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If We’re on the Left, How Come We’re Still Here?

The persona Donald Trump is floating these days puts him on the same page as, say, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or their counterparts in Slovakia, Poland, and elsewhere in what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “the new Europe.”  From his “bully pulpit,” the Trump persona is an inspiration for neo-fascists in “the old Europe” too and indeed throughout the world.

I say “persona” because I don’t think that temperamentally or ideologically he actually is a fascist. I say this not to his credit, but because I think that the Donald is too much the narcissist to be anything that other-regarding.  He is a conman, and playing the fascist card is part of the con he is working.

This is why his cult-like followers are even more distressing than Trump himself.

Of course, not everyone in the Trump base is a true believer.  Many, maybe most of them are just ill informed and gullible, and then there seem to be some who know that they are being taken for a ride, but don’t mind.  How pathetic is that!

Republicans in rural areas are especially inclined to want to buy the snake oil Trump is selling; so are white working class men of a certain age and the women who stand by them. The status anxieties and social dislocations from which they suffer – thanks to the vicissitudes of global capitalism, the malign neglect of the Democratic Party, and the decline of the union movement — have rendered them vulnerable.

The MAGA bomber, Cesar Sayoc, is an extreme case; had his bombs gone off, he would have become the most lethal mass assassin in American history.  But there are others as bad or worse for whom the Donald is a guru, and many more not much better.

Trump’s popularity within his base would probably not have declined even had he killed or maimed two former presidents and more than half a dozen other prominent Democrats.  He long ago declared that his poll numbers would likely rise were he to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.  It is now plain that there was more to that boast than sarcasm.

It is tempting to make much of similarities between what is happening now in the United States under Trump and what happened in Italy after World War I or in Germany in the final days of the Weimar Republic.

However, such comparisons are ahistorical and should therefore be approached with skepticism.  It can be useful, though, to reflect on some salient differences.

In Italy and Germany, the Left was the first to go.  If what Trump is unleashing were more like the fascism of those interwar years, we would not now be here to talk about it.  We would be silenced or worse, much worse.

Not only has this not happened; it does not even seem to appear on Trump’s or his followers’ wish lists.

The MAGA bomber targeted Trump’s enemies list.  It is not clear how one gets to be a an enemy Trump acknowledges comes about; why, for example, Cory Booker got a package but Dick Durban did not. Could it all come down to being on Fox News and therefore on Trump’s mind when the Donald’s tweets are being spewed tweeted about?  What is clear is that Trump’s enemies list does not include even one bona fide leftist. This merits serious pondering.

To be sure, the chatterers and explainers on the cable and broadcast networks and in what passes for a quality press, say that Sayoc was targeting the Left.  But then they also think that a “red state” is one that is full of Republicans. Were they a tad less provincial and ignorant, they would know that, by historical or world standards, Sayoc’s targets, Trump’s acknowledged enemies, are barely left of center.

To make this point in a slightly less decorous way, I would point out that, back in the day – between, say, 1967 and 1974 – radicals (there still were quite a few back then) had quite a few colorful things to say about liberals, and many derisory ways to say them. I doubt that anyone took such talk seriously, but it was not uncommon, for example, to discuss which spineless do-gooder would be “the first up-against-the wall when the revolution comes.”

With the exception of Robert De Niro, whose politics we can only guess at and who should get a pass in any case if only for The Godfather, everyone on the MAGA bomber’s list would be a serious contender for being first – except perhaps Maxine Waters.

She is more of a Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist, corporate) Democrat than not, but she is also a loose cannon who will sometimes say what more feckless Democrats dare not.   Also, because Trump calls her “low IQ,” she deserves a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Imagine, being called “low IQ” by him!

Following their guru’s lead, Trumpians go after liberals, not us.  They hate liberals.

Rattle the cages of some of them vigorously enough and they might even take off on a murderous binge.

So far only a few seriously deranged individuals – the MAGA bomber, the Pittsburgh synagogue murderer (for whom Trump is too “globalist” and not anti-Semitic enough) have gone that far.

But the sentiment is there, and unless circumstances arise soon that cause those potential murderers either to come to their senses or else to crawl back into the holes out of which they slithered forth, the level of violence will soon become much worse.

And yet, the real Left doesn’t even seem to concern them.

This is all the more striking inasmuch as Trumpians today and the Italians, Germans and others who became fascists eight or nine decades ago plainly have a great deal in common.

One major difference, though, is that they were living in failed or failing liberal democratic states, while liberal and democratic institutions are still generally robust in the United States today.  Even with Trump in office, it is likely, though far from certain, that this will not change in two years time – or longer, if need be.

Another, more telling difference is that today’s “enemies of the state” stand several notches farther to the right than their counterparts in the interwar fascist era or in subsequent years in countries with large fascist movements or in which fascist or quasi-fascist governments have ruled.

This is perhaps the main reason why the thugs Trump inspires could care less about anything or anyone to the left of CNN.

This is lucky for us, I suppose, though it is disturbing to be so seemingly irrelevant.

But however that may be, this is such an odd situation that it behooves us to ask what accounts for it?

***

The Constitution does in part.

That document was cobbled together by Southern planters and Northern merchants, all of whom benefited, one way or another, from slavery and from the cultural and physical annihilation of the land’s indigenous inhabitants.

Some of its authors were Enlightened political theorists of considerable distinction, but even they were driven by their interests in maintaining their own power as much as the lofty ideals to which they subscribed.

High on their list of priorities was keeping the democratic aspirations unleashed by the War for Independence in bounds.  Thus they bequeathed to posterity, the Electoral College, the institution that, more than any other, made Trump’s presidency possible.

And they bequeathed the Senate – supposedly “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” but actually one of its most flagrant affronts to the general idea of political equality and, more specifically, to the fundamental democratic notion that citizens should be able, if they choose, to influence public policies equally.  It is the Senate that has made it possible for the Trump Party to have its way – not just with the judiciary, but with nearly everything else as well.

The “founding fathers” (they were indeed all male) of our republic were fine with all sorts of non- and even anti-democratic constitutional provisions except for one that surely occurred to them, and that is conspicuous by its absence.

They made no provision for the temporary suspension of the institutional arrangements they established in the event of exigent circumstances that call for extraordinary measures.

Following the example of the Roman republic, exponents of the (small-r) republican tradition in political theory generally did allow for emergency governments with dictatorial powers; they held that under the right conditions and with the understanding, for whatever that is worth, that the measures taken would be temporary, they permitted heads of state or other magistrates to destroy democracy, as the saying goes, in order to save it.

Jefferson and Madison and other leading thinkers involved in writing the Constitution were influenced by (small-r) republican theory.  Along with the many other anti- and un- democratic institutional arrangements they concocted, they might therefore also have contrived some that would permit presidents or other officials to rule by decree.

However, they did not – perhaps because they thought that “we, the people,” having just broken free from the clutches of the British monarchy, would never stand for anything so closely resembling monarchical rule.

In the Weimar republican, they didn’t have that problem.  The Weimar constitution was, in many respects, more democratic than ours, but it did allow for all sorts of undemocratic and illiberal – indeed, dictatorial — measures in emergency circumstances.

The absence of anything like that in our Constitution is one reason why Trump has so far been unable to suspend or severely contract basic rights and liberties in ways that would put the Left in mortal jeopardy.

At least part of the reason why we are still here, then, is that getting rid of us would require a revolution — against a Constitution that, for all its shortcomings, enjoys nearly universal support.

Another reason is that economic elites in the United States have no need to get rid of us.

In marked contrast, at the time of Mussolini’s March on Rome, the Italian ruling class had compelling reasons to fund and otherwise align itself with the counter-revolutionary rabble. They were fearful of Bolshevism and of a resurgence of the revolutionary uprising set off by the military and economic stress of World War I.

The situation was much the same in Hungary and throughout Eastern and Central Europe; there too, assuring that a defeated Left would not rise again was a high priority.

In Germany, a decade later and in the midst of the great Depression, ruling elites and the politicians who served them, having also survived a revolutionary uprising in the aftermath of their country’s defeat in World War I, were engulfed by similar fears.

Being less Constitutionally encumbered than Trump, they had the political means to fight back – and so, they empowered Adolph Hitler, the Nazi leader, to rule by decree.

Perhaps it (fascism) can happen here, but it won’t come about that way – empowering Trump or anyone else to rule by decree is out of the question.

It is also unnecessary. Our economic elites are fine with either duopoly party in power.  Some prefer Republicans, of course, but they all know that Democrats are biddable too.

Indeed, bipartisanship is widely thought to be a virtue of the American system in the way that, say, sharpness is a virtue of a knife – it is that which makes it perform its function well.

In ruling circles in the United States today, there is neither any need nor any liking for the kind of thuggishness Trump inspires.  There is nothing unusual in this; as a general rule, capitalists back fascist and fascist-like movements only when other more respectable options are unavailable.  Even in the final days of the Weimar Republic, the Nazis were a last resort.

This is a large part of the reason why Republican grandees were for anybody but Trump not long ago.

Their lack of principle and their many other human failings explain why they subsequently caved in so cravenly, and why, even in the aftermath of the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, they are content to let Trump have his way, no matter how vile his words and deeds have become.

There have always been a few unusually avaricious capitalists, not all of them in the fossil fuel industry, who supported Trump for the sake of their bottom lines. The motivation now for most American capitalists is not so much that as the fear of instability. If they could transition magically from Trump to no-Trump – say, as the Constitution requires, to Mike Pence, someone more to their liking — they would in the blink of an eye.  But, not unreasonably, they think that dumping Trump is either not worth the effort or the risk or both.

However, the situation is unstable.  If Trump isn’t hobbled soon, the demons he has conjured into being or otherwise stirred up will grow and threaten even him.

To some extent, this is already happening.  The failed MAGA bomber was very much in the Trump fold, but the successful synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, seems to have deemed Trump part of a “globalist,” which to him meant Jewish, conspiracy.

Whether Trump or his advisors realize it or not, Bowers is the future of the alt-right turn in Trumpland.

***

Because it harkens back to interwar European fascism, the ideological orientation of alt-right politics in the United States today is, by history and conviction, inherently anti-Semitic.  There has been nothing like this on our shores in many generations.

Indeed, there was no politically significant alt-right presence in American politics before Trump; there were only Tea Party whackos, a few free standing racists and nativists with web sites, and a large sector of the population misinformed and dumbed down by Fox News, talk radio, and mindless social media echo chambers.

The remnants of genuine anti-Semitism that survived, as it were, in the Right’s DNA were, for all practical purposes, in remission — thanks mainly to the Right’s greater obsession with Muslims and the fondness of so many of its leading lights for the Israeli ethnocracy.

This is undoubtedly still the case, the events in Pittsburgh notwithstanding.

Thus, ironically, Zionism does serve as a defense against anti-Semitic attitudes and actions, just as its proponents claim.  But this is not because the Jewish state protects Jews – if anything, Israel’s existence endangers Jews more than it protects them.  It is because the illiberalism inherent in the idea of a state belonging not to the people who live in it but to a particular ethnic or religious group functions like a homeopathic remedy, protecting Jews from anti-Semitic ire by being a little like what it aims to combat.

However, with Trump stirring the pot, the remedy, secure as it now may be, could fail.  Along with an overall rise in hate crimes directed against all kinds of people deemed “other,” there has been a rise in violence against Jews since Inauguration Day.  The murders at the Tree of Life synagogue are only the most extreme example.

As for anti-Semitic attitudes, outside alt-right circles, they are still probably no more evident than they have been since the end of World War II.  This seems obvious, but it is an empirical question, for which, as far as I know, there is no compelling evidence one way or the other.  We can therefore only conjecture.

There is reason to worry, even so, for a reason that the prophet Hosea (8:7) long ago grasped: “sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.”

***

So far, however, everybody is still holding on – leftists, liberals, rank-and-file Democrats, “purples,” everybody.  And it is still more likely than not that, whatever the results of the midterm elections, the comfortable world that Trump’s critics inhabit, is not about to come tumbling down.

Nowadays, Trump’s liberal critics are, if anything, even more outspoken, extreme, and relentless than his critics on the hard Left.  But this is not the main reason why leftists are, for now, safer than most.  We are saved by our marginality – by the fact that neither Trump nor his class brothers and sisters nor Fox News and other rightwing propaganda mills care about us.  They care about CNN.

Like all conmen, Trump knows his audience.  He knows that a lot of people think that Democrats are contemptible, which indeed they are, though not for reasons Trump voters or Trump himself understand; and he knows that, because American politics is mostly an empty charade, apathy is rife.

If there is any method to his madness, it must be that he has concluded that, this being the case, his best bet for holding onto and exercising power, at least for now, is to rev up the hardcore “deplorables” in his base and to play on the ignorance and general benightedness of other Republicans – in order to get more of them to turn out to vote than Democrats can muster against them.

Beyond that, he doesn’t care – partly because what matters to him is him, not the party that he has taken over, and partly because he is not mentally equipped to think strategically and therefore becomes bored when serious strategizing is called for.

Too bad for him that the strategy that got him nominated and elected in 2016 seems not to be working for him quite as well as it did any longer.

If I am wrong about that, however, and were he, smelling blood, to decide to go in for the kill, then our cushy situations might finally take a turn for the worse, perhaps even the much worse, rendering questions about why Trump and his minions haven’t yet gone after the hard Left moot.

In any case, now is a better time than most to seize the time.

To that end, I would venture, with all due disrespect for the sanctimonious jibber-jabberers who have lately taken to mouthing off endlessly about the virtue of civility and about how awful hate in the face of the Trumpian menace can be – that the first task is to muster all the vim and vinegar we can find within ourselves, and then to go out and kick some Donnie Dipshit ass, as best we can, in the ballot box on Tuesday.

That is tantamount to kicking GOP ass, which means casting votes for Democrats, the less odious but still awful, other party.  Voting for Democrats, most of them anyway, is an onerous prospect, but an anti-fascist’s gotta do what an anti-fascist’s gotta do.

It will be well to bear in mind too that while civility is a virtue of liberal public discourse, dealings with fascists and quasi-fascists are something else altogether, and that hate can be and often is a constructive emotion.

Tuesday will pass soon enough, and then it will again be timely to attempt not only to fight Trump and Trumpism but also to combat the conditions for its possibility.  That will require taking the Democratic Party on, no holds barred.

Now is therefore a time to take to heart what the wise, finding themselves in similarly dire circumstances to ours, counseled long.  These words of Bertolt Brecht, published originally in 1935, seem especially timely:

“Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties:  he must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everyone oppose; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.”

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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