What a proper response to Trump’s fascism demands: a true ideological left

Will things really get better?
Will things really get better?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Fascism came to America in an expensive but ill-fitting suit. It came as much with the flag and the cross but also with baseball caps emblazoned “Make America Great Again.” President-elect Donald J. Trump is a bit more Silvio Berlusconi than Benito Mussolini but still well within a range of “Fascist expectation.” Trump spews obnoxious misogynistic bile. His words drip with racial animus. Trump may not be goose-stepping in an SS uniform but he is still easy to spot as an object of ridicule for the contemporary liberal imagination. This, the politics of personality—Trump’s individual odiousness, his personal moral failings, his shady business deals—was all that liberals ran on this year.

Preferring the last gasps of neoliberalism to anything else, it was all they had left. The Clinton campaign centered with laser focus on a “values” above “politics” approach while Trump—with seething anti-Semitic undertones—struck at the pulsating nerve center of the failure of the last four decades of a bipartisan neoliberal consensus. This election is a win for the clear 10% or so of Americans who are out-and-out white supremacists and Nazis; it is a win for “traditional” Republicans—who voted for Trump in more-or-less the same force they voted for Mitt Romney. More than either of those, however, it is a loss for the Democratic Party—its leadership, its think tanks, its media allies, its dead, professional-class ideology, and yes, its candidate.

Already Democratic leaders and mainstream media are moving to normalize Trump (and through him “Trumpism”) with high-minded speeches and style-section puff pieces. Some complacent Democrats and pundits seem to be embracing a faux stoicism—a smug combination of “it can’t happen here” and “this too shall pass.” They ignore the extraordinary powers that president Trump will have on day one of his term. The powers of the presidency have expanded dramatically under president Bush and president Obama.

Trump absolutely has the day one power to: ban immigration from anywhere he wants, rescind executive orders protecting LGBTQ citizens, fire up the deportation machinery that president Obama so conveniently built for him, stop federal pressure on police violence against African-Americans, break or modify or disrupt many of our treaty obligations, and move American military personnel and weapons pretty much anywhere he likes.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Trump will not exercise some or all of these powers. Trump will have full access to Obama’s domestic surveillance program and his vast overseas drone warfare network. And these are just within his immediate, legal executive power. Now is not the time for unity; love does not trump hate.

With nothing but the politics of personality, the United States is left without any meaningful opposition. It is the failure of liberalism and the failure of the liberal imagination. Liberalism is failing across the world: some of the current wave of neo-fascist leaders across the globe like Viktor Orban, Reccip Tayyep Erdogan, and Narendra Modi truly seem cut from a familiar 1920s and 30s cloth but others, like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and Frauke Petry of the AfD (Alternativ fur Deutschland) in Germany, are trying out mixed and new styles for Fascism in the 21st century—and with great success. In addition to having evacuated any meaningful ideology from politics, liberals cannot imagine that the new fascism won’t necessarily be a carbon copy of the old.

While Le Pen has done much to “clean up“ the French far-right, she still has a whiff of that old time Fascism in her style (she paraded at a recent party conference with a live eagle on her arm). In contrast, Petry wraps a media-friendly, dorky coolness around policies and claims far more radical: refugees should perhaps be shot at the border, Muslims seek to impose “Sharia law” over all of Germany, a more positive version of 20th century German history should be taught in schools, bans should be placed on halal meat, headscarves, minarets, and Islamic calls-to-prayer. Petry (along with a host of European neo-fascist leaders) celebrated Trump’s victory, hailing it as a “historic opportunity” and a “new political beginning.” But in aesthetic terms, the two could not be more distinct. While Trump is all bombast and bravado, Petry is cool and unflappable. Trump is the bucket-of-chicken on his private plane; Petry is all Bach and Mozart to help Germans Make Nationalism Great Again. Trump scorns expertise and can barely seem to finish a sentence; Petry has a doctorate in chemistry and offers an appropriate Nietzsche quote off the top of her head.

While Le Pen has been in politics longer and has a greater legitimacy on the French national scene, Petry and AfD are relative newcomers. But in the September Berlin municipal elections, the AfD scored record wins. Voters fled the traditional center-right CDU and nominally center-left SPD in droves. And that’s just in Berlin; in other state elections, AfD has come out on top almost exclusively at the expense of Merkel’s CDU. The saving grace on the German political scene—alongside nearly 60 years of concerted educational, political, and intellectual effort to prevent just such a party as AfD from rising—is that voters truly suffering in even economically prosperous Germany have an actual Left to flee to as well in Die Linke [The Left] and to a lesser extent in the Greens. Of the top five parties in the Berlin municipal elections, only Afd and Die Linke showed actual gains.

In the United States, there was no such option. As with the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, it was an up-or-down vote between the status quo or “something else.” And people chose—not even a majority, barely over a quarter, but enough—“something else.” As my Brooklyn Institute colleague Raphaele Chappe and I recently argued, there is tremendous overlap economically and institutionally between neoliberalism and fascism. And we, and others, have argued how imperative it is to recognize that these are not truly diametric oppositions. They are different solutions to similar problems, and the former must be understood as paving the way for the latter. This dilemma has produced liberalism’s strangled, bizarre apolitical moralism instead of substantive political critique. Trump was attacked more for having gamed the tax code than for proposing outrageous tax policies that could only make current economic woes even worse. Trump was attacked more for saying sexually inflammatory remarks than for attacking gender and race inclusive policies as “PC” nonsense. For the American liberal and the so-called “commentariat” Trump was, quite simply, a “villain” of cinematic proportions. Many of the commentators and political actors who are currently playing the “I am not going to try to make my president fail“ card will move into simple collaboration if Trump assumes even the full reach of his legal powers. All Trump needs is a Frauke Petry of his own, pushing TEDxFascism instead of sexual assault to bring so many others on board.

A useful test case might be liberal media commentators’ brief flirtation with Trump’s unquestionably successful and considerably more polished daughter, Ivanka. During the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump delivered a speech that both praised her father’s campaign and gave full-throated support to end the gendered wage-gap and establish paid family leave. Although she framed the former in explicitly market-based terms and the latter entirely around the image of the traditional family—hallmarks of right wing discourse—the response from prominent outlets and leading media personalities was extraordinary. A Time Magazine article gushed about Ivanka as a liberal and “feminist” that voters could admire. Talking Points Memo agreed. Some called the speech “confusingly progressive.” A truly breathless Harper’s Bazaar profile painted Ivanka as a “Wonder Woman” and, again, a self-ascribed “feminist.” Even supposedly “wonky” liberals got in on the act. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias tweeted—one hopes in jest—“which convention is Ivanka speaking at?” Neera Tanden—the president of the misleadingly-named think tank Center for American Progress—went immediately for a moralistic argument over Donald Trump’s business practices, “If @realDonaldTrump actually believed in paid leave he’d have offered it to all his workers. Has he?” instead of any substantive political critique or even policy position. While others did make the salient point—Ivanka was simply broadening the popular appeal of the Trump movement—it is remarkable how little the politics of personality had to offer.

Much of this can be chalked up to election year hoopla or perhaps even strategy. But in 2016, the problem was that this was all mainstream liberals had left to offer. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is almost a parody of a Fascist slogan, but Hillary Clinton’s responsive “America is Already Great” and “Stronger Together” were a parody of reality. By almost any measure, life for the vast majority of Americans has gotten worse over the last forty years or so. Poverty, women’s health, median per capita wealth, income inequality, incarceration rates, and so on have all grown worse. The United States is one of the few countries on Earth where the maternal death rate is increasing. We have a growing life-expectancy gap. Even in areas of a seeming silver-lining—for example the decrease in the African-American poverty rate from over 40% in the late 60s to “just” under 30% in 2012—there are mitigating factors. In this particular case, nearly all of the that transformation can be traced to the increased growth of an intra-African-American class gap. In itself, this is a good but also indicates that African-Americans in lower income groups are afflicted by all the above transformations, often even more so, as in women’s health outcomes. The incredible strides taken in the formal rights and economic and civic participation for women and LGBTQ individuals should not be taken for granted or dismissed. That said, simple arithmetic notes that as the formal rights have taken shape, the economic basis for enjoying them has slipped further away from most women and most LBGTQ individuals.

People are desperately cutting through exit polling data to find the cause for Trump’s win. Others cling desperately for a Hail Mary pass in the idea that somehow reforming the electoral college will prevent this kind of event; this vacuous, apolitical liberal fever-dream that the rules will somehow always save the day. After all, they think, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote—not understanding that an American Marine Le Pen or Frauke Petry would have dominated that, too, after four more years of mass incarceration and mass immiseration.

The “is it race or is it class” argument fails this moment as well. It’s certainly both but also more. Like Fascist movements in general, Trump’s base was resentful upper middle class white voters; those who fear losing their hold on their dominance as others rise. Trump was also supported by nearly the entirety of the traditional Republican coalition and fueled, unquestionably, by a far-right united front of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and “alt-right.” Neither is why he is president-elect today. The enthusiasm of especially that last group collided with the utter collapse of liberalism. In almost every category of the vaunted “future-proof” Obama coalition, Clinton lost support.

While Trump garnered 58% of white American votes, including over 53% of white women, Clinton lost ground among African-Americans by 7%, Latinos by 8%, and Asians by 11%. And, yes, crucially, Clinton did lose significant ground in the rust-belt among the working class (which isn’t only white.) As a whole, a majority of Americans who earn in the lowest income brackets still voted Democratic, but Clinton lost ground among Americans earning less than $30,000 by 16%, less than $50,000 by 6%. Those casting an analytic eye over this election would also do well to remember that this is the first election after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act nationally and the systematic passage of right-to-work and other union-busting strategies across the rust-belt.

But before anyone goes blaming “the working class” or even dreams about blaming low African-American turnout, understand that all those groups (and they are not solitary lump categories) voted between 91% (African-Americans) and 51% (Americans earning less than $50,000) for Clinton. Scan your eyes up this page back to the stats and studies above. These demographics stood their ground and voted for the lesser of two evils even while Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party have been working with the Republican Party for the last 40 years to suck the very life out of them.

Are you thinking: This is not the America I know? We have always been getting better? The Obama years were all grace and beauty? If you are someone who—in earnest—thought about Clinton’s experience in government as anything other than part of all that the immiseration above? Then it is you who are in a bubble. Put down your screeds about rural whites or minority turn out. There is more than one kind of class politics; class does not always mean “working class” and race is also sometimes class. If you were under the strange impression that life has been getting better for the past 40 years, you must understand that neoliberalism—in all its already existing racist glory, with its vicious class warfare against the poor and working class—was working for you. It is your class politics; it is your race politics. And those politics—barely sputtering through the Obama years—have finally crashed.

Ultimately—although Trump will wield unrivaled power—it is Clinton who lost. Both the Clinton campaign in its staggering ineptitude and the Democratic Party with its worn-out ideology. “For every one of those blue-collar Democrats he picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that,” said Ed Rendell back in February, displaying absolutely no understanding of either race or class. The much-ballyhooed Clinton “turnout machine” wooed with pseudoscientific, “Big Data” wonkery, likely turned out 5-25% of Trump’s supporters, so detached from reality were the Clinton team’s assumptions. The DNC avoided registering new voters during the primaries, to secure Clinton’s ascendancy. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Donna Brazille actively colluded with media allies to sure up Clinton’s failing campaign. Shed no tears for Hillary Clinton or for the DNC; Clinton is already hoping she and the Donald can be friends againChelsea and Ivanka too. Indeed, the most politically tone-deaf and ridiculous idea to be floated in the wake of this election is floating Chelsea Clinton as a possible congressional candidate in 2018. The Clintons and their allies get to slink back and rest comfortably in Trump’s America. They are among those who feel safe and secure enough to call for “love” or “unity” or “to give Trump a chance.” For so many other Americans (and immigrants), this is not an option.

Ironically, the great bulwark against Fascism here in the United States, right now is the fact that capital—big business, finance—the military, and our state bureaucracy still prefer neoliberalism as a more convenient position than Fascism. All these key sectors of society lined up behind Clinton; none behind Trump (although his support among domestic police forces is truly frightening). But as we continue along in what Jürgen Habermas would call a “legitimation crisis”—as neoliberalism collapses and Fascism becomes the order of the day, capital may switch horses; it happened before and it can certainly happen again. We must end the incipient normalization of Trump. We must understand that it is happening here. Calls to completely transform the Democratic Party; to put Keith Ellison—a solidly Left, black, Muslim who gives no quarter to Trump—are a good start. But that is only one of many fronts.

One of the most incisive definitions of Fascism was offered by Walter Benjamin in 1939: Fascism is a political organization that, in response to crises inherent in capitalism, preserves property relations while giving the masses expression instead of rights. “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.”

How can liberals, who have dished out a steady diet of the politics of personality, all the while denying the vast majority of people not only their economic rights but even the freedom, faux as it may be, to express their rage, possibly hope to withstand Trump? Liberalism is dead; its last stand was a politics of personality bereft of personality or politics. Trump is real; the Trump era will not be one of the rights of the masses. But it is already starting as one in which expression of bottled discontent, of racial invective, of rage is the order of the day.

Every liberal commentator and political actor must understand that even the slightest inch given to Trump helps legitimize and normalize not only him but the acts that will come in his name, just as their feckless collaboration with George W. Bush in the Iraq War and Obama’s drone campaigns and deportations made those gross crimes part of “acceptable” everyday life. Instead, even ideologically committed liberals should hope for something that they can barely seem to stomach: a true Left. The time is now.