Does Trump Represent Fascism or White Supremacy?
How should we understand the impending presidency of Donald Trump? What should we be prepared for? While some have framed Trump’s victory as a sign of resurgent fascism, our guest contributor argues that we should see it as the latest development in a much older phenomenon, which is not an interruption of democracy but intimately interlinked with it.
There are many ways to conceptualize the relationship between democracy and fascism, and this is a dangerous time to take anything for granted; we will be publishing more on this subject shortly. In the meantime, this is a useful contribution towards analyzing the dangers ahead and how to ready ourselves for them.Fascism is Obsolete, Whiteness is Here to Stay
Long before Donald Trump’s recent electoral victory, but in a chorus that has grown deafening in the last month, people have been talking about the possible return of fascism. As terrifying as Donald Trump is, it is nonetheless important not to level just any criticism against the president-elect. And though the misogynist mogul’s favorite epithet, “just disgusting,” fits him like a glove, the charge of fascist is inaccurate.
Since we’re interested in an analysis that enables more effective resistance, and not simply in spewing, Twitter-like, any insult with a chance of sticking, it behooves us to examine just which right-wing model Trump is following.
I would argue that fascism was made definitively irrelevant by the Second World War and its aftermath, during which it was conclusively absorbed by democratic capitalism. Since 1945, when the victorious allies dismantled the Nazi state and recruited the elements they found most useful, fascism has been nothing more than a second-string linebacker in a game that is democratic to its very core. The future, of course, is full of surprises, but it would take much more than a Trump victory for fascism to be tenable or necessary again in a central capitalist country like the United States.
One of the very few actual neo-fascist parties to appear on the political scene in the last decade is Golden Dawn in Greece. True to the original model, they combined a political party and a terroristic street movement, recruiting within the police and military to create party-specific loyalty, and forging connections with national capitalists and the mafia, in order to create a dual power capable of intimidating or overriding the checks and balances of democratic institutions and non-partisan media. Many people predicted Golden Dawn might seize power, and imagined a return to fascism. Golden Dawn imagined the same thing, and this utter naïveté, their ignorance about the historical moment and their role within democracy, proved to be their demise. As long as Golden Dawn acted to push public debates to the right, to create scapegoats for Greece’s social woes, to kill immigrants and attack anarchists or other social radicals, they were tolerated. But once they revealed that their designs on power were actually sincere and that they were willing to use violence against non-marginal elements in society, the democratic powers stepped in and cut them short, arresting the leadership and excluding the party, at least partially, from the public debates that shape acceptable opinion. Nowadays, fascism doesn’t stand a chance against democracy, and any gang of neo-fascists who fail to grasp that their role is simply to be a tool within the democratic toolbox is in for a rude shock.
In Spain, one of the other European countries hardest hit by the crisis, the neo-fascist or crypto-fascist parties have collapsed in recent years, and from Italy to the UK, the extreme right has followed a model that actually relies on and encourages democratic mechanisms. Structurally speaking, the progressive populist party SYRIZA in Greece actually has more in common with the fascist model than the Republicans under Trump (organic connections with extraparliamentary groups that have a powerful capacity for street mobilization, a unification of extreme left and extreme right discourses, a national vision of socialism, intense patriotism and militarism).
Fascism is not just any extreme right-wing position. It is a complex phenomenon that mobilizes a popular movement under the hierarchical direction of a political party and cultivates parallel loyalty structures in the police and military, to conquer power either through democratic or military means; subsequently abolishes electoral procedures to guarantee a single party continuity; creates a new social contract with the domestic working class, on the one hand ushering in a higher standard of living than what could be achieved under liberal capitalism and on the other hand protecting the capitalists with a new social peace; and eliminates the internal enemies whom it had blamed for the destabilization of the prior regime.
Trump showed contempt for democratic convention by threatening to intimidate voters and hinting that he might not concede a lost election, but his model of conservatism in no way abolishes the mechanisms that are fundamental to democracy. In another four years, we’ll be subjected to the electoral circus all over again. Trump did appeal especially to cops and border guards, but in no way began inducting the police into a para-state organization designed to cement his hold on power. He gave shout-outs to the militia movement and tickled the fancy of the Ku Klux Klan, but has done nothing to centralize those groups into a paramilitary force under his command. He promised a new deal for the working class, but will not even take the first steps towards instituting it, and whatever his intentions he will prove utterly unable to reward the owning class with social peace. He will make life harder for those he identifies as the enemies of society (Muslims and immigrants, especially), but he will not eliminate them.
There is, in fact, nothing fascist about Trump.
Trump’s rise to power is entwined with a social force that predates fascism and that has outlasted it. Though it remains to be seen exactly what model of conservatism the brash egomaniac will implement, his encouragement of whiteness, as a reactionary mechanism for social control, is abundantly clear.
In the centuries between Christopher Columbus and George Washington, and in laboratories as far flung as the plantations of Ireland and Brazil, in the mass deportations from Spain and in the mass enslavement in Africa, the white race was created to categorize and control the subjects of a globalizing world order. In the face of insurrections that saw kidnapped Africans, poor Europeans, and besieged indigenous people fighting together against their common enemy, the colonial powers passed laws and erected concentric layers of religious, cultural, economic, judicial, institutional, and biological barriers to break the solidarity of the oppressed. Whiteness became the projection of European Enlightenment values, the new normal, and the peoples who did not fit into it were racialized and forced to occupy lower orders on the social hierarchy. Those who did not accept their place were disappeared, one way or another.
Historically, racism is a globally unified phenomenon, but it has played out differently in different corners of the world. In the colonies that would become the United States, whiteness took on a vital paramilitary role from an early date. A small minority of major landowners, who brutalized their workforce and carried out constant genocidal warfare against the native populations, had to deputize a poor but privileged middle stratum, convincing these armed citizens to fight their wars for them and remain ever vigilant against uprisings or border raids.
The privileges, depending on your point of view, were either paltry or game-changing. They included the psycho-social privilege of being considered human, which was a pretty big deal for commoners coming from Europe, where the aristocrats hadn’t really ever had use for the category of “human” and had rarely if ever sought the common ground with their subjects that whiteness provided. Another principal privilege was the right to own property. For the majority of whites, this meant one of two things. Being entitled to sell their lives one back-breaking day after another for money, in the employ of the rich, or being entitled to win access to stolen native lands, which they would clear-cut, plow, and farm for a few years before falling into debt, being bought out by the big landowners, and moving farther west to repeat the process. The point of this story is not to generate sympathy for whites, but to illustrate how easily people, then as now, can be duped.
Economically, it wasn’t a great bargain for most whites, unless you compare it with the forms of exploitation or dispossession reserved for Africans and Native Americans. The abstract right to own property rarely translated into personal enrichment, but it guaranteed not becoming someone else’s property and not having your entire community obliterated and dispersed in an act of conquest. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz documents the key role white paramilitary rangers played in the constant and total warfare against native peoples in her Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and the role of poor whites in the patrols that surveilled enslaved Africans and hunted down fugitives—patrols that eventually evolved into modern police forces—is exposed in books like Our Enemies in Blue. Simultaneously, poor people of European origin who broke with whiteness to fight in solidarity with other oppressed peoples were punished with the full force of the law, and any kind of fraternity or mixing between whites and other peoples was discouraged and even criminalized.
Whiteness today continues to fulfill its paramilitary role in a diffuse, informal way, completely different from how fascist movements manifest. The ideological diversity—some would say confusion—and the many contradictions of the militia movement reflect this lack of central organization. What is most clear from these armed citizens’ groups—who alternately identify Latino immigrants, Muslims, or the federal government as their chief enemy—is that a great many low- and middle-class citizens feel called to protect and serve. Who exactly has deputized them is unclear, but they overwhelmingly identify with their whiteness, or, in the case of the few blacks and Latinos in the movement, with their Americanness, which from the beginning has been another, seemingly more inclusive iteration of whiteness.
Race also played a big role in Trump’s victory. Beyond the fact that a disproportionate number of whites voted Republican, studies showed that identifying with their whiteness or feeling racially threatened by other groups was a marked factor that made people of European origin more likely to support Trump.
Although the billionaire’s narrative of victimization—which the media has compliantly disseminated—is frankly pathetic, whiteness in the United States is indeed facing a crisis. Not because “whites are becoming a minority” or any other paranoid supremacist fantasy, but because in the last few decades, the paramilitary functions of whiteness have largely been absorbed by an increasingly powerful government that can do with judges, prisons, and urban redevelopment bureaucracies what yesteryear it had to do with lynch mobs—to such an extent that, paradoxically, even a black man can be put in charge of the whole apparatus. While I don’t think that Obama’s presidency changed the situation for people of color in the US, except in a psychological way that I, as a white person, cannot appreciate, it is clear that racists across the country have come out of the closet since Obama’s entry into the White House.
The media in general have suggested that Trump’s appeals to whites were so effective because of the economic situation: working-class whites have felt threatened as their privileges and their social standing decline, so the story goes. Yet the racial gaps in wealth and standard of living have grown since the crisis. If economics were the bottom line, white Americans would feel more secure, not less secure, after Obama’s presidency. White privilege, in this sense, continues to pay its dividends. I would argue that it is actually the paramilitary function that is an ingrained part of whiteness which is in crisis, and which mobilized large numbers of whites for Trump. (Conversely, the fact that blacks became poorer under Obama probably kept some of them away from the polls).
The border militias represent one expression of the paramilitary mentality. Another expression, the pro-cop movement that has sprung up as a reaction to Ferguson, contains an instructive paradox. The resistance that gained attention with the Ferguson uprising has been a major source of instability for the US government, and has also called into question the historically sacred right of the police to kill people of color. White reactionaries have answered the call of duty to defend an oppressive system, and in general these pro-cop activists have been associated with the Trump camp. They have attacked Black Lives Matter protestors and tried to restore the police’s tarnished image. But they have also entered into conflict with law enforcement.
Contrary to the pacifist white-washing of would-be Black Lives Matter leaders, shooting cops has been a part of urban black resistance before, during, and after Ferguson. Though the media will only talk about the Martin Luther Kings and not the Robert Williams, African American resistance has more frequently tended towards the strategy of self-defense and autonomy than democratic integration over the last three hundred years, and the tension can be seen today between different strata of black communities. However, it is also true that more cops are shot by white people, and that there has been an explosion in anti-police ambushes by white right-wingers. Often, these shooters express a desire to protect America or to defend traditional values with their attacks. Some of the most reactionary defenders of whiteness, it seems, believe that an increasingly authoritarian government is not allowing them to play their historic role.
When American society seemed stable and “American values” globally triumphant at the end of the Cold War, the apparent obsolescence of whiteness provoked little concern. But with economic precarity on the rise, forceful protests by black, Latino, and indigenous people spreading across the country, and systemic instability causing growing anxiety, white people are waiting for a call to arms that isn’t coming. Their traditional spokespeople on both wings of the political elite—the old-school reactionaries who reminisce about segregation as well as the enlightened progressives and their flocks of white knights—have not been speaking to their crisis. In fact, the liberals in government can even contemplate disarming them, so obsolete have they become. Though the conservatives still speak in favor of gun rights, it has been a long time since they have mobilized the citizens to confront the latest threat, internal or external. Whites are in crisis not because they are losing economic privileges but because the growing power of the State usurps their paramilitary prerogatives. And for the outright reactionaries who see through the lens of delusional race fantasies, it does not help that the symbol for all this state power, Obama, was perhaps the most authoritarian president in recent memory, measured in terms of surveillance programs, drone killings, deportations, prosecution of whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act, number of FBI informants, giving insider support to Hollywood films that portray torture as necessary in the so-called War on Terror, protecting secret CIA prisons from judicial oversight, and so on.
Though the State does not actually maintain a monopoly on violent force, as a rule it aspires to. In a government ruling over a volatile society in which the gravest contradictions are internal (for example, having internal colonies rather than external colonies), those in power will not hesitate to mobilize a part of the population as paramilitaries. But as its institutions grow in strength and resolve the contradictions that previously threatened it, the State will tend to disarm the population, to turn lynching into a bureaucratic affair, and genocide into a dry policy question. Citizens will have fewer chances to participate in their democracy, and as cynical as it might seem to speak of murder and vigilantism as forms of civic duty, the history of democracy from Socrates to Birmingham bears this view out. Military service, which means killing enemies of the State, all euphemisms aside, has always been the foremost mark of the citizen.