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“Time to Say the F-Word”: Why Now?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Better late than never, I suppose.

I am referring to the flood of recent references in liberal mainstream media to Donald Trump as a fascist.

It is remarkable. In the last two months, I’ve read essays and seen television segments and online posts by numerous liberal luminaries describing Trump as an agent and example of “the F-word” – fascism. The luminaries include New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, New Yorker writer Masha Gessen, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Mehdi Hasan. “It’s time,” Hasan said last week, “we use the F-word: fascism.”

The “Public” Broadcasting System’s “Amanpour & Co.” recently had on the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley (author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them) to explain how and why Trump’s presidency is fascistic in its world view and conduct.

And look (at a less illustrious level) at this passage from Ryan Cooper’s recent reflection in The Week on “Why Trump’s Invasion of Portland is Textbook Fascism” – please note the ominous warning on the upcoming election, which Trump is already threatening to delay:

“In terms of political function, sending out paramilitary thugs to incite unrest and bludgeon protesters who are simply exercising their constitutional rights is straight out of the fascist playbook. And someone who is already president does not need majority support to seize power — he can simply destabilize the election administration enough to declare the results invalid (by, say, destroying the Post Office), and hope the armed forces don’t intervene….The groundwork has been laid for the classic fascist move of overthrowing the Constitution to forestall a fake left-wing plot: ‘We had to abolish democracy, otherwise Antifa Joe Biden would have instituted SJW Communism.’ …I once wondered whether American police would serve as Trump’s storm troopers. It seems with the Border Patrol — perhaps the most corrupt and lawless federal law enforcement agency, and that is saying a lot — he has found his brownshirts.”

I could go on with more quotations from the recently woke-to-the-fascist liberal intelligentsia, but you get the idea.

As an officially marginalized because seriously Left writer and historian who has been describing Trumpism and Trump as fascist in nature since before the 2016 election and who has been in the streets more than once with Refuse Fascism, it’s hard to resist the temptation to say this:

“I told you so. This is the very fascist Trump that I (and other ‘crazy radicals’ and ‘betting-wetting liberals’) were trying to tell you about. We meant it when we said this was fascism. You wouldn’t listen. You laughed it off as liberal and Democratic hysteria, which was absurd (a) given the history unfolding before your very eyes and (b) the fact I am a consistent and relentless Left critic of the Democratic Party and its liberal, moderate, and ‘progressive’ supporters.”

I really don’t want to do that because people figure stuff out when they figure it out at their own pace and in their own way, right? Still, I have got to ask a possibly uncomfortable question about the recent liberal and progressive discovery of the menace of Trumpism-fascism: why now? Why all the sudden alarm about fascism with a Trumpist face in the summer of 2020?

The first and most obvious answer is the significant extent to which Trump’s more latent fascism gave way to active and graphic fascism after the rise of the great people’s George Floyd Rebellion of late May and June of 2020, with hot embers still burning through July in Portland, Seattle and other locations. Trump’s response has been straight-up fascist: calls for “total domination” by cops and troops; calling Black Lives Matter protesters “terrorists” and “radical Left extremists;” threatening protesters with “vicious dogs and ominous weapons;” the savage chemical-weaponized clearance of Lafayette Square for a Christian Fascist photo-op with Trump’s Defense Secretary and Attorney General by his side; the classically authoritarian deployment of mysterious federal paramilitary mercenaries from the lawless border to repress citizen free speech and assembly rights in the “homeland” cities of Portland and Seattle; the boldfaced race-baiting, much louder than the usual dog whistles, replete with neo-Nixonian suggestion to Black and brown urban hordes are coming out to destroy white suburbs.

Federal black-shirt paramilitaries are now being dispatched to Chicago and other cities by a tyrant who has threatened to send out “75,000 federal agents” to crack down on Black people and social justice protesters

Trump’s racist “law and order” demonization of the nation’s big multiracial cities is straight out of the fascist playbook, as Jason Stanley told us two years ago.

The malignant psychotic Trump is running “dress rehearsal[s] for martial law” (Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan) with his paramilitary assaults on U.S. cities and citizens. And now Trump is predictably using the deadly coronavirus he fanned and the Big Lie that mail-in ballots are fraudulent as pretexts to test-Tweet calling for a Bolivian-style suspension of the November elections.

There’s also the little matter of the Trump Virus itself, which the Social Darwinist president has fanned and spread partly because even he grasps that COVID-19 particularly kills the already sick and wreaks special havoc in communities of color. The orange malignancy has let a killer virus exterminate tens of thousands of ordinary people, including Latinx meatpacking workers Trump ordered back to infected killing floors in the name a Defense Production Act he has still refused to invoke to mandate the manufacture of adequate medical supplies to defeat the virus. (Call me crazy, but that feels kinda fascist.)

As liberal luminaries know, the current moment is truly dangerous – precisely the kind of context in which fascism could consolidate. The U.S. capitalist economy is in collapse (U.S. GDP shrank 33% in the last quarter for which we have just been given data). The current so-called recovery is being undone by the insane expansion of the fascist Trump virus. A full-on financial collapse is a distinct possibility. The right-wing federal government is okaying evictions and slashing benefits, with the Amerikaner Republican Party viciously and absurdly claiming that an overly high jobless allotment is keeping people out of (um, non-existent) jobs. The COVID-19 runaway state of Florida may soon get pulverized by one of the many intense hurricanes that capitalogenic climate change (denied and exacerbated by the eco-fascist Trump regime) fuels. The neofascist president and his friends in the Fatherland media machine are spreading paranoid-style neo-McCarthyite dread about the supposed menace of “the Radical Left, Marxists, anarchists, Antifa” and all manner of communistic ghosts and goblins. People are in shock, dazed, disoriented, confused, frightened, sick, isolated, overwhelmed, and in crisis (school-teachers are preparing wills as they anticipate authorities forcing them into unsafe classrooms) – classic backdrop for authoritarian power-grabs.

So the terrible recent Trump conduct and the related context of a 2020 pandemic (itself arguably predicted by public health experts Trump had no interest in consulting) are key. Still, nothing in this conduct should be surprising to anyone who has paid serious attention to Trump’s 2016 campaign and his consistently authoritarian, racist, and white-nationalist presidency. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik nailed it in May of 2016:

“There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word ‘fascist’ …his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government…is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’… The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history.”

Another part of the moment is simply the election cycle. Liberals and Democrats are deeply attached to the notion that American democracy is about those very brief and savagely time-staggered moments when people make marks next to the names of candidates selected in advance for them by the ruling class.

“The best way to protest is to vote. When you vote,” Obama told young adults in Urbana, Illinois two years ago, “you’ve got the power.”

Just today, at the John Lewis funeral, Obama doubled down on this hyper-electoralism, telling mourners that “the right to vote” is “the most powerful tool we have” and that voting is “the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.”

Bullshit. That is false. Americans have gotten to vote, yes, but mammon has reigns nonetheless in the United States, where, as the mainstream political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens note in their important book Democracy in America?, “government policy … reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office”—candidates like Obama, who blew up the public presidential campaign finance system with record-setting contributions from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup in 2008.

Howard Zinn, said it very well in March of 2008, as millions of Democrats fell into “Election Madness” (Zinn’s phrase) love with Obama:

“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war….Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens” (emphasis added).

But since they believe the nonsense about the holy power of voting, many liberals and Democrats tend to save their truth-telling for election seasons.

Trump and Trumpism have been consistently fascist from 2015 on. Some, perhaps many liberals and Democrats (including even Obama)[1] have known this very well. You can go through the record of the last three and a half years and find one Trump comment and action after another that comes straight out of “the fascist playbook.”

So why are liberals saying “the F-Word” so much now? Part of it is the nasty historical shit hitting the fan this summer. Another part is the related when and where of the election cycle. The rising imminence of the fetishized quadrennial ritual calls for an unusually high level of criticism of the incumbent. The intensity of the discourse is tied to the masters’ strictly staggered schedule of electoral so-called democracy.

Now it is not at all clear that even that stunted form of popular input is going to be held on schedule, or at all.

The best way to protest is to protest.

Want to vote a fascist out of office? Of course you do. Good luck with that. I hope that works (no sarcasm, I really do). It may very well. But the real and serious political action has always been about what we do before and after, not during elections. We will see that to still be the case if right-wing Joe Biden is permitted to win and to take up residence in the White House. And this fall, it seems distinctly possible that mass action in the streets will be required even to secure an election outcome supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Trump has made it clear that he wants to be president for life and that he does not think he can be fairly voted out of office. It may well take organized and large-scale pressure within and beyond the streets to remove him. Why not start now and try to force this sick orange fascist bastard out of office now and not just on January 20, 2021, by which time he and his henchman will have wreaked God knows how much more malevolent mayhem?

Americans need, however, to undertake a giant popular uprising that targets not just the Trump-Pence regime but the whole U.S. state-capitalist societal order and its vast imperial and repressive edifice at home and abroad—the broad institutional and cultural structures of oppression (including the Democratic Party) that made something as noxious as a Donald Trump presidency possible in the first place. As Chris Hedges wrote on the cancelled left Website Truthdig two years ago:

“The Trump administration did not rise, prima facie, like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural, and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience.… If we do not stand up, we will enter a new dark age.”

The “new dark age” may well already be underway.

Endnote

1. Obama’s knowledge that Trump was a “fascist” (his word) did not stop him from lecturing the American people on the need to open him as their next great American president with open arms after the Electoral College flunked Hillary Clinton. See and hear Obama’s creepy post-Election Day speech here. It is a remarkable thing to review nearly four years after the indecent and tangerine beast canceled the corporate Clintons’ return to the White House.

Paul Street’s new book is The Passive Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.

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