Vigilante Liberalism

Donald Trump

If there’s there’s one thing about Donald Trump that everybody agrees on, it’s that he’s gone too far. After all, even taboo breaking has its limits. But to what end? A recent article in Jacobin contends that the billionaire made the jump from liberalism to fascism. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but oversimplifies the problem.

Not because Trump isn’t a fascist. In a recent article, I called the new anti-immigrant movements in Germany and the rest of Europe “fascism for the era of European decline“: Aggressive and hateful, yes, but more defensive than imperial, more concerned with (economic) security than with grand military adventures. That describes Trump’s politics perfectly. It’s fascism fit for the elderly.

By “making America great again”, Trump does not refer to a radical transformation of American society. What Trump is offering to his followers is nothing more than the promise that, at least in their lifetime, everything will remain as it is. Even though he claimed to be “the most militaristic person there is”, Trump knows that the Republican base is not enthusiastic about foreign adventurism anymore.

His proposed solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East may be gruesome and somewhat eliminationist, but they are also easy and cheap. His promise is to make it all go away – and to steal some oil in the process. Soon, this entire mess will be forgotten, and Americans can focus on going shopping again. It’s the very opposite of a Nazi-style call for glorious sacrifice, and struggle.

But even with this qualification, the f-word still be may be more misleading than illuminating. By calling Trump a fascist, we absolve liberalism of its very own authoritarian and racist potential. After all, was “Jim Crow” fascist? Or the colonial settler society of the early United States? Or, for that matter, mass incarceration and the War on Terror? In other words: Trump may be a fascist, but that does not mean he isn’t a liberal anymore.

Liberalism, after all, is a central ingredient to American national identity. To be American is to be liberal. Many of the nativist and anti-immigrant panics in American history have taken place in the name of this liberalism: After WWI, Eastern European, particularly Jewish, immigrants were identified as carriers of alien and dangerous, un-American ideas. Isn’t Trump saying the same thing about Muslims today?

Similiarly, the modern, Islamophobic right in Europe combines a racial nationalism with a political-identitarian one. In the struggle against “Islamization” and in the clash of civilizations, they believe, only a militant liberalism, frequently, and incorrectly referred to as “Judeo-Christian values.” Why shouldn’t they believe that? Colonialism and racist imperialism were no break with liberal culture. They were a natural part of it. A reified liberal identity has long served as the foundation of Western chauvinism.

Apart from that, liberal ideology is also highly flexible and can incorporate various anti-democratic, “illiberal” policies: Everything from slavery, to colonial war, to segregation and the oppression of women has found its liberal justification in history. As Louis Hartz famously argued in his 1955 book, The Liberal Tradition in America, the remarkably stable and monotonous world of US politics has for centuries played out almost entirely inside the boundaries of an iron-clad liberal consensus.

But liberalism can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, As Corey Robin argues, even though today’s conservatism may embrace the ultimate liberal value of abstract equality, it only does so to reintroduce a vision based on hierarchy and personal domination through the back door, in the “private realms” of the family and the workplace. We may like there to be a clear-cut delineation between liberal policies and authoritarianism, but there isn’t. And if fascism ever does come to America, maybe Americans will not even realize it, as it will look and feel like the individualism they are accustomed to.

The “freedom” that liberal ideologues throughout history have evoked with such pathos has almost always been a freedom for the few. One who has made this point most forcefully is Domenico Losurdo, who, in Liberalism: A Counterhistory analyses the long legacy of exclusion, domination, and oppression immanent in liberal societies, Social hierarchies, he argues, are not simply remnants of antiliberalism, which are slowly being overcome by the majestic unfolding of the liberal idea in history. Instead, they have always been actively produced and protected by the liberal political project itself.

Today, liberal ideas are so hegemonic in our political discourse that nobody can afford not to express his politics in a liberal vernacular of rights, and freedoms, and individualism – not even Marine LePen. Donald Trump is no exception. But he, and right-wing populists like him, stand for an authoritarian liberalism – a vigilante liberalism, which, in the face of dangerous threats to the political community, openly calls for a transgression of ordinary legal and ethical restraints on power.

Obsessed with potential (and imagined) threats and enemies, they argue that extraordinary measures, even anti-liberal ones, need to be taken to preserve the security of the community of the free.

Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Published under a Creative Commons license.