Fascism is as American as Henry Ford. And Donald Trump.
1. Anomalous and intrinsic
Why is it that Henry Ford is regarded as an intrinsic part of US history and industrial-economic processes but his demonstrably fascist politics are conventionally regarded as anomalous?
This is the question I keep turning around, because it raises issues that I think are crucial in analyses of fascism, both in history and today. What is post-Fordist fascism?
I don’t have an answer to my own question as yet. What I do have are scattered thoughts and notes that touch on this while reading commentary on Trump’s fascism, much of which has been bizarre (see notes 5 and 6).
Not all of that commentary has been annoying. If you prefer a quick read, I recommend this, over at Gavin’s Point of Production. It elegantly responds to exceptionalism arguments, from both angles (that of American exceptionalism and that fascism is exceptional). Also Justin Mueller‘s “Trumph of the Will: Taking Donald Trump’s Fascism Seriously,” with which I generally agree, but (for me) still leaves a question hanging.
2. Assembly-lines and the hotel-entertainment industry
Hitler called Henry Ford “My inspiration.” Not surprising, given passages in Mein Kampf were lifted from Ford’s steady stream of texts denouncing the Jewish conspiracy, most of them written before Hitler had become leader of the National Socialist party, many of them circulated in Europe, some of them on the ‘Jewish problem’ in Germany. Like Trump, Ford was a billionaire mogul. Like Trump, Ford had considered running for the US presidency. What there was of polling then put a prospective Ford presidency at around 35%, though no doubt the polling was undertaken as part of an effort to promote a possible run. I am unsure why Ford’s nomination never eventuated, but I leave that to the historians.
What interest me far more is what fascism means or would look like when it is not embedded within the seemingly paradoxical nexus of assembly-line efficiency and nationalist mysticism that shaped the ‘reactionary modernism’ of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism. What would the combination of nationalist myth and the affective labour processes of the entertainment industry mean for the politics and techniques of fascism. Here too I am unsure I have a ready answer, though I think we can begin to discern the shape of it.
Perhaps Trump’s fascist appeal is that he promises to make racist violence enjoyable and entertaining again. Perhaps this is where the shift between the assembly-line and the entertainment-hotel industry can be registered. I do not mean to diminish the importance of this point. The step between the labour camp and death camp was written in the language of an assembly-line efficiency ‘solution’ to a problem conjured up by productivist fantasies. I do mean to underline the importance of understanding the character and shape of fascist violence, including how it might change.
So rather than engage in protracted, faux-scholarly disputes over whether Trump is a fascist because fascism presumably (and ironically) has an unchanging essence (see note 5 below), this seems to me the more important question. And by ‘seemingly paradoxical’ I mean that the apparent contradictions between adherence to the foundational mysticism of a national essence (reproducible through sexuality and racialised properties) and the tenets of calculating reason are not a contradiction when understood as a dynamic of oikopolitics (see note 7 below).
3. Europe and its colonies
My view on fascism in history, briefly noted elsewhere recently, is that “European fascism has always taken its cues from the techniques of control and subjugation that were previously exported from Europe in the process of colonisation and wars of conquest.” There are no good reasons to accept the sway of methodological nationalism, Eurocentrism or the thesis of American exceptionalism – and many good reasons to not do so when seeking to understand fascism.
4. Fascism and the restoration of the demos
I do not think that democracy and fascism, or populism and fascism, are as distant as many might like to suppose, neither according to historical record nor in terms of political views and dynamics. This is not only because figures such as Hitler and Mussolini and the parties they represented came to power through constitutional means. Nor, though Mueller‘s piece is worth underlining, is it just a mistake to think of fascism as politically exceptional, “emerging out of nothing and returning to that nothing.” Though I agree that is a mistake. Fascism is often rendered inexplicable by opponents and shallow critics alike, thus extending its own mythology of the ineffable, foundational origins (or causes) of racist affection.
The fascist call to suspend democratic processes is not only a call to insurgency or revolution, as some have suggested. It is a call for the suspension of democracy or constitutionality so as to restore politics to its purportedly true and authentic order. The call to suspend so as to save and restore the true essence of the nation is integral to fascism. It is this dynamic that distinguishes fascism from other revolutionary movements, insurgencies or radicalism. So I partly agree with Steigmann-Gall:
When fascism departs from normal political methods, it does so to restore the prerogatives of the beleaguered, once-dominant majority — defined ethnically or racially — who believes that the nation is “slipping away” from them.
But, while nuanced by reference to the Oath Keepers, I think he overstates the existence of a paramilitary as the crucial criteria of analysis or definition. A fascist with no followers or no small army of goons is still a fascist. A fascist who has not been elected is still a fascist. A fascist who has not become fuhrer is still a fascist. Those things tell us something about how to respond, but they have no bearing on whether someone’s politics can accurately be described as fascistic. Moreover, if the point of arguments such as these is to not take fascism seriously unless there are identifiable ‘brownshirts,’ then surely by that point it is almost too late – and no one making these kinds of cartoonish arguments should be taken seriously when it comes to anti-fascism.
Still, I have no doubt that the Trump rallies in Alabama and so on were frequented by Klan, Oath Keepers and other groups prepared to resort to violence against anti-Trump protesters. But what is more important here than identification is the question of significance, and here, the way in which both Trump supporters and Trump himself has already responded to questions about violence is crucial. And this is the reason to be concerned in a sustained way – irrespective of whether Trump succeeds in winning the nomination or presidency, this incitement to and unqualified embrace of overt racist violence has already extended beyond Trump.
Elsewhere, Berlet’s suggestion that the term ‘fascism’ should be reserved for those who want to “restore the Third Reich” is as superficial and misplaced as the suggestion that Trump is not a fascist because Trump is not “a European import.” Well, the United States is a European import. ‘Nativism’ is a European import. Methodological nationalism is no more able to offer a critical view of fascism than it can offer historical accuracy. The links between Henry Ford and European fascism being a case point.
As to this dynamic of suspension-restoration, Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” is accompanied by the message that
We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. … but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.
If that is not clear enough, the abolition of birthright citizenship (which both Trump and Cruz have hinted might just be a temporary measure until some vague moment) is indeed a call for the temporary suspension of the Fourteenth Amendment in the US Constitution so as to, well, “Make America Great Again,” no?
5. Where commentators dismiss suggestions of fascism through recourse to faux-scientific essences
There are ironies in abundance. To assert that fascism is never Anglophone, as many (Anglophone) Leftists are inclined to tacitly do, is ironic to say the least. The distinction being drawn between ‘racist populism’ and fascism is a faux-intellectual version of this assertion. Even Aristotle – though not the Medieval Scholars perhaps – thought that the use of taxonomies in matters of politics did not furnish anything like an objective knowledge.
Similarly ironic, then, is the insistence on deriving a definition of fascism, its presumably eternal and unchanging essence, from the comparison of past instances. This may well be the conventional method of comparative sociology, but it is also the method from which the concept of race was derived. It is not a method that contemporary biology (or any science) uses, so why use it as a sociological or philosophical method for discussing (let alone analyzing) fascism? The number of commentators peddling their presumed expertise and scholarship on the basis of this recourse to classical taxonomy, and mostly so as to dismiss those who say that Trump is a fascist is, to be blunt, laughable and pathetic.
The implication that any politics will always exhibit the same features, even though we already know that German National Socialism differed from Italian fascism for instance, everywhere and forever is not just superficial and ironic though. It is ahistorical and essentialist – ie, mythic – in the extreme.
6. Where the opportunists read history, poorly
As with the above, debates over whether Trump is or is not a fascist tend to illustrate some seriously odd ideas about what counts as a reasoned argument or analysis. It’s difficult to take people seriously when they use criteria such as “no brownshirts” or the (non-)existence of mass parties, “backward agrarian sectors,” or any other costume or socio-economic metric culled from the 1930s. This is not an analysis. It is the worst kind of history, the succession of facts, presented as if they served as explanations of anything. From those who confuse the calculus of their own groupuscule’s political opportunities with analysis, there’s the ‘if the US ruling class don’t support undemocratic measures’ this implies that Trump is not a fascist and we should not be distracted from the ‘real fight’ against the Democrats. This is not an argument that Trump is not a fascist. It tells us that the intended reader/recruit of this argument is, according to its author, perceived as being incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time. Enough said.
7. Fascism and the oikos
As per the conventions of Western philosophy, democracy is the rule of equality whereas the oikos is a space of a natural, or qualitative hierarchy (or domestic tyranny). Fascism has always taken place within democracies. This is the problem for those who attempt to define it as if the call for an exception means it is indeed exceptional and anomalous. Yet fascism is what happens when the norms of the rule of the demos are violently suspended by the hierarchical rules of the oikos so as to restore the equality among those who are deemed to be rightfully equal by nature.
Fascism is what happens when ‘domestic violence’ goes public and political, is justified through elaborate forms of victim-blaming and an inverted view of victimisation, enjoyed and encouraged without limit, spills out from the privatised spaces of the home and into the streets, or halls, restoring the purportedly true order and measure of things, the balance between and separation of qualitative rankings (construed as race, gender) and a quantitative equality where ‘all men are born equal.’
It is not possible to explain fascism as if this were the expression of a single individual. But nor is it possible to understate the importance of a singular figure who seemingly floats outside and above ‘regular politics’ and, at the same time, in that singularity represents an indivisible, unmediated political-affective connection between ‘a person’ and ‘a people’ (or demos). The brutal father-fuhrer is pivotal to fascism’s conflation between nation and family, the figure that promises to restore the mythical coherence of the polity when that unique coherence is perceived as endangered.
The difficulty that some have with seeing the fascism in Trump’s politics has little to do with whether or not Trump is a fascist. Obviously he is a fascist. It is that they have no concept of how racism, sexism, homophobia are part of the same processes and dynamics within capitalism – and, by implication, no theory of either Fordist capitalism in the 1930s, or the Trumpist capitalism of the early 21st century.