What is Trump


President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House on May 31, 2017. PHOTO/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/NBC News

Debates around the politics of Trump and other new-right leaders have led to an explosion of historical analogizing, with the experience of the 1930s looming large. According to much of this commentary, Trump—not to mention Orbán, Kaczynski, Modi, Duterte, Erdo?an—is an authoritarian figure justifiably compared to those of the fascist era. The proponents of this view span the political spectrum, from neoconservative right and liberal mainstream to anarchist insurrectionary. The typical rhetorical device they deploy is to advance and protect the identification of Trump with fascism by way of nominal disclaimers of it. Thus for Timothy Snyder, a Cold War liberal, ‘There are differences’—yet: ‘Trump has made his debt to fascism clear from the beginning. From his initial linkage of immigrants to sexual violence to his continued identification of journalists as “enemies” . . . he has given us every clue we need.’ For Snyder’s Yale colleague, Jason Stanley, ‘I’m not arguing that Trump is a fascist leader, in the sense that he’s ruling as a fascist’—but: ‘as far as his rhetorical strategy goes, it’s very fascist.’ For their fellow liberal Richard Evans, at Cambridge: ‘It’s not the same’—however: ‘Trump is a 21st-century would-be dictator who uses the unprecedented power of social media and the Internet to spread conspiracy theories’—‘worryingly reminiscent of the fascists of the 1920s and 1930s.’ [1]

From the right, former Republican adviser Max Boot insists: ‘To be clear, I am in no way suggesting there’s any analogy between Trump and Hitler’—however: ‘Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often.’ For the liberal neo-con Robert Kagan, ‘This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes’—but ‘with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities.’ On the left, eco-Marxist John Bellamy Foster agrees that there are ‘historically distinct features’—yet Trump is nevertheless a systematic ‘neofascist’ who, like his interwar forebears, aims at ‘the repression of the workforce’. Queer theorist Judith Butler acknowledges, ‘With Trump, we have a different situation’—but ‘one which I would still call fascist.’ For social democrat Geoffrey Eley, ‘It makes no sense to draw direct equivalences’—nevertheless: ‘we have the kind of crisis that can enable a politics that looks like fascism to coalesce. And this is where Trump has prospered.’ For anarcho-syndicalist Mark Bray, ‘No, I wouldn’t say that Trump is a fascist’—although, ‘he has displayed quite a few fascistic qualities . . . Trump was enabled by fascism (among other things) and in turn enabled fascism.’ [2]

Another point these commentators have in common is that their analogies are rarely placed in a properly comparative and historical perspective. Instead they treat the past as a storehouse of disconnected examples to be pulled out for weaving morality tales or constructing yardsticks against which they measure the contemporary moment. The procedure is similar to what Hegel called the pragmatic form of reflective history, in which the writer searches for ‘examples of good deeds’ (or bad ones) without placing them in their historical context, thus creating a false immediacy in which the past appears as a reservoir of ‘lessons’. But as Hegel warned, ‘nothing is more shallow’. [3] Marx developed and sharpened Hegel’s critique in The Eighteenth Brumaire, suggesting that the pragmatic form could itself become a historical force, as when ‘Luther donned the mask of Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.’ [4]

This approach to the past distorts the central question of contemporary politics. For the issue is not to explain why, in the aftermath of a severe financial and economic crisis in the capitalist core, accompanied by a massive upward transfer of wealth by ruling centrists, blue and red, right-wing—and, in a few instances, left-wing—outsiders have come to power, but rather why these politicians have largely remained within the established framework. In short, the question is not why our contemporary politics resembles those of the 1930s, but why it does not. For this, it is necessary to take the comparison seriously, systematically contrasting the era of classical fascism—roughly, from 1922 to 1939—with the present period, in order to enable greater theoretical and political clarity about the situation today. I do so along four comparative axes: geopolitical context, economic crisis, relations of class and nation and, finally, the character of civil society and of political parties. I focus here on the Trump administration rather than generalizing for the whole spectrum of contemporary right-wing parties and leaders. As Achin Vanaik has shown for the case of India, in his comparison of Modi’s hegemony to that of Nehru, [5] each new right needs to be carefully located in its domestic political-cultural context before they can be meaningfully aligned with each other. To situate the usual suspects in their home environments would lie beyond the scope of this article.

i. interwar europe

The classical fascisms that took shape in Italy and Germany would be inconceivable without the recent and interlinked experiences of inter-imperial warfare and revolutionary-socialist uprising, unfolding in a context of massive excess productive capacity, on a world scale. The Russian Revolution erupted from the devastation of the Eastern Front and then washed back across the countries of the West, setting off a wave of fraternal uprisings in Germany (1917–23), Italy (1918–20) and Hungary (1918–20) that inflected the political impact of the War and formed the immediate backdrop for the emergence of the fascist movements. It was in this context that the German Social Democratic Party’s (spd) right, Ebert and Noske, legitimized Freikorps thuggery to eliminate the revolutionary leaders. Mass anti-capitalist political parties of the left threatened to transform the interwar crisis within capitalism into a political crisis of capitalism. The strike waves and factory occupations in Italy of 1918–20 occurred under the leadership of socialists who were committed to wiping out large-scale private ownership. Similarly the German Communist Party (kpd) continued to operate as a mass organization after the defeat of the 1919 and 1923 uprisings, not least during its ultra-radical ‘Third Period’ after 1928; behind it, amplifying its threat to German capital, stood the Soviet state.

Wage-earners experienced the crisis of interwar Europe alternately as rampant inflation or mass unemployment. Both the classic cases of European fascism were in part reactions to this.

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