Fascism, Trumpism and the Left

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Ever since the 1964 election, liberals and many radicals have referred to the Republican presidential candidate as a fascist threat. When Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination, Democratic California Gov. Pat Brown said, “The stench of fascism is in the air.” Those worries continued through the Nixon years, abated somewhat under Bush ’41, then waxed again under Bush ’43. Today, they loom larger than ever, with Donald Trump’s outside chance of being re-elected in November.

Invoking the 1932 election in Germany, some leftists urge a vote for Joe Biden to keep Trump from consolidating the fascist regime he began constructing in 2016. While not mentioning the word fascism, a letter  signed by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West and 52 other notable leftists insists that we vote for Biden, especially in swing states. Chomsky probably spoke for the entire group when he told The Intercept:

“Failure to vote for Biden in this election in a swing state amounts to voting for Trump. Takes one vote away from the opposition, same as adding one vote to Trump. So, if you decide you want to vote for the destruction of organized human life on Earth. . . then do it openly. . . . But that’s the meaning of ‘Never Biden’”.

Even before Trump’s 2016 victory, Chomsky fixated on the threat fascism posed. When Chris Hedges interviewed him in 2010, he compared the U.S.A. to Weimar Germany: “It is very similar to late Weimar Germany. The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

When I read this exchange, I felt compelled to draw the necessary contrast between Germany in 1932 and the U.S.A in 2010:

The other thing missing entirely from Chomsky’s assessment is the differences between the German working class in the Weimar Republic and our situation. There is no fascist threat in the U.S. today because there is no Communist threat. The two movements are dialectically related. Despite all the hysteria about “socialism” on Fox News and at Tea Party rallies, there is not the slightest sign that American workers are thinking in class terms, let alone radicalizing. In fact, the overall response of workers to economic crisis is pretty much the same as it has been for every downturn since the early 1970s, namely to seek personal solutions. In 1989, Michael Moore made his first documentary “Roger and Me” that examined the impact of unemployment in Flint, Michigan—his hometown. One worker was raising rabbits to sell as food; another had decided to move to Texas, where there were jobs aplenty—at least that is what he heard. What you didn’t see was organized resistance.

If Trump poses the same threat as Hitler in 1932, the only conclusion you can draw is that it is a counter-revolution without a revolution. While classical fascism ended after the Axis defeat in 1945, there were plenty of dictatorships with more than a whiff of fascism. In each case, the capitalist class threw its weight behind a military coup that promised to re-establish law and capitalist order. Pinochet was the closest we came to classical fascism, but there were other examples. In 1965, General Suharto led a coup in Indonesia that wiped out the country’s left, just as happened in Chile 8 years later. Once in power, Pinochet and Suharto used death squads to keep the masses intimidated. Neither country ever recovered from such anti-Communist traumas.

Today, such genuinely fascist-like states will likely not reappear for the simple reason that Communism and leftwing socialism of the Allende variety disappeared. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s reabsorption into the capitalist world, workers and peasants have few powerful allies upon which to rely. In 1965, China had close ties with President Sukarno, who Suharto would overthrow. Today, China has the same close relations with Indonesia, even though the Communist Party still controls the Chinese state and economy. What’s changed? Both countries embrace capitalist property relations even if Xi Jinping pays lip-service to the Maoist past.

While the U.S.A. never had massive working-class parties like Chile and Indonesia, there was a radical movement between 1965 and 1973 that fed off the “existing socialism” of those years. Cuba provided material and logistical aid to guerrilla movements in Latin America, while Vietnam fought off the most powerful military in the world. It also put down the red carpet for American delegations that included Noam Chomsky and Jane Fonda. In the U.S.A, there were probably 10,000 or more Maoist activists who tried to apply a “people’s war” strategy to a country that lacked a peasantry. Among them was the Black Panther Party, a group that the FBI was determined to eradicate just as Pinochet and Suharto were determined to destroy much larger and more powerful adversaries.

With the end of the war in Vietnam, Cuba’s retreat from revolutionary internationalism, and the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the radical movement in the U.S.A. withered on the vine. It was only the 2008 economic crisis and the development of Black Lives Matter that a new spirit of resistance took shape. However, the American working-class remains quiescent. Unlike the 1960s, when auto, steel and coal were industries that revolutionaries “colonized”, the most important sectors of the American economy are outside the production sphere. Amazon has one million workers but they produce absolutely nothing. Instead, they package, ship and deliver bundles of goods made in China and other countries where cheap labor is the rule—including Vietnam, the erstwhile foe of American imperialism. If American workers no longer enjoy the kind of wages they once got working for General Motors, they can at least benefit from the cheap goods at Walmart, Home Depot and other megastores.

In the 1930s, Marxism tried to theorize fascism to develop a strategy to resist it. Leon Trotsky’s articles on Nazi Germany and the civil war in Spain represent some of the most advanced thinking. He saw it as a combination of factors, primarily the left’s failure to make a revolution. In Germany, the Socialists adopted a “lesser evil” strategy similar to the one recommended by Chomsky and company. They urged a vote for Paul Von Hindenburg, a German version of Biden, who turned the government over to Hitler just six months after taking office. Meanwhile, the Communists refused to join forces with the Socialists who they denounced as “social fascists” during the suicidal “third period.”

It wasn’t enough to rely on electoral victories. In order to impose fascist rule on the German people, Hitler needed a mass movement to back him up. The foot-soldiers for that mass movement came from the ruined middle-class that resented both the workers beneath them and the bosses above. Hitler’s “national socialism” was a message that seduced civil servants, shopkeepers, farmers, and white-collar workers. Trotsky wrote:

But, woe, if the revolutionary party does not measure up to the height of the situation! The daily struggle of the proletariat sharpens the instability of bourgeois society. The strikes and the political disturbances aggravated the economic situation of the country. The petty bourgeoisie could reconcile itself temporarily to the growing privations, if it arrived by experience at the conviction that the proletariat is in a position to lead it onto a new road. But if the revolutionary party, in spite of a class struggle becoming incessantly more accentuated, proves time and again to be incapable of uniting the working class about it, if it vacillates, becomes confused, contradicts itself, then the petty bourgeoisie loses patience and begins to look upon the revolutionary workers as those responsible for its own misery.

Trotsky’s class analysis hardly corresponds to our situation today. Despite the BLM and antifa protests, American society is stable. Attempts to liken the Proud Boys or the Boogaloos to Hitler’s Brownshirts fall apart when examined under a historical spotlight. By 1932, it had 400,000 men that had years of experience attacking working-class demonstrations and rallies. By contrast, antifa confrontations with Trump supporters are skirmishes that generally do not involve casualties. When one happens, as was the case with Kyle Rittenhouse, the left must express outrage while it puts his actions into perspective. Like the driver who plowed his car into Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, this was an exception to the rule. America’s would-be fascists are primarily looking for fist-fights, not to commit homicide—at least for the time being.

In the four years that I have been paying close attention to Donald Trump and the various attempts to depict him as a looming fascist threat, I have read few attempts to theorize “Trumpism” using Marxist analytical tools. Fortunately, a 2018 New Left Review article by Dylan Riley titled “What is Trump” is not behind their paywall. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Riley, a University of California/Berkeley sociologist and NLR editorial board member, approaches the question in a rigorous, historical materialist fashion. Of key importance is his distinction between unemployment that triggered mass revolts of both the left and right in the 1920s and debt, the key element of today’s malaise as David Graeber pointed out:

Instead, economic malaise today focuses on the ‘downsides’ of globalization—the relocation of manufacturing jobs abroad, to be replaced by growing precariousness, longer hours worked for falling real pay and rising household debt—thrown into relief by the trillion-dollar banker bailout. The personal debt-to-income ratio in the United States exploded in the run-up to 2008 and now averages around 100 per cent of household income, with huge regional variations: on the coasts and in Appalachia, debt runs at three or four times household income. In social terms, indebtedness is not a collective experience, in the way that mass unemployment is, but an intrinsically individual one: every debtor has a quantitatively specific credit score, for example, and the crisis for her or him takes the form of difficulty in paying the bills. Debt therefore tends towards an individualization, or serialization, of political activity. Rather than collectivizing wage-earners, it atomizes the population into what Marx famously described as ‘a sack of potatoes’. But ‘potatoes’ don’t make for fascism; they make for Bonapartism—rallying as individuals to a charismatic leader, rather than forming a coherent paramilitary bloc. If they are to be galvanized today, it is likely to be on the defensive basis of protectionist nationalism, rather than yet further imperial aggression.

Fleshing this out a bit, workers in the 1920s did not live in the suburbs. They lived close to their workplace and usually got there by trolley car or on foot. In their neighborhoods, there were close ties mediated through a church or some other community organization. When a factory closed, the workers and their families came together to help bail each other out, like resisting an eviction or hosting a rent party. All through Brooklyn, there were enormous housing projects filled with Communist Party members. When organizers tried to build a CIO union, they relied on networks in these projects and the surrounding neighborhood.

Today, workers are atomized. Once a hotbed of Communist garment workers, the gentrified Lower East Side of Manhattan is now is home to NYU students, web developers and boutique owners. The rents are so damned high all over Manhattan that socialists cannot even afford to open a headquarters or bookstore.

While it is beyond the purview of this article to develop the kind of analysis that captures the essence of “Trumpism” (and that is not even fully achieved in Dylan Riley’s article), there are some indications of how it operates. To start with, there is no point in the ruling class backing a fascist coup when there is no threat to its profit-making imperatives. While I don’t agree with much of Adolph Reed Jr.’s never-ending attacks on Black Lives Matter, he does get one thing right. They are not involved in direct assaults on corporate America. Their goal is to put a stop to police department death squads, something sorely needed after all.

Unlike Hitler, Trump uses subterfuge rather than violence to achieve his goals. Using executive power and the reactionary Supreme Court as his sword and shield, he appoints men and women to head agencies whose stated purpose they seek to defy. If the Department of Education exists to support public education—a bedrock of American democracy—he puts Betsy DeVos in charge, a woman who wants to replace public schools with charter schools. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency does not seek to protect the water we drink but to help make it easier to fill with carcinogens. And so it goes. There’s no need for Brownshirts when bourgeois legality is working so well.

These malevolent appointments do not amount to fascism. It is how America has been operating since Reagan was President, a man who used his executive power in the same way. Indeed, the words “Make America Great Again” was first uttered by Reagan, not Trump.

To secure both executive and legislative power, the Republicans have increasingly undermined the electoral process to keep liberals powerless. Even if Biden represents no challenge to corporate power, the Republican Party will use every underhanded method to decrease Democratic Party participation, especially from Blacks and Latinos who suffer most from Republican misrule. In a 12,000+ word article in the Sunday N.Y. Times Magazine section, Jim Rutenberg describes attempts by Republican Party operatives to prevent Blacks, Latinos and other traditionally Democratic voters from exercising their right to vote. He sees this as a return to Jim Crow days when literacy tests and other undemocratic restrictions helped keep Blacks from voting.

When I posted the article to the Marxism list, my friend Michael Meeropol asked why this would matter to the young activists described in a Guardian article titled “Young people inspired by George Floyd ask what is more powerful: voting or protest?” It cited one young woman, who decided that her vote for Hillary Clinton was wasted in 2016: “I think it was the best it could be the last time around. But this time, with the post office, the blatant lies, the fake news … I just don’t want to [vote]. I don’t see the point.”

If I had the chance to speak to this young woman or the other interviewees, I’d agree that mass protests have more effect than voting for a Democrat, but I would also ask them to consider voting for Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker, even if Noam Chomsky might consider that a vote for Trump. As the class struggle deepens in the U.S.A., you will begin to see workers entering into politics with their demands. A leftist party will be necessary champion their cause and those of Black people and others suffering from capitalist exploitation. In 2018, a Gallup poll revealed that 57% of Americans see the need for a third, major political party, while only 38% believe the two-party system is adequate. Until something better comes along, the Green Party deserves their vote and yours.

In last night’s debate, Kamala Harris said, “Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.” Just compare that to what Howie Hawkins’s VP running-mate has said:

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.