To speak of “fascism” in American political discourse has long been one of the great taboos of political life – the wise opinion-leaders ritually insisting that this nefarious reference, like dictatorship, tyranny, and totalitarianism, is relevant exclusively to other countries.
* Carl Boggs, 2018
In my writing and interviews, I have consistently referred to Donald Trump as a fascist. I have received a great deal of resistance to that claim.
* Salon columnist Chauncy de Vega, May 1, 2017
This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (New York: Routledge, 2021), by Paul Street
The liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put things well on the morning of January 7, 2021, in a column titled “Appeasement Got Us Where We Are”:
‘So, is it finally OK to use the F-word? One shouldn’t use the term “fascist” lightly…Donald Trump, however, is indeed a fascist — an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals. So are many of his supporters. If you had any doubts about that, Wednesday’s attack on Congress should have ended them.’
Observing the events one day before, when Donald Trump instigated an attempted putsch meant to overthrow previously normative bourgeois electoral democracy and constitutional rule of law, the esteemed veteran historian Robert Paxton, author of the classic volume The Anatomy of Fascism, finally relented. He had to admit that he’d been wrong on Trump and that the 45th US president was in fact what Krugman said – and what many of us on the margins had been saying from the start.
Paxton was one of a bevy of “fascism experts” who had been proclaiming that Trump didn’t qualify for “the F-word.” This august list of Trump fascism-deniers included an impressive roster of 20th Century European historians who were hopelessly out of their depth when it came to analyzing 21st century US society and politics: Paxton, Stanley Payne (emeritus at the University of Wisconsin), Roger Griffin (Oxford), Richard Evans (Cambridge), and Samuel Moyn (Yale) (also meriting mention here is Japanese historian Gary Leupp [Tuft’]s). But field specialization and professional immersion in the previous century was no excuse for other deniers: NYU law professor Bruce Neuborne and the political scientists and government professors Sheri Berman, Cory Robin, Eric de Bruin, and Jason Brownlee. The heights of denialist comedy were scaled by Neuborne, who couldn’t put “the F-word” in his text or index in a book that discovered no less than twenty common themes, tactics, and policies that Trump as president was “copying from the early Hitler government” while “following Hitler’s playbook” and “letting Hitler’s genies out of the bottle”: holding power without winning majority support; finding and using direct lines of communication with their base; blaming others and dividing along racial lines; relentlessly demonizing opponents; constantly attacking objective truth; relentlessly attacking mainstream media; assaulting science; cultivating a fawning alternative media to spread lies; regular orchestrated mass hate-rallies; extreme nationalism; closing borders; embracing mass detention and deportation; using borders to protect selected industries; embedding authoritarian rule by rewarding capitalist elites; rejecting international norms; attacking domestic democratic processes; attacking courts and the rule of law; glorifying the military and demanding loyalty oaths; proclaiming unchecked power; relegating women to subordinate roles.
When asked about parallels with Trump and the Trump presidency, the “fascism experts” engaged in straw-dog reasoning by ticking off numerous and obvious ways in which the 45th United States president and the United States during the Trump years fell short of the committed doctrinal fascism of Mussolini and Hitler and the fully consolidated fascist regimes of interwar and WWII Europe. Nothing less than Classic Coke passed muster for these sweet-rooted connoisseurs of pure historical fascism, who chattered about the absence of “real fascism” in Trump and Trumpism as they missed and/or unduly downplayed remarkable political, rhetorical, ideological, and movement continuities between fascism old and new while failing to grasp contemporary US and global fascism as a movement and politics – a movement and politics with a very real (if clumsy and more “instinctive” than doctrinal) fascist cult leader in the most powerful job of the most powerful nation in world history from January 20, 2017 through January 20, 2021.
This elite intellectual denial of Trump’s fascist essence through the Trump presidency was both depressing and remarkable. It survived:
+ Trump’s embrace of open white nationalists and neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will Note Replace Us” and wreaked bloody havoc in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017.
+ Trump’s palingenetic nationalist and classic fascist claim to be “making America great again” by rescuing it from liberal and left elites who were allied with immigrants and other non-whites accused of degrading a great white heartland.
+ Trump’s cultivation of an irrational, authoritarian, and emotionally potent cult of personality around his demented self and presidency.
+ Trump’s regular holding of white nationalist hate rallies suffused with a spirit of racist, sexist, and anti-liberal and anti-Left violence.
+ Trump’s repeated Trump statements embracing and encouraging right-wing political violence.
+ Trump’s repeated “jokes” about wanting to be president for life.
+ Trump’s ongoing assault on the integrity of US elections, ominously combined with his clear lack of interest in gaining a second term by advancing and running on popular supported policies.
+ Trump’s reliance on open white nationalist fascists (including Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller) to formulate his politics and policies.
+ Trump’s pardoning and championing of the fascist sheriff Jo Arpaio, the insane racist war criminal Eddie Gallagher, the fascist lunatics Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.
+Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban.
+ Trump’s resumption of military-style immigration raids.
+ Trump’s call for the lethal electrification of the southern border.
+ Trump’s promises to pardon border guards who might shoot Mexican and Central American asylum-seekers
+ Trump’s separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern border.
+ Trump’s regular, mind-boggling, and record-setting assault on truth, replete with more than 30,000 false and misleading statements during his presidency.
+ Trump’s repeated references to immigrants and his political enemies as “scum,” “animals,” “vermin” and the like.
+ Trump’s constant rhetorical war on independent media and a free press.
+ Trump’s calls for police to crack down violently on urban Black communities.
+Trump’s triggering of racist mass murders in El Paso and Pittsburg.
+ Trumps criminal assassination of Iran’s venerated general Qasem Soleimani.
+ Trump’s embrace and fanning of a pandemic that disproportionately killed poor, old, unhealthy, and nonwhite people.
+ Trump’s constant absurd demonizing of liberal and moderate Democrats and Black Lives Matter activists and marchers as supposedly awful “radical Leftists.”
+ Trump’s vicious racist attacks on progressive Congresswomen of color.
+ Trump’s horrific racist response to Puerto Rico’s experience in Hurricane Maria.
+ Trump’s heavy-handed white nationalist response to the George Floyd Rebellion, including the attempted deployment of federal troops to crush protests against racist police brutality.
+ Trump’s deployment of unmarked paramilitary border agents to terrorize protesters in Seattle and Portland.
+ Trump’s embrace of the deranged white-supremacist teen fascist Kyle Rittenhouse after Rittenhouse murdered Black Lives Matter protesters with an AR-15 assault rifle in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
+ Trump’s ordering of a federal police state hit on an antifascist (Michael Reinhoel) as “retribution” (Trump’s word) for the killing of a fascist street thug in Seattle.
+ Trump’s relentless and multi-pronged assault on the integrity and mechanics of the 2020 presidential election, including recurrent absurd claims that the only way he could lose the election would be if it was “rigged.”
+ Much more terrible to mention…detailed along with all of the above bullet points in the third chapter of my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America.
Even Trump’s well-telegraphed refusal to acknowledge his electoral defeat and the bloody January 6th Capitol Riot could not shake most of the “fascism experts” off their denialism, which looks even more absurd than before in light of subsequent developments. (Paxton was an exception, possessing enough intellectual humility to yield 99% of the way through Trump’s reign.) Insufferable academic know-it-alls like the ridiculous Moyn and Payne clung to “NOT OK to use the F-word” even after thousands of “fascist traitors” (Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin’s phrase) honored the commands of their orange-tinted Dear Leader by physically attacking the US Capitol to try to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.
The denialism was not limited to “higher education.” It was evident across the dominant media, where it was almost a taboo (outside rare statements from outliers like Medhi Hasan and Chris Hayes in the long hot summer of 2020) to call out the fascism in the White House. It was channeled also by top Democratic politicos including Obama, who privately said that Trump was a fascist in October of 2016 but refused to say “the F-word” in public once across the entire (first?) Trump presidency, and who idiotically proclaimed this the day after Trump won in 2016:
Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country…we all go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens — because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That’s how this country has moved forward for 240 years…It’s how we have come this far. And that’s why I’m confident that this incredible journey that we’re on as Americans will go on.
During the period after the 2020 election and before the Capitol Riot, whose outcome Trump was rejecting as promised, Obama disgraced himself further by going on MSNBC to lamely intone that Trump had a “flimsy relationship to the truth” (an absurd understatement) and to mildly tell Trump’s Republifascist enablers in Congress (most of whom signed in with Trump’s Big Fascist Lies of a stolen election) that “some things are bigger than partisanship.” Barack “Hollow Resistance” Obama looked forward to a return to a “normal” bipartisan politics, ignoring the militantly partisan fascisation process to which he and his party richly contributed and that had turned the Republicans into a fierce white-nationalist Amerikaner Party of Trump – this even as mass violent white-nationalist “Stop the Steal” rallies were being held in Washington DC, attended by Proud Boys wearing t-shirts proclaiming that six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust “wasn’t enough” and that “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong.”
The fascism-denialism was also evident throughout the Trump presidency on the marginal and somnolent so-called left, where it was common to hear stupid and bitter old white guys idiotically claim that it was “boy who cried wolf” “hysteria” and collaboration with the neoliberal Democrats to see the threat of fascism in Trump and his backers. Hence my invention of the term “Trumpenleft,” meant first as a joke, only to be revealed as a real thing and a real problem.
No Hyphen Required
“Finally “OK”? Some of us didn’t need January 6th or even Charlottesville to get the story right. We know it was “OK to use the F-word” regarding Trump and Trumpism not at the putschist end and not one or eight months in but at and even before the beginning of the nightmarish Trump presidency. Among the left and liberal thinkers and activists who knew the score and what time it was from and before day one we can include: the prolific social critic and political commentator Henry Giroux, the eco-Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster, the sharp Counterpunch writer and podcaster Eric Draitser, Salon’s incisive commentator Chauncy de Vega, the left political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., the great left public intellectual Cornel West, The Progressive’s Matt Rothschild, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, former US Labor secretary Robert Reich, the prolific left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio (on Counterpunch); Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) leader Bob Avakian, RCP activists Andy Zee, Sunsara Taylor, and Carl Dix, who formed the organization Refuse Fascism in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election, and myself, who joined with 100 or others in responding to Trump’s 2016 election by occupying the eastbound lanes of Interstate-80 north of Iowa City, chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” (During a large gathering demonstration of stunned liberals held in Iowa City’s downtown Ped Mall the day after Trump’s victory, I gave a short speech on the need for mass resistance beneath and beyond the election cycles and walked up to a handful of establishment Clinton-Obama Democrats to say “congratulations, you just put a fascist in the White House. Nice job, comrades”).
The nod for the most elegant and eloquent early call on Trump’s fascist essence belongs to Gopnik. In the first week of May 2016, half a year before the “lying neoliberal warmonger” Hillary Clinton shocked and disgusted the world by losing to the man who almost (but not really) reminded Bruce Neuborne of Hitler, ” Gopnik wrote the following:
‘Neocons have made a fetish of 1938; in retrospect they would have done better looking hard at 1933. There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word “fascist.” The sum may be crypto-fascist, neo-fascist, latent fascist, or American-variety fascist—one of that kind, all the same. Future political scientists will analyze (let us hope in amused retrospect, rather than in exile in New Zealand or Alberta) the precise elements of Poujadisme, Peronism and Huck Finn’s Pap that compound in Trump’s “ideology.” But 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, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack Obama’s, 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.” It is always alike, and always leads inexorably to the same place: failure, met not by self-correction but by an inflation of the original program of grievances, and so then on to catastrophe. 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…To associate such ideas too mechanically with the rise of some specific economic anxiety is to give the movement and its leader a dignity and sympathy that they do not deserve.’
How Much Longer Can the Limits Hold?
That was very well said, to say the least. The only part of Gopnik’s purple passage not yet borne out by subsequent events is the notion that Trumpism-fascism cannot be “restrained by normal constitutional limits.” The limits held, barely, in the fall and winter of 2020-21, consistent with the hauntingly clairvoyant prediction of Yale historian Timothy Snyder during an interview with Salon’s Chauncy de Vega in April of 2017:
De Vega: ‘you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?’
Snyder: ‘I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections… neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like. This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles…Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future. My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.’ [1.5]
But how much longer can the “normal constitutional limits” hold? Snyder, obviously no slouch when it comes to historically informed prediction on US politics, has recently joined with many other analysts and commentators in suggesting that 2024-25 is shaping up very differently and more darkly than 2020-21. The Republifascists (my word, not Snyder’s though one suspects he might not disagree with the term, privately) are rigging the presidential election game in their favor, setting the stage for a successful Trump coup in November 2024-January 2025, followed by potential civil war and national implosion. As Snyder recently told Business Insider:
“the combination of voter suppression and vote subversion and a candidate who’s going to break all the rules in a few years…this combined with Republican victory in both the House and the Senate makes the end of democracy in the US, unfortunately, conceivable. People don’t see that because it’s a complicated institutional story and people would prefer to vote in 2022 on the stuff they’re thinking about in 2022… just lots of people, regardless of party commitment, don’t see the kind of legalistic threat building up to a second coup attempt or an installation of a president.”
At the same time, Snyder suggests, the other major US party is not up to the job of saving “democracy” because, “Democrats tend to trust the very institutions that Republicans are corrupting. Republicans are the ones who, if you poll them, are more likely to say somebody’s gonna fix the election. Democrats just aren’t worried enough about this because they tend to believe the institutions are going to work, that everybody will come together, etcetera.”
This is a very important point: the Democrats are dysfunctionally and suicidally attached to an old bourgeois-democratic electoral regime that the Republicans are quite effectively poisoning to death and wiring to fail.
Given all this and more – increasing rightward polarization, the continuing balkanizing and truth-crushing role of so-called social media, the unpredictable march and chaos of covid, the incompetence of the Biden administration – the lion’s share of legitimate expert commentary and projection now makes the “end of [bourgeois] democracy” not just “conceivable” but likely.
Adam Gopnik’s full May 2016 formulation could well be validated, after all. We could very well find out that Trump’s Amerikaner brand of fascism, which only fools reduce to “economic anxiety” (see the fourth chapter of Anthony DiMaggio’s latest book for the best available social-scientific portrait of the neofascist Trump base), could in fact prove unrestrainable by “normal constitutional limits.” There’s a twist here though: the Republifascist plan is to advance white-nationalist fossil fascism largely through technically legal and “constitutional” means. The full-on political violence comes later when and if significant numbers of justly outraged people rise up against an actually but “constitutionally” stolen election in 2024-25.
However it goes down, the ongoing fascisation process is proceeding apace in the United States, marching along quite well thanks in no small part to Democrats’ delusion that bourgeois democracy and constitutional rule of law are safely entrenched. They aren’t.
This Happened Here
My new book, This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America is dedicated to friends and comrades in Refuse Fascism, who I joined in the streets of Chicago in the winter of 2018. It is among other things a rebuke to those who struck their heads in the denialist sand and accused other and more serious thinkers of “crying wolf” and engaging in “hysteria” for knowing and saying it was “OK to use the F-word” regarding the Trump candidacy, the Trump presidency Trumpism, and Trump’s party.
The book’s title is a play on Sinclair Lewis’s bestselling dystopian and ironically titled New Deal-era novel, It Can’t Happen Here, which depicted a fascist takeover of the United States in the mid-late1930s. I went with “This Happened” rather than “It Happened” for the simple and obvious reason that a full fascist takeover of the US government did not happen under Trump.
This is not, however, to suggest that the specter has passed. “This Happened Here” is obviously in the past tense, but the menace of fascism – a distinctly American and 21st century version and not some historically preposterous carbon copy of Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany – is alive and well in not-so post-Trump America. Drawing bitter “stabbed in the back” energy from Biden’s allegedly “stolen” election – a classically fascistic Big Lie fueled by Trump and his Republifascist allies and believed by tens of millions of Amerikaners (who live in what one public opinion expert calls “their own version of reality”) – fascism is still very much alive in the U.S. “This,” understood as pre-regime political and movement fascism, is happening here.
The first chapter, titled “One Night of Dancing, 77 Days of Fear and Death,” recounts the final episode of the Trump presidency – the multi-pronged and failed attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, culminating in the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. As if the assault on Biden’s narrow victory (Trump came within 44,000 votes of an Electoral College and House of Representatives triumph) wasn’t chilling enough, this chapter recounts how the rolling coup campaign (of which the January 6th “insurrection” was just one last-ditch episode) unfolded against the backdrop of a deadly Covid-19 spike that Trump ignored in a clear case of mass-murderous pandemicide.
The second chapter, titled “The Fascist Wolf Defined and Foretold,” offers a definition of contemporary fascism along with a series of reflections on how this political pathology was evident in US-American politics and Trump’s history before his election. Praise is given to writers and researchers who tracked the rise of American proto-fascist “eliminationism” (journalist and author David Neiwert’s excellent term) under and before the Obama presidency. Credit is granted also to left and liberal thinkers who properly identified Trump and Trumpism as fascist menaces before Trump was elected. The definition of “the F-word” – understood (to repeat) as a politics and an ideology and not as a consolidated regime – advanced in this chapter comes replete with 45 overlapping traits sorted across 8 folders of fascist politics, rhetoric, and ideology.
The third chapter, titled “A Fascist in the White House,” uses the sorting mechanism advanced in the previous chapter to provide a detailed record of the nonstop transgression that was the Trump presidency. Consistent with Noam Chomsky’s January 2020 description (even before we knew about the 45th POTUS’s COVID-19 criminality-to-come) of Trump as “the most dangerous criminal in human history,” this chapter ought to send chills down the spine of any decent person contemplating the possibility of Trump returning to the White House in 2025.
The fourth chapter, titled “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial,” tackles the dismissive, often doggedly determined refusal of reporters, pundits, politicians, academics, and intellectuals – including many on the “left” – to properly understand the applicability of “the F-word” to Trump and Trumpism. I pay special attention to the stubbornness of the denialism among elite liberal academics, older white male historians especially (but not exclusively) – a remarkable bit of higher-educational obtuseness that persisted to a remarkable degree even after Trump’s fascist essence was exposed with special clarity, replete with unmarked stormtroopers, paramilitaries, and violent Christian-white nationalist mobs determined to crush dissent and interrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the summer, fall, and early winter of 2020 and 2021. Numerous current and retired deniers from top academic institutions (including the “fascism experts” mentioned above) are identified by name and subjected to critical scrutiny. (Again, as with my earlier reflections on how a big collection of liberal and left historians foolishly aligned themselves with the Obama candidacy and presidency, I question the qualifications of all but a few historians to comment meaningfully on current events and contemporary US society and politics.)
The fourth chapter also engages the large number of largely on-line numbskulls I came to call (at first jokingly) “the Trumpenleft”: avowedly left thinkers and “activists” who dismissed, mocked, and smeared leftists and progressives’ concerns about Trump’s fascism as “hysteria,” childish “wolf-crying,” “virtue-signaling,” “bourgeois identity politics,” “political correctness,” and collaboration with the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party. The many, mostly white and male “Trumpenlefties” in my orbit spent the years under Trump reflexively deflecting to the undeniable sins and culpability of the Democrats the minute a Left, liberal, or progressive thinker dared to mention the fascist conduct and trajectory of the Trump White House and its backers. Even I, the author of at least four books and literally hundreds of critical essays on the deeply conservative corporate, capitalist, imperialist, and objectively white-supremacist nature of the Democratic Party and its leading standard bearers received numerous lectures on the evil of the Democrats nearly every time I criticized the in-power Trump, his party, and/or backers between 2016 and 2021. In some rare cases, I ran across “leftists” who embraced Trump’s election and presidency, absurdly positing Trump as a pro-working-class populist and anti-imperialist. For the “Trumpenleft,” it was as if the Democrats were the only ruling class party that mattered even as Trump committed one new fascistic and fascist outrage after another with the open assistance of the Trumpified Republican Party and of course with the pathetic politics of Democratic appeasement.
The deniers criticized in Chapter 4, ranging from historians at the top of their profession to a bitter, Chomsky-quoting Rutgers graduate student who threatened to knock my teeth out, served as de facto collaborators in the fascisation of America. (Many of them are still at it, trumpeting the fake-left right-wi9ng grifters Glenn Greenwald, Jimmy Dore, and Joe Rogan in opposition to the “real fascism” of the dismal Dems, defending the January 6 marauders, and, in some cases, adding faux-prole pandemicist anti-vaxxery and anti-maskery to their collaborationist tool boxes.)
The fifth chapter of This Happened Here, titled “Amerikaners and Trumpenvolk,” examines the underlying proto-fascist Trump base – the white-nationalist cohort that preceded and fueled the Trump phenomenon and that can be counted on to survive it. My investigation of the social, demographic, geographic, and ideological composition and character of Trump’s supporters busts the strangely durable and toxic myth of Trump’s voters and militants as aggrieved proletarians who can be won over to progressive and even Left causes with the right sort of populist appeal. Among other things, this chapter validates Gopnik’s May 2016 argument that “To associate [Trumpist-fascist] ideas too mechanically with the rise of some specific economic anxiety is to give the movement and its leader a dignity and sympathy that they do not deserve.”
The sixth chapter, titled “America was Never Great: On ‘The Soul of This Nation,’” tackles the widespread liberal and moderate claim that Trump’s racist neofascism was alien to the American historical experience. This was the core assertion of Joe Biden’s opening 2020 campaign video, from which the phrase “soul of this nation” is taken[1.6]. This chapter advances a different perspective, treating Trump and Trumpism as “American as cherry pie” (to quote the 1960s Black Power advocate H. Rap Brown), firmly rooted in a long racist history that goes back to the nation’s founding and slavery-based expansion. It deepens the refutation of the fascism-deniers critiqued in Chapter 4 by demonstrating the white Eurocentrism implicit in their unfortunate habit of comparing Trump and Trumpism with the classic fascist regimes of 20th Century Europe but not with the “racial fascism” practiced in the U.S. before, during, and after the rise and fall of those regimes.
This is the ugly national history that American white nationalists are determined to wipe out of the American public memory and curriculum, claiming that people who tell dark truths about the nation’s past are dangerous radicals who want to “destroy America.” That whitewashing project is darkly consistent with a core part of fascist politics past and present: the “palingenetic nationalist” notion of a grand and glorious national past that has been betrayed by nefarious Left and liberal elites and that needs to be restored it in its full grandeur as part of the project of making the Nation Great Again. Such is the main impulse behind the right-wing campaign against the supposed teaching of supposedly radical Marxist Critical Race Theory in US grade schools.
The seventh chapter, titled “De-Trumping America,” reflects on the specifically late 20th and early 21st century Neoliberal-era circumstances that has made Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian 1930s novel shockingly relevant to US American politics and society in the second and third decades of the 21st Century. It questions the naïve assumption that the corporate-oligarchic United States possessed a great “democracy” for Trump (and Russia) to attack in the first place. Based on the historical and social-scientific understanding advanced in the previous chapters, it advances a set of proposals for building a genuinely democratic polity and society that can become fascism-proofed. The recommendations here are ultimately systemic, based on the understanding that fascism is ultimately rooted in capitalist-imperialist class rule and the imperatives of a profits system that is wired to destroy livable ecology. The only real and lasting solution is a socialist revolution on the path to a classless society.
The word “Trump” in the “Trumping of America” (and in “De-Trumping America,” the titled of the final chapter) refers to not just to Donald Trump, who was slated – barring a successful coup (which spears to have come closer to happening than many of us like to acknowledge) – to become an ex-president three months after I started writing This Happened Here. It refers also to Trumpism, to the deeper undercurrent of Amerikaner fascism that Trump rode and fanned and that lives on with or without the presence of Trump as a major player in the nation’s political life. Above all, it denotes the trumping of American “democracy,” social justice, and the common good by the power of a capitalist and imperial ruling class that stands atop a savagely unequal oligarchy torn by massive and interrelated divisions of class, race, ethnicity, gender, party, sexuality, religion, nationality, place, and jurisdiction. (I can assure “Trumpenlefties” that I include the Democrats among the entities captured by that ruling class.)
Anyone who thinks that acknowledging the fascism of Trump and his party (now clearly the Amerikaner Party of Trump) makes one a friend of the dismal, dollar drenched Democrats should read this chapter, which treats the Democrats as a Weimar-like junior partner collaborating with the party of Trump in the fascisation of the United States. They should also read the short Afterword, which details Trump’s continuing control of the Republican Party, the deepening Republican red state assault on what’s left of electoral democracy, and the abject “hollow resistance” nothingness of the Weimar-like Biden Democrats.
Now for something unusual in the intellectual class – some self-criticism. This Happened Here does not pay enough attention to the international reach and dimension of contemporary neofascism or to the remarkable synergy between racialized fascist and fossil (fuel) capitalist politics and policy (a must read on the second and perhaps also the first topic is Andreas Malm and Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism) today. The author needed to focus his wide-ranging definition of fascism more closely on the core fascist project of overturning previously normative bourgeois democracy and rule of law. His catalogue of Trump’s crimes as president in its third chapter may be too mentally and emotionally exhausting for some readers – it was for the author! The book is handicapped somewhat by the long production schedules inherent in academic publishing, which can’t compete with the rapid turnover at commercial presses of the kind that rapidly spit out books on the Trump presidency like Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s Peril, Jonathan Karl’s Betrayal, and Jamie Raskin’s Unthinkable. We know much more about the high-level networks and persons behind the January 6 Capitol Riot and Trump’s broader rolling coup attempt today than we did at the time This Happened Here was completed. Technical issues led the author to cut sections of an Afterword that would have included reflections on the months between June and October of 2021.
Above all, This Happened Here does not provide a concrete program for building the kind of popular and revolutionary movement required to move the U.S. off its current dark trajectory. The young Marx was right: the point is to change history, not merely to understand it.
Still, understanding history and the living historical-material context is useful and indeed essential when it comes to trying to change the world in a desirable direction. This Happened Here is an attempt to sharpen our understanding of living American social and political history in a way that helpfully and meaningfully informs such efforts. Getting real about where we are, what we face, and the systemic roots of the menaces afoot, is an essential starting point. The truth is not always revolutionary but revolutionaries must always start with the truth.
1.In his book When at Times the Mob is Swayed (hyper-linked above), the comedian Neuborne was unimpressed by the very similarities he noted between Trump and classic historical fascism: “What are we to make of such parallels? Possibly very little…they simply reflect the inherent nature of populist politics. When you scratch a successful populist movement, like Mussolini’s Italy, Peron’s Argentina, or Huey Long’s Louisiana, there’s always a charismatic leader, a disaffected mass, and adroit use of communications media, economic insecurity, racial or religious fault lines, xenophobia, a turn to violence, and a search for scapegoats…In fact I’m reluctant to use the names Hitler and Trump in the same sentence….It is …unfair to Trump to cast him as the epitome of evil rather than the shallow blowhard that he is. While our forty-fifth president loves to play at being the boss, I do not believe Trump hopes or intends to morph into a dictator with an agenda of evil.” Here Neuborne fell so far into the myth of fascism as populism as to see even Mussolini’s classical historical fascist regime as a “successful populist movement.”
1.5. Not bad.Consistent with Snyder’s early 2017 analysis, Trump by the summer of 2020 seemed to have abandoned any serious effort to win the election in “conventional” ways, that is, by trying to develop and run on a popular policy record. He was openly flouting majority public opinion on the pandemic, civil rights, police-statism, and more, helping keep his approval rate in the low 40s and Joe Biden well ahead of him in national polls. This was nothing for his critics and opponents to celebrate however, for, when combined with his clear desire to stay in power, it suggested strongly that he was going to try to keep the presidency in undemocratic, anti-constitutional, and violent (“Reichstag”) ways.
1.6 Among the various false narratives that have kept U.S.-Americans blind to the authoritarian and indeed fascist threat in their midst has been the comforting notion that the neofascist Trump presidency was a despotic and racist “aberration” outside the primarily liberal, democratic, tolerant-diverse, civilized, decent, and progressive main contours and currents of American history. This soothing idea lay at the heart of the dramatic political advertisement in which the corporate Democrat and twice-failed presidential candidate Joe Biden announced his bid to run against Trump in the spring of 2019:
‘Charlottesville, Va., is home to the author of one of the great documents in human history. We know it by heart: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” We’ve heard it so often, it’s almost a cliché. But it’s who we are.
Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there on August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open, their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism. Chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ‘30s. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued and a brave young woman lost her life.
And that’s when we heard the words from the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were “some very fine people on both sides.” Very fine people on both sides?
With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.
I wrote at the time that we’re in the battle for the soul of this nation. Well, that’s even more true today. We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.
I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.’
2. As used here, “Amerikaner” is a play on the name of the white Dutch-Anglo minority that imposed a regime of savage Third World fascist regime of racial apartheid and white minority rule on South Africa during the 19th and 20th Centuries. Like the Afrikaners, the U.S. hard right core Trump base and white nationalist movement is heir to an earlier history of genocidal and imperialist white un-“settlement.” It is opposed to majority rule democracy and committed to the imposition of racial and ethnic separatism and inequality. White fears of coming minority demographic status in the increasingly non-white United States are one aspect of the parallel, reflected in the adoption of the term by certain part of the nation’s fascistic alt-right.
3. They might also consider the author’s past and ongoing publication record, including Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (New York: Routledge, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (New York: Routledge, 2010); They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2014); Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement (CounterPunch Books, October 2020).
4. Readers interested in a more concise and compelling description of the fascism of Trump’s presidency through July of 2020 are invited to read the second chapter (titled “Is it the Fascist Apocalypse Yet? This Happened Here”) of Hollow Resistance.
5. For the material that would have been included in an October 2021 Afterword, see Paul Street, “On the Fascist Stench That Hangs Over This Still-Trumped Land,” CounterPunch+, October 24, 2021, now available also on my Website.