It isn’t every day you get to see the end of the republic as we know it.
Going strictly by the hot takes and the headlines, you’d have thought that we’d arrived, suddenly and fully, at dystopia. It couldn’t happen here—well, now it has. Washington, D.C.: a damp, gray day in January, and the clocks were striking noon. A fascist dictator had been sworn in as the leader of the free world. All across the nation, his image was beamed by satellite and mobile networks into the comfort of our phones. Riot gear, checkpoints, a military parade; protestors, black blocs, rearranged windowpanes. He vowed to put an end to “this American carnage” after a 21-gun salute. But the death squads never came; the press and media kept on; the bars still closed at 4. The markets fell and rose again, as did the sun.
The inauguration of Donald Trump was supposed to be the start of our American dystopia. This was, of course, what we’d been warned of daily by the chattering classes and the courtier press. And we had a readymade picture of what we might expect. A bleak and haggard landscape, concrete blocks of uniformity, miserable proles tramping lockstep to the rhythms of the fun police—a world where joy would be abolished and society arranged around the sheer production of cruelty. It’s a vision taken straight from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which enjoyed a sales boost after Trump took office, in time with the Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Amazon adaptation of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Together, these stories ask us to imagine what life would look like in a merciless dictatorship, where the state can brutalize its people with impunity, repress its undesirables and flout basic norms of democratic rule. Well, imagine that.
As it happens, we do have agents of the state committing extrajudicial killings on the streets. They’re our boys in blue, making the rounds to protect and serve. We have a secret police force tracking down and rounding up the nation’s undesirables. It’s called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and it was formed pursuant to a bipartisan effort in Congress back in 2002. We have an unelected council of worthies that issues legally binding decrees for the sake of the ruling class; it’s called the Supreme Court, and it went so far just recently as to appoint a U.S. President explicitly against the will of the U.S. public. And speaking of unelected presidents, we have one now who also came to power against the public’s will, thanks to an anti-democratic feature of the U.S. Constitution. Exactly none of these things began under the rule of Donald Trump.
It turns out that “fascist America” looks a rather lot like regular America.
Five-hundred days ago, fascism came to the Oval Office. What do we have to show for it? It turns out, not much out of the ordinary. Trump has presided over exactly what you’d expect a Republican government to do: cutting taxes, ending regulations, bombing other countries. True, he has packed the federal courts with all sorts of right-wing ghouls, and turned the Department of Justice into a laboratory of right-wing spite. But none of this involved the suspension of democracy, the abolition of due process or the suppression of dissent. In fact, he can barely wrangle his own party to do the one thing they’ve been obsessed with for eight years—repealing the Affordable Care Act—and he’s been checked at every turn by a court system that remains, in form and in function, independent.
It remains to be seen just what makes Trump, or his government, “fascist” in the first place. The perennial problem here is one of definition, or rather its lack. As early as 1944, Orwell knew that Fascist had little value more than as an epithet: “Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers,” he wrote in Tribune magazine, “almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.” And so it is today. Today the nuanced species and varietals of reaction are lost on all except those who believe in them; for nearly everyone else, the word “fascist” just means something like “really, really racist.”
Well, racism may be common to historical fascist regimes, but it is hardly a defining feature. The Fascist International in Montreux was split on that very issue. And racism is surely nothing new in the American experience. Lest one forget, for the first “four score and seven years” of its existence (actually, four score and nine), the United States maintained a system of racial chattel slavery; for the next 100 it upheld a system of legal apartheid. The United States has a history of excluding immigrants from certain nationalities, and rounding up minority citizens in concentration camps. All of these were fully in line with the Constitution, the Congress and the courts—in line, in other words, with the normal institutions of liberal democracy. A dictator would have been nearly superfluous.
The historian Robert Paxton, who wrote the literal book on fascism, has sketched a more coherent picture of what fascism entails: passionate nationalism, with a sense of national victimhood and destiny; an impulse toward authority, hierarchy and national cohesion; a drive to purify the nation of its enemies, internal and external; and a will to use any means, including violent and illegal ones, to do so. Most important, however, is the context in which fascism emerged—a crisis in the liberal order, and the viability of a socialist alternative.
Fascism, Paxton writes, is “inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist Left.” Fascism offers a third way, so to speak: a mass-mobilized, popular movement against both liberal individualism and socialist class struggle. Historical fascists were not strictly capitalist, certainly not the laissez-faire variety, and quite often inveighed against the “decadence” of the bourgeoisie. But the one thing they would not touch was the basic institution of private property. For that reason, the fascists won the backing of more traditional conservatives and capitalists, by presenting their movement as the only one capable of fighting the “red menace”—including by using “Bolshevik” means. (This is what Slavoj Žižek has in mind when he writes that Hitler “stage[d] a big spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.”)
It goes without saying that these conditions aren’t met in contemporary America. If Donald Trump is a fascist, he’s a pretty lousy one, but then again he has no reason to be otherwise. This is not to say that he’s benign; in my line of work, I’ve come to know especially just how thuggish and racist and repressive Trump’s government can be. Still, there hasn’t been a radical move to mobilize the masses, no express legitimation of extralegal violence, no efforts to suspend democracy or to impose a frank dictatorship. And any attempt would be gratuitous, because the role fascism played—suppressing the workers’ movement, consolidating the state, purging the nation’s undesirables—is already handled amply by the existing liberal order.
The imputation of “fascism” was a buzzword of the Democrats from the start. It was partly a media ploy to generate sensational clickbait, and partly a campaign strategy to push Hillary Clinton as the “lesser evil.” It was helped along by generous coverage (or free publicity) of the so-called alt-right, a marginal “movement” of online cheerleaders for Donald Trump’s campaign, some of whom made no bones about having fascist sympathies. Their discovery should have been unremarkable, unless one hadn’t known already that the Internet is full of racist creeps. Eight years of Obama must have lulled us from the fact that bigotry and chauvinism are as American as apple pie—lulled us enough to make a celebrity blowhard and his army of Twitter trolls seem like an alarming aberration.
On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, an alt-right blogger called Richard Spencer was sucker-punched in the face by a masked protestor in black. Now, street violence against one’s political enemies may not be good in itself, but when it is deployed against a white supremacist with Nazi aspirations, it can have a heartening effect. And yet perhaps it wasn’t even worth it in the end, because the punch, captured on video, trapped the left into a circular and ongoing debate about the ethics of political violence, the value of free speech, and the need to fight the fascist menace at all costs. This all came to a head at Charlottesville in August, when a mob of white supremacist twerps marched through the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert Lee. The next day, brawls with counter-protestors culminated in the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer, a left-wing activist, at the wheel of a neo-Nazi. Subsequent crimes by alt-right or adjacent perps only confirmed the widespread fear that we are on the cusp of a fascist coup.
I don’t mean here to litigate the question of political violence. Nor do I wish to minimize the real and credible threat of far-right extremism. But it’s worth noting that through all this anti-fascist chest-thumping, the severity of that threat is taken for granted. Fascism, in this view, is some transhistorical phenomenon, a thing that crops up now and then and must be quashed wherever it appears. It’s also treated as a moral category, a threat that’s judged according to how odious it is. Yet fascism is a material thing: it has material roots, and its success or viability depends on its material conditions. Images from Charlottesville made it appear as if the barbarians were right there at the gates, baying for a pogrom. In reality, it turned out that they were numbered (charitably) at a hundred, a gang of sophomoric dweebs and basement-dwellers wielding tiki torches. The demonstration received sweeping condemnation from across the political spectrum, and the rally’s stated goal—to “unite the right”—could hardly have produced a sadder outcome.
There have always been fascist thugs and fringe reactionaries in America, this is nothing new. The appeal of fascism works the same way now as it did in the last century. It preys on the alienated, the disturbed and the resentful; it latches onto racial fears and prejudices; it gives an outlet for violent instincts without legal, much less moral, restraint. The difference is that last century, the blackshirts were restless veterans, embittered by national humiliation and emboldened by the threat of socialism. Today’s alt-right were hardened by nothing but the culture wars. All that incipient fascism manifests exactly how you’d expect in a time of social fragmentation and atomization: isolated, disorganized, lacking institutional support. So you’ll have sporadic acts of violence, the odd school shooter, the “lone-wolf” terrorist, perhaps even a mob. The forces of reaction are latent in class society. But in the absence of a socialist left to fight, and with the liberal order still intact, it has no mass raison d’être. Fascism is all surplus. Where fascism used to be the safety valve of capitalism in crisis, today it only manifests as capitalism’s death drive.
To see how pitiful and sorry a state that American fascism is in, look no further than in their choice for il Duce. All Trump had to do was to repeat the common platitudes and prejudices that any racist uncle might discharge, for the far-right to embrace him as a Führer. But Donald Trump is no Aryan messiah. He has none of the militant gravitas that 20th century dictators exuded; he doesn’t dictate, but he whines; he comes off entirely like a mewling, senile grandmother. He’s less a nationalist dictator than a capitalist gangster, but even that isn’t quite right: he’s a sleazy billionaire, and the sleaziest possible kind—a real estate speculator, and a T.V. game show host. His most obvious precursor is Silvio Berlusconi, but unlike il Cavaliere Trump exudes the very absence of virility. Susan Sontag once described the aesthetics of fascism as sexual: “The expression of the crowds in Triumph of the Will is one of ecstasy. The leader makes the crowd come.” God help anyone who ever felt the same of Trump.