By Michael E. Berumen
Editor’s note: As you know, LR Net never directly reprints material from other places on the web. We may publish links to such material, but we don’t act as a “content aggregator.” However, we are going to make a rare exception today. We recently ran across a piece by Michael E. Berumen that we thought was so instructive that we simply had to reproduce it in toto.
Berumen has written extensively on philosophy and ethics. He is a member of The Bertrand Russell Society’s board of directors and was also the editor of its periodical, the Bulletin. His most recent book is Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business.
It has been nearly two years, now, since I first went on record and predicted Donald Trump would become a major political force and the eventual nominee of the Republican Party, and, perhaps, even president. And so it has come to pass. Many of my friends at the time thought I had lost my mental bearings. I have not in the meantime changed my mind about either Trump or Trumpism. I was personally less than enthusiastic about the alternatives, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, though I much prefered either of them over Trump. As much as I worry about Donald Trump in the White House, today, I am nearly as worried about an ominous undercurrent in the US that is at once large and powerful, and one that will likely remain with us for the foreseeable future. It is a clear and present danger to the nation and, hence, it represents a danger to the world. It is nothing less than a Fascistic movement in the country and, at least for the time being, the leader of the movement occupies the most powerful position in the United States.
When I was young, it was a commonplace on the political left to brand our rightist opponents as Fascists. More often than not, it was used as a facile pejorative, and without much real thought to the lexical or historical meaning of the word. We knew it was bad, representing things that we eschewed, and to identify the opposing right with brutal authoritarian regimes seemed appropriate enough to us, and why not the worst kind. What, after all, could be worse than Nazis, that is, if one wanted to brand something as evil! The appellation was often overused and used inaccurately. It thereby lost much of its significance over time, so today, when it is used appropriately, it is sometimes characterized as hackneyed. In more recent years, it has not been uncommon even to hear rightists use the term to describe leftist thought or activists. Bill O’Reilly, the erstwhile loudmouthed, bully-broadcaster on Fox News, was guilty of this kind of abuse … to cite just one recent example, he called David Silverman, the leader of an American atheist group, as being fascistic for his steadfast positions against organized religion and his support of separation between church and state.
I have long said Trump was a Fascist, and his core followers are either Fascists or enablers of Fascism, which to my mind is a distinction without an important difference. Others reject this, describing him as a mere populist or garden-variety authoritarian, because, after all, the unlettered and historically ignorant Trump would not even be able to define Fascism. Therefore, how could he be one? And his followers, they would have us believe, are just gullible innocents oppressed by their circumstances and victimized, effectively beguiled by a demagogue, and held hostage by his hateful rhetoric. I believe this is complete nonsense. I should like to posit that Trumpism is indeed closely linked to the ideas of historical Fascism; that Trump himself has all of the essential qualities of a Fascist leader; and what is more, that his partisans, wittingly or unwittingly, are a part of a fascistic movement. It does not matter that they do not know the etymology or the history of Fascism, or that they have not read about and are unable to articulate the theoretical underpinnings of historical Fascism. They in fact support many of its main ideas, and for all practical purposes, they are therefore, themselves, Fascists. Much like the millions of Germans who denied that they were Nazis after the war because they were not card-carrying members of the Party, we can no longer allow this faux and obfuscating distinction (i.e., I support Trump and Trumpism, however, I am not a Fascist) to be swept under the rug and ignored.
Contrary to a now common description, Trumpism is not simply a form of populism, although it shares some of its characteristics. Some liberals, especially in the political, academic, and pundit classes, are seriously guilty of whitewashing and, thereby, diminishing Trump and Trumpism’s insidious character by referring to it as populism, and then by qualifying it further by speaking of the several grievances of its largely white, uneducated constituency. It enables them to evince sympathy for the perceived legitimate complaints and anger of the (supposed) underclass, thereby avoiding any accusations of elitism, while remaining critical of Trump himself, essentially offering excuses for the reprehensible behavior … hate, violent overtones, jingoism, racism, and misogyny … of his supporters. Always looking for sociological explanations for their fellow man’s depravity, liberals’ abiding sense of fairness and caring for the downtrodden (who themselves often enough could care less about the liberals or their views) can sometimes obscure their perceptions of the reality of venal, evil forces. This was true in the 1930s, and it is just as true now. Rational men on both the right and the left at the time completely misunderstood what Hitler understood well, namely, that much of politics is not a rational calculation and there is a dark underside of human nature that can be exploited, especially when one can dehumanize someone seen as responsible for one’s real or imagined privations. We see some of this misunderstanding today. One consequence of this kind of faith in rationalism is a tolerance of the intolerable by distancing his supporters from Trump, himself, and from Trumpism, I think this is a mistake, and, at least sometimes, even disingenuous and cynical, as though they represent potential voters for the right side, our side, and thus we cannot afford to alienate them.
I wish to call them out at every turn, for the fact is that Trump’s followers’ views are deplorable, much as his opponent Hillary Clinton said, and Trump is the catalyst and lens for refracting their vile beliefs. Trumpism would not be possible without them. It matters not that some may even be our friends or relations. I make an exception only for the mentally incompetent. Liberals and conservatives both need to call a spade a shovel and stop excusing the inexcusable.
Populism has taken various forms on the political right and left in different times and in different parts of the globe. It has a long history, at least dating back to Pericles in Athens and Julius Caesar in Rome, Broadly speaking, in modern times, populism is a political movement that centers on economic grievances, primarily, though not exclusively, by workers, the less affluent merchant class, and small farmers, against the economic, social, and intellectual elites who are perceived as the causes of their privations. Andrew Jackson might well be the best example of an early populist leader in the US, and to date, the only truly populist president. The Populist Party of the 1890s consisted of farmers and some labor unions that denounced a system, whereby, in the words of David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen’s American Pageant (2005), “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” One of the great populist leaders of this era and into the early 20th century was Williams Jennings Bryan, a charismatic, religious orator, and sometimes presidential candidate, who railed against capitalist elites, as exemplified by his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Huey P. Long, Sr., “The Kingfish,” a governor and senator from Louisiana, led a populist movement in the Great Depression, and, had he not been killed in 1935, he might well have become president. Populism regained currency, again, in the 1950s. The historian Richard Hofstadter and sociologist Daniel Bell compared the anti-elitism and populism of the late 19th century with that of Joseph McCarthy’s grievances against communism and American power elites, In the late sixties and early seventies, George Wallace led a third-party, populist movement that centered on race segregation. And the modern Tea Party has many elements of populism with its focus on white, male grievances with both racial and anti-immigrant overtones.
Bernie Sanders’ candidacy also capitalized on some populist sentiments against the elites, with much emphasis on the real and imagined burdens of white youth and the various real and imagined malefactions of the wealthy, and it is therefore not altogether surprising, after his primary loss, that there has been a small number of converts to Trumpism, and there are some sentiments or grievances that are similar … or if not out-and-out converts, there are people who rationalize (mistakenly, I believe) that Trump could be no worse than the alternative. This is a delusion, and a false sense of principle, when it is actually the opposite of principle, for he is much worse. Politics is a practical affair, and principle can get in the way of principle, which is to say, ceteris paribus, when the ideal has little or no chance of succeeding, the next best thing, or the least worse thing ought to prevail. Al Gore lost the presidency resulting in a war that still has not ended, among other things, due in part to a kind of ideological narcissism on the part of those voting for Ralph Nader.
To no small degree, the Tea Party movement was a precursor of Trumpism, and it cannot be denied that Fascism and Trumpism have characteristics of populism, and particularly in the sense that people are rallied against others who are seen as the root cause of their various misfortunes, whether the power elites in government, corporations, or “the other” represented by other nations or ethnic groups. But there are also some significant differences between populism and Trumpism. None of the aforementioned populist movements were truly fascistic in nature, whereas, Trumpism most certainly is.
I hasten to state that Fascism is not a systematic doctrine. It is difficult to characterize, and there is considerable debate to this day as to what constitutes true ideological Fascism. It is not an internally consistent doctrine built on a few principles such as one might find in the several socialist or free market doctrines, or in more traditional forms of authoritarian or totalitarian systems In many ways, it is quite incoherent as an ideology, and it consists of an admixture of ideas sometimes even in opposition to one another. At its root, I believe, is the power of the state and the individual leader, and the identification of the former with the later. It is best, I think, to look at some general characteristics that its several strands possess, but as much as anything, also to consider the actual behaviors of its leaders and followers from a historical perspective.
Fascism has many fathers in terms of its origins and evolution; but in terms of what I’ll call European “movement Fascism”, a phenomenon that reached its apotheosis with Hitler and Mussolini, it is principally rooted in fin de siècle Italian, German, and French political thought, and as an offshoot of various Italian and German social movements, but particularly in Italian syndicalism and pan-German nationalism, Among the most influential thinkers were Georges Sorel, Enrico Corradini, Georg von Schönerer, Wilhelm Riehl, Oswald Spengler, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. There are others, but most influential of all, that is, prior to Adolf Hitler––was Benito Mussolini, himself, who catalyzed the views of various thinkers into a well-organized political movement, Hitler, of course, took it to another level, and, in the process, he nearly led the world into the abyss.
There is a myth that Trump resembles Mussolini as a person. It is often repeated, but said by people who obviously know next to nothing of Mussolini beyond the swaggering character that they see in old newsreels, Perhaps in his exaggerated attempts at machismo this is true, but it really ends there, Mussolini was a learned and well-rounded man, he had an advanced degree and wrote learned papers, including one on Machiavelli’s Prince. He spoke several languages … and he was a gifted orator with cogent syntax, the latter being a great distinction from Trump, who has the vocabulary of a middling grammar school student. In contrast, Adolf Hitler’s learning was eclectic, Aside from being a brilliant orator and dramatist, perhaps only equaled by Winston Churchill in recent times, Hitler was naturally bright and retentive. He also was a gifted street psychologist, a master of branding, use of media, and marketing, much as Trump appears to be. Also like Trump, he was intellectually lazy, and uninterested in systematic learning or scholarship. His venue was the coffee house and beer hall, not the library, much as Trump’s is television and social media. While both possess remarkable powers of intuition, especially into the darker sides of human nature, it is patently clear that Hitler was the brighter of the two, as measured by the logical construction of ideas and retention of information. What is more, unlike Trump, Hitler was exceptionally disciplined in managing his public persona, in control of his political machinations … exposing himself only very carefully … and very rigorous in conducting his personal relations. Trump is much more impulsive and reckless. The personality comparisons are not what are important about Trump … for there are not many, really, and they are at best quite superficial. With that said, to therefore suggest that he could not be a Fascist because he is unlike Mussolini or Hitler, is specious. Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh were both communists, too, and while as most of us humans do, they had some things in common, they were fundamentally different as people.
So what is Fascism? First of all, let’s nip one common misunderstanding in the bud, It is does not fit in the traditional categories of right and left, which is not the way the self-styled intellectuals representing either ideological extreme would like to have it, namely, that Fascism represents the ideology of the other side. The fact that this is even possible by both sides of the political spectrum partly explains why it can appeal to many. It is nearly always presented by academics as a species of far right-wing politics … but that is overly simplistic … it is much more complicated than that. It is more comforting for the typical intellectual or academic to put it that way, since he is more often than not of a liberal mindset. No less than an authority than Hitler himself thought Nazism, a species of Fascism, transcended left and right, borrowed from both, and was what he called “syncretic,” In the broadest terms, here are ten characteristics one will find in the three previously successful, large-scale fascistic movements in Europe. Taken individually each attribute may be found in other kinds of movements. But taken as a whole, in combination, I believe they typify Fascism.
- Fascism is a form of hyper-nationalism that capitalizes on two principal things … one, strong patriotic feelings, often founded on a mythical past that never occurred, and two, the vilification of groups seen as sullying the nation and detrimental to the national interest, often represented by an ethnic or religious group, modernism, cosmopolitan elites, and outsiders more generally. [“Make America Great AGAIN.”] [I am putting America first.] [“I think the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”] (…just to name three of many–but more to follow illustrating the same point.)
- While there certainly are elements of anti-elitist populism, Fascism also seeks to co-opt people in power, for power is its ultimate objective, and because it is more than willing to use utilitarian means to attain its ends, it will curry favor with economic, political, and intellectual elites wherever and whenever it can to secure it. [Simply look at GOP leaders and moneyed donors, many who are rational and well educated people, who previously denounced Trump, then seek to curry favor with him when he’s in a position of power, and the latter’s willingness to use all the tools at his disposal of the elites that his followers decry, e.g., global interests, the media.]
- Fascism freely borrows from both socialist and capitalist doctrines … for power is its goal … and there is not a systematic economic doctrine other than that which is seen as necessary to attain power and to benefit the state, co-opting whatever economic power or centers of influence are necessary to attain those ends, whether through markets, corporate interests, or popular measures with the masses … so it is perhaps no coincidence that Mussolini was once a socialist involved in the labor movement (which he would destroy), and that Nazism had a vibrant socialist wing in its earlier years … one eventually quashed (the Night of the Long Knives) by the mid-thirties and replaced by a kind of quasi-capitalism, an economic system best described as state corporatism or crony capitalism. [“Well, the first thing you do is don’t let the jobs leave. The companies are leaving. I could name, I mean, there are thousands of them. They’re leaving, and they’re leaving in bigger numbers than ever. And what you do is you say, fine, you want to go to Mexico or some other country, good luck. We wish you a lot of luck. But if you think you’re going to make your air conditioners or your cars or your cookies or whatever you make and bring them into our country without a tax, you’re wrong.”] [From Trump’s chief economic adviser, Steve Moore: “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy. I’m not even a big believer in democracy.”]
- Conspiratorial and exclusionary thinking about groups and forces aligned against the movement is part and parcel to all fascistic movements, and plays a central role in the rallying cries of its leaders, whether the bogeyman is international Jewry, a particular ethnic group, the bourgeoisie, large corporate interests, liberal elites, Bolsheviks, or the media. [On Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs,’ crime and are ‘rapists’.”][“I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall.] [I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people (ed: that is, Arabs) were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”] [“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”] [“On The Wall Street Journal: ‘They better be careful or I will unleash big time on them.”][“We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”]
- When out of power, fascistic movements always declaim against the legitimacy of those in power as usurpers who, through their machinations, rig outcomes and are not the true representatives of the people or the nation. Trump declared before the election that a potential loss could only result from voter fraud and media rigging. We now know the fraud was committed by his allies, the Russians, and we should not be surprised to discover Trump and his associates were complicit in their machinations. Hints at violence if outcomes are not just (meaning a loss) are not uncommon, and he suggested as much. [“I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots. I’m representing many, many millions of people. In many cases first-time voters … If you disenfranchise those people? And you say, well, I’m sorry, you’re 100 votes short, even though the next one is 500 votes short? I think you’d have problems like you’ve never seen before. I wouldn’t lead it, but I think bad things will happen”.][“Polls close, but can you believe I lost large numbers of women voters based on made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED. Media rigging election!”] [“Election is being rigged by the media, in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news!”]
- Every successful fascistic movement has been led by a charismatic and often bombastic demagogue who is seen as and who claims to be the embodiment of the nation, the vessel of the national will, and as the exceptional person–one without whom the nation cannot prosper or survive. The state and its leaders effectively become one, [“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”] [After delineating the ills of the nation: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”]
- Fascistic movements view violence as a just means of achieving its ends, whether outside of or through the state, and law and order are common code words. Calls for violence or hints of violent recourse against opponents are common. There is often an exaggerated, hyper-masculinity on parade, with glorification of toughness and strength and power. There is a display of an authoritarian bearing, and the leader’s followers are admirers of it. [“When somebody challenges you, fight back. Be brutal, be tough.”] [“When Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”] [“If she gets to pick her judges – nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people. Maybe there is. I don’t know.”] [“Why can’t we use nuclear weapons.”] [“You know what I wanted to. I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard. I would have hit them. No, no. I was going to hit them, I was all set and then I got a call from a highly respected governor.”]
- Despite the popular appeals to “law and order,” a trope of authoritarianism more generally, the fascistic conception of law lies outside of any legislative or judicial proceedings or the kinds of protections or due process enshrined by a constitutional authority. Often the law is construed as that which us willed by the individual or individuals in power. [‘It is a disgrace. It is a rigged system. I had a rigged system, except we won by so much. This court system, the judges in this court system, federal court. They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace. Ok? But we will come back in November.’] [“The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.”] [On telling generals to violate the Geneva Conventions, US Constitution, and the Uniform Military Code of Justice: “They won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me. I’m a leader; I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”]
- A common attribute of fascistic movements is the creation of alternate realities, often with an adamant and repetitive disregard for the truth, even in the face of abundant veridical evidence to the contrary, especially when it serves the ends of the partisans or when said evidence conflicts with doctrine. [‘An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.’] [(On unemployment: ‘I’ve seen numbers of 24 percent — I actually saw a number of 42 percent unemployment. Forty-two percent. 5.3 percent unemployment — that is the biggest joke there is in this country. … The unemployment rate is probably 20 percent, but I will tell you, you have some great economists that will tell you it’s a 30, 32. And the highest I’ve heard so far is 42 percent.’]
- Symbolism is often an important aspect of Fascism, especially patriotic symbols that evoke feelings of group identity. The Nazis, in particular, made effective use of this. [An example, one of many, would be Donald Trump Jr.’s tweeted picture with the Trumps next to a green frog, a common alt-right/anti-Semitic and racist symbol, Of course, all the standard patriotic regalia and lighting and music are part and parcel to the Trump campaign, as it is with every campaign; but there are insidious instances of using other racist and anti-Semitic memes and symbols.]
The foregoing is by no means an exhaustive list, but I believe it captures the essentials, and though right and left populist movements might share in some of these characteristics in various times and places, when taken as a whole, I think they are substantively different. I have bracketed just a small sample of statements by Trump himself, simply to illustrate and encapsulate some of the reasons why I think he meets these ten criteria. The amount of additional evidence of his fascistic nature and policies, along with his unsuitability and utter venality as a human being is simply overwhelming. The things I have remarked upon are all in addition to his hateful statements towards the disabled and women, an admission to committing physical assault, and to being a sexual predator. Not to mention his repeated failure to adhere to contracts with vendors; discriminatory practices as a landlord; and his use of racist tropes (e.g., birtherism). Then there were Trump’s threats to prosecute and jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton, if he wins, or, if he loses, to not recognize the results of the election. The latter are among the hallmarks of authoritarian strongmen and authoritarian regimes everywhere.
While I think Fascism and what it conveys is an important descriptor, and one worth preserving and using when it fits, I will readily admit its overuse by the left has diminished its force and gravity. Moreover, it seems to many to be a dead doctrine, one now buried in the historical dustbin. It isn’t. Setting that aside, though, the fact remains that the ascendancy of Trump and his craven Republican converts represent the most dangerous political phenomena in the US in the modern era.
The only silver lining is there is some potential that an intellectually and morally responsible center-right party will rise from the ashes, and the apparent destruction of the modern Republican Party, a party transformed (historical irony, here!) by the white flight of the post-Confederate Democrats after the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-Sixties, and an unholy alliance between corporate welfarests and assorted disaffected racists, white Evangelicals, and white workers, a coalition cobbled together by Nixon and Reagan (the so-called silent and moral majorities, respectively), and with the help of considerable gerrymandering at the congressional level, courtesy of the likes of Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove. And all the while, the more rational Republican establishment was winking at the crass incitements of the unlettered by the Breitbarts, Limbaughs, Hannitys and O’Reillys of the world, believing at the end a rational man can be inserted (e.g., a McCain or a Romney), whilst the rabble are once again returned to their trailer parks, guns, and religion. It did not happen this time. I strongly suspect both Nixon and Reagan would be rather appalled by the Frankenstein monster they helped to create–culminating in a hydra-headed amalgam of the Old Confederacy, Palinism, and Trumpism. It is no longer the party of Javits, Dirksen, Eisenhower, or T.R. (who left the party, despite today’s ahistorical Republican hagiography of him), let alone the party of Lincoln, Today it is the party of the ultimate vulgarian, Donald Trump.
Even with Trump’s impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment, or a defeat for a second term, I still worry about the possibility of violence, an intractable divide in our population, an impotent executive with a recalcitrant congress (that already lies in wait to foil a left of center president), and an unstable world with dictators, fanatics, and jingoists run amok, some considerable amount of which is of the United State’s own making. But most of all, I worry about the here and now, for Trump has access to the nuclear codes. , It has become patently evident that he has an unstable and petulant temperament. It would be a mistake to be fooled by his apparent isolationism and pacific statements in the past, for his behaviors and language have always been hyper-aggressive, and he has an overwhelming need to appear tough–––and like many of those who are especially egocentric and thin-skinned, he manifests a singular problem with self-esteem, one veiled by a very fragile ego. This is a mixture for disaster with someone in charge of the most powerful military, police, and intelligence apparatus in the world. It is an odd thing that this old McGovern liberal has come to believe that the leaders of the FBI and military may be the only things that stand in the way of a president gone mad whilst the Congress and courts fiddle.
It is said it couldn’t happen here, Well, I suspect something similar was thought in the most technologically advanced, literate, and cosmopolitan nation on the face of the earth in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The nation of Beethoven, Kant, and Goethe. And it not only happened, it happened very suddenly, And in the process, both conservative and liberal forces were co-opted or eliminated. Had there been a choice for, say, Pappan or Schleicher over Hitler in 1932-33, both imperfect men, much as Clinton or Sanders were imperfect … but not Fascists, and both realistic alternatives at the time. Tens of millions of lives might have been spared. I do not expect Trump will kill millions, though I am shaken to think that a man of his temperament is Commander-in-Chief But even in the absence of causing a military conflagration, I do think he could irrevocably alter the course of history in a dark and sinister way. It is therefore essential that we do everything we can to remove Trump from office and rollback Trumpism. Liberals, moderates, and responsible conservatives must also defeat the GOP majority by the widest margin possible at all levels in 2018 change the balance of power in the Congress and also state offices. Only then can rational conservatives begin to rebuild a responsible center-right party. The principal goal must be to eradicate Fascism from the nation before it spreads any further like the virulent cancer that it is.