[This was written shortly after the Republican Convention in August of 2016, well before Trump was elected to the presidency.]
Trump and Trumpism: American Fascism
I was watching a CNN program where a wag was describing Trumpism as populism, and then giving cover to Trump’s followers as aggrieved people motivated by legitimate concerns. It motivated me to write this open polemic to friends, some of whom confuse voting their conscience with principle. The two can be separable.
[This was written shortly after the Republican Convention in August of 2016, well before Trump was elected to the presidency.]
[This was written shortly after the Republican Convention in August of 2016, well before Trump was elected to the presidency.]
To my Friends of the Right, Left, and Center:
It has been over year, now, since I first went on record and predicted that Donald Trump would become a major political force and the eventual nominee of the Republican Party. Many of my friends at the time thought I had lost my mental bearings. I have not in the meantime changed my mind about either Trump or Trumpism. It would appear that he will lose the US election, although that is far from certain, and I won't rest easy until he does. And that ease will doubtless be short-lived, for I am less than enthusiastic about the alternative, Hillary Clinton, though I much prefer her over Trump. I did not view Sanders as a good alternative, for he suffers from a kind of narcissism, like Trump, though I'd surely vote for him over Trump. I also am very worried about the fact that even if he loses, Trump will have come very close, and that speaks to an ominous undercurrent in the US that is at once large and powerful, and one that will remain with us for the foreseeable future. It is a clear and present danger to the nation and, hence, it represents a danger to the world.
When I was young, it was a commonplace on the political left to brand our rightist opponents as Fascists. More often than not, it was used as a facile pejorative, and without much real thought to the lexical or historical meaning of the word. We knew it was bad, representing things that we eschewed, and to identify the opposing right with brutal authoritarian regimes seemed appropriate enough to us, and why not the worst kind. The appellation was overused and often used inaccurately. It thereby lost much of its significance, and even today, when it is used appropriately, it is sometimes characterized as hackneyed.
In more recent years, it has not been uncommon even to hear rightists use the term to brand leftist thought or activists. Bill O'Reilly, the loudmouthed, bully-broadcaster on Fox News, is guilty of this kind of abuse ... to cite just one recent example, he called David Silverman, the leader of an American atheist group, as being fascistic for his steadfast positions against organized religion and his support of separation between church and state.
In some quarters, Trump, now the Republican candidate for President, has been called a Fascist or someone who supports fascistic beliefs. Others reject this, branding him as a mere populist or garden-variety authoritarian, because, after all, the unlettered and historically ignorant Trump would not even be able to define Fascism. Therefore, how could he be one? And his followers, they would have us believe, are just gullible innocents oppressed by their circumstances and victimized, beguiled by a demagogue, and held hostage by his hateful rhetoric. I believe this is complete nonsense, I should like to posit that Trumpism is indeed closely linked to the ideas of historical Fascism; that Trump himself has all of the essential qualities of a Fascist leader; and what is more, that his partisans, wittingly or unwittingly, are a part of a fascistic movement. It does not matter that they do not know the etymology or the history of Fascism. They in fact support many of its main ideas, and for all practical purposes, they are therefore, themselves, Fascists. Much like the millions of Germans who denied they were Nazis because they were not card-carrying members of the Party, we can no longer allow this distinction without a difference (i.e., I support Trump and Trumpism, but I am not a Fascist) to be swept under the rug and ignored as it often has been.
Contrary to a now common description, Trumpism is not simply a form of populism, although it shares some of its characteristics. Some liberals, especially in the political, academic, and pundit classes, are seriously guilty of whitewashing and, thereby, diminishing Trumpism's insidious character by referring to it as populism, and then by qualifying it further by speaking of the several grievances of its largely white, male, constituency. It enables them to evince sympathy for the perceived legitimate complaints and anger of the (supposed) underclass, while remaining critical of Trump himself, essentially offering excuses for the reprehensible behavior ... hate, violent overtones, jingoism, racism, and misogyny ... of his supporters. Always looking for sociological explanations for their fellow man's depravity, liberals' abiding sense of fairness and care for the downtrodden (who themselves could care less about the liberals or their views) can sometimes obscure their perceptions of the reality of venal, evil forces. This was true in the 1930s, and it is just as true now. Rational people on the right and the left at the time completely misunderstood what Hitler understood very well, namely, that much of politics is not a rational calculation and there is a dark underside of human nature that can be exploited, especially when one can dehumanize someone seen as responsible for one's real or imagined privations. One consequence of this rationalism is a tolerance of the intolerable by distancing his supporters from Trump, himself, and from Trumpism, I think this is a mistake, and, often enough, even disingenuous and cynical, as though they represent potential voters for the "proper" side, which is to say, the liberal side, and thus we cannot afford to alienate them,
The fact is that Trump's followers' views are deplorable, much as his opponent Hillary Clinton said, and Trump is the catalyst and lens for refracting their vile beliefs, Trumpism would not be possible without them. It matters not that some may even be our friends or relations, making an exception only for the mentally incompetent. Liberals and conservatives both need to call a spade a shovel and stop excusing the inexcusable.
Populism has taken various forms on the political right and left in different times and parts of the globe. It has a long history, at least dating back to Pericles in Athens and Julius Caesar in Rome, Broadly speaking, in modern times, populism is a political movement that centers on economic grievances, primarily, though not exclusively, by workers, the less affluent merchant class, and farmers, against the economic, social, and intellectual elites who are perceived as the causes of their privations. Andrew Jackson might well be the best example of an early populist leader in the US, and to date, the only truly populist president. The Populist Party of the 1890s consisted of farmers and some labor unions that denounced a system, whereby, in the words of David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen’s American Pageant (2005), “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few." One of the great populist leaders of this era into the early 20th century was Williams Jennings Bryan, a charismatic, religious orator and sometimes presidential candidate who railed against capitalist elites, as exemplified by his famous "Cross of Gold" speech. Huey P. Long, Sr., "The Kingfish," a governor and senator from Louisiana, led a populist movement in the Great Depression, and, had he not been killed in 1935, he might well have become president. Populism regained currency, again, in the 1950s. The historian Richard Hofstadter and sociologist Daniel Bell compared the anti-elitism and populism of the late 19th century with that of Joseph McCarthy's grievances against communism and American power elites, In the late sixties and early seventies, George Wallace led a third-party, populist movement that centered on race segregation, And the modern Tea Party has many elements of populism with its focus on white, male grievances with racial and anti-immigrant overtones.
Bernie Sanders' candidacy also capitalized on some populist sentiments against the elites, with much emphasis on the real and imagined burdens of white youth and the various real and imagined malefactions of the wealthy, and it is therefore not altogether surprising, after his primary loss, that there has been a small number of converts to Trumpism--and there are some sentiments or grievances that are similar ... or if not out-and-out converts, there are people who rationalize (mistakenly, I believe) that Trump could be no worse than the alternative. This is a delusion, and a false sense of principle, when it is actually the opposite of principle, for he is much worse. He is a fascist. Sanders is not. Politics is a practical affair, and principle can get in the way of principle, which is to say, when the ideal has little or no chance of succeeding, the next best thing, or the least worse thing, anyway, should prevail. Al Gore lost the presidency resulting in a war that still has not ended, among other things, due in part to the ideological narcissism of people voting for Ralph Nader, another narcissist, notwithstanding his historical importance to consumers.
To no small degree, the Tea Party movement was a precursor of Trumpism, and it cannot be denied that Fascism and Trumpism have characteristics of populism, and particularly in the sense that people are rallied against others who are seen as the root cause of their various misfortunes. But there are also some significant differences between populism and Trumpism. None of the aforementioned populist movements were truly fascistic in nature. However, Trumpism is different.
I hasten to state that Fascism is not a systematic doctrine, it is difficult to characterize, and there is considerable debate to this day as to what constitutes true Fascism. It is not an internally consistent doctrine built on a few principles such as one might find in socialist or free market doctrines, or in more traditional forms of authoritarian or totalitarian systems In many ways, it is incoherent as an ideology, and it consists of an admixture of ideas sometimes even in opposition to one another. It is best, I think, to look at some general characteristics that its several strands possess, but as much as anything, also to consider the actual behaviors of its leaders and followers from a historical perspective.
Fascism has many fathers in terms of its origins and evolution; but in terms of what I'll call European "movement" Fascism, a phenomenon that reached its apotheosis with Hitler and Mussolini, it is principally rooted in fin de siècle Italian, German, and French political thought, and as an offshoot of various Italian and German social movements, but particularly in Italian syndicalism and pan-German nationalism, Among the most influential thinkers were Georges Sorel, Enrico Corradini, Georg von Schönerer, Wilhelm Riehl, Oswald Spengler, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. There are others, but most influential of all, that is, prior to Adolf Hitler––was Benito Mussolini, himself, who catalyzed the views of various thinkers into a well-organized political movement, Hitler, of course, took it to another level, and, in the process, he nearly led the world into the abyss.
There is a myth that Trump resembles Mussolini as a person. It is often repeated, but said by people who obviously know nothing of Mussolini beyond the swaggering character that they see in old newsreels, Perhaps in his exaggerated attempts at machismo this is true, but it really ends there, Mussolini was a learned and well-rounded man, he had an advanced degree and wrote learned papers, including one on Machiavelli's Prince. He spoke several languages ... and he was a gifted orator with cogent syntax, the latter being a great distinction from Trump, who has the vocabulary of a grammar school student, In contrast, Adolf Hitler's learning was eclectic, Aside from being a brilliant orator and dramatist, perhaps only equaled by Winston Churchill in recent times, Hitler was naturally bright and retentive. He also was a gifted street psychologist, a master of branding, use of media, and marketing, much as Trump is; however, from his youth, and also like Trump, he was intellectually lazy, and uninterested in systematic learning or scholarship. His venue was the coffee house and beer hall, not the library, much as Trump’s is television. While both have remarkable powers of intuition, especially into the darker sides of human nature, it is patently clear that Hitler was the brighter of the two. What is more, unlike Trump, Hitler was exceptionally disciplined in managing his public persona, in control of his political machinations ... exposing himself only very carefully ... and very rigorous in conducting his personal relations. Trump is much more impulsive and reckless. The personality comparisons are not what are important about Trump ... for there are not many, really, and they are at best quite superficial. With that said, to therefore suggest that he could not be a Fascist because he is unlike Mussolini or Hitler, is specious. Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh were both communists, but they were completely different as people.
So what is Fascism? First of all, let's nip one common misunderstanding in the bud, It is does not fit in the traditional categories of right and left, which is not the way the self-styled intellectuals representing either ideological extreme would like to have it, believing Fascism to be the ideology of the other side, and which partly explains why it can appeal to erstwhile members of both ends of the political spectrum, It is nearly always presented by academics as a species of far right-wing politics ... but that is overly simplistic ... it is much more complicated than that. No less than an authority than Hitler himself thought Nazism, a species of Fascism, transcended left and right, borrowed from both, and was what he called "syncretic,” In the broadest terms, here are ten characteristics one will find in the three previously successful, large-scale fascistic movements in Europe. Taken individually each attribute may be found in other kinds of movements. But taken as a whole, in combination, I believe they typify Fascism.
1. Fascism is a form of hyper-nationalism that capitalizes on two principal things ... one, strong patriotic feelings, often founded on a mythical past that never occured, and two, the vilification of groups seen as sullying the nation and detrimental to the national interest, often represented by an ethnic or religious group, modernism, cosmopolitan elites, and outsiders more generally. ["Make America Great AGAIN."] [I am putting America first.] ["I think the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control."] (...just to name three of many--but more to follow illustrating the same point.)
2. While there certainly are elements of anti-elitist populism, Fascism also seeks to co-opt people in power, for power is its ultimate objective, and because it is more than willing to use utilitarian means to attain its ends, it will curry favor with economic, political, and intellectual elites wherever and whenever it can to secure it. [Simply look at GOP leaders and moneyed donors who previously denounced Trump, and the latter’s wiliness to use all the tools at his disposal of the elites his followers decry, e.g., the media.]
3. Fascism freely borrows from both socialist and capitalist doctrines ... for power is its goal ... and there is not a systematic economic doctrine other than that which is seen as necessary to attain power and to benefit the state, co-opting whatever economic power or centers of influence are necessary to attain those ends, whether through markets, corporate interests, or popular measures with the masses ... so it is perhaps no coincidence that Mussolini was once a socialist involved in the labor movement (which he would destroy), and that Nazism had a vibrant socialist wing in its earlier years ... one eventually quashed (the Night of the Long Knives) by the mid-thirties and replaced by a kind of quasi-capitalism, an economic system best described as state corporatism. ["Well, the first thing you do is don't let the jobs leave. The companies are leaving. I could name, I mean, there are thousands of them. They're leaving, and they're leaving in bigger numbers than ever. And what you do is you say, fine, you want to go to Mexico or some other country, good luck. We wish you a lot of luck. But if you think you're going to make your air conditioners or your cars or your cookies or whatever you make and bring them into our country without a tax, you're wrong."] [From Trump's chief economic adviser, Steve Moore: "Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy. I’m not even a big believer in democracy."]
4. Conspiratorial and exclusionary thinking about groups and forces aligned against the movement is part and parcel to all fascistic movements, and plays a central role in the rallying cries of its leaders, whether the bogeyman is international Jewry, a particular ethnic group, the bourgeoisie, large corporate interests, liberal elites, Bolsheviks, or the media. [On Mexican immigrants: "They're bringing drugs,' crime and are 'rapists'."]["I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I'm building a wall, OK? I'm building a wall.] [I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people (ed: that is, Arabs) were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering."] ["Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population."] ["On The Wall Street Journal: 'They better be careful or I will unleash big time on them."]["We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated."]
5. When out of power, fascistic movements always declaim against the legitimacy of those in power as usurpers who, through their machinations, rig outcomes and are not the true representatives of the people or the nation. Already, a potential loss is being declared as a result of voter fraud and media rigging. Hints at violence as a consequence are not uncommon, ["I think you'd have riots. I think you'd have riots. I'm representing many, many millions of people. In many cases first-time voters ... If you disenfranchise those people? And you say, well, I'm sorry, you're 100 votes short, even though the next one is 500 votes short? I think you'd have problems like you've never seen before. I wouldn't lead it, but I think bad things will happen".]["Polls close, but can you believe I lost large numbers of women voters based on made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED. Media rigging election!"] ["Election is being rigged by the media, in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news!"]
6, Every successful fascistic movement has been led by a charismatic and often bombastic demagogue who is seen as and who claims to be the embodiment of the nation, the vessel of the national will, and as the exceptional person--one without whom the nation cannot prosper or survive. The state and its leaders effectively become one, ["I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created."] [After delineating the ills of the nation: "I am your voice. I alone can fix it."]
7. Fascistic movements view violence as a just means of achieving its ends, whether outside of or through the state, and law and order are common code words. Calls for violence or hints of violent recourse against opponents are common. There is often an exaggerated, hyper-masculinity on parade, with glorification of toughness and strength and power. There is a display of an authoritarian bearing, and the leader’s followers are admirers of it. ["When somebody challenges you, fight back. Be brutal, be tough."] ["When Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water."] ["If she gets to pick her judges – nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people. Maybe there is. I don’t know."] ["Why can’t we use nuclear weapons."] ["You know what I wanted to. I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard. I would have hit them. No, no. I was going to hit them, I was all set and then I got a call from a highly respected governor."]
8. Despite the popular appeals to "law and order," a trope of authoritarianism more generally, the fascistic conception of law lies outside of any legislative or judicial proceedings or the kinds of protections or due process enshrined by a constitutional authority. Often the law is construed as that which us willed by the individual or individuals in power. ['It is a disgrace. It is a rigged system. I had a rigged system, except we won by so much. This court system, the judges in this court system, federal court. They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace. Ok? But we will come back in November.'] ["The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight."] [On telling generals to violate the Geneva Conventions, US Constitution, and the Uniform Military Code of Justice: "They won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me. I’m a leader; I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it."]
9, A common attribute of fascistic movements is the creation of alternate realities, often with an adamant and repetitive disregard for the truth, even in the face of abundant veridical evidence to the contrary, especially when it serves the ends of the partisans or when said evidence conflicts with doctrine. ['An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.'] [(On unemployment: 'I've seen numbers of 24 percent — I actually saw a number of 42 percent unemployment. Forty-two percent. 5.3 percent unemployment -- that is the biggest joke there is in this country. … The unemployment rate is probably 20 percent, but I will tell you, you have some great economists that will tell you it's a 30, 32. And the highest I've heard so far is 42 percent.']
10. Symbolism is often an important aspect of Fascism, especially patriotic symbols that evoke feelings of group identity. The Nazis, in particular, made effective use of this. [An example, one of many, would be Donald Trump Jr.'s tweeted picture with the Trumps next to a green frog, a common alt-right/anti-Semitic and racist symbol, Of course, all the standard patriotic regalia and lighting and music are part and parcel to the Trump campaign, as it is with every campaign; but there are insidious instances of using other racist and anti-Semitic memes and symbols.]
The foregoing is by no means exhaustive, but I believe it captures the essentials, and though right and left populist movements might share in some of these characteristics in various times and places, when taken as a whole, I think they are substantively different, I have bracketed just a small sample of statements by Trump himself, or gave some examples myself, simply to illustrate and encapsulate some of the reasons why I think he meets these ten criteria. The amount of additional evidence of his unsuitability and utter venality as a human being is simply overwhelming. These are all in addition to his hateful statements towards the disabled and women, an admission to committing physical assault, and to being a sexual predator. Not to mention his repeated failure to adhere to contracts with vendors; discriminatory practices as a landlord; and his use of racist tropes (e.g., birtherism). Then there are Trump’s threats to prosecute and jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton, if he wins, or, if he loses, to not recognize the results of the election. The latter are among the hallmarks of authoritarian strongmen and regimes everywhere.
While I think Fascism and what it conveys is an important descriptor, and one worth preserving and using when it fits, I will readily admit its overuse has diminished its force and gravity. Moreover, it seems to many to be a dead doctrine, one now buried in the historical dustbin. It isn't. Setting that aside, though, the fact remains that the ascendancy of Trump and his craven Republican converts represent the most dangerous political phenomena in the US in the modern era.
The only silver lining is potential that an intellectually and morally responsible center-right party will rise from the ashes, and the apparent destruction of the modern Republican Party, a party transformed (historical irony, here!) by the white flight of the post-Confederate Democrats after the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-Sixties, and an unholy alliance between corporate welfarests and assorted disaffected racists, white Evangelicals, and white workers, a coalition cobbled together by Nixon and Reagan (the so-called silent and moral majorities, respectively), with the help of considerable gerrymandering at the congressional level, courtesy of the likes of Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove. And all the while, the more rational establishment is winking at the crass incitements of the unlettered by the Breitbarts, Limbaughs, Hannitys and O'Reillys of the world, believing at the end a rational man can be inserted (e.g., a McCain or a Romney), whilst the rabble are returned to their guns and religion. I strongly suspect both Nixon and Reagan would be appalled by the Frankenstein monster they helped to create--culminating in a hydra-headed amalgam of the Old Confederacy, Palinism, and Trumpism. It is no longer the party of Javits, Dirksen, Eisenhower, or T.R. (who left the party, despite today's ahistorical Republican hagiography of TR), let alone the party of Lincoln, Today it is the party of the ultimate vulgarian, Donald Trump.
Even with Trump's probable (though I hasten to add, again, uncertain!) defeat, I worry about the possibility of violence, an intractable divide in our population, an impotent executive with a recalcitrant congress (that already lies in wait to foil her and perhaps even to impeach her), and an unstable world with dictators, fanatics, and jingoists run amok, some considerable amount of which is of the United State's own making.
I am not a fan of either Bill or Hilary Clinton, I have not had a choice that I thoroughly liked since George McGovern in the general election of 1972, But I do not doubt Hillary's intellectual or emotional bona fides, and I do believe that she believes in many of the same things that are most important to me (and most of my friends), not least of all, the rule of law, principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights, equality under the law, and a societal obligation to care for the least among us. She is more belligerent and hawkish than I would like; but she is also a quick study and learns from her mistakes, Perhaps she will have learned more about the unintended consequences of military interventions that are not in our strategic interests. I eschew her lawyerly-like triangulation and prevarications, a quality she shares with her husband; but these are certainly not unique to politicians of all political stripes. And she is the soul of punctilious honesty by comparison to Trump. I also regret her seeming instinctive secretiveness (I still remember her “secret” health care committee days in the nineties), and her occasional (to be sure, sometimes understandable!) paranoia. With that said,she is superior in nearly every way to her opponent, or for that matter, even the average politician, This is empirically verifiable by going here http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/jun/29/fact-checking-2016-clinton-trump/, Trump represents a danger not only by virtue of his sordid and incoherent policies, but also because of his very unstable and petulant temperament. It would be a mistake to be fooled by his apparent isolationism and pacific statements, for his past behaviors and language are hyper-aggressive, and he has an overwhelming need to appear tough–––and like many of those who are especially egocentric and thin-skinned, he indicates a massive problem with self-esteem veiled by a fragile ego. This is a mixture for disaster with someone in charge of the most powerful military, police, and intelligence apparatus in the world,
It is said it couldn't happen here, Well, I suspect something similar was thought in the most technologically advanced, literate, and cosmopolitan nation on the face of the earth in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The nation of Beethoven, Kant, and Goethe. And it not only happened, it happened very suddenly, And in the process, both conservative and liberal forces were co-opted or eliminated. Had there been a choice for, say, Pappan or Schleicher over Hitler in 1932-33, both imperfect men, but not Fascists, and both realistic alternatives at the time, tens of millions of lives might have been spared, I do not expect Trump will kill millions ... though his having the nuclear codes is enough to give one pause. But I do think he could irrevocably alter the course of history in a dark and sinister way.
Our choice is clear, I think, and it is essential that we do everything we can not to simply defeat Trump and Trumpism, but to defeat both by the widest margin possible at all levels ... in the hope of marginalizing his and his followers' power ... and to do all that is possible to change the balance of power in the congress, and especially the Senate, lest much mischief be done to damage the office of both the presidency and the nation. To let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or even the acceptable, is now simply unacceptable, given the stakes. Stein, Johnson, or McMullin will not and cannot win the presidency. To vote for any of them, or to write in another, or to not vote at all, simply reduces the margin between the forces of rationality and Trump. Sanders' people who vote for Trump are seriously mistaken that he is no worse than Clinton, or that his various paeans to the worker, jobs, and such are remotely authentic. It is a moral imperative to make that margin as large as possible for all of our sakes, and for the sake of posterity. He must not simply be defeated, but he must be utterly defeated. In the end, voting one's "conscience" ought not to be unconscionable. Put another way, a vote for anyone other than Hillary in this election is not a vote against Trump, but mere self-gratification with the delusion of acting out of principle.
Finally, the evidence demonstrates that it is a waste of time to reason with hard-core Trumpers. This is not meant for them. Feel free to pass this on to the ones who might yet make a difference in the election ahead. It is more than a matter of conscience, notwithstanding the unsatisfactory choices. It is a matter of principle and the utmost urgency.