With the full force and fury of the Trump regime soon to be upon us, I have found myself contemplating the nature of resistance, and I hope to lay out my general thinking on the subject in a brief series of posts. Before we proceed to what form of resistance is best prescribed, we need first identify what exactly we aim to resist. After all, the Republican Party in its current form is not your standard conservative party. Ambrose Bierce pithily defined a conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” The Republican Party has, in fact, been undergoing a long and significant transformation into a purely reactionary party that, at this point in history, represents an incarnation of fascism here in the United States.
The popular understanding of fascism is rather poor—and has been for some time, with groups using that word to mark that against which they disapprove. George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language” (1946), warned of the practical effects of transforming such terms into ideological Rorschach blots: “Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?” When I say that Trump represents America’s most obvious embrace of fascist ideology, I mean fascism as the practice of trying to negate the paradoxes inherent in liberal democracy. Democracy, after all, does not have purely noble origins. The English got their Magna Carta because a bunch of aristocrats didn’t care for the idea of being taxed at will by the monarch—from this point on, they would have a voice in how their money was spent. The Magna Carta was about aristocrats preserving their own wealth, not about the idea that “the people” as a whole should have a say in their government. At each stage the evolution of democracies, the people with the wealth have fought against people with less from having a voice in the process of governance. Originally, the lords fought against the new city merchants, who had a growing amount of wealth, from participating in parliament. And then these burghers fought against extending the franchise to mere tradesmen. And then men fought against letting the women vote, and whites fought against the rights of non-whites, and so on.
This plays out still today. My dad tends to forward me the usual right-wing bullshit mass e-mails complaining about how “real America” works for a living, while others live by voting—that is, by electing people who will give them free handouts provided by the tax money appropriated from “real Americans.” Many on the Right have openly expressed the view that the franchise needs to be rolled back, that those old property requirements for voting (which many states in the U.S. had enacted early on) were a good thing that prevented the poor from using the ballot box to line their pockets. Remember that, during the campaign, Ann Coulter even expressed support for a renewed “grandfather clause” that would only allow those whose grandfathers were American citizens to vote, apparently unaware that her favored candidate would be on the losing end of such a policy. We can see currently the struggle between those who believe that democracy should exist to preserve property rights and those who believe that it exists to give all citizens a voice in how they are governed.
Fascism is an attempt to short-circuit this tension within democracy. How this works is through the advancement of a purely corporate figure who is cast as the savior of “the people,” not by empowering or organizing them but rather by emphasizing his own unique attributes to act on their behalf. Or as Trump repeatedly said during his convention speech, “I alone can _______.” Fascists do not advance democracy but rather fetishize the individual through the person of the ruler. As Ishay Landa has pointed out in The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, though fascism regularly employs the rhetoric of collectivism (raising unto the highest the nation, race, or society), it centralizes such collective and democratic yearnings upon the individual strongman leader, so that he becomes democracy personified, the one true spokesman for “the people,” who no longer need engage in self-governance. This desire to short-circuit democracy occurs, of course, on the behalf of the monied classes to protect their own assets, and thus do we see in fascism a merger of corporation and state, exemplified most recently by Trump’s appointment of corporate overlords to his cabinet, people representing the interests of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs.
Of course, it’s not only in the political realm that fascism seeks to sideline democracy. Fascism, as corporate governance, also seeks to eliminate democracy (as exercised by those on the lower end of the wealth) in the business world. After all, what is a labor union but an expression of democracy, giving workers a voice in the system of wealth creation? (Their labor creates all that wealth, after all.) Mainstream forms of governance tend to insist that there are things outside the realm of the political—that politics should not concern itself with the operations of business, for example. Oh no, that would be what the Republican Party calls “government overreach” (again, the belief that people without property have no business democratically deciding what the propertied can do with their wealth, even if they are poisoning public waters, for example). With the reins of government in the hands of the wealthy elite, however, corporations are eager for a little bit of that government overreach, especially when they can use it to clamp down on labor-oriented manifestations of democracy. As William Shirer notes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “The free trade unions, which… once had crushed the fascist Kapp putsch by the simple means of declaring a general strike, were disposed of as easily as the political parties and the states” upon the ascension of Hitler to power—indeed, practically the first thing the Nazis did was to raid all trade union headquarters throughout Germany, confiscate their funds, dissolve their organizations, and arrest their leaders, many of whom were placed into concentration camps later. Within three weeks of this, Hitler declared a law outlawing collective bargaining. Fascism thus seeks to destroy democracy in all its forms, concentrating all power to govern upward.
Why this turn to fascism right now? That is a complicated question somewhat tangential to my concerns right now, though there are a few issues to note beyond the decline of manufacturing jobs and depopulation of rural America that left people desperate for an economic savior. Let’s consider not why people might embrace a fascist leader but why the powers that be decided that this was a perfect time to openly back such a man. One reason is that, while corporate America has done really quite well under Obama, we are reaching an era in which the capitalist system can’t offer the same returns as before. People simply can’t buy as much as can be produced, and there is a growing awareness that so-called advances in some products (such as iPhones) are really just variations on a theme designed to get you to part with your money needlessly. Even Wal-Mart is cutting back, because apparently all that mass expansion and driving down wages leaves a population that can’t even afford to shop at Wal-Mart (it’s a mystery, that). Capitalism is running out of ideas, and the world is running out of resources that can be exploited without severe damage to the environment. Solar power, which is now competitive with oil and coal, threatens to disrupt the energy market and facilitate the independence of individuals and communities. So the business elite is hungry for the public lands they have been prevented from exploiting and hungry to have all those regulations rolled back so that they can try to squeeze even more profit from the population at large. Combined with this is a growing surveillance state that will surely make resistance easier to manage and oppose. The government can now read your e-mail, listen to your phone calls, and monitor your movements with great ease these days, and no doubt corporate power saw these advances in realized that they provided a great opportunity for their takeover—the potential to target, much more accurately and efficiently, their opponents.
In other words, it was a perfect time for a fascist takeover. I’m not saying that America, pre-2016, was a bastion of liberal brotherhood. After all, I make my living as a historian of sorts and have published work on racial violence. Moreover, the United States has previously employed police state tactics against those who threatened the bottom line of its corporate funders, especially labor unions, and used its military might for purposes of profit abroad (c.f. Guatemala and United Fruit). American foreign policy has typically supported openly fascist governments, such as that of General Franco in Spain—in fact, it was not always a given that the United States would go to war against Nazi Germany, for many business leaders in the country (not just Henry Ford) saw the Nazi regime as a model and advocated on its behalf. When I say that we have experienced a fascist takeover, I am not saying that the United States has not long flirted with fascism—just that we are not entering a period of governance best described as genuinely, purely fascist.
So back to resistance. How should we engage such a development? Is there even any hope? In my next post, I’ll try to lay out some principles of resistance.