Trump is a symptom and not a cause…This is a problem that goes well beyond one person.
— Ian Bassin
Yes, Donald Trump’s chances of being the Republicans’ 2024 presidential candidate have taken a hit. On top of and related to all his, um, legal problems, there’s the defeats suffered by numerous candidates he backed in the 2022 mid-term elections. Even before that, the open QAnon fan Trump had lost the support of some key far-right billionaires, including no less of an ideological force than FOX News owner Rupert Murdoch. Then came Trump’s post-midterms and pre-Thanksgiving Mar a Lago dinner with the notorious anti-Semite “Ye” (the far-right narcissist formerly known as Kanye West) and Ye’s pal the revolting white supremacist and Holocaust-denier Nick Fuentes.
It was quite a gathering. Ye asked Trump to be his running mate and Trump insulted Ye’s ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, according to a video that Ye posted on Twitter on Thanksgiving Day. In a subsequent and belated “Truth Social” post on this event, the fascist Trump preposterously claimed he didn’t know who the fascist Fuentes was, and that Fuentes was tagging along with the fascist Ye. The orange-hued putschist failed to denounce racism and holocaust denialism in his comments on the Florida feast.
“This is a f—ing nightmare,” said one longtime Trump adviser. “If people are looking at [Ron] DeSantis to run against Trump, here’s another reason why.”
“The Republican Party is Driven by Trump’s Base”
So why am I not joining liberal friends in celebrating the supposed or possible political death of Donald Trump?
Where to start? Despite everything that would seem to trump Trump’s chances of a return, it’s not at all certain that’s he’s done. He retains widespread white support and still nearly ties or beats Joe Biden and crushes Kamala Harris in match-up polls.
Almost anybody who has dared to stand against Trump and his lethal base (see below) has been pushed out of the Republican Party over the last two years.
He’s still the Republican presidential frontrunner for 2024. His demented supporters will wield disproportionate power in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries if he’s still in the race.
It’s not clear that any other Republican candidate can break his feral grip on the party’s rank and file white supremacists. As the former Obama White House counsel Ian Bassin recently told Salon’s Chauncy de Vega:
“Trump cultivated a really revanchist, anti-democratic extremist base that is against democracy unless it puts their side in charge. And Trump brought this base into coalition with more mainstream Republicans. Mainstream Republican elites thought they could ride the energy around Trump and then sideline him, but they were wrong – just as interwar leaders in Germany and Italy made the same miscalculation. Now the Republican Party is largely driven by Trump’s base.”
That is why the next US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Rf-CA) ran down to Mar a Lago to kiss Donald “Take Down the Metal Detectors Cuz the Guys with the AR-15s Don’t Want to Hurt Me” Trump’s ass within weeks of the Capitol Riot. It’s why McCarthy just degraded himself further by playing along with Trump’s ridiculous claim of ignorance about Fuentes’ identity and politics.
Ron DeFascist: “A More Respectable Version of Illiberal Rule”
But, okay, lets step back and imagine for a moment that Trump is in fact finally finished as a viable presidential candidate. It’ll be nice to see him politically terminated and even better to see him incarcerated (how about on the federal Death Row that he re-activated as president?), to be sure, but here’s an unpleasant question to ask in such an event: so what?
Seriously, so what? Trump did not personally create the fascist wave that has taken over one of the two capitalist and viable major political parties in the world’s most powerful and dangerous country since the 1990s. He captured and expanded that wave, but he did not originate it and it will outlast his political and/or physical demise. The right-wing oligarchs and politicos who have demoted Trump for now (we’ll see if this downgrading survives the coming presidential candidate selection process) are doing so not because they’ve decided to step down from neofascism but because they now view him as an obstacle to far-right authoritarian rule. Along with Democrats who would prefer to run against Trump in the next election, they suspect that the 44-year-old Harvard Law graduate and Florida governor Ron DeSantis represents a better bet than the 78-year-old Mar a Lago deadbeat (and potential future multi-felon) to defeat the fading and unpopular octogenarian Biden (or the politically disastrous Harris) in 2024.
They may be correct. DeSantis is arguably a more dangerous fascist than Trump. DeSantis’s relative youth, his “outside the Beltway” status, his recent electoral success (he cruised to overwhelming re-election in the midterms), his greater marketability to moderates and independents, and his superior, more adult discipline and intellectual grasp of the Amerikan fascist project may make him the bigger menace.
Beneath his more polished and calmer if less charismatic demeanor, he’s also a vicious son of a bitch – a key qualification for fascist rule. DeSantis is a sadistic and authoritarian governor who fired an elected county prosecutor for resisting his war on abortion. He has created his own personal militia and routinely appears with armed police officers flanking him in public. He mocked children for wearing covid masks. He has pushed through Florida bills forbidding honest discussion of racism and any mention of gay and transgender identity in the public schools along with a bill establishing a ridiculous annual neo-McCarthyite day for teaching about the alleged “crimes of communism.” And DeSantis has cruelly and criminally kidnapped Latin American migrants and dumped them without warning like human garbage in northern “liberal enclaves.”
The excellent fascism scholar and NYU historian Ruth ben-Ghiat recently issued an important warning about this noxious beast:
“DeSantis is No Better Than Trump…If DeSantis is becoming many Republicans’ answer to their ‘Trump problem,’ [this] is because of his authoritarian sympathies and attitudes, not in spite of them. He promises a more ‘respectable’-seeming version of illiberal rule than the baggage-laden outrage specialist that is Trump. No wonder dozens of billionaires backed him even before his November re-election…But let’s be clear: The man whom Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post celebrates as ‘DeFuture’ would, in fact, continue Trump’s relentless attempts to turn back the clock on social progress in America by silencing and disenfranchising tens of millions who don’t fit into Republicans’ white Christian vision for the nation…DeSantis has made Trump’s lines, and lies, his own. From his education bills that ban the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in public schools to his crusades against commonsense public health protocols like mask mandates, DeSantis has made Trump’s lines, and lies, his own. His preference for ideology over science (his surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Lapado, has spread misinformation about Covid-19 prevention) had tragic consequences for Floridians.”
A Symptom, NOT a Cause: “A Problem That Goes Well Beyond One Person”
Ian Bassin makes a related and essential point, richly consistent with professor ben-Ghiat’s work on neo-fascist “strongmen” around the world today:
“It’s important to recognize that Trump is a symptom and not a cause…we have been experiencing a global recession of democracy. People are attracted to these strongman demagogue figures because they take advantage of people’s grievances and fears. There is also a deep fear of societal change. Trump may go away, but we can already see in the Republican Party people who are trying to copy him. When you recognize that autocrats are deploying this playbook in multiple countries right now, it becomes easier to see Trump as part of a trend. That trend didn’t start with one person, and won’t end when any one politician goes away. It’s playing on a wave of global discontent. This is a problem that goes well beyond one person. One of the primary ways that demagogic authoritarian leaders thrive is by making people feel that things are hopeless and that the Great Leader can protect them.”
“In This Culture, Electoral Politics and Rule of Law are Incidental”
At the same time, it is equally important to recognize that the menace of the now tragically mainstreamed far right lives beneath and beyond electoral politics and candidate selection dramas. In the United States as elsewhere, fascism is a ferocious and many-sided movement hardly limited to the election cycle. Many among the nation’s millions of repellent Amerikaners love losing and being out of power. Electoral defeat or stalemate doesn’t subdue or restrain them one bit. To the contrary, it feeds their conspiratorialist sense of white-patriarchal-Christian-nationalist victimization, encouraging them to double down on their “paranoid-style” madness and the embrace of violence to keep their “radical left” (their preposterous understanding of the militantly capitalist-imperialist Democrats) and nonwhite enemies at bay.
In a sharp post-midterm essay titled “Donald Trump is (Still) the President of White America,” Erin Aubry Kaplan makes a critical point:
“Trump was, and continues to be, the chief executive not of a nation, or of the Republican Party, or even of a cult, but of a culture — namely a culture of white supremacy…This is actually worse than it sounds. Even very ‘woke’ Americans tend to see white supremacy as an isolated dynamic synonymous with racism, the ‘bad’ America. But what many people don’t realize is that white supremacy is a culture that is much broader and deeper than that. It is about racialized power, an assumed authority of white people (chiefly men) to set and enforce the social and moral order as they see fit, often in the service of values that on their face sound noble, like tradition or family…In this culture, the presidency, electoral politics, the Constitution, rule of law, democratic ideals, liberalism, decency — all are incidental. They can never matter as much as white peoples’ ultimate right to power” (emphasis added).
The nation’s not-so- “semi-” fascist base isn’t chastened by mere election losses or (as in the 2022 “red ripple”) disappointments. It’s about white male power as such, in and of itself, with or without the niceties of bourgeois democracy and rule of law. The Amerikaner base isn’t bothered in the slightest by their master having dinner with white-supremacist neofascists like Nick Fuentes. It thinks January 6th was a noble attempt to “save America” from what it sees as the illegitimate rule of dangerous and unworthy non-whites and “radical left” globalist elites.
The Dismal Dems
Meanwhile, returning to the US electoral sphere, certain terrible things stay the same whether or not the monster of Mar a Lago chokes to death on its last McDonalds meal. There are only two viable political parties in the viciously binary U.S. elections system. Anyone, no matter how awful, who nails down the presidential nomination of the party out of presidential power has a statistically decent shot at winning the White House. The party in executive branch power commonly faces steep barriers to keeping the top office: the exhaustion of term limits for a popular-enough president (e.g., Bill Clinton in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2016); economic recession and/or inflation (major factors in Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush’s failed bids for a second term); scandals (Watergate was no small part of how Carter rose to power in 1976); extreme policy failures (George W. Bush’s insane Orwellian invasion of Iraq and gross mishandling of Hurricane Katrina were grist for Obama’s campaign mill in 2007-08); the simple charisma-challenged dullness of a sitting president (a problem for Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Joe “You Know the Thing” Biden,” the oldest president in US history).
And then there’s the longtime neoliberal nightmare that is the dismal, dollar-drenched capitalist-imperialist Democratic Party, whose abject allegiance and subordination to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money demobilizes millions of voters and renders transparently inauthentic its claim to be the party of the nation’s working- and lower- class majority. The political scientist Sheldon Wolin in 2007 aptly labelled the Democrats “the inauthentic opposition.” “Should Democrats somehow be elected,” Wolin wrote (in his chilling 2008 volume Democracy, Incorporated) as Barack Obama’s star rose, they would do nothing to “alter significantly the direction of society” or “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts,” Wolin noted, “points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The imagined, nominally “in-power” corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”
Wolin called it (so did I in a much less heralded book published around the same time). A nominal Democrat was elected president along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008. What followed under Barack Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessor Bill Clinton) was the standard “elite” neoliberal manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big-money bankrollers and their global empire. Wall Street’s control of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the “Pentagon System” were advanced more effectively by the nation’s “first Black president” than they could have been by stiff and wealthy white Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. The U.S.-American system of corporate and imperial “inverted totalitarianism” (Wolin) was given a deadly, transparently inauthentic and fake-democratic re-branding. The underlying “rightward drift” sharpened, fed by a widespread and easily Republican-exploited, white-identitarian sense of popular abandonment and betrayal, as the Democrats depressed their own purported popular and multi-racial base. The eliminationist right-wing cancer metastasized during the Obama years.
Anyone who thinks that this is all ancient history under the antique corporate imperialist Joe “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change” Biden is being naïve. Either of the two fiendish Florida fascists – the malevolent Mar-a-Lago monstrosity or the mini-Mussolini in the governor’s office – would currently stand a good chance of beating Octo-Joe. “Right now,” Bassin tells de Vega, “a person who attempted a violent coup to stay in power illegitimately is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, which in a 50-50 country puts him a coin flip, give or take, away from achieving power again. And if he does that, he’s already made clear he doesn’t intend to relinquish that power so long as he lives and breathes on this earth.” Ron DeSantis’s odds are the same if not better.
“The World’s Greatest Democracy”: Some Curious Features of Bourgeois Democracy, American Style
A big part of the problem is structural. The “world’s greatest democracy” (know any other good jokes?) continues to be saddled with the openly undemocratic Electoral College, which grants a significant presidential election advantage to the nation’s most reactionary and revanchist regions while absurdly reducing serious campaigning to a small handful of “contested” and hence “battleground” states. (The democrcy-flunking Electoral College gave us the national popular vote losers Dubya in 2001 and Trump in 2017). Also cancelling the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote” under the US-American system are the absurdly malapportioned and powerful US Senate, which vastly overrepresents the nation’s most right-wing regions and states, the horrific gerrymandering of the state legislatures and the US House of Representatives, and the related disproportionate power that the mainstreamed far-right now plays in the (intra-party) primary elections. Thanks to these anti-democratic structural features, worsened by the nation’s openly plutocratic campaign finance and media regimes (both of which are backed by the nation’s powerful judicial branch), the now chillingly rightmost of the two major US political organizations doesn’t need to win a majority of the votes to gain and keep power.
Moore v. Harper
Speaking of structural problems and as if all this isn’t bad enough, the Republi-fascists retain firm control of the US Supreme Court – a dark legacy of the Trump presidency (which appointed three straight Christian fascist Supremes). This super-powerful, absurdly lifetime-appointed, and ridiculouslt right-wing judicial body will in just one week hear oral arguments in Moore v. Harper – a horrific case only taken up because the Court is now a Christian white nationalist Handmaid to neofascist consolidation. Next spring (if not before), it will likely grant state legislatures the “constitutional” power to cancel popular presidential votes in their jurisdictions.
It’s great that the “MAGA Republicans” failed in their mid-term effort to take over top election-managing positions in contested states, but if the Simon Says Supremes give a thumbs up to the insane “independent state legislature theory,” as seems probable in Moore v. Harper, then state-level Republi-fascists holding legislative majorities in key contested states won’t need their states’ governors, attorney generals, and/or secretaries of state on board to constitutionally monkey-wrench their winner-take-all Electoral College slates to advance the Republicfascist presidential candidate (if “necessary”) in 2024-25.
Right-wing control of the Supreme Court handed the White House to the messianic militarist and Christian pre-fascist Big Lie practitioner George W. Bush (never forget his epic deceptions about “Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam Hussein’s supposed connection to al Qaeda and to 9/11) in 2000-01. Trump or DeSantis (or some other Republi-fascist animal like Glenn Youngkin) could well benefit from a different sort of right-wing Supreme Court intervention in 2024-25. And recall that the Republi-fascists just (oh, by the way) won control of the US House, giving them (among other terrible things) a lethal platform from which to raise procedural and “constitutional” objections to the certification of a presidential election that doesn’t go their way in 2024-25.
Capitalism Breed Fascism
Meanwhile we have the little problem of how “our” underlying system of capitalism-imperialism creates not just ecocide, pandemicide, and potential global nuclear war but the related apocalyptic horseman that is 21st century “late fascism.” Please see my earlier Paul Street Report titled “Can’t Say the F-Word, How About the C-Word?” for further reflections on this important problem, which naturally transcends US-American boundaries.
Anyway, Trump and DeSantis could both keel over tomorrow and none of this would change. Some other monstrous women-, democracy- and immigrant-hating, palingenetic nationalist white supremacist would step into the neofascist vacuum left by their demise, pulling big money and media backing from toxic oligarchs like Murdoch, Stephen Schwarzman, Richard Uhlein, Elon Musk, and Charles Koch while exploiting the great structural advantages granted to the nation’s right-/Reich-most party under the rules of Bourgeois Democracy, American-Style.
This essay appears also at The Paul Street Report.