is the nominee, needs to be especially solicitous to Bernie. She is a better candidate because of his campaign.
This is no time for either candidate to draw a line in the sand. Too much is at stake in November.
Bernie’s supporters no doubt will be disappointed, some bitterly, but these feelings hopefully will dissipate by summer’s end, helped along by a unified convention and the looming possibility of a Trump or Cruz in the White House. If that isn’t the case, a path opens up – maybe the only one – for a Republican Party victory in November. Such an outcome would throw the people’s movement and the Democratic Party on the defensive, and obviously put Bernie’s program of fundamental reforms on ice indefinitely.
On the other hand, a Clinton win, coupled with Democratic Party gains at the Congressional level, would give the broader movement and reform-minded Democrats leverage to move the politics, economics, and culture of the country in a democratic, progressive, and peaceful direction.
To think that everything would be frozen in a neoliberal and imperial framework in the event of a Clinton and Democratic Party victory is a supposition that isn’t warranted. It’s undialectical, at odds with historical evidence. In fact, the campaigns of Bernie, Hillary, and Trump – each in their own way – tell us that neoliberalism isn’t on the same uncontested ground that it occupied for more than three decades.
None of this may sound very sexy, especially to younger voters who are anxious to make a political revolution, post haste. Who doesn’t want to move beyond the burdens of the past and the outrages of the present? Who doesn’t want to scale dizzying heights and take leaps down freedom road?
But desire and aspiration can’t discount out-of-hand existing realities. The future can’t be invented out of thin air. It springs out of the present with its constraints as well as its possibilities. We live at a time when a new terrain of radical, anti-corporate democracy isn’t an idle dream, but the realization of that dream depends on the freedom train arriving at the next station – the November elections – and taking care of business: putting a hurt on right-wing Republican extremism. All aboard!