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The Revival of the Working-Class Concept: Trump, the Class Struggle and the (Somewhat Overstated) Specter of Fascism

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The polarization in the country following the Trump electoral victory is not what Karl Marx called the “class struggle.” But it reflects an underlying class struggle—what Marx called the  “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight”—which is a real thing, surely, in this country and globally. This struggle between capitalists and workers has never been totally eclipsed by struggles over anything else, including those involving “culture wars” and ethnic identity.

Forget that tired assumption that Trump can’t win without the women’s vote, and the African-American vote, and the Latino vote, and the GLBTQ vote. He can win, you fools, if he has the working class!

Notice how this honorable term, always central to Marxist discourse, avoided scrupulously in mainstream media reporting for decades, is suddenly back in vogue?   For years the mainstream media virtually ignored the working class, obfuscating its very existence, shunning the very term. The fourth estate along with the education system and politicians in general did this by positing a vast “middle class” between the poor—an unproblematic category, assumed to always be there (didn’t Jesus say so?—see Mark 14:7)—and the rich, eternal role-models for the middle people and the personification of America itself due to their hard work, inventiveness and entrepreneurship.

It was unnecessary to distinguish wage earners in manufacturing from, say, salaried professionals and small business people in a land of boundless opportunity, especially after World War II.

In fact, capitalist globalization has for a generation disappointed and alienated the (multi-ethnic) U.S. working class, if not impoverished it, causing its members inclined to vote at all to vote this time to back Sanders in the Democratic primaries or Trump in the election. And now all the pundits credit Trump’s victory to support from this class—more specifically the white working class—even more specifically a posited angry white working class—to explain the mainly ugly phenomenon of Trump’s win. (Interesting in this connection to hear MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough defend the use of the term “redneck” and even refer proudly to himself as one.) This putative white working class triumph is being linked by the mainstream media with the rednecks’ victory,  if not “White Pride.”

That is to say: just as the working class re-emerges (as a term on the news anchor’s teleprompter, as approved by the news director), it gets vilified as white-racist. It’s depicted as tolerant if not supportive of Trump’s pussy-grabbing boasts, and his sweeping mis-characterizations of Mexicans, Muslims and others. This white working class has supposedly been indifferent to evidence of  Trump’s business failures, frauds, and past discrimination against African-Americans in his dealings; and ignorant, in its inability to discern the fact that 70% of what Trump said was always just made up.

The problem with this is that Trump also got a lot of non-white working class votes too. He got more black and Latino votes than did Romney in 2012. Had the Democratic National Committee not sabotaged Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, his triumph might also have been attributed to the working class. (Sanders—did you notice?—occasionally used that term in his stump speech. That itself was bold.) But in his case it would have been the youth plus the (multi-ethnic) working class. (Although we’ve learned to take polls with a grain of salt, all the polls showed Sanders more popular than either Clinton or Trump during the campaign. A lot of Trump voters would have voted for Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee.)

And Trump got 54% of the white women’s vote, which must be Hillary’s deepest humiliation. It appears that while older, well-educated women enthused about electing the first woman president, younger and working class women found her deeply unappealing and if they voted at all, they opted more for Trump.

In any case, the deep discontent that the traditional wage-earning proletariat feels with contemporary globalized capitalism (along with the deep mass dislike of the Establishment’s corrupt and uber-hawkish Democratic candidate), has produced this result. It reflects, if not anti-imperialist, anti-war sentiment, at least an anti-interventionist preference (which is positive, given the tensions with Russia over Syria and Ukraine produced by Obama’s State Department). Rigged though it was, the election reflected more than anything the sense of alienation the masses feel from the polity, controlled as it is by the One Percent.

Given that, to depict the Trump movement as (principally) a neofascist movement—as some are doing—is, I think, to misunderstand it.

Surely Trump has neofascist support. Numerous incidents of racist and anti-Muslim attacks are being reported; the worst bigots are feeling enabled as never before to espouse “White Power” and celebrate the immanent revenge of white American workers over the Mexicans who’ve been taking their jobs. On Dec. 3 the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan will be holding a parade in Pelham, NC to celebrate Trump’s victory. The appointment of “alt-right” propagandist Steve Bannon as Trump’s “chief political strategist” (holding equal power with the conventional Reince Priebus as his chief-of-staff) is disturbing. It’s shocking that Trump feels he can announce such an appointment as though it were just routine for presidents to include in his intimate top circle a man whose online publication Breitbart features in its headlines such expressions as “renegade Jew,” “dangerous faggot,” and “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.” This is a very dangerous time.

But again, many Trump voters would have voted for Sanders. Many believe those tenets of the unofficial state religion, which state that we live in a democracy, that the two-party system offers you two valid choices, and that everybody has to vote as a basic duty of citizenship. They are not all “deplorables” (as Clinton called some of them), much less fascists. They voted for Trump as “the lesser evil” while holding their noses (as many also did in choosing Hillary).

Surely it’s appropriate for people to march in the streets against Trump, declaring “He’s not my president!” And it’s beautiful to see young people in tens of thousands implicitly rejecting the system itself. (That they are doing so needs to be clarified. When they reject the universal appeal of the adult pundits on the cable news channels—to accept the election, as free, fair and square as all those before it have been—are they not rejecting what Marxists call “bourgeois democracy”—which is always rigged to serve the capitalist class in general— itself? This is good. It’s good to grasp that another world is possible. A revolution more real than anything Sanders ever had in mind is possible.)

But we have to grasp the fact: the rejection of Clinton, who was unquestionably the candidate of the Establishment and Wall Street, a war monger and globalization enthusiast, by the Trump supporters was in large part a working class revolt.

That doesn’t make it good in itself; members of the working class can be highly misled. (One study shows that about 40% of the members of the Nazi Party in Germany in the ’30s were workers.) Working people can be seduced by fascism. But surely the majority of Trump voters don’t belong in the fascist category.

Even to call Trump himself a fascist is at this point to misuse the term. Fascism is a specific phenomenon initially analyzed by Marxist theorists in the 1920s and 30s, and described by the Thirteenth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (1933) as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital… Fascism is the power of finance capital itself. It is the organization of terrorist vengeance against the working class and the revolutionary section of the peasantry and intelligentsia. In foreign policy, fascism is jingoism in its most brutal form, fomenting bestial hatred of other nations.” (The very concept of “fascism”—as a Europe-wide trend, and as the main threat to not only socialism in the USSR but against capitalist democracy elsewhere, including Britain, where the House of Windsor was actually quite sympathetic to the Nazis,; and requiring a “United Front Against Fascism” including Moscow, Britain and France—was shaped by Marxist theorists.)

The above definition is of course just one of many possible ones. The point is, the term fascist has a specific content, and should not be simply used to refer to any person or movement who espouses racism, bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia. (Not that I agree Trump is a homophobe.)

As an utilitarian device, it might be useful for some radical left parties to announce that Trump is a fascist, and so a new era has dawned, and to interpret the ongoing protests as fundamentally (“objectively”) anti-fascist. But this is not Germany in 1933. Trump appeals to jingoism, but shows few signs of having military expansion and empire-building in mind. He has anti-Semites in his circle, but an Orthodox Jewish son-in-law and his daughter and indispensable aide Ivanka is a Jew by conversion. Trump has nothing like the mass-based, well-organized Nazi or Italian Fascist party apparatus behind him; he has the Republican Party, which he has badly divided, and for the time being a large array of tiny organizations who have made him the poster boy of White Pride and White Power. His inner circle keeps changing as he fires people. He articulates no clear ideology, as Hitler and Mussolini had done with evil eloquence; indeed, he is singularly inarticulate.

Trump has established a nascent personality cult. This was apparent in his barnstorming performances in which he basked in the adoration of large crowds such that he could famously boast that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He is inherently so narcissistic and solipsistic that he will try to cultivate this cult. But there’s nothing specifically fascist about a personality cult, and Trump is hemmed in by countervailing forces sturdier than those that challenged fascism in Germany and Italy. His impeachment during his first term is as likely as institutional moves towards “fascism” in any meaningful sense.

Why is this important? Because accurate assessment of reality is important. You make big strategic errors when you bank on a sensationalist Chicken Little appeal. The threat of “Christian fascism” some have posited since at least the 2000 election never materialized in this country. Obama won two elections despite religious conservatives’ opposition. Gay marriage has become recognized nationally, and was hardly an issue in the Trump campaign. Marijuana has been legalized for medical use in 26 states and Washington DC and and recreational use in seven states. All despite conservative religious opposition.

I myself have repeatedly pointed, since 2002, to fascistic trends in this country. As a specialist in Japanese history, I’m inclined to refer comparatively to the Japanese experience in the 1930s. In my college survey of modern Japanese history I ask students to ask themselves whether Japan at that time was “fascist.” I think it was. But many scholars avoid applying that term to Japan, referring instead to the less horrible-sounding “militarism” or “ultra-nationalism.” They point out that there was no charismatic leader, no mass-based party, no articulated theory of racial superiority (and a pointed rejection of anti-Semitism), etc.  In discussing similarities and differences between models of (alleged) fascism, students hopefully acquire a nuanced understanding of it as an historical phenomenon.

And people who’ve acquired a nuanced understanding can’t be comfortable with the bald assertion that we now have “a fascist presidency.” There is always that potential, and Trump is, whatever else he is, unpredictable. He also seems impressionable, in his ignorance, and in his lack of intellectual curiosity. His rhetoric about working with Russia in Syria, for example, could turn out to be as hollow as his vows to never settle the Trump University suit and to sue the many women who’ve accused him of sexual assault.

Yes, Trump could become a new Hitler, in his own way. (Just as Hillary could have become one, especially during the first weeks of World War III.) But overstatement and exaggeration discredit those making their claims now. The sky is not yet falling. The election deserves a sober class analysis, not a simplistic assessment that Trump’s idiosyncratic populism = fascism. The righteous rage of his supporters should be channeled, not vilified. They should be understood, not assumed to be enemies. A strategy of encouraging an antagonistic contradiction between Trump voters/supporters branded too generally as “fascists” on the one hand, and his opponents (which is to say, about 60% of the country) on the other, would not be helpful.

What’s really needed is for the Sanders supporters to join with the Trump supporters who would have voted Sanders, and the bulk of the working class—including those who supported none of the candidates, thinking none of them deserving support—to join to fight what should unite them: the capitalist globalization and imperialism that have so badly hurt them. This is a tall order given cultural divides. But maybe a wake-up call for the radical left that has long written off the “labor aristocracy” (as bought off by white privilege and U.S. global hegemony) while betting on the lumpenproletariat and identity politics to bring on a revolution that wouldn’t need the working class once so assiduously courted and organized by the left in this country.

(As you know, the Communist Party, USA organized the United Steel Workers, United Autoworkers, United Mine Workers, United Longshoreman’s Union, and other unions in the 1930s and had a membership of 80,000 in 1944. That’s when the New Deal president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was referring to wartime ally Stalin as “Uncle Joe.” There was a time when the U.S. working class was front and center, before it became invisible, absorbed into the “middle class.”)

One meaning of this election is that Rust Belt workers matter. Those marching and chanting,  “He is not my president” will have to find creative ways to persuade them (as they become inevitably disappointed with the performance of their buffoonish choice) of the deeper truth that “This is not our system.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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