American Fascism, is it a thing?
I was recently on a 14-hour Greyhound bus trip from the Southwest towards California sitting next to a Donald Trump supporter. The woman was in her late 50s and had been ditched in Texas by her trucker boyfriend. Every imaginable social ill had hit this woman: She was a disabled veteran who had endured the VA’s shoddy management, she’d been married six times, she had no savings because the cost of living was too high, her daughters were all single mothers also struggling (one sadly, was the victim of rape), and in an attempt to escape life's hassles, smoked mountainous quantities of marijuana. She hated politicians. However, she said she liked Trump because “he tells the truth, he’s honest and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.” I describe my Greyhound companion not to pass a value judgement on her, but to give a window into the republic’s downtrodden and weary masses who are flocking to Trumpland. They are ripe for what is looking more and more like Fascism.
Donald Trump’s barbaric tone and rude antics have scared many citizens and commentators into labeling the presidential candidate a Fascist. While watching the near-rioting that broke out at a Trump rally in Chicago on TV, I kept thinking back to a line by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky when discussing the rise of Nazism in Germany: “Capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism.”
There is a hint of Fascism in the Trump phenomenon, but it has little to do with marching columns of Aryan supermen in Hugo Boss designs. The truth is American Fascism has been growing for a long time now, long before Trump became a candidate, we just never noticed. Those of us born after World War II immediately associate Fascism with grumpy-looking men in military uniforms, with funny mustaches, and spraying spit while speaking on giant podiums. We imagine chiseled, buffed guys marching in goose-step (which confirms that the last guy I was rejected for is a total Nazi).
Fascism as an official movement did sprout from the ashes of World War I, particularly in Italy where Benito Mussolini founded his movement as an authoritarian regime linked to the traditional centers of national power such as the corporate rich and the Vatican. He also glorified Italy’s Roman past, setting himself up as a new, albeit pudgier, Caesar. Hitler thought Il Duce’s style worked and adapted Fascism to a German form that worshipped German traditionalism and Nordic mythology. Of course, added into the mix was a paranoid view towards Jews going back to the days of the Black Death. In the Great Depression era of the 1930s, Il Duce and the Fuhrer won power by depicting themselves as holy warriors against Communism and savvy leaders who could bring prosperity to angry, unemployed masses.
Apologies for the detour into history (I know we Americans don’t like reading it much, if reading at all), but it’s essential to know what Fascism is to understand the mindset of what we’re going through in this 2016 election. The disturbing rise of Donald Trump combines two core elements of American thinking: an isolated view of the world (“we’re the greatest country on Earth”) and a worship of money and power (Kanye West). American Fascism was never going to look anything like Nazism because Fascism, like left-wing revolutionary movements, will develop according to the norms of a given society.
In the United States the population won’t follow a Fascist movement based on Nordic mythology but on our own national myths: wealth, patriotism, Uncle Sam and a nostalgia for the “good old days.” Donald Trump is all of this in a distorted, loud sort of way. Ted Cruz is even crazier because he brings to the table a messianic, religious element, but Trump is winning because he’s a mutant spawn of what we aspire to be. I find it fascinating when I meet students from local campuses like UCLA who will vote for Bernie Sanders, hate Trump’s rhetoric but are still Business majors because their ultimate dream is to be Trump, without the immigrant-bashing and anti-Muslim paranoia of course. Even as the Bakunin-reading, red to the bone leftist that I am, I can’t really blame them. Here in Los Angeles you’re lucky to find a single room for $600 a month.
Another key aspect of our wonderful culture is the worship of celebrity. For years writers imagined that an American fascist movement would come out of a glorified institution like the army (we did make “American Sniper” a $200 million hit), but in hindsight it makes sense that in this multimedia age, everyone would follow a reality TV fatcat. In his essay “What is National Socialism?” Trotsky pointed out that Nazism was a bizarre movement where the most recent technology was combined with beliefs that were downright Medieval. Direct comparisons at this stage between Trumpmania and Nazism are probably still a bit extreme, but it is interesting how in the age of the internet, iPhones, streaming, Snapchat, etc., so many people are displaying a terrifying ignorance by falling for Trump. But look around you, nobody reads anymore, everyone communicates through emojis. In Texas, the leading candidate for a top seat in the state’s Board of Education, Mary Lou Bruner, believes Obama was once a child prostitute and the Democratic Party had JFK assassinated, and she’s projected to win.
Even if The Donald doesn’t win the nomination or (let’s hope) the actual presidency, the 2016 Election is a defining moment in recent U.S. politics. It almost doesn’t matter if Trump is an actual Fascist or not — he resembles more the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a corrupt tycoon who ran Italy like a casino — what matters is the mood now obvious in American political life. Trump has awakened something very scary in American society, and until we get off our gadgets and start forming serious alternatives, it will grow into a bulldozer that will crush us all.