America's Fascist Moment
Donald Trump's extreme nationalism, corporate economic autarky, chauvinism and disdain for the rule of law bear all the hallmarks of a fascist social movement. He tapped into anger and desperation especially in America's rural areas. Trump can only be defeated by a Left that places the blame where it belongs. This means transcending both ideological purity and trepidation on economic populism.
I waited for the last moment to believe it. As each minute passed, I recalculated the Electoral College votes, waiting for Clinton to turn the election around, but as the night dragged on the reality of what I was facing became clearer even while my ability to process it became murkier. The cognitive dissonance was eventually shaken out of me when I heard a leader within the local Democratic Party announce Clinton’s loss with the opening words: “I never thought I would see the day when Americans elected a fascist as their president.”
That was exactly what had happened. Donald Trump ran his campaign with a fascist platform—extreme nationalism, corporate economic autarky, religious and cultural chauvinism, a disdain for the rule of law, whether domestic or international—with all the hallmarks of a fascist social movement—a personality cult, a fetishizing of violence, an orgy of conspiratorial thinking, a projection of the will of the party above that of the government and projection of the candidate above that of the party. The only characteristic that was missing was an open call to consolidate unlimited power within the executive branch, but it is hard to imagine that this will not come once he is sworn into office. Already, his cries to “drain the swamp” of corruption within Congress—while filling his own cabinet with insiders—appears to be an obvious dog whistle against the legislative branch.
The clownish nature of Trump blindsided nearly everyone, but especially the mainstream American media, to his evolution into a fascist politician. He tapped into the resentment of poor whites and pandered to the religious right’s unwillingness to concede a peaceful surrender in the culture war. In doing so, he created an internal logic for his political trajectory. Trump most likely did not plan it, and is probably completely unaware of it, but he seized upon a fascist moment in American politics. Rather than change with the times, roughly half the electorate longs for a strong leader to “Make America Great Again.” However, in attempting to go back to a past that never was we will more likely spiral downward into a place where few want to go.
The possibility for America to become a truly reactionary nation becomes even starker when considering how well positioned Republicans are to alter the Constitution. In order to change the Constitution, an amendment must have the support of a 2/3rds majority of the House and the Senate, and be approved by 3/4’s of the states. Currently, Republicans have majorities in both the House and the Senate, and legislative control of 37 state governments, with 23 of those comprising dual control of the legislature and governorship. If in the 2018 election cycle, Republicans win 39 new seats in the House, 16 new seats in the Senate, and capture legislative control of one new state government, then their pipeline to constitutional change is complete. As of now, the Democratic Party’s firewall against this possibility is terrifyingly weak. While also being a minority party on the federal level, Democrats only control a meager 13 state governments, with a mere 6 of those being dual control.
Pundits may scoff that the chances of any Republican initiated amendments to the Constitution passing are slim, but that is what they said about a Trump victory. At this point the reactionary politics inherent to the Trump phenomenon cannot be underestimated. For whatever reason, it is something that many American desire. Amazingly enough, even though Trump received roughly the same number of votes as the 2012 Republican nomination Mitt Romney, he received a greater portion of the African-American, Latino, women, and youth votes than Romney did. That is an incredible accomplishment considering that his campaign actively and openly attacked each one of these demographics. A large portion of the American population clearly pines for a forceful leader, even if that leader will obviously use that force against them.
Fascist moments are only possible in times of great transition and confusion, and Americans are more confused by their own social and political identities now than they have been at any time since the Great Depression. Within the nation, numerous dramatic demographic shifts are underway. American has undergone a quiet but significant secular reformation in recent years. An unprecedented number of young people are atheist/agnostic or do not identify themselves with any particular religion. Additionally, white Americans are rapidly becoming a minority. Currently, non-Hispanic whites only account for 61.5% of the population, and their numbers are declining. These two factors have debased America’s Christian nationalism, and have sent its most ardent advocates into a frenzied mobilization. Their cause would be lost if they were not able to latch onto a base of rural working class voters who remain embittered by their economic prospects.
Urban areas have recovered from the Great Recession to a far greater extent than rural ones. Job growth in urban areas now exceeds what it was in 2007, but for rural areas it is still 3.2% below pre-recession levels. Additionally, between 2010 and 2014, nearly all of America’s 900 rural counties saw population declines. Those who are left are poor, angry, desperate, and have a disproportionate influence within America’s political system.
In 2010, in response to President Barack Obama’s election, Republicans initiated a mass mobilization to seize state governments. They did so not only to prevent President Obama from instituting his mandate, but because 2010 was a census year. Each year that the census is done, political districts are redrawn. Republicans managed to successfully gerrymander districts, swaying influence to mostly white rural and suburban areas, in order to maximize their political strength. Because of this Republicans are able to hold onto the reins of power, even though they continue to be the minority party in terms of popular votes.
This would not matter on the presidential level if the president was elected by the popular vote, but they are not. Indeed, gerrymandering on behalf of rural communities is ingrained into the very nature of the Constitution. Since the nation’s founding, there were deep seated tension between urban and rural areas. Underlining these tensions were competing economic models. The urban sections—mostly located in the north—favored the burgeoning industrialism, while the rural sections—mostly located in the south—favored the preservation of slavery. In order to bring these two sections of the nation together a “Great Compromise” was established. Part of the “Great Compromise” was that presidential elections were to be decided by an Electoral College, a portion of votes given to each state, rather than a popular vote. The “Great Compromise” unified the country, but it also diverted power away from metropolitan areas. From the Civil War to modern day struggles America has always suffered from this bizarre and arcane distribution of power. Today, as more of America’s population urbanizes, the chances that there will be a divergence between the popular vote and the Electoral College increases. Five times in American history the Electoral College has determined a winner that did not get the popular vote. However, 2 out of those 5 times have been in the last 16 years, and in both cases, it was the Democratic Party nominee — whose support is mostly derived from densely populated cities —who lost.
Trump lost the popular vote, and it is hard to make the case that his political tomfoolery and crass demagoguery represent a plurality of Americans. But, he won the election, and he won by feeding into a base of disillusioned white rural voters. They believe that traditional American elites, especially urban liberals, have abandoned them, and in a certain sense they are correct. Globalization, automation, and rapid urbanization have decimated their communities, and neither political party has offered a comprehensive plan to deal with it. Where they are wrong is in believing that they have been abandoned in the service of immigrants, people of color, Muslims, and feminists.
It would be nice if failed promises were enough to bring down the Trump presidency, but scapegoating knows no end. The bankruptcy and impossibility of his policies will become evident in a matter of months, but the disillusionment with his presidency could take years, if it occurs at all. Like all great demagogues, Trump has been a master of making grand promises with built-in villains to account for their inevitable failures. The idea that the United States would build a wall along the Mexican border and get Mexico to pay for it, was nearly as absurd as Lyndon LaRouche’s call for America to build a world land bridge. But, the call to build a border wall spoke to a real necessity. The United States government needs to play a more active role in promoting infrastructure, and jobs, especially in rural areas, are scarce.
The problem is that government promotion of infrastructure would require greater government spending. That is something that Republicans, free market ideologues, and miserly corporations who fear tax increases have all obstinately blocked. Trump found a way to feed the desideratum for jobs and infrastructure while casting blame away from those most responsible for stymieing it. Instead of blaming the rich and their political garrisons, lack of government funding on infrastructure is now a problem created by immigrants, specifically Latinos, and anyone center-to-the-left of the political spectrum who is willing to defend them.
For this reason, the defeat of the Trump presidency can only happen through a fortified and expanded leftwing that can upturn Trump’s scapegoating tactics and place blame where it belongs. Unfortunately, the problems with the American left are the reason that Trump was able to ascend to power in the first place. The America left has made considerable gains in the last few decades, but it remains a movement that is deeply divided. On one end are liberal pragmatists who focus on building a broad and diverse majoritarian base. They focus on promoting widely popular incremental reforms in order to build large coalitions that can lead to electoral success. The exception to this are economics issues, where their trepidation has become a major defect to the Democratic Party. Out of fear of alienating large funders, the Democratic Party leadership has continually undermined movements toward economic populism. In doing so they have focused more energy on fundraising than on party building, and have completely neglected the concerns of the rural working class. The maligned epithet “liberal elites” is not without some truth when it is spouted from the mouths of many rural Americans.
On the other end are ideologically motivated progressives and radicals. They understand that economic populism needs to be at the left’s core, but have little patience for the type of compromises needed in building powerful coalitions. Preferring to cling to ideological purity, they often restrict themselves to a series of individualized actions, such as protest votes, lifestyle boycotts, symbolic forms of civil disobedience, or living “prefiguratively.” In many ways, they are just as alienating to the rural working class. Not surprisingly, people who are clutching on to a gas station job and are barely making enough for groceries are not interested in rhetoric that calls for an immediate end to all fossil fuels or the novelty of organic produce.
What America desperately needs is a leftwing that is both radical and pragmatic. The left should tap into the general societal mood to upturn the political and economic order, but it should do so with the backing of a large and diverse coalition. This requires a new radical agenda, but one that appreciates political strategy and policy acumen over ideological purity. If the left is able to maintain its traditional base of support, and pull in a significant portion of the rural working class, it can overcome this fascist moment and dismantle the modern conservatism that birthed it.
Many countries have faced fascist moments in their history and have beaten them back, but many have also failed. Americans have for too long assumed that their republic was uniquely immune to fascistic temptations. The election of Donald Trump has shown that is not the case. Freedoms only exist if they are constantly defended, and their defense requires two things. The first is perpetual political agitation so that we remain determined in the face of opposition. The second is collective empathy for potential allies so that we are able to convert them to our movement. For Americans to overcome their own fascist moment, they are going to have to reach for their better selves and be able to demonstrate both these characteristics.
The need for this is paramount. Trump’s denial of climate change and promotion of nuclear weapons present an existential threat to the planet. For better or for worse, the rest of the world is reliant on the American left forming a united front to remove this peril from office. No one can afford to have the American people let them down. Let us work to make sure they rise to the occasion.