“Forgotten men and women”. “Struggling families”. “Mothers and children trapped in poverty”, not “sharing the wealth” of “the establishment”.
On one reading, Donald Trump’s inauguration speech is full of left wing imagery and ideas. So much so that I have seen it explicitly suggested that it was the kind of speech that Bernie Sanders might have given. Following his rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership as one of his first acts, the tendency to “give him a chance” is even stronger.
It strikes me that this is a misguided response, born of an accurate and important analysis of the political circumstances that led us here today, but falling for a classic fascist bait and switch.
Trump diagnoses social and economic problems that the left focuses on, correctly understanding that inequality and unfairness have reached breaking point across global society. But he then smartly misdirects this anger away from its true target – Wall St and other American capitalists systemically and systematically ripping off and impoverishing poorer Americans, aided and abetted by governments – and towards the easy and convenient right wing targets of scary foreigners, people of other religions and races, “liberals”, and governments which support them. His solutions, dressed up nicely with infrastructure funding and some old-fashioned protectionism, essentially seek to build an ultra-corporate, hyper-military, violently oppressive, fortress America.
And that language, too, permeates this inauguration speech. There is absolutely no way Bernie Sanders would have delivered a speech so riddled with jingoistic religious nationalism.
With its repeated call of “America First” – a phrase lifted from 1930s fascist and Nazi sympathiser, Charles Lindbergh – and its exclusionary patriotism and its demand for “total allegiance” and its declaration of a plan to “eradicate from the face of the earth” “radical Islamic terrorism” the speech is full of fascist, militaristic language.
It’s important to clarify here the distinction I make between Trumpist fascist politics and the tradition of conservative Republicanism. That tradition has been for a generation an uneasy alliance between small government economic conservatives and religious right social conservatives. Each of those used elements of the Trump playbook, blaming government and blaming the “other” for all kinds of social ills. Each of them is also, however, uncomfortable with large portions of Trump’s agenda.
Already, for example, he is being attacked from the conservative (as opposed to extreme right) end of his own party who want government to get out of the way of big business while his agenda is to actively put big business in control of the levers of power, turning government into an arm of the corporatocracy.
While conservatism is at heart about freeing the individual from government control, Trump takes the recent tendency of right wing politics towards enabling control of individuals by corporations instead, and runs with it. Indeed, there is very little individualism left in Trump’s vision. There is a deep thread in his speech of subsuming the individual to the nation: “We are one nation… We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
There is a deep thread in his speech of subsuming the individual to the nation
While conservatism has sailed close to the wind, Trump’s fascism takes politics to a whole new place in terms of disdain for democratic norms and constitutionality, rejection of any criticism from a free press or opposition parties, and direct encouragement of social violence. It is impossible to imagine either of the Presidents Bush, let alone Bernie Sanders, calling for their political opponent to be jailed, suggesting protesters at rallies should be taken out on stretchers, or failing to call out a surrogate who called on supporters to be ready with torches and pitchforks. Similarly, while complaint about the status quo is common to many political philosophies, the cult of victimhood that pervades Trumps speech and politics is a defining feature of fascist politics.
In this context, Trump’s subsuming of the individual is not, of course, the same concept of unified community that the left seeks to build. Far from a group coming together for mutual support, it is the mob, primed and ready to incite.
Trump’s fascism is more in the style of Mussolini than Hitler, but, in being a form of authoritarian, violent, exclusionary corporatocracy, it is fascism.
There’s a lot going on here. A lot we should fear and a lot we need to understand. In order to best do so, I think it’s worth teasing out three separate (but obviously deeply inter-twined) questions that too easily become conflated:
- firstly, there is the question of understanding the phenomenon of how Trump came to be elected;
- secondly, there is the question of how he is likely to govern, now that he has been elected and sworn in; and
- thirdly, there is the question of how we should respond.
I mentioned above the “accurate and important analysis of the political circumstances that led us here today” that I think have led some on the left to misunderstand Trump’s speech. There are deep currents of class, race, culture, money, the socio-political decay of the USA, one might say, and the utter failure of the “liberal political class” to understand any of this or campaign as if it mattered, underlying the question of how Trump came to be elected. The idea that he was elected on the back of a conscious public swing towards the extreme right, towards racism and misogyny, is rightly critiqued.
However, just because Trump wasn’t elected on the back of a conscious lurch to fascism, it does not follow that he is therefore not likely to govern in a fascist manner. He’s given every signal, frankly, that he will. His statements and policies, his tweets, his appointments: all point towards autocratic, militaristic, racist, exclusionary, hyper-corporate government, giving extraordinary power to the already rich and powerful and keeping those in the middle happy by punching down hard on those even worse off. Like many fascists before him, he rose to power on the back of many quite reasonable complaints, but deliberately misdiagnosing their causes and solutions. This is the classic extreme right bait and switch – blaming poverty and inequality on a combination of the political class and scary foreigners, rather than the combination of the political class doing the bidding of capital. It’s a tried and true copybook he’s followed to the letter.
Finally comes the third question – what do we do now? How do we respond?
My answer is to bring the answers to the two previous questions together. We must, of course, understand and address the underlying trends that led to Trump’s election. Responding as if they were not real or reasonable will only cement the hold of the extreme right by showing us as out of touch. But we must also be very clear about the seriousness of what we face, and the critical importance of facing it down, rejecting false and dangerous solutions.
I don’t think it’s a contradiction to respond to Trump by acknowledging that he correctly identifies deep deep problems, and that a few of his suggestions (infrastructure, blocking the TPP, for example) are ideas we can support, but that his broad approach is not just wrong but dangerous. He is directing anger and attention away from capital, where the problem lies, opening the doors of the hen house at the highest level to the foxes, and tearing apart the social fabric by sowing hate and division.
The great challenge is to ensure that, in identifying Trump’s politics as fascist and responding in a manner appropriate to that, we do not immediately cause his supporters to become defensive, feeling attacked by association. How do we prize them apart, encourage them to stop identifying with him?
While I don’t pretend to have the whole answer to this, I believe it lies in exposing him – and allowing him to expose himself – for what he is while also resisting him every step of the way, and, crucially, presenting real solutions to the same issues. Elements of all of these are well in train, from the extraordinary Women’s Marches and the disruption of J20 to the building of true sharing economies, worker cooperatives and much more.
Donald Trump – not most of those who voted for him – poses a terrifying threat. We must respond to his voters with understanding, support and real solutions while responding to him with strength and courage. I believe we’re clever enough to do that. Let’s give it a go!