Two of the editors of Wrath-Bearing Tree engaged in an email debate about how to properly define Donald Trump. We believe that labels and definitions do matter. Adrian Bonenberger held that Trump was a despot and Clinton was the real fascist. David James disagreed and proposed that Trump is no less than the first American Fascist President. Here is the discussion in full:
Adrian: Maybe I’m wrong about this? But especially as I’m in the middle of Dos Passos’ “USA” trilogy right now which bears testimony to the underbelly of Wilsonian Democracy, and also given my experiences during Sanders’ run in the primary and on top of everything we’ve always said about the US, I don’t think—I could be wrong, but I feel pretty confident saying that America has basically been a fascist country (minus the dictator—the least important component of fascism, the kind of example a fifth-grader would use to prove that technically the sandwich was a snack so he hasn’t eaten dinner yet) our entire adult lives. Fascism is how a country operates when the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants excitedly agree to organize themselves around a superficial identity like nation or culture, and confirm that organization through internal and external aggression, often military conflict against some enemy or another. It has its own circular logic (German values are Human values and Human values are German values), and is driven by blind confidence in the redemptive power of struggle as demonstrated through technological advance and superiority in war. It’s futurism, it’s a car with lines and curves, it’s an ME-109. It’s not abstract—it’s concrete like a train, or a group of policemen knocking on the door dressed in Hugo Boss uniforms. It’s sexy and demands submission. It’s a truth so great it requires not just adherence but love – it brooks absolutely no dissent (dissent is the enemy or other, and that is what exists to be fought against). I really don’t think I’m cherry-picking when I echo the punks in saying “fascist America.” We have a very refined form of fascism which doesn’t even need a dictator—the beloved leader is whomever is elected. And if we don’t end up loving that leader, we just elect a new one who does the thing we excitedly want.
Hillary Clinton was the fascist in this election. She stood for that American order. Enemies of the Democrats were identified and vilified using smear tactics and outright lies—reputations were ruined, labels were attached. I saw the use of language eroded in Orwellian ways by Clinton and many of her supporters. I watched as the institution protected itself from a candidate who promised serious reform. That happened in the Democratic primary. All of the things a majority of Americans seem to be feeling now I already processed in May. Welcome to the party, I guess.
Donald Trump is something totally different. Trump, I would say, is a despot—a Nero. Someone whose understanding of himself is purely selfish, and has absolutely nothing to do with an organization or institution. He will want gold pillars and absolute respect, and what he will turn America into as Leader is either—nothing, he’ll be impeached and fail—or an Empire. Trump is no more or less dangerous than Clinton—he’s differently dangerous. Clinton wasn’t going to embrace BLM—she was going to marginalize it by elevating the most pliable leaders to positions of power and making every chief of police in America black, a superficial and spurious committment to justice to parallel Clinton’s superficial and spurious vision of America. Black people would still die in disproportionately high numbers. Maybe higher. She would have clamped down on transparency beyond the damage even Obama has done, and worked to make Facebook, Google and Twitter more responsive to the government—that was her shtick, Silicon Valley, arm and arm, a brave new world. This isn’t counterfactual history. This is what she stood for from day one. As for meaningful financial reform—well, I suppose anything is possible, maybe she would have gone against the interests that backed her.
Trump doesn’t want to be the leader of a movement. Trump doesn’t want "America" to succeed, "America" is a convenient opportunity for him to enrich himself. Just as we can say because of history and fact with absolute certainty that nothing would have improved under Clinton—and may have gotten a bit worse in the ways that things have been getting worse for humans for a while—we can also say because of history and fact with absolute certainty that Trump’s only priority over the entire course of his career has been self-aggrandizement and the accumulation of wealth and adulation.
Fascism is sophisticated, far more so than most people give it credit for. It’s something that beat democracy on its own terms during the 1920s and 30s. It energized many of the smartest and ablest people in Europe and abroad, and helped drive extraordinary works of art and philosophy. It’s not a caricature of villainy—the way we like to think of it, Mussolini doing his silly pose, or Hitler during a speech when his hair flops around. It’s intricate and moves with the efficiency of a well-oiled and lovingly maintained BMW. Things weren't always this way in America, but today, we are citizens in a fascist country.
Trump, I think, is twenty muscular slaves from Nubia, carrying him on his movable throne down the broad thoroughfare while people wave at him, hearing the praise, hearing the taunts of "Burns" as "Boo-urns."
The threat to fascism is probably something we last had a chance of defeating in the 1960s—this represents a new opportunity. But the fascism is how things are, it’s not how they’ll be under Trump. How they’ll be under Trump is despotism (if he gets his way). At the moment, what I’m seeing in the Democratic party – the way people are rallying around Sanders (a guy who won’t, I think, betray peoples’ confidence) gives me hope that we actually have a chance, now—there’s an opening. The fascists have dropped their guard, because they’re confronted with the thing that exposes fascism as cartoonish and evil. The shouting man, bad-hair guy.
This is why I am not disappointed by the election’s result—rather, astonished and delighted. The system is flawed. There is hope. And a bunch of comfortable fascists woke up two days ago and had to confront that reality. I'm sad that many of my friends and family were affected by Trump's election – powerfully so – but I'm also relieved to find them back where they should be, in a trench with me, fighting the real evil.
David: Adrian, I understand your argument, but have to disagree on a lot of it. Mostly has to do with labels, I guess. You're using 'fascism' in a way I wouldn't agree with. I would say something like 'neoliberal consensus'. In one way the labels don't really matter, but in another way they're everything. In America, it turns out, identity is everything. Especially racial identity.
I also think fascism actually does require a very clear leader. America has never had a fascist leader. Despite the flaws of Obama, a country that elected him two times by millions of votes is not a fascist country. Trump may certainly act like a Roman emperor despot, or a caudillo, strongman, dictator, authoritarian, tyrant, or whatever other label we give. According to all evidence he will also be our first or closest experience with real fascism. I'm also not sure how sophisticated it is and you claim, versus just vulgar and contradictory. Let’s discuss that Umberto Eco article from 1995 about ur-Fascism and see if it matches with your formulation.
Adrian: So rather than call America "fascist," according to Eco's formulation, it's probably more accurate to call it "authoritarian with fascist tendencies." Clinton herself is not a fascist – she's an authoritarian, someone willing to manipulate democratic institutions to increase her authority. I've said for over a year that Clinton's desire for authority would break the system, and it's possible that it has. I think claims of Trump's fascism are overblown – he still seems like an old-school despot to me, content to rely on family and friends for advice, uncomfortable delegating power outside his coterie.
It'd be incredible if he appointed any of his children to be members of cabinet or ambassadors. That'd be great evidence of despotism.
David: Personally, I don't think we can call America "fascist" because it is a diverse collective of people. We can only call individuals, and groups of explicitly like-minded individuals, fascists when they meet the criteria.
I have another problem with your Clinton definition. I don't see why she is an "authoritarian" more than any other typical politician. I'm by no means denying her faults as a person or politician, but I don't see how you can make this leap.
On Trump, I would love to believe that the claims are overblown, but at a certain point we have to rely on the evidence we have been given. It is very probable that he has no real policy positions of any type, and has only manipulated the media and the people in order to win. But even this is a clear example of fascism, à la Eco. It is of course possible that Trump will merely rule as a typically corrupt Latin American-style caudillo, content only to enrich himself and his allies and receive adulation from his subjects, while not otherwise challenging our basic institutions like rule of law, the Bill of Rights, and human rights. Keep in mind that Trump is inheriting the strongest executive powers ever, thanks to the security apparatus constructed by Bush and Obama, and a totally compliant and cowardly Congress.
Going back to Eco, he gives a list of 14 points that comprise "ur-fascism". As far as I can tell, Trump has already clearly demonstrated at least 12 of these points, and maybe all of them. I struggle to find more than a couple that could possibly apply to Clinton. Do we agree on the validity and soundness of Eco's definition? And if so, do you interpret this list differently than me regarding our two would-be presidents?
Adrian: I do accept Eco's definition – fuzziness and all – it's a great guide. His caveat of the "game" was particularly interesting and useful. 1 2 3 4 – where 1 has nothing in common with 4, but 4 still ends up resembling 1 because it's part of a series – this, I think, is where I made my leap from authoritarianism (not autocracy) to fascism with Clinton.
To make sure I've understood properly – Eco is saying that fascism is what happens when all 14 of the things he mentioned are happening in concert, and that when certain elements are lacking, that it's something different?
Beyond the 14 points described by Eco, fascism seems to be a relationship between one particular leader and his (thus far, only his) followers. Not just how the state manifests its power, but how people interpret that power and see it applying to themselves. Eco mentions this at several points: the obsession with death in Fascist military or political organizations, how people conceive of struggle and identity, even their definition of enemies. Eco sees it almost more like an emotional state akin to "grievance" (not his words).
The way Clinton's campaign arrogantly crafted the Democratic primary and kept candidates out through incentives or intimidation is, to me, evidence of that Clinton would have behaved like an authoritarian (or maybe that she was one, period). There was no room for dissent or dispute during the primary or during the election. If this is true for other politicians, that means they too have authoritarian tendencies. D.C. is full of that specific type of servility – "shut up and listen to the boss, you" – one of the things I liked about Sanders' campaign was how it opened dialogue in the party, how it became the legal paper read aloud in court, into the record.
Many Clinton supporters – all of the most enthusiastic supporters – treated Sanders and his supporters as apostates, and sought to have them destroyed or discredited. On Twitter, there were brutal things said – monstrous things. They had no interest in seeing anyone but their candidate, or even considering other candidates. That is not democracy – in democracy, one is supposed to consider the various candidates on their merits and choose from among them. Having a preconceived idea of who the candidate should be and ceaselessly championing that candidate is what Russia does. I suppose you could make the argument that it is a cynical form of democracy wherein people vote only according to the most narrow interpretation of their interests.
David: Thanks for clarifying on Clinton. Now I understand how you have reached your conclusions. I still would totally disagree, however. I do not see her as either fascist or authoritarian, or even particularly sinister. She is an ambitious woman who pushed the limits of the political system to become president, but I do not think she is particularly more dishonest or corrupt than any random elected politician. I even think she would have been much more progressive than most people think, and much more than her husband, due to the pressure on her from the much more active progressive movement these days. There was a long primary election in which Sanders obviously attracted more enthusiastic support, and I know that we both supported him personally. In the end he lost the primary to Clinton, with some assistance from the Democratic Party elite. I think we can agree that our entire system needs urgent reforms in terms of how we choose our leaders and who is allowed to choose, but I don't blame Clinton for these problems.
Back to Trump. No, all 14 features do not have to be present to constitute fascism. Eco says: "These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." (Italics mine)
I think we can agree that Trump has demonstrated more than one. For the record, I will spell out the features from the list befitting Trump:
- cult of tradition (“Make America Great Again” slogan)
- irrationalism (rejection of science and knowledge)
- action for action's sake (acting without thinking, rejection of intellectualism)
- rejection of analytic criticism and disagreement (painfully obvious)
- fear of difference (racism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, white supremacy)
- appeal to frustrated middle class (unrealistic promises to bring back industrial manufacturing in the so-called "Rust Belt")
- obsession with a plot (they have a different conspiracy theory for every day of the year, and Trump is allied with some of the most notorious right-wing conspiracy theorists out there like Alex Jones)
- feeling of humiliation by the wealth and power of the elites (one of the dominant themes in the Republican Party, which is led by "elites", is anti-elitism)
- pacifism as trafficking with the enemy and life as permanent war (Trump has no military knowledge or experience, but he lauds violence for its own sake and happily condones violence against his critics and announces support for torture, bombing civilians, and using nuclear weapons)
- popular elitism (the followers of the leader are part of the “chosen strong elite”, superior to everyone under them in a rigid hierarchy)
- machismo (Trump is a quintessential macho chauvinist asshole, despising women, "sexual deviants", and weaker, less virile males). Eco's remarks on this aspect is too good to not quote in full: "Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise."
- selective populism (Trump claims to speak for “the People”, who only ever speak with one collective voice; any dissent is illegitimate)
- Fascism speaks Newspeak (Trump speaks at a childlike level, does not read books, and cannot express any idea with any shade of nuance or complexity)
By my count, Trump fully displays 13 of the 14 traits of "eternal fascism". And that was only the businessman and candidate version of Trump before somehow winning the Iron Throne, I mean White House. We know that all power corrupts. We also know that Trump is an extreme narcissist who does not accept any kind of compromise or loss of face. Are we expected to believe that he will now "moderate" his rhetoric and his positions now that he has achieved almost unchecked power? No, in less than one week since the election, we are already seeing very clearly that not only will he never “moderate” his stance, but he will continue to drag everyone and everything down into his morass of hatred, lies, and corruption.
Adrian: But intentionality matters – and evaluating people both by what they mean and what they say is very important. We can perform this estimation effectively with both Trump and Clinton, because of their lengthy public histories. I don’t think Clinton is sinister, either. There have been many authoritarian rulers who were neither sinister nor even particularly unethical. But the way in which she organizes institutions, the way she approaches management, her insulation against criticism, her contempt for journalists and transparency, and the way in which her followers behave all lead me to conclude that she is an authoritarian who would have wielded the reins of government quite heavily—heavier even than Obama has. Frankly, it was anti-democratic and did grave damage to the institutions themselves. The fact that I agree with her stated political agenda or foreign policy does not change this, nor the fact that she is a woman—and it would have been great to vote for a woman who’d make a good president. Based on everything I witnessed and experienced over the course of the election, I did not conclude that she would make a good or even mediocre president. Simply “better than Trump.” And I had absolutely no inclination from any of the sources I was reading that Trump had any chance of winning.
Intentionality—I don’t think Trump is a fascist, again, because his actions come from a places of selfishness, not a misguided and badly organized way to rejuvenate America. It’s already clear that most of the things he said were said out of expediency—his call for the expulsion of Muslims were taken off his webpage the morning after he was elected. Hitler never said “but actually I’m not against the Jewish people,” and Mussolini and Stalin both moderated their stances toward religion only out of dire existential necessity. Trump said whatever was most outrageous to the left, whatever his supporters applauded the loudest, whatever got the highest ratings, and if it got traction, he doubled or tripled down on it. That’s not fascism—that’s opportunism.
Furthermore, many of the people who voted for him did so because they hated Clinton—not because they thought of Trump as a good or useful leader. I actually know of nobody who would lie down for Trump because they think he’s great—I know many, many people who voted for him because they felt the way I do about Clinton, or far worse, and wanted to rebuke “the system.” Most of Trump’s supporters aren’t fascists. Some of them are crypto-fascists. And a few really would like to organize the country into units and make everyone wear uniforms, but you'll find those people in every country.
Running down Eco’s 14 points, from my perspective Trump's use of “Make America Great Again” was done not because he believes it—it’s because the phrase worked. Actually, the phrase is a hat for him, made in China, and he gets a 10% (or whatever) commissioning fee off of it. He doesn’t believe in making America good for the American worker—and most "American workers” don't believe that he knows, either! They just know that every person they’ve elected over the last 30 years has promised big and delivered small. He sees himself as a provocateur, and is seen as a provocateur.
I think you’re correct about irrationalism, and this corresponds with a rise in mystical, illogical thinking across the political and national spectrum.
Action for action’s sake—while I agree that he does this, I don’t think it’s part of a principle, even as one as simple as hedonism. I think it’s the thoughtless action of a child, not a world-builder. Fascists are visionaries. Trump lacks the attention span, or the sophistication. It's also worth stating here that while I recognize fascism's sophistication, I am not a fan of it – as we learned in the military, if one does not have a clear view of the enemy's strengths and weaknesses, one will experience defeat. Hense my description of the enemy…
Rejection of analytic criticism and disagreement—this definitely describes Trump, but also describes Clinton and most politicians, and could just be a hallmark of the modern political establishment, “what it takes” to lead, according to people with money or power.
Fear of difference: again, I think much of this was deliberate and politically expedient posturing. If you asked Trump, he’d probably tell you he has plenty of black and Hispanic friends who are very successful, and dispute anyone’s claims of racism (or sexism for that matter). Trump’s narcissism is so great that he envies literally anyone who competes with him in any way—in this regard, he potentially dislikes anyone (including his first wife, Ivana Trump, whom he badmouthed while she was successfully managing one of his casinos). I could be wrong, I suppose, but I see his attitude as being more indicative of a despot than of a fascist. He doesn’t fear difference, he fears competition.
He appeals to a frustrated middle-class, definitely. But it’s important to emphasize that his appeal was couched in that same middle-class’s borderline hatred for the opposing candidate—a factor that was known before the election, and may have helped spur Trump’s rise. Would Trump have experienced success if, say, Jim Webb were the Democratic candidate? Or Kristen Gillibrand? Counterfactual history is close to useless, but Clinton’s insistence on running generated a number of implausible scenarios, including the rise of Bernie Sanders (totally unforeseeable before the primary). And this is a major point. I agree that the middle-class voted for him, the demographic information is clear—but if they were voting for him because they loved him, and wanted to follow him to victory—that’s fascism. If they voted for him as a kind of protest endorsement, that’s not fascism, so far as I understand it from Eco.
Obsession with plots and plotting – definitely.
Feeling of humiliation – Disagree. Trump manifests his insecurity so obviously, so purely, I don’t think he processes it as such. He is a narcissist, which means he does not imagine the possibility of his being humiliated—he experiences humiliation and shame so immediately (via Twitter, often enough) that it leaves no impact on his personality. It seems to have made a great impact on Hitler, for example. Trump yells and throws something and then eats a lavish steak dinner, plays a round of golf, names a tree. Trump is driven by a relentless, hyper-manic appetite. It’s a positive attribute, not a negative one, and it is so obscenely enthusiastic that whether it fails or not, Trump is not affected. Though for many other Republicans, the professionally aggrieved and resentful class of snake like Cotton or Graham or Christie, you’re correct (and these snakes exist in the Democratic party as well).
Pacifism / Life as Permanent War – disagree. He supports any of these things or not based on whether or not it is expedient for him to do so – witness his insistence on saying that he “opposed” the Iraq War. Fascists would see Iraq and other US military conflicts (as well as the prospect of war with Russia) as sacrosanct, the highest and most splendid affirmation. Grudging acceptance of war or torture or admiration for Navy SEALs also describes most Americans judging from ticket sales at the movies and book profits—this, too, seems to be Trump’s general appreciation for gaudy trash.
Popular elitism – Trump believes in his own wealth and power. I don’t know that one could say that he respects anybody else’s wealth or power, necessarily, although sometimes he does. I don’t think that contradiction makes him fascist, I think it makes him careless. I don’t think he thinks much about anyone.
Machismo – unquestionably
Selective Populism – Trump has always said things like “People love The Donald,” but I don’t think that’s the same as The People love The Donald. I don’t think he means what he says the way you say it. I'm reading into the tea leaves a bit here but my sense is that he doesn’t see it that way, and I’ve never heard or seen anyone express it that way. It’s not that he brooks no dissent—dissent doesn’t occur to him. Dissenters are “losers,” not “traitors,” they’re outside the conversation. He has contempt for them, they are not a source of humiliation (to go back to an earlier point) as they would be in a fascist government—a threat to be dealt with.
Newspeak – Trump is barely capable of stringing two sentences together, and if one has the misfortune of listening to him speak for more than a minute, you’ll see that he rarely finishes sentences. His “charisma” comes in sound bytes—but Newspeak is spoken by the fascist followers, The Leader is supposed to be the font of all intellectual and creative fare, a great orator (or at least a consistently inconsistent writer). This, I think, could be evidence that Trump would be happy in a fascist country, but is not convincing evidence that he is attempting to form a new language, or that he’s having any particular effect at forging a new type of political reality.
Although he has changed how campaigns are waged—perhaps irrevocably.
The extent to which we believe Trump could be a fascist is the extent to which Americans themselves could be fascist, and respond to the things he says. I still say Trump’s a despot—and think that he resembles a fascist leader in those ways that despots and fascists resemble each other. But I don’t think he’s a fascist and I don’t think that he’ll make America fascist, with or without Congress’s help.
But I was wrong about Clinton getting elected, so what do I know?
David: If we start from your last point, it does depend on how a critical mass of Americans react to Trump that will ultimately decide to what extent America is ready for fascism (I have little doubt that it could happen). But as fascism, in my opinion, relies on a strong leader for total guidance, I very easily see Trump attempting to fill that role.
I think we have another disagreement about the importance of intentionality versus behavior. You think the former is more important than the latter and I hold the opposite view. This is basically a philosophical difference, but one with very real-world ramifications. It's basically the difference between Kantian ethics and consequentialist ethics like Utilitarianism.
You certainly may be right about what is actually going through Trump's brain and what he really thinks. Sure he said plenty of things out of political expediency. All aspiring politicians do. The difference is that the things he said and the way he has acted all clearly demonstrate to me his fascist. It is not even important whether Trump himself knows why he does and says these things or if he even has a plan (or even know what fascism means, which he doesn’t, because he doesn’t know what almost anything means). The only way we can really judge him is what he says, and especially what he does. Now that he will have an enormous amount of power, we will really be able to tell who was more prescient. Considering that you consider him merely a selfish despot and I see a full-blown fascist, the best-case scenarios do not look good in either case.
For now, given our difference of opinion about terminology and intentions, should we move on to discuss something about how we and our fellow citizens should deal with the situation that is now upon us: that of having a despot and/or fascist as our president with almost no scruples and a cowardly and compliant Congress and mass media ready to normalize him, and an activated base of aggressive white nationalists ready to intimidate enemies?
Adrian: I'm conflicted about the order in which to do things, but not what must be done.
1) the Democratic party must be purged of cynics, opportunists, and mystics. The Democrats and Republicans must hold themselves to a better standard of candidate. Those people who enabled Clinton's candidacy must be politely but firmly turned away from all future influence. Much in the same way that Iraq should have discredited Bush, this should finally and ultimately disqualify and discredit Clinton as a viable leader in America.
2) individuals must resist Trump in every way possible. Whether he is a despot or fascist, his success will spell the end of the Republic.
3) marches and public displays and clear calls for his resignation or impeachment, repeated until people take them as statements of fact. Pence will not be "worse" because he's a member of the establishment. Trump has no business in politics.
The Left must organize.
David: I like your simplified list, and of course I totally agree with all of it. Resistance, protests, activism, and organization. Also, solidarity with all oppressed peoples, empathy, kindness, and love as weapons of protest. These are the most important things, and there is no order, for it all needs to be done all the time.
I will propose a few more specific proposals for electoral reform, which are thus non-partisan. Needless to say, these things will not be advanced by the reactionary Republicans who now control the government; they can still win with grassroots support at the state-level, helping prepare the way for the utter defeat of American fascism in four years. Some of these things have already passed in a few states, and all are very popular across the board. These are all basic prerequisites to maintaining functioning governance, no matter who is in charge.
1) eliminate the Electoral College (always an absurd institution, drawn up originally to protect those poor old slave-owners)
2) open primaries for both parties in every state
3) automatic voter registration when you get a driver's license or student ID
4) extended early voting, and make Election Day a national holiday (maybe even make voting mandatory)
5) repeal Citizens United, limit money in elections to a fixed amount of public contributions (McCain used this option in 2008)
6) lifetime ban on lobbying for former elected officials
7) registered lobbyists permanently blocked from executive branch positions
8) legal requirement for full disclosure of all tax returns and financial ties immediately upon declaring candidacy for president (Trump has still never disclosed anything, leading to massive opportunity for fraud and corruption with his business interests)
9) non-partisan redistricting committees in all states to draw congressional districts on existing geometrical boundaries to eliminate gerrymandering (this was done successfully in Canada, and a very small number of U.S. states)
10) term limits of 4 years for Governors, 8 years for Congresspeople, and 12 years for Senators
11) one-year national service for every 18-year-old (this one is actually a policy position, but one with the goal of increasing sense of community and empathy outside one's "tribe")
Anything I missed?
Adrian: This list is excellent. I would also consider adding the following: much like the explicit ban on citizens not born in America from serving as President, all legal and biological immediate relatives of a president or presidential candidate of a major party are banned from running for national elected office. This is the only way to dissuade explicit political dynasties.
David: Great, why not add that one. Thanks for the discussion. Looks like we’ve got plenty of work to do for the next four years.