Adam Culver, Makerere University
Studying the fascist exercise of power, therefore, is not simply a matter of laying out the dictator’s will… It means examining the never-ending tensions within fascist regimes among the leader, his party, the state, and traditional holders of social, economic, political, or cultural power. This reality has produced an influential interpretation of fascist governance as “polyocracy,” or rule by multiple relatively autonomous power centers, in unending rivalry and tension with each other. In polyocracy the famous “leadership principle” cascades down through the social and political pyramid, creating a host of petty Führers and Duces in a state of Hobbesian war of all against all.
—Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (126-7)
Last Friday afternoon (Nov.11th), still reeling from the outcome of the election, I did what many of my friends and colleagues did in the days following the election: I went to class and had a somber conversation with my students about Donald Trump and the rise of white nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarian populism in the United States. The tone and tenor of the conversation were shaped by a mixture of desperation and defiance as my students grappled with the various causal factors at work in Trump’s electoral victory—economic displacement, misogyny, alienation, xenophobia, nihilism, and, yes, racism—and how to best respond to these reactive forces. In what ways have white liberals been complicit in the ascendance of Trumpism? How should we respond to public acts of intimidation, harassment, and violence directed at those who have been vilified by Trump and his accomplices? How can those of us who are not yet under immediate threat support and stand in solidarity with the increasingly large number of those who are? What kinds of work must white people undertake to challenge racism and hatred in their own families and communities? How might we begin imagining alternative futures and forging new solidarities?
These questions are of course extremely difficult, as was our conversation, which necessarily forced us to confront much we would rather avoid. Although they probably already knew as much, I warned my students that things are likely to get much worse and that they must resist the temptation to normalize Trump, oppose appeals for accommodation, and refuse to seek common ground with white supremacy in the misguided belief that in doing so they might mitigate the evil it represents. We spoke about the importance of community involvement, collective action (including protest), and political advocacy. Above all I urged them to love each other, to read, to organize, and to continue making art. I believe fascism is at the door, but I left the room that day fortified with what Du Bois once called “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.” My students seem determined to confront the fascist lurking both within and without, and to do so with passion, resolve, and courage—not because success on a macro-political level is likely to follow but because this is the only way of remaining human, of being able to live with themselves and find one another in the dark times that await.
Contrary to my normal practice, I did not prepare much material for class that day. For me, at least, the speed and magnitude of events, combined with the visceral revulsion I experience every time I hear or see Trump speak, has made these days disorienting, inducing a kind of vertigo as I try to keep track of events without being pulled apart by them. Besides, I knew that once we began talking, whatever notes I had prepared would not receive even a moment’s glance. But sometime during the early morning hours of Friday I happened to recall an old handout—“The Anatomy of Fascism,” which I had prepared nearly a decade prior as a TA for Race and Racism in Comparative Perspective—and decided to use it again. I pulled up the file, made one change—adding the United States to the list of countries where fascist movements had come to power—and printed enough copies for my students.
1) Mobilization of segments of working class populations not affiliated with organized labor unions or political parties. Militarization of daily life and valorization of violence.
2) The development of parallel institutions and organizations that engage in activities of state, particularly paramilitary and police services. The creation of the ‘dual state.’
3) Coalitions between conservative, far right and in several cases, center right political parties and tendencies.
4) Forcible removal of sources of political opposition, particularly amongst left and far left tendencies, and eventually liberal/centrist political tendencies and parties.
5) Central role of ideology as an instrument of rule and mass mobilization. The aesthetization of violence. See, for example, the films of Leni Riefenstahl, such as Olympia and Triumph of the Will
6) Calls for the “renewal” of society, which often entails identifying an “enemy within” (e.g. the Jew, the Muslim, the immigrant, the non-Aryan, the black, and other marginalized populations). The enemy within is often further marginalized, in concert with a program of expulsion, liquidation and terrorism. Renewal often involves a project of racial/ethnic cleansing, attached to a romantic nostalgia for a supposedly pure past. Renewal also often attached to a program of imperial expansion.
7) A love-hate relationship to capitalism and industrialization. Creation of an agrarian myth while emphasizing industrial production. See, for example, Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911)
Reading through this list with my students, it did not take long for us to conclude that almost all of these characteristics are either already in evidence (e.g., promises of national renewal, identification of internal enemies, the valorization of violence, etc.) or discernable on the not-too-distant horizon (as seems to be the case, for example, with the forcible removal of sources of political opposition, calls for which now extend beyond the vitriolic chants of “lock her up”). The essential kernel of Trumpism is its promise to reassert the supremacy of a white, Christian identity at the spiritual-political center of the nation, and much of its affective force and appeal derives from the ferocity with which it promotes an all-too-fragile whiteness through the denigration of various racialized others. Indeed, Trump’s electoral victory was followed by a dramatic increase in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment and intimidation across the country—the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of such incidents between Wednesday November 9th, the day after the election, and the morning of Monday, November 14th. Such incidents are likely to increase and intensify as the affective flows that connect Trump and his supporters reverberate with other exclusionary social formations and practices in a generalized spirit of bellicosity and will to revenge against vulnerable and marginalized constituencies who are blamed for depriving white Americans of “their historic role to ‘make America great again.’”
To date, Trumpism has demonstrated a commitment to propagating the exclusionary nationalism, militarism, white supremacy, romantic nostalgia for a mythic past, and contempt for constitutional democracy that are the hallmarks of fascist movements past and present. Until it assumes power in January, however, we cannot be sure if it will pursue other characteristic features and practices of fascist rule, particularly the creation of “parallel institutions” and the “dual state” (see #2 above). But the early signs do not look good. The existence of a pro-Trump faction within the FBI is deeply disconcerting, as are key developments in Trump’s presidential transition—especially the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon is an anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, misogynistic, white nationalist, bigot who presided over the
This claim may perhaps sound implausible to those who simply don’t (or can’t) believe that Trump really means what he says when he calls Mexicans rapists, promises to build a Wall between the U.S. and Mexico, proposes temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the country, pledges to forcibly expel millions of undocumented immigrants, advocates ending birth-right citizenship, threatens to have his political opponents imprisoned, rejects the need for a free press and the right to protest, and so on. But we have no reason whatsoever to presume that these do not represent his political intentions, whatever his personal views may be. Americans (and not just Americans) have been perhaps too well trained in a school of political cynicism that says: all politicians lie and so we shouldn’t take what they say too seriously. “But campaigns offer a surprisingly accurate preview of Presidencies,” and I am not aware of many historical examples of autocratic populists becoming more democratic and tolerant of dissent after coming to power. The point is not that Trump will actually build a Big Wall—even many of his supporters doubt that he will do so—but rather that Trump will continue to harness a white supremacist ideal to dangerous ends.
Nor would it be wise to place our faith in America’s political institutions to successfully neutralize Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Yes, democratic institutions in the U.S. are stronger and have deeper roots than in countries like the Poland, Turkey, and Russia where autocratic leaders have centralized power and systematically undermined or dismantled constitutional rights and democratic institutions. But most congressional Republicans have already shown that they are not up to task of “checking” President Trump, as witnessed by their response to the Bannon appointment, which was met with little more than a collective shrug. (A recent article in Slate captures the danger quite well: “Republicans Rolled Over for Steve Bannon. They’ll Roll Over When He Comes for You, Too”). On the whole, congressional Republicans and party leaders seem perfectly willing to accept the appointment of a white nationalist who peddles in anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and Islamaphobic rhetoric as Trump’s top adviser so long as Trump plays nice. One shudders to think what else they will be willing to accept once their legislative agenda is on the line. In any case, this points to a perhaps more fundamental issue at hand, which “is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.” Democracy is far more fragile than many Americans believe, and we should not let the longevity of democratic institutions and the unbroken tradition of the peaceful transfer of power in this country delude us into thinking that our institutions alone will safeguard our liberty. On the contrary, we will need to defend our democratic institutions against the onslaughts and abuses of power that are likely to come their way.
Trump’s selection of Bannon, who recently boasted of turning Breitbart Media into the platform for the
“The elevation of Bannon to a powerful position in the White House is an epochal event in American politics, one that has been condemned by the N.A.A.C.P., the A.D.L., and many Democratic leaders, including Harry Reid,” who through his spokesman warned that Bannon’s appointment “signals that White Supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House.” And yet if you glanced at a major newspaper on Monday morning after Sunday’s announcement, chances are you would not get the impression that there is a serious crisis in the republic. The joint selection of Bannon as the president’s top advisor and Reince Priebus, chairman of the RNC and consummate Washington Insider, as Trump’s chief of staff, was initially depicted as an ordinary political event by many media outlets. Priebus was portrayed as “a reassuring presence to establishment Republicans,” while a whole host of euphemisms were deployed to describe Bannon—“ally” and “loyalist” (USA Today), “outsider” (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), and “firebrand” (New York Times, which at least at least also identified him as an “extremist”). Such evasions contribute to the normalization of white supremacist ideology and foster an environment in which Trump can continue to appoint extremists to important position of power in the White House, a process that has continued apace as I write this with the selections of Sessions, Pompeo, and Flynn.
In previous administrations, all presidential staff, including all political advisors, reported to the chief of staff. But this will no longer be the case: according to Trump’s transition team, Priebus and Bannon will be “equal partners,” an unusual arrangement almost certain to create “rival centers of power in the Trump White House.” This could very well have serious implications for how Trump exercises power from the White House/Trump Tower. Bannon will report directly to the president and presumably oversee a set of operations that function in parallel to the structures overseen by Priebus, with each managing and cultivating very different Trumpism constituencies. Will Priebus be a moderating force capable of limiting the influence of Bannon’s white nationalist ideology on Trump’s presidency? Perhaps. But it is already clear that one of Priebus’s duties will be to defend and provide ideological cover for Bannon, as he has been doing this past week. Moreover, every fascist regime has its Priebuses—i.e., traditional conservative politicians who try to preserve parts of the status quo and limit the dynamism of the fascist movement, but who usually get swept up in its currents themselves. Fascism always depends on “traditional leaders to open the gate,” Paxton explains, and thus presupposes “some degree, at least, of obligatory power sharing with the preexisting conservative establishment… Consequently, we have never known an ideologically pure fascist regime” (119). Within fascist regimes, conservatives urge a more cautious approach and advocate for more traditional forms of authoritarianism, while “fascists pull forward toward dynamic, leveling, populist dictatorship…” (120). Often this tension is resolved when party zealots “bypass the conservative power bases with ‘parallel structures’” (120-121). Something analogous to this seems to be underway in the organization of Trump’s White House staff.
Paxton suggests that we can begin to grasp the basic dynamics at work in the creation of parallel institutions in fascist regimes by drawing upon Ernst Fraenkel’s description of Nazi Germany as a “dual state” containing a “normative state” based on constitutional authority, the rule of law, and the traditional civil service, which competed for power with a “prerogative state” formed by the party’s parallel organizations.
According to Fraenkel’s model of Nazi governance, the “normative” segment of a fascist regime continued to apply the law according to due process, and officials in that sector were recruited and promoted according to bureaucratic norms of competence and seniority. In the “prerogative” sector, by contrast, no rules applied except the whim of the ruler, the gratification of party militants, and the supposed “destiny” of the Volk, the razza, or other “chosen people.” The normative state and the prerogative state coexisted in conflict-ridden but more or less workmanlike cooperation, giving the regime its bizarre mixture of legalism and arbitrary violence. (121)
But Fraenkel’s account was also a “fruitful one” (121), one that helps us see how fascist regimes seek to manage the tensions between extremism and conservatism—promoting exclusionary sentiments and far-right policies while preserving public order and the allegiance of their conservative allies—through the duplication of traditional power centers by parallel party organizations and how the struggle for power between the ‘normative’ and ‘prerogative’ segments within each fascist regime conditions its character and their effects. This is what makes the establishment in the White House/Trump Tower of a duplicate power center dedicated to advancing the agenda of the
The greatest political danger a Trump presidency represents is therefore not the rollback of Obama’s legacy and the progressive policy agenda—though this is certainly something to struggle fiercely against. The greatest danger involves the reorganization of state power itself—regime change. We must do everything in our power to oppose not only the fascist policies of a Trump presidency but also the emergence of a fascist regime itself. Such an outcome may seem outlandish to some, but we live in outlandish times.