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Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward

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The third presidential debate, almost by design, was an exercise in obfuscation, neither candidate willing to display an expanded, detailed position which might reveal substance, ideology, political-economic ramifications of her/his policy on fundamental areas affecting America’s domestic structure of wealth and power or its international framework of war, intervention, commercial penetration, and regime change. In other words, this was the ideal setting for personalism, a politics of distraction, as systemic-historical forces of interpenetration (of business and government), paralleled by the related development of militarism, expansion, and social regimentation have become integrated: distilled and fused as a meaningful stage of fascism in America.

This is no ordinary election, but the tipping point in the organization of capitalism as to whether “democracy,” enclosed in quotation marks because having the salience of a class-state from the society’s formation grounded in slavery, hierarchy, unequal wealth-distribution, and finally corporate/monopolistic aggrandizement, an excellent springboard to fascism under conditions of perceived decline and/or stalled internal growth (both operant today), has now turned the corner into a qualitatively different formation. I suspect this has happened gradually over the last half-century, without surrendering the inaccurate designation of democracy. It is, however, an anachronism never intended in the first place, and the candidates show at best the traits of the caudillo, a Franco or Mussolini, but still a far cry from Hitler, or America as Nazi Germany.

Exaggerating the degree of fascism serves no useful purpose. But the portents are nonetheless real, nowhere better seen than in cutting beneath the surface of the final presidential debate. The absence of policy-discussion itself mocks professions of political-ideological differentiation between the major parties. There really is very little, a consensus on the militarism-advanced capitalism nexus which by itself prevents alternative courses of action leading to other than cosmetic variants of what I am terming centrist fascism, a lockstep of ideology, structure, and political culture concentrating power of elite groups which themselves are unified in thought on what might be called full spectrum dominance, whether we speak of foreign economic policy, the environment, or other areas defining modern times.

***

There follows a closer look at the debate, the foregoing a prologue to the societal process, long in motion, of lurching (aka, staggering) forward, no longer imperceptible, gradual, toward fully consummated abandonment of democratic institutions and values. At no time before has America faced such an unenviable choice for the presidency, character flaws alone far less determining than policy consequences, in fashioning a government and polity held together by antithetical bonds of mistrust, hate, personal insecurity, and a demiurgic quest for unilateral conquest under unpropitious world conditions, circumstances of great-powers’ hostility and confrontation exacerbating near-inherent tendencies of internal militarism.

In demeanor, neither candidate appeared the paragon of intelligence or honesty, but that need not concern us. What does, is policy or the feigned absence thereof. The first question, on the powers of the Supreme Court and its judicial decisions, the issue came down to support of the Second Amendment, and despite differences on its construction, Clinton’s seeming criticisms or modifications of it become nullified by her statement, “Well, first of all, I support the second amendment.” Although she wants “reasonable regulation” and responsible use, offering more protections than Trump, who pridefully acknowledged the endorsement of the NRA, there is not the clear-cut separation of views necessary, since the issue of gun control is code for, among other things, an outright appeal to militarism, vigilantism, and race, that one looks for in attacking the prevailing gun culture.

Where differences were strong involved cultural politics, particularly abortion, in which, unlike Trump, Clinton favored Rowe v. Wade, with Trump ranting that she would be taking the baby and “rip[ping] the baby out of the womb.” My only reservation here as to the question of the candidates’ essential sameness is that, in opposition to my radical colleagues, I view cultural politics less as a test of fundamental civil liberties and civil rights than as a popular diversion from the democratization of structure, power, and the abrogation of imperialism, nuclear war, and racial discrimination.

I know how unpopular such a position is among radicals, and yes, as separate issues I’d of course favor abortion rights and those pertaining to the LGBT community as essential to the wider process of democratization, but (a) less so than equitable income-and-wealth distribution, and (b) on condition that, unlike Clinton, who treats them in a vacuum, the issues such as abortion are joined to wider issues on war and peace, corporate power, indeed, the retention of capitalism, especially in its present form. Conceivably, one could advocate for the full range of demands in cultural politics, and still favor centrist fascism in its systemic-structural-cultural attributes. Clinton embodies such a view, which is one reason I think she cannot be sufficiently distinguished from Trump. Wall Street can absorb cultural politics; it cannot, by definition, steps leading to the advent of socialism. Authenticity of, and gradations of, radicalism are matters of extreme importance, not simply for analytical purposes, but on the practice of capitalistic absorption of discontent. Currently, cultural politics are the help-mate of the status quo. I say this not as a hard-bitten Stalinist, but as an ordinary radical of the old kind.

***

The moderator Chris Wallace, turned next to the topic of immigration, where the Trumpean symbol of the Wall looms largely in the discussion. Trump summarizes, “Drugs are pouring in through the border. We have no country if we have no border. Hillary wants to give amnesty. She wants to have open borders.” An open-and-shut case of principal differences? Despite her deeply moving appeal for the protection of undocumented workers (I am not being sarcastic here), and her warning that police-state tactics would be needed to enforce deportation, she still maintains: “I have been for border security for years. I voted for border security in the United States Senate. And my comprehensive immigration reform plan, of course includes border security.” The continuity of proposal is not broken, only, as she notes, “I want to put our resources where I think they’re most needed.” Trump reminds her she voted for a wall, and her reply: “There are some limited places where that was appropriate. There also is necessarily going to be new technology and how to employ that.” Clinton adds: “We will not have open borders. That is a rank mischaracterization. We will have secure borders. But we will also have reform.” These are not sufficiently spelled out.

The discussion lingers. Wallace observes on open borders that in a speech Clinton “gave to a Brazilian bank for which you were paid $225,000,” you said, “’My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders,’” to which she made qualified replied, the reference was only to energy—a step back. But then she proceeded to an interesting segue (literally without interruption): “But you [to Wallace] are very clearly quoting from WikiLeaks. What is really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans.” Clinton is wholly dismissive of WikiLeaks’s accuracy, but more, its subversive role in US affairs.

Then, she engages, as she has done before, in red-baiting, connecting Trump with Putin, and by implication selling out American interests and demonstrating softness toward Russia: “They have hacked American websites, American accounts of private people, of institutions. Then they have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the internet.” (WikiLeaks is somehow involved in the conspiracy with Russia to destroy the integrity of the American electoral system.) Then she continues: “This has come from the highest levels of the Russian government. Clearly from Putin himself in an effort, as 17 of our intelligence agencies have confirmed, to influence our election.” That isn’t enough. The noose of collaboration tightens: “So I actually think the most important question this evening, Chris, is finally, will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this, and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election.” Joe McCarthy could not have said it better.

Further: “That he rejects Russian espionage against Americans, which he actually encouraged in the past. Those are the questions we need answered. We’ve never had anything like this happen in any of our elections before.” One is not persuaded by the confirmation of “17 of our intelligence agencies,” given their overriding mission to politicize intelligence for purposes of advancing the American national interest, concomitant with interfering in the elections of other nations, from foreign-aid assistance and joint treaties to dirty tricks and planned, often executed, coups. One can almost sympathize with Trump, did he not share the same argument, when he declares: “That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders. Okay? How did we get on to Putin?”

That opens the way to an acerbic dialogue about the Cold War. Recently I had sought to discriminate between Trump and Clinton on the question of Russia, yet this difference is neither sufficient to disclaim their overall similarity on a broader geopolitical framework nor, here with Trump beginning to back down, his own proactive militancy in foreign policy. Neither candidate is above the use of force, both are profoundly committed to an America-first position and use of patriotism to silence opposition to US corporate privilege and supremacy in international affairs. Yet, politics is politics, and they seek a sliver of light to show who is fairest of them all. Trump: “She wants open borders. People are going to pour into our country….She wants 550% more people than Barack Obama….. [What threw me before again follows] Now we can talk about Putin. I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.
He has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president.” Trump shares that sentiment. But then he enters deeper water: “We’re in very serious trouble. Because we have a country with tremendous nuclear warheads, 1,800, by the way. Where they expanded and we didn’t. 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she is playing chicken.” He apparently would not.

And Clinton: “Wait.” Trump: “Putin from everything I see has no respect for this person.” Clinton: “Well, that’s because he would rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” Trump: “No puppet. You’re the puppet.” That sets Clinton off in the validation of her Cold War, anti-Russian credentials: “It is pretty clear you won’t admit that the Russians have engaged in cyber attacks against the United States of America. That you encouraged espionage against our people. [She does all but call him a traitor] That you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do. And that you continue to get help from him because he has a very clear favorite in this race…. I find this deeply disturbing.” Clinton and Trump then go back and forth on alleged Russian hacking, she trotting out the 17 intelligence agencies, he, “Yeah, I doubt it, I doubt it.” Clinton: “He would rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely—“ Trump: “She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.”

I dwell on the topic and the exchange to demonstrate Clinton’s war-provoking perspective on foreign policy toward Russia. Yet on the hacking, under pressure from Wallace, Trump concedes his opposition to hacking, and in a mixed message shows ambivalence toward Russia: “I never met Putin. He is not my best friend. But if the United States got along with Russia, it wouldn’t be so bad. Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way.” But “outsmarted” implies Putin cannot do that to him. On the missile treaty: “Take a look at the start-up that they signed. The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can’t believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads and we can’t. The Russians can’t believe it…. She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I’ve ever seen in any government whatsoever.” Clinton’s response (they have drifted a long way from immigration): “I find it ironic that he is raising nuclear weapons. This is a person who has been very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons.” More bickering, she, “When the president gives the order, it must be followed,” he, “I have 200 generals and admirals endorsing me, 21 congressional medal of honor recipients. As for Japan and other countries, we are being ripped off by everybody in the world.” Trump’s only complaint is it costs too much: “We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century.”

***

On the economy, the third topic, the usual disagreement over taxes and regulation occurs, lower (Republican) versus higher (Democratic), but capitalism in its monopolistic form is neither under consideration nor directly amenable to regulation. Clinton’s Wall Street ties are ignored by her protestations: “Well, I think the middle class thrives, America thrives. So my plan is based on growing the economy giving middle class families many more opportunities.” These include a jobs program, helping small business, and making “college debt-free and for families making less than $125,000,” free tuition from public colleges and universities. Less convincing, given her long-term record and more recent speaking fees, is her statement: “Most of the gains in the last years since the great recession have gone to the very top. So we are going to make the wealthy pay their fair share.” Clinton calls Trump’s plan, “trickle-down economics on steroids.” Yes, excellent, but does hers promote the democratization of the political economy or merely attach a smattering of welfare capitalism onto a monopolistic, regulatory-favorable, trade-enhancing foundation?

Granted, differences exist within capitalism, but from the standpoint of domestic differentials of wealth and power, their plans, vision, execution (the latter, a predisposed government) closely align, Trump the more autarkic, nationalistic, Clinton, the more international, and perhaps sophisticated on matters of growth and expansion. Trump sounds like a cry-baby when it comes to taxation: “We will have a massive tax increase under Hillary Clinton’s plan.” He adds, “We’re going to cut taxes massively. We’re going to cut business taxes massively.” Also, the protection afforded to Germany, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, will cost them, no more freebies. Too, the outsourcing of jobs would cease, or the products subject to heavy tariffs on their return to this country. The differences appear promising, except that only the strategies differ to the same end. Clinton: “I will not raise taxes on anyone making $250,000 or less. I also will not add a penny to the debt. I have costed out what I’m going to do.” It turns out her principal economic criticism of Trump involves an increased national debt, not the fate and the condition of the working class; balanced budgets would lead to greater employment, workers themselves stalled in place, prey to alienation and consumerism.

As in other areas, the bickering continues, economic growth founded on a trickle-down context for Trump, investing “from the middle out, and the ground up,” for Clinton, but always with job creation for both divorced from structural change and government-business interpenetration. From this point, the atmosphere becomes more charged, the candidates’ interactions ruder and more unpleasant, the positions themselves less fundamental still in details and consequences, Trump boastful about personal business success, Clinton, devotion to the underprivileged and the poor, and assertion and denial of Trump’s promiscuous sexual conduct. Rather than go on, because we have already blocked out areas of major concern, I should like to comment on the entire fiasco, disguising centrist fascism as democracy. Trump himself, on sexual groping, wanted desperately to cut matters short, or rather, drop all semblance of civility: “I believe, Chris, she [Clinton] got these people to step forward. If it wasn’t, they get their ten minutes of fame, but they were all totally—it was all fiction. It was lies and it was fiction.”

What is not fiction is the similitude of antidemocratic paradigms of governance. When one cuts through the seeming differences, from gay rights and abortion to the destruction of e-mails, the qualitative level of fruitful discussion and analysis should rest on the conservation of privilege in America, its institutional expression, abidance, furtherance, and intensification, and the political underpinnings on which it rests. Hierarchy, racism, the military cast of mind, all are the logical and necessary product of America’s pattern of capitalist development, in its purist formation perversive of class consciousness and dissent, and structurally intended to ensure unequal reward and the degradation of labor. In this light, the presidential contest and resulting election make perfect sense. At one point, Trump announces, fittingly: “We fought for the right in Palm Beach to put up the American flag.” It can be said, the same holds for Chappaqua.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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