by Prof. Bob Buzzanco
Does it matter what we call Trump? Does the Left need to to chill out?
Some years ago, Randy Newman sang “the end of an empire . . . is messy at best,” and American society is now in a mess that Winston Wolfe couldn’t clean up. No one has to ignore the long sordid corporate liberal record of Joe Biden or the Wall Street/Prosecutor career of Kamala Harris to understand that Donald Trump has to be deposed by whatever means necessary and if the tactic of voting does that, there’s no reason to knock it.
But it’s also a time for thinking rationally and coldly, not being hysterical and panicking, and there’s a lot of that on the Left these days.
Trump’s scary and dangerous, absolutely. Though he’s not as abnormal as a lot of Leftists and especially Liberals insist (think of Nixon and Reagan and Bush, not to mention Clinton and Obama), he’s openly, crudely, vulgarly, maniacally, and virulently presenting a challenge at home of a greater magnitude than we’ve seen probably since the 1960s. While logically building on the neo-liberal and inhumane programs of his predecessors, he’s topped them off with a dismissal of a public health crisis that’s killed over 200,000 and is openly inciting white supremacist violence from Portland to Michigan.
He has to go away, and immediately.
But recently, there’s been a surge of articles and opinion pieces in Left media verging on hysteria—with some crossing that line—that Trump is a fascist and/or a Nazi, that he’s going to steal the election or refuse to leave office, and, most troubling, that others on the Left who do not share such alarmist views are really no better than MAGA-wearing Trump fanatics. The most extreme example may be a recent social media observation from the lead writer of a well-known online publication which shrieked that “any asshole ‘radical left’ douchebag who goes around posting and publishing denialist bullshit based on the absence of full on parallels with the Third Reich disgraces themselves and pollutes the discourse with ahistorical drivel.” The evidence?—border detentions, Charlottesville, El Paso, tweets to “liberate” various states, Kenosha, referring to Democrat politicians as Communists, ominous warnings about the election, and the like.
Long before that, since January 2017 really, there have been listicles of traits of fascists, 20 ways to spot a fascist, 5 reasons why Trump is the new Hitler, countless memes explaining what fascism is, and so forth. It’s reminiscent of the 1950s “how to spot a Communist” propaganda, and I’m waiting for a lefty Jeff Foxworthy to strike it big with a “you might be a fascist if….” routine.
Most of these focus on Trump’s bluster, vulgarity, threats, and overtly racist and sexist ideas, as well as some genuinely frightening programs and policies. But being fascist involves so much more than being a horrendous, and dangerous, individual, even one with power.
Fascism is an ideology, a way to organize society, a method of control over the state—and Trump has no ideology, no ideas, no design for state domination. His words are often terrifying and his fantasies about being president for a dozen years are absurd and disturbing. He’s dispatched federal troops without identification to attack protestors in Portland and elsewhere. There’s no real need to recite every hideous thing he’s done…..we all know already.
But much of what he’s done that liberals and the Left cite as evidence of his unique evil, or his fascism, is based on tweets and speeches, and when based on deeds, it’s often an attack or actions that predecessors from both parties (like the detention centers on the border or attacking protestors—remember DAPL?) had already put in place…or gutting environmental regulations that were already on the chopping block and have long been a policy priority for major corporations….or increasing the already insanely immense military budget (a bipartisan endeavor anyway). And he’s been resisted every step along the way, while his views on every major issue like health care, racial animus, tax fairness, abortion rights, gay marriage, guns and public health are not supported by anything near a majority.
A basic Google search on the traits of fascism comes up with multiple hits and offers that its characteristics include nationalism, a disregard for human rights, scapegoating “the other” as enemies of the state, militarism, sexism, using sympathetic media for one’s own purposes, invoking religion for political reasons, protecting corporate power while suppressing unions and workers, anti-intellectualism, an emphasis on “law and order,” corruption on a personal, family level as well as protecting class interests, and electoral fraud…..as well as many others. By those standards, then, every American president, and the large majority of elected officials, both Blue and Red, are fascists.
Now, in the abstract, that’s a point worth making, for political reasons. But it’s also kind of useless as an organizing principle. And most importantly, those characteristics are really describing Capitalism, especially the current neo-Liberal version that has departed from the more reformist Liberal Capitalism of the 20th Century. Again, yes, Trump crosses those traditional lines, but he’s a lot more “normal” than most Americans recognize. To single out and create widespread panic over his putative fascism lets everyone else off the hook.
Maybe the “resistance,” a poor term for people who hate Trump, should tap the brakes a little too, because ramped-up fear-mongering and shrieking are not useful political tactics.
Trump has countless detestable traits, but is he a fascist? Is he planning a coup? Does it matter what words we use to describe him and his actions if we all agree on how horrific he is?
What We Call Things
Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, observed that it gave him the greatest trouble
“to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are. The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for—originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress. and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin—all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body. What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such. How foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that counts for real, so-called “reality.” We can destroy only as creators. –But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new “things.”
Right now, less than a couple weeks before election day, that’s where we stand. The Trump-as-Fascist and Trump-Coup-in-Motion tropes have become reality to many on the Left and they are acting accordingly–“What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such.”
This is problematic, and dangerous, for a couple reasons. First, it’s not historically correct, and the Left doesn’t need to manufacture hysteria when reality itself is already radical. Fascism is a precise term with economic and political meaning, not some slapdash idea to be applied to horrendous and anti-democratic individuals whose unhinged tweets threaten fire and fury to those who stand in his way. It’s also not politically useful and perhaps (probably?) counterproductive because it shuts off a meaningful investigation into what brought Trumpism to fruition and how we can create a national discussion on it, while making it more difficult to reach some people who share the same class interests because they might actually support him.
Simply calling someone a fascist and then, even more, attacking people who won’t use that term, and insisting that a coup is afoot and deriding people who think otherwise, isn’t a very effective strategy to organize people toward a progressive, socialist, radical future.
The emphasis on Trump’s fascism distracts from the needed laser focus on Capitalism as the greatest barrier to class consciousness, liberation, and a radical political movement (and yes, there’s a true link between the two, to be discussed below) and it ignores the essential role that a powerful state plays in the creation of fascism. Trump is a bad capitalist whom, rather than dominate the state and manipulate it for his own fascist end, is in fact a weak manager who has used the state for his own family enrichment but actually repudiated it when a real dictator would have seized the mechanisms of state power to create a society more similar to Italy or Germany of the 1930s, or Paraguay and El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s.
Trump and the GOP are malignant, cruel, racist, oligarchic, and dangerous, not unlike but to a greater degree than their predecessors from Nixon to Obama. Their rhetoric is chilling and, most threateningly, they have unleashed people into the streets, some carrying AR-15s and openly advocating a violent response to protestors, Democratic governors, and Black Lives Matter activists, among others. This is all terrible stuff and no one should downplay it. But it’s also part of a transparent method of governance.
Trump and the GOP has been signaling everything they’ve planned on doing since the inaugural. It hasn’t been secretive. And it’s given people opposed to them more than plenty of time to prepare counterattacks….and they have. Compare the open resistance in America today to 1930s Italy or German, or the boilerplate Third-World dictatorships of the Cold War, and it’s far more dissimilar than not.
But first, the historical meaning of fascism (you can jump to the next section if you know this or it’s tl/dr)…..
Europe in the 1920s was still recovering from the Great War, with vast economic problems and post-Versailles crises regarding Germany and the Soviet Union. By the latter part of the decade, there seemed to be some stability on the way. In Italy the post-Great War labor movement was strong and conducted strikes and factory takeovers. At the same time, a political movement led by Benito Mussolini gained the support of the industrialists and large landholders and they linked together in ways similar to that envisioned in Herbert Hoover’s political program in the U.S., like trade associations and the evolution of “political Capitalism,” but with far more ominous consequences.
Mussolini promoted a form of corporatism that would be known as Fascism, in which various branches of finance, industry, and agriculture would form committees of government officials, the bosses, and, to a slight degree, workers to decide working conditions, productions, wages, and business codes— much like Hoover’s trade associations. In this vision, the state had a vital role to play in fostering certain industries and creating economic health—in fact, Mussolini invoked Keynes as a guide to his own economic theories. The Fascist Party was also financially backed by important firms in the electrical, agricultural, steel and iron industries and was supported by the Industry Confederation (Confindustria) and Joint-Stock Companies (Assonime), as well as having an important, and symbiotic, relationship with Italian banks.
Italian fascism, of course, also rejected democracy and liberty and Mussolini created paramilitary units to attack the unions, Socialists, and anyone else who went on strike, took over factories, or in any way rejected the corporate leadership of Italy’s economy.
The bankers gave loans to fascist groups to stimulate the economy and crush labor and the left, and the Vatican even gave Mussolini its blessing, in exchange for vast land holdings, with Pope Pius XI calling him “a man sent by Providence.” Mussolini was known as “Il Duce”—the leader, or dictator—and seized the role of Prime Minister in 1922. With this power he had visions of himself as a modern-day Caesar who would restore Italy to the glory of the Roman Empire. Mussolini in fact made the first aggressive moves in Europe after the Great War. In the 1920s, Italy began to create Italian East Africa, which involved the takeover of Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, as well as getting control of Libya in North Africa. Mussolini also had designs on Albania and the Greek island of Corfu, and seized Albania and brutally attacked Ethiopia.
Germany, of course, gets the most attention during this period, and rightly so. Barely a decade after its defeat in the Great War and at Versailles, the Germans were rebuilding and hoping to restore their traditional role as the most powerful country in Central Europe.
Germany had been devastated by the events of 1914-1919. Its costs for the war equaled two-thirds of its total national prewar income; its army and navy were drastically limited in terms of manpower, weapons, and materiel; and the Rhineland, a border region between France and Germany, was demilitarized. Germany had to accept guilt for “all the loss and damage” of the war, and was given a massive reparations amount to pay, and also told to make yearly coal deliveries to France, Italy, and Belgium to cover the destruction in those countries.
Yet, out of this destruction, the Germans rebuilt and remilitarized quickly enough to become the greatest threat to global peace by the mid-1930s. In the aftermath of the war, the Right and the Socialists competed for power inside Germany. The Left resented the reparations as much as anyone but advocated “fulfillment,” or making payment. The conservatives did not, and they seized power and began a policy of “passive resistance” in the mining industry, meaning that miners refused to work and thus produced no coal to deliver to France or others for reparations. But this caused economic chaos inside Germany as the government just printed money to pay the miners and other workers, which caused inflation to soar.
In 1914, a dollar was equal to 4.2 German marks; by 1923, it was worth 4.2 trillion. The harsh settlement at Versailles had indeed made matters much worse. Woodrow Wilson’s fears about the consequences of a harsh peace had come to pass. Politically, the economic crash and revanchism against the other western powers for what they had done at Versailles had greater consequences. In the mid-1920s Germany did reach agreements with Britain and France on borders and was admitted into the League of Nations, but when the global depression hit in 1929, the right-wing made major advances.
In September 1930 elections, the National Socialists went from 15 to 107 seats in parliament. The Nazis, like Mussolini in Italy, were advocates of fascism and restoring traditional military power. Most alarming, in January 1933, barely a month before FDR became president in the U.S., Adolph Hitler became the German chancellor. Hitler’s rise and ideas are well known—he blamed Jews and Communists [which he saw as virtually the same thing] for Germany’s postwar problems and began to steadily reverse the effects of Versailles and regain German glory, with Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland first in his sights.
He too organized the German economy around corporatist principles, with the state and big business (firms like Krupp and I.G. Farber, which were critical to Nazi survival, let alone success) established an economy along planned, rational lines (and hence created Volkswagen and the autobahn). Ironically, in 1933 economists and politicians in Europe and North America often compared Hitler’s programme to the New Deal of FDR, and Herbert Hoover described the National Recovery Administration, the key piece of the First New Deal, as “fascist.”
The West in particular feared that Hitler would get control of Central Europe and close it off economically to the rest of the world. Fascist economic policy was based on the idea of autarchy, a country having economic sovereignty, producing its own goods for its own consumption, and not needing commercial relations outside of its own empire. If the Nazis succeeded in establishing an autarchic system, then the rest of the West would have no access to German, and then Central European, materials, trade, or investment—which, again as Wilson warned, would create havoc and disrupt, if not destroy, the Open Door.
If German and Italian fascism [and similar Japanese policies in Asia] took hold, then the U.S. and others would lose access to huge parts of the world and the raw materials, labor, trade and investments there, and their own economies would be in even deeper trouble. More than anything, then, World War II was a war for the Open Door. And Hitler made those fears come true almost immediately. He withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and began rearmament. He also sent troops into the Rhineland and announced the Anschluss, or political union with Germany, for Austria. Within the next few years, remilitarization, Anschluss, the seizure of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia and then the whole country, and the invasion of Poland had led to the outbreak of another global war.
Fascism and the State
Fascism, as created and practiced in the interwar years, derived from a brutal and bloody Great War and devastating global depression, circumstances that have not been present at all in the past several decades (Great Recession notwithstanding). It had a heavy reliance on the support of corporations and a strong state. Given the needs of autarchic states like Italy, German, and Japan it necessarily led to military interventions in Europe, Africa and Asia, aggression that threatened American plans for Open Door hegemony.
And internally, crucially, fascism involved the bankrolling and political support of all the key economic sectors in Mussolini’s and Hitler’s states—finance, industry, raw materials, and services. It violently crushed unions and any quasi-Left or Left political institution, and it had the support of overwhelming parts of the people in those countries. There was no large resistance in the streets, no effective political opposition to challenge fascist programs, no media harshly attacking the government on a daily basis, no courts or local political bodies trying to upend fascist policies. And, most horrifically, arrests and eventually a massive holocaust against political and cultural “enemies” of Hitler and Mussolini took root.
Trump has no ideology, “no coherent theory of government,” as long-time GOP consultant Stuart Stevens said. He has no conception of what the state does, should do, or can do. He’s concerned with his own, and his family’s wealth and privilege, and does everything he can to extend it—especially by using his position to force the government to patronize his hotels and resorts, help out his cronies, get business concessions for his family, and use the state as a public relations service for the Trump brand. He has put 3 terribly reactionary Justices on the Supreme Court (typical for GOP presidents), fired inspectors general who were investigating him, and lobbied/demanded that cabinet members and judges do his bidding for him.
While “Make America Great Again,” tariffs, and abandoning transnational pacts and organizations is a sign of economic nationalism not unlike historically fascist states, it’s taking place in a world that bears little resemblance to 1933 and Trump’s autarchy (the word “populism” is simply historically inaccurate) does not have the support of crucial elements of the ruling class and has no ability to force itself on other countries. More to the point, he’s been no more aggressive than his predecessors in terms of overthrowing and intervening in other states, and where ideas like restoring the grandeur of the Roman empire or a Greater Germany were sine qua non for Mussolini and Hitler, Trump has alienated allies and, especially in his horrific mishandling of COVID, enhanced America’s primary rival, China.
Even when he’s taken a hard line—as in Iran or Venezuela—he’s blinked, calling off strikes in Iran (the Soleimani hit was as American as it gets) and lambasted John Bolton for being so hawkish on Tehran, famously skirmishing with him over sanctions and saying that appointing “an idiot like Bolton” was on of his few mistakes—”You don’t have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.” He even at one point floated the idea of talking to Maduro, but retreated when Joe Biden criticized him for it.
In fact, despite the groveling of GOP senators he’s repeatedly insulted like Cruz and Graham, there are people within his own ranks who have consistently derided him publicly, like Sasse and Flake (though their voting patterns fell in line), and there are big differences between GOP governors like Abbott and DeSantis, both hardcore Trump stooges, and Republican nominee in Utah Spencer Cox or the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts, Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker. In fact, there are now a large number of ex-GOP officials and party functionaries, the Lincoln Project most notably, running virulently anti-Trump campaigns and working for Biden’s election. That’s not indicative of any radicalism on their part, but it calls into question the idea that Trump has fascist control over his own party. In fact, Trump’s inner-circle now consists of family and 3d or 4th level hacks who are in those positions because anyone with experience or a little competence abandoned him long ago.
Fascists don’t get repudiated by the Party they control
Trumpism has been dismal and is foreboding, but, again, not in any way indicative of American fascism. Indeed, a real fascist wouldn’t be publicly pressuring state officials and the courts to help him out…..it would be understood and done implicitly. A fascist wannabe-dictator wouldn’t be attacking the head of the Fed, Jerome Powell, on Twitter, especially when Powell’s infusions of trillions of dollars into the economy have prevented its utter collapse for the past year.
A fascist would have a coordinated program for global investments and trade, not slapdash efforts to use tariffs to extract concessions from creditor countries and at the expense of domestic groups like farmers. And the motives for these moves, as with virtually everything he’s done, is personal—demanding cabinet members and court appointees to cover for him to avoid being sued or arrested or jailed in the future, perhaps. Or making him and his family wealthier. They’re not done with some kind of larger ideological/political purpose in mind. Trump is singularly focused on Trump.
When it comes to the actual exercise of power, and using the state to expand that power and assume dictatorial powers, establish a police state, or plan a coup to steal the election—as Left critics are warning about—there’s not much “there” there. Trump, despite his ugly rhetoric and the forces he’s certainly inciting in the streets, most recently the armed right-wing groups who planned to kidnap and perhaps kill the Governors of Michigan and Virginia (two states, not coincidentally, that Trump urged his supporters to “Liberate” in a tweet in the Spring because they had instituted mask rules amid the Coronavirus pandemic), has not utilized the power of the presidency in ways that a true fascist would. Compared to Mussolini and Hitler—and he’s compared to them daily in memes and articles all over the media—he’s pretty much a minor leaguer.
Trump can and has issued multiple executive orders on myriad issues, but in many cases the courts have upended them or, more importantly, as we saw this summer, masses of Americans in the streets shut just down his more alarming attempts to crush, or “dominate” as he put it, his perceived enemies. He’s done huge damage, but, not to be snarky, what president hasn’t? And the worst of what he’s done has been his handling of COVID, which has now killed over 225,000 Americans and wrecked the economy, and his biggest mistake there was doing nothing, not wielding too much power.
It’s indeed ironic (well, not really) that at the outset of the Coronavirus crisis, it was mostly Democrats and Liberals who were insisting that he declare a national emergency, expand COVID testing with federal mandates, and invoke the Defense Production Act to seize control of the production and distribution of PPE and ventilators and other resources necessary for the fight against COVID. But Trump denied it was even a problem, calling it, publicly at least, a hoax and claiming it would disappear in short time.
If ever there was an occasion to create a fascist state, COVID was it. Americans were in deep distress and fear over the growing case and death numbers of the virus, the opposition was actually clamoring for him to use his power more vigorously, and he could have accrued immense political capital by taking the pandemic seriously and actually saving American lives. He went in a totally opposite direction, rejecting the role of the state (though he did seize some supplies bound for states and then sold them to cronies who in turn profiteered off them), and taking an approach that was more libertarian than fascist, by a lot.
Not to be cute, but how is someone who won’t even make people wear masks a dangerous dictator or a Nazi-in-Waiting? Is calling on street thugs to “liberate” states that took COVID seriously a sign of fascism? And in any event about three-fourths of Americans disagreed with his personal views about mask-wearing, and while Trump clones in the statehouses in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and Ohio—to name a few places—went along with him, officials in New York, California, Oregon and Washington—to name a few more places—publicly, harshly opposed him.
Meantime, in his behavior that’s most cited by opponents to prove his fascism, his demands to dominate the massive street protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd murders, his rhetoric and action diverged significantly.
Yes, Trump sent unidentified federal troops to Portland and other cities, an alarming use of government force to attack people exercising basic civil rights. But looking beyond the surface of what he did shows a great deal of weakness and vacillation, and a ruling class full of fissures and uncertainties more than any kind of fascist regime.
Importantly, most of the violence inflicted on protestors came from local police, and, as Trump correctly noted, it took place in cities with Democratic mayors and Councils and for the most part in states with Democratic governors. Though he constantly attacked the likes of Ted Wheeler and Lori Lightfoot and Bill DeBlasio, they in fact had unleashed terror upon protestors by greenlighting their local police to viciously attack people in the streets. As terrifying as the Federal thugs in Portland were, they did nowhere near the damage of the NYPD or Minneapolis Police or the Chicago PD, among others.
And if you want a historical comparison, the 1960s uprisings were far bloodier, with 43 killed in Detroit, 34 in Watts, 26 in Newark, and 39 in the post-MLK assassination days in 1968. In 2020, there appear to have been about 20 people killed nationwide. And the repression of 2020 failed. Support for Black Lives matter and even for burning down a Minneapolis police precinct station was strong, and Trump’s attempt to pin responsibility on Antifa and “the radical Left” has failed terribly. Even Joe Biden pointed out that Antifa was an idea, not an organization, during the first debate. Imagine any politician saying that just a year ago……
Indeed, the mayors attacked by Trump, who were actually doing what he wanted them to do, attacking people for having the temerity to protest police violence, simply repudiated him. They mocked him as “bunker boy” and repeatedly tweeted that he should just stay out of the affairs of their cities. Local officials in fascist states would not repudiate the central government so openly and cavalierly without grave consequences, yet the U.S. mayors who did so are still in office and the states where the biggest protests happened are securely in the Blue column in the upcoming election.
And when Trump did make a huge power play—trying to use the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military into the streets—he badly overplayed his hand and suffered a huge political loss in the process. The Joint Chiefs of Staff did not want to be involved in a domestic political crisis, especially one involving race when about 40 percent of the armed forces are non-white, and they openly said so (for a detailed exploration of this, see my “Cracks in the Empire: The Military Says ‘Stand Down’ to Trump,” )
Fascists don’t get openly repudiated by their own generals.
Since then, even as he has openly instigated the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, QAnon, and other groups of violent right-wing thugs with deranged conspiracies , his own government, including the FBI and DHS, has rejected his descriptions of Black Lives Matter and Antifa as organized violent groups and have conceded that it was those very right-wing groups that Trump was encouraging to go into the streets and harm protestors who were the main cause of violence and the biggest terrorist threat to American society. The FBI has also broken up plans by violent white supremacists to kidnap elected officials. In fact, Trump’s main rallying cry to his supporters is that a “deep state” is making it impossible for him to make America great, an invocation of weakness on an epic scale.
To be redundant, fascists have control over their intelligence and interior services.
The Ruling Class and Instability and the People in the Streets
But maybe the biggest reason that Trump isn’t a fascist, or at least a competent fascist, or even “fascist-adjacent,” is that he’s alienated the most important group in any Capitalist or corporatist society, the oligarchy—the ruling class, the financiers, industrialists, technology chiefs, and virtually every other key economic sector. There is no analogue to Confindustria or Krupp or Farben in Donald Trump’s Washington D.C., nor even a Halliburton or Carlyle Group as in the Bush years. It’s just the Trump brand.
In fact, his relationship with those ruling class forces has always been tenuous. They supported Hillary Clinton with hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign money in 2016 and made peace with Trump because his massive tax cuts and deregulation enabled them to buy back stock and get cheap money for investment so their personal fortunes soared. It might be too glib to suggest they were keeping their enemy closer to them, but there’s some truth to that.
Trump, even when he was increasing their portfolios by billions, was never a stable force, and Wall Street and other cutting-edge Capitalists were always wary of him, and began to jump ship even before the COVID and Crash crises of Spring 2020. Now, with the U.S. suffering from systemic failures in public health, the economy, and politics—all of which Trump is exacerbating with his actions, or non-actions, and his unhinged tweeting and paranoid theories of enemies in the media and elsewhere—the oligarchy is much more than comfortable with Joe Biden, a long-time ally who never saw a corporate tax cut or giveaway or military budget or tough-on-crime law he didn’t like.
Biden and the Democrats have outraised Trump by many hundreds of millions of dollars, and the business press and even oil executives have made it clear they prefer his victory on election day. Indeed, Biden has raised over $200 million since March from just big-money donors, those who gave at least $100,000, about twice as much money as Trump has from similar fatcats. Donors from the securities and investment fields have given Biden five times more money than Trump. Senate races have followed the same pattern, with Democratic candidates vastly outraising their Republican challengers, including several GOP incumbents. Despite crocodile tears about campaign financing, the Democrats have dominated the post-Citizens United landscape.
Fascists don’t get financially outgunned by their political rivals.
The corporate community has also become vocal in discussing the need for stability during and after the election. Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan wrote in a memo about the election that “the peaceful and stable transition of power. . . is a hallmark of America’s 244-year history as an independent nation,” while a recent survey of portfolio managers found that their concern over the election was great than their fears about the economy or COVID.
Fitch Ratings even warned that a “departure” from the “well-understood rules and processes for the transfer of power” could cost the United States its perfect AAA credit rating and that “the potential for a disputed election result reflects deepening political polarization which could affect the next administration’s policymaking scope and how it approaches public policy decision making on key issues.” The CEO of software maker Expensify was the most outspoken, urging its 10 million users to vote for Biden because “not many expense reports get filed during a civil war.”
As the Financial Times saw it, the business community was sending a shot across Trump’s bow as traditionally conservative corporate groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and six others called for a fair election and patience in getting the results back–“We urge all Americans to support the process set out in our federal and state laws.”
Fascists don’t get spanked by the corporate business associations which, in fact, are what fascism is.
And it should not be lost on this discussion that these very corporations, which would be the central focus of a fascist state, have repudiated his response to Black Live Matters and the protests in the streets in the most visible way. Corporations like Wall Street Banks, Harley-Davidson, the NBA, Target and Starbucks, NASCAR even, have rejected Trump’s attempts to divide Americans and have donate mega-millions to “social justice” causes and organizations and repudiated his tweets and demands for street domination—especially his farcical and creepy march to St. John’s for a photo-op—in the most harsh ways. They’re choosing cooptation, not confrontation in the streets.
And, not insignificant in all this, is what Trump calls “the enemy of the people,” the media. While hysterical Liberals/Lefties cite his invocation of “fake news” and his attacks on news outlets and journalists as proof of his fascism, the enormity and continuing negative coverage of him actually is evidence to the contrary. Trump has always been a punching bag for comedians, talk-show hosts, television commentators, and even establishment columnists from the New York Times or Washington Post, and that has worsened throughout 2020, to the point where conservative columnists, court scribblers, are hailing Black Lives Matter and defending protestors in the streets who were getting pummeled by local police forces.
Fascists don’t get eviscerated by media and destroyed by comedians.
America in 2020 is in chaos, with millions of people now acutely aware of the failures of the state and the economy, and Trump’s behavior and policies only have made things worse. The ruling class craves stability, and hence has made it clear they will be happy with Trump’s departure. Indeed, from my personal perspective as someone who’s studied military and capitalist “dissent” for a long time, the way that generals and bankers and industrialists have publicly rejected Trump is unprecedented, and clear evidence that his “fascism” is a construction in the fevered minds of Leftists who, legitimately, fear and hate him.
And, most importantly, the majority of Americans has repudiated Trump, with many millions in the streets fearlessly challenging everything he has done in the biggest movements in U.S. history. From the Women’s March and spontaneous eruption of protests at airports when he instituted a Muslim Ban, with his utter failure to build a wall amid great protests, to massive disruptions of town hall meetings to preserve the ACA, through the 2018 midterms where his alarmist claims of a “caravan” of migrants was just dismissed, to the K-Pop Stans and Tik Tok kids monkeywrenching his Omaha rally, to the massive rebellions of 2020 involving not just BLM activists and anti-Fascists but nurses and a Wall of Moms, Americans have not been afraid to take direct action against Trump. It’s more than telling that his attempt to transition his campaign theme to “law and order” has even been an abysmal failure.
And while there has been a harsh, and at times violent response, it has not been anything like the internal security of a genuine police state—when the protests began in late May, many Americans were terrified that massive bloodshed, police with live rounds, and massive roundups was likely—but despite the brutality of the police, the reaction of the state was not at the level of what a real fascist would do, by a lot. More than anything, the people in the streets have exposed Trump’s weakness and unpopularity. Mussolini and Hitler didn’t hide in bunkers, at least until the Red Army and resistance movements with big Communist contributions, made it impossible for them to survive.
No More Coup Shit!
In the aftermath of the ouster and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in southern Vietnam in 1963, the fictive country of the Republic of Vietnam was in utter chaos, with about 12 different governments in the next 16 months. At one point, Lyndon Johnson had enough and told his advisors “no more coup shit.” Well, today in the U.S. many people on the Left are in DefCon 1 about Trump staging a coup and refusing to leave office. Their fears are not innately illogical or unfounded; they are overwrought and based on fear and emotions, and sometimes unhinged.
When the media asks him to commit to transition, Trump always defers and offers ominous threats, but given his political situation—wildly unpopular and far behind in the polls with GOP senators going down with him—it’s a way to instill fear, intimidate voters, create chaos, and try to suppress voting numbers in numbers we’ve never seen before. But this fear is one of the very few tactics Trump has left—he knows how to put the Democrats and Liberals in a panic and it’s his go-to ploy, and it throws bloody meat to the MAGA crowds. During a recent rally he even said, “you really drive them crazy if you say 12 more years. Then they say he is a fascist.” Trump’s claims that the election is rigged against him or refusal to commit to leaving office are like a ball of string to a cat for the Democrats. They can’t quit swatting it and getting exercised by it.
But staging a coup isn’t easy under any circumstances, and it’s really hard when you’re terribly unpopular and far behind in the polls, with even people in your own party starting to gingerly create distance between you and them. First, the idea that Trump will refuse to concede is irrelevant. Concession speeches are a nicety, but have no legal standing. Another piece of the liberal panic over the election is that Trump will declare victory on the evening of November 3d, and Fox News will run with story. Again, that’s a tactic, not a law, and there’s great question if even Fox, which has recently been on the receiving end of irate Trump tweets, would go along with such a scheme.
If people are afraid that a Fox News declaration of victory is all it takes to keep Trump in office, then they should also believe Hydroxy with a Clorox chaser will cure COVID. Surely Trump can send his lawyers to court to stop vote counts or deny absentee ballots and the like, as the GOP did so successfully in 2000, but unless a particular state’s final tally is only a few thousand votes apart, that become virtually impossible. And Trump’s election machinations, per the point above, would create immense instability, and as the great economic historian Adam Tooze has pointed out, for the business community “the greatest fear, of course, is of a disputed election, which would shake US institutions to their core.”
Right now, Trump is falling further behind in many key states and despite long-term GOP efforts at vote suppression, new voter registration and early voting numbers are off the charts—a bad sign for Republicans. If Biden and Democratic candidates for the senate win with big numbers and in states that were once reliably Red, then he doesn’t have a lot of ammunition left. Members of his own party have spoken out more definitively, with Senators like Romney (predictably), McConnell, Thune, Portman, and Rubio quickly disagreeing with Trump’s refusal to pledge to leave office by insisting that there would be an inaugural on next January 20th for the election winner. Of course, GOP senators have offered soothing rhetoric for 4 years without standing up to Trump, so their assurances are hardly dispositive of their intent.
But Trump knows that he’s sinking and he has for some time. In June, at the height of the street rebellions, he told a Fox interviewer “certainly, if I don’t win, I don’t win,” and if he were to lose, “you go on, do other things.” On other occasions when he’s offered more rational answers to the question of leaving, the media has downplayed it, preferring the spectacle and alarmism of a Trump-induced crisis to a more reasonable examination of the issue. In the past week or so a staple of his stump speech has become a lamentation that if he leaves he will never return to that state again, or even that if he loses that he might have to leave the country (Trump’s fear of legal action after he leaves office is real and should be). He’s been ruminative about post-presidential life and his guru, Steve Bannon, has even suggested that if he loses this year, he’d run again in 2024.
Just today, October 21st, his National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien addressed the question of Trump losing office and said “If he loses, of course he will.” With the usual caveats, O’Brien explained “If he loses the election, I’m certain the president will transfer power over, but we’ve got to make sure there’s no fraud in the election and we need to make sure it’s a free and fair election, just like we demand of other countries overseas, we need to make the demand of ourselves.”
And most Americans, by big margins, oppose Trump’s rhetoric about refusing to leave office. Overwhelming, polls show that Americans are going to accept the results of the election—83 percent of Democrats and even 74 percent of Republicans. At the same time, the FBI has reported that there is no real evidence of widespread vote fraud—a finding consistent with every study done, including Trump’s own commission on electoral integrity—and various courts and legislatures have backed down from taking measures to facilitate a “coup.”
Pennsylvania Republicans have given up on plans to create an election commission to determine the outcome of the presidential ballot there, and even the Supreme Court has now upheld a Pennsylvania decision to allow votes to be counted up to 3 days after the election in a suit brought by the GOP, while the state Supreme Court there has rejected a GOP challenge to the state law that says ballots will be counted even if signatures don’t match. Trump is now hysterically demanding an investigation into Hunter Biden, attacking Anthony Fauci, and threatening to fire his chief puppet, but also the brains, as it were, of his operation, Bill Barr for not being adequately aggressive in going after political enemies and finding some way to stay in power.
In fact, for some time now I’ve been suggesting, only half-jokingly, that Trump hates being president and was tanking the election. He’s never thought or acted rationally, but defending white supremacists, ignoring a deadly pandemic, tweeting like a teenager on a Red Bull high, wasting political capital by defending Confederate base names and statues, attacking scientists as “idiots,” making blatantly racist overtures to “suburban housewives,” trying to eliminate payroll taxes and thus gut Social Security, refusing and then demanding a relief plan, and so many other incomprehensible things he’s done and said surely do not have the fingerprints of an effective or avid campaigner, or even a lucid and sane person, let alone a strongman or a fascist.
We can still expect him to try to cast the election in question, lawyer up to challenge the vote in key states, and encourage street thugs to intimidate people voting in Democratic areas. That’s anywhere from bad to terrifying, but he’s been telegraphing this for so long that there’s no excuse for the Democrats or other agents of resistance to not be prepared for it and have plans to resist it.
There is, however, one great threat that has to be taken seriously and addressed—the continued presence of armed right-wing groups in the streets, many of who have ominously said that they are prepared to violently challenge a Trump loss, and, as noted above, have already planned, and been arrested, for plots to kidnap and/or kill the governors of Michigan, Virginia, and Ohio (who’s a Trump Republican at that).
Trump has incited these people, and as we have seen this year, they have a synchronous relationship with local police forces, and especially police unions. And Trump surely has encouraged this, famously telling cops that it was okay to rough up suspects they were arresting. Yet, these groups do not have the size or capacity to actually negate a Trump electoral loss, but they do have the ability to harm or even kill a lot of people. QAnon is real and growing, the Proud Boys are protected by cops, Kyle Rittenhouse is a heroic figure to the violent Right, and so it goes on. These are real threats, and they won’t be gone on November 4th or January 21st……
Democracy is in the Streets
The odds are good that Trump will not go gentle into the good night on November 3d, or 4th…… Fortunately, there are activists all over doing more than hand-wringing and demanding political purity on the fascist question, people who are planning for any kind of electoral disturbance with massive street action. Should Trump try to refuse the results of the election, there will be, without question, an immense American rebellion, almost assuredly bigger than what we saw in June and July.
Nothing would be more unstable to American society than civil disturbances unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. But Trump cannot count of the military to protect his position, and most Americans, even people voting for him, will not be willing to risk their own bodies to preserve his presidency. The next few weeks could be ugly and worse than anything we’ve seen, but it’s really more likely that Trump would win the election than he’d lose and somehow manage a mass disturbance to stay in power, and neither are a good bet.
Resistance and Defiance have always been Trump’s weakness. Alas, the Democrats, the Washington Generals of Politics, as I have dubbed them for years, have always trafficked in fear and panic and distraction rather than taking him on in real time. They’ve searched for Hail Mary plays like the pathetic Muller-Russia investigation or the bizarre impeachment based on “obstruction of congress” among other things. But people in the streets and on the shop floor and in hospitals and medical facilities have stood up to Trump and exposed his weaknesses time and again.
One could write many pages using adjectives to describe how awful and cruel and ignorant and racist and bigoted he is, but ugly tweets and racist rhetoric, and even urging people to take their weapons into the streets, doesn’t make someone a fascist. The exercise of state power in sync with the ruling class and military and the repression, and thus absence, of public opposition is what makes fascists.
Fascists don’t get forced into their bunkers by street protests.
Fascists hold rallies like Nuremberg, not Omaha.
Fascists actually dominate the streets, not just talk about it and get ridiculed by mayors on Twitter as “bunker boy.”
Fascists use a calamity like COVID to cement their power, not refuse to attack it as a federal issue.
Trump has been detestable on so many levels, and it will be difficult to fix American society—and Biden and Harris aren’t exactly the best people to have that responsibility—but weakness, fear, panic and hysteria aren’t the way to confront the problem. Calling Trump a fascist, declaring American fascism, shrieking about a coup daily, and attacking people who don’t agree with those descriptions….well, that’s probably about the worst way to confront Trump.
Anger and defiance and resistance and direct action will stop Trump and his allies and also put pressure on a Biden administration (not in a “force him to move Left” way—he’s currently talking to Republicans about cabinet posts) by staying in the streets, organizing teachers and Amazon workers, and nurses and doctors and students, and demanding defunding of the police and going on strike rather than return to COVID-infested meat processing plants and classrooms.
Throughout 2020, there’s been rebellion all over, big cities and small towns in places like Ohio, Idaho, even Texas, and The credible threat of massive street action if he tries to use extrajudicial force to grab the election will force the ruling class to get Trump out of there. The people will defeat Trumpism, and then whatever comes next. Less fear, more “fuck you.”
Does It Matter What We Call Things?
There’s no question that virtually everyone on the Left has similar thoughts and feelings about Trump—he’s a loathsome and cruel individual who scapegoats certain groups and incites violence. But beyond that, there are key parts of the attack by Liberals and the Left that need to be addressed, especially with regard to these huge fears about Trump’s alleged fascism and the likelihood of some kind of election disruption or a coup.
To be clear, many, most really, of Trump’s most odious actions fit firmly within the traditional exercise of ruling class power—recall that Obama was derided as the “Deporter-in-Chief” and xenophobia has been a bipartisan tactic for decades and every national crisis has included a subsequent panic at home–from the Filibusters after the invasion of Mexico, to the KKK after the Civil War, the Sedition and Espionage Acts under Wilson, to the Red Scare and Sacco and Vanzetti scandal after the Great War, to McCarthyism in the Cold War, to COINTELPRO in the 1960s, and DHS and the Patriot Act after 9/11. Hardcore repression of domestic dissent is as American as cherry pie, and Trump’s just carrying on a family tradition.
His call for repression in the streets has evoked imagery from Obama’s handling of the DAPL protests. His military budgets are received warmly, with virtually no votes against them. Even his expansion of the surveillance state, derided by Left activists, has been approved by most Democrats, while his foreign policies—which are arguably less aggressive and bloody than Obama’s and his other predecessors—have widespread support in Washington D.C. The Patriot Act, recall, was only opposed by 1 Senator and 66 representatives.
Having said that, it’s not hard to recognize that Trump is a different kind of cat, who has created non-stop anxiety and misery since January 2017. But what is gained by not only calling him a fascist and describing him as the gravest threat in global history, or at least in current times, and attacking others who refuse to use such words and ideas to characterize him? I guess I’m now an “asshole ‘radical left’ douchebag who goes around posting and publishing denialist bullshit based on the absence of full on parallels with the Third Reich [whom] disgraces themselves [sic] and pollutes the discourse with ahistorical drivel.”
Nietzsche was appropriately troubled that what we call things is more important than what they are, that the appearances we create become their essence of the thing described. But it is even important to have a debate over whether Trump is a fascist, or whether he should be called a fascist? We all agree on the horrid and dangerous nature of his administration and him personally. Why argue over the specifics of our analysis of his presidency?
Trump has caused widespread derangement, especially among Liberals and segments of the Left. People are obsessed with his tweets, his bizarre boasting, his medical advice, his utterly callous and cruel approach to immigrants and African Americans and people in the streets, his nonchalant attitude toward caging children, and so many other toxic words and actions. And they should be.
But this often-myopic and often-hysterical focus on whether he’s a fascist or not, whether a coup is likely or not, whether he’ll leave office or not has paralyzed far too many people from taking effective action. Instead of defiantly organizing against him, most people live in fear of him, yet there have been huge organic and rebellious acts of resistance throughout the past four years. Shrieking that he’s a fascist about to steal the election empowers him, it’s his oxygen. It gives him super-monster status, makes it seem that he has some larger plan for creating a dystopian police state, which, despite the horrors of 2020, isn’t reality. He’s not an evil genius—he’s evil but hardly a genius, not competent even.
He hasn’t been able to dominate the state and is shedding support from the ruling class. He’s never been popular and, barring the greatest collapse in election history, is sure to lose to Biden. He has made America worse, surely. He has played a huge role in creating the current mess—principally through his utter failure to handle COVID in even a half-assed way and the consequent economic crash, which was inevitable anyway given the trajectory of neo-Liberal politics in the post-Great Recession era. He’s followed in the footsteps of his predecessors more often than not.
He’s appointed retrograde judges that will harm women and minorities and make voting harder and give corporations more power. But laws can be changed, protests can upend programs, people can form mutual aid groups and create networks to provide abortions and sanctuary for immigrants. There are ways to get into the streets and change America, which would probably be more effecting that relying on elections and a geriatric, wealthy political class to do it.
He has unleashed and legitimated violent extremists, people in the streets carrying Confederate and Swastika flags and AR-15s and they’re not disappearing soon. But even then, he’s flushed them out rather than subtly encouraging them and allowing them to remain in the shadows. Trump did not create the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or Patriot Prayer and other similar groups. He’s more “normal” than Americans want to admit. Trump has made the United States less safe for too many people and has made life more miserable for those who already were mired in misery. But he’s also been weak and vacillating and has been repudiated time and again, by his own class and by the people.
Encouraging panic and fear by insisting that fascism is imminent begets more panic and fear, and people will cower in the corner rather than confronting him in the streets. Instead of raising alarm that he’s going to refuse to leave office, his opposition needs to make it clear that there will be an election, he will lose, and he will be gone. The Left doesn’t understand nearly as well the idea that you can create your own reality. Instead of constantly inducing stress with ominous warnings about what Trump will do next to solidify fascism in America, people opposed to him, and the Left in particular, need to present a defiant and affirmative approach–“he’s on the run so let’s finish him off,” rather than “he’s a fascist and he’s not going to leave office.”
He’s done a lot of horrible things but he hasn’t created American fascism—if anything, he’s organized and mobilized more people to take direct action against the state than the Left collectively has in decades. At the same time that he exhibits the worst authoritarian tendencies, he’s provoked a more democratic society, one willing to not just speak truth to power but go to the streets to confront power at the point of repression. As I write, Left groups are making plans to confront Trump on election day and whomever is in charge going forward. While Liberals slept through, or apologized for, Clinton and Obama, they’re now emboldened to take direct action and are far more likely to continue that on January 21st, 2021 than they were on January 21st, 2009.
So what we call things is important. Trump’s time is coming to an end, and the Left needs a cold-blooded analysis of what just happened, how it fits within a larger framework of class and political interests, and what to do going forward to get out of this mega-mess we’re in. Ending the obsession with fascism and taking action and being angry becomes the essential first step.
Professor Robert Buzzanco is a professor of history at the University of Houston. He specializes in, writes about and talks on the Vietnam War era, military-civilian relations, foreign policy, Vietnam, radical social movements, economics, and other stuff.