Trump, Democracy, and Fascism

A rise in radical authoritarian sentiment in a democracy is generally a symptom of its fragility.

Let us dispense with one mischaracterization. Donald Trump is not a fascist by any useful definition.

Even so, he has displayed an unprecedented readiness to use pages from the fascist playbook. He is not trying to ape Mussolini or Hitler. It is scarcely believable that he has read the works of these perverse men (indeed it is unlikely that he has read any long book in quite some time.) The tactics come naturally to him. The life he has lived, the skills he has needed, and needed not, to acquire, make these them sensible.

But much else about him is quite un-fascist. His hyper-individualism and his preference for traditional elite governance, make him a toxic rightist populist demagogue. A demagogue undergoing the political taxidermy of an election campaign may be filled with many different types of stuffing. Trump is not full of fascism. What he actually is full of, apart from the excrementally obvious, remains dangerous. He is a vicious man. It is not happenstance that he sees the appeal in an alliance with the most vicious elements of the right. He will do a lot of damage, and we cannot know how much. He may be a foretaste of worse things to come. In another era, or another country, he might well have been a fascist. The mere fact that he isn't one is not something to take comfort in. To mobilize resentment against those in power is an old political tactic which has been well and ill used — as often as not by people whose real attitude toward those in power was actually one of vicarious relish and servile envy. Trump's deluge of innuendo poured upon the arts, the intellectuals, the immigrants, the (insert here) is also standard, if novelly spiced, fare for the conservative reactionary.

One of the few ways in which Trumpism is different, and indeed structurally (as opposed to rhetorically) akin to fascism is its opportunism. Its popularity and success depended on the breakdown of much of the normal political apparatus. The increasing failure of the representative system to actually express popular will electorally, the obvious contempt in which both parties had long held much of their electorate, and the ever more bald-faced effect of corruption (particularly in congress), had eroded both the functioning of democratic processes and popular confidence in them at several levels. The breakdown of administrative efficacy, particularly in the rural US, was greater than it had been in perhaps a century.

Meanwhile, the Left (or at any rate something passing for one) for which class-consciousness was once a key organizing principle, had crystallized a perverse form of neoliberal politics that openly denigrated working people. This was difficult for democrat policy wonks to understand, thanks in no small part to the fact that their paychecks depended so completely on their not understanding it. For decades, US politics had been of a subtly conservative nature. It was not an argument between different visions of society combatting each other, but between different versions of the status quo fighting with different forms of nostalgia. It was a trend which even the Sanders campaign could not defeat, and which dropped all pretenses in Chuck Schumer's claim, no less obscene than deluded, that "for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

During the period between the World Wars, almost every modern country on earth that had a form of mass politics developed a fascist movement, or at least an intellectual and popular ferment akin to fascism. Lesser-known instances include the National Guard or "Blueshirts" of Ireland, the National Party or "Greyshirts" of Iceland, the Australian New Guard, the Jewish Brit Habirionim in Mandatory Palestine and the American Silver Legion.

Only in a few troubled countries could these movements get entrenched. In fewer still could they make major inroads into the political system. Only in a handful could they actually achieve any real power, and only in two could they maintain control for very long without outside help.

These movements were important only in democratic or semi-democratic regimes. Traditionalist authoritarian or autocratic governments, to which communism posed such a threat, could easily neutralize or co-opt them. They were successful only to the extent that the political system they had to deal with was dysfunctional.

Fascism was a malady of sick democracies. Marxist-Leninist movements could overthrow dictatorships and monarchies, but —with a few debatable exceptions — have tended to be tempered and absorbed by democracies. Fascists were better equipped to exploit the weaknesses of a frail democracy, to appeal to disillusioned leftists whose politics had taken a nationalist right turn. Disillusionment with the program on offer from the left was not only an advantage, it was essential to Fascism's success.

Trump's rise is to be instructively compared to fascism in that his appeal, and his success, depend upon profound dysfunction — an indictment of electoral bankruptcy and administrative brokenness. Trumpism gained mass support above all else among the materially aggrieved whom the liberal party in particular and the left in general had long ago tossed under the rightward-veering bus, allowing it to fill a niche from which to expand via racialist demagoguery. With the decisive electoral failure of a Left populist movement led by a career politician, it gained even more ground. Dysfunction was, is, and shall be, Trumpism's fuel. It will succeed and gain influence to the degree to which the political firmament of this tarnished republic cannot hold it in check with functioning institutions, or belie it with viable alternatives.

There are similar ferments elsewhere in the world today, particularly in sickly democracies. The nature of the sickness, the ways in which the political system and mass confidence in it have been worn down, seem to delimit its form. Trumpism is part of a larger phenomenon for which we don't yet have a name, whose posture toward democracy is one less of eradication than irritation. Modi's India is a relatively tempered case of New Authoritarianism. Rodrigo Duterte's regime in the Philippines is a more serious one. There, the obsessive paranoia over cultural purity and societal degeneracy, the ecstatic popular support for mass-execution and death squads, the reliance on "unofficial" paramilitary police forces composed of fellow-travelers, the civic militarism, and the framing of "drug dealers" as boogeymen whose extirpation justifies any and all excesses, are an alarmingly familiar combination.

As yet, no democratic system more than one generation old has ever been overturned by anything short of a foreign invasion. This does not mean it cannot happen, but at the very least it is quite difficult to overturn an established democracy, even a dysfunctional one. Many New Authoritarian regimes are at least semi-pluralist, with a head of state who remains electorally vulnerable. In others, this is less the case. They all have had an envenoming effect on democratic processes. So too will Trump.

Classical Fascism was a phenomenon peculiar to the inter-war period. It is impossible to imagine its rise without other things, such as that of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. An exact repeat is an impossibility. The rise of what Robert Paxton calls a "functional equivalent to fascism" in the US is conceivable but only just. Yet the potential for radical ultra-nationalist movements to further etiolate an already ailing democracy remains. This is true whether or not they can (yet) be called fascist, and it becomes ever truer as those on the left succumb to that peculiar species of moral exhaustion with democracy which only disillusioned leftism can instill.

This is an age not of political revolution but of political exasperation. Trump is no revolutionary. All the same, it may be that time of the century again. Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire has been paraphrased as saying that history proceeds first as tragedy, and repeats itself as farce. The New Authoritarian populism of the present may in retrospect prove to be the farcical rerun of a fascist impulse tempered for a politically demobilized era. Democracies, too, can do evil. Slobodan Milosevic and Andrew Jackson were both empowered and removed by functional democratic processes. Meager comfort to those who died in Srebrenica or on the Trail of Tears. 


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