No Room for Democracy

The long arm of the American left. Brussels, July 2018,

Umberto Eco, who spent his early years in fascist Italy, once wrote, “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.” This is, perhaps, the most fundamentally apposite statement of the politics of Donald Trump. He has no philosophy beyond the grumpy natterings common to superannuated white men: raging against the dying of the light with the noontide of white privilege only barely receding. He has only bluster and threats and the lugubrious schmooze of the inveterate speculator.

Trump is like a mathematician who can only ever bring himself to look at one side of any equation. Singing paeans to his base, he stumbles around heedlessly smashing things whose value (and the effort involved in their creation) he simply fails to understand.

This calculation, if such it can be called, can be seen clearly in his dealings with China. Having decided that the Chinese are guilty of some sort of straightforward dirty dealing, he is in the process of plunging the United States into a trade war. That such a conflict is unwinnable, if the definition of winning is bringing US-Chinese trade into some sort of near-party, has not dawned on him. That the whole thing will end up costing US companies market share and relationships built up over decades is probably an order of magnitude too great for him to grasp.

Mr. Trump’s latest bovine pass through the political institutions of the world is his performance at the NATO summit. Mr. Trump has often voiced his scepticism about NATO, asserting the certainty that America was being victimized and that a better deal could be had in a way that indicates that he hasn’t the faintest idea how the institution works or what value the United States derives from it. Certainly, NATO has its problems. Just as certainly, Mr. Trump has neither any clue what they are nor the patience to find out.

The spectre of Russian influence continues to pursue Mr. Trump like an Aeschylean fury. True to form, Mr. Trump’s response is: I’m not controlled by the Russians, YOU ARE! Readers, especially in this country, will likely recall that his rejoinder to concerns that the Russians had hacked the U.S. presidential election was to claim (without a shred of supporting evidence) that they had done so on behalf of Hillary Clinton. In similar fashion, Mr. Trump recently insisted that Germany was somehow the pawn of Mr. Putin, a contention that literally could not be addressed with a straight face.

Mr. Trump followed this up with a threat to leave the alliance if his demands that the other member states devote 4% of the GDP to military spending. Opinions in the media seemed roughly split between those who saw this as some sort of more or less canny negotiating tactic, or a typical Trumpian failure to properly comprehend the national interest. Both persuasions viewed Mr. Trump’s statements as portending drastic changes in the structure of NATO, perhaps even unto its dissolution.

Those of a critical cast of mind will have long ago recognised NATO for what it is: a tool of the hegemonic ambitions of the United States. As such, one might argue that its demise is long overdue. At the same time, one might also ask whether the elimination of the institution, flawed as it may be, would be worth the price of the anarchic consequences likely to follow from it.

In any case, it might now be worth taking a look back at the essay by Eco. Not wanting to cry wolf, or to cheapen or dilute our understanding of earlier periods, a bit of reticence in naming any modern personage or movement as “fascist” is appropriate, having accumulated a reasonably large number of data points in the course of the last eighteen months. Eco claimed to have identified a phenomenon that he termed “Ur-Fascism,” a sort of ideal type comprising features sufficiently overlapping as to justify subsumption under a single heading. The point here is not to claim that Trump is the avatar of some historical movement reborn, or that the fascism of the 1930s is on the point of returning as it was. This is, rather, an exercise in comparison for the sake of identifying new and novel potential dangers to come.

Taking each of Eco’s defining characteristics in turn, we begin with the cult of tradition. Mr. Trump’s vocation in real estate speculation and the creation of synergy might have given him a taste for the sort of creative destruction that is anathema to settled traditions. He does occasionally make certain nods toward tradition, such as those cases when which embraces the flag with the awkwardness of an adolescent going in for a first kiss. But in the broad scope of Mr. Trump’s politics, the project of making America great again is more about breaking the old rather than making it new again.

It is similarly questionable whether the rejection of modernism fits with a man committed to the idea of fighting ISIS in space. But then again, Italian fascism was quite comfortable making common cause with the futurists. Perhaps one must distinguish between modernism, with its rather melancholy recognition that things are falling apart and the centre cannot hold, and futurism, which evinces a kind of confidence bordering on psychosis.

Eco’s next two characteristics, irrationalism and an abhorrence toward analytical criticism, are staples of Trump’s worldview. Mr. Trump’s irrationalism clothes itself in a specious rationalism as he insists on making public assertions that either lack foundation or are obviously and demonstrably untrue. That he does so is clear evidence that he understands his base, whose attitude when pressed always turns to “so much the worse for the facts.” The instances of Mr. Trump’s rejection of facts even asserted by his allies are so numerous as to constitute a system.

The exploitation of the fear of difference has been a fundamental element of Mr. Trump’s politics since first announced his candidacy. His claims about Mexicans being thieves and rapists, and his overtly racist ban on Muslims from certain countries (though unfavored by connections to his business empire) have been a primary selling point in getting his fan base motivated. For the rest of those on the right end of the spectrum (and not only them) the passing over of Mr. Trump’s xenophobia with a nudge and wink comes quite easily, especially for the ones benefiting from his destruction of the remaining fragments of the American welfare state. His appeals to the fears of the middle class make his dark references to the dangers of immigration (by brown people) stoke middle-class anxieties in a way that makes this all easier to swallow.

For those at the lower (economic) end of Mr. Trump’s base, it is important to stress that the destruction of the land that they love being facilitated by coastal elites. Soulless cosmopolitans and the entertainment industry and in higher education are, so Mr. Trump would have it, ready to sell out white America at the drop of a hat. This is, of course, a canard with a long history in the rhetoric of American conservatism. Mr. Trump’s employment of it is one of his attempts to convince more “civilised” Republicans that he is cut from the same cloth as they are.

Mr. Trump’s elitism is odd and interesting. He paints himself, despite his wealth, as a man of the people. And his base buys into this. Perhaps there is something aspirational in this. Mr. Trump’s supporters feel that he is like them because they believe in their heart of hearts that someday they might be like him, but only if the land can be defended from the evils of Chinese steel and the tide of foreigners. Only then will America be great again, and those who have been true to the national ideal will get what they truly deserve.

Trump’s machismo is probably visible from space and taken by his supporters to be one of his most appealing qualities. His talk of grabbing women, or of taking liberties in beauty pageant dressing rooms, to say nothing of the dozen are so sexual assault claims pending against him, bespeak a kind of virility that Mr. Trump’s base feel is sorely lacking. In a country in which the most beloved game (football, not baseball) is imperilled by the threat of CTE litigation, the fear that manhood will no longer have its accustomed cachet is real and compelling.

The current populist wave in Republican politics is not quite of the same variety as that of the fascism of the 1930s. That populism sought to overcome individualism as a threat to the maintenance of a sound culture. Today’s populism has a distinct individualist slant. Margaret Thatcher famously noted that there was no such thing as society, thus giving voice to the neoliberal obsession with the individual. Yet the individualism of Mr. Trump and his enablers is an illusion, open only to those with sufficient capital. That Mr. Trump’s base has been convinced to believe, contrary to all indications, that this might someday include themselves is a tribute to the capacity of the spectacle to purvey false consciousness.

Eco refers to the tendency of fascism to employ Newspeak, but it is doubtful that he could have foreseen the way that this would be created by the president’s Twitter account. Validated by the effects on language already being independently wrought by social media, Mr. Trump’s inability to use English above third-grade level has been translated into a positive virtue. Indeed, Twitter might be the perfect environment for an individual who brooks no contradiction and wishes to conduct politics at the level of assertion and counter-assertion.

At its root, fascism synergized between petit bourgeois fears and the needs of the wealthy to intensify the exploitation of human labour power. It is as much a state that capitalism can occupy as a social phenomenon. Eco makes the point that identifying and classifying phenomena such as fascism is difficult because it involves associating things that overlap but never completely.

Mr. Trump’s politics have many of the characteristics of the fascism of the original era, although it lacks the regimented mass organizations that were common to practically all of those variants. What is most alarming is that his politics also involve the desire to reconfigure the state in its own image, representing not so much a swing of the pendulum but a shift in the political order more generally.   

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.