What is Fascism, Really?

This election season has seen more speculation on fascism than perhaps any previous election in the country. Donald Trump’s insurgency within the Republican Party has provoked a considerable counter-offensive against his alleged racism from diverse swaths of the political field, including in fact Republican Party officials who undoubtedly sense what an existential threat his campaign is to the future legitimacy of their party. Salon has branded Trump as a “Mussolini,” and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio similarly identified him as “proto-fascist” and racist.

The most frequent similarities drawn between Trump and 20th-century European fascism are relatively simple aesthetic ones: the seductive and charismatic personality, the harsh rhetorical attacks on immigrants, the violent actions of his followers, and the endorsement of the KKK. These connections, perhaps typified by the “loyalty pledge” incident, make for entertaining journalism and undoubtedly leave a mark in the public consciousness, but don’t do much in favor of getting to the heart of the political content of fascism. Most of the characterizations of “il Duce Donald” fall short of the mark as such.

How fascist is Donald Trump, really? I probably can’t conclusively answer the question, but I’d like to offer up a couple ideas for consideration (and hopefully, discussion and criticism) concerning the definition of fascism and how it relates to Donald Trump and American politics. Firstly, what I believe to be the definition of fascism:

1. Fascism institutes a nationalized, planned economy, but unlike the similar Communist position, this economy is nationalized for the benefit of the nation rather than the victory of the working-class. Fascism has always been anti-capitalist. Across the pond, the noted fascist British National Party declares plainly that “the economy should be managed for the benefit of the nation.” This by no means proves that fascism is pro-labor, however; fascism simultaneously nationalizes industry and destroys the power of the labor movement, giving direction of the economy to the state. Fascism wishes to build a self-reliant national economy, and to this end it promotes protectionist policies like import tariffs, defends domestic manufacturing and agriculture activities, and opposes free-trade.

2. Fascism is concerned with creating a united national and racial identity, and it is because of this that fascism has always been hostile to the class politics of the right and the left. Fascism strives to nurture the power and supremacy of its constituent race, be it Aryans, “indigenous Britons” like the BNP, or the American white race. Fascism “is the movement that does not narrow-mindedly represent the interests of one class, but serves the entire Volk,” as typical Nazi propaganda declared around the elections of 1930.

3. Fascism (usually) rescues capitalism from periods when its legitimacy is in crisis,
though this fact might not help us much because we can almost always point to conditions that hint capitalism is decaying. Regardless, a major political-economic function of fascism is that it allows the capitalist class and the state apparatus to plainly merge for the purpose of disciplining social unrest and suppressing class struggle. If a material reason for the rise of fascism can be found in history, it is generally the reaction of the ruling class to serious threats to its ability to govern. These are not simply economic depressions, but depressions which mutate into clear, organized political challenges such as prolonged strike waves or the emergence of mass-based anti-capitalist political parties. Though no such conditions exist today, in Trump’s case, there’s no reason to believe that fascism can’t be premature.

4. Fascism is not American in the sense that it was not created with our national mythology in mind. In America the forces furthest to the right (like the Tea Party and the Libertarian Party) are usually classical liberal in nature: they emphasize the primacy of the individual over society, the supremacy of the right to private property and the existential imperative of civil liberties, all of which are decidedly un-fascist concepts.

In fact, the closest America has ever come to fascism was probably during World War II when the Democratic Party government instituted the National War Labor Board. The NWLB was created for the purpose of muting the class struggle in the interest of the nation – more specifically, to maintain war production uninterrupted by strikes or lockouts. The NWLB banned strikes (with the consent of the labor unions) and greatly curtailed the authority of both labor and industry to bargain over wages and working conditions.

Trump is running as the candidate of the white race whose birthright it is to reclaim their nation for their people. However, his campaign has most consistently appealed to the white, rural working-class electorate seeking protection from globalization (a population and an issue the left has never successfully understood, organized, or probably even sympathized with), rather than to the middle-class seeking protection from a rogue labor movement. Trump may very well create a new, uniquely American form of fascism, and if Trump is in fact a fascist, that would bring into question whether or not the organized socialist left has an obligation to create a popular front behind Hillary Clinton when Bernie Sanders loses the nomination. Interestingly enough, that would probably damage the reputation of socialists in the eyes of their closest constituents (Sanders supporters) more than it would bolster it.

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What is Fascism, Really?

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