Fascist elements have long existed in our politics, as perhaps they do in any modern society, but for most of American history they have been on the political fringe—not serious contenders for power. With Trumpism’s four years at the center of national government, that is clearly no longer the case. Under Trump’s banner, undemocratic, racist, nationalist, culturally reactionary, violence prone and militaristic (even if isolationist) forces—fascistic if not outright fascist in my view-- have become self-conscious. They are increasingly confident, organized and available for mass mobilizations They seem to be in firm, if not quite absolute, control of the Republican Party—which makes them major policy players. Most worrisome is Trumpism’s hold on at least a third of the population, and appeal to as much as half of all Americans. We were lucky that the leader of Trumpism was Trump, a flagrantly ignorant, narcissistic, sociopathic, incompetent buffoon. Just enough voters in some key places were sufficiently repulsed by the personality (although the clownish “regular guy” persona was a draw to some) to give us a reprieve. But it may be only a reprieve; not every aspiring Duce will be as extraordinarily repugnant.
Some causes of the consolidation of fascist tendencies in America are obvious and oft noted: the rise of unregulated, pervasive social media, the reckless dalliance of corporate interests (via the GOP) with racist and fundamentalist religious resentment in pursuit of a maximalist corporate agenda, and the failure of the Democratic Party to address the concerns of large segments of the population in the post-industrial economy. Of course our understanding of Trumpism (and its international analogues) is far from complete— but we cannot await a thorough grasp of the roots of American fascism’s contemporary growth before reckoning with it. While I have no original suggestions for reckoning options, I find categorizing and describing their basic logic useful in assessing them.
I reject two strategies for confronting the Trumpist threat, and advocate a third. Broadly speaking, the two I reject can be called “appeasement” and “total war.” Their advocates might feel that my presentation of them is caricature, and it is true that few if any would embrace my description of appeasement and total war as their own position. But I do not think I am refuting straw men; however qualified, I believe appeasement and total war are the implicit organizing idea of the two strategic attitudes I reject.
1. The Rejected Strategies
The appeasement approach advises negotiations with the Trumpist forces in an attempt to find an acceptable modus vivendi. Appeasement is morally problematic because it likely involves a tacit tolerance of racism, patriarchy and homophobia in public policy. But the moral issue is moot; fascist- friendly politicians will not be appeased with almost any set of concessions that falls short of their entire agenda. Nor will they negotiate in good faith. Trumpist adherence to any negotiated agreement is temporary. They have no respect for legal niceties or democratic values. They will shamelessly abandon any agreement when doing so serves their goals. Negotiations with fascist-friendly politicians is sometimes tactically necessary, but it cannot constitute a successful strategy for disempowering them. On the contrary, it will legitimate them and feed their growth.
The total war strategy seeks the unconditional surrender of Trumpist forces. It would repress and isolate Trumpists where and whenever possible. It would disdain any dialogue with them. Total victory by the exercise of pure political power is the plan. One can empathize with the moral appeal of the war strategy, but it would not work. It misunderstands the nature and source of political power in America, and the tools available for defeating Trumpism. The war strategy assumes that everyone in the Trump camp is incorrigibly racist, homophobic or misogynist, and so there is no alternative to overpowering them as political forces; “Trumpists cannot be accepted or converted, only defeated.” But how to defeat them? The main idea seems to be to mobilize, on an enduring basis, the current small majority of principled democrats by appealing to their moral rejection of hateful bigotry. It is a thoroughly idealistic approach that relies on consciousness-raising as the route to sustainable political power. But even if a small majority of Americans could be garnered for a couple of election cycles by supplementing the idealistic strategy with an appeal to the self-interest of social groups currently targeted by the Trumpists (the other basic tactic of the total war strategy), it would not disempower the Trumpists. The undemocratic structure of American political institutions—the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the Senate and gerrymandered Congress—makes it highly unlikely that anything less than a supermajority of Americans has the political power to suppress Trumpism, and the same supermajority would be required to change those undemocratic structures. If 40% of Americans remain in thrall to Trumpist appeals, we will never have that supermajority. Victory via mobilization of the current anti-Trumpist constituency, at least by lawful, democratic means, cannot disarm the undemocratic Right in contemporary America. And even if somehow Democrats controlled the House, Senate, White House and a majority of Supreme Court seats—and had the will to legislate reforms allowing majority rule, as long as 40% of Americans had fascist inclinations, the peril would remain. Moreover, any refocusing of Trumpist xenophobia could erode the anti-Trumpist support among selected ethnic minorities depriving democratic forces of their slender majority.
Both the appeasement and total war strategies are premised on the essential political nature not only of Trumpism as fascist ideology, but also of Trumpists as a constituency. “Since their politics will not change, they must be mollified or crushed.” Indeed, racism, homophobia and misogyny are the dominant appeals of Trumpism to many Trumpists. But certainly not to all. For significant number of Trumpists, those are peripheral features. This portion of the Trumpist constituency are not sufficiently embarrassed by its bigotry to abandon Trumpism, but the bigotry is not what commands their loyalty. Losing its supporters for whom rank bigotry isn’t its main appeal would make Trumpism a distinct minority and an electoral loser throughout the country.
If bigotry is not the glue binding some Trumpists to Trumpism, what is? And whatever it is, can it be countered with a more compelling appeal, or appealed to with a more compelling politics? I think the answer on both counts is yes, and if that is right than the correct strategy—neither quick nor easy—requires reorienting a section of Trumpists by organizing in their communities.
2. A Reorientation Strategy
A reorientation strategy rests on the belief that many Trumpists share in the central, persistent, and widespread (arguably universal) motives that drive political preferences: the pursuit of security and social respect. The white working class has been losing both since the late1970s. Many white workers have fallen into, or are teetering on the edge of a descent into an underclass-- Marx’s “lumpen-proletariat,” a social grouping without regular formal employment and alienated from most social institutions—a group that has historically been a breeding ground for fascist sentiment.
The Black American working class has never had security or social respect, but their gains of the mid-twentieth century have stalled, and in recent decades a significant percentage of working class African-Americans have been pushed into lumpen status – as alienated and economically marginalized as the growing white underclass. That these insecure, disrespected racialized groupings are mutually hostile, does not alter the fact that they are both potential fodder for fascist appeals. Trumpism cannot abandon domestic enemies—but Asians, Jews, urban white liberals, educated feminists, LGBTQ deep-state bureaucrats, etc., might suffice as the internal enemy if the fascists ever sought to mobilize alienated Blacks and Latinx.
Given the absence of foreign military threats and low rates of violent crime, the insecurity of the American working class is income and health insecurity. Of course minority insecurity, especially among Blacks, is, as it has been throughout American history, also a consequence of the failure of the law to protect them, indeed, their being the frequent target of state violence and persecution. The insecurity that stems from that injustice must be addressed, but that special insecurity serves to enhance, rather than make unimportant, the income and health insecurity that African Americans experience in common with other working class ethnicities.
Health insecurity is bound up with, but separate from, income insecurity. Poor people never could afford good doctors, but until the last century or so, good doctors didn’t offer much worth buying. But advances in health care have radically changed that. Pain relief, beauty, restored and extended organ functionality, and longevity are now all products for sale. These technologically complex and R & D heavy products would have driven up health care costs in any event, but corporatization of health care has made them that much more expensive. In terms of today’s standards, adequate health care is not reliably there for working and underclass Americans.
The loss of social respect is partially a consequence of income and health insecurity. Money talks and its possessors are heard. Income generating employment validates that one does have social value. This is Sherrod Brown’s “the dignity of work.” It is also hard to believe you are respected and valued if you cannot attain the health care needed to keep you out of pain, functioning, and alive, especially when that health care is readily available to others.
However, money and access to good health care are not the whole of social respect. The opportunity to participate as an equal in the social-cultural milieu is also required. While on the one hand the “silo-ing” and the blossoming of niche cultural groupings afforded by cyber-technology increases opportunities for social inclusion, the dominant effect of increased social media has been to reduce local cultural spaces where the working classes found respect, and to give a few urban centers a domineering perch from which to set the standards for cultural acceptance and prestige. The norms underlying those standards rely heavily on advanced education and sophisticated, new-fangled skills and values acquired in that education, and reinforced in cosmopolitan, urban settings. Those norms classify much of the white working and white underclass as hicks, provincials, moral retrogrades, or simply ignoramuses—a variant of the “culture of poverty” thesis long used to be dismissive of the mores of poor Blacks and Latinos.
3. Reorientation Message and Methods
A sound reorientation strategy should offer policies whose explicit goals are the promotion of working class security and social status. On the security front, universal quality health care and guaranteed jobs at good wages should be the marquee planks. High quality child care starting in infancy, and a far more robust social security pension should also be front and center. Besides their broad political appeal, and the general good these policies would do, they would greatly mitigate the actual harms of institutional racism.
Improving and equalizing education at all levels will do most to fortify the social status of the working classes. This means not only vastly increasing support for public schools and universities, it also requires turning broadband into a public utility freely available from the most rural parts of America to its poorest inner-city neighborhoods. Education is not only necessary for secure participation in national economic life, it is a condition of full participation in national cultural life. This is not a matter of valuing Marilynne Robinson over Kim Kardashian, rather it is matter of affording everyone a genuine opportunity to pursue prestigious and desirable careers in business, the arts and professions, and endowing all citizens with the self-esteem and esteem of others that a poor education undermines. It enables people to contribute to the national conversation in multiple domains. Education gives people a voice, and the capacity for self-expression gives one a sense of worth.
A reorientation strategy constitutes a messaging program for electoral victories as well as a program for major structural change. Besides defending democracy by peeling support from Trumpism, it can highlight a popular, coherent progressive agenda, and brand the GOP as an organization devoted to blocking that agenda. It was the implicit strategy of the Sander’s campaign, and it, or ideas very like it, are being promoted by a growing number of political strategists and operatives.
Unions and the labor movement are invaluable vehicles for a reorientation approach. Strengthening unions must be a goal of the strategy, and allying with them a strategic principle. Obviously, the essential historical purposes of organized labor—economic security—and its fundamental means—organizing campaigns around common interests and social solidarity—fully coincide with a reorientation strategy. As working class controlled institutions (and part of a reorientation approach is to foster that kind of honest unionism), they are well situated to garner trust and boost working class union members status as an independent source of social power.
Trumpism cannot be tamed through compromise nor crushed by the raw power of its opponents. But enough Trumpists, through diligent sustained organizing and disciplined messaging, can be reoriented to a progressive democratic agenda. It is both a defense against fascism and the groundwork for social justice; both the smart and right thing to do.