by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate
In the streets of Washington DC on inauguration day, Black Bloc protesters notoriously smashed windows and set a limousine on fire. Fortunately, I wound up on the other side of the police lines when the cops sealed off the area and herded some 200 into pens of metal barricades, where they were kept waiting in the cold for hours before being hauled off to jail.
The surrounding streets were filled with less militant if more colorful protesters. Two young fellows held aloft a big banner with a reproduction of a frame from a 1940s comic book showing Captain America slugging Hitler. The caption: “Fighting Nazis is an American tradition! Stop the ‘alt-right’!”
The radical right is now ensconced at the highest levels of power, and is emitting an increasingly fascistic stench.
President Trump has officially declared the day of his inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” The US military apparently nixed the Trump team’s request to have tanks and missile launchers rolling down his parade route, but Trump is still looking forward to such spectacles. The military “may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue,” he boasted after the inauguration.
Trump rhetoric seems to be consciously reviving that of the fascist era. The phrase “America First” is all over the White House website—whether or not it has been consciously appropriated from Charles Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi movement of the 1940s
But do the trimmings make for the Real McCoy? Is Donald Trump an actual fascist?
The fact that this question has been subject to media debate is a healthy sign—the idea that a fascist is at the helm of the empire has entered mainstream discourse. But we hear over and over that no, he is not a fascist… he’s a “right-wing populist”—as if these were mutually exclusive categories. Fascism is but the most extreme manifestation of right-wing populism. The question is not whether Trump is one or the other, but how close to the fascist end of the spectrum he has progressed.
Voices on the far left have also balked at the F-word. The anarchist collective CrimethInc asked, “Does Trump Represent Fascism or White Supremacy?” They conclude: “Fascism is Obsolete since 1945, Whiteness is Here to Stay.” They even assert that there is “nothing fascist about Trump.”
This again misses a critical point. “Whiteness” has indeed been a permanent condition in American politics. Whiteness being harnessed to an aggressively reactionary political program at the highest levels of power is what’s new—reactionary in the technical sense of seeking to reverse and avenge erosions (real or perceived) of the order of privilege and power.
The left evinces twin errors where the label “fascism” is concerned. One is using the term so narrowly that it has no utility in describing a social phenomenon. The real hair-splitters even say Hitler was “National Socialist” not fascist, that only Mussolini was the real Fascist. And the differences are real: The Führer’s glorification of “race” versus Il Duce’s exaltation of “nation.” But they were part of the same reaction against advances by communists, anarchists and others who sought a left-revolutionary way out of Europe’s interwar crisis.
The opposite error is to use the word “fascism” like a club to beat on anything we don’t like. This error was displayed by those who called Hillary Clinton a “fascist” because she represented a merger of state and corporate power. (As does Trump, of course.) This was indeed a characteristic of fascism, but not the only one. The violent rejection of liberalism and democracy was fundamental.
Even those who do not display either error often reify fascism to the point that they cannot recognize it in updated context and garb.
We are told that the US does not face nearly the degree of economic crisis that Weimar Germany did when Hitler came to power. This ignores that fact that Italy faced no such crisis in 1922 when Mussolini came to power. It also ignores how the aspirations of the downwardly mobile US middle class have been betrayed by “free trade,” producing, if not desperation, certainly resentment that can be exploited by white nationalism. Trump’s voters were fed ethnic scapegoats for their reduced economic prospects—a classically fascist response.
Demanding an inflexible analogue to the Weimar Republic also overlooks the reality that in the contemporary US whiteness is under attack. The imminent demographic tilt away from a white majority, and the perceived humiliation of relative advances for Blacks also provide a backlash that can by exploited by fascism.
The fascist threat we now face in the US is less ideological than the classical model. Unlike the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, it shows not a trace of economic populism, apart from rejecting free-trade agreements and offering unlikely promises of returning industrial jobs. Indeed, it glorifies the most vulgar flaunting of wealth, and pledges to undo the last remnants of the New Deal.
But all the essential ingredients are there: ugly ultra-nationalism that seeks to correct perceived humiliation, xenophobia and demonization of the Other, exaltation of the great leader, fetishization of violence (“Knock the crap out of him, I’ll pay the legal fees”), contempt for democracy (“We should just cancel the election and give it to Trump”), enthusiasm for military aggression (“I’d bomb the shit out of ’em”), and a populism tinged with anti-Semitism.
Trump’s final campaign ad employed (barely) coded Jew-baiting in displaying the image of George Soros as the symbol of Wall Street greed—but he then stacked his cabinet with figures from Goldman Sachs. This only indicates the arrogance of his fascistic propaganda methods. This is also seen in the lie techniques straight out of the Joseph Goebbels playbook—the brazen inventing of fictional terrorist attacks, while portraying any less than thoroughly cheer-leading media as “fake news.”
There are some obvious divergences from the classical fascist model. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini with their Brown Shirts and Black Shirts, Trump built no paramilitary movement before taking power—although right-wing militias may yet be co-opted by his machine. And the US remains a federal system, which will provide some breaks on the march toward absolute power.
But there is little doubt that Trump is marching there. And here is where the fictional terror attacks could be critical. If there is a “Reichstag Fire”—in this case, a terrorist attack (authentic or staged), especially one attributed to a Muslim immigrant—we could find ourselves moving quickly toward something resembling actual fascism.
And there is obviously a struggle going on within the intelligence community between those elements with some commitment to bourgeois-democratic norms (or, at least, rational governance) and those ready to embrace Trump-fascism. If the latter emerge victorious, Trump will be a giant leap closer to realizing his dictatorial dreams.
And this may touch on the reluctance of many on the left to call the new fascism “fascism.” It gets back to the dichotomy I witnessed in the streets of DC between the Black Bloc and protesters who saw their anti-fascism in patriotic terms. Anarchists especially may balk at recognizing fascism for fear of legitimizing bourgeois democracy—of being on the same side, even if by accident, as Democratic politicians and elements of the intelligence community.
The challenge in the coming period will be to organize effective, tactically astute resistance, which will entail broad if informal coalitions with a wide array of anti-fascist forces—but to do so in a way that does not compromise our independence from the Democratic party or our critique of capitalism and state power. And, more ambitiously, to do so in a way that will open windows of possibility for a revolutionary way out of North America’s current crisis.
A slightly different version of this story appears in the Summer 2017 edition of Fifth Estate
Does Trump Represent Fascism or White Supremacy?
CrimethInc.com, December 2016
Donald Trump Is a Fascist
by Jamelle Bouie
Slate, Nov. 25, 2015
Donald Trump isn’t a fascist
by Sheri Berman
Vox, Jan. 23, 2017
Kettle commentary from the counter-inauguration
by Bill Weinberg
The Villager, Jan. 26, 2017
Palestine and anti-Semitism in the Age of Trump
by Bill Weinberg
The Villager, Jan. 19, 2017
Bill Weinberg: Donald Trump is a fascist
CounterVortex, Nov. 19, 2016
From our Daily Report:
No, Swedish riots do not vindicate Trump (on fictional terror attacks)
CounterVortex, March 9, 2017
Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist
CounterVortex, Nov. 15, 2016
The Republicans are the party of white supremacy: deal with it
CounterVortex, Sept. 11, 2012
Republicans lead fascist attack on Constitution (yes, really)
CounterVortex, Feb. 26, 2011
ONLY LEFT RADICALISM CAN STOP FASCISM
by Laurence Davis, openDemocracy
CounterVortex, March 2017
AMERICAN ‘LEFT’ ABETS TRUMP-PUTIN AXIS
by Bill Weinberg, Muftah
CounterVortex, February 2017
Reprinted by CounterVortex, April 11, 2017