Twentieth century European fascism had six characteristics: populist rhetoric, economic nationalism, alliance with the corporate elite, military action in pursuit of economic goals, the scapegoating of popular sectors that are ethnically and/or religiously different from the majority, and the use of violent gangs to violently attack the targeted ethnic/religious groups and political opponents. As we have seen in this series of posts on the Trump administration, Executive Orders and public statements by the Trump Administration indicate that the first five of these components are emerging as central to the Trump project.
Fascism is an emotionally loaded term, and some argue that we should not use it. But the word “neo-nationalism,” currently in vogue among commentators, is problematic, because it implies that nationalism is a negative force. However, when nationalism is combined with a spirit and practice of internationalism, it is a progressive and positive force, as the nations of Latin America today are demonstrating. On the other hand, fascism is widely understood to be evil, and at the same time, the similarities between Trump’s project and twentieth century European fascism should not be overlooked. So I am inclined to refer to the emerging project of Trump as an incipient neofascism. I say neo-fascism, for it is a new form of fascism that includes leadership roles for women and people of color, in accordance with post-1965 rules of equal political and civil rights for women and minorities. And the new form of fascism manipulates rather than intimates: it relies much less on violent gangs and much more on a sophisticated public discourse. Although attacks on immigrants and Muslims are likely to rise during the Trump regime, scapegoating and the silencing of opponents will be far subtler and more advanced than the dynamics of Germany and Italy in the 1930s and early 1940s.
But we should understand the Trump neofascist project in the context of the evolving political culture of the United States. There were five key historic moments that established the foundation for the emergence of the Trump neofascist project.
(1) The turn to imperialism in 1898. During the nineteenth century, a battle for the soul of the nation raged. It was a moral battle of ideas, with focused on the advantages of domination and others on the promise of democracy. On the one side, there were those economic and political forces that forged the conquest of new territories, the expansion of slavery, and the systematic denial of the rights of people of color and women. On the other side, there were the hopes embedded in the breast of the people and expressed by the eternal words of Thomas Jefferson, proclaiming that all men and women are endowed with inalienable rights.
With respect to foreign affairs, the nation decided on its character at the end of the century: it would be an imperialist nation, seeking to control the markets and the raw materials of other lands. The strategy was for the nation to insert itself in the expanding world-system, not as a colonial power, but as a nation able to influence the political affairs of other nations and penetrate their economies. It began with the U.S. military occupation of Cuba in 1898, and it became more systematic with Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” foreign policy. It depended on military force, but it required above all a strong productive, commercial and financial capacity. Embarking on the imperialist road, the nation established a permanent contradiction between its promise and proclamation of democracy and the conduct of its foreign policy. Imperialism would be a constant in U.S. foreign policy, from McKinley to Obama. Even the administrations of progressive presidents (Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Carter) would be marked by the imperialist stamp.
(2) The establishment of the permanent war economy in 1945. Even though the United States from 1898 to 1941 became increasingly involved in Latin America, the growth of its military was constrained by an isolationist political culture. But World War II changed political attitudes. U.S. auto and steel industries were mobilized in the war effort, and the military-industrial complex emerged. Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned the post-war reconversion of the war economy to peaceful economic development. But national economic dependency on the war industry had been established, and the reconversion envisioned by FDR would have required enlightened and effective political leadership. But the administration of Harry Truman turned to the policy of the containment of communism through a strong military, based on the false claim that the Soviet Union had an expansionist foreign policy. The nation embarked on a forty-year Cold War and a permanent war economy.
(3) The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The false premises of the Cold War ideology led to the tragedy of the Vietnam War, which fueled popular movements with anti-imperialist discourses. But the movements were guilty of strategic errors and excesses, giving rise to reaction among significant sectors of the people. The result was the election of Ronald Reagan, master of a simplistic conservative discourse. Reagan reversed the tendency toward de-emphasis on military power that had influenced U.S. political culture as a result of the Vietnam War. His escalation of the military budget, in conjunction with tax cuts, quickly converted the nation from the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation in the world. Seeking to overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the government invaded the government of the small Caribbean nation of Grenada, quickly overcoming military resistance.
Reagan also adopted a discourse that represented a subtle form of racism, attacking “Welfare Queens.” This was consistent with the “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party, which was inspired by the 1968 presidential campaign of George Wallace. As governor of Georgia, Wallace had attained national fame when he dramatically defied the federal government’s concessions to the civil rights movement, proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But in his presidential campaign, he did not talk about race per se. Instead, he criticized the welfare program, and he maintained that the legal system was soft on crime. He insisted that he wasn’t talking about race, but no one could misunderstand the message: the government is too indulgent and too soft on black folk.
Thus, in the Reagan era, there was a renewed militarism, and there emerged a public discourse that attacked social programs and excessive government bureaucracy with a hidden agenda of containing the gains of the African-American movement. Cast aside were the hopes of the popular movements of the 1960s for a nation that protected the social and economic rights of its citizens and that turned from imperialism to cooperation with Third World governments of national and social liberation. The nation settled in to a culture incapable of reflecting on the meaning of democracy or of responding constructively to the sustained structural crisis that the world-system had entered.
(4) The 1989 invasion of Iraq, the first fascist war. Iraqi nationalism had historic claims to Kuwait, which it viewed as an arbitrary creation of the British colonial office. But the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait meant that its petroleum reserves and exports were no longer controlled by a reliable U.S. ally, and the Iraqi military move also was perceived as a threat on neighboring Saudi Arabia, another reliable U.S. ally with significant oil exports and reserves.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1989 had a character different from previous U.S. military interventions. It was different from the U.S. military interventions and occupations in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua from 1898 to 1932, which were undertaken by an ascending power that had not yet established the necessary structures for domination of Latin America. It also was different from the direct U.S. military engagements of the period 1950 to 1965 in Korea, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic, which were military actions against nationalist forces that were threats to the neocolonial world-system. These military engagements were undertaken by a neocolonial power at the height of its hegemony, for the purpose of preserving global structures of domination. In contrast, the U.S. military invasion of Iraq was undertaken by a declining hegemonic power, seeking to ensure its access to raw materials, which it no longer had the economic strength or political influence to ensure through non-military means. It therefore constituted the first fascist war unleashed by the government of the United States.
(5) The permanent “war on terrorism,” 2001 to the present. Whereas the United States has had a permanent war economy since 1945, it has been in a permanent state of war since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Under the “preventive war” doctrine of George W. Bush, the United States claims that it is justified to attack any nation as a preventive measure. The policy was continued by the Obama administration, in spite of some tendency to use “soft power.” The United States has been continually at war since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq and against clandestine terrorist groups. Military expenditures have been increasing annually.
At the same time, U.S. presidents from Reagan to Obama have developed and implemented neoliberalism, a project that undermines the sovereignty of Third World governments, attacks the impoverished peoples of the Third World, abandons the people of the United States, and ignores the good of the nation. Rather than an enlightened response to the sustained structural crisis of the world-system, which began in the 1970s, the U.S. power elite since 1980 has aggressively defended its particular interests. Meanwhile, the Left has not offered a politically effective alternative project, rooted in universal philosophical historical social science, with the consequence that the people have been left in confusion. The abandoned and confused people have responded to the scapegoating, narrow nationalist, and militarist discourses of Trump.
The foundations for the neofascist project of Trump have been a long time in the making. They include the development of imperialist policies since 1898 and of a permanent war economy since 1945. And they include since 1980: an increasing militarism, subtle racism, a banal public discourse that obscures the economic decline of the nation, news reporting that does not know the meaning of analysis, the emergence of a permanent war on terrorism, and a Left constrained by the limitations of the political culture.
Each of the five historic moments of 1898, 1945, 1980, 1989, and 2001 represented a decisive step away from the promise of democracy powerfully articulated by Thomas Jefferson. Trump represents a sixth historic moment in this descent toward fascism: an escalation of the scapegoating rhetoric, the move toward a narrow economic nationalism, and the adoption of a populist rhetoric that casts Trump and his team as defenders of the people against the corporations and the media.
The Left must reflect on its failure, made evident by the emergence of the Trump neofascist project, and reconstruct its discourse. This will be the subject of the following posts.