-ist and -ism

As the Trump era comes to an end, the political tendencies formed during it will be called into question. This is as true for the antifascism of 2017 as it is for that year’s democratic socialism. A humbled, defeated Trump looks differently than he did months ago, and the collapse of administration and campaign both is inducing a reckoning among the white-supremacist, nativist, and fascist groups who attended Trump’s rise to power. These groups remain dangerous, and may, as many have pointed out, become more dangerous. But it is a moment of existential crisis for them, too.

Trump’s fascism was always the promise of fascism, the brochure for fascism, or its infomercial. He’s a developer. Or not even really a developer anymore. A brander. He is, as Research and Destroy wrote in the first days of the Trump administration, a “fascist without fascism.” From the start, it was clear he lacked the organization, discipline, and maybe even the vision, to engineer the outcomes he claimed to desire, and sometimes took steps to achieve. But then again, his victory galvanized some truly disgusting and terrifying people, whose growing power had to be taken seriously. It did not seem impossible that some forces would come along and link the fascists in Washington with the ones in the streets and actually do what would be necessary for them to do what they claim is necessary. At the same time, there was always within Trump and within his administration a kind of hyper-neoliberalism, perfectly happy to sit cheek-by-jowl with irreconcilable populism. The tax cuts, the deregulation, the administrative slash-and-burn is all consistent with Trump as crony-neoliberal, selling off the IRS office furniture to pay for tax breaks. Trump checked off a lot of Koch Foundation boxes, even if there was a lot of collateral damage

I don’t understand judging a phenomenon only by its effects but I think that’s what’s underlying the debate over “fascism” here. Because Trump didn’t really do as many fascist things, because he wasn’t even as bad as George Bush, then either he’s not fascist or America has always been fascist. But fascism isn’t a matter of degree or quantity, it’s not the redder end of the political spectrum, abutting our merely orange liberal democracy. It’s true that Trump wasn’t “as bad” as George W. Bush, but it’s also true that the United States has always been just about the nastiest place in the world, capable of the most heinous acts. You don’t need fascism for genocide, or slavery, not if fascism refers to a particular counter-revolutionary political form, linking the organized violence of the state with popular violence, in order to achieve outcomes prohibited by existing political structures. You don’t need fascism for Hiroshima, for Fallujah, for Obama’s drones. If we call something fascism, it’s not because that’s a way of saying “oh my god help” but because fascism is a qualitatively distinct formation, that can only be fought on its own terms.

Political systems are by definition inertial. They tend to restrict political actors to actions that don’t threaten their reproduction. It’s no surprise that Trump was mostly a cartoon Bush, because our political system can only produce what it already knows. But that’s not working, not for anyone.