Or ‘These Theses on Faeces and Fasces’
First some very important business. There’s a new podcast in town, Wrong With Authority, created and starring myself and my friends, familiar to you all, Daniel Harper, James Murphy, and Kit Power. It’s yet another movie podcast… but it’s also about History. So that’s exciting then. Specifically, it’s about movies about historical events, and how full of shit they are. Our first episode is just out and it covers the movies Murder by Decree and From Hell (adapted from a graphic novel some of you may have heard of) and their relationship to the historical ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. Download our first episode here. And please feel free to recommend and share. We won’t mind, I promise.
As you probably noticed, the word ‘fascism’ is being thrown around a lot in response to Trump and his election. I don’t happen to think terminological issues are unimportant. I think this issue is worth investigating.
For instance, I agree with Phil that the term ‘alt-Right’ cannot and should not be reduced to ‘neo-Nazi’. Just to be clear (as if I haven’t made it clear where I stand): this is not in any way to defend the alt-Right, who I think are just about the most contemptible rabblement of toxic shitbags on the planet. But they’re their own distinct flavour of toxicity, and the emergence of this flavour helps us know where we are now, and why. Terminology is important precisely because it enables us to get a grip on complexities like this. The intentions of many who are saying that “alt-Right = Neo-Nazi” are, no doubt, honourable, in that they are trying to expose a dirty truth that is being concealed. And the claimed equivalence has more than a germ of truth in it. However, the conflation is potentially damaging. The alt-Right do, no doubt, share much that is crucial in common with Nazis, whether we use that term specifically or colloquially. And I’ve referred to both Milo Yiannopoulos and Davis Aurini as Nazis in the past, with justification I think. However, the alt-Right are a distinct phenomenon.
This terminological issue is why I took a post to (roughly) define fascism in what I think are the correct objective terms. There is a risk when you take this approach of falling into pedantry for its own sake, which won’t help anyone. But I hope I have more to offer than just doing the equivalent of quoting the dictionary during a debate. I’m going to try to test Trumpism against my definition. Not in an attempt to decide whether Trumpism ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ fascism in some simplistic way. As I said at the head of my last post, fascism shouldn’t be reified and essentialized into an alien thing squatting outside the real world, a distinct and discrete entity that can be identified in the same way as a specific variety of phage or bacterium. Political realities may have lineages and heredities and families but they don’t have DNA fingerprints. And even organisms exist in a state of eternal flux. Genes get turned on and off. Mutations happen. Species evolve. Every form is transitional. We have to remember to think dialectically, as dialectically as reality. I’m not trying to play a game of categories. I’m hoping to gauge Trumpism against the recognisable (if fluctuating) common features of the set of phenomena we group together under the term ‘fascism’ (for convenience) and see where the exercise takes me.
But that ought to be enough disclaiming to satisfy even the most disclaimer-hungry reader.
One of the most crucial elements of fascism – if we’re talking about the family of extreme reactionary authoritarian nationalisms that arose (mostly) in Europe in the early 20th century – is the element of the mass movement. Without wishing to sound complacent, I’d say that this element is currently absent from Trumpism, at least in the sense that I mean.
As we see from the numbers in the election, Trump’s victory wasn’t the result of a huge increase in Republican votes, or of an energised Republican base plus large numbers of new recruits drawn in by Trump’s persona and promises. Overall turnout now looks to be about the same, so there was no sudden big influx of people who don’t normally vote, all enthused by Trump. Similarly, the Republican vote was about the same overall. Trump garnered about as many voters as Romney in 2012 – slightly fewer in fact. Also, as is now clear, Trump lost the popular vote quite resoundingly. Most of Trump’s voters seem to be the people who will vote Republican no matter what. So this resolutely isn’t a new and unusual mass movement.
In other words, Trump won because of that failure of liberalism I was talking about in an earlier post, its failure to do anything to even pretend to not be compromised by absolute alignment with the interests of ‘the 1%’, with this failure personified by Hillary Clinton.
Well… that and the grotesqueries of the Electoral College, coupled with Republican-organised voter suppression.
It’s possible that Trump lost some usual Republican voters. He got more votes both for and against him than any other GOP candidate in the Primaries, so there’s a chance he alienated a chunk of normally-loyal Republicans. If so, he must have also attracted a roughly equal number of disaffected floaters. Fascinatingly, it looks like some of those floaters might’ve floated over to Bernie Sanders if he’d run… though all conjectures about Bernie’s chances are so-far failing to take into account how his campaign would’ve been damaged by the relentlessly negative media coverage he would doubtless have received. What these floaters, who look like a section of the disenfranchised mass that also makes up so much of the abstentionist half of those eligible, seem to want is something that doesn’t just look like more of the same. It’s as if the specific content of the Different thing they’re looking for matters less than that it should just be Different. The quality Trump voters said they prized most in a candidate was “Can bring much needed change”. They want a challenge to the normal that has failed them. A rejection of everything routine.
This still isn’t a mass movement. If anything, this is the absence of a mass movement… in much the same way that the collapse of the Bernie phenomenon, and then Clinton’s lack of an Obama-style groundswell of Democrat-voter enthusiasm, tells of the absence of a mass movement on the Left.
Despite much of the talk – including on the Left – about the Trump vote being a revolt by the ‘working class’, we know it was no such thing. The lower income bracket went against Trump (even if the low income brackets’ Republican votes actually seem to have gone up slightly overall). This is unsurprising, given how much of the ‘working class’ in America is comprised of people of colour… though, of course, all this does hinge on the peculiar definition of ‘working class’ as meaning poorly paid, ‘unskilled’, non-college educated manual labourers or service workers.
(This is not a Marxist definition of the working class. A Marxist tries to define class according to real qualitative and quantitative distinctions in the fundamental relationships people have to the means by which things and services are produced, the ‘means of production’. In a capitalist society, the means of production are mostly privately owned, which is just a social expression of a control relation. Consequently, to a Marxist, almost anyone who doesn’t have any great controlling stake in the means of production, and who therefore has to sell their labour power to survive, and whose labour therefore produces things they don’t control, and profit they do not get, is a member of the working class. Marxists don’t deny the existence of varied and distinct strata within the working class, or the ruling class for that matter, but these are seen as akin to epiphenomena, complexities generated by the workings of an underlying structure. Paradoxically, by this Marxist definition, Trump did a lot better with ‘the working class’ simply because the term is more broadly defined. Trump voters tended to be more affluent, but that doesn’t mean that many of them could quit work tomorrow and be just fine. But then, by that definition, every candidate does well with ‘the working class’. The statement stops meaning anything because the radical redefinition of terms has taken it out of the sphere of psephology and into a deeper analysis of democratic institutions in class society.)
So the mass movement isn’t there. Not in what is called ‘the working class’ in mainstream American discourse, and not even in what is called the ‘middle class’, not even in the normal Republican base. There was no sudden and great upsurge in the Republican vote thanks to Trump. There’s no new legion of boots (jackboots or otherwise) on the ground for him. He lacks even the kind of large and temporary activist movement that can occasionally accrete around normal candidates such as Obama, who won so big in ‘08 partly because he had huge numbers of enthused volunteers and campaign offices. Obama’s ‘movement’ melted away when it was supposed to, the way such phenomena do when they are entirely slaved to reformist, electoral politics (though it is true that some of the activists energised by the idea of Obama have gone on to other things). Trump doesn’t even seem to have a mass movement in the looser sense of fanaticism. Certainly, he inspires intense enthusiasm and adulation in some, but also seems to have relied upon fairly normal dynamics for a standard Republican win. Trump raised a higher percentage of his campaign funds from under-$200 donors than any other candidate… but raised less from such donors in real terms than Clinton. (He was also heavily funded by big business, hedge funds, etc, in the normal way, though again to a lesser degree than Clinton.)
Moreover, there is little sign that most of the Trump activist faithful, let alone most Trump voters, conceive of him as anything but a normal presidential candidate (despite their simultaneous and incoherent belief that he’s a mould-breaking iconoclast). For all the vague and unfocused talk of ‘shaking things up’, I don’t see much evidence that any of them see him as heralding a fundamental revolution in how the American state functions. Most of them seem to be demanding a kind of purification of the system as it stands, the equivalent of keeping an operating system but doing a systematic purge of viruses. This is not to say that some of them wouldn’t like such a state reconstruction, perhaps even complete with a new authoritarianism… but for the most part they don’t seem to be expecting it. They are perhaps expecting an amplification of normal authoritarianism. Say, a ‘crackdown’ on Black Lives Matter, and so on. They are being helped to cling to such hopes by the steadfast way in which Trump’s eccentric and extreme appointments are being treated as simultaneously normal and shocking by a media they both distrust and rely-upon to provide them with frames of reference.
Having said all this, it looks clear that Trump’s crucial support is in the same social layers where fascism classically finds its mass movement: the anxious middle – the petty bourgeoisie, higher-paid professionals, officialdom, police, etc – with a few at the very bottom. The people without a clear class consciousness of their own. The ‘human dust’, as Trotsky called them. The people squidged between the bottom layer of low-paid workers and unemployed, and the upper-layer of the ruling class and their wealthy co-ordinators. In common with the usual way fascism addresses such people, Trumpism is a direct, atavistic, emotional appeal to simultaneous anxiety and reactionary nostalgia. Trumpism is a call to a coalition of the middle with the top around the defence of their mutual if relative privilege. Like fascism often does, Trumpism pretends not to be a defence of what is but a promise of what could be if we could just re-attain the past. Despite being the dream of an eternal present, it is actually the utopian mode in service of the arcadian.
However, it’s important not to overstate the extent to which Trumpism is unusual in American politics in this respect. This sort of thing has been a mainstay of Republican addresses to its base for a long time. This tells us, yet again, that the Republicans only have themselves to blame if they end up getting burned by the Trump phenomenon, because it is a phenomenon they themselves invited and unwittingly helped self-organise. But it’s more than that. It also tells us, yet again, that many of the techniques fascism used to save capitalism, by temporarily resolving capitalism’s self-threatening contradictions, have actually been adopted, adapted, and normalised rather than rejected and forgotten. To a very great extent, it seems to me, 21st century neoliberal capitalism doesn’t need fascism as a resource any more, precisely because it has learned to do the handy things fascism does without recourse to ‘full’ fascism as a form of government. But we may come back to this point another time.
The middle to which Trumpism appeals is by no means as squeezed as other middles in which fascism has historically done well. For a start, the economic situation of much of the middle classes in Europe and America is by no means as immediately desperate as it was during the Great Depression. Don’t get me wrong: even more affluent people are generally working harder and longer for stagnant wages (overall), enduring an erosion of their rights, feeling less secure for many good reasons, benefiting less from state provision, etc. But it’s all relative. This is all in the context of the legacy of the long post-war boom and the social progress made during it, so the middle classes’ decline in their prosperity and security is relative to an unusually high level of such things, historically speaking. Their awareness of this decline consequently seems less sharp than their awareness of another seeming decline in their fortunes: that of their loss of a monopoly on the terms of public discussion, of the discourse around things like gender norms, race relations, etc. The relatively affluent, relatively privileged section of society feels hemmed in and criticised by a rising rejection of supposed norms they have come to identify with. The middle classes’ experience of their own relative privilege has been channelled through such things as whiteness, respect for ‘law and order’, fear of the poor, a related fear of people of colour, a hegemonic ideological discourse of heterosexuality and cisnormativity, a linkage of nationalism to the supposed normality of such ideas, etc.
This is not to excuse such bigotry on the grounds of anxiety. As I say, they’re not that anxious, at least comparatively… and even if they were, the anxiety would only be a catalyst for the racism, etc, rather than an explanation, let alone an excuse. It certainly shouldn’t be seen as the problem instead of the bigotry.
But there’s an interesting paradox here, which is potentially a little comforting… even as they invest in these reactionary ideas to comfort themselves for a perceived loss of influence and hegemony, most of them might also lack the levels of anxiety necessary to catalyse these reactionary ideas into the aggressive form necessary to fascism. It’s one thing to vote for someone who says mean stuff that makes you feel good… that doesn’t immediately translate into fascist energy. Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be fed and nurtured…
A lot of the talk has been about the overpowering whiteness of the Trump vote, and that’s true, and I wouldn’t want to downplay the issues of race and racism. However, the overall whiteness is, at least partly, a function of the overall affluence, since hierarchy is economically determined and racially organised in America. The whiteness of the vote is, at least on one level, an epiphenomenon of the relative wealth of the vote. This is not to dismiss or downplay the issue of racism. Racism, of course, does feed back into income levels, in ways that should be obvious. It is rather to dialectically link the racist consciousness which doubtless helped generate the Trump vote with the racial organisation of the American class system.
This leads us to another issue. The racial logic could be a crucial binding agent if the ‘middle class’ – i.e. affluent America from relatively high-income workers to small businesspeople, etc – did start mobilising as a real mass movement for Trump. The fact that this hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t. It might not actually organise around Trump but around his successor in the role he currently plays (depending on how things pan out for him personally, and his administration). White Supremacism – coded in some places, uncoded in others, and with lots of levels of coding inbetween – could be the glue. The capitalist media – so studied and reflexive in the practice of normalising oppression – is normalising Trump’s appointments of fringe white supremacists, paving the way for a coalition around such white supremacism. The coalition could very conceivably cohere in the form of a carefully-managed spectrum, ranging from the more-or-less overtly-racist extreme-Right to an ostensibly moderate nativist mainstream, with the alt-Right running up and down somewhere in the middle, and which each bit of the spectrum tolerating the other in the name of common goals. Trump has recently made noises disavowing the far-Right (much to the dismay of many an internet nasty), but this is surely mere tactical bafflegab, as some of the less unhinged persons on the alt-and-far-Right have realised. And, in any case, even if such a coalition doesn’t form around Trump, he may well be a catalyst for its slower formation in the future, after his departure from office (which I’m assuming will happen eventually). The Overton Window is moving even as we speak. (This is why I dislike the term. Windows are fixed in place.)
There are terrifying twitches of potential mass movement forms already, even paramilitary forms such as are required by ‘classic’ fascism, pre-dating Trump but open to adaptation to or by him. The growth of the militia movement and various far-right paramilitary groups over the last few years, fueled by hatred of a black President (amongst other things), is one such twitch. Such groups are still relatively small and isolated, and don’t seem to have played much of a role in actually getting Trump elected, but they are growing, and I doubt the rise of Trump will retard their growth.
I’ve been looking at the so-called Oath Keepers.
They claim not to be an extremist right-wing organisation. This is clearly bunk. You only have to look at their support for the Bundys, or their declared intention of making it impossible for anyone to arrest Kim Davis for exercising what they saw as her constitutional right to be a homophobic bigot. Even so, their claim is that they are simply against the power of the state to infringe upon the rights of individuals. So far, so standard. The Oath Keepers strut their stuff in the name of Constitutionalism, which has long been a particularly adaptable modality of the American far-Right. Constitutionalism straddles pro-state and anti-state positions in the true style of incoherent-yet-cohering fascist ideology. They get to champion a fetishized little bit of the state ideology against the rest of it, all in the name of liberty.
The Oath Keepers are, at the moment, an extreme conspiracist anti-government organisation… but, paradoxically, this is precisely why it would be possible for someone positioned like Trump, as an ‘anti-establishment’ maverick who has supposedly broken into the lair of the monster, to attract them towards supporting the state. After all, all it took was the sight of angry black people on the streets of Ferguson to bring the Oath Keepers out, armed and ready, to support the police… and all while claiming to be protecting the demonstrators.
This is an important point. Fascism today would, I suspect, be unlikely to use open appeals to biological racism – at least not at the establishment end of the racist spectrum/coalition I was talking about before. Trump is appointing racists all over the place, but they’d mostly all claim formally not to be racists, etc. Moreover, the central form of racism to any present-day fascism would almost inevitably be Islamophobia, which is in many ways indistinguishable from anti-Semitism in form and method, but which doesn’t generally contain the kind of explicitly biological racism that was central to Nazi ideology. This wouldn’t be anything particularly innovative for fascism. As noted last week, fash sometimes starts without open biological racism as a central plank – Italy and Spain for instance. The Oath Keepers’ claim to not be white supremacists makes them, or someone like them, all the more potentially part of a respectable, normalised fascist coalition. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that they’ve used Hitler as a negative example of what happens when people blindly follow the orders of the state. I suspect that, if they could convince themselves that their favoured strongman was somehow anti-establishment, they’d blindly obey him all in the name of freeing everyone from blind obedience. Extreme reactionary thinking isn’t effective because of its coherence.
The Oath Keepers themselves probably don’t amount to much in real terms. Only five of them turned up in Ferguson. The Southern Policy Law Centre think their claims for their membership numbers are inflated. But they strike me as an illustration of a possible vector, of how America could plausibly develop an effective, paramilitary fascist mass movement, integrated with the far-Right at one end and the state at the other. The Oath Keepers themselves seem undecided about Trump, their paranoia being so strong that they’re still unsure if he’s an establishment stalking horse… but remember, I’m not necessarily talking about them specifically, so much as using them as an illustration. They are, in germ, a way it could work.