Is America Back? Biden Abroad, and the “Specter of Fascism” at Home

Joe Biden’s first foreign trip as president has generally been labelled a success. He appeared alert. He delivered his scripted lines adequately. He handled press conferences without major gaffes. The U.S. press reported, very predictably, that foreign leaders expressed relief at the U.S. leadership change. Vladimir Putin did Biden an unexpected favor by telling Russian TV that the U.S. president was mentally sharp.

But the only concrete result of the G7 and NATO summits that I can see, aside from the photo ops, is a more vaguely unified front against China. The U.S. seeks to unite the Atlantic Alliance against rising China, an impossible and irrational objective. NATO echoing the G7 embraced hostile language about China in its statement but it’s unclear what impact it will have on, say, European Belt & Road Initiative investment. Meanwhile the Biden-Blinken effort to armtwist the Germans into ending the Nord Stream II project with Russia has failed. Thus the headline might have been not “America is Back!” but “Biden Fails to Cut Russia-Europe Ties.”

The U.S. press while celebrating the return of the presidency to respectability also hints darkly that the Trump era may have so undercut “confidence in America” that Biden, regardless of his merits, may be unable to restore the U.S.’s former position of leadership.

As though declining U.S. GDP, and rising EU and Chinese GDPs, have nothing to do with it. As though rising multilaterialism has nothing to do with it. As though the disgrace incurred by several recent vicious wars based on lies has not affected trans-Atlantic relations.

“Experts” note that Europeans now see the magnitude of the problem posed by white supremacists in this country, and realize that another Trump could be elected in the future. Thus even if they’re relieved that Biden (a normal politician) has succeeded a disgusting buffoon, they’re not necessarily eager to continue to accept the “leadership” of the mercurial superpower in this post-Cold War era.

The Berlin War fell in 1989, the year that President George H. W. Bush told Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” further towards Russia. There is no reason for the U.S. to encircle Russia with a threatening military alliance. The Germans know this. Unlike U.S. forces, Germans have actually gone to war with Russia and understand the potential consequences. They seem to have vetoed Ukraine’s near-term admission to NATO as an unacceptable provocation of Russia. Good.

The Embarrassing Inability to Lead

This is an embarrassing situation. Biden’s sophomoric secretary of state Anthony Blinken explains that the U.S. is a democracy (the world in his view is divided into democracies and autocracies) leading an alliance of democracies, and democracies (unlike autocracies?) always have their differences. So if Germany refuses to relent on Nord Stream II we can agree to disagree—even while insisting that it’s bad for the alliance for members to make deals with the adversary and become dependent on enemy gas.

The U.S. now has to grapple with the ramifications not just of the Trump era but the whole legacy of 21st century U.S. wars based on lies, the scandal of NSA global surveillance (of the Pope, senior officials in Sweden, Norway, France and Germany, including Angela Merkel and former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier), the multiple torture scandals, etc. If U.S. alliances are insecure it’s because the U.S. is declining economically and more and more exposed as a moral cesspool. If Biden expected that the world would rejoice at a slight course adjustment (from the aberration to the norm) beginning January 2021 he is probably mistaken.

I confess I’m relieved that Ukraine’s NATO admission has been taken off the table. And NATO apparently at Putin’s request cancelled provocative Black Sea naval exercises. While Biden is well-known as an advocate of NATO expansion, it is possible for NATO to withdraw the outstanding invitations to Georgia and Ukraine offered in 2008. A mass movement in this country could perhaps achieve this.

Bottom line: America is not “back.” American leadership has, in the general conception, become less vile. The U.S. is in a period of political paralysis as the Trump party retains much influence. This instability itself weakens U.S. global influence.

The U.S. is as economically important as China or Europe but not much more so, and the center of the world economy will not necessarily be North America forever. Indeed the Eurasian landmass, embracing China, Russia and the whole European “continent” and connected historically by multiple “silk roads” has always been the center of the world economy. The PRC is the world’s most advanced producer of high-speed railways. Eurasia will be connected by Chinese built railroads and highways and German and British bankers will want a piece of the action. If Washington faults them with trading with an adversary they may urge Washington to wake up to contemporary reality.

Is the Republican Party “Only This Year Turning Fascist”?

Donald Trump is an idiot clown, malignant narcissist and wannabe fascist. The Trump administration had some fascist characteristics. And during Trump’s tenure the Republican Party acquired (more) fascist characteristics. The Jan. 6 “Capitol insurrection” was largely led by three (arguably, idiosyncratically) neo-fascist organizations: Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers. They enjoyed an undetermined degree of cooperation from sitting lawmakers and maybe some Pentagon officers. It is fair to call the siege a fascist uprising, inept and uncoordinated as it was, evidence of a significant movement that grew under Trump.

Patrick Cockburn argues on Counterpunch that the Republican Party “has turned fascist,” explaining that “only this year” have “the final building blocks have been put in place by Republicans as they replicate the structure of fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.” I’m not sure about how the “structure” of the contemporary Republican Party replicates that of the Italian National Fascist Party in 1922 or the German National Socialist Workers Party in 1933; in fact I suspect they are quite different. Cockburn’s point is that the “debate about whether or not [Trump] could be called a fascist in the full sense of the word, and not merely as a political insult” may not apply in the future because current Republican efforts at voter suppression constitute serious fascism.

Accepting that point (and its timeline) for the sake of argument, we are still left with the fact that Trump was defeated in a conventional bourgeois election because his forces (fascist and other) were insufficient, more voters loathed him than loved him, and the bulk of the ruling class wanted him out. He was denied a second term because his ridiculous lawsuits were rejected, and because his ill-planned patriotic insurrection collapsed producing ongoing ramifications not at all helpful for his cause.

The fact that his party rejected the vote confirmation Jan. 6, has doubled down in defending the “insurrectionists” as peaceful tourists, and refuses to support an investigation into the riot, lends weight to the fascist charge. But where does the persecution of Liz Cheney fit in? Is she less fascist than, say, Ted Cruz? I thought the Bush-Cheney administration (2000-2008) had fascist aspects. (The rigged election of 2000. The wars based on Big Lies. The systematic manipulation of public fear. The racist Islamophobia. The torture and its justification. The global electronic surveillance.)

“But Nazi persecuted Nazis too,” you will remind me. And I will note that the Night of the Long Knives came in 1934 when the Nazis were a well-organized political party. The killing of 85 Stasserist faction Nazis isn’t really comparable to the removal of Liz Cheney from a committee. The fact is, the Republican Party is quite unlike a historic fascist party and such distinctions are analytically important.

“Wannabe Fascism,” “Homegrown Amerikaner Fascism,” “Arguably Fascistic Police State,” “Malignant Pandemo-fascism”

Paul Street writing often about the reality of U.S. fascism (and requirement of all reasonable people to recognize it) refers vaguely to Trump’s “wannabe fascism,” “homegrown Amerikaner fascism,” and “malignant pandemo-fascism.” He has for several years waded back and forth between past, present and future is addressing this topic.

Is it wannabe—or now? Was it the aspirational power-hunger of a demented egomaniac, rooted in delusions unlikely to be fulfilled? Or a here-and-now fascism to be toppled? Did fascism arrive in 2016 but get refused and defeated? Or is it still here, in the form of a party or movement that’s actually pre-fascist, or pseudo-fascist?

Trump wanted to rule without restraint. He spoke baldly of seeking a third term, announced that the constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want,” and in 2020 declared that he could only lose a rigged election. Given Trump’s buffoonery and general ignorance, it was sometimes hard to know how seriously he should be taken. But when, following defeat, he was able to lead his still-loyal party to reject the election results, and prompt a violent uprising with plain fascist features, it was clear his aspirational fascism was becoming a material force.

Ties between Trump staffers and the “conspiratorial” white-supremacist groups have been found. It is clear that Trump was comfortable with working with and accepting the support of, groups I consider broadly fascistic. He also specifically welcomes QAnon’s support, although I don’t think the religious cult is truly “fascist” in a meaningful sense.

Street writes, “Much of [Trump’s] base is fascist.” How much of it is not? And does it make any difference if they eschew the label? (Notice how Margorie Taylor Greene is inveighing against Nazi yellow stars, as the equivalent of face masks; and how Ted Cruz is trashing the KKK, saying its white sheets are as the equivalent of Critical Race Theory. Their analogies are insane; the point is that there is no market even now in Republicans averring overt fascist sympathies; there is no historical revisionist thinking about the Second World War versus the German, Italian and Japanese fascists; there is no movement towards a genuinely fascist party. This will occur when Ted Cruz announces that his historical studies have led him to conclude the U.S. should have aligned with Hitler against Communism in World War II.)

There are fascists proud to be fascists, like the Aryan Brotherhood. There are fascists who conceal their identity. There are people accused of fascism who deny it. There are people who have a mix of ideas in their heads. And of course “fascist” is more often used as an informal epithet than as an analytical category.

The Republican Party, Fascism, and “Fascist Denial”

Is Trump’s base currently organized as a fascist party? Do we need to redefine what fascism is to insure the answer is yes? Should we try?

I would say that Trump stumbled upon a successful methodology early on in his presidency suitable to his temperament and energy level. He found that by maintaining an ongoing link to his fans through daily tweets stoking racist sentiments he could direct their most basic political behavior (midterm voting) thus intimidating the entire Republican Party. If the party fell in line behind him, it was out of fear not love. And the party is still not structurally or programmatically “fascist,” even if it is trying to suppress minority votes.

It is safe to say the Republican Party has acquired some fascistic characteristics over the last four years—not that there weren’t some earlier—and that the most important of these are the failure to produce a program in 2016, and to instead merely swear support for Trump’s agenda; the general refusal of the party to accept the election result and proactive effort to overturn it; and the defense by some of the Jan. 6 rioters. The fascist label applies more accurately to the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters who coordinated to some extent Jan. 6. The Republican Party is not really comparable to the German or Italian fascist parties, or the military-based fascisms of Spain and Japan in the 1930s-40s.

Street warns of “the continuing specters of neofascist authoritarianism and Trump himself” after the election. Specter? When Marx and Engels wrote that a “spectre was haunting Europe” they were talking about future classless society. So the neofascist authoritarianism has not arrived yet but just looms on the horizon?

Street creatively invents new terminology. But what is “Amerikaner fascism” as opposed to “malignant pandemo-fascism”? Street alludes to “the nation’s gigantic, highly militarized, and arguably fascistic police state.” Just arguably? He refers to ongoing “clear neofascist white-nationalist efforts to quash non-white and urban votes in response to the Big ‘election fraud’ Lie.” So normal Georgia politics are now “clearly” neofascist—like they weren’t before?

There were some—I would say “wannabe”—left thinkers who announced in 2016 that a fascist had been elected president and that he would have to be overthrown by a movement to refuse fascism. The same group had sought to “Drive Out the Bush Regime” from 2001 to 2008 (without calling the Bush-Cheney regime “fascist”). In my experience, it is prone to sensationalism as a means of attracting support for itself, and applies concepts like “fascism” woodenly. (In the 1980s they preached that the people had a choice between World War III—between the US and USSR—and support for a revolution led by themselves. They have been mistaken about historical developments consistently. Rather than ever rethinking they double down in defending their dogmatic positions.)

In the end bourgeois democracy trounced Trump. But for the dogmatists, now’s no time to reconsider the line but find new ways to justify it in retrospect, to insist we were right all along. Trump was and is a fascist, understand? He made the Republican Party fascist. He headed (and heads) a fascist movement. Is this not OBVIOUS?

Street actually speaks of “fascism denial” giving new meaning to the word tendentiousness. Is the point to shame those who question his own lucid concept of “wannabe arguably malignant amerikaner homegrown pandemo clearly neofascist police state”? What I get from Street is the determination to defend the application of the term “fascist” as the central objective, and it doesn’t make much difference whether we talk about wannabe or existing, present or incipient, so long as we define what Marxists call the main contradiction as “fascism” versus non-fascism (presumably bourgeois democracy as normal).

But dogmatism can be dangerous, and overconfidence impede critical thought. Over-emphasis on the fascist threat can encourage validation of capitalist parliamentary “democracy” as an ideal to be maintained (rather than stage to be surpassed). The Democrats seem to be preparing the argument that the 2022 elections will be between autocracy and democracy (the Biden theme); I can see some Marxists arguing for a 1930s style “United Front Against Fascism.” (Recall that the one surviving Maoist party in the country endorsed voting for Biden in the last election, as a vote against fascism.)

Oh, and can we get a definition of “malignant pandemo-fascism”? Is this a reference to something that happened under the “malignant narcissist” president only beginning with the pandemic of 2020? Is there such a thing as a fascism specifically shaped by quarantine conditions?

Biden’s Tasks

Now (the presumably non-fascist) Biden (burdened not with Trump’s racist baggage but his own long documented record) is tasked with unifying the country (an impossible task), “restoring confidence abroad”(unlikely at this point), and specifically reuniting something called the “Free World” consisting of “democracies” against China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. This task is related to the task of handling domestic issues and showing the world that Jan. 6 like Trump himself was a aberration.

The state response to Jan. 6 has been the intensive FBI investigation which has netted some 550 rioters. There actually appears to be a robust crackdown on the white supremacist movement, for the ruling class’s own reasons. Some of these have to do with maintaining those foreign alliances after the shock of Jan. 6. Biden’s DOJ is (let us assume) generally anti-fascist and staffed with careerists hostile to Trump. Even if Republican legislatures using the 2013 Supreme Court decision change state voting laws to exclude more people of color, and as many suspect, re-win the House and Senate in 2022, it is not clear that a definable fascist wing will lead it.

We can of course posit that any Republican victory in 2022 or 2024 will be a victory for fascism. (Again: I see Liz Cheney as fascist as Trump.) Because it will have resulted from voter suppression. But that implies all elections before 1965 were held under fascist conditions which is where you want to really pick up a dictionary or google search the term. My sense is that whatever happens in the midterm elections the country is less ripe for fascism than it was in 2016.

And having been without a new war since 2011, the country might be ready for an incident in the South China Sea. And people who hate Trump and his fascism but know nothing about the region may well be persuaded to support U.S. imperialism.

As I see it this country is divided into categories clarified (by polls) during the Trump tenure: a 30% hard-core racist, white-supremacist, generally fundamentalist Christian community that idolizes Trump; 20% not as grotesquely reactionary but inclined to support any “conservative” candidate; 30% that is solidly anti-racist (even “woke”); and 20% that while “less conscious” is basically anti-Trump and anti-stupidity.

Midterm elections are usually won by the opposition party. So yes there is a danger of hardcore racists (fascists) taking the Congress next year, as a result of these state legislatures’ decisions. More likely a mix of fascists and non-fascists, perhaps producing a new synthesis of fascism minus the traditional aspects. (These usual elements would include antisemitism, militarism, national expansion, state control of industry, etc. that have—have you noticed?—not been central to the Trump agenda.)

Yes forms of fascist ideology (as I understand fascist ideology) circulate in our society as they did not 10 years ago. Some intersect with the weird QAnon cult, rather like Nazis once engaged the occult, although there’s not much integrally “fascist” about a conspiracy theory involving Satanist pedophile cannibals in the Democratic Party. (The future of QAnon is in any case in doubt. The main prophet’s been quiet since November and the crazy guy with the horns is in prison upset at Trump’s betrayal.) If you want to compare the German, Italian or any other fascist movement to the Trump movement in the U.S., make a list of things to compare and do it methodically.

Capitalist Imperialism as the Problem

The problem before us in this country is less fascism as the old familiar U.S. capitalism, which is hardly benign at its best. Main cause of anxiety not a fascist coup but imperialist war involving Russia or China, justified by the traditional (racist) Exceptional Nation doctrine. It’s good that Biden’s backing off on Ukraine but seems eager to provoke tensions in the South China Sea, allies at his back. A fraction of the attention given the domestic fascism threat should go to the threat of war in the Paracels or Spratlys. Or in the East China Sea, involving Daioyutai.

Recent U.S. imperialist wars were fought against “terrorism” in Muslim countries. If the capitalist system survives, the next war will likely be against some “autocracy,” justified as such. (We are back to Wilson making the world “safe for democracy” in World War I.) Any war with China will be justified in part as defense of Taiwanese and Hong Kong democracy and defense of the Uighurs against genocide.

But I don’t think either will happen: no advent of fascism in this country, but rather a broadening of the racial justice movement and revival of the radical left. Fundamentally, demographics and developments in material popular and political culture encourage this. They also encourage a hard-right reaction, but it is the lesser force. and currently invested in a weak reed. While neofascist movements surge in Europe, the international situation does not encourage North American fascism.

Political polarization doesn’t necessarily strengthen the hard right. I think that once Trump the man is exposed—as a fake, business failure, tax-evader, rapist, even insurrectionist—his support base might quickly collapse. It’s not like he’ll leave behind him a corpus of writings conveying his (fascist) thought to his followers to guide them through their future lives. The Republican Party ideology will be an increasingly articulated Trump-Lite program centering on white oppression. It will stress “reverse racism,” the unfairness of “political correctness,” and the pain that “Critical Race Theory” inflicts on white schoolchildren taught to hate themselves. It will stress the onslaught of secularism, imagined attacks on Christianity, the ongoing threat of the “homosexual agenda” and the need to finally criminalize abortion nationally.

The present Republican Party demands the right to declare the world flat, and announce that the contrary view is mere “theory.” It contains at the highest level manifest morons who’ve said things making absolutely no sense (to me) but which resonate in countless of my compatriots’ sorry brains. The proportion of people in this country who believe in 7-Day Creation has plummeted in this century but yes, religious cults based on sheer ignorance and gullibility retain appeal. But they don’t include many young people who are increasingly irreligious. I would not yet fear the Republicans so much, as a fascist party.

Meanwhile I don’t think Biden wants, or feels sufficient support to go to, war at least for a while. He needs to compare manhood with Trump; he did that in Europe. He needs to bark warlike rhetoric per normal; he’s doing that. But I think he’ll back out of Afghanistan, Iraq, even Syria; encourage a peaceful settlement in Yemen; stay out of Libya and Venezuela; reestablish the Iran Deal; and avoid conflict with the DPRK. I don’t think Biden wants to die during a war. I also think he’s quite reliant on his vice president Kamala Harris whose father was a Marxist professor and who (however politically opportunistic she may be) perhaps has a different understanding of foreign policy than Biden. (Just as she famously had a different understanding of school busing in the 1960s when she was an elementary student in California being bused and he was opposing busing.)

This is not a bright optimistic era following the gloom of Trump and Covid19. The country remains in darkness. But neither fascism nor war seems imminent as Biden decently presides over its decline. The Republicans like fascists past a radical Marxist left as the enemy, but while historical fascisms typically rise in response to powerful communist movements there is no such movement here. There is however a surge of Marxist influence in popular culture and among the youth. When the reactionaries label Black Lives Matter as Marxist led they are not wrong.

The radical left is as scattered and disorganized as the radical right. We are not like Germany in 1933, when the Communist Party won 17%, the Socialist Party 20%, the Nazis 33%. There are the two traditional bourgeois parties, bitterly divided on issues of civil rights (as has been the case for decades, although the antagonism intensifies). There are a vast range of left and progressive small parties and movements, and a similar spectrum of white supremacist cults and militias. But the lines are not so clearly drawn, including the lines of command required for things like pulling off coups.

The November 2022 midterm elections are 16 months away. Let us imagine that Trump remains Republican Party leader (a big if). He leads supporters to elect the most reactionary collection of lawmakers ever. they work to reelected Trump if he’s out of jail or a similar (fascistic) figure, and in 2024 fascism will become official.

Or let us imagine that Trump is increasingly marginalized and discredited, the pro-Trump movement diminishes out of disillusionment, the neofascist militias weaken due to FBI busts and prosecutions, and progressive thought advances in this period of general U.S. decline. The bankrupt two-party system finally ends as both parties split into factions. Progressive militancy swells and the right has no forces to match it nor the necessary support of state forces. This is not inevitable, but all kinds of scenarios are possible. Who could deny this?

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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