The age of Trump and 21st century fascism

The wave of nationalist populism that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump – and could bring about a sea-change in European political leadership – has the potential to lead to more sinister permutations

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The aftershocks are continuing to reverberate from the political earthquakes of 2016. The seismic events of last year, culminating in the election victory of US President Donald Trump, have generated saturation coverage and acres of commentary. There has since been plenty of soul-searching and hand-wringing from liberal opinion-makers about the dangers of creeping authoritarianism and the advent of fascism. 

The tail-end of 2016 saw the Italian referendum in effect become a vote on Matteo Renzi’s premiership. Defeat forced him to resign in yet another scalp in the populist backlash against technocratic, managerialist, globalisation elites. Meanwhile, the rerun of the Austrian election averted the first far-right government in Western Europe since the Second World War, although the Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer still racked up an impressive 46 per cent of the vote. However, it may only be a matter of time before the far right comes to power with three decisive European elections all in 2017. 

This month the Dutch election could see the victory of the hard-right nationalist Geert Wilders. Wilders has virulently attacked Islam and Moroccan migrants while promising to ban the Quran and to take back the Netherlands for its people. Running on this platform, Wilders is currently leading in the polls. In May, the French election appears likely to generate another shock upset. French society is fractured with stark economic, social and ethnic divisions and is still reeling from a number of terrorist attacks, which have resulted in a perpetual state of emergency (as in the US) – all of which plays into the hands of Marine Le Pen. 

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Dutch far-right politician and leader of the Freedom Party Geert Wilders (Getty)

Many pundits have confidently dismissed a Le Pen victory on the basis that the public are likely to vote strategically against the Front National in the second round. Then again, the same pundits confidently predicted that Brexit would never happen and that Trump would be resoundingly defeated. This misreading of the public mood and the political situation is remarkably complacent. The lesson of 2016 is that voters are quite happy to back candidates perceived to be anti-establishment, promising to deliver real change and to break with the status quo. 

Finally in September, the German election could even signal the end of the Angela Merkel era. Voters may well be in a mood to punish the Chancellor over her unpopular policy of mass immigration. Whatever happens, the far right Alternative für Deutschland are likely to make significant gains.

The classification of fascism is a contentious subject. In the case of Trump, his demagoguery, threats to imprison Hillary Clinton, the Muslim ban, plans to repatriate millions of migrants (it should be noted that Obama repatriated 2.5 million migrants), targeting of various social groups and attacks on the media and judiciary are all characteristic features of populism. Such authoritarian tendencies could evolve into ever more sinister permutations. Trump's “America First” inauguration speech was a chilling exhortation of a dark, hard-line vision. 

The Bulgarian communist theoretician Georgi Dimitrov defined fascism as “an open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of the financial capital”. We might settle on a working definition of fascism as the combined power of the state and capital in an authoritarian mould harnessing racial nationalism. 

The legacy of Nazism, the Holocaust and the Second World War was “never again” – that such horrors must never be repeated. Yet 70 years on, we appear to be at a critical juncture with one road leading to fascism. Churchill described this historical amnesia as, “that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind”.  

Many parallels are being drawn with the 1930s. Yet the period 1918-33 is arguably more important. How did the Nazis go from a minor irrelevance to become the party of government in a sophisticated and cultured democracy in the space of 15 years? This is the question posed in the first episode of the seminal series The Nazis: A Warning from History, currently being replayed on BBC4. 

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Front National leader Marine Le Pen speaks during a campaign rally (Getty)

Then as now there was an intractable economic crisis of capitalism. For the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany compounded by later crises (most notably the effects of the Wall Street Crash) read the 2007-08 financial crash compounded by austerity. The breakdown of the system leads to political polarisation. In the 1930s, confronted with a choice between Nazism and communism as the solution to the crisis, the German establishment had a strong preference for the former ensuring that they would continue to thrive. German industrialists and the aristocracy also thought (wrongly) that they might be able to control Adolf Hitler. 

It is important to understand this complicity of the liberal establishment as an essential ingredient in the rise of authoritarianism. Every attempt on the part of liberals to discredit progressive forces – whether it is the Democratic National Committee rigging the contest against Bernie Sanders to engineer a Hillary Clinton nomination or New Labour elements undermining Jeremy Corbyn – consolidates the grip of the new right. 

The original sin of the liberal establishment (and middle class) is the failure to compute that the status quo may be working for them but that it has left millions of their fellow citizens behind and is thus broken. More of the same neo-liberal policies generating widening inequality, stagnating wages and collapsing living standards is not a persuasive vision. The return to a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world does not resolve these fundamental issues. 

The corporate capture and coopting of social democratic parties translated into a betrayal of their working-class base. They have haemorrhaged the support of previously loyal constituencies to populists.  One result is that cultural identity – in this case white working-class identity – has replaced class allegiance as represented by the old left. 

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Daniel Ellsberg, former military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, during an anti-war protest in 2010 (Getty)

The promise of a nostalgic return to a pre-modern world, embodied in traditional values of community, family and religion is associated in former industrial heartlands with monocultural nationalism and evidently has strong appeal. Conversely, in this framework, the uprootedness and dislocation of late modernity engendered by neo-liberal globalisation, the decimation of manufacturing and the fragmented atomisation of hyper-individualism is associated with multicultural secularism. 

The #TrumpTheEstablishment YouTube video was remarkably astute propaganda encapsulating this critique of the political, corporate and financial establishment. It might be easy to dismiss this as a misguided, reactionary interpretation of current problems but with the progressive left moribund and the complicity of the liberal establishment, the populism of the new right has only prospered. 

Thus, Trump's positive statements about Vladimir Putin may have been astonishing to hear from a US presidential candidate but they were not slips of the tongue. They were calculated as coded messages to his base that he similarly represented strong leadership aiming to “restore” America's greatness and reassert Christian values. Polling corroborates this picture with many Americans prioritising security above democracy. 

Capitalism, contrary to its regular pronouncements on freedom, has an uneasy relationship with democracy. Governments, militaries, intelligence agencies and corporations – the global elite, if you like – are largely aware of the current unsustainability of late capitalism on every level: economically, socially and ecologically. The accumulation of authoritarian state power should be viewed as containment of increasingly volatile societies. The coming decades are likely to see more instability, failed states, terrorism and destructive effects of climate change leading to greater conflict, chaos and mass migration. 

One can even see the current brand of populist politics – imbued with nationalism and protectionism – as an attempt to pull up the drawbridge in the face of the coming meltdown. Unsurprisingly, hyper-rational super-rich individuals are now investing in emergency bunkers in anticipation of what is to come.

Yet if fascism combines the power of the state with that of capital, then we can see that capital is falling into line behind Trump. This is unsurprising when one considers that his administration of corporate and super-rich individuals will be fiercely pro-business. This enthusiasm is especially evident in the financial and energy sectors with the enticing prospect of greater deregulation. Yet even where there is opposition, for example from the tech sector, it is mainly based on the fact that curtailing immigration will not be conducive to their business model rather than any moral stance. And even in the shiny, happy tech world, there are staunchly pro-Republican conservative elements. 

Fascism is generally preceded by the decay of democracy and the rule of law. In other words, it does not happen overnight. Post 9/11, the war on terror brought about the erosion of civil liberties with indefinite detention, torture, the extraordinary rendition programme with a global network of “black-site” prisons into which enemy combatants were disappeared, blanket NSA surveillance and extra-judicial bugsplat drone assassination of targets including US citizens. 

Such powers, disproportionate to the threat of terrorism, inevitably begs the question: who are the real enemies of the state? Is this apparatus increasingly going to be deployed against citizens by authoritarian states? A customary mistake has been to focus on the individual figurehead of Trump when it is the national security state that has evolved into a proto-fascist entity. As Edward Snowden presciently warned, all it will now take is for a leader to come in and flick the switch into a totalitarian nightmare. The Trump victory may well herald this transition. 

Strategies from the war on terror have already been transplanted into domestic law enforcement. The militarisation of the US police force has seen brutal “Vietnamisation” tactics applied to deprived urban neighbourhoods consisting disproportionately of African Americans. The burgeoning US prison population, consisting of large numbers of black males with the corralling of millions of citizens, appears to be a response to economic failures in order to mitigate against rioting and social unrest. 

Brutal tactics have also been applied in the policing of protest as evident with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson and the stand-off at the Standing Rock reservation. A Guardian investigation highlighted that Chicago’s Homan Square facility represented the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site into which US citizens have been disappeared and deprived of their constitutional rights. The lockdown of an entire city following the Boston bombings can be seen as a dress rehearsal for something bigger. 

At the end of the First World War, the unexpectedly sudden German surrender was perceived by some soldiers and the public as a betrayal fomented by a conspiracy of Jews and Bolsheviks. In 1919, the failed attempt to establish a Bavarian Soviet republic was also blamed on Jews and Bolsheviks. The conflation of Jews and communism was thus a critical factor in the whipping up of anti-Semitism. Today, the conflation of Muslims and terrorism has been critical in the whipping up of Islamophobia. 

In the UK, decades of the rhetoric of tabloid hate speech have generated antipathy and intolerance reaching fever pitch post-Brexit. The steady stream of jingoistic propaganda is replete with images of “hordes” of migrants and “barbarians” at the gate. This is textbook scapegoating, deflecting the blame from the financial elite responsible for the 2007-08 crash on to those at the bottom. It is an inverted reality of how capitalism operates. 

Then again, we should not be too surprised. A publication such as the Daily Mail has historical form with its support for Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts and proprietor Viscount Rothermere’s dalliance with Hitler. Yet its “Enemies of the People” headline directed against the judiciary presaged terrifying things to come. 

The representation of Muslims and refugees in mainstream discourse as variously stray dogs, swarms and cockroaches is disturbing. This dehumanisation has very dangerous historical precedents in that it legitimises the perpetration of violence against the other. The moment that one denotes others as non-human then it follows that they can be treated as such. 

During the Republican candidate debates, both the concept of “special identification” for Muslims and the closures of mosques were discussed with ominous echoes of the past. Hot on the heels of the executive order on an immigration ban for seven majority-Muslim countries, proposals for a Muslim database could be in the offing. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, puts it: “One more 9/11, and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of detentions. Middle Easterners and Muslims will be put in detention camps or deported.” 

The spectre of authoritarianism is spreading across the globe. The Sino-Russian model has been imported into Turkey and Eastern Europe. Yet ultimately, 21st century fascism will not take the same form as 20th century fascism. As Halford E Luccock put it: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, Americanism.” That moment may now be upon us but 21st century fascism will not necessarily be characterised by concentration camps, the Gestapo and jackboots. The surveillance state may mean more insidious control with an Orwellian scenario of mass apathy and assent from demoralised, depoliticised subjects. 

It may well be that catastrophe, in the form of fascism and even war, is the surest route to transformative change. In fact, this is the old left canard that destructive forces are a catalyst towards building a better future. In the wake of the Trump victory, Slavoj Zizek posted a video making a similar argument. Yet clearly the desirable outcome is to avert such catastrophic scenarios. 

The question is what form any opposition will take with the present resistance at an embryonic stage. However, progressive mobilisation often occurs in response to the rise of the far right and an anti-Trump coalition is already coalescing. A mass movement prepared to engage in direct action and civil disobedience will be necessary. In the words of Trump, one needs to fight fire with fire. A set of post-capitalist ideas around a green economy, full automation and public, democratic control of the economy are likely to provide the framework for optimistic and visionary manifestos. 

In the final lines of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, satirising the rise of Hitler, Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the bastard is dead, the bitch that bore him is again in heat.”

These lines are sadly just as relevant today. The “bitch” is capitalism and the “bitch in heat” is capitalism in crisis. Never again we say. Could it happen again? Of course not we reply thinking of the better angels of our nature. But I wouldn’t count against it.  

Dr Youssef El-Gingihy is the author of ‘How to Dismantle the NHS in 10 Easy Steps’, published by Zero Books. Twitter: @ElGingihy

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