Trump and Fascism in America
The election of Donald Trump makes it clear that we have an urgent need to engage in explicitly anti-fascist organizing in the United States.
For far too long we have ignored fascism as a fundamental threat while the Left has scattered its efforts in too many directions without a coherent organizing strategy. It’s time to stop chasing the “bright shiny object” or the outrage de jour and get to work.
Without question, the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency will be the most polarizing and violent period of American history that we have seen in 50 years. The Trump campaign reinvigorated and revitalized Far-Right and white supremacist groups across the country. And a Trump presidency will both give them cover and provide a stage for their politics and organizing. Unfortunately, we are also seeing similar trends in Europe.
There is little time to lose in confronting the fascist threat.
Both the Far-Right and the Trump campaign are capitalizing on a wave of Right-wing populism. This is not new in the United States.
We have seen it before in the “Know-Nothing” movement, pro-Nazi groups prior to WWII, and racist organizations opposing the civil rights movement. Where this Right-wing populism comes from is obvious.
We are living through decades of massively increasing economic inequality and wage stagnation which pose very real threats to the standard of living of middle- and working-class Americans.
In addition, it has become increasingly apparent that the political elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties are thoroughly corrupt and totally unable to respond to the concerns of the masses of Americans. This discontent takes a particularly pernicious form because we live in a structurally racist society based on a hegemonic understanding that minorities and immigrants are to blame for the problems inherent in capitalism.
Trump and the Far-Right offer a convenient balm.
They promise us national rebirth with slogans like “Make America Great Again.” Inherent in that slogan are racist, sexist mythologies which divert attention from the contradictions of capitalism and blame massive socioeconomic dislocation on “others.”
The focus on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference allows the creation of a false target which must be vilified, attacked, and even eliminated while still protecting and nurturing the real cause of social misery.
The appeal to essentialism and the “othering” of those who are “different” is an easy political position to sell in a country whose economic “greatness” rests on massive theft of land and institutional slavery.
Contradictory economic programs like protectionism and government stimulus programs to provide jobs to “worthy,” “pure” workers are at the heart of fascism. Fascism also attacks the inherent failures of the political system by promising to end “tolerance” and corruption and promising restoration of a mythical greatness which never existed.
Nationalist ideologies are at the core of fascist ideology.
Fascism does not represent a break from liberal democracy. In fact, it exploits the reactionary hegemonic underpinnings that prop up liberal democracy. In liberal capitalist democracies, racial hierarchies, authoritarianism, militarism, and citizenship by birth are basic principles. Fascism simply seizes on these principles and emphasizes them, making them cornerstones of the Nazi slogan, “Blood and Soil.”
Fascism in no way represents a break from capitalist society.
It’s authoritarianism and racism simply temporarily ameliorate the many crises of capitalism while protecting the basic social relations of a capitalist society. That’s why, as we saw in this election, conservative elites can support Far-Right racists/nationalists.
The Trump campaign emphasized fascist themes like nationalism (“Make America Great Again”), racism (“the violent inner city”), social exclusion (deport immigrants and exclude Muslims), and the threat of the use of force (“law and order” and sexual violence against women). Trump is idolized by white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and groups supporting patriarchy like the Beta-Uprising.
His votes came largely from those in the middle class who find themselves downwardly mobile; reactionary capitalist elites; and the fascist Right. Trump’s election has allowed white nationalists and fascists to come out of the shadows. What had been small, declining, unconnected fascist groups are now creating new alliances and meeting to reinvent themselves as the Alt-Right.
Let us be clear that the Alt-Right is the fascist Right. They are looking to both the electoral system and the streets to expand their power.
It is also important to remember that these groups are building upon the basic characteristics of liberal democracy.
After all it was a “liberal” Bill Clinton who presided over an apartheid policy of mass incarceration. It was the “liberal” Obama administration which made Republican Presidents look merciful in terms of mass deportations. It was “liberal” administrations who carried on the war mongering, militaristic policies of the elite Right.
The point is that Trump and the far Right do not deviate very much from the oppression inherent in all capitalist societies.
Trump does represent a dangerous extension of that oppression in less polite language. But capitalism is in worldwide crisis and Trumpism is nothing more than an exaggeration of the norm. In fact, a tendency toward fascism is the most powerful weapon that a capitalist elite still possesses.
Organizing for Defense
Progressive groups need to clearly understand that levels of political violence from the Far-Right will escalate. Under the cover of a Trump administration the fascist Right will spread and will re-organize themselves. Physical confrontations, street violence and vicious threats will be more frequent and more intense.
This is not a time for “healing” on the Left. It is not the time for holding hands and singing Kumbaya. There can be no debate on the need for the Left to adopt a strategy of militant anti-fascism.
The Far-Right intends to attack ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQ folks, and the Left opposition. Make no mistake about it, fascist groups will have the tacit and often overt support of the police and the national security establishment.
We have an obligation to defend ourselves and others from violence. We have an obligation to prevent fascists from gaining power. And the first step is to force Far-Right organizations off the streets; to isolate them; to disrupt their organizing; to confront their political allies; in other words, to smash them before they gain power.
The Left needs to organize to defend our communities from fascist attacks.
It is time that we organize self-defense and firearms training both for activists and for the community at large. Anti-fascist organizations should have trained cadres within them to organize and carry out self-defense actions when required. This is particularly important in communities beyond the cities and universities where the left is better organized.
This all may seem to be a draconian over-reaction, but the fact is that people have been injured and arrested when confronting neo-Nazi and KKK groups. Confronting fascists is important and forcing them to retreat is vital. But, a better organized and trained group of marshals or self-defense cadre likely could go a long way to prevent unnecessary arrests and injuries most of which occur in a moment of chaos.
Organizing for the Future
Fascism is a cancer, a cancer inextricably interwoven with the capitalist system.
In order to deal with the immediate pain, we have to organize militant anti-fascist groups. But anti-fascism itself is a temporary treatment, a reaction to an immediate threat. Anti-fascist organizing cannot relieve the basic pressures and pains that push some people toward racism, misogyny, and ultra-nationalism.
We simply cannot out-violence the fascists.
Anti-fascist self-defense is only one tool available to organizers on the Left. Larger mass organizations are required to attack the maladies that leave societies susceptible to fascism.
Fascism nourishes itself through the fear and insecurity engulfing capitalist societies in perpetual crises and a plague of unending contradictions. Economic woes and insecurities create susceptible and vulnerable audiences for the Far-Right.
The fact that a majority of people in the United States are confused, frightened, and unable to formulate any useful ideas to protect themselves and their families is fertile ground for the Far-Right.
Anti-fascist organizing is only one small part of a larger strategy which should both provide social support in the face of a disappearing welfare state and provide a meaningful alternative to capitalism.
Leftist and progressive community organizations should directly address the pains and insecurities of capitalism in late modernity. Organizers should focus on food distribution networks, community gardens, tenants’ unions, free clinics, and educational projects. Confronting hunger, housing crises, education, and healthcare builds good will and provides openings for more in-depth organizing.
If we are able to combine community assistance with a strong argument about taking power to control our lives, we will be able to network community organizations into what will eventually become a strong radical movement nationally.
Community efforts allow people to see themselves as having a meaningful role to play in a much bigger effort to totally change the current political and economic system. If we are successful we will provide a sense of security and a tangible feeling of power that emanates from actually playing a role in making radical ideas become community realities.
One major problem with progressive organizing is that it is located in reasonably comfortable environments, particularly university campuses and large cities where Left groups are strongest. It is essential that we begin organizing both in communities of color and in economically ravaged white communities.
The widely circulated idea that Trump’s support is primarily located among poor whites is just wrong.
Two facts from the exit polls tend to refute these ideas. First, Trump lost voters whose household income was under $50,000 by 11 percent. That same group gave Obama 60%. Clinton was weaker with only 52% but Trump was only 3 percentage points stronger that Romney (41% to 38%). Second, Trump did about the same as Romney among white voters (58% Trump, 59% Romney).
Race is, of course, a difficult variable, but it is a little difficult to argue that people who switched from Obama to Trump were simply hardline racists.
There is no doubt that Trump’s campaign was clearly and loudly directed at white identity politics, while Romney and McCain were far subtler in their racism.
One area of serious concern for leftist organizers is the fact that Obama won union-households by 18% (once again belying the white-worker myth) while Clinton carried those same households by only 8%.
The real problem is that political involvement in poor communities is very low. Most people making $30,000 or less a year don’t vote and political party affiliation among working class whites has been on a steady decline for decades.
This is really important because it means that the first organizing efforts to effectively address working class white communities will have a major impact on whether progressives or the far right gains a foothold in those communities.
Extremely depressed voter participation in Appalachia, specifically West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee is an indicator that aggressive community organizing could have a major impact. It is also especially important that in those communities, organizing includes an anti-fascist component. Remember these are the communities where the battles for unionization of the mines was fiercest.
Building powerful Leftist organizations in working class communities and denying the Far-Right the ability to organize should be a priority.
Finally, although clearly anti-fascist organizing and progressive organizing should be directed at working class neighborhoods and rural communities there is also an opportunity to engage with social democratic groups, particularly those mobilized by Bernie Sanders, as a way of reaching out to allies in middle income communities.
An alliance between radical local organizing and social democratic electoral campaigns not only offers the opportunity to reach more people but also promises greater protection against fascist predations.
The Sanders campaign raised important issues on a national basis. If we can’t figure out how to make use of those issues, we aren’t very good organizers.
So, for the moment let’s set aside arguments over tactical and political purity and organize around the one thing we can all agree on, opposition to fascism.
They shall not pass.
Gary Potter, School of Justice Studies, Eastern Kentucky University