What Trump Isn't

Is Trump a fascist? Dylan Riley says no. Depictions of Trump as a fascist have tended to be vacuous, ahistorical and politically timid. 

They miss what made fascism fascist. Huge pressures to war in the core capitalist states, for one: a bloody gigantomachy which had just made armed killers out of millions of people. There are no such pressures today. These soldiers filtered back into a deeply organised civil society, with lots of rightist organisation based on veterans' associations and paramilitaries, quite unlike today's situation of mass civic disengagement. Then there was the demonstrated threat of socialist revolution, not just in Russia but in several uprisings across Europe from 1917 to 1921, which terrified elites and the precarious middle class. And above all, a catastrophic depression marked by a collapse in living standards and systemic health far more severe than anything seen since 2008.

According to Riley, Trump's administration is far better analysed through Weber's concept of "patrimonialism", wherein the state is essentially run like a private family business. I tend to agree with that emphasis. Riley's analysis is thus far notably similar to that of Enzo Traverso, who argues that Trump is to fascism what Occupy is to communism. (Which usefully indexes the role of social media-branded political turbulence in these nascent political trends.)

But Riley's intervention, though grounded in an historical analysis, is political. Because if Trump is a fascist, so the logic goes, then the Left needs to align itself with the Democratic Party, the liberal state and the governing centre. Everything has to be subordinated to the single overarching strategic goal of rescuing the office of the presidency from this vulgar Duce. In their different ways, Madeleine Albright, Timothy Snyder, and John Bellamy Foster all agree on this premise. But this, where I would expect to agree most with Riley, is where his analysis seems to go awry.

"In the US today," he argues, "a pro-globalist professional layer is pitted against a ‘nationalist’ white working class—a configuration that is almost the opposite to that of interwar fascism." Trump's electoral coalition, he claims, mobilised people with slightly higher-than-median incomes without a college degree, which he infers means "skilled blue collar workers". I'm unconvinced by this kind of impoverished proxy class analysis. Trump's core vote, by and large, is the same as the Republican core vote. That is, it is disproportionately white, provincial, military and Evangelical middle class. There is no doubt that Trump added some crucial swing votes in rustbelt states from working class constituencies to this vote (much of which melted away in 2018), and Republicans have always drawn a share of the minority of workers who bother to vote. But this legend of the "white working class" nationalist reflux is surely not less vulgar or less politically questionable in its ramifications than the simplistic equation of Trump with Hitler.

Why does this matter? Riley asserts that Trumpism is predicated on a nationalised class antagonism. The fact that this is so congruent with the self-descriptions of the Bannonites and their right-wing confederates in Europe is surely a prima facie reason for caution. And it makes a big difference to the drift and prospects of Trumpism whether it represents, primarily: i.) a radicalisation to the right of the traditional Republican base, with its traditional hatred of workers, black people, queers, Muslims and foreigners, or, ii.) a reactionary articulation of working class anti-oligarchic feeling. Trump has, persistently, the support of no less than 35 per cent of the population, on his worst days. What does that signify? Does it betoken the loyalty of nationalist blue collar workers, thrilled by his cosmetic renegotiation of NAFTA, his trifling trade war with China, and his (massively over-hyped) tax cuts? Or, does it suggest that the core Republican vote has broken decisively with the GOP establishment, and believes that Trump is trying to achieve (for them) the most important parts of his agenda, such as persecuting migrants?

There is, beyond this, a larger political question. I think it is established that Trumpism doesn't resemble interwar fascism. And his administration, while its agenda does not conform to that of traditional Washington, can't simply be described as neo-fascist. But the question is, in the context of a global resurgence of far right tendencies, in what ways should expect 21st century fascism to resemble its antecedent? It couldn't, by definition, simply be a dress rehearsal of the Twenties and Thirties, because the whole global context, the whole political system, the whole cultural and media system, not to mention the structures of race and sex, are so thoroughly different. It would be a more productive question, then, to ask not whether Trump is a neo-fascist, but what aspects of a future fascism, his politics and electoral base might anticipate. This is where I think Enzo Traverso's claim that Trumpism and similar tendencies are 'post-fascist' is misleading: the question is what ways they are pre-fascist.