Craven Obama follower Robert Kagan has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to bemoan Donald Trump: This is how fascism comes to America. I yield to no man in my contempt of and disgust for Donald Trump but Kagan is an idiot.
But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.
And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.
Assuming, just for a second, that Kagan has made a coherent argument, fascism is not going to come to America if it is attacking well over half the people in the nation. Kagan is simply falling back on the left wing trope of labeling anything it doesn’t like as a “phobia” or “fascism.”
To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche. In democracies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the voters say they want — vox populi vox dei. A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.
Wait. Wait. We’re on to something here but we’ll come back to it. First I’m going to let Vox.com demolish the thesis. You heard it hear first, folks. This is so silly that even Vox.com laughs at it.
Is Donald Trump a fascist?
It’s becoming a common question, and prominent neoconservative columnist Robert Kagan is the latest to lob the accusation, declaring, “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.”
Kagan is wrong. Donald Trump is not a fascist. “Fascism” has been an all-purpose insult for many years now, but it has a real definition, and according to scholars of historical fascism, Trump doesn’t qualify. Rather, he’s a right-wing populist, or perhaps an “apartheid liberal” in the words of Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism. He doesn’t want to overthrow the existing democratic system. He doesn’t want to scrap the Constitution. He doesn’t romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society. He’s simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he’s interested in oppressing.
This strikes me as mostly correct. Even that is off base. There is no doubt that Trump is dog-whistling himself breathless in appealing to the racist fringe but I am utterly unconvinced that it is anything other that pandering to a previously neglected political market. That doesn’t make it right but it doesn’t make it racist. The best analog for Trump, in my opinion, is Argentina’s Juan Peron who united nationalism (Make America Great Again) with hatred of anyone who wasn’t Argentine (mostly the United States but with ample room for Chileans and Brazilians). What Peron also did was maintain very close relations with Argentina’s historic political and economic elites while at the same time stoking working class (or in Argentina non-working class) anger towards his own allies, supporters, and enablers.
It the course of this analysis, the Vox.com author, dunderkind Dylan Matthews, relies on several scholarly definitions of fascism. This is my favorite:
Columbia’s Robert Paxton lays out a slightly different definition from Griffin’s in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, focusing more on the behaviors of fascist governments than on the nature of fascism as a doctrine. Still, he too identifies an anti-democratic core to fascism:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (p. 218)
Does any of that sound familiar?
— #ExGOP (@joelfine) May 19, 2016
With minor edits it would bear an uncanny resemblance to the Obama administration. In fact, the cult of personality that has developed about Trump is but a pale (can I use that word anymore?) shadow compared to the egregious bullsh** of Obama art, naming schools for Obama, having kids sing paens to Obama. If you doubt that Obama practiced “redemptive violence”, look no further than the riots it fomented and the wars in Libya and Syria. Who encouraged his supporters to bring a gun to a knife fight. Whose wife told us
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.
Trumpism has a lot of roots but none of it would have been possible without a Barack Obama engaging is divisive and lawless behavior. In fact, Trumpism can only accurately be seen as a direct, Newtonian, equal-but-opposite reaction to the reign of Obama. As is so often the case the reaction is not a literal counter-revolution, a return to the status quo ante, but a counter revolution that takes the energy of the revolution and changes its direction. The Coup of 18 Brumaire did not restore the Bourbons to the throne of France, rather it took the infrastructure and energy of the French Revolution and harnessed it to the benefit of Napoleon.
What Kagan is really upset about is that the half of America that resisted the obvious fascism of the Obama administration has looked upon its works and started thinking that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.