Tag Archives: robert paxton

Ross Perot: Plus ça change…

Early last week, FiveThirtyEight came out with a new episode in its series of documentary-style looks at polling and politicking in elections past. If you’re in need of break between refreshing your poll aggregators, it’s a delightful mix of change of pace from this year’s elections and a curious examination of where this year’s unique character comes from. It seeks to answer one very simple question – what effects did Ross Perot have on US elections?

The bulk of it pulls us back into the 1990s, into a seemingly naïve political climate buoyed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center. While securely focused on the 1992 election, it ultimately looks to the similarities between Ross Perot and Trump. It ends ominously on that note, however, as Galen Druke predicts that “Just as Donald Trump did better than Perot, maybe the next charismatic populist will do better than Donald Trump.”

Well, then.

That comparison and warning sent me down a rabbit hole of internet research into not just Ross Perot but the political party he spawned: the Reform Party. If nothing else, it’s deeply entertaining as a distraction from tightening polls. The crown jewel of my fervent self diversion is this early 2000 piece by then Trump ghostwriter Dave Shiflett (this guy) for the American Spectator. In it, he advocates for Trump’s candidacy for the presidential nomination within, you guessed it, the Reform Party.

I can forgive FiveThirtyEight for leaving half the story untold (they have limited time in any case), but this article truly is eye-opening. Trump did not wait for 2016. In 2000, his conspiratorial and aggressive understanding of international relations, his view of himself as un-racist for expecting people of color to be among those fawning over him, and his cartoonish misogyny were all already there, even then.

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(No, seriously.)

Here’s just a few choice bits:

“[Trump’s] uncle, an MIT professor, foresaw the day of miniaturized weapons. ‘One day,’ Mr. Trump quoted him, ‘somebody will be able to detonate a suitcase-sized bomb in Manhattan that will flatten the entire city.’ Thus was born what is perhaps the most mesmerizing chapter in [The America We Deserve]—one in which, among other things, Mr. Trump warns that under his presidency, North Korea could experience some live-ammo discipline.”

“As the embodiment of earthly success, [Trump] is highly admired by lower-middle class Americans, many of them Hispanic and African American, who continue to admire the guys who have done well in the world.”

“[Al] Gore’s embarrassing reliance on high-paid political adviser Naomi Wolf also illustrates another difference with Mr. Trump, who is universally recognized as America’s premier Alpha Male. Mr. Trump knows that one never pays a woman for her conversation, but only for her silence.”

Of course, Trump not only failed to win the general election in 2000, but he fell short of the Reform Party’s nomination, to Patrick Buchanan. Both before and after that third party presidential bid, Buchanan has made a career out of White nationalism and other bigotries somehow stated more blatantly than even Trump cares to. Seemingly in an effort to appease Trump’s purportedly more moderate wing of the Reform Party, Buchanan selected Ezola Foster, a Black woman, as his running mate.

Politics journalist David Neiwert has argued that this contributed to George W. Bush’s contested victory in the election that year by dismantling the main third party contender for Republican-leaning independents motivated by racist and sexist ideas. Neiwert found this choice complaint from a close affiliate of David Duke’s (another familiar character!): “after Buchanan chose a black woman as his veep he [Duke] now thinks that ‘Pat is a moron’ and ‘there is no way we can support him at this point.'” Keen not to miss the bigger picture, Neiwert pointed out that the Democratic ticket had the first Jewish candidate for the vice presidency on it that year and the other main third party candidate was Lebanese-American Ralph Nader. The voting bloc that would congeal into the modern alt-right seemingly had no real choice in 2000 for a presidential ticket of only White , non-Mideastern, non-Jewish men, outside of Bush-Cheney.

The picture Neiwert paints of the ensuing relationship between Republicans and this emerging extreme wing of US conservative politics is strengthened by the ensuing confusion over the 2000 election. As he put it-

“No one from the Bush camp ever denounced the participation of [Stormfront-affiliated White supremacist Don] Black and his crew or even distanced themselves from this bunch, or for that matter any of the thuggery that arose during the post-election drama. Indeed, Bush himself later feted a crew of “Freeper” thugs who had shut down one of the recounts in Florida, while others terrorized his opponent, Al Gore, and his family by staging loud protests outside the Vice President’s residence during the Florida struggle.

“These failures were symptomatic of a campaign that made multiple gestures of conciliation to a variety of extreme right-wing groups. These ranged from the neo-Confederates to whom Bush’s campaign made its most obvious appeals in the South Carolina primary to his speaking appearance at Bob Jones University. Bush and his GOP cohorts continued to make a whole host of other gestures to other extremist components: attacking affirmative action, kneecapping the United Nations, and gutting hate-crimes laws.

“The result was that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists came to identify politically with George W. Bush more than any other mainstream Republican politician in memory. This was embodied by the endorsement of Bush’s candidacy by a range of white supremacists, including David Duke, Don Black and Matthew Hale of the World Church of the Creator.”

You probably can tell the history yourself from there. The 9-11 Attacks only further wear down democratic and procedural defenses against these politics, and before we know it, we’re at the place we are now – with Black churches appearing to have been torched by Trump supporters, more anti-Muslim attacks than ever, and a candidate openly running on a policy platform of ethnic cleansing.

What’s curious within all of this is that Buchanan misread Trump’s and his supporters’ jeers in 2000. The story goes, as The Hill described it, that the Perot, Trump, perhaps in LaRouche-esque sections of the Reform Party weren’t even trending towards fascism by 2000. Those voters supposedly left when their “moderate” candidate – that’s Trump – lost. Buchanan, so the story goes, lost another set that stayed by trying to win those already out the door back. But that’s usually boiled down to a very careful reading of Trump’s insults towards Buchanan at the time – those like “Look, he’s a Hitler lover.” Trump certainly presented them as a critique of Buchanan’s bigotry, but maybe it was intended more as a critique of its European and 20th century qualities, as opposed to an open embrace of rhetorical twists more distinctive to 21st American far-right ultranationalism.

That’s not a mischaracterization of Neiwert’s work, by the way. His description of how quickly Perot’s crypto-populism became lousy with White nationalists comes from a series asking whether the Republican Party after 9-11 was at risk of becoming fascist. His answer, while still under the Bush administration, was a concerned perhaps. Returning to his look at the disintegration of the Reform Party and the 2000 absorption of much of its voting base into the Republican Party, he casually describes the process with what now read as dire warnings.

To be fair, not all of those are his alone. He quotes Robert Paxton’s “The Five Stages of Fascism.” Paxton’s essay reads like Nostradamus for something from 1998, a decade before Sarah Palin let alone Donald Trump. As Paxton described it, one key stage in fascists acquiring power is their capture of a major political party or similar institution. In terms of that,

“Success depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of the liberal state, whose inadequacies seem to condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner. Some fascist leaders, in their turn, are willing to reposition their movements in alliances with these frightened conservatives, a step that pays handsomely in political power”

Anyone else need a drink?

Between Paxton, others, and his own work, Neiwert creates an image of a typically rural-based political bloc preparing for warfare with an existentially opposed other, often one terrifyingly within the country, if only in small numbers. All of that is familiar to anyone remotely familiar with Republican rhetoric – in both pro-Trump and never Trump circles.

What’s more arresting is his description of why so often it’s rooted in rural hinterlands – because historical fascism often began as an arrangement between gangs and malfeasant landowners. When desperate to break agricultural strikes and either unable or resistant to state involvement, the latter turned to the former.

There is nothing quite analogous within modern US politics, but the closest cousin could arguably be the moderately wealthy, rural-dwelling, elder White voters without college degrees that many have seen as Trump’s core constituency. In the 1990s, their votes likely split between idealistic votes for Perot, pragmatic votes for Republicans, and White nationalist votes for Buchanan. Today they are a consolidated voting bloc – and they are Trump Republicans.

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Fascism, democracy, and demagoguery

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?

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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?

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