Once again the question whether President Trump is a fascist has been raised, given his deployment of federal troops to U.S. cities; his attempts to defund and disrupt the U.S. Post Office and discredit mail-in voting; his calls for “retribution” against protesters; his celebration of physical attacks on journalists; his refusal to condemn white supremacists; and his signaling that he may refuse to leave office should he lose the election.
In an interview with Democracy Now! Noam Chomsky says that Trump, while an “authoritarian,” is not a fascist, and to call him such “gives him much too much credit.” Fascism, he argues, is “based on the principle that the powerful state under the leadership of the ruling party and leader should basically control everything … including the business community.” The U.S. under Trump is “almost the opposite. … It is the business community controlling the government,” he says.
Chomsky is advancing a political rather than a class analysis of fascism, ignoring the United States’ status as the premier imperialist capitalist state in crisis. In contrast, Trotsky’s historical and materialist reading of fascism is more useful for considering whether Trumpism is fascist. On Trotsky’s reading, “fascism” is not a political reaction that seizes control of big business, which essentially places it as a political form outside capitalism. Rather it is “the continuation of capitalism, an attempt to perpetuate its existence by means of the most bestial and monstrous measures.”
As Trotsky writes about fascism, “naïve minds think that the office of the kingship lodges in the king himself, in his ermine cloak and his crown, in his flesh and bones. As a matter of fact, the office of kingship is an interrelation between people. The king is king only because the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person.” In other words, the superstructure, regardless of its diverse forms, is fundamentally shaped by the base. In Trump’s case, he expresses the contradictions of American capitalism, which, despite increases in the mass of accumulated wealth, remains trapped in an extended period of declining rates of profit.
Fascism is the most extreme form of a “strong state” that capitalists revert to when the normal “democratic” means of exploiting workers is in crisis and workers need to be forced to accept the socially destructive “market corrections” required by the dominance of capital. As Daniel Guerin writes, while bourgeois democracy “act[s] as a sort of safety valve and prevent[s] violent clashes between rulers and ruled,” in times of economic crises “the bourgeoisie throws its traditional democracy overboard and conjures up with its invocations — and its subsidies — that ‘strong state’ which alone can strip the masses of all means of defense, tying their hands behind their backs, the better to empty their pockets.”1 To this end, elements of the bourgeoisie attempt to harness the anger of the petty bourgeoisie — the small business owner, the manager, the independent contractor, etc. — who, when threatened by economic crisis with falling into the working class, are willing to give up any semblance of rights and, as Marx writes, to fight “fanatically” for “the salvation of property.”
The rise of Trump and the potential that now exists in the United States for democracy to be “thrown overboard” is thus, on the one hand, the consequence of policies attempting to address the falling rate of profit, policies that are so overtly destructive that even a United Nations report, commissioned in 2018, found that not only does the United States have “the highest rate of income inequality among Western Countries,” but that Trump’s agenda is “deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”
On the other hand, the United States has also seen the world’s sharpest decline of the so-called “middle” classes, owing to the economic pressures of globalization and technological advances in the service and managerial sectors. As a result, “one fifth of the members of the middle class in 1979 are no longer there, most of them having been pushed below,” as noted by Branko Milanović, a former lead economist at the World Bank.2 These material conditions explain Trump’s appeal to an increasingly dislocated petty bourgeoisie, desperate to cling to its meager holdings and under threat of financial ruin. Such conditions make it possible for Trump to direct the petty bourgeoisie to fight in defense of its ruling class against democracy and the working class.
In this context, the attempts on the Left to diminish the historical significance of Trump and Trumpism — he’s just a “tin-pot” dictator or a “puppet” of Russia, as Democrats claim — are designed to maintain the metaphysics of democracy in which Trump is depicted as an aberration when compared to the Kantian ideal of America-in-itself. For instance, in the case of Russia, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s January 2017 report on Russian interference in the 2016 election comes down to the notion that the Russia media are stoking racial and class hatred by reporting on the existence of class and racial inequality in the United States and are thus “undermining viewers’ trust in U.S. democratic procedures.” Leaving aside the history of U.S. interference in political affairs across the world, does this mean that the Russian capitalists supporting Putin are uninterested in shifting American politics even further to the right and might be aiding Trump? No, but it is ridiculous to suggest that Russia, which the World Bank lists as having a lower GDP per capita than Italy, Greece, and Portugal, is in any way determining the political outcomes of the world’s largest imperialist economy. Whether Russia is viewed as an “ally” or an “enemy” by competing segments of the U.S. ruling class is an intra-family squabble about how best to advance U.S. capitalism’s interests, especially against China. While former Trump adviser Steve Bannon makes clear in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, “the linchpin of Trumpism was China,”3 Democratic Representative Adam Schiff responds that “for all the talk in Washington about the need to be ‘tough on China,’” the Trump administration is not doing enough to recognize China as presenting “not only a military threat but also economic, technological, health, and counterintelligence threats.” The point is that Trump and Putin align opportunistically in how they approach the multipolar power struggles among the European Union, the United States, and China, not because Trump is simply reducible to some kind of Russian puppet but because he and Putin share strategic interests.
Chomsky’s claim that Trump doesn’t have a “coherent” fascist ideology is also not a significant difference from “traditional” fascism. As Trotsky says of Hitler,
At the start of his political career, Hitler stood out only because of his big temperament, a voice much louder than others, and an intellectual mediocrity much more self-assured. He did not bring into the movement any ready-made program. …There were in the country plenty of ruined and drowning people with scars and fresh bruises. They wanted to thump with their fists on the table. This Hitler could do better than others.
Trumpism, like fascism, doesn’t require internal coherence because the point is not maintaining the illusion of “rational governance,” but translating class contradictions into brute displays of ruling-class power. As Trotsky writes, “the true historic mission of the fascist dictatorship” is “the compulsory concentration of all forces and resources of the people in the interests of imperialism,” which is precisely what Chomsky is saying is represented by the control of big business over the political sphere. As Lenin explains,
Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialisation of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation. Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognised free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable.
The result of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production is the looming threat of fascism to force the population to accept the law of value at a time when it increasingly no longer corresponds to the social relations of global production. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, addressing a global crisis requires an internationalist response that collectively draws labor, resources, and ideas from the entire world to help meet the needs of all. Yet what we have seen from the perspective of capital is the violent disregard for human life in the declaration that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” a point accepted even on the “social democratic” Left, as evidenced by Jacobin’s supportive interview with scientists who are now working with the Trump administration to advocate a deadly “herd immunity” approach to the pandemic in order to keep the capitalist economy running. What Trump presents as a new ontology — “it is what it is” — is, in reality, entirely an effect of capitalism. Trump’s “vaccine nationalism” and disregard for science, health, and social welfare is just a more extreme version of the capitalist logic in which it makes more sense to let thousands and potentially millions die of Covid-19 than it does to invest any wealth they have accumulated from exploiting the labor of workers because the rate of return is just not high enough.
Chomsky’s argument that Trump isn’t fascist because Trump represents the “business community controlling the government” is thus historically inaccurate. As Trotsky points out,
German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital.
In short, just as Hitler’s tasks were “assigned to him by monopoly capital,” Trump is the fullest, most bold-faced expression of capitalism’s decades-long attack not just on the cultural “norms” of bourgeois democracy, which is the primary focus of many liberals. Rather, Trump is the culmination of decades of attacks on unions and on the hard-fought expansions of rights, which resulted not from any sacred belief in democratic ideals but decades of workers’ struggles against capital. While Trump appeals to petty bourgeois concerns by declaring that he will protect their houses, their health care, and their retirements against the wants of an “undeserving” working class, everything Trump does is in defense of the biggest of capitalists who have seen their wealth increase exponentially as a result of his policies.
Furthermore, the narrative that Trump in any way represents angry working-class voters is, in reality, a way for the enlightened members of the ruling class to deny their complicity in Trumpism and to project onto the working class the narrative that they are ignorant and backward. Leaving aside the limits of earnings as an indicator of objective class status, research shows that Hillary Clinton won the overwhelming majority of voters making under $50,000. Trump’s largest margins of victory came from people making $50,000 to $100,000 and more than $250,000 — in other words, from likely petty bourgeois and bourgeois voters.
Trump’s constant battering of science and truth and the promotion of racism and quackery is equally reminiscent of “traditional” fascism. As Trotsky writes, “Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out of the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism.” In an extended passage, Trotsky describes how fascism fosters petty bourgeois “anti-intellectualism”:
Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner.
Lack of coherent vision and an embrace of mystical thinking is not a hindrance but a benefit to fascism. Trotsky explains, “Sentimental formlessness, absence of disciplined thought, ignorance along with gaudy erudition — all these minuses turned into pluses.” What is demanded by the petty bourgeois base of fascism is not intellectual coherence but a crushing of workers — who are redefined in the fascist imaginary into the racialized other (immigrant, Jew, Muslim, Black, Latinx). It is the petty bourgeoise, facing bankruptcy from an economic shutdown, that rails against masks and social distancing, spreads quack treatments and viral conspiracies online, and demands that workers risk their lives by returning to work without protection … and whose cries and protests are funded behind the scenes by big capital and the right-wing militias they support. According to Trotsky, “Impotent before big capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity through the ruin of workers” and thus demands
a higher authority, which stands above matter and above history, and which is safeguarded from competition, inflation, crisis, and the auction block. To evolution, materialist thought, and rationalism — of the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries — is counterposed in his mind national idealism as the source of heroic inspiration. Hitler’s nation is the mythological shadow of the petty bourgeoisie itself, a pathetic delirium of a thousand-year Reich.
Trumpism represents the material incoherence and impotence of the petty bourgeoisie as it is pushed down by economic contradictions toward the proletariat — reveling in his attacks on the poorest, most oppressed members of the working class while simultaneously celebrating as “draining the swamp” his removal of all barriers of wealth accumulation for the richest members of society, who will then inevitably use that leverage to appropriate the petty bourgeoisie’s own minor holdings as the economic crisis unfolds. Thus far, Trump has relied almost exclusively on the state’s repressive forces to implement his agenda. But a dangerous mark of escalation came during the first presidential debate, when he signaled to militia groups and white supremacists to “stand back and stand by” because “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the Left.” He is also encouraging his supporters to “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” and tweeted out his frustrations that even his own sycophantic Department of Justice is not arresting his opponents. As Trotsky writes, “At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium — the turn of the fascist regime arrives.”
U.S. capitalism was already entering recession before having to face the twin crises of a “once in a century” pandemic and the ensuing “once in a century” economic collapse. This fall — with the likelihood of significant numbers of deaths, evictions, job losses, and a virtually nonfunctional national government — portends a serious crisis in the functioning of U.S. society. As Trotsky argues, fascists’ ability to take control reflects a moment in the class struggle when “the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.” Even as Trump’s reelection campaign is currently appearing to falter, these conditions might still push society into an open embrace of Trump’s fascism.
If this is so, it is because the working class is unprepared for taking power in this moment of acute crisis after decades of attacks on unions, worker protections, “welfare state” measures, and voting rights by the right wing, combined with a Left that has done everything in its power to serve as the GOP’s junior partners in monopoly capital by marginalizing class critique — including Chomsky, who, like others on the North Atlantic Left, defends his own anti-intellectual populism by declaring Marx’s class analysis of capitalism too “abstract” and “difficult” for understanding the complex realities of late capitalism and that Marxism is “totalitarian” and an “irrational cult.”4 Without considering the class basis of Trumpism, one is thus left with Chomsky’s contradictory narrative that Trumpism represents both a “tin-pot” dictatorship and the complete consolidation of the government under corporate control.
The truth is that the GOP is a far-right capitalist party and Trump represents its most fascistic elements. Trump’s militaristic tactics in Portland, Oregon, and his current rhetoric about the threat of “anarchists” and “Marxists” are an attempt to scare the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie into believing that he is all that stands between them and socialism — just like leftists such as Chomsky, who has called this “the most important election in human history.” As Trump said to his petty bourgeois supporters during a campaign speech, “You are not middle class. You’re upper class. You’re the elite. … The left wants to get rid of me so they can come after you. It’s very simple.” But as more than one commentator has said, part of Trump’s problem in the upcoming election is that no matter how much he tries to paint Biden as a puppet of anarchists and Marxists, Biden is not “scary” in the way Trump would like. This is because Biden and the Democrats represent the familiar face of everyday capitalism and their main promise to the electorate is to “reset” America by turning back the clock to the Obama era, which at a moment of social crisis appears comforting. Promoting a return to the “normal” and “routine” daily violence of capitalist exploitation — the inverse desire of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” — is what remains of “progressive” thinking after 60-plus years of rejecting class, critique, and revolutionary theory. Although the Democrats will represent Biden’s (potential) victory over Trump as a “historic defeat” of Trumpism, Biden cannot ultimately save democracy from Trumpism because Trump is just the fascistic expression of monopoly capitalism with its democratic “human face” removed. Given the deep material contradictions facing American capitalism, can anyone doubt that Senator Tom “Send in the Troops” Cotton, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, or worse will surge after four years of Democratic rule? Even if Trumpism “ends” in Trump’s defeat in November, the lesson to draw from this will not be that Trumpism wasn’t really “fascist” to begin with. Rather, it will be that only the organized, fighting working class can protect society from the threat of fascist barbarity by bringing about the end of the capitalist exploitative relations which produce it.
|↑1||Daniel Guerin, Fascism and Big Business (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), 27–29.|
|↑2||Branko Milanović, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 195.|
|↑3||Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury (New York: Henry Holt, 2018).|
|↑4||Noam Chomsky, “Intellectuals and Social Change,” in Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, ed. Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel (New York: The New Press, 2002), 226–27.|