Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Trump & Fascism: The Basics

An extraordinary thing happened during the recently-concluded election cycle: the rise of Donald Trump inspired some in the mainstream corporate press to utter the "f" word. Not "fornicating" but "fascism." This proved a brief flirtation; a few months later, those in the press have long since dropped this talk and have largely tried to go back to some semblance of business-as-usual while being tasked with covering a "president" who is entirely inexplicable in those terms. Applying the word to him was hyperbolic and arguably even irresponsible but not, as some would have it, because there's any great distance between Trump and fascism. Trying to cover  Trump without reference to fascism is, in fact, like trying to ignore an angry gorilla while crammed into a very small closet with it.

That isn't to say Trump is a fascist, just that the matter was handled indelicately and now needs to be handled with greater care, instead of just being ignored. Trump is the darling of the "alt-right," much of which is overtly fascist.[1] This isn't coincidental or in any way unintentional--he all-but-openly courted these elements during the campaign, often in ways that would have been political suicide for any other modern presidential candidate. Trump has a much larger fanbase among a faction of what's considered the "regular" right that would properly be described as protofascist--not the whole hog but well on its way. And that's Trump himself, a protofascist who, at present, lacks some of the important elements of the real thing.

"Fascism" is one of the most repeated but least understood words in political discourse, perhaps second only to "socialism" in words whose meaning has been almost entirely lost to relentless, politically-motivated misuse. As far back as the 1940s, George Orwell famously lamented that in common usage, it has come to mean merely "something not desirable." For decades, it was hurled as a multipurpose term of abuse, first by both conservative and liberal factions, then, for a long time, by liberals and leftists. In more recent years (in the U.S., at least), it has primarily been conservatives and rightists spewing it like a grudge. Reduced to virtual meaninglessness, its emptiness encouraged people with too much time on their hands to fill it with all manner of nonsense. Thus at a point in history when it has become a more important subject than it has been in decades, people aren't just uninformed about it, they're often very boldly misinformed. This isn't just troublesome, it's potentially dangerous.

Any effort to define fascism as a body of ideas must contend with the fact that one of its defining elements is a seething anti-intellectualism and a fundamental anti-rationalism that sometimes masquerades as a faux-rationalism, travestying the real thing but counterfeiting it in the service of the fascist cause. Fascism prioritizes action over reflection. Its basic antagonism toward serious, informed thought means it isn't so much a cohesive ideology as it is an impulse; reactionary, to use another word that has gone out of fashion in common political discourse. Any discussion of fascism must account for this. Few of those that occur in internet forums ever do.

Oxford defines fascism as "an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization." While correct, that's far too general, as dictionary definitions will tend to be, and to the extent that it feeds that vacuum that has developed around the word, it may do more harm than good.[2]

Fascism is militant far-right sentiment on legs. The fascist is ultranationalistic, which is the most important thing to understand about him and the source from which nearly everything else about him flows. He despises modern liberal democracy, which he insists has failed and betrayed the people, and calls for national renewal by sweeping it aside and replacing it with an authoritarian regime. He holds that radicals, liberals, labor unions, immigrants, democrats, racial or ethnic minorities, sexual "deviants," non-conformists, women who don't understand their place is in the kitchen and bearing male children, those measured as less than patriotic, not of the right ethnicity or religion, those pesky "intellectuals" with all their ideas about things, etc. are, by their mere existence, an attack on the established institutions and traditions (or imagined institutions and traditions) of the particular cultural milieu chauvinistically favored by the fascists--enemies who have no place in society. Fascists foster a cult of aggrievement against these "enemies," who are relentlessly demonized and scapegoated as a rationale for stamping them out in the name of that project of national renewal and are willing to employ an incredible amount of violence and even mass murder to crush them. As Benito Mussolini put it, "The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo. And the sooner the better." All of the fundamental values of the liberal society--freedom, self-determination, democracy, diversity, tolerance, openness, free inquiry--are held in contempt by the fascist, who projects strength, resolve and moral clarity against what he sees as weakness, softness, incompetence, betrayal, decadence, idiocy, relativism, appeasement, impurity, indecision, indecency, bleeding heart-ism and that Great Other--that which is outside that favored milieu. The fascist typically indulges in a perverse Romanticism that revels in the imagined glories of some mythologized past and seeks to recapture them. He embraces martial values, hyper-masculinity and glorifies in war and conquest--means of proving strength, superiority, heroism.

Fascist movements tend to congregate around charismatic demagogues who rise to power preaching this message and presenting themselves, rather than any specific political program, as the living embodiment of it. Because these movements are tied to the cultures from which they emerge, some specific details about the various permutations of fascism will differ but they're a bit like slasher movies; it may not be quite accurate to say of them "if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all," but it ain't far off the mark.

That's fascism, a far-right movement that preaches national renewal by means of the destruction of the liberal society, the suppression of the left and the adoption of an authoritarian state run along ultranationalistic lines. Hopefully, this makes clear how much any brief, positivist description--like, for example, the previous sentence--necessarily leaves on the cutting-room floor and helps knock some of the ambiguity out of the subject.

Nearly everything beyond this is merely ad hoc, and the failure to understand this is where the efforts of so many of the internet's amateur lexicographers fail. It's hard to do history and political science when you don't know either, and the matter of fascism is further complicated by the almost-constant presence of politically motivated revisionism that actively seeks to take advantage of the general ignorance of the subject for partisan advantage. In the name of further demystifying the matter, some of the many hashes made of fascism are worth same attention here.

A popular one is an effort to define it via a structural model and this hash's Exhibit A-Z is the following quote by Mussolini:

"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power."

The first big problem: While Mussolini did put forth the idea of a "corporate" or, more typically, a "corporativist" state, this quote isn't real. It appears nowhere in the recorded utterances of Benito Mussolini. The next: Those selling this notion of fascism invariably treat "corporate power" as a reference to modern business corporations, a reading that is entirely alien to fascist corporativism. A repudiation of socialism, the "corporativist" state was one in which sectors of society were organized into corporate entities that made a pretense of representing these various interests but, of course, these entities were created and run by the state and those whose interests they were allegedly to represent usually had no real say in their direction. In practice, the application of corporativist notions under fascism was just another way the state controlled things.

That misperception regarding "corporate power" is often fed by another stream of commentary offered initially by Marxists who presented fascism as a form of capitalism in crisis, proposing a narrative wherein the established Big Money interests, feeling threatened by socialists and other radical reformers, turn to fascism in order to smite these foes and protect their interests. That basic narrative is largely correct. The support of the, broadly, capitalist class is typically critical in bringing fascist movements to power, after which the money-men enter into a mutually profitable arrangement with the regime that develops.[3] Where the cruder Marxists collapse into hash is in suggesting that the fascist states were merely the puppets of that capitalist class, a preposterious proposition. The money-men embraced the fascists movements and were made even wealthier by them but whenever a dispute arose between they and the government, the regime got the last word. While, in practice, these regimes are invariably pro-capitalist, this is usually just part of fascism's larger alliance with traditional conservative elites, not some doctrinal commitment to capitalism itself.[4]

Another hash--one of the most common, in fact--is made by those who attempt to present fascism as an economic doctrine or to examine it as any sort of cohesive economic system. Fascism isn't an economic doctrine and has no economic doctrine. As Hitler put it, "the basic feature of our economic theory is that we have no theory at all." Fascists aren't intellectuals sitting around reading economic texts--certainly not writing them--or putting any real effort into trying to learn how economies work. "Economic policy" under these regimes is ad hoc--whatever it takes at the moment to meet the goals (or perceived goals) of the day. Policy could radically change on a dime with circumstances then change again shortly after. There's no real consistency, either internally or between the different fascisms.[5]

Many-a-hash is made by those who try to explain fascism as one would any other traditional political movement. If its anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism doesn't trip them up, its relationship with doctrine will. If one wants to get a good general picture of the policies for which most political parties stand, one need only consult that party's current platform. Fascists tend to be very opportunistic though, political omnivores who make a show of syncretistically gobbling up bits and pieces from other political movements and parties across the spectrum and deploy propaganda in the worst sense of that word. In their hands, "doctrine" in the programmatic way ordinary political parties conceive it becomes fluid, that which needs to be said from day to day in order to achieve then maintain power. Mussolini had originally been a socialist. He'd been expelled from the Socialist party in 1914 for a growing list of heresies, principally, his support of the First World War, and in March 1919, he founded the Fasci di Combattimento--the Fascism from which we get the word--in order to, as he put it, "declare war against socialism." Initially, he tried to craft a sort of fusion of right and left views--the original Fascist manifesto, though anti-socialist, was quite progressive in many respects, even radical in others but this drew little interest and after being utterly squashed in the 1919 elections, the initial movement largely fell apart. Mussolini simply abandoned--or, more often, directly reversed--most of the left elements[6] and Fascism became a movement of reactionary ex-soldiers who mustered into far-right paramilitaries that were rented out to the industrial and agribusiness elite to physically crush the Italian left. In internet discussions of German fascism, some amateur professional will inevitably pull out the 25-point program of the National Socialist German Workers Party from 1920 as representative of that party. In that platform, there is, to be sure, plenty of the Nazism that would later emerge but the radical planks in it, the items that inevitably prove to be the reason it's brandished in these discussions, were entirely ignored once the Nazis seized power. Likewise, the German fascists' use of socialist slogans and imagery and even the word "socialism" itself amounted to little more than an effort to attract votes (at which it largely failed) and attention (at which it succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected). Those within the movement who took the radicalism seriously were successively purged.[7] The fascist freely adopts doctrines, even those to which he has no real commitment, to serve various ends and freely discards them if they've served their purpose or outlived their usefulness. Fascism doesn't have a traditional political movement's connection to programmatic doctrine. It's about recognizing the authority of the fascist leaders and doing what they say.

This hopefully provides an outline of where the Trump phenomenon is similar to fascism and wherein it differs. It's easy to understand why even reasonably intelligent and informed people would jump to the "f" word to describe him. The ultranationalism, the anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, the opportunistic political syncretism (during the presidential race, Trump freely ran to Hillary Clinton's left on many issues), the lack of any real program beyond Trump as the strongman who promises to cure the liberal democracy that ails the nation, the promise of authoritarian rule and of national renewal to be achieved by it ("Make America Great Again"), the machismo, the militarism, the exaltation of authority, the persistent demonization of his "enemies," including helpless minorities, often to justify repressive policies--it would be far easier to list the few areas in which he differs from fascism than those wherein he echoes it. Nevertheless, some of those points of departure are important. Fascism revels in violence against its perceived enemies and while Trump spent months during the campaign encouraging his supporters to carry out violence against anti-Trump protesters and has always pimped a belligerent foreign policy, this is hardly the same as fielding a paramilitary force who battle opponents in the streets. Trump, likewise, hasn't called for the abolition of liberal democracy. His attacks on its institutions, however, are relentless and, in fact, form the basis of his popularity. While, in this writer's view, these differences rule out "fascist" as an accurate description of Trump,[8] it's also entirely reasonable to see these differences as merely matters of degree, as, if one follows Trump's "logic" on both, one reaches the fascist conclusion.[9] While Trump is no fascist, he's certainly protofascist.

An unfortunate fact of life on the internet is that baseless and stupid fascist comparisons, particularly Nazi comparisons, are, in political discussions, ubiquitous--like air but without any of its beneficial properties. Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, Mitt Romney--it doesn't matter who is being discussed, their background, how far removed from fascism they may be, if a conversation goes on long enough, someone will eventually chime in with some entirely inappropriate fascist analogy. It's just a sad reality that while everyone these days has a computer with an internet connection, not everyone has the real tools needed to participate in informed, thoughtful discussion of public affairs.[10] Those toting such understocked toolboxes routinely compare any politician they dislike to Adolf Hitler, frequently even depicting those pols as Hitler. Trump has gotten the same treatment. Here are some things that shouldn't have to be said: Hitler was the leader and, in many ways, the personal embodiment of arguably the most evil regime in human history, a regime that launched the most murderous war in that history and that, in fact, industrialized murder on a mass scale. Comparing any run-of-the-mill pol to Hitler is utterly ludicrous. Comparing Donald Trump to Hitler is utterly ludicrous. There are over 60 million graves between these pols and anything that could possibly justify any such comparison. When someone makes one of these comparisons, he marks himself as a thoroughgoing crackpot who is bereft of sound judgment.

Were that the only effect, there would be no need to do anything more than step back and let the fool cut his own throat. Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of these sorts of comparisons can also have a very negative impact, in that they can lead those bombarded with them to avoid or even dismiss more serious and informed conversations on the topics of fascism, protofascism, the current President of the United States and the movements that brought him to power. At the same time, those who, for partisan reasons, don't want such conversations to go forward will attempt to portray every effort at holding one as nothing more than just another iteration of Trump-with-a-Hitler-moustache memes. We have to be able to talk sensibly on such things. 

As president, Trump is in a position to do incalculable damage to the U.S. and the world and when it comes to items in need of attention, he's likely to suck up most of the oxygen for the immediate future but his rise is representative of what is perhaps an even larger problem. The manufactured disconnect between so much of the American right and reality has been a constant concern of this writer's commentary on public affairs for more than a quarter-century, in which time that disconnect has become more and more profound as right-wing and far-right-wing media have arisen to carefully nurture it.[11] Collectively, I've long referred to that media, after its principal function, as the Rage Machine. Only a few weeks ago, I wrote:

"What lurks behind [Trump adviser Kellyanne] Conway's alt-'facts' is the extraordinary social damage wrought--and nascent fascist movement birthed--by the right-wing Rage Machine. For better or worse, the U.S. is a fundamentally liberal nation. There's simply no significant popular support for conservative policies. To maintain power in the face of this, the American conservative elite have aggressively labored, through their massive media apparatus, to reduce 'politics' and the larger social discourse to the level of a simple good-vs.-evil tale, encouraging their followers to side with them not because their policies are more sound or they have any sort of better argument--any serious examination of such things is, in fact, discouraged--but because they've conjured a pleasing narrative in which they've positioned themselves as the virtuous heroes and everyone else as the evil villains. Nearly every major rightist outlet in the United States has spent a few decades making open war on both reason and on reality itself. Because objective facts would equal an agreed-upon yardstick against which claims can be assessed--and because conservative and reactionary claims can't withstand that scrutiny--breaking down confidence in them has been a major project of the Rage Machine, which attempts to indoctrinate its followers in the belief that the truth or falsity of any proposition can be judged entirely by its temporary political utility. 'Facts,' via this conditioning, become things that can be used as propaganda on the rare occasions when they serve the cause and can be otherwise discarded. The Machine tells its followers they're persecuted, feeds them a steady diet of manufactured outrages and utterly dehumanizes and demonizes liberals, minorities and anyone else who may stand against the hero of the tale. Liberals, in this fantasy, aren't those who may have a legitimate disagreement. They're an evil, lying, cheating, stealing, weak, moronic enemy actively seeking to do you harm, that have control of the levers of power by illegitimate means and that need to be defeated, destroyed, eliminated. When all reason, all serious thinking, all confidence in institutions has been burned away, all that's left are a bunch of fearful, rage-filled reactionaries who have been taught that though they're right, they're good and they represent The People, they're persecuted by this foe, whom they've been taught to despise. The American conservative elite hope those reared in this atmosphere will show up on election day and vote Republican, which is exactly what has, for some years, happened, but this smog has now given rise to something they didn't anticipate and can't control: a Trumpenstein monster, an angry, ambulatory representation of every bad impulse the Rage Machine has ever projected, with the fascist's promise of national renewal by means of the authoritarian dismantling of the liberal society. Trump's hardcore supporters were reared in this environment... For this particular group, there are no facts anymore, just a narrative to which they've been conditioned to respond." 

The Machine has relentlessly bred this protofascist cult, whose adherents are fed up with the liberal democracy with all its tolerance and diversity and built-in procedures that always seem to prevent them from getting their way. They wanted a strongman who promised to do what that liberal democracy wouldn't and in 2016, they allied with conservatives, actual fascists, those who wished to express their disapproval of the incumbent administration and its de facto continuation in the person of Hillary Clinton and others to successfully elect that very thing. While Trump has tapped this cult, it's larger than him, was there long before he came along and is likely to continue well beyond him, as its spawning pool is made up of most of the major institutions of the American right, particularly the media institutions, which show no sign of going away.

Despite the occasional effort by internet liberals to tar them with the label, conservatives aren't fascists. While the protofascists are drawn from the conservatives' ranks, fascists and protofascists are, in fact, as much a threat to conservatives as they are to anyone else. They run all over those principals conservatives profess to cherish. Conservatives don't control the public microphone of the right though. The voices that come through it may call themselves "conservative" but they're largely reactionaries, the protos, and while many of them were horrified by the rise of Trump, nearly all of them had helped create the toxic environment that bred him and that, left unreformed, will breed the next one and the next ten. Collectively, they are the Rage Machine. Like any machine, this one can't run without fuel and what's powering it now is its primary audience: conservatives. This puts conservatives in an unique position to make a difference. The only way these institutions will ever dry up and disappear (and hopefully be replaced with better ones) is if their audience willingly walks away--has a road-to-Damascus moment, turns off Fox News, shuts out Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, stops reading RedState and Breitbart and Coulter and Malkin, casts Glenn Beck into the sea. Confirmation bias can be an intoxicant and feeding it has proven a formula for right-wing media success, as the appetite for it on the right seems insatiable.[12] For a time. Conservatives are going to have to sort out whether their future is conservative or reactionary. At the moment, too many of them think they're sitting at a safe distance and delighting in watching a video feed of that gorilla in that closet raging away. They may soon discover they're actually stuffed in that closet with the rest of us.



 [1] The phrase "alt-right" was introduced by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, as an effort to rebrand the same old white supremacist/Nazi/fascist subculture.

 [2] Some of the other standard dictionary definitions are even worse. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition." calls it "a political theory advocating an authoritarian hierarchical government (as opposed to democracy or liberalism)." The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as "a political system based on a very powerful leader, state control of social and economic life, and extreme pride in country and race, with no expression of political disagreement allowed." And so on. Definitions so devoid of substance that they would cover nearly any dictatorship.

 [3] That doesn't, of course, prevent some of those capitalists from experiencing buyer's remorse. Even if one is becoming fantastically rich via the arrangement, it sucks to live under a dictatorship.

 [4] Nonetheless, this arguably makes fascism a form of capitalism. There's a history of both rightist "Libertarian" capital-C Capitalist ideologues embracing fascism and of fascism embracing them, perhaps most infamously in the Pinochet regime in Chile. This is a large subject that would quickly turn into an overly long tangent here, so I've set it aside.

 [5] In "The Anatomy of Fascism," Robert Paxton, one of the foremost living experts on fascism, wrote:

"This [economic policy] was the area where both fascist leaders [Hitler and Mussolini] conceded the most to their conservative allies. Indeed, most fascists--above all after they were in power--considered economic policy as only a means to achieving the more important fascist ends of unifying, energizing, and expanding the community. Economic policy tended to be driven by the need to prepare and wage war. Politics trumped economics... [F]ascist economic policy responded to political priorities, and not to economic rationale. Both Mussolini and Hitler tended to think that economics was amenable to a ruler’s will."

In a 2015 interview with Vox, Paxton said "it's hard to link those people [the fascists] to any one kind of economic idea."

In "A History of Fascism 1914-1945," historian Stanley Payne, who specializes in Spanish fascism but has written on the broader subject, writes that "economic policy under [Italian] Fascism did not chart an absolutely clear course." Of Germany, Payne concludes "no completely coherent model of political economy was ever introduced in Nazi Germany."

Daniel Woodley, from "Fascism & Political Theory":

" a political innovation, fascism is distinguished by an absence of coherent economic ideology and an absence of serious economic thinking at the summit of the state. Not only are economic factors ALONE an insufficient condition of understanding fascism, but the decisions taken by fascists in power cannot be explained within a logical economic framework."

Stuart Woolf, "The Nature of Fascism":

"No comparative study exists of fascist economic systems. Nor is this surprising. For one can legitimately doubt whether it is appropriate to use so distinctive a term as 'system' when discussing fascist economics... Nor, in the economic field, could fascism lay claim to any serious theoretical basis or to any outstanding economic theoreticians."

He describes fascist economics as "a series of improvisations, or responses to particular and immediate problems" and notes that "the actions of any single fascist regime... [were] so contradictory as to make it difficult to speak of a coherent and consistent economic policy in one country, let alone in a more general system..." And so on.

 [6] When the movement made its sharp rightward turn, Alceste De Ambris, the principal author of the 1919 Fascist manifesto, left it in disgust. When the Fascists rose to power, he opposed them and was eventually forced to flee Italy because of it.

 [7] An element of the fringe right has long gnawed on the farcical notion that fascism is some sort of movement of the left or even a socialist movement and the internet has helped make this . Essentially a form of Holocaust denial, it's the sort of idiocy that could only gain traction in a profoundly historically illiterate population.

 [8] Vox consulted several experts on fascism and they agreed Trump didn't qualify. At least one other has gone on record as saying Trump is a fascist. Some of those experts are, in this writer's view, being overly precious about their subject. Stanley Payne, for example, says fascism literally couldn't exist after the 1940s. Robert Paxton, who says Trump isn't a fascist, nevertheless notes that Trump "shows a rather alarming willingness to use fascist themes and fascist styles." It was a subject of some interesting discussion.

 [9] And Trump does practically nothing to counter this. American conservatives have long used a language of freedom to sell their agenda. That the notion of "freedom" they're peddling is usually a travesty of the real thing (and that language a cynical farce) is, here, secondary to the fact that this is the ideal to which they rhetorically appeal. There's nothing like that in Trump, who works from the usual fascist playbook about the nation in decline and presents America as a besieged and dying failure. Not an uplifting vision of America as the Land of the Free but a dark vision of it as a crazed, reactionary fortress.

[10] The best the rest of us can do is to try to educate them, which is one of the points of this article. 

[11] At least some conservatives seem to be recognizing the problem. Last year, longtime conservative talk-radio host Charlie Sykes offered some observations about the state of the American right. Speaking of conservative media, he said

"We've basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes... whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it's a falsehood... The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that. 'By the way, you know it's false.' And they'll say, 'Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.' Or they'll say, 'I saw it on a Facebook page.' And I'll say, 'The New York Times did a fact check.' And they'll say, 'Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bullshit.'... You can be in this alternative media reality and there's no way to break through it. And I swim upstream because if I don't say these things from some of these websites then suddenly I have sold out. Then they'll ask what's wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true... We've created this monster... [W]e have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media... But, at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there. And I am feeling, to a certain extent, that we are reaping the whirlwind at that."

Unfortunately, Sykes then retired from the Wisconsin airwaves in December.

[12] On the other hand, the disaster that is Trump in power will probably do significant harm to the Machine and bring it into disrepute.

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