Democracy has not failed. The intelligence of the electorate has failed.
–Robert M. Hutchins
A lively debate is underway in the United States about calling the presidency of Donald Trump a form of fascism. His supporters, of course, furiously deny any such description. But progressives such as Michael Moore, Chris Hedges, and Robert Kagan are warning that many of Trump’s actions and statements come close to emulating those of fascist leaders of the past.
Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, writing in the Washington Post last year, didn’t mince words: “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, and with an entire national political party – out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear – falling into line behind him.”
Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Ross Douthat argued that “Trumpism manifests at least seven of the hallmarks of fascism identified by the Italian polymath Umberto Eco. They include: a cult of action, a celebration of aggressive masculinity, an intolerance of criticism, a fear of dissidents and outsiders, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, and a popular elitism that assures all citizens that they are the best people in the world.”
One of the most well-known studies of fascism was conducted 15 years ago by Laurence Britt, who outlined the basic characteristics shared by Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. Among the tactics and themes they all deployed in gaining and maintaining power, briefly, were the following, which I’m abridging from Britt’s treatise:
- Strong expressions of nationalism: From the prominent displays of flags to lapel pins, patriotic fervour was excessive, often bordering on xenophobia.
- Supremacy of the military: Ruling fascist elites always identified closely with their military and the “defense” industries that equipped their armed forces. A massive share of national resources was always allocated to the military, even at the expense of underfunding social programs.
- Obsession with national security: A national security apparatus was established under the direct control of the rulers. It was operated in secret, without judicial constraints, and its actions were justified as necessary to counter internal and external threats. Any criticism was denounced as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
- Rampant sexism: Beyond the basic fact that the fascist regimes were invariably male-dominated, they tended to view women as second-class citizens. They were homophobic and repressively anti-choice – attitudes that were strongly upheld by the countries’ orthodox religions.
- Promotion and protection of corporations: Although the rights of most citizens were limited, large corporations were left to operate in relative freedom. The ruling elite saw corporations as essential for military production and for supporting the fascist regime.
- Suppression of unions: Organized labour was seen as a source of power that could challenge the regime and its corporate allies. So, in all fascist states, unions were crushed or disempowered.
- Obsession with crime and punishment: Most fascist regimes maintained harsh means of punishing “criminals,” many of whom were only participating in what would once have been free and permissible protests. The police were glorified and given broad powers that were often abused. Prisons became overcrowded with dissenters.
- Cronyism and corruption: Business leaders close to the power elite used this advantage to enrich themselves. The corruption worked both ways, with the rulers receiving financial “contributions” from corporate executives who were awarded lucrative government contracts.
Several other traits of former fascist states listed by Britt obviously don’t apply to Trump’s reign. There is no burning of books, no brutal suppression of free speech, no mass slaughter of ideological or racial “troublemakers” in prison camps.
But that could simply be because, today, unlike in the past, critics and adversaries can be vanquished without resort to violence. With the vast resources of propaganda and surveillance that are now available to our rulers, there’s no need to imprison citizens’ bodies when it’s so much easier to “imprison” their minds.
Lapham’s satiric slant
Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s, expounded on this theme in an essay he wrote in 2005. It was inspired by Eco’s earlier analysis of fascism and its common hallmarks when in power. Here’s an abridged version:
Eco found a set of axioms on which all the fascists agree. Among the most notable: 1) Parliamentary democracy does not represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader. 2) Doctrine surmounts reason, and science is always suspect. 3) Critical thought is the province of degenerate intellectuals, who subvert traditional values. 4) The national identity is provided by the nation’s enemies. 5) Argument is tantamount to treason. 6) A state that is perpetually at war must govern with the instruments of fear.
In the 1930s, the Nazis were forced to waste precious time and money on the inoculation of German citizens, who were too well-educated for their own good, against the infections of impermissible thought. We can count it a blessing that in the United States we don’t bear the burden of an educated citizenry. The systematic destruction of the public school and library systems – a program carried out under both Republican and Democratic administrations – protects the market for the sale and distribution of the government’s propaganda. We don’t have to burn any books.
Neither do we have to disturb, terrorize, or plunder the bourgeoisie. Thanks to the diligence of our news media and the structure of our tax laws, our affluent and suburban classes have learned to think what they’re taught to think, and to regard themselves as functions of the corporation. Who doesn’t now know that the corporation is immortal, that it is the corporation that grants the privilege of an identity, confers meaning on one’s life, gives a decent credit rating, and priority standing in the community?
Of course the corporation reserves the right to open one’s e-mail, examine one’s urine, listen to one’s phone calls, reserve the copyright or patent on any idea generated on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knows that it is his duty to protect the brand. We are now blessed with a bourgeoisie that will welcome fascism as gladly as it welcomes the rain in April and the sun in June. No need to send for the Gestapo or the NKVD. It will not be necessary to set examples.
Nor is it necessary to gag the press or seize the radio stations. No question that the freedom of speech is extended to every American – it says so in the Constitution – but the privilege is one that mustn’t be abused. People who learn to conduct themselves in a manner respectful of the telephone tap and the surveillance camera have no reason to fear the fist of censorship. By removing the chore of having to think for oneself, one frees up more leisure time to enjoy the convenience of the Internet services that know exactly what one likes to see and hear and wear and eat. So there’s no need to jail or kill the intelligentsia.
Elections not won, but bought
I don’t know to what extent Lapham would revise and update this satiric rant in the dawn of the Trump era. But I suspect that his forecast of a fascist America would only be tempered by the realization that traditional fascism is no longer essential to the achievement of absolute rule.
The growth of corporatism – the alliance of business and political power — has already converted government in the U.S. (and many other countries) into a form of autocracy. It’s not fascism, but plutocracy – government by a wealthy elite. And its rise to dominance has been as subtle and devious as it has been strategically effective – so effective that it is no exaggeration to say that elections in the U.S. are no longer won, but bought.
The wealthiest Americans and largest corporations have been wielding their financial power to influence elections for a long time, maybe a century or more. But, before 2010, their political expenditures were restricted by law, and could only be exceeded surreptitiously, through surrogates. In January, 2010, however, in the Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such restraints on corporate political spending violated the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech.
In effect, this infamous legal decision opened the corporate vaults to unlimited financial support for political parties and their candidates. Business barons like David and Charles Koch were free to pour millions of dollars into the Tea Party and other right-wing political groups. In the last federal election, the Koch brothers contributed close to $900 million in support of ultraconservative candidates, and most recently spent another $10 million lobbying for the appointment of right-wing judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
“Now, if the corporate oligarchs like a politician,” Thom Hartmann noted in 2009, “they can wield their financial power to make sure he gets elected; but, if they become upset with a politician, they can carpet-bomb her district with a few million dollars of ads and politically destroy her.”
Fascism or plutocracy?
These sharp swerves to the extreme right have culminated in the election of Donald Trump, many of whose regressive actions and speeches have been reminiscent of fascist rulers of the past. But, unlike Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and other dictators, he has not crushed basic freedoms, hasn’t purged dissidents, hasn’t muzzled the press, hasn’t even tried to suppress unions (any more than they’ve already been suppressed in the U.S.).
Granted, as previously noted, his avoidance of the more violent and repressive measures imposed by previous fascist regimes has largely been rendered unnecessary by modern means of persuasion. The same predominance can now be exercised without resort to tyranny.
What Trump does have in common with past autocratic rulers is a close alliance with corporations. As a real estate entrepreneur himself, he is a strong supporter of capitalism and a firm believer in the operation of free market forces.
Just as the rich and powerful now control the global economy (capitalism), they now also jointly control governments (plutocracy).
Yes, his “America First” mantra leads him to lambaste corporations that flee to other countries and eliminate American jobs, but that super-patriotism somehow seems to have improved his relationship with most business executives, not weakened it.
The upshot is that this form of “corporatism” has come to resemble plutocracy rather than fascism. Just as the rich and powerful now control the global economy (capitalism), they now also jointly control governments (plutocracy).
Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus of social science at Columbia University, came to the same conclusion in American Duce, an article he wrote for the May issue of Harper’s.
Paxton berates Trump for his reactionary cabinet, his Nazi-like rallies, his regressive tax policies, his denial of global warming, his anti-immigration stance, and his defunding of environmental and educational agencies.
“These are alarming facts,” he admits. “Are we therefore looking at a fascist? Not really. Unchecked executive power indicates generic dictatorship rather than fascism in particular… We might as well call the Trump regime by the appropriate name: plutocracy.”
Abe Lincoln once famously remarked, “In a democracy you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
Ah, yes, but in a plutocracy you only have to fool enough of the people at election time.
Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.