Nine Points of Difference: A Response to Noam Chomsky on American Fascism

Photograph Source: Michael Galpert – CC BY 2.0

It was nice to see the nation’s leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky recently concede that the F-word, fascism, has at least some applicability – as in “neoliberal proto-fascism” – to the Trumpo-Republifascist Party. For more than four years, he’s been part of a chorus of academics who have been resistant to the notion that the Trump presidency and Trumpism were and are forms of fascism. Perhaps the fascist January 6th Attack on the Capitol and the post-Trump hardening of the Republicans’ commitment to authoritarian white nationalism has dealt a blow to his and others’ Mussolini- and Hitler-focused fascism denial. Still, I find his latest reflections on this subject problematic on numerous levels. Look at the following passage (all in italics) from the most recent Chomsky interview on Truthout:

‘ “neoliberal proto-fascism” seems to me quite an accurate characterization of the current Republican organization — I’m hesitant to call them a ‘Party’ because that might suggest that they have some interest in participating honestly in normal parliamentary politics. More fitting, I think, is the judgment of American Enterprise Institute political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein that the modern Republican Party has transformed to a ‘radical insurgency’ with disdain for democratic participation. That was before the Trump-McConnell hammer blows of the past few years, which drove the conclusion home more forcefully.’

‘The term “neoliberal proto-fascism” captures well both the features of the current party and the distinction from the fascism of the past. The commitment to the most brutal form of neoliberalism is apparent in the legislative record, crucially the subordination of the party to private capital, the inverse of classic fascism. But the fascist symptoms are there, including extreme racism, violence, worship of the leader (sent by God, according to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), immersion in a world of “alternative facts” and a frenzy of irrationality. Also in other ways, such as the extraordinary efforts in Republican-run states to suppress teaching in schools that doesn’t conform to their white supremacist doctrines. Legislation is being enacted to ban instruction in ‘critical race theory,’ the new demon, replacing Communism and Islamic terror as the plague of the modern age. ‘Critical race theory’ is the scare-phrase used for the study of the systematic structural and cultural factors in the hideous 400-year history of slavery and enduring racist repression. Proper indoctrination in schools and universities must ban this heresy. What actually happened for 400 years and is very much alive today must be presented to students as a deviation from the real America, pure and innocent, much as in well-run totalitarian states.’

‘What’s missing from ‘proto-fascism’ is the ideology: state control of the social order, including the business classes, and party control of the state with the maximal leader in charge. That could change. German industry and finance at first thought they could use the Nazis as their instrument in beating down labor and the left while remaining in charge. They learned otherwise. The current split between the more traditional corporate leadership and the Trump-led party is suggestive of something similar, but only remotely. We are far from the conditions that led to Mussolini, Hitler, and their cohorts.’

‘On the driving force of irrationality, the facts are inescapable and should be of deep concern. Though we can’t credit Trump entirely with the achievement, he certainly has shown great skill in carrying out a challenging assignment: implementing policies for the benefit of his primary constituency of great wealth and corporate power while conning the victims into worshipping him as their savior. That’s no mean achievement, and inducing an atmosphere of utter irrationality has been a primary instrument, a virtual prerequisite.’

‘…Attitudes among the voting base are truly ominous. Put aside the fact that a large majority of Trump voters believe that the elections were stolen. A majority also believe that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it” and 40 percent take a stronger stand: “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” Not surprising, perhaps, when a quarter of Republicans are reported to believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”’

‘In the background are more realistic concerns about the disappearance of “the traditional American way of life”: a Christian and white supremacist world where Black people “know their place” and there are no infections from “deviants” who call for gay rights and other such obscenities. That traditional way of life indeed is disappearing.’

There’s much to agree with here, of course. Yes, the GOP is now a radical right-wing insurgency uninterested in compromises and heavily invested in irrationality, white nationalism/supremacism. Yes, the assault on critical race theory is “concerning.” Yes, contemporary Republican “proto-fascism” takes place in the late-capitalist neoliberal era and framework, different from the Fordist-era fascism that arose in Europe’s horrific thirty years war (1914-1945). Yes, the Trump base’s attitude are terrifying. And yes to much more in the interview from which this passage is extracted, especially Chomsky’s dire warnings on the climate catastrophe and climate denial.

So, what might one find objectionable, in this passage above? Nine things.

First, a semantic quibble: rejection of parliamentary give and take hardly disqualifies an organization’s status as a “party.” The Bolsheviks and the Nazis were parties.

Second, who needs the pre-fixes anymore? Who needed them before/ever? Adam Gopnik said it very well in May of 2016, six months before Trump defeated the dismal neoliberal Weimar candidate Hillary Clinton:

“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 other 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 (emphasis added).

Two months before Gopnik’s eloquent and prescient reflection, my onetime fellow former Truthdig commentator and the former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich published a blog post on Trump titled “The American Fascist,” arguing that Trump had already reached a point where “parallels between his presidential campaign and the fascists of the first half of the 20th century – lurid figures such as Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Oswald Mosley, and Francisco Franco – are too evident to overlook.” Reich was especially distressed by Trump’s evident determination to direct the anger of white Americans against Mexican immigrants and Muslims, Trump’s embrace of violence, Trump’s apparent readiness to violate international law against torture, Trump’s treatment of the media as an enemy, Trump’s effort to connect mass followings directly, without political parties or other intermediaries standing between him and his supporters, and Trump’s effort to create a cult of personality taking on “the trappings of strength, confidence, and invulnerability –around himself.” To make matters worse, Reich noted that Trump had recently quoted Mussolini and began “inviting followers at his rallies to raise their right hands in a manner chillingly similar to the Nazi ‘Heil’ salute.

Equally discerning was the prolific left cultural critic Henry Giroux who wrote in September of 2016 that Trump “is the successor of a long line of fascists who shut down public debate, attempt to humiliate their opponents, endorse violence as a response to dissent, and criticize any public display of democratic principles… His presence should be viewed as a stern warning of the possible nightmare to come.”

The rest was history, catalogued in ugly detail in the third chapter, titled “A Fascist in the White House, 2017-2021,” in my next book, titled It Happened Here. No qualification, no hyphens required.

Third, it is quite an exaggeration to say that critical race theory (CRT) has replaced communism and socialism as the demon to be defeated in “proto-fascist” propaganda. Yes, it’s sort of the right-wing paranoid-style flavor of the year for the GOP, but if you listen to right-wing media and politicians, you quickly see that the Red Menace is very much alive in their minds and talking points and indeed that the right connects CRT to “Marxism” and “socialism.” The right absurdly calls Black Lives Matter “Bolshevik” and sees CRT as part of the international communist-globalist conspiracy.

Fourth, “the subordination of the party to private capital” is not really “the inverse of classic fascism.” It’s the inverse of socialism. It’s true that the Nazi dictatorship assumed command over Germany’s productive forces for imperial war purposes, of course, but it never supplanted private ownership of the means of production, and it never sought to. The Nazis believed in capitalist class rule. Fascism is a specific and horrific form of capitalism shorn of bourgeois-democratic and constitutional forms and pretense. The Soviet Union (an authoritarian state in which class rule persisted even without a bourgeoisie) – the main target and indeed the number one vanquisher of the Nazi regime – did (in its own flawed fashion) supplant private capital. It shares an inverse with both fascism (which preserves the underlying de facto dictatorship of capital) and the contemporary corporate- and finance-ruled “neoliberal” USA: democratic people’s socialism. At the same, we should be aware that many in the GOP and its base would like to see the U.S. run by a white supremacist party that exercises “totalitarian” control.

Fifth, and this is critical, Chomsky has an excessively political-economistic definition of fascist ideology that over-privileges “state control of the social order” while mistakenly consigning racism, violence, irrationality (the war on the Enlightenment), conspiracism, personality cult, and the like to the status of mere “symptoms.” That is incorrect in ways that become obvious when one reads Hitler’s Mein Kampf and any number of Hitler and other Nazis’ speeches and proclamations from the 1930s and beyond. Those documents are loaded with virulent racism, white nationalism really, along with other “symptoms,” including wild conspiracism, irrationalism, cultism, and more. Not to include them as part of the ideology of fascism, past (classic) and present (“neoliberal” era) is a mistake. A useful antidote here is Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works.

Sixth, Chomsky persists in seeing the Trumpenvolk, the Amerikaner Trump-Republican base, as “the victims” of concentrated wealth and power – of the neoliberal capitalist regime – despite abundant evidence (of which he himself sometimes seems aware) showing that that base is on the whole relatively affluent and petit-bourgeois and quite far from being comprised of American and global capitalism’s true economic victims[1].

Seventh, Chomsky shows that he knows little about this base in any direct experiential kind of way (not irrelevant) by persisting with the narrative that it – supposedly composed of economically anxious and largely rural people – has been “conned” (fooled, bamboozled, tricked, duped, hoodwinked, etc.) – into backing the malignant orange monster. Please. The nation was loaded with relatively affluent white middle-class people with racist, white- nationalist, sexist, nativist, and authoritarian values long before Donald Trump came upon the national political scene in a serious way. Trump was for many millions of these people a welcome expression of their core revanchist political sentiments. His rise gave them great permission to openly embrace and advance authoritarian and white nationalist values. I recently spoke to a left social scientist who comes from a lower middle-class and working-class background, the first member of his family to get an advanced degree. His reflection merits consideration:

“When I moved to [an eastern U.S. state], I had to take a big pay cut. About 17k worth. Plus, my wife lost her job. Another 15k lost. 32k a year loss total. We had to invest a ton in our town house to get it livable too. Between the pay cut and house stuff it took years to get back on our feet before I got the pay raises back. Wasn’t until a month ago that we finally paid off all the credit card debt. At one point a year and a half ago, it looked pretty grim. We had more than $ 35k in credit card debt. We only got out from under it because of 1. My 10k pay raise and a merit bump one year, coupled with 2. about 15k in covid stimulus, and 3. 15 months of not leaving the house because of covid. The moral of the story: at no point in that time was I ever in any danger of getting conned into becoming a white supremacist by Donald fucking Trump. Because it doesn’t work that way. I know dozens of Trumpeters. Dozens. They were ALL right- wing assholes with reactionary socio cultural values before Trump came along. He just activated them even more so or made them even more proud to showcase them. None of these people needed an economic excuse to rationalize a fascist in the White House. They’d all shown signs of horrid bigotry since childhood. Using the N-word in jokes, being misogynists, homophobes, Islamophobes etc. Here is an actual quote from one of those cops I told you about earlier, who is the father of my childhood friend who voted Trump to ‘fuck over the Mexicans “in his workplace and help get him a pay raise: his dad said this to me at my friend’s bachelor party: ‘we just gotta wipe out all these fucking Muslims in this country and then we’ll be good to go.’ This guy and my dad (and my friends dad’s wife) have been racist pricks, hating on black people, using the N-word openly in front of their kids, since we were all kids. My childhood friend’s mother routinely puts up Confederate flags on Facebook with memes that say, paraphrasing, “celebrate America’s glorious history or get out.” I shit you not. These people are sick fascists and have always been so. Trump just gave them a permission slip to let their freak flags fly. They’re fascists because their parents were hater fascists. And their friends were/are closet hater bigots/fascists. It’s not complicated. Most of this is about upbringing, values, peer networks, and socialization. There are no mysteries here. No magic Donald trump cons. He didn’t magically turn tens of millions of people fascist overnight.”

These deplorable people (sorry) my correspondent describes in this passage are – like most of the people arrested for storming the Capitol last January 6th – from the suburbs of a major blue metropolitan area[2], not the rural white proletariat that is commonly assumed to be the Trump base. There are tens of millions of them. They were not and are not “conned” into backing Trump and the rest of the now Republifascist Party. They were and are not being fooled into authoritarian white nationalism. They are not (sorry, Bernie) potentially progressive proletarians to whom “the left” can or even should be “reaching out to” at all. They think Kamala Harris is a totalitarian out to put white people in re-education camps. They think Nancy Pelosi is a Marxist. Racist petit-bourgeois authoritarian white nationalism is who they are and what they are about, for f*#’s sake.

The evangelicals, a huge part of the Trumpist Republican coalition, were not “conned” into backing Trump. Not at all. They were quite strategic in supporting the orange serial sinner-in-chief. In a shrewd move in 2016, Trump gave the vice-presidential ticket to one of the nation’s Christian fascists. He promised fundamentalists power over federal judicial appointments and numerous federal policies and he delivered. The right-wing “Christians” were not tricked into backing Trump. They formed a mutually advantageous strategic partnership with him.

Eighth, it’s not true that Trump’s “primary constituency” was or is the owners of “great wealth and corporate power.” Of course, Trump is a narcissistic and corrupt plutocrat and a capitalist who spends hours on the phone with other right-wing real and pretend billionaires. He was happy to shower the nation’s supposedly genetically superior owners with a giant tax cut in 2017, hoping to cement their loyalty while honoring their supposed superiority. But that fits very well with “neoliberal proto-fascism” and even with classic historical fascism, which was militantly classist and Social Darwinist. At the same time, Trump showed himself quite willing to offend the cultural sensibilities and policy concerns of much of the nation’s corporate and financial ruling class, which preferred the neoliberal dollar Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. Trump’s primary constituency is angry neofascistic white people and authoritarian reactionaries of all classes, religions, and ethnicities, with a strong emphasis on white males and evangelical Christians, of course.

Ninth, I am concerned about Chomsky’s comment that “We are far from the conditions that led to Mussolini, Hitler, and their cohorts.” If that means that there will be no precise replication of 20th Century classic European fascism in the 21st Century neoliberal era United States, well then, of course. But who thinks that could happen? Nearly a century has passed since the horrific pinnacle of Eric Hobsbawm’s Europe-focused world history text The Age of Extremes. We are not talking about Europe between the two world wars, okay? We are talking about the United States in the third decade of the 21st Century. And if Chomsky (who accurately described Trump as “the most dangerous criminal in human history” in February of 2020 – this even before we knew what a pandemicist Trump was going to be) means we are nowhere near the level of cataclysm that befell Europe and the world in the 1930s and 1940s, then I cannot agree. Many tens of millions of mostly white Americans believe that the 2020 election was stolen, that the white Amerikaner majority is in grave danger of “radical”-led racial “replacement” and cultural liquidation, and that violence is justified to save the imperiled nation from “Marxist” tyranny. The popular white nationalist, neo-Nazi television station OANN (recommended to me by my very affluent white brother-in-law) recently broadcast a call for the execution of the “radical democrats” who supposedly “overthrew” Trump’s 2020 re-election. OANN’s Pearson Sharp argued that all those he claimed helped Joe Biden win the election, including those carrying out the dismissed GOP audit in Arizona, should be killed by the state as punishment for “treason…What are the consequences for traitors who meddled with our sacred democratic process and tried to steal power by taking away the voices of the American people? What happens to them? Well, in the past, America had a very good solution for dealing with such traitors: Execution.”

The nation is awash with enough firearms for every U.S.-American man, woman, and child, with 66 million left over. Most of these weapons, including more than 20 million assault rifles, are in the hands of the right, whose more extreme elements are itching for revenge against those with the unmitigated gall to vote for supposedly socialist Democrats and to march in the streets against the police violence that has killed more than 32,000 U.S. Americans (60% of them Black, LatinX, Native American, Middle Eastern and Asian). Consider also the depth and degree of the capitalogenic climate crisis, the likelihood of new capitalogenic pandemics, the sham undemocratic inadequacy of the nation’s 18th Century slaveowners’ and aristo-republican minority rule Constitution, the remarkable reach of the American racist police and prison state, and the astonishing over-concentration of wealth in the U.S., and the truly insane level of violence that parades regularly across the nation’s movie, television, and computer screens. This twisted, arch-polarized, and violence-addicted country strikes me as very much in danger of a real fascist takeover and indeed of pogroms that could rise to the level of ethnic cleansing and even genocide over the next decade or two. (I have just ordered Alex Laban Hinton’s new book It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US) And, of course, neither Mussolini nor even Hitler possessed anything remotely close to the global military firepower of the 21st Century American Empire. Minus a mass, dedicated, and courageous popular uprising led by a new generation of militants with the discipline and vision required to bring about the radical reconstruction of society that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr called “the real issue to be faced,” we are frankly ripe for something much worse than merely Hitler and Mussolini.

Endnotes

1. Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class,” Washington Post, 5 June, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/05/its-time-to-bust-the-myth-most-trump-voters-were-not-working-class/; Anthony DiMaggio, “Election Con 2016: New Evidence Demolishes the Myth of Trump’s ‘Blue-Collar’ Populism,” Counterpunch, June 16, 2017, https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/06/16/93450/; Anthony DiMaggio, Rebellion in America: Citizen Uprisings, the News Media, and the Politics of Plutocracy (New York; Routledge, 2020); Anthony DiMaggio, “Election 2020: a Democratic Mandate or a Vote Against Trump?,” Counterpunch, November 24, 2020, https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/11/24/election-2020-a-democratic-mandate-or-a-vote-against-trump/; John Bellamy Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,” Monthly Review, April 2017, https://monthlyreview.org/2017/04/01/neofascism-in-the-white-house/; Brian F. Schaffner, Matthew Macwilliams, and Tatishe Nteta, “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism,” Political Science Quarterly, March 25, 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/polq.12737; Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, “Beyond Economics,” Public Religion Research Institute, May 9, 2017, https://www.prri.org/reseachildrch/white-working-class-attitudes-economy-trade-immigration-election-donald-trump/; Eric Levitz, “Democrats Should Court the Economically Anxious Trump Voters Who Don’t Exist,” New York Magazine Intelligencer, April 22, 2019, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/04/buttigieg-bernie-sanders-trump-voters-democrats-2020-election.html; Eric Draitser, “Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics,” Counterpunch, March 24, 2017, https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/24/donald-trump-and-the-triumph-of-white-identity-politics/; Peter Beinart, “Why Trump Supporters Believes He is Not Corrupt,” The Atlantic, August 22, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/08/what-trumps-supporters-think-of-corruption/568147/; Noah Berlatsky, “The Trump Effect: New Study Connects White American Intolerance to Support for Authoritarianism,” Think, (May 27, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-effect-new-study-connects-white-american-intolerance-support-authoritarianism-ncna877886; David Norman Smith and Eric Hanley, “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Trump and Why,” Critical Sociology (March 2018): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0896920517740615; Pew Research Center, “Pew Research Center Abt SRBI Poll,” Pew Research Center, February 28-March 12, 2017;; Christian Zang and John Burn-Murdoch, “By the Numbers, How the US Voted in 2020,” Financial Times, 7 November 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/69f3206f-37a7-4561-bebf-5929e7df850d?fbclid=IwAR3CfNTs3S6j_dS0UFcPYIUO5BcqOjsUPokbgzfLf163sC5Z-UGuAVb7YX4; Jacob Whiton, “Where Trumpism Lives,” Boston Review, January 19, 2021, http://bostonreview.net/politics/jacob-whiton-where-trumpism-lives; Amanpour & Company, “Studies Show Capitol Rioters Were Majority White Men,” PBS, May 6, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/amanpour-and-company/video/studies-show-capitol-rioters-were-majority-white-men/?fbclid=IwAR0uK–H9Jo6SjIYV9em_yhtbLNZfQLChfaTVw76uUI3PFlXaum4telWhXw; Jessica Martinez and Gregory A. Smith, “How the Faithful Voted,” Pew Research Center, November 9. 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/

2. Quite contrary to Chomsky’s statement on January 16th of this year: “the malaise that broke forth on January 6 [was]….in no small part, it is a consequence of the neoliberal assault since Reagan, amplified by his successors, that has devastated the rural areas that are the homes of many who stormed the Capitol.”

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