Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump's convention speech previewed the future of fascism

Donald Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention has provoked the usual - and correct - chorus of concerns over his racist politics. Dara Lind, for example, warns of "the danger Trump's policies" would pose to "nonwhite bodies and lives", and argues that his rhetoric was an exercise in "weaponized white fear".

Crucially, Lind notes that Trump's speech avoided "overt racism that embraced white supremacy by name," relying instead on Nixonian dog-whistles about law and order and immigration. But what caught my attention is that Trump did much more to veil his racist agenda than just avoid bigoted language. Time and time again, Trump openly appealed to liberal identitarian concerns and rhetoric. On race:
Nearly Four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58% of African American youth are not employed. 2 million more Latinos are in poverty today than when the President took his oath of office less than eight years ago. Another 14 million people have left the workforce entirely.
And again:
Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers.
And again, on sexual and gender identity:
As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.
That last quote is particularly telling because Trump even made sure to avoid erasing queer / questioning folks - the Q in "LGBTQ" wasn't there in the draft remarks. Even Clinton, with all of her celebrated progressive sensibilities, routinely leaves them out.

The line is also telling because it gestures directly at his specific agenda: even as he affirms the rights and dignity of the LGBTQ community, he warns about the "ideology" that threatens them and makes a point of describing it as "foreign". What he has in mind, of course, is Islam, and when he says he'll "protect" people from it what he means is that he'll launch a sweeping reactionary attack on Muslims around the world. There are a full range of radical policies on the table here, ranging from discriminatory immigration controls to selective rollbacks on civil liberties to draconian police actions at home and abroad, all targeting Muslims.

But you would only know this is you knew all kinds of policy details that (here, at least) Trump doesn't spell out. Similarly, his concerns about the unemployment and poverty of Americans of color are clearly being voiced in the service of a reactionary capitalist assault on taxes, regulations, and international economic equality - and yet again, you would only know this if you looked elsewhere in his speech and read between the lines.

What Trump's speech proved last night is that fascists can speak the language of liberal identitarianism just as well as liberals. In and of themselves, the concerns that Trump frequently touched on were often absolutely indistinguishable from those routinely voiced by Hillary Clinton and her media surrogates. The rhetoric of identity, diversity, and emancipation was all there, with all of the requisite shout-outs to key constituencies - but all of this Trump co-opts on behalf of a fascist agenda centered upon a radical and violent tribal consolidation of power.

At first glance, it would seem like liberal identitarian politics are incompatible with fascism, and in a limited sense this is true. The fascism of the early twentieth century mobilized, en masse, psychopathological tribalism around ethnonationalistic identity, and accordingly, liberal-left identitarianism has countered that threat through a commitment to racial and international pluralism. Trump's occasionally explicit ethnonationalism is a relic of that earlier fascism, and he is likely to fail precisely because the taboo liberal-left identitarianism has built against it is so powerful.

But I would argue that what is essential to fascism (or at least what makes it so dangerous and destructive) is its tribalism - its toxic cultivation of tribal animus as a way of discharging socioeconomic anxieties. This theory of fascism, Adorno writes, maintains that it has emerged historically when
the lower middle class in rural and metropolitan areas regards the destruction of its Jewish creditor and competitor as the easiest way out of its economic distress. This economic interpretation...must be supplemented by an analysis of the psychological mechanisms which make even those sections of the masses which are not at all dependent on Jewish business particularly susceptible to anti-Semitic propaganda. (185)
Again: liberal-left identitarianism has significantly (though not completely) succeeded in rendering verboten the kind of blatant anti-Semitism that characterized Nazism. But what matters here are the "psychological mechanisms" that anti-Semitism relies upon, and that make it such a powerful and destructive force. If they are at work, then you can have fascism without anti-Semitism - a fascism organized against some other form of identity.

And in fact, the expansive cathexis of Nazism against multiple forms of identity - racial, ethnic, religious, national, sexual, the disabled, and so on - suggests that the psychology of fascism has less to do with the particulars of any given identity, and more to do with their general otherness from whatever tribe is in power. If an identity group can be socially constructed as alien and placed in an antagonistic relationship with everyone else, primitive tribal psychology can facilitate a dangerous catharsis of socioeconomic anxiety.

It's easy to see how liberal identitarianism will endlessly stoke this exact dynamic in its tendency
to bracket off interrelated struggles from each other and to segregate the oppressed into independent vanguards...doom[ing] the left to endless atomization and internecine conflict.
Because liberal identitarianism concerns itself with every identitarian conflict but one - class struggle - it guarantees a society that will always remain at war with itself. (Or as capitalists like to put it, "in competition".) Even as liberal identitarianism battles oppression, capitalism will perpetually foment new antagonisms - and in this way, the two will maintain a toxic equilibrium that serves as a breeding ground for new forms of fascism.

Circling back to Trump, we should not be surprised to find fascism tailoring its message to evade the scrutiny of liberal identitarianism's fight against oppression. Like all fascist rhetoric, Trump's is slippery, opportunistic, and utterly superficial; it can easily adopt different languages for the sake of political expedience, just as the Nazis occasionally gestured towards socialism. But socialism, in its fight against all forms of oppression, bears with it the hope that one day the sophistry of fascism will eventually disappear. Liberal capitalism, on the other hand, only guarantees that fascism will keep coming back. And Trump's occasional flirtation with identitarian rhetoric gives us a glimpse of fascism's future. For capitalism to survive, it will have to speak the language of plurality and emancipation - even as it quietly tightens the noose.