Thu, Jul

This Happened Here: The Fascist Trump Presidency as Living American History


DENIALISMThe liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put things well on the morning of January 7, 2021, in a column titled “Appeasement Got Us Where We Are”:

‘So, is it finally OK to use the F-word? One shouldn’t use the term “fascist” lightly…Donald Trump, however, is indeed a fascist — an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals. So are many of his supporters. If you had any doubts about that, Wednesday’s attack on Congress should have ended them.’

Observing the events one day before, when Donald Trump instigated an attempted putsch meant to overthrow previously normative bourgeois electoral democracy and constitutional rule of law, the esteemed veteran historian Robert Paxton, author of the classic volume The Anatomy of Fascismfinally relented. He had to admit that he’d been wrong on Trump and that the 45th US president was in fact what Krugman said – and what many of us on the margins had been saying from the start.

Paxton was one of a bevy of “fascism experts” who had been proclaiming that Trump didn’t qualify for “the F-word.” This august list of Trump fascism-deniers included an impressive roster of 20thCentury European historians who were hopelessly out of their depth when it came to analyzing 21stcentury US society and politics: Paxton, Stanley Payne (emeritus at the University of Wisconsin), Roger Griffin (Oxford), Richard Evans (Cambridge), and Samuel Moyn (Yale) (also meriting mention here is Japanese historian Gary Leupp [Tuft’]s). But field specialization and professional immersion in the previous century was no excuse for other deniers: NYU law professor Bruce Neuborne and the political scientists and government professors Sheri Berman, Cory Robin, Eric de Bruin, and Jason Brownlee. The heights of denialist comedy were scaled by Neuborne, who couldn’t put “the F-word” in his text or index in a book that discovered no less than twenty common themes, tactics, and policies that Trump as president was “copying from the early Hitler government” while “following Hitler’s playbook” and “letting Hitler’s genies out of the bottle”: holding power without winning majority support; finding and using direct lines of communication with their base; blaming others and dividing along racial lines; relentlessly demonizing opponents; constantly attacking objective truth; relentlessly attacking mainstream media; assaulting science; cultivating a fawning alternative media to spread lies; regular orchestrated mass hate-rallies; extreme nationalism; closing borders; embracing mass detention and deportation; using borders to protect selected industries; embedding authoritarian rule by rewarding capitalist elites; rejecting international norms; attacking domestic democratic processes; attacking courts and the rule of law; glorifying the military and demanding loyalty oaths; proclaiming unchecked power; relegating women to subordinate roles[1].

When asked about parallels with Trump and the Trump presidency, the “fascism experts” engaged in straw-dog reasoning by ticking off numerous and obvious ways in which the 45th United States president and the United States during the Trump years fell short of the committed doctrinal fascism of Mussolini and Hitler and the fully consolidated fascist regimes of interwar and WWII Europe. Nothing less than Classic Coke passed muster for these sweet-rooted connoisseurs of pure historical fascism, who chattered about the absence of “real fascism” in Trump and Trumpism as they missed and/or unduly downplayed remarkable political, rhetorical, ideological, and movement continuitiesbetween fascism old and new while failing to grasp contemporary US and global fascism as a movement and politics – a movement and politics with a very real (if clumsy and more “instinctive” than doctrinal) fascist cult leader in the most powerful job of the most powerful nation in world history from January 20, 2017 through January 20, 2021.

This elite intellectual denial of Trump’s fascist essence through the Trump presidency was both depressing and remarkable. It survived:

+ Trump’s embrace of open white nationalists and neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will Note Replace Us” and wreaked bloody havoc in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017.

+ Trump’s palingenetic nationalist and classic fascist claim to be “making America great again” by rescuing it from liberal and left elites who were allied with immigrants and other non-whites accused of degrading a great white heartland.

+ Trump’s cultivation of an irrational, authoritarian, and emotionally potent cult of personality around his demented self and presidency.

+ Trump’s regular holding of white nationalist hate rallies suffused with a spirit of racist, sexist, and anti-liberal and anti-Left violence.

+ Trump’s repeated Trump statements embracing and encouraging right-wing political violence.

+ Trump’s repeated “jokes” about wanting to be president for life.

+ Trump’s ongoing assault on the integrity of US elections, ominously combined with his clear lack of interest in gaining a second term by advancing and running on popular supported policies.

+ Trump’s reliance on open white nationalist fascists (including Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller) to formulate his politics and policies.

+ Trump’s pardoning and championing of the fascist sheriff Jo Arpaio, the insane racist war criminal Eddie Gallagher, the fascist lunatics Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.

+Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban.

+ Trump’s resumption of military-style immigration raids.

+ Trump’s call for the lethal electrification of the southern border.

+ Trump’s promises to pardon border guards who might shoot Mexican and Central American asylum-seekers

+ Trump’s separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern border.

+ Trump’s regular, mind-boggling, and record-setting assault on truth, replete with more than 30,000 false and misleading statements during his presidency.

+ Trump’s repeated references to immigrants and his political enemies as “scum,” “animals,” “vermin” and the like.

+ Trump’s constant rhetorical war on independent media and a free press.

+ Trump’s calls for police to crack down violently on urban Black communities.

+Trump’s triggering of racist mass murders in El Paso and Pittsburg.

+ Trumps criminal assassination of Iran’s venerated general Qasem Soleimani.

+ Trump’s embrace and fanning of a pandemic that disproportionately killed poor, old, unhealthy, and nonwhite people.

+ Trump’s constant absurd demonizing of liberal and moderate Democrats and Black Lives Matter activists and marchers as supposedly awful “radical Leftists.”

+ Trump’s vicious racist attacks on progressive Congresswomen of color.

+ Trump’s horrific racist response to Puerto Rico’s experience in Hurricane Maria.

+ Trump’s heavy-handed white nationalist response to the George Floyd Rebellion, including the attempted deployment of federal troops to crush protests against racist police brutality.

+ Trump’s deployment of unmarked paramilitary border agents to terrorize protesters in Seattle and Portland.

+ Trump’s embrace of the deranged white-supremacist teen fascist Kyle Rittenhouse after Rittenhouse murdered Black Lives Matter protesters with an AR-15 assault rifle in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

+ Trump’s ordering of a federal police state hit on an antifascist (Michael Reinhoel) as “retribution” (Trump’s word) for the killing of a fascist street thug in Seattle.

+ Trump’s relentless and multi-pronged assault on the integrity and mechanics of the 2020 presidential election, including recurrent absurd claims that the only way he could lose the election would be if it was “rigged.”

+ Much more terrible to mention…detailed along with all of the above bullet points in the third chapter of my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America.

Even Trump’s well-telegraphed refusal to acknowledge his electoral defeat and the bloody January 6th Capitol Riot could not shake most of the “fascism experts” off their denialism, which looks even more absurd than before in light of subsequent developments. (Paxton was an exception, possessing enough intellectual humility to yield 99% of the way through Trump’s reign.) Insufferable academic know-it-alls like the ridiculous Moyn and Payne clung to “NOT OK to use the F-word” even after thousands of “fascist traitors” (Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin’s phrase) honored the commands of their orange-tinted Dear Leader by physically attacking the US Capitol to try to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.

The denialism was not limited to “higher education.” It was evident across the dominant media, where it was almost a taboo (outside rare statements from outliers like Medhi Hasan and Chris Hayes in the long hot summer of 2020) to call out the fascism in the White House. It was channeled also by top Democratic politicos including Obama, who privately said that Trump was a fascist in October of 2016 but refused to say “the F-word” in public once across the entire (first?) Trump presidency, and who idiotically proclaimed this the day after Trump won in 2016:

Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country…we all go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens — because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That’s how this country has moved forward for 240 years…It’s how we have come this far. And that’s why I’m confident that this incredible journey that we’re on as Americans will go on.

During the period after the 2020 election and before the Capitol Riot, whose outcome Trump was rejecting as promised, Obama disgraced himself further by going on MSNBC to lamely intone that Trump had a “flimsy relationship to the truth” (an absurd understatement) and to mildly tell Trump’s Republifascist enablers in Congress (most of whom signed in with Trump’s Big Fascist Lies of a stolen election) that “some things are bigger than partisanship.” Barack “Hollow Resistance” Obama looked forward to a return to a “normal” bipartisan politics, ignoring the militantly partisan fascisation process to which he and his party richly contributed and that had turned the Republicans into a fierce white-nationalist Amerikaner Party of Trump – this even as mass violent white-nationalist “Stop the Steal” rallies were being held in Washington DC, attended by Proud Boys wearing t-shirts proclaiming that six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust “wasn’t enough” and that “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong.”

The fascism-denialism was also evident throughout the Trump presidency on the marginal and somnolent so-called left, where it was common to hear stupid and bitter old white guys idiotically claim that it was “boy who cried wolf” “hysteria” and collaboration with the neoliberal Democrats to see the threat of fascism in Trump and his backers. Hence my invention of the term “Trumpenleft,” meant first as a joke, only to be revealed as a real thing and a real problem. 


(Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement. This story was featured in Counter Punch.)