Thursday, December 10, 2015

Trump lets liberals remain confused about fascism, for now

"Calling Trump a fascist risks misleading voters about his agenda, which is not that much different from that of his rivals for the GOP presidential nod...One common characteristic of fascist regimes was their insistence on collective rather than individual identity. Fascist leaders believed the life of the nation as a whole took precedence over the lives of the people who made it up, imposing a brutal uniformity on the lives of their citizens..." - Max Ehrenfreund
Not only does this fail to understand the role of the collective in fascism as historically understood - it also fails to distance Trump from fascism on its own confused terms.

Consider for example Trump's proposal that the Constitutional rights of Muslim Americans be suspended in order to banish them for the good of the country. What is this, if not an explicit argument that "the life of the nation as a whole [takes] precedence over the lives of the people who made it up"? Trump openly rejects the foundational liberal doctrine of universal individual rights, such as the right to equal protection under the law, and replaces it with a radical "emergency" policy grounded firmly in volkish ideas about America's national identity. The question at this point isn't merely whether we should consider Trump a species of fascism - it's whether we should consider him a species of Nazism, grounded in more or less explicit Protestant white supremacy.

Ehrenfreund's understanding of fascism - he variously equates it with collectivism and anti-capitalism - has more in common with Jonah Goldberg's ahistorical revisionism than with scholarly accounts of its theory and practice. In particular, his fixation on particulars of Trump's proclaimed agenda blesses fascism with principles where none exist. Above all, it is politically pragmatic - pragmatic to the point of utter cynicism. As Paxton notes, "Fascism - a political latecomer that adapted anti-socialism to a mass electorate, using means that often owed nothing to conservatism - drew on both right and left, and tried to transcend that bitter division".

What defines fascism is not its ends, but rather its means - it is not a political goal, but a way of doing politics that tends towards predictable outcomes. Adorno was quite clear about this:
All these demagogues substitute means for ends. They prate about "this great movement," about their organization, about a general American revival they hope to bring about, but they rarely say anything about what such a movement is supposed to lead to, what the organization is good for or what the myserious revival is intended to achieve.
Listen to any given Trump speech - say, one of his most recent, in South Carolina - and this pattern is unmistakeable. The collective looms large in his ideology: not one that is organized around state institutions, but one organized around a national identity, and imminently embodied in the crowds at his rallies. Trump compulsively uses the collective "we" and openly rejects the very existence of dissent. Here's how he responds to protesters:
I'll bet you if I spoke to that young woman...quickly, I think I could convince her we are all in this together, folks. We want to have a strong country...
He goes on to acknowledge that there are a few "troublemakers", but only to insist that even his "friends who disagree" with him actually agree that "we have to have strong country". Notably, this is only moments before Trump scolded, "I don't want the person [the protester] to be hurt, but I will tell you security is very weak, I can't believe these security people."

This, of course, is just the latest episode of Trump openly musing about dissenters from his collective movement getting hurt. What's telling in this case is that while Ehrenfreund credits Trump for his commitment to civil democracy, Trump openly says that he's fine with a more forceful crackdown on dissent, and explicitly blames third parties - in this case, hired security - for failing to make it happen. People who are inclined to give Trump the benefit of a doubt, and insist that Trump would respect liberal democracy once in power, should consider listening to what he is actually saying.