It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the…Fascist Dictatorship…
* Doremus Jessup, a liberal and social democrat, reflecting ruefully from an American fascist prison in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
* Buffalo Springfield, 1966
Sinclair Lewis’s widely read and semi-satirical 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here resonates chillingly with current events in the United States. Published as fascism rose to power in Germany, the dystopian novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a bombastic and “populist” demagogue elected President of the United States in 1936. Windrip’s campaign combines a pledge for sweeping social reform with calls for a return to patriotism and “traditional” values. It is crafted by a shrewd and sinister newspaperman named Lee Sarason. Sarason believes in propaganda, not science, facts, and truth. He argues that real information “is not fair to ordinary folks — it just confuses them [and tries]…. to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people.”
Sarason ghost-writes Windrip’s widely read volume Zero Hour, a jeremiad against national decline and a call to Nativist action on behalf of “real Americanism.” Zero Hour upholds an idealized notion of a lost, betrayed and (supposedly) idyllic patriarchal and white-supremacist national past.
Windrip’s campaign channels white male hatred of racial minorities, Mexicans, uppity women, and liberal and Left “elites.” These ugly sentiments inform his election platform, labeled “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man.”
After he’s inaugurated, Windrip creates a paramilitary auxiliary to the United States Army called the Minute Men. The Minute Men arrest the Supreme Court and most of Congress. They suppress protests and arrest dissidents while the new “corpo” government passes draconian measures that oppress women, Blacks, and Jews.
Most U.S. citizens initially approve of Windrip’s authoritarian measures, thinking them necessary to restore American “greatness,” power and prosperity. Others dislike Windrip’s “corporatism” but take assurance in the comforting idea that fascism can’t really “happen here” – not in the “democratic” and “republican” United States, the land of liberty.
It Can’t Happen Here’s main protagonist is a liberal social-democrat and upper middle-class journalist named Doremus Jessup. As Windrip implements his agenda, leading to the incarceration of Jessup and many others, it dawns on the journalist that he and his fellow liberal elites are largely responsible for the national nightmare. “It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’” Jessup reflects, “who brought on the…Fascist Dictatorship… I can blame no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind…Forgive, O Lord. Is it too late?”
Jessup and his and his fellow comfortable New Deal liberals’ main mistake is their failure to respond with adequate seriousness and alar, to the threat posed by the outwardly clownish Windrip. Jessup “simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure.” Jessup and his ilk don’t fight back soon or hard enough because they are certain Windrip’s popularity will sputter. They underestimate the depth and the degree of popular anger and resentment Windrip exploits. By the time Jessup and other liberals and leftists catch up to the existential gravity of the American-fascist peril it’s too late.
Windrip is later removed by Sarason, who is in turn ousted by the right-wing General Dewey Haik. A government weakened by internal division among its top leaders faces a mass rebellion and the country descends into Civil War.
The differences between Lewis’ nightmarish scenario and the Trump election and presidency are numerous and significant, as one would expect when comparing a political novel from the mid-1930s with real political history eight decades later.
Windrip wins as a Democrat, having defeated New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt and turning the New Deal in a fascist direction. Trump won as a Republican in the wake of the Democratic corporate-neoliberal Barack Obama’s distinctly non-/post-New Deal presidency.
Windrip comes from humble origins in a small New England town. His rustic “heartland” appeal is rooted partly in his own background even if it is manipulated by Sarason.
The purported billionaire New Yorker Trump was born into wealth and rose to prominence atop the booming urban real estate and media markets of the 1980s and 1990s. His “folksiness” and rural, small-town “red state” allure is more obviously contrived.
Windrip’s brief reign occurs amidst the most widespread and prolonged mass unemployment in U.S. history, the Great Depression. Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” by restoring prosperity to the onetime industrial and agricultural “heartland” resonated with many white voters reeling from the 2008 Great Recession and the weak recovery that followed. But Americans’ economic difficulties during the Obama years paled before the scale of what the nation’s populace faced during the early 1930s. Trump has held the White House during a long job-generating economic expansion inherited from Obama.
Windrip rises to power largely on the anger and mobilization of the nation’s wage-earning and unemployed majority. Contrary to the widespread narrative that Trump was elected by the “white working-class,” Trump’s voting base has not been particularly proletarian. He ascended largely through the political demobilization, atomization, and alienation of working-class people, whites included.
Windrip sweeps into office as a quasi-socialist. He promises $3,000 to $5,000 ($44,334 to $74,890 in 2017 dollars) for every “real American family,” the setting of strict upper limits on upper-class incomes and wealth, and the placement of the nation’s leading banks under federal control.
Trump (whose sole legislative triumph during his first year in office was a giant tax cut for the already super-rich and their corporations) may have made populist-sounding noises on the 2015-16 campaign trail, but he has never approached Windrip when it comes to mimicking socialism or pledging economic redistribution.
Windrip campaigns as a chaste, morally and religiously devout man of small-town Protestant virtue. He “vomit[s] Biblical wrath” during his campaign speeches. He bans atheists and Jews who do not believe in the New Testament from public offices and key professions.
Trump, a product of the 1960s, is a longtime playboy with two divorces and numerous extramarital affairs under his belt. He was caught on tape boasting about sexually assaulting women. His outward pretense of Christianity is obviously insincere. By all indications, Trump (despite being an abject Twitter-addicted dotard) acknowledges no greater cosmic authority than his own “stable genius” self.
Windrip starts out with majority support. Trump has been plagued by significant majority disapproval from the beginning of his presidency.
Windrip mobilized masses in the streets and at the polls. Trump is a symptom of what the late political scientist Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” wherein corporations attain complete control of government and politics through mass popular demobilization, atomization, and depoliticization.
Windrip wipes out Congress and turns it into his adjunct. Trump has struggled with the legislative branch and lost one its two main chambers, the House of Representatives, to the Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms. The House has been locked in outward partisan warfare with Trump ever since.
There was a significant communist and socialist Left – a standard leading political bogeyman and bete noire of fascist movements – for fascists, including the fictional Windrip, to rail against in the United States in the 1930s. The big “radical socialist Left” Left that Trump, other Republicans, FOX News, and rightwing talk-radio harp on in the 21st century is largely a mirage.
Windrip succeeds in setting up an authoritarian, fascist-style government, replete with concentration camps for political enemies and government-affiliated paramilitary forces that crush dissent. Everyday Americans are afraid to openly oppose and criticize Windrip’s fascist state.
The aspiring fascist leader Trump has obviously achieved nothing like that. Trump has been relentlessly and openly mocked and criticized in most of the nation’s corporate media beyond FOX News and right-wing talk radio. He is a regular sick-puppy lightning rod for late night comedians and talk show hosts and a daily target of withering criticism at CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets. The armed right-wing groups that identify with Trump are not affiliated with the federal government. They lack the power to crush his political enemies and enforce his policies.
Trump faced a massive two-year Justice Department-appointed special prosecutor’s investigation into his relationships with Russia and into his efforts to obstruct that inquiry. The resulting April 2019 Mueller Report amounted to a referral for impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, where a growing number of Democrats have advocated the initiation of constitutional processes to remove Trump.
The gravest threat to humanity, exacerbated by Windrip, in the 1930s is global fascism and the related prospect of world war. The grimmest threat to the species today, crassly exacerbated by the climate-denying fossil fool Trump, is Ecocide – the capitalist war on livable ecology.
Still, there are haunting and uncanny parallels between Windrip and Trump, and between Windrip’s movement and Trumpism. As with Windrip, the dangerous and sinister nature of the Trump candidacy and presidency has been cloaked to no small extent by a clownishness and buffoonery that has encouraged many Americans not to take him or his backers seriously.
Like the fictional Windrip and other real-life fascist-style politicos past and present, Trump has used brutish tactlessness and contempt for liberal political correctness and established norms of civic decency to distinguish himself from his political opponents – and to win a special place in the hearts of his followers.
Like Windrip, the real-life creeping fascist Trump has built his campaign and much of his rhetoric around the stoking and tapping of white and male resentment of supposedly undeserving racial and ethnic minorities and women perceived as having stepped outside their proper roles.
Like Windrip, Trump has made a political punching bag out of Mexico.
Like Windrip, Trump has diverted ordinary white citizens’ attention and anger away from the United States’ oligarchical wealth and power concentrations created by modern state capitalism and on to racial, ethnic, foreign, and cultural scapegoats: minorities, feminists, intellectuals, immigrants, socialists, environmentalists, and various perceived foreign state adversaries.
Like Windrip, Donald “Make America Great Again” Trump has appealed to the myth of an elite-betrayed past of racial, ethnic, patriarchal, and moral purity – a glorious “homeland” and “heartland” history to which the revered “blood and soil” nation needs to return.
While he has never allowed anybody to become as influential in his campaign and presidency as Lee Sarason is for Windrip, Trump’s campaign success in the late summer and fall of 2016 relied heavily on the direction he got from the evil white nationalist and global fascist strategist Steve Bannon. By late 2018, Trump appeared to have given over much of his domestic political program to the spooky white nationalist Stephen Miller, a Bannon-acolyte.
Like Windrip, Trump tapped rural and small- town white resentment of an urban and comparatively educated, cosmopolitan, and multiethnic “liberal elite” seen (with some good reasons) as having snubbed its nose at a sullen and “silent majority” of ordinary white people – white men without college degrees and professional classifications especially. Like the fictional Windrip and real-life fascists past and present, Trump has appealed to his white “heartland” base’s sense of having been victimized by arrogant and politically correct left and liberal elites. Like Windrip’s frothing backers, Trump’s angry Caucasian base lusts for retribution against immigrants, minorities, lazy “bums,” and uppity women who are supposed to have unjustly gotten ahead of the virtuous white male citizenry – and against the sneering “know-it-all” elites who are accused of letting allegedly unworthy “line-cutters” supposedly advance ahead of the nation’s hard-working white majority. Trump promises his resentful base payback against both supposedly undeserving and disproportionately nonwhite Others and the stuck-up big-shots who allegedly promote them over “real Americans.”
Windrip’s angry white base enjoys big rallies where their hero mocks and lambasts liberal elites and demonizes the “Radical Left” and other nefarious scapegoats, promising jail and violence to those who oppose him and thereby threaten the greatness of the white nation. The threat of violence against his and hence America’s perceived enemies at home and abroad hangs constantly over the Windrip campaign gatherings and his presidency.
In much the same vein. Trump’s many fascist-like rallies and many of his menacing comments and Tweets have communicated much the same angry, ominous, and atavistic message. Real and threatened violence against his and hence “America’s” perceived adversaries and critics has been a consistent theme in the Trump phenomenon and presidency.
Like fictional president Windrip, real president Trump has appointed unqualified political hacks to sensitive political positions because of their perceived loyalty to him.
Trump may not be much of a Christian, but the organized Christian-fascist right has been a key part of his collation and movement, as it is for Windrip.
Like Windrip and like other real-life fascists past and present, the “Great God Trump” became something of a strangely “charismatic” cult figure– a supposedly all-powerful champion who could do no wrong – for his fervent and frothing fans.
Like Windrip’s Depression- and New Deal-era economic populism (modeled largely on Louisiana governor Huey Long), Trump’s far less robust economic populism is deceptive and manipulative. The real beneficiaries of his polices are the wealthy corporate and financial Few.
Like Windrip, Trump has made grandiose promises on behalf of ordinary working people while governing on behalf of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money – its corporate oligarchy.
Like Windrip and non-fiction fascists past and present, Donald “Drain the Swam” Trump regularly accuses political opponents of corruption even while he and the people around him are monumentally corrupt (witness the latest scandals surrounding Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao).
Like Windrip, Trump makes no bones about embodying crassly selfish and openly national ambitions for himself and the United States. “America First” has been Trump’s foreign policy rallying cry, harkening back to the right-wing American nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s. He celebrated his first day in the White House by telling the CIA that America should have “kept the oil” when it invaded Iraq and suggesting that the U.S. might to back into Iraq to “get the oil” under his presidency. He bemoaned the fact that America no longer “wins wars,” forsaking the standard American Exceptionalist rule whereby U.S. foreign policy-makers claim that wars are last resorts and that Washington fights them not for the sake of glorious victory in and of itself, but in defense of higher ideals: democracy, freedom, peace and security.
Later in his presidency, Trump openly justified the continued U.S. sale of lethal arms to the despotic Saudi Arabian government because “they buy a lot of weapons from us” – this even after that government was shown to have murderously dismembered a dissident journalist employed by The Washington Post (not to mention the Saudis’ savage, U.S.-assisted assault on Yemen, creating an epic humanitarian catastrophe there)
Glorification of the military are key fascist themes shared by nonfiction Trump (who has wanted to hold a U.S. military parade), the fictional Windrip, and nonfiction fascists past and present.
Another Trump theme shared with Windrip is contempt for journalists and press freedoms. Trump has repeatedly called the media and its personnel “the enemy of the people,” describing reporters as “some of the worst people in the world,” among other insults. Trump has encouraged violence against journalists, as does Windrip, who jails media operatives who don’t follow his line.
Like Windrip, Trump has glorified ignorance and repudiated intellectual rigor and expertise. He idiotically doubts the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and its causes.
Like the fictitious Windrip, nonfiction Trump lies and misrepresents facts habitually, launching an open assault on truth. Trump’s war on reality is historically epic: the Washington Post reported in January of 2019 that he had uttered and tweeted no less than 8,158 documented false statements during his first two years in office. (That was certainly an all-time record for any politician over a comparable period of time. Trump’s mind-numbing rate of misstatement and mendacity rose as the nation moved further into 2020 election mode.).
It isn’t just about the sheer and astonishing number of lies and falsehoods that Trump advanced. With Trump as with Windrip and with real-life fascist and non-fascist totalitarians across the ages, constant mendacity in service to political propaganda is the name of the game. The aim isn’t merely to manipulate opinion around specific charges and issues. The deeper goal is to advance what the leading theorist of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt called “the permanent lie.” The aim is to undermine citizens’ capacity to trust their own ability to understand truth and reality.
Like Windrip, Trump has exhibited cold authoritarian contempt for the rule of law and the power of Congress while packing the federal judiciary with right-wing toadies. Last February, Trump declared a (fake) “national emergency” as a pretext for doing an end run around Congress’s refusal to fund his great white nationalist and nativist political vanity project: the completion of a “big beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump just recently declared another national emergency to justify defying both chambers of Congress to push through more than $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates while they conduct an air war that created a humanitarian disaster and killed many thousands of civilians in Yemen.
Trump has openly and criminally defied Congress’s demand that his Internal Revenue Service release his tax returns for public scrutiny. He has criminally ordered current and former aides not to testify before Congress on his connections to Russia, his criminal efforts to obstruct Justice Department and Congressional investigations, and other matters. He has absurdly claimed that he could go the Supreme Court to block impeachment. He has ludicrously called the Mueller investigation an attempt by “sick people” to “overthrow the United States government.” He preposterously calls the Mueller Report a “total exoneration” of his conduct – ab abject Orwellian falsehood. He has accused those who dared to investigate and oversee him of “treason,” a capital offense.
Last month. Trump’s lawyers actually argued in federal court that Congress had no constitutional authority to investigate the White House for wrongdoing, Trump then told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer that no legislation would occur in the United States unless and until Congress stopped investigating him.
Trump has even sent out signals that he will not honor the results of the 2020 presidential election if it does not go his way – and that paramilitary and police state violence might occur if his enemies try to remove him from office. He has made the disturbing suggestion that his “tough” backers, including “bikers,” police officers, and soldiers would respond with violence to any effort to remove him from office. Sinclair Lewis’s Buzz Windrip would certainly approve.
“If you’re not terrified,” the distinguished liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman told CNN’s nonplussed anchor Anderson Cooper with good reason in mid-April of 2019, “you’re not paying attention.”
Also like fictional Depression-era Windrip, 21st century nonfiction Trump rose to power thanks in no small part to weak opponents who failed to resist with sufficient speed and force partly because of the false belief that the blustering and buffoonish demagogue’s popularity would dwindle once he was properly exposed as an outrageous lout and charlatan. That’s how many U.S. liberals and leftists (myself included at times) reacted to the rise of Trump in 2015 and much of 2016.
The Clinton Democrats even worked to promote Trump in the primaries because they assumed his clownish conduct and personal and cultural offensiveness would render him unviable in the general election. They called it their “Pied Piper” strategy.
Congress may have remained in session and caused Trump considerable consternation over the last two and half years. Still, the current Democratic majority House of Representatives has yet to demonstrate the elementary gumption to act on its basic constitutional duty to begin the process of impeaching Trump for any among his many and endless “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Trumpified Republican Party holds the U.S. Senate, rendering removal of the president impossible even if House Democrats develop the courage to impeach the orange monstrosity.
The Democrats and their many media allies have continued their longstanding neoliberal- era role as an “Inauthentic Opposition” (Sheldon Wolin’s 2008 term) party. Instead of meaningfully confronting the white nationalist and eco-exterminist Republican Party-in-power for its menacing assaults on democracy, racial justice, equality, and livable ecology, they have instead handed the president and the GOP a great political victory by focusing their criticism of Trump on a politically and legally dubious claim of campaign collusion with Russia. Their fanatical determination to paint out Trump as a tool of Russia has enhanced his chances of re-election by turning the public focus away from his worst sins in office. As the journalist Alan Nairn observed on Democracy Now! last May 23rd:
“If you turn on CNN and MSNBC these days, unless you’re someone who has been following these channels avidly, you’ll find a lot of that they’re talking about is incomprehensible gobbledygook, because they go on and on about Don McGhan and these all these [other RussiaGate] figures who most people don’t know who they are, rather than talking about the substantive issues of the atrocities that Trump is committing daily – the abduction and de facto murder of children on the border, the gutting of labor rights, the gutting of environmental protections…Instead, the Democrats are going off on a tangent, and they’re handing Trump a political gift. If you’re going to impeach him, impeach him on substance, not a Russia plot, which Mueller already concluded Trump didn’t criminally participate in.”
Meanwhile, the reigning “Stop Sanders” corporate Democrats are working to keep the lid on the leftish and progressive forces in their own party – the Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez Democrats who might actually defeat Trump.
Why bother to incarcerate the Inauthentic Opposition party when it plays so pathetically if predictably into the hands of the aspiring fascist leader?
The American liberal class’s existential ineffectuality in the face of Windrip is an especially rich parallel between Lewis’s 1935 novel and the real-life Trump nightmare. In ways that Lewis would certainly appreciate, this failure is based to no small degree on the fatal American-exceptionalist miscalculation that a totalitarian and fascist regime just “can’t happen here” – not in what is supposedly the world’s leading example and headquarters of “freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.” Beneath that critical error lay an upper and middle-class underestimation of how oppressed, depressed, and angry much of the population feels under the nation’s reigning and arrogant business and professional classes. One of the more poignant if discomforting parallels between It Can’t Happen Here and the real life 21st century Trump story emerged when candidate Trump started calling his backers “the forgotten people.” Windrip aligns with “The League of Forgotten Men,” a large group of evangelically mobilized white men who feel disenfranchised – like “Strangers in Their Own Land” (the title of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s widely read study of white Tea Partiers and Trump supporters in Republican Louisiana) – from the country they claim to love and defend.
It isn’t just that these people feel disremembered, left-behind, passed over and marginalized by the corporate, financial, and professional class establishment. They feel positively insulted and enraged by the elite’s dismissal of them as backwards and under-educated rubes and dolts, unfit “deplorables” (to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous September 2016 description of Trump’s white base) on the wrong side of the elite’s self-satisfied meritocratic ideology.
Meanwhile, not-so liberal talking heads and commentators at CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets warn repeatedly and loudly about the supposed grave dangers of the S-word, socialism – this while finding it excessively difficult to say and write the F-word, fascism.. They seem to think, like Windrip’s Doremus Jessup in 1936, that fascism can’t happen here. They also seem to prefer to losing to the right, even a fascistic right, over losing to the left, even just a mildly social-democratic left (the dreaded “socialist” specter of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who would like to save prospects for a decent human future with a Green New Deal) in their own party.
The progressive Sanders Democrats would far better against Trump and the GOP than would the dismal, dollar-drenched, demobilizing corporate-centrist neoliberal neo-Doremus Dems, currently congealing around the vapid right-wing corporatist-imperialist Joe Biden. But so what? The Inauthentic Opposition isn’t primarily about winning elections, much less about social justice and democracy or ecological survival. It’s about serving corporate sponsors.
Lewis’s novel ironically resonates with the United States’ political reality far more today than it did when it was published. It is an understatement to say that Lewis’s dystopian vision of a fascist America was not realized in 1935 and 1936. As Germany descended further into the grip of fascist dictatorship under Adolph Hitler, the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved into its leftmost historical moment of political and social democracy: the rise and consolidation of the “second” New Deal, accompanied by the emergence and early victory of the militant industrial unionism of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The passage of the Wagner Act (which legalized collective bargaining for industrial unions), the Social Security Act (old age pensions partially funded by the federal government), the Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing a federal minimum wage) and other progressive New Deal measures including significant new public works and relief programs marked a new high water mark of left-liberal and progressive, social-democratish policy in U.S. history. After crushing his Republican opponent (Alf Landon) with a giant wave of working-and middle-class votes in 1936, Roosevelt stood atop a New Deal Democratic coalition that ruled all three branches of the federal government. The United States shifted portside, moving towards expanded popular sovereignty while Germany fell under the iron grip of the racist and warmongering Nazi state.
The United States would generate fascist-style politicos and political moments in subsequent decades. If the venerable Left analyst Carl Boggs is correct (my sense on that is affirmative), the United States began to develop the objective institutional framework for a distinctively U.S.-American equivalent to objective democracy-cancelling fascism in the post-World War II years – a framework that all too easily yielded a corporate-managed form of “inverted totalitarianism” (Wolin again) with the onset of the so-called neoliberal era (“neoliberalism” is really just Western capitalism turning to its longstanding regressive and reactionary norm). Still, it is only with the rise of Donald Trump – with his call for a giant nativist Wall on the Southern U.S. border, his threat to incarcerate his political enemies, his openly racist portrayal of Mexican and Central American immigrants, his open embrace of foreign dictators and arch-authoritarians, his unprecedentedly brazen defiance of Congress and law, his open flirtation with violence as a political tool, his not-so hidden threat to cancel elections, his relentless Orwellian-Huxleyan assault on truth, his recurrent racist and hate-filled rallies, his constant personalized name-calling, his bizarre cult of malignant personality, his open irrationality, and more – that we can talk seriously about a fascist or at least fascist-equivalent movement with a distinctly fascist-like base and a morally senseless, norm-smashing wannabe fascist strongman taking power and threatening to foreclose on the last remnants of American democracy.
Why now? Trump and Trumpism represent a kind of nationalist, racist, patriarchal, and authoritarian fascist politics that is hardly unique to United States history. But, as the left historian Greg Grandin suggests in his latest book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, both this kind of noxious far-right politics and the very different and egalitarian politics of “socialism” have heretofore been consigned to the fringes of U.S. political history. Until now. How did these previously contained tendencies – the barbarism, even fascism of the white-nationalist right and the “socialism” or social democracy of the Bernie Sanders left – come to dominate the national political contest in 2016 and perhaps in 2020? Grandin makes an essential historical point. “Trumpism,” symbolized above all by the Wall, “becomes nationalized,” Grandin told the Real News Network last February, “after the empire fails. Trumpism is what happens after empire” – after the “escape valve” of endless growth is closed off:
“The border wall has supplanted the frontier as the national myth. I link it to a number of things that have foreclosed on the possibility of growth. One is the disaster of 9/11, the response to 9/11. The endless, unwinnable wars that the United States threw itself into. [Then there’s] the financial catastrophe of 2007-2008 which foreclosed on a kind of–even during the recovery it’s kind of revealed an entrenched inequality. And of course the–perhaps the biggest limit to growth is the ecological crisis; the fact that the world stands on the precipice of collapse. All of these things help explain the ascension of Trumpism…The myth of the frontier…allowed for the maintenance of a centrism – the idea of a vital centrism in which extremism was marginalized. Two kinds of extremism. The extremism of the white supremacist, but also the extremism of socialism, of property-claiming social movements. As long as the U.S. had that option towards moving out in the world, it could respond to those two politics by marginalizing them. And now what we’re seeing, and we saw it in the 2016 campaign, is that the United States is finally being forced to confront an option that other countries were forced to confront in the past, but that the United States deferred and deflected because of its unique prerogative of expansion and growth, and that’s the choice between barbarism and socialism…political tendencies that frontier universalism marginalized in the past.”
Both Trumpism-fascism and Sanders-style “socialism” reflect the loss of the United States’ breathing room in an age of imperial, economic, and ecological decline. A reckoning has arrived. The safety-valve of endless expansion that previously permitted U.S. capitalism to escape its inner driving and taproot oppositions has been sealed off. The global, military, and economic “Open Door” that replaced the literal Western North American frontier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has closed in a world that is full of capital, technology, competition, and environmental poison. Quantitative growth paths (both up and out) – the various forms of enlargement whereby the nation has acted on U.S. Founder James Madison’s admonition to “extend the sphere” (so as to keep class conflict and factionalism at bay) – are no longer sufficient to displace and dilute the nation’s steep internal and qualitative contradictions, its dynamic and propelling rifts of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and ecological exhaustion.
The squeeze is on. An accounting has come due and the center cannot hold. It’s either redistribute wealth and power downward and democratically and eco-sustainably restructure society or speed faster and further down the path of racism, accelerated classism, hyper-inequality, sexism, militarism, fascism, and ecocide. The centrist contest between Wall Street-globalist corporate Democrats and Wall Street-globalist corporate Republicans has given way to the struggle between authoritarian barbarism and democratic socialism.
We know, or at least should know, which way Germany went when that failed national contender for world capitalist supremacy (beaten out by the United States as successor to England in the role of the world system’s hegemonic power) ran out of breathing room in the first half of the last century. Humanity paid the price with 50 million killed before Nazi-led global fascism was defeated. The stakes are even bigger today – the very prospect of a decent organized human existence – in an age of eco-exterminist, fossil-fuel driven global warming and deadly nuclear proliferation. It’s (eco-) “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” now, as Istvan Meszaros pointed out 18 years ago.