U.S.

Pre-fascism & the Muslim question

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Outside Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania, a protest against Trump’s travel ban, on January 29. Photo: CHARLES MOSTOLLER/REUTERS

Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist, at the White House on February 7. Photo: AL DRAGO/NYT

Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser, at a White House briefing. Photo: STEPHEN CROWLEY/NYT

Gen. James Mattis, Secretary of Defence, just before his swearing-in on January 27. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

Gen. John F. Kelly at the hearing on his nomination to be Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Photo: MOLLY RILEY/AFP

Jared Kushner. He is Trump’s son-in-law and his other chief strategist. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

Betsy DeVos. She was nominated as Education Secretary after Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote. Photo: Molly Riley/AP

Students from Pittsburgh schools gather at the market square to protest against Betsy DeVos’ nomination. Photo: Darrell Sapp/AP

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. He said he would oppose Trump addressing the Houses of Parliament during his state visit to the U.K. Photo: AFP

Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was barred from saying anything more on the Senate floor about Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions after she quoted from an old letter from Martin Luther King Jr’s wife about Sessions. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Donald Trump, backed by the Bannons and the Flynns, will overreach and try to erect a pre-fascist state. Islamophobia and a broad hatred of the non-white immigrant seem to be the two key themes in the early days of the presidency, as they were during the campaign. But the storm of opposition will also be great.

President Donald Trump came to occupy the White House about two weeks ago. He has so far ruled by presidential decrees and a punctual predawn blitz on Twitter that is meant to insult and intimidate. It is already clear, though, that the core of his incoming administration is so far to the Right—an authoritarian, militarist, irrationalist, distinctly pathological Right —that a question may be plausibly posed: are we witnessing the emergence of a pre-fascist state in the most powerful country in the world—the very pulsating heart of empire? This is no longer a spurious question. Scholars of great acumen and sobriety, such as Richard Falk and Noam Chomsky, have raised this question quite explicitly.

We shall return to the question. It is best to start with what we know so far, concretely, about the emerging power centres and policy orientations in the new administration.

Pack of hounds

Almost the most remarkable thing about key members of his Cabinet, especially the highly prominent generals, is that it is impossible to say which of them is the most dangerous. Since almost the beginning of the presidential campaign, Trump has conducted himself in such a manner, with full media collusion, of course, that attention has been fixed entirely on him, his outrageous behaviour and utterances, his shifting policy positions, his chameleon-like political personae—anti-establishment friend of the poor and the working class; woman-hating racist and bigoted billionaire—that he was able to conceal his true cohorts and covert agenda almost entirely. He was clearly an untrustworthy demagogue. Beyond that, it was unclear what he would do when in power. The ones who were often paraded in the media as the likely key members of his Cabinet—Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, John Bolton et al—were all swiftly set aside as, post-election, he proceeded to pack his real Cabinet with billionaires and ideologically driven military generals. Even the neo-Nazi Steve Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs luminary who had emerged as the CEO of the Trump campaign, was not much in the limelight as the harbinger of a dangerous future until Trump appointed him as his Chief Strategist at the White House and then elevated him, egregiously, to the core committee of the National Security Council (NSC). Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law with a real estate empire of his own and with no qualification for the position, has also emerged as the President’s closest adviser and the other chief strategist in his administration with an office and a staff inside the White House. Shades of dynastic ambitions but also perhaps much worse!

In this sense, there has always been something enigmatic, with a smell of the secretive and the conspiratorial, in the way a loud-mouthed, egomaniacal political outsider emerged out of the shadows, strutting like the bulky caricature of a latter-day Fuhrer, and proceeded to mesmerise the media and shell-shock the elite of the very party that he came to represent as well as bend into submission. Only after capturing the presidency did he reveal the pack of hounds that had been leashed in the wings and was now to run his government, the most important of whom have had no real ties to the party establishments of the Democrats and the Republicans alike. Key Republican party leaders such as the House Speaker Paul Ryan, himself a presidential aspirant, have been left gasping for breath as they try to keep up with their own President who seems to treat them with supreme indifference. “We came to know of it only as it was being prepared for release,” Ryan said peevishly of the infamous presidential order restricting not only future Muslim immigration from seven countries but also denying the constitutional rights of Muslim immigrants from those countries residing lawfully in the U.S.

The generals who now occupy key positions in Cabinet—Lt Gen. Michael Flynn (National Security Adviser, or NSA), Marine General James Mattis (Secretary of Defence) and John F. Kelly, also Marine General (Head of Homeland Security)—have of course been at the highest level of the military establishment—two of them Marines, no less. However, they were eventually rejected by their more cool-headed bosses. Colin Powell, a military superstar and as hard-core a Republican as they come (National Security Adviser to Reagan; appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George Bush Sr, Secretary of State for President George Bush Jr), once described Flynn as a “right-wing nutty” who was “abusive of staff” and given to “work against policy. Mattis, once the Chief of Central Command, was encouraged by the Obama administration to retire quietly because he was seen as too insubordinate and belligerent, especially too keen for confrontation with Iran. In addition to holding extremist right-wing views, these are disgruntled men out to rehabilitate themselves by furrowing fresh paths to glory. At the helm of state, such men are dangerous for constitutional democracy. Needless to add, the placing of retired generals in Cabinet posts governing the whole of the military establishment, including internal security, violates at least the spirit if not the letter of the U.S. Constitution, which requires that the armed forces be under the supervision of the civilian authority.

From the Democratic Party leadership, alas, not much more than hollow noises and tame little moves can be expected. The main fear of this leadership seems to be that it might be overtaken even within its own party by the somewhat social democratic forces that have been congregating so far around the figure of Bernie Sanders. Outside the traditional party structure, though, the breadth and depth of multiform resistance to extremist Trumpetry that already exists may well grow into a formidable enough force to keep these protofascists at bay. In any case, it is not unreasonable to think that during Trump’s reign the U.S. may often be hovering on the verge of a Declaration of Emergency. What happens if there is a serious economic downturn in a year or two? What happens if that downturn coincides with the eruption of a 9/11 kind of event? Nothing at all can be ruled out.

Islamophobia & racism

Two key themes seem to have been consistent throughout the presidential campaign and these early days of the new presidency: Islamophobia and a broad hatred of the non-white immigrant which parades in public discourse, for now, as the campaign to build a wall all along the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration, which is itself often identified with drug trafficking and terrorist infiltration. The two obsessions are often sought to be conjoined, in all sorts of overt and covert ways. For instance, as Ira Chernus points out on the website Tomdispatch.com: “[General] Flynn has claimed that ‘Mexican drug cartels’ actually post signals at the U.S.-Mexican border—in Arabic, no less—marking ‘lanes of entry’ for Islamic terrorists.” War on Drugs and War of Islamic Terror are thus woven into the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico and the building of the wall into a single global problem that besieges the long-suffering and now deeply endangered white America.

The Trumpist ideology seems to want to elevate what Bannon calls “jehadist Islamic fascism”—and often Islam as such, as we shall see—to the place that the idea of a “Jewish conspiracy” against the German nation had occupied in Nazi ideology. Trump’s designation of Mexicans as rapists and drug pushers, even “killers of our people”, serves a supplementary and analogous function of positing a threat from an enemy that is outside as well as inside (Mexican drug cartels as allies of the Islamic State, or I.S., both determined to penetrate and corrupt the interiors of the innocent and gullible white America). Trump is reported to have said in a telephone call with the Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, himself a mousy lackey of the U.S.: “I don’t need Mexicans. I don’t need Mexico. You are going to pay for the wall whether you want to or not.” According to an excerpt from the conversation that is available with the Associated Press, he also said: “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.” These brief excerpts are remarkable for the hubris of their egotistical “I”, Trump’s propensity to ignore (or his actual ignorance of) diplomatic protocol, his habit of addressing heads of weaker states as if they are his serf-like employees, his self-image as the lord of all he surveys. This is all deplorable, and the liberal media, such as The New York Times, have duly and primly taken exception to it. The main point, however, is that his main audience in all this is his core constituency within the U.S., the racist Far Right, that thrives on this kind of bullying masculinism.

What is central to this two-pronged offensive against Muslims and “Mexicans” is the creation of a widespread belief, a fictive belief of course, in the victimhood of white Americans—victimised by Muslims and “Mexicans” (that is, non-white immigrants) but also by globalisation (symbolised by China, which runs away with jobs otherwise belonging to white America); “multiculturalism”, which seeks to treat all racial groups equally (a covert form of racial miscegenation, really); Muslims (again) whose presence in America undermines the essentially Judeo-Christian character of (white) American society. Flynn, for instance, asserts that Islamic Sharia is already overtaking American law within the U.S. (Parenthetically, we might add that Flynn’s respect for facts is so tenuous that his subordinates in the armed forces used to joke about what they called “Flynn facts”.) This is not very different from the Nazi representation of the Germans as undermined by the Jewish minority from within and rapacious foreign powers from without; nor from the Hindutva claim that the Muslim rate of birth poses a demographic threat to Hindus in India; nor, for that matter, is this fiction of the victimhood of white America so very different from the claims by Israel, one of the world’s great military powers, that it faces an “existential threat” from what it calls Palestinian “terrorism” —not to speak of the fact that most of the Israeli population, some of the world’s most sophisticated and well educated, seems to believe in this fiction. In other words, the sheer fictional quality of these claims does not take away anything from the very real political and strategic effectiveness of such claims.

We do not have the space to deal with all aspects of the emerging order. So, we shall concentrate on just a few aspects, the central issue of Islamophobia in particular.

The Muslim Question

The emergence of the Muslim Question—Islamophobia, radical Islam, Islamofascism, just plain “Islam”, or whatever—as a key element in the making of popular hysteria in the time of Trump has a long, complex lineage. At some level, Islamophobia has been a punctual feature and a very distinct component of eurocentrism since the earliest phases of European expansion into Asia and Africa; Muslim lands were adjacent and were perceived as being particularly threatening. Since the Second World War, that world view has gone through various permutations. In one important register Islam was seen as a bulwark against communism throughout the period of the Cold War. After the Arab-Israel war of 1967, the emergence of Palestinian Resistance, and especially after the short-lived belligerence of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) on oil prices in 1973, the American media became obsessed with the Arab—the Bedouin, the Sheikh, the gun-totting terrorist—as an enemy of Western civilisation. As the U.S. assembled an Islamic jehad against the evil Afghan communists and their Soviet allies, Islam again gained immense favour, and the leaders of the Afghan “mujahideen” were declared, by Ronald Reagan in a White House ceremony, as “moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers” (perhaps a play could be staged with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar playing George Washington, Burhannudin Rabbani playing Thomas Jefferson, and so on).

When, later, Osama bin Laden and his men in Al Qaeda, until then on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) payroll, turned against their paymasters in opposition to the arrival of huge contingents of U.S. military personnel on Saudi soil at the very beginning of the First Gulf War in 1991, Islam again fell into terrible disrepute all over the Western world, the U.S. in particular. Then came the fateful September 11, 2001, and the onset of the “war on (Islamic) Terror” that, President Bush said, was going to be fought in dozens of countries and for possibly several decades (“war without end”). The spectre of Islam has been haunting the West ever since, becoming more and more spectral as days go by. And a very useful spectre, we might add. For it is in fear of this spectre that the figure of “the immigrant” can now be made to appear altogether menacing, with blood-curdling calls getting issued for ingathering of the (white) Western civilisation for exorcising this demon from the vast Scandinavian interiors of Denmark, through France and Austria and the like, right up to the California coast.

In short, the political uses of Islamophobia are by no means an invention of Trump and his cohorts. It is by now a staple of contemporary Western ideology, a trans-Atlantic tableau in which Angela Merkel can say exactly what Marine Le Pen might have (on the matter of the headscarf, for instance) and the French President Jacques Chirac, faced with a terror act, can aspire to act exactly (and ridiculously) like U.S. President Bush Jr. The distance between the Extreme Right and what Tariq Ali aptly calls the “Extreme Centre” is not as large as the latter claims. For Trump & Co, Islamophobia is an inheritance. An inheritance that is now to be cashed in and multiplied, with compounded profits. Trump now says what previous Presidents have thought, in various shades, from grey to purple, but the very act of saying inflames passions in altogether different ways.

President’s pronouncements

Let us begin briefly with the President’s own pronouncements, and then we shall look at Bannon, Flynn, and the rest in somewhat greater detail. Already during his presidential campaign, Trump had claimed that the “eradication” of jehadi terror—the I.S. in particular—would be the highest priority of his administration in his adventures abroad. He had even threatened to use “nukes” (as he jocularly calls them) in West Asia—though it was never clear who would be targeted, where and why, and what the fallout might be. (But then he has also threatened to use “nukes” in Europe as well, presumably against Russia even though he is widely alleged to be covertly supported by the wily Ruskies). He casually told the CNN: “I think Islam hates us.” When pressed to be more specific he ruminated: “It’s hard to define, it’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”

Such breathtaking nonchalance would be ordinarily just very laughable, but this kind of casual vitriol becomes altogether frightening when it comes from a man who displays all the signs of the most vicious kinds of egomaniacal pathology in his personality but who has also been elected the President of the U.S., obviously with the power to make decisions that might determine the future of humankind (nuke this, nuke that). For an evangelical pastor in Nevada to say “Islam hates us” is bad enough because pronouncements of this kind then reverberate through all the circuits of evangelical-Zionist alliances and neo-Nazi groupings. But for the U.S. President to say so is a historic escalation with unpredictable consequences. For an irresponsibility of this level there can be only one of two explanations. Either he is so maniacally devoted to his self-image (what in American parlance would be called “Real Bad Dude”) that he is willing to make a bonfire of all other vanities in the pursuit of that self-projection. Or he cold-bloodedly knows what he is doing, the kind of passions he intends to inflame, the results he wishes to obtain, as part of a cabal that is only partially visible even to us, the veteran observers of the field of force that is American politics and the field of international politics in general. Another way of putting it is this: until he made the announcements, no one outside his own charmed and secretive circle had any clue as to who were going to be the principal figures in his Cabinet, especially as regards the national security apparatus. Likewise, it may well be that we are unable to decipher the method in the madness of his pronouncements and actions since becoming President because we do not sufficiently understand the alignments that are to benefit from what otherwise strike us as idiosyncrasies or even pure idiocies. Time will tell.

Steve Bannon

More clues can perhaps be found if we attend to some key figures in his administration, starting, above all, with Bannon, previously CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign, then appointed Chief Strategist as Trump got ready to enter the White House, then swiftly elevated into the inner sanctum, the “Principal Committee”, of the NSC, precisely at the time when the Director of national intelligence and, more significantly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were demoted to a position that they attend only when called in. According to The New York Times: “He is now reportedly eclipsing the National Security Adviser, retired Lt Gen. Michael Flynn.” According to an intelligence official quoted in Foreign Policy, Bannon was calling the shots at the NSC even before his appointment to it. “He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the unnamed official is quoted as saying, with “no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings. . . ”

What does he have to say on the subject of Islam and Muslims? But, before we get to that: who is he anyway, and what was he before he openly took over the Trump campaign? Well, he was once a luminary of Goldman Sachs, the great engine of financial power but also a great power behind many a throne in the U.S. establishment. Then he was executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, which he described as “the platform for the alt-right”. The term “alt-right” is of course a euphemism for the Far Right, which is itself comprised of various tendencies under no unified command but overlapping orientations: the neo-Nazis, the evangelicals and the evangelical-Zionist alliance, the Ku Klux Klan, the white nationalists, the more extreme Tea Party elements, nutty Republicans, and so forth. But what else is Breitbart News Network which Bannon took over as chairman?

Wikipedia tells us that Andrew Breitbart, right-wing commentator and businessman, founded Breitbart News Network during a visit to Israel in the summer of 2007 as a website “that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel”. It is headquartered in Los Angeles with bureaus in Texas, London and—significantly—Jerusalem. Aside from this umbilical and enduring connection with Israel, Breitbart News Network is also known to have connections with Far Right groups in Europe. In turn, the head of the German intelligence has recently warned that Far Right extremist groups in Germany are conspiring with their counterparts in the U.S. and with American crime gangs to plan attacks. Bannon used to edit, write and make films for Breitbart News Network. Andrew Breitbart, the founder, called Bannon the “Leni Reifenstahl of the Tea Party Movement”. Leni Reifenstahl was of course the legendary film-maker for Hitler, famous for her filming of the Nuremberg Rallies and the Berlin Olympics. That Bannon would have the talent of a Reifenstahl is doubtful. But that his admirers would want to compare him to a woman of genius who chose to serve the Nazi regime is significant. That is of course not surprising in view of the fact that Bannon has also been endorsed by David Duke, the former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in glowing terms: “You have an individual… who’s basically creating the ideological aspects of where we’re going .…And ideology ultimately is the most important aspect of any government.” That the U.S. is currently in the grip of a President and his Chief Strategist who have both been endorsed by the Klan does boggle the mind somewhat. One might add that Bannon is a loud admirer of Narendra Modi even as he complains that there are far too many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley.

About Bannon’s association with the Religious Right in the U.S., his Islamophobia and his obsession with the clash of civilisations, we can learn much from his talk at the Vatican in which he says that the West is engaged in “a war that is already global... an outright war against jehadist Islamic fascism”. In that particular oration, perhaps to please his hosts, he also ranted against “an immense secularisation of the West” that “converges” with “radical Islam”. This war against Islam (and presumably against Western secularisation) must be fought, he says, to save “the Judeo-Christian West... a church and a civilisation that really is the flower of mankind”.

General Flynn

These views converge remarkably with those of Flynn, NSA and head of the NSC, with whom Bannon is expected to collaborate closely but whom Bannon is likely to treat as a rival and a nuisance; how this relationship pans out we shall have to see. What matters for present purposes is that Flynn’s Islamophobia appears to be even more extreme. Like Bannon, he too believes that the U.S. (and by implication the Judeo-Christian West which seems to include Israel) is at war against Islam, but Flynn goes so far as to suggest that this might turn out to be “hundred-year war”. The enemy is comprised, in the first instance, of “Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, I.S. and countless other terrorist groups” while “Iran is the linchpin of the alliance, its centrepiece”. Elsewhere, he tweeted “Fear of Islam is RATIONAL.” His top assistant at the NSC, K.T. McFarland, similarly speaks of “radical Islam” as an “apocalyptic death cult...the most virulent and lethal in history” that must be destroyed before it destroys the West. Trump’s repeated promises that he is going to eradicate radical Islam from “the face of the earth”, and his constant sliding from “radical Islam” to “Islam” are all taken from these advisers.

The incoherence of it all is of course quite remarkable. Authors of such rants, generals as they have been, seem not to have noticed that West Asia is in fact in the grip of a Saudi-instigated Shia-Sunni conflict and that Iran has been fighting against Al Qaeda and the I.S.—in Iraq, Syria and more obliquely Lebanon. It cannot possibly be the linchpin of an alliance that is comprised of its enemies. Such peculiarly passionate but also peculiarly incoherent formulations are repeated ad nauseum by the core personalities in this administration, which is astonishing because these men are experienced, shrewd, worldly wise. They must know that it is all a lie. Why do they repeat such lies, so elaborately, so often? There can possibly be only two explanations.

Why so many lies?

First, the point seems to be not to pursue truth but to create a belief system, a pattern of mass indoctrination, through sheer repetition by people in authority. For over 15 years now, since 2001, the U.S. population has been fed a steady diet of fear. Not all believe in what they are told and it is difficult to estimate just how many do. It is clear, however, that fear psychosis is rampant enough and that Islamophobia is now a widespread, effective mass ideology. This helps sustain a permanent war economy, to give the state continued authority to wage war in West Asia and to impose all sorts of regimentation and surveillance at home, and to buttress a herd-like unity in the white population against enemies circulating in and out of the U.S. territory freely. As before, but very much more so, this functions in tandem with white supremacist nationalism as the ideological cement for a society facing unbearable and deepening socio-economic crises of various sorts. The ultimate message is this: we are in a world war that is likely to be a long haul (100 years?), and in order to win this battle for sheer survival we must be prepared for all sacrifices, not only in the form of economic austerities but perhaps even the suspension of normal democratic governance so that the Great Leader is free to pursue the war through all means necessary.

Second, however, there is also a simple fact: Israel is in reality the only state, in collusion with Saudi Arabia of course, that is so singularly focussed on portraying Iran as the arch enemy, the home of all terrorism, that must be confronted and destroyed at all costs. Getting credited for igniting Sunni extremism is of course a novel honour bestowed on Iran. But this focus on Iran has been there for a long time. The gang of neo-conservatives, so prominent in the Bush administration and so closely allied with the Far Right elements in the Israeli Likud, always said that the invasion of Iraq, Syria, Libya were mere stepping stones toward the conquest of Iran (The slogan: “Real Men go to Tehran”). It is significant that General Flynn’s book The Field of Fight: How We can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies is co-authored with Michael Ledeen, the neoconservative ideologue most devoted to taking the war into Tehran. Nor is it insignificant that Breitbart News Network began its career in Israel. These are mere clues. But the imprint of Israel seems to be all over this emerging centrality of Islamophobia in U.S. strategic thinking; so long as the U.S. is engaged in war against Islam, Israel shall be free to complete its project of fully colonising the whole historic land of Palestine.

We could cite and quote, to the same effect of Islamophobic excess, the incoming Secretary of Defence James Mattis, the new CIA Director Mike Pompeo and many others in the Administration. But the point we wished to make should be clear enough. And we have not even said much of the secretive but obviously overbearing power of Jared Kushner, the Orthodox Jewish son-in-law of the President who seems to be emerging as possibly the second most powerful figure in this dispensation and who is said to have had lucrative dealings with Israeli settlers in the colonies—generally called “settlements” —on the West Bank. There is much that is not clear, and may not be for some time.

International outcast?

Key issues regarding the Trump administration’s probable foreign policy—with respect to China, Russia, even the European Union—are so uncertain, so shrouded in mystery that we shall have to wait and see what comes. He has already offended heads of states in countries as different as Mexico and Australia. Theresa May, the improbable British Prime Minister, was foolish enough to have rushed off to visit Trump, on the barest of invitations and even after he had openly said, probably scandalising the diplomatic corps, that Britain should send Nigel Farage to Washington as its ambassador. By contrast, Angela Merkel, forever a pastor’s daughter who is nevertheless the German Chancellor, is reputed to have delivered a tight-lipped lecture to Trump on the Geneva Conventions. Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament, said that Trump should not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom at all while John Bercow, the Speaker in the House of Commons, said that even if Trump came to visit he would not be allowed to address Parliament. In short, Trump may well be carving for himself a brilliant career as an international outcast.

In contrast to this confusion in the sphere of foreign policy, his domestic agenda is clear from his appointments and is truly alarming in its extremist right-wing orientation. In a number of key departments of government, from Education to Health to Environment and beyond, Trump has appointed people who have a long history of hostility to those departments. When undergraduate students in a California classroom were asked whether they thought that there would still be a federal department of education when they apply for graduate admission, there was general laughter. They understood the reference: the incoming Secretary of Education, a brutal lady of fashion from a multibillionaire family, simply does not believe in public education which, she believes, should be given over to the private sector, that is, cakes when there is not enough bread.

A unique feature of the Trump administration is that a considerable part of reality seems to have taken a vacation. The vacation cannot last long. The country must be governed and foreign relations need to be conducted. Meanwhile, an important question needs to be addressed: can the Trump administration actually stabilise a pre-fascist state that it is bent upon creating? In other words, can the fascist project succeed in the U.S., here and now?

No easy walkover

That is a serious, urgent question that needs cool-headed, nuanced treatment. We shall return in a separate essay to this question, and the question of “fascism in our time” more generally. For now, the answer has to be brief and tentative.

Until now, the U.S. has not appeared to be a country willing and ready to accept any variety of fascism, and the practical ineptitude of the Trump team does not help its cause. There is no overwhelming majority; he lost the popular election by three million votes and won the presidency owing only to the distortions of the electoral college system that eventually elects the President. Major elements in institutions of the state are aghast. A federal judge issued a stay order against his first major Presidential Order; an Appeals Court swiftly ruled to maintain the Stay Order. Meanwhile, a high official of the state had already refused to carry out that order; she had to be fired. There were not only massive and widespread protests inside the country but horrified denunciations all across Europe. Trump’s popularity in polls has already plummeted to the lowest that any incoming U.S. President has faced within the first two weeks of his tenure. Hitler was a proper ideologue, Mussolini was a former editor of Avanti, the journal of the Socialist Party (party of the Left before the Communist Party was founded); Trump is, by contrast, a buffoon. Hitler was supported by a cross section of the intelligentsia, headed for a while by such luminaries as Martin Heideggar and Carl Schmidt among others, giving him considerable legitimacy among the educated classes while Nazis were still fighting to stabilise their regime; Croce, the pre-eminent Italian intellectual, supported Mussolini and then remained neutral for quite a while as Mussolini stabilised the fascist regime. There is no analogue for this in contemporary U.S.

Nazis in Germany and fascists in Italy grew in the context of a redoubled crisis, caused first by defeat in the First World War and the imposition of unpayable reparations on Germany in particular, and then by the Great Depression. Today’s U.S. faces no such crisis: it is the most powerful economy in the world, militarily more powerful than the combined power of all countries in the rest of the world, with unemployment rates lower than anywhere else in advanced capitalism. Inequality is of course immense, creating great disaffection, but the bulk of the white population—over 70 per cent of the electorate—is thriving. The non-white population, already over a quarter of the total, will fight back hard while nationalism seeks to impose a fascist state at its expense. There may well be a small-scale civil war before there is stable fascism.

In Germany and Italy, parliamentary democracy had shallow roots, with very chequered histories. In the U.S., parliamentary democracy has been entrenched for two centuries and has gone deeper, with sturdier roots over the course of time. There has never been a significant challenge to constitutional democracy from either the Left or the Right.

Racism has been already incorporated into American liberalism as its unacknowledged underbelly. As for a shared ethos of exaggerated imperial nationalism, when President Obama said that he believed in American exceptionalism with every fibre in his body, or that the rest of the world needs a strong U.S. leadership, he was already well into that terrain of peculiarly American national chauvinism that Trump appeals to with his slogan of “Make America Great Again”.

In other words, the kind of people who are now at the helm of the U.S. state—Trump himself, backed by the Bannons and the Flynns and very much more—are undoubtedly men who will overreach and try to erect a pre-fascist state. But, as signs of revolt such as the recent Women’s March in Washington and elsewhere already showed, the storm of opposition will also be great. There shall be no easy walkover. Battle will be joined. After a long time, the Left, too, will have the chance to grow if it proves capable of picking up the challenge—within the belly of the beast, as it were.

Aijaz Ahmad is Chancellor’s Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×