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Trump and the Fascist Prospect, by John Hinkson

The socio-cultural conditions of the collapse of liberal democracy

To say the least, the Trump administration has encountered serious resistance in its first five months, from social movements on the street to, more significantly from a power perspective, resistance from what can be reasonably called the bureaucracy—what Steve Bannon refers to as the deep state. This is so especially if we include in that term the judicial institutions that have not allowed Trump’s orders to restrict the movement of Muslims and also the intelligence institutions, some of which are publicly in opposition to Trump’s claims and appear close to seeking his downfall. There have been real defeats in Congress as well, as concerns mount. When these multiple forms of resistance are combined with reflections on Trump’s erratic behaviour, his lack of organisation, his impulsive egotism channelled through never-ending declarations via Twitter, it is tempting to conclude that he cannot last. Some speak of impeachment, others ‘positively’ of a falling into a form of ‘normality’ brought into being by the crippling of his administration by the vibrant surrounding institutions of US democracy.

Certainly nothing can be ruled out, but this kind of ‘positive’ outcome is by no means certain. Trump is a fighter. While idiotic often enough, his style, as master of the counter-punch, suggests that behind every humiliation will be a potential fight-back—a surprise that will help shape the emergence of another form of power. As Mark Danner comments in the New York Review of Books (NYR), Trump centres his concerns on a theme of America First, with a direct focus on trade, immigration and terrorism. Erratic and contradictory on particular policy expressions, he nevertheless returns again and again to these master themes. They are not just rhetorical, based as they are in what I will argue is a fault line of contemporary social life. There are reasons that they will not go away.

Further, despite initial setbacks, there is real reason to think that Trump may be able to master the institutional constraints upon his actions as president. This is certainly the view of Henry Ergas, regular commentator in The Australian, because of the power of the presidency and the impossibility of closing off all ‘non-moderate’ options via institutional means. Mark Danner in the NYR is more specific. In his view Trump has already laid the basis for an attack on the judiciary because of its resistance to his orders against the movement of Muslims. If there is a significant terror event in the United States the judiciary will be blamed and, given the way these events work in closing down complex thought processes, the judiciary, Congress and intelligence institutions will be cowed into submission. And then a different political logic will be in place. In the state of emergency that follows, one can expect ‘suspending all entry of refugees, widespread deportations, tightening of immigration, surveillance of Mosques, the construction of a Muslim registry…’. Other possibilities also suggest that the future is not at all clear.

As Danner says, ‘Trump uses chaos as a vital element in his tactics, perhaps having learned during his long career to capitalise on the chaos that his recklessness, ignorance and aggression inevitably create’. By this point his ‘political drama will have been elevated from a battle against elites and the status quo to a heroic struggle for the survival of the nation’.

These few words easily introduce the theme of whether his approach can be properly regarded as fascist. Plenty of people have called him a fascist—as a kind of swear word—but I want a more deep-going comment on this question, based in a proper consideration of historical fascism and the kind of social circumstances that allowed it to thrive.

Historical fascism: a few themes

Fascism was a movement or many movements with a common core that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century: it sought to create a ‘third way’ between the social choice of the day between Marxist/socialist movements and liberal democracy. Unlike Marxism, fascism as well as other more conventional right-wing organisations was a consistent critic of the Enlightenment traditions, which of course included the political institutions of liberal democracy, and also the radical individualism that it typically advocated. It was disaffected with the general themes of modernity—change, growth and progress. There were many anti-Enlightenment movements throughout the nineteenth century, but what made the big difference in the 1920s was the actual crisis of liberal democracy, especially in Europe and even more intensely in Weimar Germany. In other words, liberal democracy was unable to respond to the multiple social and economic crises that threatened to engulf it.

Immobilised by these crises, it was incapable of defeating fascism, which advocated stepping outside liberal democratic institutions while at the same time using existing state structures to seize power. The history of fascism, especially in Italy and Germany, entailed a drawn-out power struggle until the liberal institutions were emptied of their meaning and largely or completely defeated. This includes the deep cunning of a Hitler who attacked his own Nazi institutions, in the form of the extra-legal terroristic activities of the SA, in order to secure his relations with the power institutions of the day. Here one must include the judiciary, the bureaucracy, intelligence and the armed forces. All had to be neutralised: not in the sense of destroying them but by allowing them to feel secure—to feel that they had a valued place within the fascist general order. Massive expansion of the armed forces was one element of this. In this regard there is a lot of resonance with the present power struggle in Washington, although it must be granted that Trump, for the moment, is stirring institutional resistance and may not be able to achieve neutralisation at all. But, as Danner says, do not take this for granted.

Many historians are of the view that without Marxism there would be no fascism. This was especially relevant to the German situation, where the Marxist-socialist forces were very powerful. The National Socialists put in enormous efforts to emulate socialism (but with an emphasis on nationalism) as an ideological strategy to engage working people. By and large they were not successful and practically speaking they relied on ‘middle-class’ support, including from intellectuals, and significant rural support. It would have to be said that the situation today is radically different, with a significant collapse of practical working-class movements, and from this point of view it could be concluded there will be no fascism. But this approach is too mechanical. And, if anything, working people are now more inclined to go over to Trump-like movements, given the failure of global concepts of development—‘progress’.

Another facet of fascism is its taking up of the new technologies of the day and the embracing of speed as an opening up of a new world. This was not a doctrinal matter so much as an exploration of the irrational. There were many aspects to this, including the cynical welcoming of the mass movement by employing new media and largely treating the individual in the mass as someone to be manipulated. Here, as with Trump, the individuation made possible by the media—in his case Twitter—allows other means of communication to be bypassed. It is not well known, but these possibilities are not new to the United States. In 1930 in New York and elsewhere in the United States there were huge mass gatherings led by leading Italian fascists—gatherings that celebrated the New World that fascism promised. Certainly the fascist leadership principle—leader and mass that bypassed democratic institutions—was facilitated by these media and Trump shows every sign of at least seeking to emulate this. It is a central element of his struggle with established media institutions.

Twentieth-century fascism was also in the irrational mode. It had no sympathy with, or even capacity to engage in, rational explanation. Its orientation towards the mass and action rather than reflection excluded serious engagement in debate. In the practice of government it stepped outside the institutions of the day and combined mass performance with extra-legal means that were a form of government by terror and violence. By its resort to shock tactics, by its embrace of the new, by its utter disrespect for the institutions of the day and by its resort to arbitrary actions, it created a kind of permanent revolution—a situation where the everyday was in constant turmoil. In such circumstances people in the everyday lose their stable reference points. This means that they lose their capacity to judge and act. This is a theme I will return to.

Finally, fascism was racist, nationalist and imperialist in the extreme. It exported its internal crises onto other nations. This was strongest with the Nazis. But we should remember that Enlightenment traditions more generally combined high philosophy with exceptionalist self-regard as well as quite extreme forms of racism and imperialism. Conventional categories contrast the Enlightenment with fascism, but it is more complex: fascism merely continued the ‘hidden’ side of Enlightenment practices, viz bestial policies towards non-Enlightenment cultures—especially Indigenous cultures—around the world. Hitler admired the slaughter and crushing of the Indigenous peoples in the United States and spoke of it as a model of how to treat Jews and Slavs in Europe. He developed plans accordingly, only some of which he was able to act on because of his defeats.

At least in this respect fascism was more shaped by the Enlightenment than it would wish to acknowledge. Lacking a practical rational critique, it was trapped within Enlightenment assumptions and its orientation to action descended into an intuitive resort to thuggery and worse.

Crises: then and today

It is one thing to have a reasonable feel for the practices of fascism in the twentieth century, but it is the underlying crisis of the day that is critical if we are to grasp how fascism emerged as a kind of social movement and practical reality. It was not simply a function of individual power figures. The broad crisis was based in the collapse of empires and the social transformations that found an expression in the First World War and the unfolding difficulties of capitalism that allowed many to experience civilisation to be in crisis. Certainly there was a collapse of the quite developed global processes of the nineteenth century. By the 1930s, of course, this culminated in the Great Depression, but the crisis was more than an economic crisis. Liberal democracy was immobilised. There was widespread uncertainty and fear about the future, and social institutions barely worked. While Germany had its special features, there was widespread support in Europe generally for the fascist ‘alternative’.

It is this type of general crisis that is needed if a Trump phenomenon is to be more than the emergence of an erratic and impulsive authoritarian (with dictatorship potential). In other words there needs to be a broad social context that could support movements that not only attempt to break out of the institutional constraints of the day but have so little respect for them that they could resort to extra-legal practices. It would have to be a crisis that produces widespread and profound disaffection with society as it is, while having no sustained rational development of institutional alternatives.

I do wish to make some points towards such an argument. It is noteworthy that the media just accept the reality of what it calls, dismissively, populism, as though this name explains anything other than opposition to contemporary political leadership. That is useful as long as the critique of political leadership is submitted to inquiry and not simply seen in personal terms. A Marxist approach would immediately speak about gross class inequalities, which of course has a lot of truth in it. Let me start somewhat differently—with globalisation today—while acknowledging the seriousness of the inequality argument: for thirty-five years now we have pursued a particularly rabid and certainly unprecedented form of globalisation that is a product of social choices made possible by new technologies. It has come into serious crisis since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Apart from being in crisis because of the GFC, it has also caused new forms of crisis by virtue of how it works in practice—expressions much more powerful than prior historical globalisations.

If we take the global market and the technologies that support it, plus the technologies it promotes, there is a revolution that we read about every day to the point of profound boredom. Yet it is a boredom that does not really take the revolution seriously. Why are we still surprised when people react and in desperation elect a Donald Trump? It is a revolution that has been emerging in stages for thirty years. It continues to gain momentum. It culminates in the destruction of local economy and the manufacture of global refugees. In the extreme it gives support to terror, and, as the strategy of robotisation unfolds, precarious employment and mass unemployment. Because of the way globalisation today expresses a more abstract market form—the old market combined with more powerful technologies that bypass face-to-face social relations—the relations of the generations are fragmented. As such there is also a collapse of social meaning. This is further reinforced by the capacity of new biotechnologies to reconstruct biology. What we formerly took for granted about Homo sapiens and humanity’s place in nature is now open to being reconstructed. As Geoff Sharp often put it, we move from the exploitation of nature to its transformation.

Here I wish to return to the theme of permanent revolution of the everyday: this is a more profound form of permanent revolution than twentieth-century fascism ever had at its disposal. We are inundated by transformative practices. Fixity—so important to our sense of security in everyday life—is abandoned at every level of our being. We begin to lose our place in the world. So while we do not have the same phenomenon as the Great Depression, we combine the GFC with global phenomena that produce much more than an economic crisis: an unfolding cultural crisis that frustrates our capacity for social meaning. It is not difficult to see how Trump’s focus on America First, trade, immigration and terrorism resonate with a disturbed and dispirited public that the media have foolishly tried to reduce to supporters who are white, unemployed, male workers.

In these circumstances political categories—even Left and Right—begin to look unconvincing because they have lost their links to a familiar history as well as their deeper settings in nature. Loyalties and affiliations fragment; increasingly they are fleeting. The association of growing numbers of workers with ‘populist’ movements on the ‘Right’ grows. This is the crisis of liberal democracy today. It loses its familiar form and efficacy. In the everyday, people lose their respect for politicians who actually seem to inhabit another world. What Sartre called ‘nausea’ is widespread.

But the crisis of liberal democracy is also evident in its incapacity to govern when faced with new problems such as climate change that erupt from transformed nature—problems that actually place our social future at risk. This is another discussion, but climate change is a problem of our new way of life in general. Climate change requires a systemic response—it is beyond anything liberal democracy could ever respond to. When the era of economic growth, which first emerged with the rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century, must come to a permanent end, certainly a technical fix will not do.

Institutional revolution

But globalisation is after all a particular institutional strategy that has a context. This is not a simple matter of the enhancement of capitalism by some technologies. The circumstances that produce the cultural effects that leave us vulnerable to fascism II are a product of an institutional revolution that took hold of capitalism and launched it onto another level after the Second World War. The institution that makes the difference is the university—itself renovated by high technology. Capitalism supercharged by the revolution of intellectual technique gives birth to a new world, one that takes hold of nature and takes it apart through a more abstract practice.

The intellectual revolution also transforms the nature of our social relations; they become more abstract because technologies mediate between people. Social media are an example that we all know: others no longer need to be a presence for us—they are absent, as it were. Here at Arena we, following Geoff Sharp, speak of this as the emergence of a new level of abstract social relations. Older social relations based in presence as well as place continue to exist, but the new, more abstract level under globalisation expands continuously and weakens both presence and place in our lives. No doubt this carries positive opportunities, including the opportunities explored by Trump via Twitter, the opportunity to engage in gene replacements and the opportunity to join the trails of mass tourists all over the globe. But as our humanity has always been a construction predominantly of social relations of presence and place—knowing, sensing, touching and seeing others in our world, crucially sustained by the structure of generational relations—we are led towards the possibility of a post-human future. This future is not only unknown but loses its grounding in the tangible world.

In both Europe and the United States (not to mention many other parts of the world) the change disturbing voters is thus far more general and runs deeper than the loss of industry or the exporting of jobs. Such losses are real and very disturbing in their own right, but globalisation also brings the deeper consequence of the dissolution of tangible life-worlds, leaving families and communities bereft. This is the real fault line generating the permanent revolution that sustains the emergence of a Trump.

While Trump may be an aberration as a personality and his presidency may well fail, the point is that the circumstances that allowed him to emerge are produced by a deep conjunction of institutions that will remain unchanged even if Trump disappears.

As it has been argued, it is these new social relations that eat away at the foundations of our humanity. In the everyday, people look around and increasingly can no longer see a recognisable social world. Distressed, they turn against those political leaders who are undoubtedly in part responsible for carrying them here. In despair and sometimes brutalised by their experiences, they mistake the likes of Trump (and Hanson) for true leaders, even though these populist politicians have no insight into what has caused the earthquake in everyday life. At best these politicians do no more than mirror the pain of those around them and then clutch at a grab bag of radical policy choices. At worst they exploit this pain to support their political career.

The dangers of this kind of ‘leadership’ can be illustrated through the migration theme: certainly we should be able to debate policy and reshape political actions around migration. But this needs to be done in the full knowledge that contemporary migration is unique. This is because it is a function of emergent global social relations that encourage generalised movement with little respect for place—hence, also, the phenomenon of mass tourism. To block it by fiat, without a deep change in how the system functions, is predictably explosive. Very careful institutional modifications are needed. But don’t rely on a Trump for such a development.

This is similar to the dilemma of twentieth-century fascism, with its theme of ‘blood and soil’. Blood and soil can be a dangerous rhetorical political strategy. It can also be a straightforward way of saying that place and generational relations are important. But, in the irrational mode fascism and fascism II adopt, this can only be a black and white choice—that is, a choice against modernity or abstract social relations in favour of the historical Volk or the concrete community. A rational mode is able to see this in terms of social balance and to pursue transformations that, while still being transformations and necessarily disruptive, can be less explosive and less grounded simply in deep emotion.

The dilemmas and needs are real. The question is: how can we have a substantial political response that takes those needs seriously and at the same time does not destroy us?

Twentieth-century fascists were not born fascists; they were formed in processes and through practical responses. Crucially, the fault line in contemporary society is not going away, and it will do its work in the formation of political actors today. To the degree they seek to radically bypass democratic political institutions they may seem like fascists. But they will be fascists II, not twentieth-century fascists. They are a product of similar and also different social circumstances. For what it is worth, I think this is our reality today. Whether it evolves to include the wholesale nightmare of twentieth-century fascism remains to be seen. But we have reasons to worry, and to not be complacent.