It’s hard not to chuckle at the hand-wringing going on within the Republican Party. That terrible Donald Trump: How dare he say openly what we only say in code! And, why, Republican candidates have never stooped to exploiting fears and pandering to racism and nativism.
Uh-huh. Richard Nixon attempted to provide federal money for segregated schools as he ushered in the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy”; Ronald Reagan famously opened his 1980 presidential run close to the site where three Civil Rights Movement workers were murdered in Mississippi with calls for “states’ rights,” well understood code words for supporting racially biased policies; George H.W. Bush exploited racial stereotypes with his Willie Horton campaign ads; George W. Bush’s presidency will be remembered for his callous ignoring of New Orleans and its African-American population in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the roster of Republicans hostile to civil rights is too long to list.
So does Donald Trump really represent something new and frightful? Or does his campaign represent the same-old, same-old in more concentrated form? Or, to put the second question in a different way, does he represent a new manifestation of fascism, as many are already proclaiming.
Perhaps it might be best to see the Trump campaign as constituting the seeds for a potential fascist movement rather than a fully fledged fascism. That ought to be scary enough, and enough for all of us to make a stand against it.
Fascism is a specific phenomenon, and we should not loosely throw the word around, as if it means anything with a whiff of authoritarianism that we do not like.
At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.
We often think of fascism in the classical 1930s form, of Nazis goose-stepping or the street violence of Benito Mussolini’s followers. But it took somewhat different forms later in the 20th century, being instituted through military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Any fascism that might arise in the U.S. would be wrapped in right-wing populism and, given the particular social constructs there, that populism would include demands to “return to the Constitution” and “secure the borders.”
The Trump campaign’s ongoing violence
There is no shortage of peans to the Constitution or demands for border sealing, true enough, and violence has not been missing from the Trump campaign — to the contrary, the Republican front-runner has been reveling in it. Watching videos stringing together some of these incidents is sobering.
It’s been said over and over again that Germans didn’t think Hitler could ever take power (although he was never elected; he was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg). Let’s set aside that all too easy comparison. Instead, it would be more pertinent to look back to the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign that culminated in a lurch to the right. That was the first one I could vote in. Many people thought Ronald Reagan would never be elected; voters in the end would recoil from his extremism. I was one of those doubters. To this day I remember the chill of horror that ran down my back when I first saw the electoral results, well into the evening, as a television announcer called the latest state to go his way part of a “tidal wave.”
In a year in which even the Democratic primary front-runner, Hillary Clinton, eagerly white-washes President Reagan’s actual history, we should correct the record. To only scratch the surface, he lavishly funded and supported the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador in their terror campaigns against their population through military units and death squads that killed hundreds of thousands; waged war against Nicaragua, mining harbors and funding and directing terrorism through the Contras; opposed civil rights legislation at every opportunity; cut Medicaid, Medicare, school breakfast and lunch programs, and declared ketchup a vegetable for school lunches; refused to lift a finger as AIDS ravaged communities across the country because homosexuals where seen as deserving their fate; and invented preposterous stories of pink-Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” raking in $150,000 per year.
There is a straight line from Reagan, whom the Republican establishment still venerates through a rather creepy personality cult, to Donald Trump. And Mr. Trump isn’t necessarily the scariest or most extreme candidate out there — Ted Cruz, determined to become the second Joe McCarthy, holds that distinction. But Senator Cruz, however much he lusts for a Medieval theological dictatorship and despite the frightening ignorance of his supporters, doesn’t command a following the way that Mr. Trump does.
The culmination of Republican pandering
He’s the front-runner precisely because he says it straight out rather than using code like other Republican candidates. He’s the logical product of 36 years of Republican pandering — half a century if we go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” Or, really, a continuation, if in new packaging, of the whole history of the United States. If he were just another in a long line of demagogues, we would not be throwing around the word “fascism” so freely. But the Trump campaign comes with violence and particularly open hatreds. Alarm bells ought to be ringing.
Let’s return to the definition of fascism offered above: “A dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business.” Industrialists and financiers are firmly in the saddle in the United States. Opposition to the policies there that have created widespread misery and towering inequality certainly is growing not only in intensity but in numbers, yet it could hardly be said that capitalist rule in the U.S. is in any danger whatsoever today. There is no need for capitalists to create and build a corps of street thugs or brown shirts.
Rather, we have the odd phenomenon of a billionaire “populist” telling his followers that he won’t be beholden to corporate interests because he is too rich to be bought. We have seen this siren song before: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s morbid combination of George W. Bush, Rupert Murdoch and Ross Perot. He did not work out so well for Italy. Prime Minister Berlusconi’s reason to run for office was to advance his business interests and stay out of jail. Promoting his business interests is Donald Trump’s motivation. All we have here is a billionaire cutting out the middle man and buying the office for himself instead of buying a professional politician.
Nonetheless, it is impossible not to note the violence and the threats against Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims and, implicitly, to all People of Color, and to social activists of the Left. Any Right-wing movement that has gained a substantial following of people that includes more than a few willing to condone violence must target the Left. History is painfully clear on this. We need not think Trump is a fascist or capable of building a fascist type of movement to mobilize against his campaign. Not that we should minimize the ultimate threat of fascism — all capitalist countries contain the potentiality of fascism, a threat that materializes when capitalists dispense with democracy because they can no longer earn profits in the ordinary ways and working people begin to refuse to cooperate with capitalist business as usual in significant numbers.
I would argue that the Trump campaign is not necessarily fascist today, but that it carries with it the seeds of a future, potential fascist movement. That is more than serious enough for everybody who struggles for a better world.