Corey Robin asks, with some concern, what has been driving all this hysteria about Trump being a ‘fascist’.
It can’t be reduced to the animadversions of centrists, craving the political clarity that they believe fascism would impose. Nor the resistance-grifting of vapid listicle-mongers like Tim Snyder, for whom a Trump coup was ‘inevitable’. This debate has split the Left.
It’s easy to understand why people on Robin’s side of the argument are sceptical of such evocations. It’s often said that the conditions that obtained in the interwar period are very different to those we face today. And that’s exactly right. It’s also pointed out that, by invoking fascism too loosely, we risk being disoriented when fascism actually arrives. And that’s also correct. Further, Robin has argued, the right is weak and incoherent. (This was his judgment after the mid-terms; it is unclear how it would stand up after the presidential election.) Far weaker, and far less of a threat to basic liberties, than it was under Bush - whom few, bar Naomi Wolf, called a fascist. Encircled by hostile state forces, which broke his agenda early on by forcing out Bannon and Flynn, imposing a conventional foreign policy, reducing his economic programme to a marginal tax cut for the rich, obstructing his core policy commitments and sandbagging him with legal processes and leaks. The most enduring institutional legacy of Trump's reign - his stacking of the courts - shows him working within liberal institutions to achieve his reactionary, anti-democratic ends.
We can go even further. It is, surely, striking that the level of state violence didn’t soar under Trump. In some ways it fell. The rate of ICE arrests and deportations sharply decreased. Police killings appear to have remained the same or even slightly fallen. The Washington Post reports that police killed approximately a thousand people each year since 2015. That's roughly what it had been in the Obama era. There was even prison reform, cutting sentences. Even family separations, concentration camps for migrants, escalated civilian murder overseas and the deployment of the Department of Homeland Security as a national political police merely extended existing policy. The camps were Clinton’s invention, Obama redefined the category of civilian for extensive drone warfare, and the DHS was essentially doing what the FBI usually does - dismantle domestic opposition.
Yet, there’s something very unconvincing about the case as stated above. It’s too strenuously stating the obvious. Yes, conditions are unlike those in the interwar period. That specific history will never again be repeated. Why, then, should we expect fascism, when it does arrive, to come in period costume? Yes, it is a danger to invoke fascism too loosely. It’s also a danger to dismiss it too loosely. For example, it’s easy to prove that Trump did not overturn electoral democracy, suppress critical media, ban trade unions and opposition parties, and put his enemies in concentration camps. That only rebuts the most ahistorical and mindless allusions to fascism. It rebuts, specifically, the obviously false idea that Trump consciously represents a fully matured fascist threat, a coherent political force already capable of overthrowing the liberal state. Is that the end of the story? Only if we expect the fascist state to arrive, ex nihilo, without any prior cultural ferment, or political crises, through which it could develop. And that would be an exceedingly strange expectation.
The term ’inchoate’ indexes what is at stake here. ‘Inchoate’ is often used to mean ‘incoherent’, but its proper meaning is more like ‘incipient’, ‘immature’, ‘not yet fully formed’. It derives from the Latin ‘incohare’, meaning ‘to start, to begin work’ on something. For there to be a fascist movement capable of taking power, there has first to be inchoate fascism. The question is whether the last four years points to such an incipient formation. This is not straightforward. First of all, as both Nikhil Pal Singh and Alberto Toscano have suggested, fascism is not the eternal Other of liberalism. The liberal state incubates its own inchoate fascism, through its racial exclusions, militarism and authoritarian anticommunism. It goes without saying that, were a fascist movement to take power in the United States, it would have plenty of material to work with, just as Trump did when he expanded concentration camps, took children from parents, and deployed a de facto paramilitary to kidnap protesters.
It is, perhaps, telling that the long hot spring and summer of 2020 was instrumental in convincing many people that Trump does represent some sort of fascism. Or, in the intriguing terminology used by Masha Gessen and Jason Stanley, that Trump is "performing fascism". After all, Trump had spent years mainstreaming white nationalist, nativist views. He had been rhetorically demonising any conceivable opposition from the start. His adherence to, and use of, conspiracist paranoia was part of his branding back in the days of #birthergate. As for his base, these surely included the same people who brought guns and gallows to public events in the Obama era, and who lynched his effigy. The same who thought that Obama was a communist trying to steal American wealth. The same who propelled theocrats, raving reactionaries and conspiracy theorists into state senates, mayoral offices, governorships, and Congress under the label, ‘Tea Party’. What changed in 2020?
In office, for most of his reign, Trump had been legislatively hamstrung and legally sandbagged. He had usually been forced to backtrack from his most hateful statements, such as the Nazi-coddling speech he made after Charlottesville. Indeed, it seems that Charlottesville represented a major setback for the far-right on the streets, and the organised alt-right more generally. Deprived of some of his closest allies in the White House, and of a mobilised base, Trump largely seemed aimless in the period before the plague struck. And yet, though he was initially disoriented by the pandemic, and overwhelmed by the early upsurge of Black Lives Matter protesters, both events seemed to energise his base, and this presidency, in a new way.
The crucial difference in the Trump presidency was the dialectic between the administration and the armed street campaigns. When the militias appeared on the streets to protest lockdown, Trump instinctively knew which side he was on. Though the early crowds were small, he fed off them, and they fed off him. When they mobilised against Black Lives Matter, again, Trump’s spontaneous sympathy was for the armed far-right. When a militia man gunned down several protesters, the Trump administration and its ideological mouthpieces did everything possible to justify the killer. When, on the other hand, an antifa protester was accused of killing a Patriot Prayer member in a violent confrontation, Trump sent US marshals in. They made no attempt to peacefully apprehend the suspect, instead shooting him dead. Trump lauded it as “retribution”, as though the state existed to avenge the far-right’s losses.
In a far clearer way than after Charlottesville, Trump condoned and incited popular rightist violence, and appeared to use the state to complement, rather than control that violence. And he justified this on the basis of a sharp turn toward fantasy anticommunism, according to which the far-right militias were simply responding like good citizens to an upsurge of violence by Marxists and anarchists. This stuff was bellowed from the podiums at the Republican convention. A white couple who had threatened BLM protesters with guns, and were arrested for it, were welcomed and cheered at the same convention. Trump used his electoral campaign to repeat the myth that the militias were forced into acting by relentless leftist violence, and to signal his support for the Proud Boys and other militias. He then more or less asked militias to turn up at polling stations to intimidate voters; it must be to his chagrin that they largely did not do so. He cheered on supporters who ambushed a Biden campaign bus. He made it clear that he would not accept defeat, that were he defeated it could only possibly be an electoral coup. He prepared his base for a struggle, and is now asking them - and the militias and white power groups are responding - to turn out on the streets to ‘stop the steal’. And 70 per cent of Republican voters believe him, that it was theft, that it could only have been theft, that no one but Trump has any right to be president.
Having achieved little of legislative significance while in office, Trump nonetheless had a major effect on his base which he both radicalised and expanded. And he did so not by cleaving to democratic norms or being a good constitutionalist, but precisely insofar as he incited and defended popular outbursts of repressive violence against his opponents. Indeed, this dialectic of mutual radicalisation between leadership and base, depended on the existence of a popular yearning for such violence and Trump’s desire to liberate it. This, I think, constitutes the inchoate fascism of the Trump era. And, as I say, it has grown.