Elections 2016: Could America Go Fascist?

by Rich Rubenstein on March 1, 2016 · 2 comments

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The Unrest Group at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution presented a forum on February 28 at Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C. on “Elections 2016: Could AMerica Go Fascist? What Can We Do About IT?” Five speakers made short comments and the discussion after each presentation was terrific. My comments were as follows:

Forum Presented by S-CAR at Busboys & Poets, 28 February 2016

This morning, the conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed in the NY Times in which he called Donald Trump “a right-wing Caesarist whose authoritarian style and outrageous promises make George W. Bush look like Cato the Younger.” What’s the point of this other than to show off Douthat’s knowledge of Roman history? A “right-wing Caesarist” sounds a lot like a fascist. Mussolini, the founder of fascism, considered himself a Caesar, and the fasces were symbols of authority in ancient Rome. So why doesn’t Douthat call Trump a fascist straight out? Two reasons: (1) He is not sure whether The Donald is actually a fascist. (2) He doesn’t really know what fascism is.

What Douthat does in his column is to turn the whole question of fascism into a matter of style and personality. But fascism is a mass movement. It does involve worship of the Leader, but that is only one of its basic principles. The others are: economic planning, cultural purity, imperial, and executive dictatorship.

The underlying basis for fascism is Nation-worship. What produces the mass movement is a crisis that make some people hope desperately for rescue by an authoritative Leader-Savior who claims to represent the whole Nation.

The crisis has 4 dimensions, socioeconomic, cultural, international, and political.

(1) Socioeconomic: the middle classes are suffering, the bankers and speculators are getting rich, and the economy is unstable. (2) Cultural: the nation’s ethnocultural unity and purity are felt to be threatened by minorities and immigrants. (3) International: the nation’s power and glory as a world power are failing; the empire is considered to be threatened for foreign enemies and traitors. (4) Political: the system of parliamentary/Congressional democracy has become corrupt, divisive, and ineffective. That’s why a strong Leader is needed to save the nation.

So . . . Maybe Trump isn’t a fascist. Maybe if he gets the nomination and wins the presidency, he will turn out to be a centrist compromiser, not a militant mass organizer. Not all the conditions for 1930s-style fascism exist in America: our economy is not yet in free fall, and proto-fascist figures like Donald Trump have not yet organized street militias, although Trump has threatened thuggery against people who disrupt his rallies. But if the crises mentioned above worsen, especially if economic problems remain unsolved, the temptation for ordinary working people to look for a Leader-Savior will grow, and, Trump or no Trump, people claiming to be that leader will sooner or later appear.

The key question is: how can these problems be solved? Can the Democrats solve them? Bernie Sanders has taken some important steps in the direction of problem solving, but the steps aren’t radical or comprehensive enough to do the job. For example, Bernie has been criticized by liberal economists for failing to show how he would finance the program of social benefits he espouses. An answer would be to reduce the size and role of the American Empire, cut the defense budget, and create a “civilian-industrial complex” designed to put Americans to work rebuilding our decaying infrastructure.

Talking about the Empire and its perpetual wars is still taboo, because some people say that Americans want to maintain their position as the world’s only superpower. I think that this is NOT true of most people, but we have not yet discovered creative ways to help them relate to the world in another way. How do we help our countrymen understand that the urge to dominate is a self-destructive addiction? How do we suggest cures for a political system that has fallen into disgrace because of corruption and narrow partisanship? And, if people are feeling threatened by foreigners and immigrants, how do we deal with the causes of that insecurity?

My own feeling is that none of these questions are answerable unless we can talk about reconstructing a failing capitalist system. The answer to a fascist threat is not “Let’s lower our voices and be reasonable.” It is “Let’s admit that the current system is in crisis and figure out how to rebuild it.”

The floor is open for questions, comments, and discussion.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg Pirio March 1, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Rich, There was also a political economy dimension of European fascism. In both Portugal and Italy, the ideologues of fascism called it corporativism. This was basically the unquestioned rule of corporations and the subordination of labor unions and other civil society groups to state control. The crucible of Portuguese fascism was the Industrial Association of Portugal, a group that also defined its system of colonial rule and colonial economic system. Would Trump make an alliance with multinational financial interests, providing the popular support for a even more weakened democratic order? I don’t know, but it is worth asking.


Rich Rubenstein March 1, 2016 at 8:05 pm

Greg, you make a very good and important point. Trump has said nothing about this so far (as far as I know), but the logic of his populist/nationalist position certainly points in this direction. It will be very interesting to watch how the Republican corporate “establishment” reacts to further Trump primary victories. Recall that Siemens, Krupp, Thyssen, et al. came over to the Nazis when Hitler emerged as the strong man of the Right.


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