What The American Left Doesn't Understand About Fascism

What the American Left Doesn't Understand about Fascism
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George Lincoln Rockwell, commander of the American Nazi Party, Arlington, Virginia
George Lincoln Rockwell, commander of the American Nazi Party, Arlington, Virginia
Photo by Richard Avedon

In his new book The Populist Explosion, the journalist John Judis explores the transatlantic rise of anti-establishment politics, on both the left and right, which has swept the electoral landscape since the global Great Recession. His investigation of the American political scene in particular leads him to conclude that the current phenomenon of Trumpism does not represent an American form of fascism, so much as a variant of good old American populism.

With some exceptions, the leftist commentariat – academicians, journalists, independent scholars and public intellectuals among them – has generally tended to share the view that whatever Trump is, he is not a fascist. Given the historical tendency of the left to call out fascism politically when others did not see it, this refusal – often ladled with hefty doses of derision and mockery – might strike some as paradoxical.

There are three reasons, in my view, why they take this position. One has to do with Trump’s relationship to the establishment GOP and the view that they have created a type of Frankenstein’s monster; the second has to do with the historical nature of the “Brown Scare” in this country in the 1930s and 1940s; and the third concerns the question of the historical precedent for Trump’s positions and personality within the mainstream of America’s political and social history.

Insisting that Trump is not a fascist but rather a populist is, at root, a category error. To contend that a movement cannot be fascist because it is populist is to ignore the simple fact that fascism is always, in its essence, populist. There is never an “establishment fascism.” Historically and today, fascism seeks to upend the existing political order – even if that includes the traditional right. While fascism could only come to power in coalition with conservative forces, and shared much of its ideology with conservatism, its populism was one of the most important features distinguishing it from conservatism. True conservatism has always hued closely to the elitism of an “old right,” wedded to the establishment.

In this sense, complaints among conservatives that Trump is not truly one of them, that he has “hijacked” their party, are not just hypocritical caterwauling. It is a genuine realization that the old establishment of economic and cultural elites, who could rely on voters understanding who their “betters” were, is being overridden by an angry demagogue who “feels” his audience and dispenses with the old conservative hierarchies, doing so with seeming impunity. In the process, he also radicalizes their ideology – to their eyes, beyond recognition. This was precisely the lament of European conservative elites who believed they could contain fascism and, in an alliance with it, retain their own power. The heavy moral cost associated with this failed attempt to rein in fascism does not work against this distinction.

On the second point, politically engaged scholars of American history are understandably wary of the idea that Trump or Trumpism could ever be fascist, because of the presumption that fascism is, for lack of a better word, “foreign.” That to label an American politics as “fascist” is to somehow suggest that it arrived here as something of a political imposter from another land – one that doesn’t really “belong” in American political history. The German-American Bund, and its successor the American Nazi Party, outlandishly aping fascism in dress and public ceremony, is what comes to mind when most commentators think of “fascism” in America. And that’s understandable – to a degree. However, to gauge Trumpism by its external appearances – whether it has armbands, jackboots and public ceremonies – is to ignore what sort of political future Trump’s followers want, what kind of society they think they are defending. It’s also anachronistic, by suggesting that because Trump’s supporters don’t dress up like stormtroopers, they can’t possibly be fascist.

The third, and most important, error is the idea that calling Trump a fascist somehow puts him outside of the narrative of American history. The left is absolutely correct to insist that Trump be understood as an iteration of certain traditions in that history, rather than an aberration or an imposter. When observers call Trump a “fascist” in order to denounce him as electorally unacceptable, they lend credence to a view that somehow his politics are “un-American.” Scholars on the left, in going against that argument, remind us of the perils of the interwar Brown Scare, which suggested that any fascism in America could only be imported by “treasonous” immigrants. Images of the German-American Bund of the 1930s, rallying in Times Square with depictions of George Washington and Adolf Hitler grotesquely side-by-side, reinforce this view of the essential “foreignness” of fascism to the American tradition. The “Great Sedition” trial, conducted near the end of World War Two, actually sought to demonstrate that America’s far-right demagogic personalities, William Pelley and Lawrence Dennis among them, were agents of enemy governments. In protesting the use of “fascist” to describe Trump, the left argues against the suggestion that we merely "get back to ourselves" to see how dangerous Trump is. They are right to point out that segregating the far right from the mainstream of American politics in these ways only obscures the origins of Trump's popularity.

But when the same commentators then mock the idea of Trump’s fascism on the grounds that it sees no rallies of brownshirted paramilitaries, no grandiosity of mass choreography or performance – the very stock in trade of the 30s Bund – they choose the wrong terrain on which to debate the question. It is in such moments when we should remind ourselves of what Robert Paxton writes in his Anatomy Of Fascism: "the language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would […] have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans […] Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens."

Fascism, in other words, always upholds a normative tradition, always intones a particular type of continuity of past national greatness. Fascism is never an imposition from without, and in that sense, never a "betrayal” or an “imposter.” In power, the change historical fascists forged was always gradual, always incremental. Underneath our gobsmacked incredulity at Trump's constant transgressions – the plea that we fight this corrupter of American values – we should recognize the way he remains recognizably “star-spangled.”

Demonstrating that Trump has plentiful antecedents from American history doesn't disprove the fascism argument, then. Nor does the lack of historically fascist trappings, like armbands, jackboots or neat rows of shirted paramilitaries. If American populism as such did not morph into fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, as European rightist populism did, that does not mean that America’s nativist, racist and xenophobic movements of the interwar period – particularly the second generation Klan, the Silver Shirts, or the so-called Black Legion, all of them of “Mayflower” provenance – did not have populist antecedents. It is a false argument to contend that Trump cannot be fascist because there is precedent for his racism or because his demagoguery has antecedents in America’s non-fascist past.

Fascists have always preyed on targets familiar to their national audiences. Jews who lived in Hitler’s Germany certainly saw historical continuity in his policies – one of the reasons the vast majority of Jewish Germans chose not to leave in the first years of the Third Reich, even when they had opportunity to do so. But because fascism’s victims are “familiar” to its national audience does not mean that fascism does not, at a dangerous point, depart from past exclusionary practices, of the kind long sanctioned and condoned by conservative, establishment elites. In much the same way, Trump builds on preexisting antagonisms to Mexicans and Muslims found in American society and promoted by its conservative elites, while still promising radically new “solutions” to the “problem” they represent. Fascism is always radical in its hope to transform national politics and society while still defending tradition. There is never anything “foreign” about fascism in this sense. American fascism must by definition be recognizably Middle American, even as it rejects Mainstream America.

Of course, for some on the left, even when these factors are taken into consideration, Trump still cannot be a fascist. Because that would encourage the American electorate to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to stop him. This view sadly repeats the mistake of many on the European left in the 1930s, who wrongly concluded that fascism was nothing more than a symptom of neoliberal capitalism, and that therefore the best way to smash the far right was to help defeat Liberalism electorally. They paid dearly for that mistake. Let us hope they do not repeat it in 2016.

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