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When Putsch Comes to Shove: Mass Action, Punching Nazis, and Stopping Them Before They Grow

By Jeff Shantz

Times of rising fascism are periods of open, brutal, class war (where the sheets literally slip off). Events of the last year show the desperate need for working class self defense of our communities.

One can learn some useful lessons on the need to treat proto-fascist mobilization harshly and with concerted action, before it grows, in the putting down of the Kapp Putsch in Berlin in 1920, under conditions of Weimar democracy, and two years before Hitler’s own Beer Hall Putsch. One might also ask what contributed to the decisive mass actions of the German working class that did not see a similar response to a fascist push in 1932 when the Nazis successfully broke the resistance (a resistance that never really crystallized for specific reasons we should understand. And what does it say to us about the fight against fascism today?

The Kapp Putsch was an early attempt by the proto-fascist Rightwing in Germany to make a show of strength and to overthrow the liberal Weimar Republic and institute an authoritarian Rightwing government. The revolt in March of 1920 was led by Wolfgang Kapp who was the founder of the far Right Fatherland Party and by General von Luttwitz. The putsch leaders were motivated by their resentment at the conditions of the Versailles settlement to end World War One, a resentment that motivated the Nazis as well and which was shared by many Germans. Notably, von Luttwitz’s Erhardt Brigade used as its primary symbol none other than the swastika. Like later fascist groups, including ones today, Kapp’s Fatherland Party claimed to be beyond politics, above the political fray (neither Left nor Right in today’s terms). The force for the rising was the Freikorps, the precursor to the Brownshirts.

Of some note, the fading of the workers’ and solders’ councils that had played crucial parts in the rebellions of 1918 and 1919 (the Bavarian Council Republic, etc.) played a major part in creating a context where the Rightists thought they could act. The need for compromise seemed diminished to them. They miscalculated. The German working class, and its organizations were united and militant.

In 1920, 1,700,000 German workers went on strike in order to defeat proto-fascism and the far Right but also to push past the limits of the Social Democrats. The working class found unity in its response to the far Right mobilization. The Kapp Putsch was frustrated fundamentally, fatally as workers in various regions went on general strikes. There was organizational development and there were spaces for development of ideas and debates over strategy and tactics on a large scale.

The state showed its true colors as only one participant in this armed Rightwing uprising against the government faced any jail time. And the judges gave him a break because of his “selfless patriotism.”

In Germany in the 1920s the working class was well organized and had a decent understanding of what fascism and violent Rightwing populism meant. By the mid-1930s they had been brought to despair and the institutions of the social democratic Left had played a major part in that. In 1920 at the time of the Kapp Putsch, the Social Democrats seemed to offer people a better life and an alternative to the misery of capitalism and war. This was not so by 1932 at the time of another fascist coup attempt, this time in Prussia.

The German Social Democratic Party, the ruling “socialist” party that had previously come to the aid of the German bourgeoisie in putting down the anarchist and communist uprisings of 1918 and 1919, from the 1920s onward had been at work implementing austerity policies and turning workers away from their class interests (toward phoney national ones). By 1932 German workers had less reason to defend the Social Democrats when the came under attack from the far Right. This politics also allowed some ground for the communist critique of the Social Democrats as “social fascists,” the fatal line of the Communist International. The austerity attacks on the working class allowed for a split of the Social Democrats and the Communist Party. This contributed to the context that allowed the Nazis to rise.

It was the failure of the Social Democrats, and the Left broadly, to provide any alternative to capitalist conditions and to address the desires of the working class for better lives, that motivated much of the work of radical psychoanalyst and libertarian communist Wilhelm Reich in his attempt to understand the mass psychology of fascism. For Reich, the Left bore some responsibility in not developing policies and practices that connected with working class desire. This allowed some to turn to the Right while simultaneously weakening the resolve of many to fight. What was the Left fighting for after all.

In 1932, rank-and-file members of the Reichsbanner were armed and ready for an uprising against the Rightwing government that was about to cede power to Hitler and the Nazis. It would have changed history. But the legalistic Social Democratic leadership prevented it.

In the account provided by historian Richard J. Evans:

“In the situation of July 1932, when Hindenburg, the military leadership and the conservatives were all extremely anxious to avoid provoking a civil war in Germany, an armed uprising by the Reichsbanner might have forced a climb down by Papen, or an intervention by the Reich President. One can never know. The call to resist never came. The law-abiding traditions of the Social Democrats compelled them to put a ban on any armed resistance to an act that was sanctioned by the head of state and the legally constituted government, backed by the armed forces and not opposed by the police.” (2003, 286)

 

As Evans puts it further:

“After 20 July 1932 the only realistic alternatives were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army. The absence of any serious resistance on the part of the Social Democrats, the principle remaining defenders of democracy, was decisive. It convinced both conservatives and National Socialists that the destruction of democratic institutions could be achieved without any serious opposition.” (2003, 287)

The communists proposed a united front with social democracy for a general strike. The working classes were in favor of a general strike. The social democratic workers, however, did not go against social democracy. The Communist Knorin (by no means a pristine source to be sure) suggested in 1934 that even limited resistance to preserve Weimer democracy (far from proletarian revolution) would have compelled the fascists to retreat and in denying the fascists power would have contributed to their collapse. It may have won over some of their soft base of support in the middle strata and  peasantry.

Even in January of 1930 there was a chance, though conditions were already not as favorable for the working class resistance. Then, too, the Social Democrats worked to prevent a general strike and opposed a communist demonstration.

In 1920, the unions and the socialists worked together to put down the proto-fascist coup, despite its support by the armed forces. By 1932 that unity was gone. A year or so later so was the Left and so was the possibility of a successful anti-Nazi resistance. By then the only option would be military.

 

Disarming Resistance and the Fatal Illusions of Electoralism

The German working class in the 1920s and 1930s was the most powerful, armed working class (non-statist) force in the industrial West. Yet in the 1930s the Social Democrats disarmed or stood down the armed wing of the working class and the party. This was true in Austria as well as in Germany. These forces outnumbered and could have outgunned the fascists at crucial points in the 1930s.

The disarming of the socialist armed wings was related to the electoral illusions of the Social Democrats and gives us some lessons on the dangers of electoralism as an approach to fascism. The Social Democratic Party was concerned with its electoral chances and wanted to maintain an image of respectability as means to election success. A futile, and historically fatal pursuit.

Thus they shut down the force that could have defeated the fascists in the baseless hope that they could achieve an electoral path to marginalizing the Nazis. It bears little additional discussion but to note that this electoral strategy was disastrous.

And it remains so today. One can see hints of it though in liberal attacks on ANTIFA and appeals to vote Democrats into power as if no lessons have been learned about how liberal centrism might work to stem the growth of angry Rightwing resentment and white supremacist mobilization. And note too that this plays neatly into ongoing projects of neoliberal social war. So-called mainstream conservatives are even calling for elections of Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and we can refer too to neoliberal conservatives who sided with Doug Jones against the repugnant Republican Roy Moore (or at least offered write in votes rather than support him) as evidence of a new Rightist centrist (actually quite far Right itself) consensus using Trump to move politics further Rightward along with neoliberal Democrats.

The Democratic centrism under Clinton already played a part in the unlikely election of Trump of course. And the Democrats continue to provide only more of neoliberal desperation and despair that fuels Rightwing and white working class resentment and anger (with racism and patriarchalism too of course). And this could serve to broaden susceptibility to Rightwing appeals (as being the only real, possible, realistic alternative).

Now is a period of economic and political crisis. People are looking for answers. That is partly why Trump could get elected in the first place. The search for answers in a time of crisis does not always yield the best answers. People sick of the usual approaches will look outside the usual frames of politics. Democratic-patriotic and pacifist-patriotic appeals are fatal now as they were under the German Social Democrats.

 

Charlottesville and Since

In the period of 1920 to 1932 antifascism had a mass movement and strength that does not exist today. The movement is more marginalized and is by no means a mass movement with broad connections to large sections of the exploited and oppressed.

Charlottesville represented an attempt of the alt-Right to show their overall strength in one place. This was no putsch. It was merely an effort by a fascist Rightwing, feeling emboldened in the first year of the Trump presidency to come out publicly, provide a rallying point for fellow travellers there and elsewhere in the United States, and show some sign of hoped for unity and strength. But it actually showed the relatively minor significance and limited capacity of fascist forces in the US right now. The alt-Rightists picked what they thought was the best place at the best time. They sought a concentrated level of public action, one where their forces would hold a critical mass. But the response against them in Charlottesville and in cities all over the US showed how marginal they are.

And it also showed the strength and appeal of anti-fascism and what might be called the Left (however this might be conceived broadly as anarchist, socialist, communist, etc.).  This was a testament to the courageous action of people in Charlottesville opposing the fascists and of the organizing work done there. It showed the necessity and effectiveness of shoving the fascists off the stage. It did not come without a terrible cost, of course, as fascists killed Heather Hayer and injured others.

Even with a president who is sympathetic to them the fascists in the United States are not having the attraction and base that the antifascists (and the Left more broadly) are. Indeed the broad Left, and the radical anti-capitalists and anti-statists associated with it, are finding perhaps the greatest attraction they have had in generations.

A problem for the far Rightwing is that they do not have a class constituency that they can appeal to. Capital certainly cannot and will not meet peoples’ needs. The alt-Right appeals, as fascist have historically, to the disaffected middle strata, the declasse who feel pinched by capital and by organized labor. In today’s context they are a component of the middle strata who view themselves as  entrepreneurs or artisans (new tech workers, etc.) who feel deprived of the American Dream promised them as they toil in service sector work or the “gig economy.”

Some move to the far Right over a belief that they have to compete over the little that is still available in a context of austerity and social scarcity. And there is a danger that more of the white  working class can be moved to the far Right as the supposed electoral alternative of the Democratic Party continues to offer the neoliberal “no alternativism” and “lesserevilism” they put forward in the figure of Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Fascism is not at a [point where it will take power any time soon. Capital permits fascists to take power when they feel there is some pressing need for it. Right now they have no need to invest in that kind of unruly and unpredictable power. The regular mechanisms of neoliberalism are still working to repress, regulate, and control the working class and resistance movements.

In the 1920s and 1930s, fascism always rose up after a failed socialist or communist revolution. Or failed republicanism in the case of Spain.

 

Overcoming the Psychological Fundamentalism of Non-Violence

Some have expressed a squeamishness about using violence against fascists today. Debates have broken out over the desirability of punching fascists. These are largely tedious. There should be little controversy over the fact that fascists should be punched wherever and whenever they appear. While some might suggest that this is not enough and more needs to be done the answer is, yes, of course. Part of the discussion here is that mass direct action is necessary against mobilizations of fascists—particularly where they grow beyond what they are now. Building that larger anti-fascist base is essential. It does not change the fact that punching fascists is right and proper.   

Opposing and overcoming—putting down—fascism and fascist movements in  the present period will, of necessity, require overcoming and opposing the prejudices of non-violence and the ingrained, socialized, commitment to non-violence in strategies, tactics, and organizing with social movements. This fundamentalist, almost religious, commitment to non-violence, an essential feature in keeping dominated populations pacified and manageable, has infected social resistance movements within liberal democracies like Canada and the United States.

This commitment takes on a psychological (rather than strictly tactical or strategic) aspect—structuring visions of justice, perceptions of legitimacy of action, and understandings of proper or appropriate resistance behavior. It shows how we view ourselves and how we might act in the world to change the world. And it has come to be used as a moral-psychological bludgeon to attack and condemn those within our movements and communities who would pursue other means—direct action and self defense.

This fundamentalist approach to non-violence not only serves to buttress the state and its institutions of domination and control—the true source of social violence, indeed the monopolists of violence in society. It also serves to keep us vulnerable and unprotected against vigilantes of the Right—those who have no qualms about using violence and are often formally trained in the use of violence through military or police training, etc.

Make no mistake—states have no hesitation in deploying violence against movements of the exploited and oppressed. And neither do Rightists who side with the institutions of authority. And the Rightists (militias, “patriots,” Minutemen, survivalists, etc.) are way ahead of progressive forces in terms of training, equipment, and, crucially, the psychological readiness and preparedness to use force against us. We have a lot of work to do to train ourselves and to ready our minds to act, to overcome our socialized and internalized, habitual, non-violence.

Capitalism is always violence. Fascism is a more desperate, unburdened attempt to break resistance. We must understand issues of state imposed violence and repression in relation to fascism.

The state can always turn to fascism for its own aims. White supremacy already relates to racist criminalization and the policing of racialized people and communities. There is a connection to anti-terror laws, programs, and fear politics. These practices have been deployed to target migrant groups and also to break resistance movements and groups and we need to understand that.

Non-violence and legalism go hand in hand. In the face of fascist risings, even in early periods, they are disastrous.

 

Conclusion

The lessons of history, the working class response to the Kapp Putsch in particular, shows the necessity and capacity of mass direct action to put down fascists and fascism early. It shows the effectiveness of such action. And it shows the rightness of it. Regardless of what the moralists of non-violence might suggest.

At the same time another lesson is provided by the subsequent disarming of the working class in Germany and Austria by the Social Democrats. This took away the real working class force that could have overcome the Brownshirts through overwhelming force and defended communities under attack by the fascists. In the absence of this force—again, disarmed by its own would-be leaders and nobody else—those communities were left without adequate defense. We know the outcome. And no moralists of non-violence can change that. That is why anti-fascists insist on punching Nazis, And why we need more.

At the time of the Kapp Putsch the proto-fascist and far Right forces were much larger, stronger, and better organized than the proto-fascsists are today in the United States and Canada. And by quite a bit. They had already had the experience of violently suppressing the workers’ uprisings of 1918 and 1919. They had given the government something to fear. Still, the mass direct action and militant response of the working class in 1920 was able to put down the rising of the Freikorps in 1920.

The basis of antifascist resistance is that we are stronger together. The emphasis is not scarcity but sharing and caring together. A promise of some abundance and security rather than scarcity and precarity. Our strength remains in solidarity and committed, principled action together with a focus on defeating fascism and white supremacy. Our tactics can be diverse. Our goal, as in 1920, is united.

Fascists always target unions and labor organizations. We need to understand this. If it is not defeated definitively it will grow. People can and will turn to fascism out of desperation and a sense that there are no other options.

Of course the current working class and working class organizations (notably unions) in the United States and Canada have no mass based militance, no armed capacities, and few experiences of street fighting resistance. Perhaps more to the point, they have no organized self defense groupings. This is true even in US states where gun possession is accepted and regular activity and in open carry states where a public display of armed working class self defense could be made. Ironically perhaps there is an inverse correspondence between union membership and open carry laws as many open carry states are also highly anti-union and with “right to work” laws in place as well as open carry laws.

 

Further Reading

Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin

Knorin, V. 1934. Fascism, Social-Democracy and the Communists. New York: Workers Library Publishers

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Gangsterism and the Trump State: First Notes

By Jeff Shantz

In 1941, two years into World War II, socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht released a play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (in German: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui) which chronicles the rise of Arturo Ui, a fictional 1930s Chicago mobster, and his efforts ruthless efforts to dominate the cauliflower racket. Subtitled A Parable Play, Arturo Ui is a satirical allegory of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany before the start of World War II. Brecht’s depiction of the Nazis as gangsters references a reality of Nazi governance, the Nazis operated as gangsters, a point made by social historians. It further speaks to the Nazi emplacement of its own gang members into key positions within the existing government structures, especially the bureaucracy, and takeover of those structures once in power. This is a trend that can be observed in interesting ways in the developing goon presidency of Donald Trump. The most notable recent example is the naming of Anthony Scaramucci to the position of Communications Director.

In Trump we are seeing a re-cartelization of the economic sphere. Trump is a goon and he admires goons. As fascists did he is putting his own people into the administrative and bureaucratic state, And they are gangsters and goons. He is getting rid of the bureaucracy that forms policy.

 

The State as a Racket

In War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, the sociologist Charles Tilly, in writing about the state has famously said:

“To the extent that threats against which a given government protects its citizens are imaginary or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket. Since governments themselves commonly stimulate, or even fabricate threats of external war, and since the repressive and extractive activities of governments often constitute the largest current threats to the livelihoods of their own citizens, many governments operate in essentially the same ways as racketeers.”

Neoliberalism has already decimated any notion of popular sovereignty or social welfare. The crisis of capitalism results in the crisis of the traditional parties and the liberal democratic order. The ruling class can no longer rule in its familiar ways. As this crisis deepens they become more ruthless in their attacks on the working class and its historic gains (social welfare, etc.). Health care, education, social welfare, etc. Become “luxuries” (which the truly luxurious strata become envious of). Attacks on these bare, but essential services, ratchet up already churning resentment and anger.

With the stripping of the state of its “luxuries” or inessential (for capital) features it is returned to its status as what Friedrich Engels called “armed bodies of men,” of gangsters—it is restored to the status of a racket.

So the army, police, prisons, are underwritten and grown. So too the Brownshirt industries associated with them. But the dictatorship of capital is no longer disguised. This is the resort to fascism.

In a period of sharp crisis the disguise slips. And it can slip. Obscuring ideology is not needed. How else to understand Trump’s open appeal to police across the country to not be too nice to suspects being arrested (in a context of racialized MS-13 panic), in front of a group of cheering and applauding cops.

As an aside we might suggest that the strange attack on MS-13 is a one-sided gang war-waged from the White House. And it occurs while his regime is raiding families of Latin American background in California, New Mexico, Arizona, etc.

Capitalism in crisis has always in periods given rise to the bare gangster form. Marx identified it as Bonapartism. The deep crisis of capitalism produces armed thug gangs who can oppose working class resistance.

In fascism, the state loses its monopoly over non—state violence. That is partly the threat of the Brownshirts. They are a parallel force of violence that shows up the loss of the state monopoly. With fascism, the bourgeoisie gives over power to the gangsters, the thugs, the goons.

 

The Trump Gang

If the protection racket us a scheme in which a group provides protection (to business, clubs, etc.) through violence enacted outside of the sanction of law, then the Trump regime, like all fascist regimes, has taken form as a base protection racket, a gang. This type of authoritarian formation maintains existing property relations while taking a piece of the pie for their own benefit. The Trump inner circle is made up of gangsters.

This is highlighted in liberal terms with the undermining or circumventing of the judiciary. It cannot provide legal protection. Trump poses it as incompetent. One can see this most forcefully in his attacks upon the courts over his Muslim ban. The Muslim ban is itself a racialist, fascistic offering of protection (for nativist whites, Christians, etc.) against a “foreign” other posed solely as a threat—and terroristic one at that.

As in an extortion racket there is also an implied threat that the protected may also be turned on themselves if they do not come through—so Trump’s call to let Obamacare implode—with costs assumed by poor whit Trump supporters (and Republican insiders alike).

The distinction between capitalist and gangster is simply one of state definition so it is not surprising that a capitalist would be surrounded by gangsters. One need not go into detail on the Kushner clan. Insider Jared’s father Charles Kushner was sentenced to two years after pleading guilty to 18 counts of making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering (involving a nasty case in which he set up his’ wife’s husband in a videotaped fling with a sex worker). Trump is of and for such people. This is his milieu. This is he.

Trump becomes the autonomous figure—the decider who can stand above the fray of divided politics. Trump is a magical gangster. He has a calling—it is the market. His is a counter-revolution based around the market, in the face of impending catastrophe.

At the same time he always has an alibi. His is an alibi of being. It does not allow the acknowledgement of the other. Except, that is, to destroy the other. He admits freely and jokingly to sexual assaults, in public, but denies the very realities of his accusers.

 

Postscript: Farewell Mooch, We Hardly Knew Ye

At the time of his appointment, commentators noted that Scaramucci was nothing more than “a thug for hire.” Unlike Steve Bannon, Scaramucci had no agenda beyond self-debasing loyalty and no ambition beyond time with the boss. In the end he got neither.

Like the gangster Nazis in power, Scaramucci immediately took out two figureheads of the Republican orthodoxy, Press Secretary Sean Spice and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. In their place are committed Trumpites Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, notably a military guy, General John Kelly. The Scaramucci hire is symptomatic of the gangster mode of organizing. It follows and reproduces the Nazi gangster inclination for management of underlings through envy, fear, aspiration, in which all are expected to give complete loyalty (typically unrequited) to the leader who need show none. This latter point was made hilariously clear when Scaramucci was himself tanked only 10 days into his role, surely a record of sorts.

Of course history tells us that the generals felt uncomfortable with the gangsters in the SA (largely because they viewed them as a potential competitor breaking the monopoly on violence). We do not want to read too much into John Kelly’s urging of Trump to dismiss the Mooch but on the night of July 30, 2017, it would seem that at least one long knife was out. Still the unexpected hit on the loudmouth who talked too much is not entirely outside of Trump’s gangster management of the White House.

 

We might finally remember that for Brecht, the name Ui was meant to sound like a pig screaming.

 

References

Brecht, Bertolt. 1941. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: A Parable Play.

 

 

On the Messy Psychology of Trumpism: Deception, the Right, and Neoliberal Trauma

By  Jeff Shantz

 

“In fascism, the monsters of childhood come true.” Theodor Adorno

 

In the words of tragic cultural theorist, and victim of actual fascism, Walter Benjamin, “Behind the rise of every fascism is a failed revolution.” A contribution of the Frankfurt School is thinking through the connection of the failed revolutions and fascism. While Trumpism might differ from historic fascism in not following a failed revolution (unless one looks at the failings of a mass movement like Occupy which is a stretch) it does respond to the failings of hopeful liberalism.

This is expressed in terms of fear and a seeking for comfort among those who feel, or perceive, a loss of status. Understanding rebellion and resistance in the current period also must involve coming to grips with the Trumpist counter-revolution and currents running through it.

How might the Trump phenomenon, and the seeming rise of proto-fascism, be understood? While it is still early in the development of Trumpism (it is also late in terms of stopping real social harms from being inflicted) some outlines can be drawn.

 

Deceiving The Crowd

Trump can readily be situated within historical trajectories of fascism and right wing populism. One can look to the historical social and psychological conditions of the nineteenth century. Then too, popular progressive movements from below, including anarchism, were (quite rightly) viewed as a challenge to conservative elites. The growth of the masses in democracy raised concerns for elites about how to preserve their rule. Elite concern over these movements was the subject of numerous public discussions. Examples of social scientific writing on this include Gustave LeBon’s The Crowd and The Psychology of Revolution and John Henry Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

In The Crowd LeBon recommends mass deception to ensure a favorable outcome for elites. In the approach outlined by LeBon, conservative elites cannot actually practice democracy but must deceive the masses to appear to be doing so. One might pursue this argument in thinking about the role of so-called fake news and alternative truths in the Trumpist mobilization and the centrality they find among his key organizers like Kellyanne Conway. LeBon focused on supposedly irrational crowds that could be used by demagogues. LeBon was cited favorably by Mussolini and Hitler.

Passive democracy is no match for the power of the myth to mobilize the masses. This perspective finds an echo in the work of Georges Sorel and his emphasis on social myth. Sorel identifies the supposedly irrational in politics. In his view political actors must understand feelings that move the masses to action. LeBon speaks of elite manipulation. Sorel focuses on popular mobilization. These tendencies are combined in the figure and action of Mussolini. This convergence is reproduced in the Trumpist movement.

Nazi theorist of political power Carl Schmitt suggests conservatives must play the democratic game in order to maintain power. According to Andrew Sullivan, Trump is a result of too much democracy. Trump is of the crowd, by the crowd, for the crowd.

Precursors to Trumpism can be found in the works of Gottfried von Herder and Joseph de Maistre. In Trumpism, the artist of Romanticism is transferred to the entrepreneur or magnate who is presented as an artist (the art of the deal). The supposed genius of the entrepreneur, the “art of the deal” is contrasted with the supposed mediocrity of the mass and the degeneracy of the political establishment (the corrupt hacks of the swamp of Washington). Fascism proposes an elite that can save the nation from the degenerate state. This makes clear the choices made by Trump in his cabinet. The cabal of millionaires and billionaires are the elite who will bring about national rebirth. The ones posed as “doers.” They will make America great again. (Notably, Kevin O’Leary a financial blowhard and reality TV star is running for leadership of the Conservative Party in Canada as one of the entrepreneurial “doers,” his word, who will make Canada great again also.).

 

The Trauma of Neoliberalism

To understand the response to Trumpism one must also understand the trauma of neoliberalism, the context of popular dissatisfaction, fear, and hope. The advent of neoliberalism initiates a crisis period (see Shantz 2016, Crisis States). This involves punitive accumulation and a redoubled accumulation of wealth for the wealthy. The neoliberal period can be understood as a traumatic period of four decades. Social trauma. Margaret Thatcher even referred to “a short, sharp, shock.”

Fundamentally, neoliberalism has changed and dismantled processes of socialization and mutual aid. Indebtedness and a sense of being alone in your own debt. It is your responsibility alone in a context of declined social support. Supporters are people dispossessed and feeling left out or feeling threatened economically. This is a sense of being dispossessed or not cared for by society. Neoliberal trauma is a loss of power as a collective capacity to act. Dislocation and isolation are conditions ripe for authoritarianism (both are central to Hannah Arendt’s account of authoritarianism).

Clinton, foolishly, took on the task of reducing expectations and denying people their frustrations. She played a role of lessening the experienced impacts of neoliberalism. Impacts that Trump acknowledged and affirmed. Sanders offered another story of the white working class, if in limited, constrained terms. Clinton held a bond to the failed program of neoliberalism. This was a condition for Trump’s victory.

Properly understanding Trumpism perhaps requires a theory of trauma related to association with the aggressor. In an actual assault, one can get through with support and understanding. Hypocrisy gives victims a sense of abandonment. This leads to compliance. You perceive things as you are supposed to, not according to your own feelings. One has to give up critical thinking since it raises possibilities of separation. You comply so you belong. Any feeling of abandonment can evoke this. This is associated with feelings of shame.

Compliance is a response when society does not accept or value someone for who they are. There is an intimate connection between neoliberalism and hyper-responsibility. Issues of inequality and injustice are viewed as being the individual’s fault. Society does not owe you anything (unless you are wealthy, in which case you are owed tax breaks, grants, subsidies because of your greater contributions to a trickle down economy that will benefit everyone.).

A response is compliance and omnipotent fantasy. Excess can be directed toward scapegoats. This relates to a sense of exceptionalism and belonging for those who align with the authority. A reality of compliance is expressed through a rhetoric of standing up for oneself. People whose trauma has been invalidated need their trauma to be known. Trumpism expresses a move from individual trauma to social trauma. There is an individual sense of loneliness and sense of dispossession.

 

An Agitator-In-Chief

The crowd is typically understood by theorists like LeBon in relation to the agitator. Trump is an agitator rather than an insurrectionist. The agitator focuses on groups who can be targeted. The agitator does not want followers to think too much.

There is an attempt to individualize the mob in the form of the figure. The figure will tolerate reality for them. What they cannot tolerate, the figure can and will. He speaks to discreet self-identified groups who identify in terms of losers (in trade, globalization, internationalism, metropolitanism, etc.) but not as classes. Agitation uses emotional tools to reinforce the power structure. The agitator differs from revolutionaries and reformers.

Trump is an over-inflated narcissist. He appears, on surface, to have none of the insecurities his followers are trying to escape. He is the mirror they look into and wish to see themselves. He is appealing to people who otherwise feel powerless. Secondary narcissism stimulates feelings of belonging and loss. Trump, unlike his followers, exhibits no self-questioning, no self-doubt. This is a great relief to his supporters. He is shameless, he has no shame. Refusal to feel shame is a guide to people. Trump expresses a politics of shame and a politics of repugnance.

Fascism promises certainties. It promises a return to more easily understood or familiar conditions for sectors of the population who feel threatened with loss of standing or position (these are often middle strata groups that feel economically insecure or threatened with decline rather than the poor).

Regular folks who support Trump (even as he represents elite interests) can see Trumpism as making the country great again while they are largely able to continue on with their lives. It does not ask much of them but promises much (even if it never delivers on those specific promises). The imagined community or imaginary love of a powerful leader emerges as an outlet for repressed drives even if the program is not realized. Charismatic nationalism offers narcissistic gratification and an outlet for repressed drives against the externalized other.

 

On Fake News and Alternative Facts

It has been well remarked that Trump shows a contemptuous regard for truth or facts. He is appealing to the constrained who do not want to be hemmed in or constrained by facts either, as they are by so much else in their lives. This is related to the wish to win that Trump so effectively conjured during his campaign (with his repeated emphasis on America winning again, winning huge, etc.).

Primacy of the wish to win is related to the sense to which one feels dispossessed. Trump tells an emotional truth for his supporters even if he is widely seen to be lying. This truth is his anger and the affirmation of his followers’ anger. This is the truth that comes to matter, a point rational critics generally overlook or misread. Omnipotent fantasy cannot be told the factual truth. There is a turn to emotional truth. Trust is based not on his truth claims but on the sense that he will do what really needs to be done. His supporters trust his promised power.

There is a libidinal investment of the masses in the leader. They have fallen in love with him. The crowd enjoys vicariously through the leader. Trump, on their behalf will restore the lost narcissistic idea of the nation. He will “Make America Great Again.”

Critical thinking isolates you and isolation is part of the problem in neoliberal societies. There is a pleasure in feeling free from thinking. It is partly presented as a reaction against the constant thinking through of political correctness (doing what you are supposed to do and thinking through the implications of all utterances, let alone actions). So-called political correctness (simple decency perhaps) is constructed as an artificial strategy that maintains hypocrisy.

Unknowing is derided but critics fail to see the enjoyment it can provide. Ignorance can indeed be bliss. Trump represents a poverty of ideas. He expresses a cathartic change. Trump is a grotesque character type. In the enactment of aggression, Trump is both a fool and a wizard.

Trump speaks the analytic session: be spontaneous; speak the repressed; no emphasis on truth; free association. Trump brings the language and posture of the analytic session. What of the return of the repressed? What is repressed is fear and hatred of the other.

 

Conclusion

Living with fascism has been the underbelly of US politics for a very long time. It is not coming, it has been there. Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Erich Fromm did not see the United States as immune to fascism. Their view is developed significantly in the largely forgotten “Studies in Prejudice.” See also The Authoritarian Personality and an earlier study on anti-Semitism in the US.

Fascist tendencies exist in all modern capitalist societies. This was true even after the defeat of fascism in World War Two. Resentment has been mobilized against the post-war social welfare state and union movements. It has focused on the progressive redistribution of wealth, particularly as it has benefited members of minority groups.

From the 1980s on there has been a reversal of these tendencies as state capitalist regimes have abandoned welfare state policies in favor of Crisis State arrangements (Shantz 2016). This shifted has been affected under the so-called neoliberal consensus for state managers. The turn to neoliberalism coincides with the rise of a new generation of Right wing parties. At the same time this period has seen the decline of communist and socialist parties and movements in the West. There is a rise to prominence of Right wing parties and fascist groups. This is happening everywhere. Russia and Putin. India. Much of the blame belongs with failed democratic, labor, and social democratic parties that still refuse to break with neoliberalism. Trump breaks with neoliberal consensus. This is expressed in his election opposition to trade deals.

What the Left wishes to secure through cultural means (recognition and inclusion) the fascists will actually secure through material and military means. The challenge of Trumpism is also a challenge to rethink positive resistance politics. There is certainly a need for the Left to re-evaluate its politics. On the Left, there has been a loss of the language of solidarity as a shared fate. And a politics unrestrained by economics or program.

 ***

Further Reading

LeBon, Gustave. 2002 [1895]. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. New York: Dover

Shantz, Jeff. 2016. Crisis States: Governance, Resistance & Precarious Capitalism. Brooklyn: Punctum

Jeff Shantz is a longtime anarchist writer, poet, photographer, artist, and organizer involved with numerous anarchist projects. He currently teaches critical theory and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Metro Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territories.

Shantz is the author of numerous books including Crisis States: Governance, Resistance, and Precarious Capitalism (Punctum 2016) and Commonist Tendencies: Mutual Aid beyond Communism (Punctum, 2013). He is co-founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group (http://www.radicalcriminology.org/) and founding editor of the journal Radical Criminology (http://journal.radicalcriminology.org/index.php/rc). Most recently he has initiated an action research project on, and against, social war policing in the suburbs (http://www.thesocialjusticecentre.org/new-page-1/). Samples of his writings can be found at jeffshantz.ca. Follow on twitter @critcrim.