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Thomas Carolan’s article in Solidarity 565 started “The President of the USA is a fascist”. The body of the article backtracked from that assertive opening, suggesting that Trump’s government is not fascist although it has strengthened those elements that may be quickly assembled by Trump into a fascist force, particularly the mobilisation of “a mass movement to beat down its enemies” in stealing the coming US election.
Trump, Carolan continues, is fascist because he leads a “death cult” based on his macho posturing in the face of Covid-19, systematic lying, and anti-scientific irrationalism.
To understand fascism’s nature we need to start from the crucible in which it formed in the 1920s. Carolan is right when he states that if history repeats itself it does not do so exactly, but his account is too much not exactly and too little repeat.
Here fascism will be considered in terms of its use of violence that separates it from mere right-wing authoritarianism and of the totalitarian ideas on which it was based (however inchoate those ideas might have been). The class forces that led to fascism’s rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s are not relevant here: a fascist is a fascist in or out of power, and the way that fascism came to power in pre-war Europe, to crush strong and recently revolutionary workers’ movements, may not apply today.
The key differentiator for fascism from the rest of the right is that it builds a mass base not just of political support but physical force to, literally, beat its opponents both real and imagined. This force may pose as a revolutionary force, but in both the Italian and German cases the fascist route to power was largely by constitutional means. In Italy, Mussolini planned an insurrection, “the March on Rome”, before the King appointed him Prime Minister without a shot being fired. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany as leader of the largest party in the Reichstag with the support of conservative nationalists.
Fascist leaders typically had both a paramilitary uniform and a tailored suit in their wardrobe to wear as the occasion demanded. In power fascist parties were fused with the state to create something more than a typical dictatorship — strongly politicised, brutal and repressive state machines that were not bourgeois states in the normal sense, although ultimately they protected capital against a working-class threat.
This picture of fascism has no relationship to Trump’s first election victory in 2016, but Carolan sees parallels with Trump’s increasingly desperate attempts to hold onto power. Responding to the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year, Trump at first supported police violence, then justified more general resistance to a supposed hard left of anarchists and anti-fascists before tipping over into defending the 17 year-old vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who is charged with shooting dead two BLM protestors.
There is speculation that such Trump supporters will disrupt polls and create an armed second-front for his continuation as President alongside legal challenges should he lose the election in November. Trump made incoherent comments in the first Presidential debate, at first condemning white supremacists and militias and then supporting the Proud Boys (a clearly fascist group with perhaps 300 members) suggesting they “stand back and stand by” and that anti-fascists are a problem that “somebody” has to sort out. But Trump shows no interest in forming such people into a fascist organisation.
The second distinctive feature of fascism is its totalitarianism. The term was first coined to describe the Italian fascists in power, and then adopted by them as a self description. Fascists seek to regiment individuals into an overarching identity (nation, race, religion), believing society needs to be re-ordered and the individual re-made. Nothing links Trump with this side of fascism in power.
Carolan points to the anti-scientific irrationalism of the Trump administration as indicative of fascism but this has long been hard-wired in Republicanism and is not distinctive to Trump. It appeals to their evangelical Christian base (more closely associated with Trump’s conservative VP, Mike Pence). The growth of the Alt-Right, with its conspiratorial wing exemplified by QAnon, and Trump’s transparent lying (it has been called post-denialism since it doesn’t even have the pretence of truth) is the new element here.
For sure, as one analyst of the far right has put it, “conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs are the lingua franca of the far-right. They articulate and justify the Manichean divide of their hate-filled [view]of the world into a chosen ‘us’ and a dangerous, subversive ‘them’.”
QAnon supporters are seeping into the Republican Party with Trump’s enthusiastic support. Carolan is looking the right way but seeing too clearly beyond the political event horizon. QAnon is a bridge from supporting Trump to fascism that some may cross, but Trump himself has two degrees of separation from clear-cut fascism.
This is not emergent fascism. But Republicanism under Trump becoming more populist and authoritarian — a long-term trend. In the 1968 presidential election Nixon used law and order as a thinly veiled appeal to racists and the “silent majority”. In some ways Trump’s policies are those of Reagan’s 1980s “blue-collar republicanism”, writ large in an angry toddler’s crayon.
Certainly, Trump has gone beyond that, adopting a hard-line nationalist stance both on stopping immigration and in turning against the pro-globalisation policies of both previous Democratic and Republican governments with his America First policy and its tendencies to be both economically protectionist and isolationist. This is a symptom more of the US’s declining status as a world power than incipient fascism.
So why argue that Trump is a fascist? It is surely preparing the ground for a call to vote Biden on the grounds that this will protect democracy. Barrie Hardy in Solidarity 563 argues Trump’s Republican Party represents “the most rapacious wing of the American capitalist class” echoing the analysis of 1930s Popular Front Stalinism which saw fascism as the “dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” implying that the Democrats represent a less reactionary wing of capital that we might ally with, at least electorally.
Whether or not Trump is defeated the forces that created him will continue to grow, as will both armed gangs of “patriots” and the only somewhat tamer varieties of the Alt-Right. The continued decline of American economic power will only swell the ranks of the disillusioned, desperate, and demented. A Biden victory will not avert that.
Socialists can choose to emphasise support for the Democrats in the hope of building a kinder, more democratic capitalism, or the need to build the working class as an independent political force. The first is an illusion, the second an uphill struggle that must be faced. Building that movement is what will disrupt both Trump’s base and anything worse that might follow.
Trump has pushed the bounds of US politics to the right in a way that has parallels around the world with a now well established current of right-wing populist authoritarianism. While in some cases this has edged towards fascism (the mob violence against Muslims in India by Modi’s BJP being the most notable example), Trump is not fascist, proto-fascist or semi-fascist. What he might be is pre-fascist.
The forces that Trump rode to power will, in the absence of a working class movement, continue to grow. The violent reaction of racist and backward gun toting semi-rural idiocy will thrive, along with the Alt-Right spreading its oil slick of polluting filth over social media. We should not use “fascist” as a left-liberal swearword. We may need it for those who follow and really are.