How did we get here? The threat of fascism in the US
History will not forget the US President striding out of the White House – waving a bible – after ordering the beating and gassing of peaceful protesters to clear his path. If the horror of watching George Floyd die was not enough, now we have seen the iron fist of the US ruling-class shoot, gas and brutalise tens of thousands of protesters across the entire country. The question we must answer is how did the US get here? How did we end up with a fascist in the White House overseeing the declaration of virtual martial law? The answer does not lie in the personality of Donald Trump, but in the crisis of capitalism.
The rotten door of US democracy
In November 2016, US bourgeois-democracy was already a “rotten door” waiting to be kicked in. The rot was evident with the stolen election of 2000. Then came the 911 events; a US equivalent of the Reichstag fire. It justified the ‘War on Terror’ with the US Patriot Act, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the rendition and torture at Guantanamo, the war against whistleblowers like Julian Assange, NSA surveillance and Barack Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays” which decided who the US government should extra-judicially murder, including US citizens. Meanwhile, in the name of stopping terrorism and protecting human rights abroad, the US escalated its interventionist rampage in the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America. Invasions, coups and sanctions overturned and subverted governments at the cost of millions of lives. These attacks on democratic norms were carried out with the support of both capitalist parties, Democrat and Republican.
That the gutting of the US constitution and the drive to authoritarianism in the US has been a bipartisan project points to the essential class forces at work. As US imperialism faces challenges to its global hegemony with its economy weakening, it is driven ever closer to policies of total war and dictatorship. As the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, warned in 1928, “In the period of crisis the hegemony of the United States will operate more completely, more openly, and more ruthlessly than in the period of boom.”
However, the same class processes are driving the working class ever closer towards launching a struggle for revolutionary socialism. The ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, the daily struggle of the majority to survive, the growing threats from climate chaos and ecocide, increasing state/police violence, and the opposition to the growing threat of world war, all push the working class into struggle. The ruling class understands this objective process and is adopting ever more dictatorial forms of rule at home. Therefore, for both domestic and international reasons, the US ruling class is moving to throw off the shackles of democratic forms of rule.
Fascism – an international project for US imperialism
In 2014, the Obama government supported a right wing coup in Ukraine that installed a government which included neo-Nazis. This demonstrates how US imperialism is not just moving to the far right at home. It is consciously seeking to foster fascism and the far right abroad to advance its global aims. Far right governments have been fostered notably in Brazil, Poland, Hungary and India. Manoeuvers to shift the Australian ruling class to the far right are evident in the parliamentary coup against Malcolm Turnbull in 2018. The Trump Administration’s support for Brexit can also be seen in this context.
Fostering a network of far right and fascist allies is part of US imperialism’s rearranging of the global cards – to ensure that when it does decide to move militarily against another ‘Great Power’ ie Russia or China, it will have the full support of allied powers ready to suppress their own working classes’ opposition to war. Though the Democrats have supported this process – with advisers like fascist geostrategist Steve Bannon, Trump has far more explicitly aimed to create an international “movement” of the far right in preparation for World War 3.
Fascism comes home to the US
By the time of the 2016 US election, a section of the US ruling class decided it wasn’t enough to foster a network of allied fascist powers – these tactics needed to be ‘brought home’. Billionaires such as Robert Mercer worked with forces like Bannon at Breitbart News to whip up fascist politics online in a movement known as the “alt-right”. Murdoch had Fox News spewing out his filth daily. The Koch brothers had their networks and money flowing into the project of shifting the Republicans ever farther to the right. Sheldon Adelson was looking for candidates to further his far-right, Zionist agenda. Intelligence connected forces like Betsy Devos’s brother, Erik Prince, were actively working in the background.
During the 2016 primaries, Trump blustered onto the scene guided by Nixon-era dirty trickster, Roger Stone. The proto-fascist MAGA movement quickly became their chosen instrument. It should be remembered that Mercer originally backed Ted Cruz in 2016, but switched to Trump. They had found their man.
On election night, November 2016, the rotten door of bourgeois rule hung by a thread as a fascist was installed as President. To those who question this notion, I ask which part of fascist ideology and perspective does Trump not fit? He is rabidly anti-socialist, openly supports fascist violence and paramilitaries, expresses the desire to rule for life, has contempt for the rule of law domestically and internationally, defines dissent as treason, has massively expanded the concentration camp system for immigrants (of course with the support of the Democrats), and uses Islamophobia and anti-semitism to animate his base and divide the working class. He has put fascists in key positions in the White House, such as Steve Miller and Steve Bannon.
However, having a fascist president does not transform the US into a fascist state instantly. The US wasn’t then, and isn’t now, under a fascist form of government. Trotsky wrote extensively on the threat of fascism in the 1930’s, and remains essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the threat of fascism. Fascism is more than just dictatorship, or even police terror. It is an authoritarian political system with a clear class aim. Under fascism, not just the revolutionary left but all civil society and independent organizations, and all forms of working class organizations such as unions and social democratic parties are crushed. The working class must be forcefully atomised to head off the threat of socialist revolution.
Trotsky wrote that a defining element of fascism is the development of a mass based movement based on “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” In Italy, Mussolini used his Black Shirts, then in Germany Hitler used his Brown Shirts as a battering ram against the working class on the road to power. Once in power, Mussolini incorporated his Black Shirts into the Italian Army. Once in power, Hitler murdered the leaders of the plebeian Brown Shirts in the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934. These forces were not needed once they had full control of the state apparatus of violence.
Trump has been attempting to follow the old fascist playbook, but rather than repeating itself, history rhymes. Trump has had an advantage over Mussolini and Hitler. He gained control of the executive at the very start of his political career. He has, therefore, been implementing a dual strategy of building a fascist base, both within and outside the executive office — before, during, and after the election itself.
Trump has worked to do this outside the executive through ongoing MAGA rallies, open support for Nazi and fascist militias, and by cultivating support among reactionary evangelicals ie. his recent ‘bible’ walk at the ‘President’s’ Church. The network of fascist far-right media outlets continues to build its ‘Fuhrer cult’. Whilst it is clear that these forces are very much in the minority in the US, they still number in the tens of millions.
Within the executive Trump openly appeals to fascist sentiments within ICE, the military, police and other armed bodies of men within the state. The police rampage across the US in response to the Black Lives Matter protests demonstrates the success that Trump has made in animating reactionary layers in the security forces.
Fascism by a thousand cuts….
Even Germany did not become fascist overnight. The Weimar Republic eroded for years, as the economic crisis in Germany, and internationally developed. Just as the Democrats in the US have facilitated this process, the SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Germany played a thoroughly rotten role. The Enabling Act of 1933 was simply the death blow of Weimar.
Even after being handed the Chancellorship by President Hindenburg in 1933, Hitler had to move incrementally to institute a full fascist dictatorship. Likewise, Trump is not kicking in the “rotten door” in one go. He has continually tested the water to undermine constitutional rule by degrees. He overturned Congress’s ability to control funds with his national security decrees to fund the border wall which the World Socialist Web Site has described as a “Rubicon” moment. The 1st Amendment was shredded with the arrest of Assange on Espionage charges. He has sought to throw off all oversight of the Executive by the Legislature, claiming “executive privilege” to stop his administration giving evidence to both Congressional committees, as well as to the Impeachment process. His lawyers have argued in court that whatever actions the President takes are legal by definition. He has tried to assert full Presidential control over immigration by attempting an explicit ban on immigration from Muslim majority countries.
However, Trump has now come up against the limits of expanding his current power constitutionally. Trotsky wrote that the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) as a whole has an ambivalent attitude to fascism: “The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled” eg an unpleasant but necessary process. Whilst the logic of the class crisis drives the bourgeoisie ever closer to needing the services of fascism, it holds out as long as possible before staking it’s last card on it. And it will not do so until social democracy and bourgeois-democratic forms of liberal rule have completely exhausted their capacity to sow illusions in the working class. Entrusting the “committee of management” of the capitalist state to the hands of an erratic, vulgarian, gangster fascist like Trump is risky. Recall that within a decade of the German ruling class handing power to Hitler, conservative generals were trying to blow him up!
However, we see an emerging dynamic as Trump moves to deploy his incipient extra-Parliamentary movement, as well as his personal control of the Executive, as he comes up against constitutional limits. During April, Trump asserted an unconstitutional right to override state-based shutdowns to manage the COVID19 pandemic, but he received pushback from Democratic governors in places such as Michigan. Trump, on behalf of Wall Street’s homocidal “back to work” drive, and with the support of the capitalist press, was able to mobilize his lumpen, enraged petit-bourgeois base to bludgeon the Governors into line.
We have seen Trump come up against resistance to his unconstitutional assertion that he can override state governors and put the US military directly on the streets. This came in the form of push back from former Defense Secretary, “Mad Dog” Mattis, and a retired generals revolt. They were clearly articulating that a section of the ruling class do not think the time is right to “drown the working class in blood” and assert full fascist rule. Trump has been able to mobilise his fascist base in the police and other security forces to shoot protestors, but he has come up against definite limits. We shall see if, moving forward, Trump relies further on right wing terrorist violence from extra-parliamentary forces to overcome this resistance in the coming period in the run up to the November election.
Would a Democrat victory in 2016 made things different?
At this point, it’s worth entertaining a counterfactual exercise. Looking at the class forces that Trump and Clinton rest upon, how might Trump and Clinton have behaved if the election result in 2016 had been reversed?
Clinton was clearly the preferred candidate of a section of Wall St and the intelligence agencies. She would have continued their agenda of increasing social inequality at home and imperialist war abroad. She represented a faction which wanted to move aggressively against Russia before turning to China. Her government, in order to do this, would have had to continue the twenty year degradation of US liberal democracy in the form of militarizing police, surveillance and censorship. However, Clinton as a Democrat, doesn’t just rest upon Wall St and the intelligence agencies. The Democrats also rest upon a layer of the upper middle class, obsessed with their own privilege and identity politics. In addition the Democrats rely on trapping the working class within the parliamentary framework by pushing the ever more threadbare illusion that they are the “party of reform”. Whilst the Democrats are not, and have never been, a true social democratic party, they have functioned for a long time in the US as the “graveyard of social movements,” promoting illusions that they can be a vehicle for progressive change. The pathetic demise of the “Sanders revolution” is but the latest example. They also have the support of key unions, but not all, as some support Trump. Although union membership in the US is relatively low, their support for the Democrats can still be crucial, as seen for example in their effective reigning in of the teacher rebellions of recent years. So, would the drive to authoritarian rule and war have continued under Hillary? Absolutely. But the Democrats’ working class social base prevents it from morphing into a full fascist movement.
What might Trump have done? It is important to note that Trump never expected to win in 2016. First hand accounts on election night have confirmed his shock at defeating Hillary. Trump’s game plan had been to use the MAGA movement to build a fascist base to continue his drive to power and to further the fascist agenda in the US. We can’t say with any certainty what would have happened, but it was obvious that Trump was not going away. Perhaps he would have had to follow a more traditional fascist path to power by building his extra-parliamentary forces until he was able to take power. A Clinton presidency’s reactionary policies and hostility to the working class would have served to feed the narrative that Trump was the man to “drain the swamp”, oppose regime change wars, restore jobs, and Make America Great Again.
But history is what it is— Trump won.
Chloroforming the working class?
It is vital that the working class be alerted to the existential threat of fascism, not just in the US but internationally, if Trump is able to consolidate his rule as dictator. We face the prospect of a fascist having full control over the largest military the world has ever seen, with bases in 180 countries and enough nuclear weapons to eliminate life on earth. The US executive has surveillance and repressive capacities in the form of drones, the NSA and CIA at its disposal that the German Fuhrer could only dream of.
Marxists are rightfully keen to apply the fascist label only when it is scientifically sound. As I have stated, the US is not yet in the grip of fascism. But it is a deadly mistake to deny that Trump, the President of the United States, is a full blown fascist.
The World Socialist Web Site, a widely read Marxist publication, for example, has described Trump’s recent attempts to put troops on the ground in the US, as an attempted “coup d’etat”. They have stated that Trump is trying to set himself up as a “criminal”, “Gangster”, “personalist” dictator resting simply on the military and police. Clearly, there are elements of truth in this, but it risks downplaying the real threat of fascism in the US. Seeing Trump as merely a dictatorial authoritarian overlooks both his fascist politics, and the volatile mix of class forces upon which he rests for his support.
Marxists must avoid the mistakes of the Stalinist Communist Party (KPD) in Germany in the 1930s. Trotsky addressed the problem with equating all reactionary capitalist parties with fascism in his 1931 pamphlet “For a United Front against Fascism” (Note: Bruning was the German Chancellor from 1930-32).:
There are seven keys in the musical scale. The question as to which of these keys is “better” – do, re, or sol – is a nonsensical question. But the musician must know when to strike and what keys to strike. The abstract question of who is the lesser evil – Brüning or Hitler – is just as nonsensical. It is necessary to know which of these keys to strike. Is that clear? For the feeble-minded let us cite another example. When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a “lesser evil” in comparison with the revolver.
Revolution as the order of the day!
There are of course differences between the situation in Germany that Trotsky was writing about and the US today. In particular there are no longer massed based parties of the Left of either a socialist or social democratic character. The internet exists! Whilst the far right is using this tool to great effect, ultimately the internet is a weapon in the hands of the working class of truly historical proportions. I do not think it is an exaggeration to compare the internet to the printing press. The printing press was a key material development that undermined feudal forms of rule leading to their replacement with capitalism. I believe the internet may be playing the same role in the destruction of capitalism. The working class can now communicate, mobilise in real time on a global level. The recent uprising over the George Floyd murder is illustrative. A black man was horrifically murdered and his murder was uploaded to the internet where it was ‘witnessed’ by hundreds of millions. Social media has then been used to organise and amplify the ongoing rebellion which has been supported and even joined internationally as a whole generation of youth take a stand against the poison of racism and police brutality.
However the internet does not resolve the crisis of leadership which is just as stark today as it was in 1938. Trotsky wrote in 1930 in ‘The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany’:
“the course of events in the very near future may resurrect in Germany, on a new historical plane, the old tragic contradiction between the maturity of a revolutionary situation on the one hand and the weakness and strategical impotence of the revolutionary party on the other. This must be said clearly, openly, and above all, in time.”
We must keep arguing and discussing the nature of the fascist threat in the US and internationally and we must continue to find ways to think about what a “United Front” strategy for the working class might look like in today’s context. There is still a window of opportunity to stop fascism – class forces are still in flux and socialist revolution remains the order of the day!
The above article assume knowledge of a few key Marxist terms. If these terms are unfamiliar, I have provided a short glossary:
In Marxist terms, the working class is everyone who has to survive by earning a wage eg by selling their labor. This is the vast majority of humanity who all share the same social interests of wanting access to good working conditions, healthcare, education and a clean environment. Marxists also call the working class the proletariat.
The working class is not just “blue collar” or industrial workers but teachers, nurses, retail workers, people in the service industry etc but everyone who survives by earning a wage.
The working class however is not uniform in terms of its wealth. What is commonly called the “middle class” is really just a layer of the working class that is more comfortable financially.
The unemployed, who are not currently earning a wage share the same interests as the working class
The ruling class, or capitalist class, is the small percentage of society that makes their money not through earning a wage but from the profits from what they own eg their investments.. They own the “means of production” eg all the factories, banks, companies etc by which things are produced. Each country has its own ruling class which compete with each other. In Marxist theory the ruling class is also called the Bourgeoisie.
Small business owners are categorised as “petty bourgeois” as they are not waged workers, but neither are they part of the ruling class as they are not economically powerful and only own a small amount of capital.
The upper middle class is also classified by Marxists as petty-bourgeois. Although they earn a wage or salary, they are so privileged that as whole they see their interests as more aligned with the ruling class than the mass of the working class. This would include managers, union bureaucrats, well paid professionals etc
What is capitalism?
Capitalism is the current global economic system that dominates the globe. It is a system where the “means of production” is owned privately by individuals, the ruling or capitalist class. The aim of the production is to maximize profit or capital for the ruling class. Under capitalism, the world is divided up into competing nation states, each with its own ruling class.
What is socialism?
Socialism is a system where the “means of production” are owned and run for the benefit of all. All of the wealth and the productive capacities of humanity are organised for the common good not private profit. True socialism must be implemented internationally, not just in one country. You cannot have isolated socialist countries existing inside a global capitalist system. Although the task of overthrowing capitalism falls to the working class, the aim of socialism is not to replace domination of one class with another to work towards a society where class is abolished. Just as capitalism did not establish itself over night, nor will socialism. It will be the work of an historic period. However, it is becoming clearly by the day that humanity and the planet cannot survive unless we put an end to the profit system.