Trigger warning: racism, antisemitism
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I only rarely post on the weekends. Well, debating whether one of the most likely nominees for president next year from a major party is fascist is a pretty exceptional circumstance, so here’s a quick bonus column on that.
I laid out on Thursday a look at Trump as fitting Roger Griffin’s standards for fascism – in a nutshell, palingenetic rightwing ultra-nationalism. Intriguingly, Vox has put out a similar checklist examination of Trump with Griffin as an included source, in which Trump squeaks by as just demagogic right-wing populism. There’s a lot of talk about individualism, which in their description is primarily about the aesthetics of Trump’s followers, but they do make a main point about Trump, fascism, and democratic values:
There are enough differences between the relevant fascist regimes — Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, perhaps Francoist Spain — that identifying commonalities that do not in turn implicate plenty of clearly non-fascist regimes is tricky. But there is general agreement about some requirements.
fascism must involve calling for the ‘rebirth’ of the nation. That might at first glance sound like Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again,’ but Griffin insists on a distinction. Rebirth, in his theory, actually requires the dramatic abandonment of the existing political order. ‘There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation,’ he told me. ‘As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he’s not technically a fascist.’
Matthew Feldman, a fascism expert at Teesside University in the UK, agrees. ‘He’s still in the democratic family,’ he says. ‘Trump is calling for ethnocratic small-l liberalism. It’s liberalism that’s racially tinged. If you were white in apartheid South Africa, you had all the rights and benefits of a liberal state. For you it was a democracy. But it didn’t feel that way for blacks in South Africa.’
When the original fascist regimes emerged, ‘the existing governments seemed to be incapable of providing leadership, providing what was needed for this wounded country,’ [Columbia University Professor Robert] Paxton tells me, ‘and so fascists were in favor of totally overthrowing the existing constitution, which was usually democratic and perceived as weak. This was wildly popular. We are not in that position today.’
Trump definitely attacks the current government as ‘weak,’ which Paxton says might be termed a ‘borrowing’ from fascism. But it’s a far cry from the outright support for ending democracy that characterizes true fascists.
Here’s the problem with all of that – only one of the three fascist regimes mentioned in this article came to power by means other than the democratic process, and it’s the one qualified with a “perhaps” as to whether it was fascist.
The Nazi Party in Germany – holding an electoral plurality – famously manufactured a series of crises culminating in the Reichstag Fire to justify curtailing the democratic system. Ultimately, their emergency powers combined with pre-existing challenges to the democratic system in Germany created the highly authoritarian system that we now look back on Nazi Germany critically for having. In short, the profoundly anti-democratic nature of fascism in Germany emerged as an aspect of it, rather than appeared immediately.
What’s less well known, and ultimately even more discrediting to this view, is that Mussolini’s fascist Italy operated with democratic elements for years until those aspects of it finally eroded into his dictatorial control. That’s the example that gives us the specific word “fascist” – shouldn’t that count for something?
A fascist-era addition to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore in Rome, showing an angel carrying a fasces, or bundle of sticks. The Roman-derived symbol of national unity is the origin of the term “fascist”. From here.
Whether we limit our fascist models to just those two cases or include Franco’s regime in Spain (which is also more nuanced in terms of anti-democratism), the general model for fascism appears to be one in which democratic norms and processes aren’t immediately challenged but slowly eroded and dismantled. It’s shocking to see not only a news organization like Vox but also a whole slew of political scientists and social theorists engage in the sleight of hand of presenting the conditions only truly manifest in Nazi Germany circa 1937 as the essentials of fascist organization and philosophy.
Admittedly, I’m leaning more heavily on the opinions of other academics and journalists than those consulted by Vox, namely David Neiwert. That being said, a sizable chunk of Neiwert’s work has drawn from and largely agreed with exactly the same thinkers – Paxton and Griffin particularly – whom Vox has cited. Neiwert quotes Paxton (“Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travelers.”) in the midst of describing how fascism is often uniquely difficult to define because it adopts and rejects different policy positions for a whole host of opportunistic and goal oriented reasons, including support for democratic norms.
That slipperiness of what policies can even be defined as fascist brings us to perhaps the only thing equally stunning as the curious claims about how overtly anti-democratic fascism always necessarily is. That would be the bald insistence that there is no such thing as fascist economics.
In some sense, Vox is correcting a common misunderstanding about fascism – that it’s use of state economic intervention makes it similar to socialism or communism, or even socialism and communism versions of it. That view often focuses the Nazi Party’s early platform, which called for rather active government intervention in the economy, namely the nationalization of several industries. What’s often overlooked is that that process of nationalization happened before the Nazis came to power (under the staunchly anti-communist and center-right Weimar Republic), and once in power, the Nazis themselves privatized almost all of those briefly publicly controlled companies. Just like with democracy, the fascists were all over the place in terms of what policies would work best for the country.
The language the Nazis used to describe the need for nationalization provides a clue as to why that discrepancy between what their Party said and did came about. Their early platform described a lot of those industries as being in the hands of “usurers” – a not so subtle clue that what they objected to wasn’t private ownership but Jewish ownership. By severely limiting Jewish liberties, including economic ones – which the Nazis did once in power – they no longer had the same aversion to private control over major industries and public amenities. The borderline socialist calls for public ownership and democratic control melted away into rather capitalist-friendly demands for perceived efficiency and private ownership.
That switch is arguably one of the most quintessential elements to facsism, as not only a political but also an economic phenomenon. Most overtly, here’s Ernesto Laclau in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory on the economic rhetoric from fascism (page 120):
“[T]he radicalized German petty-bourgeoisie which was experiencing in a confused way the post-war crisis, the iniquity of the Versailles Treaty, inflation, foreign occupation, etc., was interpellated by nazism as a race. All the anti-plutocratic, nationalist, democratic aspects, that is to say all those elements which constituted the identity of the dominated classes as ‘[the] people’, and which thus expressed their contradiction with the power bloc, were present in Nazi discourse but the interpellated subject was a racial one. Through this identification of popular traditions with racism, a dual aim was achieved: all the jacobin radicalism proper to a radical confrontation with the system was retained whilst its channeling in a socialist direction is obstructed.“
That’s a rather academic way of describing what I wrote about earlier, that fascism is fundamentally about harnessing populist economic demands and repurposing and distorting them. Typically that’s done towards not just dictatorial or nationalist goals, but ultimately colonialist and racist ends designed to reorganize and “properly” stratify different social groups – think of the return of major industries and public amenities in fascist Germany into the hands of people then legally able to own them, almost entirely non-Jewish.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s insistent on his fitness for office and visceral stereotyping of Mexican and Muslim people, that seems to alarmingly coincide with his politics. His statements on immigration, namely that mass deportation would “help wages grow” in fact earlier coincides with the ethnically -charged way that the Nazi Party called for mass deportations in the name of “opportunity for a livelihood and way of life for” ethnic Germans. The unsettling part of that examination is that it implicates in the end most of the Republican Party, who if not fascist have for years encouraged fascist concepts within their Party and this country.
I suppose, ultimately, that’s my question for anyone who reflexively labels Donald Trump as a non-fascist: to what extent is that an avoidance of recognizing what it says about not only him, but his Party, and even our broader political system? How much of that is about the chilling conclusion it implies?