HSV Lecture 2017 – Donald Trump and the fascist prospect

Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Fountain Hills, ArizonaHSV Public Lecture by John Hinkson, Publications Editor, Arena magazine, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 22 June 2017

Many people call Donald Trump a fascist. They may well be merely swearing, but it is timely to examine how fascism rose to prominence in the twentieth century, and what allowed it to thrive.

Fascism was disaffected with the core values of modernity, such as change, growth and progress. It aimed to stand as an alternative between liberal democracy and the Marxist and socialist movements. Along with other more conventional right-wing organisations it was critical of Enlightenment traditions, including the political institutions of liberal democracy. While there had been many anti-Enlightenment movements during the nineteenth century, by the early decades of the twentieth century Europe had become engulfed by a series of social and economic crises—the First World War, the collapse of empires, the Great Depression and the faltering of capitalism.

Liberal democracy, immobilized by these crises, was incapable of blocking fascism. Fascism stepped outside liberal democratic institutions while, at the same time, using them for its own end. Hitler, for example, very cunningly stripped the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the armed forces of their cultural orientation, and having neutralized them, gave them a reconstituted place in the fascist general order.

The present power struggle in Washington, under Trump, is heading in the same direction, although, for the moment, institutional resistance appears strong. We should not be complacent about this, however. Some commentators say that if the USA were to have a significant terror event, the judiciary would be blamed, on account of its resistance to Trump’s orders to restrict the movement of Muslims. And, as nuanced argument usually suffers in these situations, it is possible that the judiciary, Congress and the intelligence institutions would then be cowed into submission, with widespread injunctions against Muslims as a likely consequence, with deportations, surveillance of mosques, suspension of the refugee program and a Muslim register all possible.

Many historians argue that the rise of fascism in Germany was dependent on Marxism. As Marxist-socialist forces grew in power, the National Socialists worked hard to emulate socialism, with a stronger emphasis on nationalism. While this was designed to engage the working class, it ultimately took the support of the middle class to effect change. In today’s scenario it may be reassuring to highlight the collapse of working-class movements and conclude that a rebirth of fascism is unlikely. However, in reality, there appears to be a strong tendency for working people to support Trump, in the context of perceived failure of global development or ‘progress’.

Twentieth-century fascism explored and exploited an irrational mode. It embraced new technology and used new media to manipulate the individual within the societal mass. Fascism, in the past, operated between the leader and the mass, bypassing democratic institutions. Trump’s resort to Twitter and his denigration of established media institutions appears to echo that style.

Crises, then and now

Fascism in the twentieth century did not simply arise on account of individual power figures. A series of crises led to widespread uncertainty and fear about the future, social institutions barely worked and liberal democracy was critically undermined. If the Trump phenomenon is to be more than the emergence of an erratic and impulsive authoritarian (with dictator potential) there will need to be a general crisis that produces widespread disaffection with society and its institutions. John Hinkson argued that a revolution has been building, in stages, for the last thirty years. Globalisation and new technologies have destroyed local economies and fostered a global refugee movement. Markets are now more abstract than they were, with diminishing face-to-face contact, and inter-generational relationships, in general, have become fragmented. Added to this, biotechnology now has the potential to reconfigure biology.

This revolution of the everyday is a more profound shift than twentieth century fascism ever had at its disposal. Inundated by transformative changes our sense of security and stability is threatened. While there is no economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression, it is not surprising that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and its aftermath, on top of the unfolding cultural crisis, has encouraged a dispirited and disturbed public to support Trump’s call for ‘America First’ and his trade, immigration and terrorism views.

The current climate of change and uncertainty has also meant that liberal democracy is in crisis. It has lost its familiar form and efficacy. Loyalties and affiliations are fleeting or fragmented. Even the categories of Left and Right look unconvincing. Respect for politicians has waned. They seem disconnected from everyday reality and struggle to govern, unable to tackle new issues, such as climate change. In fact, the latter requires a systemic response. It is beyond the scope of liberal democracy.

Institutional revolution

Globalisation is not merely enhancement of capitalism by new technologies. An institutional revolution launched capitalism to another level after the Second World War. In particular, universities sparked an intellectual revolution which supercharged capitalism. One effect of the intellectual revolution was a transformation of our social relations. With the growth of social media relationships are more abstract now, and this trend is rising rapidly. While we may have more opportunities for interaction, there are other consequences to consider. Until recently, our social relationships and sense of humanity have been anchored by a direct knowledge of presence and place. Are we moving towards a post-human future, one that is not only unknown but that has also lost its grounding in a tangible world?

While Trump may be reckless, ignorant and aggressive, and his presidency may fail, it is important to realise that the circumstances surrounding his election arise from a deep conjunction of institutions. These will remain unchanged, even if he departs from the White House. When the social world is no longer recognizable, blame born of distress is sheeted home to those who are judged to be responsible for the situation. In despair people mistake populist politicians such as Trump (and Hanson) for true leaders, even though they may have little insight into what has caused the upheaval in everyday life. At best these politicians clutch at a grab-bag of radical policy choices. At worst they exploit the pain of their communities to bolster their political careers.

The migration dilemma is worth exploring, in view of this critique of ‘leadership’. Ideally, it should be possible to debate, and reshape, policy in response to the unique migration patterns of our time. These are a function, along with the rise of mass tourism, of altered social relations. Generalized movement with little respect for place has resulted. To change this pattern very careful institutional modifications would be a prerequisite. Merely blocking the trend would be potentially explosive. We could compare this situation with the rhetoric of ‘blood’ and ‘soil’ espoused by twentieth-century fascists. While that might be understood as according value to place and generational relations, the fascist position was more black and white, namely, Volk and the concrete community, against modernity and its abstract network of social relations. A rational analysis would aim for social balance and pursue transformations that are less likely to disrupt, as well as avoiding explosive emotional discord.

Twentieth-century fascists were formed by series of social and economic crises. Democratic institutions were bypassed in response. At present we have similar, but also different, social circumstances. Whether they will lead on to a new version of fascism remains to be seen. There is no room for complacency, however.

Report by Jennie Stuart