I was born in 1965, exactly two decades after the end of World War II. According to what I learned in high-school and college, fascism was supposed to have been ancient history, dead along with Adolf Hitler in his führerbunker. Yet part of me never believed it. Even though I grew up watching Hollywood propaganda about our multicultural, democratic American army rolling over Hitler’s Aryan supermen on the way to Berlin, I couldn’t help but realize that the United States had just waged a genocidal war against the innocent people of Vietnam. More importantly, and not only because my father was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, I had always noticed something profoundly militaristic and authoritarian about American society. School felt like prison. Football practice reminded me of a war game. After I got my first job, I realized that while we could vote for President once every four years, the American workplace was a dictatorship. Even before 9/11 and George W. Bush, I had suspected that someday I would faced with the same dilemma that once confronted Germans and Italians. How do you act when you live under a fascist government?
With the election of a white supremacist demagogue as President of the United States, the question has become unavoidable. Are we there yet? Is it fascism?
The answer is not as easy as you might think. Donald J. Trump is well-documented racist, but while racism and fascism are closely related, they’re not identical. What’s more, there’s nothing particularly new about racist demagogues at the highest levels of the United States government. As young men, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd had both been members of the Ku Klux Klan. Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin was a vocal white supremacist all through his thirty years in the House of Representatives. In 1946, the speeches of Mississippi Governor and Senator Theodore Bilbo were collected in a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. In 1968, after the independent campaign of George Wallace for President of the United States, Richard Nixon opportunistically set the Republican Party on the course to become a white supremacist party with his “southern strategy.” Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murder of Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman, with a speech about “states rights.” George H.W. Bush smeared Michael Dukakis by appealing to white fear of Willie Horton, a black rapist and murderer. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the Republicans questioned not only his government, but his very identity as an American, insisting that he “show them the birth certificate” to prove he wasn’t born in Kenya. President Donald Trump is the inevitable result of the transformation of the Republicans from the Party of Lincoln to the party of racist reaction, but is it fascism?
In his 1998 paper “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Robert Paxton, probably the most important American authority on the subject, argued that fascism is not a coherent ideology, or a stable form of government, but rather a historical process that moves though five stages. In the beginning, after a people becomes disillusioned with liberal democracy, movements begin to appear around the periphery of the political debate that attempt to focus attention around what Paxton refers to as a “loss of national vigor,” or national decline. Eventually the debate “roots itself,” or moves into the mainstream. Sometimes the process stops at stage two. In the 2002, the French white supremacist and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen made it all the way to the second round of the Presidential elections before the French people came to their senses and rejected him for the mainstream conservative Jacques Chirac. Sometimes, however, especially if mainstream conservatives are too weak to suppress a rising leftist or socialist opposition, the ruling class will will off the rising fascist movement a share in the government. In This Land I Mine, a largely forgotten film by Jean Renoir, a French Vichy collaborator played by George Sanders explains to a German Galeiter why he and his class surrendered so easily to a foreign occupier. “I too fought the unions,” he says, “in this yard. I nearly died. You had a leader and were many. We had no leader and were few. That’s why you’re here.” In other words, since the French right was unable to defeat the French left on their own, they had to call in the Germans as muscle. Once the fascist movement comes to power, its charismatic leader immediately begins to wreck the existing bourgeois, or what Paxton calls “the normative state” in favor of the “fuhrer principle,” the identification of the nation with the fascist dictator, Spain with Franco, Italy with Mussolini, Germany with Hitler. In the fifth and final stage of fascism, the fascist nation takes one of two paths, radicalization, or entropy. Hitler, for example, chose an apocalyptic war of conquest. Franco, on the other hand, remained neutral during the Second World War, and Spain avoided Germany’s destruction and partition.
If you apply Robert Paxton’s five stage principle to the United States under Donald Trump, it’s difficult not to conclude that yes, we’re here. It’s fascism.
More precisely, the United States in 2017 is roughly in stage three of the historical process that I have just described. I used to tell myself that the closet thing I had ever come to live in a fascist country the Bush regime between 9/11 and its loss of popular supporter after Hurricane Katrina. George W. Bush, was not a fascist leader, but with his preemptive invasion of Iraq, and his consolidation of the security and surveillance state under the Department of Homeland Security, he did lay the essential foundation. We moved into “stage one” after the election of Barack Obama. Obama was no more a fascist head of state than George W. Bush. The problem, however, is that he did nothing to dismantle the foundation Bush put in place. Rather, he betrayed the large popular movement that got him the nomination over Hillary Clinton. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, Obama did not restore the rule of law. He did the opposite. He not only left the Bush torture and surveillance state in place, he essentially surrendered the authority of the federal government to Wall Street when he declared the “too big to fail” banks above the law. Unlike Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush after the S&L Crisis, he refused to initiate even a token prosecution of the bankers who had crashed the economy. In the profound disillusionment that followed, fascist, conspiratorial and antisemitic movements began to emerge along the margins of the political debate, on the Internet in groups like 4chan, in the gun culture, and in the Tea Party and “birther” movements. Anybody who observed the conspiracy theories that came out of the gun culture following the horrific mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut had to conclude that there was some deep sickness at the heart of American culture. Donald Trump did not appear out of thin air. Nor is he a creation of the Russians. Rather, he comes out of the Islamophobic hysteria still lingering after 9/11, the Tea Party and Birther movements, and the long tradition of American white supremacy.
What propelled Donald Trump to the presidency was not Vladimir Putin or the kind of revolutionary left that so threatened the Italian ruling class in 1922 they had to call in a fascist strongman. It was the power vacuum created by the collapse of the traditional Republicans, and the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Democrats. Whether or not the mild reformist Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump in the general election is less important than the way the Democratic Party elite was determined to nominate Hillary Clinton, to continue the pro-Wall-Street Obama regime even though, as in 2008, their rank and file was demanding “change.” A Sanders loss might have left the Democratic Party in a position to rebuild. A Clinton loss left a gaping hole where an opposition party should be. It also left a party elite unable to do much more than concoct bizarre Russophobic conspiracy theories about Trump’s playing Marshal Petain to Vladimir Putin’s Adolf Hitler even while they confirm his cabinet appointments with little or no resistance. With no worry of a coherent opposition from the Democrats, the Republicans, in turn, have no real motivation to oppose Donald Trump’s extremist agenda. In fact, since they’re probably more afraid of their own reactionary base, of being defeated in the primaries by even more hard core conservatives, than of losing general elections to liberals, they have every motivation to move as far to the right as Donald Trump and Steve Bannon will take them.
With a bizarre campaign to ban Muslim visa holders from entering the United States, Donald Trump has begun to take the United States into Paxton’s Stage Four, to wreck the bourgeois or “normative” state in order to clear the way for the fascist, or “prerogative” state. Last year I wrote a blog post called “Are the Police Acting like a Distributed Gestopo?” While I clearly didn’t anticipate Trump’s winning the election – mainly because I didn’t think the American ruling class actually needed a single fascist strongman – I quite accurately predicted how the reactionary culture of local police would play a key role in establishing an authoritarian government. Indeed, while the liberal bourgeoisie centered around the ACLU has mounted large, and disruptive protests against Trump’s clearly unconstitutional attempt to apply a religious test to people attempting to enter the United States, the rank and file of the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol has mounted a protest movement of their own. By going so far as to deny lawyers, congressional staffers, and even in one instance a United States Senator, access to people detained at the border, they have declared that they are loyal, not to the “rule of law” or to the judiciary, but to Donald Trump himself. Indeed, that Cory Booker, the likely Democratic Presidential nominee in 2020 cannot asset his authority, even over rank and file Border Patrol and DHS agents speaks poorly of his chances ever to occupy the White House. It also speaks poorly to the prospect of dislodging Donald Trump through the Democratic Party. In other words, they got their chance in 2008 with Barack Obama. They threw it away. They won’t get another. Needless to say, if Donald Trump and Steve Bannon succeed in wrecking what’s little of the bourgeois, “normative” state that George W. Bush and Barack Obama left in place, the move into Paxton’s Stage Five, radicalization or entropy, puts us on a dangerous course. While it’s possible that the Trump regime could follow in the footsteps of Francisco Franco or António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal, for the United States to settle into a dull, repressive, yet fairly traditional form of authoritarianism, it’s also possible he could follow in the footsteps of Hitler or Mussolini. Not only is Trump antagonizing China, what’s left of the Democratic Party elite – who have made an alliance with neoconservatives like John McCain and Lindsay Graham – seem equally determined to provoke a war with Russia. Even if the United States doesn’t end up in a war against Russia or China, a radicalized Trump regime could undertake an extremist program, one that destroys public education, despoils the environment, dismantles social security and medicaid, and leaves the country as a dangerous “failed state” with nukes.
So how will we stop it?
Let me suggest a possible course by anticipating your objection to what I’ve just written. “You’re being hysterical,” I imagine you saying. “If we were living under a fascist government, you wouldn’t be able to criticize it under your own name. You’d already be in a concentration camp.” To that I’ll respond by pointing out that fascism never happens the same way twice. In the past, in Nazi Germany or Vichy France, what I’ve written here might have gotten me dragged off to a concentration camp by storm troopers. In the United States of Donald Trump, on the other hand, the fascist regime wants me doing just what I’m doing now, sitting at home and writing long rants nobody reads. Nazi Germany and Franco Spain were primitive, first generation fascist governments. Donald Trump’s America is the extension of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.” It’s still the same corporatist government it was under Barack Obama, who coordinated a brutal crackdown against the Occupy movement by militarized police. As long as the people are demobilized, as long as we stay off the streets and confine our opposition to the now utterly ineffectual Democrats, we can babble on to our hearts’ content while the ruling class extracts what’s left from the working class and the poor. We need to mobilize outside of the Democratic Party and hit the streets. We need to demand that Democratic Party mayors in big cities like New York and Chicago order the police to stand down and let the protests go on. When they don’t – and of course they won’t since wealthy liberals in New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston hate protesters far more than they hate Donald Trump – we will need to maintain the protests in the face of the inevitable, and savage repression that will come in the name of “public safety.” We need to break the machine even while the machine is breaking our heads. To quote Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, “there’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”