In the U.S., Donald Trump remains among the least popular presidents in modern history. Given the buoyant state of the U.S. economy, at least relative to the widespread misery of the prior decade, this unpopularity reinforces the political disillusion reflected in the 2016 election results. Only Jimmy Carter, who engineered a vicious recession in the midst of a colonial rebellion in Iran, was less popular than Mr. Trump at this point in his tenure.
This makes ongoing assurances that the U.S. is in the midst of a fascist insurgency led by Mr. Trump perplexing. There seems little doubt that he (Trump) would be comfortable were such an insurgency to arise. But the available evidence only supports that conclusion when it is parsed using dubious methods. In fact, the establishment data supports conclusions decidedly inconvenient for the neoliberal left.
The other major players in the ‘rise of a global right’ storyline— Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Viktor Orban in Hungary, have mixed results in terms of their ongoing political support. Only Mr. Duterte has anything approaching majority popular approval for his policies. Left widely unconsidered is how this political consolidation by ‘strongmen’ mirrors economic consolidation in Western economies.
In the U.S., neoliberal framing of the rise of Mr. Trump— that his election represents a reactionary response to Barack Obama’s liberalism and race, follows a similar argument used to explain the rise of a reactionary right during Bill Clinton’s first term. As argued below, in both instances ideology was put forward by political reporters to describe events that more closely fit social responses to economic dispossession.
The recently merged worldviews of American liberals, the radical left, the establishment press and the CIA, NSA and FBI vis-à-vis the ideological roots of current political discontent, emerged from the neoliberal project launched shortly after WWII. A central goal then was to dissociate American capitalism and the Great Depression from the rise of European fascism. In fact, the rise of European fascism ties directly to American history, capitalism and the Great Depression.
In the U.S., the early-mid 1990s saw a rapid rise in the number of right-wing militia groups (graph below). This is claimed by political reporters to share cause with the rise in racist hate groups that began with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The movement in the 1990s culminated with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured around 700 more.
The popular explanation for the rise in militias was of a reactionary response to then president Bill Clinton’s liberalism. In fact, Mr. Clinton won election on a liberal platform. But like Barack Obama, he governed from the neoliberal right from the day he entered office. Nevertheless, the ideological dividing line posed by political reporters was Mr. Clinton’s liberalism versus the conservatism of the Reagan / (George H.W.) Bush years.
The data only superficially supports the hypothesis of a reactionary response to presidential politics. In both cases the number of white supremacist and / or militia groups rose in the first term, and then followed economic recovery lower in the second. Were ideological opposition the motivating factor for the rise, there is no obvious reason why it would reverse in both men’s second terms. What did change was the state of the economy.
Although Mr. Clinton remained president until 2000, the militia groups experienced a rapid decline from 1995 forward. In fact, in 1995 the U.S. job market began to recover, with finance and finance-dependent companies boosting hiring for the first time since 1989. The dot-com bust of the early 2000s was brutal for stock issuing corporations, but it didn’t result in mass layoffs that persisted. The next recession that did, the so-called Great Recession, began in 2007.
To flog the proverbial dead horse here, the labor market recession that led to Mr. Clinton’s electoral victory in 1992 was caused by the S&L crisis— by bank looting and over-leverage. It was the first ‘modern’ recession in the sense that 1) it was caused by finance and 2) it led to a very long period of labor market weakness. The next recession of this type was the Great Recession.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the number of militia groups once again began to rise. When Mr. Obama entered office, unemployment was increasing, and millions of people were losing their homes to foreclosure. Mr. Obama made his primary focus restoring banker bonuses and ‘smoothing the runway’ with foreclosure prevention programs whose purpose was to slow home foreclosures to manageable levels for the benefit of bankers.
Following a milquetoast stimulus bill loaded with Republican devices like tax cuts, Mr. Obama quickly shifted his political energy to cutting public spending. As unemployment reached a bit over 17%, Mr. Obama was working with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare. The first hint of popular rebellion was the 2010 mid-term election when Republicans took control of the House and Senate away from Democrats.
During this back-and-forth the number of militia groups (graph above) grew rapidly. When economic decline slowed and then began to reverse, so did the number of militia groups. When economic growth slowed again in 2015 – 2016, the number of militia groups again rose. In fact, in the two modern labor market recessions caused by excessive growth in private debt—1989–1995 and 2007–2016, the growth and decline of militia and racist groups closely followed the state of the overall economy.
Enter Donald Trump, who launched his 2016 presidential as a caricature of the European fascist leaders of the early-mid twentieth century. His racist and xenophobic slanders combined with a populist critique of neoliberal economic policies 1) would have put Democrats on the defensive if they had knowledge of what he was talking about and 2) enticed liberals and an erstwhile political left to recreate neoliberal explanations of the rise of European fascism.
In fact, the logic of the rise of militias and racist groups in response to the Clinton and Obama presidencies seems weak. If true, why did they begin to dissipate during the second terms of both men— and coincident with economic recovery? In other words, why would reactionaries become less reactionary the longer that liberal governments are in office rather than more reactionary?
Next, and related, why weren’t these movements ascendant when being so was conducive to achieving political goals, rather than when it wasn’t? The NOW (New World Order) crowd of the early 1990s hated George H.W. Bush as much as they did Bill Clinton. Why did the militias wait until Mr. Clinton took office— in the midst of a vicious recession, to form?
This gets to the thesis of an ascendant right following Donald Trump’s election. According to establishment news sources and radical left rhetoric, neo-Nazis, racists and assorted and sundry hate mongers are ascendant. Never mind that the primary sources for this thesis are Democratic Party operatives and the CIA, FBI and NSA. Why did the reactionary right choose the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to amass in numbers?
Given Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, the thesis of white nationalist ascendance makes intuitive sense. But amongst the racist groups identified by the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) — the official source for establishment reporting on the matter, most of the growth has come from Black Nationalist groups, who now outnumber White Nationalist groups by about two to one. I detail problems with the official reports here.
Following WWII, the problem that neoliberals faced was explaining the rise of European fascism while avoiding mention of American slavery, genocide and the Great Depression. Neoliberal economists— Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig on Mises, already worked with psychic desires (‘utility’) to explain the human motivation behind their economics. The shift from lived history to psychic speculation helped shed the unpleasant details of history. Ideology, e.g. psychic conceptions of freedom and slavery, were put forward in support of capitalism.
As was at least partially understood at the time, the Nazis based their racial theories on American eugenics, Jim Crow laws and the systematic extermination of the indigenous population. And they studied the managed capitalism of the New Deal as a model for the Nazi economy. In contrast to modern perceptions, Jim Crow and the American genocide were still underway in the years immediately prior to, and during, the ascendance of the Nazis.
Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, at the very pit of the Great Depression. The Great Depression itself was the last of a seemingly interminable series of crises of capitalism that preceded the New Deal. The role of Wall Street lending to finance the expansion of American capitalism joined with war debts from WWI to exacerbate the economic tensions that were a subtext of WWII. See Charles Kindleberger’s The World in Depression.
As it relates to current circumstances, the idea that racist ideology was the motivating factor behind the rise of Nazism is a self-serving explanation developed after the fact by capitalist ideologues. Not only were American atrocities and ideology every bit as destructive and vile as those of the Nazis, but the Americans were several centuries into it when the Nazis were getting started.
As if to prove itself unbowed by moral considerations, the American leadership went on to commit new genocides after WWII in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In the 1980s the Reagan administration committed atrocities across Central America and armed both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. In the first Gulf War, George H. W. Bush buried upwards of one hundred thousand Iraqi conscripts (troops) in the desert after they had surrendered — an atrocity by any standard.
The Clinton administration used economic sanctions to starve and deny medical supplies to ultimately kill half a million Iraqi women and children while spending the decade of the 1990s bombing civilian populations in Iraq on a daily and weekly basis. This was the run-up to George W. Bush’s illegal war of aggression against Iraq which led to the deaths of a million or more Iraqis— overwhelmingly civilians, as it lit the wider Middle East on fire with displaced Iraqi refugees.
The conceit that liberal practice is morally defensible— the position of liberals, much of the American left, the establishment press, the CIA, NSA and FBI— in other words, the alliance that formed following the election of Donald Trump, requires parsing internal from external history while ignoring the human consequences of both. Does this coalition not know American history? Or does it know the history and justify its conclusions by drawing careful distinctions between differing slaveries, genocides, atrocities and war crimes?
Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, herself the architect of policies that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, is currently warning that fascism is ascendant. Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State convinced Barack Obama to bomb Libya into oblivion, causing one hundred thousand plus civilian deaths and a revival of open-air slave markets, argues that white supremacy is the cause of racism, if not her and her husband’s racist policies.
The point here isn’t guilt by association— to link particular political views to atrocities. But it is that the greater monsters of liberal modernity see themselves as the answer to imagined atrocities. Elie Wiesel, the author of Night and lucid moral critic of the Third Reich, supported the American war against Iraq as a moral crusade led by moral people. At the time he did so, both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld has their names on every substantial mass grave in the Middle East.
Through what filter of the universe do those who have factually murdered, killed, caused the deaths of— choose your descriptor, hundreds of thousands of human beings, get to offer moral opprobrium? And by what filter is it granted? The history of the twentieth century suggests that the stakes are high indeed. But aren’t the stakes high because of these people, rather than in spite of them?
The great dangers of the moment— aggregating environmental crises, nuclear weapons that serve as an ever-present threat of extinction, militarism whose moral calculation is based on the profits to be earned, and the incapacity to recover government in the public interest, are consequences of liberalism, not the problems it exists to solve.