|Photo by Gage Skidmore|
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is attracting astounding attention. The demagogue has been rising in the polls, his ever-more-bizarre pronouncements sparking admiration and outrage, but never failing to capture attention. Many media organs have been praising him for his forthright statements, others have worried that he is straying just over the borders of respectability, still others treat him as something of a joke.
But Trump is no joke and his campaign is no laughing matter. His persona and pronouncements are increasingly dangerous, and pose a direct threat to our country. Trump has exposed a deeply racist, nativist, and violent strain in U.S. politics, and is exploiting it in a manner designed to ensure that whether or not he wins the primary campaign or the election, people will get hurt.
But the media is at a loss as to how to categorize and deal with Trump. On the traditional U.S. left-right scale, support for any welfare measures, such as those voiced by Trump, is generally supposed to indicate leftist leanings. For this reason, confronted with Trump’s support for social security alongside his hate speech directed at Latinos in the U.S, commentators have appeared at a loss to find a word to describe Trump’s emerging ideology or brand beyond vague references to ‘populism’, a catch all that they also use to describe social democratic Senator Bernie Sanders.
But a glimpse back in time and a little work of historical comparison shows us that we have the vocabulary to describe Trump and what he represents, and that what the media sees as ‘inconsistency’, ‘populism’, or more laughably still, as ‘centrism’, is actually something else, something very like the Fascism that many believed to have been thoroughly discredited after the 1930s and 1940s.
I’m aware that there are those on the political left who throw the word ‘fascist’ around at any idea or individual to their right who they dislike or wish to discredit. I’m using it in a much more concrete fashion, and think there are strong parallels between the ideas and practice that Trump is calling into play, and those that operated in a variety of places in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.
It is true that both Sanders and Trump are tapping dissatisfaction with the status quo, and both invoke a version of solidarity. But Sanders’ solidarity is premised on the idea of equality amongst human beings, whereas Trump’s is premised on the superiority of some people over others. Sanders’ solidarity is an effort to shore up the general welfare of people across our country, whereas Trump is pitching himself as the defender of the interests of a sub-set of the population, promising to attack a vulnerable group of people to better the lives of people who already enjoy an economic edge by virtue of their race—something about which many people in the U.S. remain in denial.
Both Sanders and Trump are critical of groups within our society. But Sanders is critical of the behavior of a class, and is proposing to curtail the ability of a class of plutocrats to exploit the middle and working class. Trump is proposing the general extirpation—through intimidation and deportation—of a population group defined by ethnicity and language.
A UN Security Council resolution described ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain demographic areas”. The means for that cleansing do not—as is oft-supposed—have to involve mass killings, but can include “confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation…threats of attacks on civilians”.
Ethnic cleansing might seem an extreme term to describe what Trump advocates towards Latinos, and his ideas would have to take more concrete form before they could be described as such in legal terms. But consider that his goal has been to portray an entire ethnic group, defined in the minds of the U.S. public by its immigrant members, as “rapists”, “criminals”, and “drug dealers”, the dregs of society, somehow dispatched by a Mexican government to undermine the U.S. He wants to embrace a mass deportation policy that will tear families apart, violate the laws of citizenship, and ignore the root causes of in-migration to the U.S. He wants Latinos to walk carefully and fearfully—if indeed they dare walk at all—in public, aware that the eye of the state regards them as a hostile, foreign menace.
Trump has inspired his GOP colleagues to embrace similarly dehumanizing language, which evokes the hygenic references of ethnic cleansing programs. Chris Christie talked about treating migrants like so many “FedEx packages”, to be tracked and monitored and removed where necessary. In the 1930s, fascists used modern technological, organizational, and administrative innovations to “cleanse” populations and dehumanize the victims—defined religiously, ethnically, sexually, or politically—of their various purges.
Trump’s would-be Blackshirts have already invoked his name when engaging in savage street violence, and the hirelings at his side during official campaign events have demonstrated that their hatred and contempt extends to Latinos whether they are undocumented or citizens, “get out of my country” becoming a rallying cry. Trump, who has attracted white supremacists to his rallies, and earned himself an endorsement from a former Ku Klux Klan leader, has also demonstrated that his crude racism will extend beyond the Latino community in the United States…his “act”, so appealing to that surprisingly-large strand of white supremacy in the U.S., having recently demonized Asians through his mocking expressions, accents, and stereotypes that go back to 19th century nativism.
Intense, ethnically- and linguistically-defined nationalism was at the core of fascist worldviews when they arose in the last century. The “rightful” members of the nation required a scapegoat, a community that could be shamed or worse. And their nationalism was projected violently abroad, in a quest for confrontation that Trump promises to embrace, whether in his talk of forcing Mexico to pay for a wall, his desire to take on China, or his belligerent brinkmanship.
Trump’s defense of social security, and sporadic criticisms of the plutocratic class of which he is himself a member, has by turns confused and attracted those journalists and progressives willing to turn a blind eye to his hypocrisy and racism. How, they marvel, can Trump combine the racism associated with the xenophobic right with defense of social security? It must, they reason, make him a moderate or at the very least ‘incoherent’.
Trump’s speech is certainly incoherent, bubbling over with contradictions and inconsistencies where it is even decipherable, self-aggrandizement and boasting constantly interrupting stream-of-conscious babbling about politics and policies.
But it should be remembered that this form of populism—the uplift of a race at the expense of some other group or groups—has been a staple of right-wing politics, which forms cultural solidarities on the basis of race. Fascism was able to poach a handful of converts from across the political spectrum, and even turn leftist sympathisers because of its attacks on elites (those attacks didn’t have to make sense or to square with fascisms embrace of corporatism) and its promise of welfare for the elect. It promised a vigor that broken or sabotaged political systems could not match.
The fascism that I think Trump recalls was defined by hyper-nationalism, militaristic saber-rattling, misogyny, confrontation, name-calling, anti-labor activities, intimidation, showmanship, anti-intellectualism, economic populism that quickly devolves into corporatism, scapegoating, and the constant threat of violence. As this assemblage of descriptors implies, it was part policy and part political culture. In his history of 20th century Europe (Out of Ashes, Princeton: 2015), Konrad Jarausch reminds us that fascism was a “style and feeling rather than a systematic ideology” (157), which I think sums up Trump’s “act”.
In his style, Trump is certainly reminiscent of some of the fascist showmen of the 1920s and ‘30s. And the version of populism that he and his followers propose seems to demarcate access to the state and its resources in ethno-linguistic and ideological terms. He is proposing to regenerate the nation through a kind of purge, portraying his ideological opponents as weak and degenerate in a way that stops just short of questioning their humanity.
Trump is pursuing electoral politics at the moment, but the threat of violence and the threat to upend political practice lurk in the background. He has attempted to intimidate the media by letting them know that unpleasant questions could lead to the curtailment of their access. His threat to bypass the Republican Party if he is not chosen as its standard-bearer is one thing. But what sound like tacit threats to unleash his “passionate” supporters if he is challenged or bypassed is more sinister, and taps into the trend of right-wing leaders, who suffer defeat after defeat at the polls, challenging the legitimacy of those who defeat them through democracy.
I think that Trump is making this up as he goes along. I doubt that there is a plan and I doubt that he is imitating some of the vilest constellations of ideas and practices that we have known in the past hundred years. But his ignorance is no excuse. For he has the resources, the ego, and the sociopathy that insulates him from being able to understand the consequences of his actions, to play a very dangerous role in the rightward tilt of our politics. He is embarrassing the Republican Party, but mostly because he is simply saying out loud and with great bravado and pride what the party has historically mouthed through innuendo.
His brand of populism, racism, belligerence, and subtle threats of violence are not without precedents. But we should look carefully and warily at where those precedents are and where they have led. And all of those who find something admirable in Trump’s political mélange should step back and look carefully at the broader picture to see what it is they might be in danger of endorsing. Earlier versions of the toxic brew he is cooking up have led to discrimination, violence, the marginalization of voices protecting working people and minorities of all stripes, and far, far worse.
We must learn to call Trump’s version of fascism by its name, and recognize the extent to which it has entered the mainstream of the Republican Party.