The centrist New York Times columnist Frank Bruni ought to be commended, I suppose, for a recent commentary about the existential danger posed by Donald Trump. “It’s Not the Economy,” Bruni’s opinion piece is titled, “It’s the Fascism.”
“Trump,” Bruni write, “has been saying, doing and contemplating some especially terrifying things lately.” Bruni provides a decent summary of some of those frightening things:
‘he sent out his Thanksgiving message…[in which] he roasted his perceived enemies, presenting a platter of slurs with all the semantic trimmings: ‘Radical Left Lunatics,’ ‘Psycho,’ ‘Marxists,’ ‘Communists.’…Just two weeks earlier, for Veterans Day, he traded inspiration for fulmination in a speech in New Hampshire, promising to ‘root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.’ Like vermin! And the month before that, he said that undocumented immigrants were ‘poisoning the blood of our country.’…His bastard music is …paired with a ‘series of plans by Mr. Trump and his allies that would upend core elements of American governance, democracy, foreign policy and the rule of law if he regained the White House,’….Those plans include the use of military funds for huge detention camps for undocumented immigrants, a Justice Department turned into a personal revenge force and ideological litmus tests for federal employees to ensure maximal sycophancy.”
Here Bruni might have added Trump’s recent call for the extra-judicial execution of suspected shoplifters, Trump’s intimidation of witnesses and legal personnel involved in his many indictments, Trump’s promise to invade Mexico, Trump’s suggestion that his former Joint Chiefs of Staff should be executed, and Trump’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act on the day of his next inauguration.
The Republican Party, Bruni notes, is “hostage” to Trump’s “extremism” with none of Trump’s serious Republican rivals remotely willing to call out the Trump menace since “they prioritize coddling his supporters and gaining power over standing up for the rule of law and the integrity of democracy.” As Bruni correctly observes, the notion that Trumpism can be contained by the Republican Party is now a quaint fantasy.
The conclusion that Trump poses an existential menace to the American republic, Bruni rightly argues, “isn’t Trump derangement syndrome. It’s [a] straightforward observation” that makes “the price of eggs and gas” look like a secondary concern.
There’s some harsh and important truth here, but there are four key problems with Bruni’s column. First, it’s not clear what Bruni means by “fascism.” The word appears only in his title and is nowhere to be found in his column’s text. Let me offer the following useful definition from the website of the organization Refuse Fascism, which was founded in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election:
RefuseFascism.org exposes, analyzes, and stands against the very real danger and threat of fascism coming to power in this country. Seventy-four million people voted for Trump in 2020. The Republi-fascist Party has been purged of dissenting voices. The mass fascist movement has hardened in the wake of their January 6 coup attempt. Fascist initiatives around restricting voting, immigration and abortion rapidly advance in statehouses across the country. The election of Biden has not eliminated the danger, it has only bought some time…Fascism is not just a gross combination of horrific reactionary policies. It is a qualitative change in how society is governed. Once in power, fascism’s defining feature is the essential elimination of the rule of law and democratic and civil rights. Fascism foments and relies on xenophobic nationalism, racism, misogyny, and the aggressive re-institution of oppressive ‘traditional values.’ Truth is obliterated and fascist mobs and threats of violence are unleashed to build their movement and consolidate power.
Trump, Trumpism, and the Trump-captive Republican Party check all these and more definitional boxes marking them as fascist.
Second, it is clear from Bruni’s column that the only way he can imagine for us to stop the Amerikaner fascist menace is for people to vote for Joe Biden and other corporate-imperialist Democrats in 2024. He just wants Biden and his party to move from “it’s the economy” to “it’s the fascism.”
That is horribly inadequate. RefuseFascism.org is on point (again) on this:
“The election of Biden has not eliminated the danger, it has only bought some time…The Democratic Party will not stop this nightmare. Trump, fascist Fox News, and the Republi-fascist Party have branded them as enemies and ‘traitors.’ Yet, the Democratic Party will consistently pull to try to work with, conciliate with and collaborate with them. There can be no reconciliation with fascism except on the terms of the fascists. Fascism must be resolutely opposed.”
Fascism and the conditions that give rise to it, which include the underlying US capitalist system and imperial order, must be “resolutely opposed” in the streets, public squares, and across the broad sociopolitical and ideological terrain. And that is something the Democrats will simply not do. Their Weimar party is an agent of appeasement that is failing on its own electoral terrain: the demented fascist maniac Trump is polling well ahead of the bumbling corporate-imperialist “Genocide Joe” Biden in all but one of the handful of contested states that determine US presidential elections under the archaic US Electoral College system.
Third, what “American democracy” is Bruni talking about, really? The United States’ political system is ruled by two rotten political parties, both captive and allegiant to the wealthy capitalist Few. Public opinion is practically irrelevant to the making of policy on one key issue after another, under the nation’s oxymoronic “capitalist democracy.” The nation’s constant claim to be a “one person one vote democracy” and even “the greatest democracy the world has ever seen” is mocked by basic empirical studies showing that majority US sentiments are consistently trumped by concentrated US wealth and power. The nation’s “democracy” claims are nullified also by its continued adherence to an ancient 18th-century slaveowners’ Constitution that vastly overrepresents its most reactionary and hateful elements – a de facto Minority Rule charter and structure that massively inflate the power of revanchist interests determined to roll back every basic civil, human, social, and environmental right won through mass popular struggle in modern times. It’s hard to expect millions to stand up for popular self-governance when the underlying social order has long rendered inauthentic their country’s egalitarian and democratic boasts.
Fourth, where has Bruni been for the last eight years?! His column contains the following bizarre statement on Trump’s Republican primary rivals: “They’re no more eager to take on Trump the budding fascist than they are to take on Trump the practiced fantasist…”
A “budding fascist”? Seriously? That’s like saying that Taylor Swift is a popular new voice on the music scene or that Steph Curry is an emerging new basketball star! Smart people within and beyond the intellectual class – including Iowa City high school students with whom I helped occupy Interstate 80’s eastbound lanes after Trump’s collegiate election – had Trump quite properly pegged as a fascist in 2015 and 2016. Among many examples, one that has always stood out for me is the following passage from Adam Gopnik (a centrist liberal of whom I am no particular fan) at The New Yorker in May of 2016:
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 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 (“Going There With Donald Trump,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2016, emphasis added).
For more citations of early and proper identification of Trump and Trumpism as fascist, please see Chapter 2, titled “The Fascist Wolf Defined and Foretold,” in my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America. See the following chapter, “A Fascist in the White House, 2017-21” for a dizzying/depressing account of the nearly countless number of ways in which Trump showed himself to be a fascist as US president.
Bruni’s column is bizarrely denialist about Donald “Take Down the Metal Detectors Cuz the Guys with the AR-15s Don’t Want to Hurt Me” Trump’s fascism prior to his final presidential days (January 6th and all that) and post-presidency. Trump before that is for Bruni a clownish buffoon prone to “puerile rants, outlandish provocations and petty-dictator diatribes” in a time “when Trump’s darkest comments and direst vows could be dismissed as perverse performance art — as huffing and puffing that wouldn’t and couldn’t amount to all that much.”
Please. Plenty of us with a serious historical understanding and definition of fascism never fell for that foolish dismissal and denial, which seemed very much like something out of the head-in- the-sand idiocy mocked in Sinclar Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. The historian Timothy Snyder (another centrist “liberal” and imperialist of whom I am no fan) was easily able to predict in March of 2017 that the fascist Trump’s first term would culminate in an attempted coup.
It’s good, I suppose that Bruni can say and write “the F-word” in 2023, but his strangely time-delayed identification of the menace in connection with Trump is I think intimately related to his lack of a serious definition of Gopnik’s “dark strain in modern politics” and to his lack of any serious notion of how to stop Amerikan fascism beyond telling people to vote for the dismal imperialist “Genocide Joe” Biden.
1. As far as I am aware, I am the inventor of the term “Amerikaner” in left political discourse. It 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 South African Afrikaners, I maintain, the US hard-core Trumpist-Amerkaner base and the American white nationalist movement is heir to an earlier history of genocidal and imperialist white settlement, opposed to majority rule democracy, and committed to the imposition of racial and ethnic apartheid and inequality. White fears of coming minority status (projected by 2050) in the increasingly non-white United States are one aspect of the parallel, reflected in the adoption of the term by certain parts of the nation’s fascistic alt-right.