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Can American Fascism Be Stopped? Trump's Win was Both a Perfect Storm and the Culmination of Long-term Trends
The perils of Trump should not be minimized. In a market economy, democracy is the only counterweight the people have to keep elites from making off with too much of the pie. Don't despair, organize.
By Robert Kuttner
It is hard to contemplate the new administration without experiencing alarm bordering on despair: Alarm about the risks of war, the fate of constitutional democracy, the devastation of a century of social progress. Trump’s populism was a total fraud. Every single Trump appointment has come from the pool of far-right conservatives, crackpots, and billionaire kleptocrats. More alarming still is the man himself—his vanity, impulsivity, and willful ignorance, combined with an intuitive genius as a demagogue. A petulant fifth-grader with nuclear weapons will now control the awesome power of the U.S. government.
One has to nourish the hope that Trump can yet be contained. Above all, that will take passionate and strategic engagement, not just to resist but to win, to discredit him and get him out of office while this is still a democracy. We can feel sick at heart—we would be fools not to—but despair is not an option.
We need to insist that the era we are entering is not normal, not to be normalized. Just about everything in our daily routines conspires against that imperative. Ordinary life goes on. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. It has the menacing, surreal feel of the 1930s. We are caught somewhere between the weary fatalism of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men and W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939,” the day World War II began:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
I. How Did This Happen?
The Sunday before the election, a dear friend was rushed into emergency surgery. She survived and fully recovered, but it was a very close call. On the following Thursday, she was aroused from a medically induced coma. Like Rip van Winkle, she awoke to a revolution. Among her first words were, “Did we just have a coup d’état?”
Yes, my dear, we did. The coup had three ingredients: the flipping of an American election by Vladimir Putin; the suppression of hundreds of thousands of would-be voters; and the intervention of FBI Director James Comey to discredit an active presidential candidate, not once but twice. We have a true constitutional crisis, both in the character of the man who was elected and the fraudulent election. The new president has no legitimacy, but there is no process to dislodge him.
Suppose the situation had been reversed? Suppose Hillary Clinton had narrowly won the Electoral College while Donald Trump had won the popular vote by three million? What would Trump have said about a stolen election? Would he have urged his supporters to take to the streets? Would Congress have immediately moved to schedule more hearings on Clinton’s emails, and greeted her inauguration with a bill of impeachment? Paradoxically, there is the appearance of less of a legitimacy crisis with Trump having won rather than having lost.
History is a convergence of deep forces and random events, lucky or unlucky. The ascension of Donald Trump needs to be understood as both. If you limit your analysis to the election itself, you might reassure yourself that 2016 was a fluke—a perfect storm of bad breaks: email hell; meddling by both Russian and U.S. police agencies; Trump as a stunningly talented demagogue; a blemished establishment figure as Democratic nominee; allowing a bizarre billionaire to pose as faux-populist avenger. But it was also the culmination of longer-term trends that weakened democracy and destroyed the New Deal social contract.
For Trump to win, the media had to play into his hands. The press did not know what to do with a candidate who dwelled in his own parallel factual universe. The quest for balance gave equal play to Clinton’s relatively minor sins and Trump’s grotesqueries.
The cable channels covered Trump both as an amusing freak and as a conventional presidential contender. Both roles served his purposes. Once a Trump story became the outrage of the week, it could be discarded as yesterday’s news. Revelations that would have sunk an ordinary candidate were dispatched relatively early, never to be heard again. Did Trump University swindle thousands of students? Did Trump cheat his contractors? Grope women? Call Mexicans rapists? Propose a religious test for immigrants and refugees? Mock Muslim Gold Star parents? Did Trump really say that maybe the “Second Amendment people” could take care of Hillary? Yeah, yeah, we know all that. Old story.
What neither the media nor the Clinton campaign quite grasped was that disaffection ran so deep in much of America that the more outrageous Trump was, the more his supporters loved it. Was his language coarse? Anyone who watches TV or goes to the movies has heard worse. He mowed down the Republican field by breaking all the rules; well, maybe America needs that sort of strongman. He insulted the entire establishment, just as millions of ordinary people felt insulted by elites who talked down to them, and they loved that Trump was a bully because they could believe he was bullying on their behalf.
And once voters believed that, they were already in Trump’s post-fact world. Strategic framing theory has demonstrated through brain experiments that once you have accepted the framing of a proposition, evidence doesn’t matter. Did Trump stiff the hard-working contractors on his hotel projects? Maybe they did a lousy job. Did he brag about grabbing women “by the pussy”? That’s just guy talk. Six bankruptcies? Smart businessman—maybe he can fix the national debt. And so on. Trump took the art of cognitive dissonance to a whole new level. He altered reality so regularly that trying to challenge his views was like punching a vast fog of cotton candy.
One statistic is worth pondering long and hard. Hillary lost a majority of white women. How could that possibly be? Are most American women still victims of false consciousness? Did their husbands browbeat them into supporting Trump? I don’t think so. Clinton’s identification with a political and financial elite that Middle America came to detest proved more important than her gender breakthrough. The Clinton campaign compounded the problem by giving too much emphasis to the presumed rising electorate of people who identify by oppressed group, and not enough to a broader electorate losing income and status and feeling little stake in American democracy.
But that story has roots that date back at least three decades. Since the 1970s, the post-Roosevelt social contract that once served the vast majority of Americans has been under siege. In their embrace of one-way globalization, both parties declined to insist on a trading system of true reciprocity. American manufacturing was sacrificed to the mercantilism of other nations that were valued as Cold War allies. American finance became the dominant influence, economically and politically.
As AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs points out, the argument about why Democrats lost the white working class misses the point. The working class is substantially nonwhite. In the 2016 election, Democrats underperformed among the entire working class—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—relative to the Obama vote and to the vote Democrats should have gained among the non-rich.
The debate about whether Trump voters in the heartland were blue-collar workers or the fearful middle class also misses the point. When factory towns become ghost towns, the entire community goes down and the entire community feels betrayed. The proposition that the Democratic Party is the party of regular, working Americans is no longer credible to much of America.
The sense of a collapsing social contract went hand in hand with the erosion of American democracy, both in a civics-book sense and in a political economy sense. In a market economy, democracy is the only counterweight the people have to keep elites from making off with too much of the pie. Over the past several decades, money has crowded out real grassroots politics, causing politicians to spend more time cultivating fat cats than meeting with constituents. Mass membership organizations that were once robust have turned into letterhead groups, run by professional staff, without the sort of democratically run chapter organizations that were common in our grandparents’ day. The AARP is an insurance marketing operation disguised as an advocacy group for seniors. It has no local chapters. The labor movement, once the epitome of a democratically run mass organization by and for working people, has been decimated.
According to research by the political scientist Kay Schlozman and colleagues, there is almost a perfect correlation between intensity of civil and political participation and level of income. That was not always the case, and this participatory tilt reinforces the influence of affluence, in the phrase of political scientist Martin Gilens, at the expense of regular people. No wonder government, the Democratic Party, and democracy itself all lost legitimacy, opening the door to a Trump.
In short, the perfect storm of 2016 had been brewing for a third of a century.
II. Is Donald Trump an American Fascist?
Fascism, classically, includes a charismatic strongman who speaks directly to the mystical People, over the heads of the squabbling politicians who ruined the Nation. Or as Donald Trump put it at the Republican National Convention, “I am your voice. … I alone can fix it.” (Check.)
Fascism scapegoats some demonized other, or sets of others. (Check.)
Fascism can begin as illiberal democracy and mutate into full-blown tyranny, Mussolini-style. Or fascism can preserve the forms but eviscerate the realities of democracy, à la Putin. (Check.)
Fascism attracts unstable personalities, both the maximum leader himself and his more extreme followers. (Check.)
Fascists are superb at getting followers to believe what Adolf Hitler was the first to call the “big lie.” Repeat it often enough, people believe it. Whether it is true ceases to matter. Truth becomes subjective. (Check.)
Fascism papers over contradictions. Hitler, a short, swarthy Austrian, exalted the blond, blue-eyed German ideal. Silvio Berlusconi, a notoriously corrupt billionaire, mixed business interests with the business of government. Yet he was lionized by ordinary Italians fed up with the state’s corruption. Believers are willfully blind. (Check.)
Fascists use mobs or the threat of mobs to intimidate or physically assault opponents and silence critics. Hitler had his Brownshirts private militia of stormtroopers before he became chancellor. Then it became part of the state. The internet adds a new wrinkle. Trump impulsively uses tweets to incite cyber-mobs. When Trump personally attacked Chuck Jones, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, Jones got threatening phone calls. Journalists who have been attacked for criticizing Trump have been subjected to vile personal threats from Trump’s thugs. And all of this before he had state power.
America is an open society (or it has been). If Trump wants to sic mobs on us, either digitally or live, we are sitting ducks. Suddenly, any critic is in the same position as blacks early in the civil-rights era. A lynch mob could show up at your door, egged on by the local sheriff. Only the sheriff is now president of the United States. (Check.)
Fascists are not just charismatic but entertaining. Juan Domingo Perón and his wife, Eva, put on a terrific show. Likewise Benito Mussolini. And of course Hitler. They were so compelling to their followers that the contradictions were effectively invisible. (Check.)
One such contradiction is fascism’s habit of both bashing business and climbing into bed with business. Though fascists often condemn an international bankers’ conspiracy, fascists work with corporate elites. And business, either naïvely or cynically, often hopes to use fascists—to restore order, to create a favorable business climate, to help domestic business against imports, and to repress free labor unions. German industry and finance supported Hitler and thrived under Hitler. Much of Italy’s corporatist state, with heavy state financing and business-government interlocks, was developed under Mussolini. (Check.)
Despite a lot of blather about democracy and capitalism logically reinforcing each other because of common norms of transparency and rule of law, when push comes to shove capitalists are a weak firebreak against fascism. (Tom Friedman, take note.) As the financial collapse showed, rules are made to be gamed; transparency is for suckers.
We’ve known for a century that capitalists get along fine with dictators in third-world settings—such leaders operate a better business climate than messy democracies. Likewise at home. (Check—and maybe checkmate.)
Fascism also steals the left’s clothes. Fascists sponsor public-works projects and expand social benefits. “Nazi” was an abbreviation for National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Hitler ran a prodigious welfare state, as well as extensive public improvements. Here, however, Trump may botch the necessary tightrope act, because the bread is turning out to be far more meager than the circus. It’s not clear how long psychic income will substitute for real income.
There are two other key respects in which Trump is not a classic fascist. He did not come to office as candidate of a new out-party. His hostile takeover of the Republican Party will produce complications. Moreover, fascists usually take power with a clear agenda. Other than his own vanity, Trump doesn’t have a coherent agenda beyond vague slogans. Incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Vice President–elect Mike Pence are staffing Trump’s cabinet with conventional billionaire conservatives. But that’s not exactly the Tea Party’s cup of tea, nor is the bizarre alliance with Putin.
An astute observation is ascribed to Mark Twain: It is easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled. True enough, but the contradictions are piling up. Even hardcore Trump voters are starting to experience buyer’s remorse.
III. Undoing the Folded Lie
The first line of defense, surprisingly, may be other Republicans. As the CIA-Putin episode suggests, we are in a fateful race between Republican opportunism and the deeper concern of at least some Republicans for the republic; between Trump’s assumption that he was elected dictator and collapsing approval ratings—that may yet give pause to some of his allies—as well as the dawning realization that Trump is even crazier than they thought. The Republican view of Trump may be coming full circle, from contempt to ingratiation and back to contempt.
Several leading Republican senators have drawn the line at Trump’s rejection of the CIA and his footsie with Putin. And while Republicans may want to cut public spending, the plans of designated Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price of Georgia to make drastic cuts not just in welfare but in Social Security and Medicare will not sit well either with Trump voters or with several Republican senators. And some, such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, may not want to turn the EPA over to a leading climate denier.
Trump’s designs on Obamacare spell big losses for hospitals, which are in every congressional district. His version of economic nationalism will wreak havoc with supply chains without doing anything real for American workers. It will backfire if he keeps attacking Boeing, one of America’s few remaining export champions. Tragically, we can’t rely on big business to defend democracy, but we can expect business to fiercely defend its own interests.
In the short run, Trump’s combination of tax cuts and deregulation may produce an economic boom. But a majority of Federal Reserve governors have been spoiling for an excuse to raise interest rates. The widened deficit will give them one. Higher rates, in turn, will slow the economy, increase the value of the dollar and thus widen the trade deficit. Tighter money will also threaten the latest asset bubble in real estate and stocks. We could even see another financial crisis. This is a time to defend core democratic institutions, to amplify all of the contradictions between who Trump pretends to be and who he is. The Democrats need to force Republican legislators to take as many awkward, coalition-splitting votes as possible. They need to put forward affirmative policies that are far more attractive to workaday voters than Trump’s. They need to take some actions of conscience that could also be good politics, such as fervently defending the Dreamers. For the long term, they need to defend and expand a free society, beginning with Obama’s reported efforts on gerrymandering, which could be expanded to a general defense of democracy. Obama could play a far larger role as leader of the opposition. He is a counter–role model to Trump.
But one should not minimize the perils. Trump will wield a massive amount of executive power. This is a man with a short fuse and a long enemies list. As I wrote in a piece last summer that I assumed was merely a passing nightmare, titled “Donald Trump’s Constitution,” he can use the power of the presidency to conduct vast surveillance, threaten the commercial interests of the free press, selectively prosecute, and further weaken the labor movement while his allies in Congress change the ground rules of federalism to undermine progressive policies of blue states and cities. Trump will float above cadres of conservative professionals with detailed playbooks. They will try to back-load the impact of unpopular policies such as deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
Even so, Trump may be too impaired to function as a competent leader. Mario Cuomo famously observed that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. By analogy, Trump may campaign in an alternative, post-fact universe, but he will govern in a world constrained by reality. Missteps and plummeting public support will give his Republican allies second thoughts.
The words attributed to martyr Joe Hill, “Don’t mourn, organize,” were never more urgent. Obama’s audacious, maybe naïve, hope of bridging divides was crushed by Republican cynicism. The post-Trump consensus must be both tough and progressive, for nothing else will bring back the support of working Americans who felt deserted by the presidential Democratic Party.
The more fundamental challenge is to defend democracy itself. Trump can restrict voting rights, but he is unlikely to cancel the elections of 2018 or 2020. With a sour electorate still in an anti-incumbent mood, the incumbent will be Trump. He can’t prevail by promising that things will be great. He will have a record to defend, an all-Republican record. An abbreviated boom could well fizzle by 2018 or 2020. But with the Justice Department as the ministry of voter suppression, progressives can’t prevail by winning by a point or two. It will take a steal-proof margin—a blowout win of ten to fifteen points.
My friend, who narrowly survived urgent surgery, recovered. It is asking a lot to hope that American democracy will make a full recovery. Here at the Prospect, All we have is a voice, to undo the folded lie.
Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He writes columns for the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe and the New York Times international edition. This appeared at Alternet.
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