By Jeff Shantz
The rise of Trump and more importantly the far Right movements around him raise some questions about the nature of the Trumpocalypse (and its relation to Right populism or more to the point to fascism). The question is now being asked whether or not it is true that there is fascism of some sort in the US at the present time. While not providing a firm answer on that question there are some initial tendencies or shaping features that are suggestive and should be addressed. These are outlines of Trumpocalypse rather than hard and fast conclusions.
Fascism refers to a unique and most extreme form of bourgeois rule. This is so because under fascism the bourgeoisie gives up some of its control to shock troops and loses its customary hold over the mechanisms of liberal democracy. Big capital desires fascism to do its dirty work for it and fascism becomes a tool of big capital. Finance capital through fascism gathers all the organs and institutions of the state. Schools, press, municipalities. Not only the executive. Workers groups are crushed. At its heart fascism is an armed movement that uses extreme violence against the Left.
Some suggest that populism is a more useful term than fascism right now. Yet there are problems with the use of populism to describe the far Right movements today. Centrist notions of populism equate Left and Right. Both are lumped together as non-liberal, against trade, etc., and therefore both are bad. In this way the centrist notions of populism are similar to earlier versions of totalitarianism analysis, as in the work of Hannah Arendt, for example. FDR was referred to as a fascist by some communists. While at the same time Hitler was called a passing phenomenon—to be followed in turn by a victorious proletarian revolution.
At the same time there is a Trumpism—against urbanism, rationalism, metropolitanism. It is a proto-fascist movement. It is about a dynamic. The proposed “purification” of society. A new anthropology—creating the human anew (as in fascism).
Of some importance, there is a tendency to underestimate the movements of contemporary brownshirts in the US. Some commentators might still assume that real fascists in the US live in bunkers in the desert and are merely odd survivalists. But that is a dangerous misreading of current movements. It is an analysis from the 1990s. Fascists today, and this is one thing that can be said about the Trump campaign, have come above ground.
Trump and Brownshirt Infrastructure
Trump represents the construction wing of Wall Street. He will oversee a regime of infrastructure building particularly of Brownshirt infrastructure. That is infrastructure of repression such as prisons, policing infrastructure. His will be a regime of building as his campaign expressed—build a wall; build prisons; build detention centers. He will provide help to banks and he will provide help to construction industries.
Trump will build his base and reward it through Brownshirt infrastructure and physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports). This will help the Midwest and the Rust Belt and shore up his base in those areas. That means it will reinforce the white nationalist base and white nationalist rhetoric.
Tax holidays for corporations to repatriate wealth. If taxed at one percent it could be used to fund Brownshirt infrastructure. Funding would be through banks and government would secure the loans. This will be a state assisted accumulation of capital.
Trump represents warmed over Reaganomics. His plan is the dream of investment bankers. The DNC will carry out his agenda as it benefits Wall Street. There will be a battle in the DNC over the nature of support for Wall Street. They will do so around infrastructures spending and a child care tax.
The Democrats will align with Trump. Sanders, Warren, Chuck Schumer, and the AFL-CIO have all said they could work with Trump. They will hope to gain some credit for some policy decisions. Yet this will only reify Trump as the dealmaker who gets stuff done and can work with anyone (on his terms) as he has said throughout his campaign. There will be no benefit accruing to Democrats for doing this.
This raises the need for organizing within the infrastructure industries. At present too many unions in those industries are crass business unions with less than progressive practices.
Contemporary far Right populism, Trumpism, in the US, is something of a coalition of the one percent with people of all classes who are outcast (dislocated from the social system at all levels), declasse (particularly, of course, among white American males). People supporting Trump are not the most downtrodden, not the classic lumpenproletariat, as is often assumed. They are instead the ones who fear losing their assumed place in the social structure, those who fear precarious status and economic decline (the much talked about loss of the middle class).
Fascism comes to power when the Left has abdicated its role and responsibility. That is when it is not fighting fascism directly in the streets or when it has not carried through a revolution in the making. Today’s far right operates in a different context and has a different intent.
In Europe and Latin America there are right populist movements. There are fascist organizations, but they are small and few in number. Furthermore, they have no significant connection to either capital or state power. Big capital is not significantly supporting the fascist groups. The main purpose of the current far right is anti-globalism. But big capital wants globalism. Social phobias find a home in the parties of the far right—nationalism, not globalism.
The one percent (particularly building capital) has little interest in populism. It wants migration, for example, in order to keep wages down and increase completion on the labor market. Indeed, many of the voices for the movement of refugees come from neoliberal capital rather than the broad Left.
Historic fascism emerged in face of an imploding world market. Some might suggest that there is no need of fascism for capital since there is no Left working class movement and no imploding world market.
Yet one can see hints of an answer in current social struggles, particularly over extreme energy. As one instructive example we might look to the militarization of police at Standing Rock. Some mobilization against extractives. Is this being used as an impetus for capital to mobilize fascism in the present period? The militarization has already happened in Canada. As the stakes get higher this militarization will increase. It has not yet developed in the form of Right wing mobilization of civilian gangs to attack Indigenous peoples defending their lands. But there are isolated individual instances that suggest it could.
When Reform Fails
Far Right populism is what you get when social reform or social democracy fails. Today there are not significant working class movements of the Left in the US. Right wing populism thrives where the Left has failed. There have been mass movements representing refutation of elites and neoliberalism recently. Arab Spring, Indignados, Occupy Wall Street represent examples. There has been, since the decline of these movements, a hard swing to the Right. This is represented in Trump, Modi, UKIP, and the Front National in France, etc. In the current context the far Right has taken up the challenge that the Left has failed to meet.
The Left has abandoned even its bread and butter “wheelhouse” issues. There is virtually no Left movement against global trade agreements anymore. While there has been some spoken opposition against CETA and the TPP there is no semblance of the public mobilizations that challenged NAFTA in the 1980s and early 1990s and the WTO in Seattle in 1999 or the FTAA in Quebec City in 2001. There has been no large scale movement against any of the smaller agreements passed over the last few years either. And that is at the level of manifestations, not at the level of organization in workplaces and neighborhoods.
And this has been an organizational challenge. The Left in the West has built very little in the way of real world, material infrastructures of sustenance and resistance. Unfortunately the far Right has moved in to occupy this abandoned territory. Megachurches gave a center to sprawling suburbs. They provided community life. The Left used to do this but does not anymore.
Unions are business unions and there is no contestatory ideology. They offer service for workers for pay. They organize over contracts and grievances. It is a commodified form of unionism. There is nothing that makes mainstream unions inherently working class, let alone radical working class. Organized labor has become a form of clientalism. Organized labor does not organize labor. It is focused on contract negotiations. There are some public campaigns on issues like education. There are some “get out the vote” efforts.
Neoliberal Populism Today
The present period is perhaps closer to the 1970s period of neoliberal populism. The Left in the 1970s was marked by three different tendencies. First was welfare state social democracy. Second was the advocacy of class conflict. Third was the denial of class (post-modernism).
Neoliberalism impelled a shift from understandings of classes to notions of taxpayers versus elites. Corrupt elites were understood not as capital and politicians but as state bureaucrats and unions within neoliberal frameworks. Individual liberation was viewed as everything. The aim of neoliberal populism was identified as getting welfare state and union bosses off your back, not capital. This would supposedly allow anyone to win in the market game. These were staple views espoused by Reagan and Thatcher.
After some years of course the realization grew that the market game produced mostly losers. And these losers were working class. By the time this realization set in for broad cross-sections of people there was no likelihood of getting back the welfare state that neoliberals had transformed (into a carceral or workfare state). Capitalist globalization circumvented and destroyed unions.
Now neoliberalism is unpopular and the welfare state is not on offer. The Left cannot deliver on hopes for a return to the welfare state. Right wing populism emerges keeping at its center the rugged individualism of neoliberal populism. But now it has also to focus on bailed out bankers and big capital. It must focus on corporate welfare as well as social welfare as its motivating social ills. But, not surprisingly, Right wing populism gives less focus to corporate welfare. Indeed, for Right wing populists many of their leaders are part of the establishment.
Neoliberalism has made the irrationality of supporting capitalism (a planet destroying system) seem to be the only possibility on the planet. Right wing populism has been ramping up a counter-revolution in culture. It is a cultural counter-revolution rather than an economic counter-revolution.
The Democratic Party claims that they can be and will be better managers of neoliberal capitalism. They claim to be more efficient and thus will be able to manage more tax money to put into some, limited range of, social programs. They also claim a more diverse base of interests in their representative politics. The Democratic Party since 2008 has, despite the hopeful rhetoric, been pro-Wall Street and pro-war as, indeed, it has always been. They offer nothing to the working class, even in the Sanders wing.
Fascism always needs to be fought directly, not argued with. You cannot fight power unless you build power. There is a need for organizing infrastructures of sustenance and resistance. Syndicalist organizing and a militant approach to challenging structures of ownership and control are crucial. On the one hand there will be a need to organize against development capital. On the other green syndicalist approaches can connect struggles over extreme energy and extractives.
It might be recognized that organizers have to engage with some Trump voters (some, not by any means all). Not doing so is to replay the elitism of Hillary Clinton. At the same time, and crucially, organizers have to support and defend the main targets of Right wing populism. There is a pressing need to find the common ground there.
There are real questions about how to provoke progressive politics in the US. One necessity is to refocus on locally based struggles and work to share them and their lessons internationally.
Some have suggested a Left Tea Party. This is a futile hope. There is no Left equivalent of the Kochs and Coors who build up Right wing infrastructures. The Left cannot have a Left version of the Tea Party. The Left has no real organizational form or movement like the Tea Party. The Tea Party was a real movement, it was not strictly Astroturf. There is no equivalent on the Left.
One approach is to think of organizing space. Especially in the cities. Trumpism is a war against the cities. It is a war against diversity. It is a war against metropolitanism. Cities are refuges of migrants, queers, women, unions, the Left. Cities are also a concrete space. Imagined communities do not exist the way cities do. There could be a broad based strategy focused on cities.
Cities are controlled by real estate developers. Thus struggles confront the Trump wing of builders and real estate capital. Cities are huge bases of support and opposition. They are large economies. There is a need to organize city by city. At the same time it is a historical fault of the Left not organizing the working class in the suburbs. Suburbs are the areas of the working class. Yet the Left organizes downtown in the city center.
Finally something must be said about the anti-Trump protests. The Republican Party wants to pose the working class as white reactionaries. Anti-Trump protests are working class protests. The diversity of the working class. A working class revolt against Trump. These manifestations are already posing questions of organization (beyond street manifestations) anew.