Monday, August 31, 2015

No Need to Look Abroad to Mussolini: Donald Trump's American Antecedents

Werner Herzog's Bear, my friend, historian, very smart man, and proprietor of the blog Notes from the Ironbound has a new essay on Donald Trumpmania and American Right-wing politics. I agree with Werner Herzog's Bear's analysis: it is easy and tempting to call Trump a fascist by looking abroad for his political forefathers.

[Is this habit some type of ironic anti-American Exceptionalism?]

Moreover, it is very tempting to call Trump a fascist precisely because so many in the commentariat are eager to throw that language around without parsing out its definition and attributes. They want to carpet bomb the whole area. But, the enemy may be burrowed deep underground. The target survives.

I have several essays on Donald Trump and related matters forthcoming. One of the concepts I have been returning to in my thinking about the Republican human zoo in this political moment--and the language that the media summons to describe it--is "historical specificity". 

This concept is deceptively simple, i.e. what particular material and social arrangements have produced the dynamics of this particular point in time. However, historical specificity can also be a very challenging concept because the best "critical theory" takes the unseen and the assumed and lays them bare for analysis.

Werner does some good thinking here, as he always does, which is why I was moved to share
"America Has Its Own Antecedents For Trump".


It's been interesting to see folks (many of whom I am a big fan of) draw comparisons between Trump and Mussolini.  Trump fits the fascist bill in their estimation (and mine) because:
  • His appeal to nationalism, fascism's key ingredient
  • His naming of internal enemies to be expunged for the health of the nation
  • His militaristic bent in foreign policy
  • His misognyny
  • His authoritarian proposals and demeanor
  • His appeal to voters across regional, religious, and social class lines
  • His support of a strong (for a Republican) social state
  • His attacks on cultural and political elites
  • Trump is a charismatic leader from outside of the regular political world with a cult of personality around him
None of these things alone makes someone a fascist, but put them together....

I tend to shy away from calling people fascists unless they are of the avowed Golden Dawn variety, mostly because it diverts political debate into obfuscating semantics.  I also shy away a little bit from using that word in an American context.  The fascist movements in Europe were innovative because they were on the Right, but based in a populist nationalism, rather than the old elites of the church, monarchy, and nobility.  Those institutions don't exist in America, which is why extreme right wing populism has taken a slightly different form.

In America we have a maddening tendency to look to the histories of other nations to find examples of evil to compare people like Trump to.  Actually, we have a lot of good examples here in America, and I find that Trump can more easily be compared to many American historical figures and movements.  

As I have written before, I think it all starts with Andrew Jackson.  Jackson's white nationalism appealed directly to the mass of rural white men.  He brazenly ignored the Supreme Court and pushed to deport the Cherokee to Oklahoma in a shameful ethnic cleansing.  Trump's deportation advocacy ought to be seen in light of the Trail of Tears.  Trump's immigration proposals come out of a belief that this is a white man's country, a basic principle of Jacksonianism.  Jackson also set his sights on elite, attacking the Second Bank of the United States, and acting contemptuous of those more established in Washington.  Later Southern populists like Ben Tillman, who attacked elites while simultaneously enforcing white supremacy carried on the Jacksonian spirit until the end of the 19th century.

In regards to immigration, it is also obvious that Trump is tapping into a long tradition of nativism in America stretching back to the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s and including the 1920s iteration of the KKK.  That nativism was accompanied by harsh violence of the kind visited upon a Latino homeless man by two Trump supporters recently.  Trump's tardiness in condemning or distancing himself from it demonstrates that he understands the power of this violent nationalism, which is why he is eschewing dog whistles for the raw red meat his followers have been craving.

There are more recent examples of the long tradition of extreme nationalist populism that Trump fits in with.  The great Kevin Kruse has compared Trump's campaign to that of George Wallace in 1968, and I think there is a lot to that.  The segregationist governor managed to get almost 13% of the vote and won five states, the biggest showing by a third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and Wallace wasn't a former president.  Wallace softened his "segregation forever" tone and became an expert in euphemisms like "local control of schools" and "law and order."  (Nixon made this appeal more respectable and took it all the way to the White House.)  His post-Tet Vietnam policy was to double down on the war, the kind of fanciful militarism that Trump is promising.

The most recent example is, of course, the Tea Party, which is the John the Baptist to Trump's savior.  They said "I want my country back," but then voted for Republican politicians who couldn't give it to them.  Now Trump is promising to "make America great again" and he's not promising "self-deportation," he is calling for the real thing.  The Tea Party cohorts are not a third party, but a particular wing of the Republican Party, one that the GOP has been desperate to get to the polls and appease, and which has given it victories in 2010 and 2014.  However, like the sorcerer's apprentice, the party establishment has lost control of its creation, and Trump has swooped in.

The Republican leadership has been in an uneasy dance with extreme nationalism, at least since 2008, when John McCain had to disavow the birthers in his midst while Sarah Palin was simultaneously crowing about "real America."  That ideology is a deep, dark vein in American political history, one that has been around at least since Jackson.  Instead of comparing Trump to Mussolini, as apt as that comparison might be, we ought to look at how he has inherited a distinctly American political tradition, one that has long reinforced hate, racism, and violence.  The fact that Trump has this much support this late in the game ought to be a warning that ideology for which he stands is gaining power yet again.

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