After increasing outrage around statements made by billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump, many on the left, academics, and sections of the capitalist media have begun to raise the question, “Is Trump a fascist?”
There is a consistent pattern in this reportage. First, attention is drawn to the superficial similarities between Trump and European fascists of the last century: The rise of a sense of jingoistic victimhood; the gravity of populist strongmen; a special identity where even the lowest of a group is part of something special; and of course, the vilification of “outsiders.”
For Hitler, the blame for the woes suffered by Germany and the “Aryan race” could be attributed to the Jews, Marxists, the Roma, homosexuals, the labor movement as a whole, and on and on. For Trump, the offenders range from Mexicans to Black Lives Matter protesters to Muslims. Trump’s comments about Muslims provoked particular indignation; he has called for measures ranging from a national registry of Muslims in the US to a blanket ban on their entry into the country.
The serious bourgeois press, with the aid of bourgeois academics, is almost uniformly concluding that Trump is something like a “proto-fascist.” But this analysis has two serious shortcomings.
The first is a philosophical one, an inaccurate representation of the process of change. The idea that fascism originates in some sort of “proto-fascist” broth—that brews until it is fully cooked—is linear and mechanical. Fascism does not come off an assembly line in boxes marked “crypto-fascism,” “proto-fascism,” “neo-fascism,” or “post-fascism,” until we live in a George Orwell novel, but emerges as a qualitative break to meet the concrete needs of capitalist reaction. For Marxists, the word is not merely an epithet to insult those one disagrees with, or even those who are criminally dangerous for society, but describes a definite social phenomenon that can be scientifically analyzed and is rooted in an objective material basis.
Which leads to the second problem with the Trump-as-fascist analysis: where has this new fascist movement come from? For many demoralized elements on the left, the apparent threat of Trump’s “fascism” has appeared as a ready-made vessel for their pessimism and lack of faith in the working class. In actuality, the class balance of forces today is strongly to the advantage of the working class.
What is the real political situation?
As the International Marxist Tendency explained in our 2010 World Perspectives:
Only after a failed revolutionary movement, and when the bourgeoisie felt threatened did they revert to fascism, whose role was to completely atomize the working class. Nowhere today in Europe is the bourgeoisie threatened with losing power. Today, on the contrary, the bourgeoisie leans on the leaders of the labor movement. That will change once the trade unions will be forced into opposition.
The perspective ahead of us today is one of increased class struggle. Revolutionary developments are ahead of us, not behind us. That means that the ruling class everywhere is preparing for such developments.
In the US, the ultraright has been stirred up with the so-called tea parties in preparation for the battles of the future . . .
Naturally, these reactionary parties are demagogically using anti-immigrant propaganda to get an echo from the most backward layers of society. To some extent this suits the purposes of the ruling class, which is always interested in dividing the workers on national lines. But the bourgeoisie cannot do without the immigrants, who provide them with a cheap source of labor, and they cannot allow the right-wing gangs to go too far for fear of provoking a serious mass movement.
While we must take note of these phenomena, and intervene in the fight against fascism and racism with correct transitional demands that link these questions to the class issues and the fight for socialism, we must maintain a sense of proportion . . .
It is true that the ruling class is making preparations for the future, when the “normal” mechanisms of parliamentary democracy will no longer be able to control the movement of the masses. Everywhere we see a tendency to restrict and curtail the democratic freedoms that were conquered by the working class in the past. Using 9/11 as an excuse, the Bush administration rushed through anti-democratic legislation camouflaged as “anti-terror laws”. This has been imitated by all other capitalist governments. These laws will be used in the future against the labor movement . . .
However, at this stage the bourgeoisie prefers to rule through the medium of formal parliamentary democracy, which is more economical and less risky than unstable dictatorships. They can lean on the trade union and Social Democratic leaders, who, at this stage, are their most reliable support. At this point in time they need the mass reformist organizations. In fact, they could not last long if these props were withdrawn.
The ruling class therefore does not need to destroy the workers’ organizations, even if they were able to do so. However, that can change. As the crisis deepens, pressure on the reformist leaders will increase to break with the bourgeoisie. Trotsky pointed out that there is an organic tendency of the tops of the unions to fuse with the bourgeois state, and we see this tendency manifested repeatedly. But in order to maintain their alliance with the union leaders, the bourgeois must give them some concessions to offer to the workers. This is now virtually impossible.
At a certain stage the union leaders will be compelled to go over, first to semi-opposition, and then to open opposition. They will be forced to put themselves at the head of the workers in struggle, or else lose their positions and be replaced by others. When the ruling class sees that it can no longer use the unions as guard dogs, they will turn against the unions and their leaders. Under conditions of crisis the bourgeois will eventually draw the conclusion: there is too much disorder, too much chaos, too many strikes and demonstrations. They will attempt to move in the direction of reaction. But that is not an immediate perspective.
“There is no question of fascist or Bonapartist reaction in any advanced capitalist country at this stage. But in the long run, if the workers do not take power, the situation can change . . .
Thus, insofar as they exist, the fascists are small organizations, in the main. They can be particularly vicious, violent and engage in provocations, but there is no question of them taking power.
Bourgeois democracy is a very fragile plant that can grow only on the fertile soil of economic prosperity. The deepening of the crisis will inevitably lead to a sharp polarization between the classes that cannot be contained within the normal channels of democracy. However, the ruling class would only resort to open reaction after the working class has suffered a series of very heavy defeats. Long before the question of fascist or Bonapartist reaction is posed, the workers would have tried time and time again to take power. And there will be many opportunities to build a strong Marxist tendency on the basis of events.
The trajectory of Trump’s presidential run confirms this perspective. When Trump announced his campaign with his characteristic fear-mongering and bravado, he was practically sanctioned by his business partners, losing a small fortune. The ruling class was irritated; here they are, trying to put on a human face for the public, and here is this wayward scion of Fred Trump, a caricature from reality television, insulting all sorts of target demographics and threatening the already thinning seams of a dependable Bush-Clinton sequel production.
However, they were forced to lean on him sooner than they could have imagined. The contralateral insurgency of the Sanders campaign had tapped into a motherlode of forgotten voters, the disaffected, the alienated, those sick of the status quo and looking for change that will be the “real deal.” As it became increasingly clear that a mere blackout of media coverage would not be able to postpone the arrival of this layer onto the political scene, the establishment looked around for a representative more likely to defend their business interests, one who wouldn’t call himself a socialist or encourage the already alarming shift to the left by ordinary Americans. They needed a loyal opposition, and for all of his bluster and belligerence, his ego and his abuse, Trump could be trusted to divert some of this pressure into relatively safer channels than Sanders. This in large part explains the outstanding imbalance of media coverage in relation to these two upstart candidates. It also served the general purpose of demoralizing the working class and infecting those eager to fight back with pessimism.
The reactionary role of Islamophobia
At the same time, the interplay between Trump and his media coverage revealed the role of the capitalist media to shape the public perception of events—including events that occur beyond the dictate of the capitalist class. This pessimistic idea, promoted by some on the left, that the media has a monolithic, automatic, almost supernatural control over events, information, and ideas is erroneous for two reasons: 1) it presents a static view of society without acknowledging the basic class contradiction between labor and capital upon which capitalist society is based; and 2) it ignores the critical possibility of splits in the ruling class, a classic symptom of capitalist crisis and a harbinger of social revolution. Furthermore, the media is not a conscious, unified, conspiratorial political actor, but a sprawling mass of large corporations and their appendages in fierce competition for ad revenue, working in the chaotic, unplanned process of commodity production.
Islamophobia—a form of racism against Muslims—has been cynically used by the capitalist class to keep workers divided. As such, it is an alien class idea which does not arise organically among workers who—because of the social basis of production under capitalism—instinctively strive for solidarity in their struggle against their common exploiters. It is the product of a well-organized, well-funded, and lucrative propaganda campaign by a network of millionaires and paid demagogues. Despite this effort, Islamophobic sentiment waned after an initial peak following 9/11. In recent months, however, it has been revived and intensified.
By its nature, change is a dialectical and contradictory process. The forces for revolution and counterrevolution rise concomitantly. While the situation in the United States cannot be described as revolutionary, or even pre-revolutionary, it is to be expected that a certain, backwards, section of the working class will embrace reactionary ideas when subjected to concerted propaganda from the most reactionary sections of the ruling class particularly in the midst of a systemic crisis when no clear working class political alternative is offered.
The rise in Islamophobia since 2010 does not have an automatic, direct relationship with actual events of terrorism, the recent example of a mass shooting in California notwithstanding. It can be best explained as a tool consciously activated by the ruling class to disorient workers in the midst of a sharpening of the crisis of capital.
Trump’s political genesis
Donald Trump’s own political genesis can be neatly mapped along with this right-populist demagoguery. Trump initially supported the presidency of Barack Obama, in the hopes that he would resolve the crisis of capitalism for his class. But the crisis cannot be solved on a capitalist basis and when it became clearer to even Trump’s unsophisticated mind that the crisis was not going away, he jumped the Democratic Party ship and threw his lot in with the nativist, Islamophobic current around the Tea Party.
As Socialist Appeal explained at the time of the rise of the Tea Party, this was an entirely artificial phenomenon. In like manner, the interest in Trump’s campaign cannot be accurately described as a fascist movement. An accurate and balanced political analysis of the concrete situation is of paramount importance for revolutionaries. To imply that the large crowds at Trump rallies constitute the embryo of fascism is to misunderstand the social basis of fascist reaction, overestimate the strength of reaction, and underestimate the objective strength of workers. Trotsky once explained: “Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois.” That said, to mistake the particle for the real thing blurs the lines of scientific demarcation and can lead to a variant of “the boy who cried wolf” syndrome. The susceptibility of the petty bourgeois to demagogy and reactionary confusion is always present under capitalism, but becomes increasingly apparent in times of crisis and economic pressure on the “little guy.”
If the working class fails to win political and economic power in the coming historical period, we cannot theoretically rule out the possibility of an openly reactionary regime coming to power in the United States. However, there will be many opportunities for the workers to change their destinies and end capitalism before such a turn comes to pass. Reaction is one thing. But fascist reaction is another altogether. Fascism, as we have explained, is a mass phenomenon based on the ruined and enraged petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, and the most backward layers of the workers. Its historic role has been to break the impasse in the class struggle, to “rule by the sword,” and thereby to perform the sisyphean task of temporarily holding back the rolling boulder of the crisis of capital. Its aim was to turn the clock back to some fictitious, pristine past, when capitalism supposedly “worked.”
Fascism has historically served as a means to an end for the capitalists, as a last resort to hold back the “clear and present danger” of the workers capturing power. However, the social basis for fascism has been squeezed out by the unprecedented concentration of capital in the postwar period. More than that, given the role of the workers’ leaders, the workers are not on the cusp of expropriating the ruling class, despite their enormous social weight. Far from being gleeful, the serious capitalist strategists are aghast. The Tea Party moment had outlived its usefulness. Society has actually moved to the left. According to recent polls, nearly as many millennials have a positive view of socialism as capitalism. After decades of “socialism is dead and buried” propaganda, this is a watershed moment. However, because of the lack of a real working class alternative, a mass party of labor, much of this rising support for socialism is being channeled safely—for now—into the capitalists’ Democratic Party machine.
The Republican Party has not been immune to this shift to the left, even within the narrow confines of the US political system. Support for right-wing populism has lost ground within the Republican Party. As of October 2015, only 17% of the population view the Tea Party favorably. While decline is not a linear process, and there will be sharp zigzags in consciousness, workers will eventually draw conclusions about the very narrow scope of the “solutions” such politics offer. The Republican establishment realizes that right-wing populism has lost much of its usefulness and now seeks to put forward a more palatable face.
It is in this context that Trump has deviated from the script that the more serious sections of the ruling class hoped to write for him. He has served a certain function in that he has prevented more discontent with the status quo from being channeled into the Sanders campaign. But he is causing deep embarrassment for the Republican Party as well.
As Trump sensed weakness, and enjoyed, as only he can, the privilege of calling major presidential candidates “losers,” he began to move beyond the limited parameters set out for him: that of another Michele Bachmann–type court jester. Not only was his support base among angry, fed-up malcontents far deeper than they had calculated, he risked sparking a mass reaction by millions of Americans scandalized by this demagogue crassly attacking their way of life, or that of their coworkers and neighbors. Instead of serving as a safety valve to let off steam, Trump was destabilizing and discrediting the whole political process. This explains the extremely hypocritical display of recent weeks, where those responsible for imperialist attacks on the so-called “Muslim world,” deportations of immigrant workers, legal and economic attacks on the rights of women, and so on, have all lined up to excommunicate Trump as an un-American bigot and Hitlerite interloper. Such sanctimonious condemnations from the status quo—hurled at a hypocrite posing as an alternative to the status quo—can only lend credence to the charade, in a symbiotic relation akin to that of a dead body and its resident maggots.
The more “responsible” representatives of the ruling class do not want to see this because it does not serve their current needs. While the needs of the ruling class may change in the future, as of this moment such attacks are viewed as repugnant by a majority—above all because they may well unleash hard-to-contain forces. The genie, however, is already out of the bottle. While the ruling class does not have absolute control over the agency of journalists, it does have tremendous—and in the final analysis decisive—control over the parameters within which political discourse is conducted. This explains the extremely hypocritical display of recent weeks.
Yet, as Trump has been quick to point out, he is only following precedent in American history. From the benevolent peanut farmer Jimmy Carter’s ban on Iranian immigration, to FDR’s mass deportations of Mexican immigrants and internment of Japanese, Italian, and German Americans, including US citizens, even the superheroes of Democratic Party lore are no less guilty than Trump of “fascism.” For Marxists, this is no contradiction.
Trump, far from representing fascism in the scientific sense of the word, represents the current default setting of capitalism. To ensure we maintain a sense of proportion, we must look to the rest of the world and to history. The social stability and high standards of living in the advanced capitalist countries during the post-WWII economic boom were not natural to capitalism but a historical aberration. The “new normality” is in reality merely a return to the “old normality.”
Of course, the abrupt return of American capitalism to this basic setting of instability and antagonism is not a simple flick of a switch. As Trotsky explained, a continuation is not a “repetition” but “a development, a deepening, a sharpening.” Capitalism may be returning to its rude roots, but it does not do so with a gradual trickling out of bygone times, but the sudden punctuation of an economic crisis that is upending all spheres of life. Chaos in the market must be expressed in the congresses and parliaments of the bourgeois world. There are many parallels to Trump around the world, such as the Greek Golden Dawn, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain, Wild Rose in Alberta, Marine Le Pen in France, and others. A polarization in society, not just to the left but also the right, is an inevitable part of the dynamic of revolution and counterrevolution that stems from capitalist crisis.
We must not be demoralized by such polarization, but understand its place in a process that generally trends toward rising class consciousness and mobilization of the working masses in revolutionary struggle. In Greece, the ruling class has been challenged with the explicit threat of social revolution. SYRIZA, representing a mass movement and relatively “far left,” was voted into power in early 2015. In the past, the bourgeoisie would have turned to a military coup as a reflex, or used fascist thugs to terrorize the movement before it could break into parliament. This time they were forced to wait things out and trust in the reformism of the SYRIZA leadership—which finally betrayed the masses in June—as the working class was too strong to smash in direct confrontation.
The story of Golden Dawn, the Nazi organization in one of the countries where capitalism has been threatened most, is worth studying. While originally closely nurtured by sections of the ruling class, these virulent Greek nationalists and xenophobes, contrary to their paramilitary ambitions, were to remain an auxiliary force of the capitalist class, never allowed a leading role in counterrevolution for fear of provoking a revolutionary reaction by masses. In fact, after the murder of the leftist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, the Greek ruling class moved to marginalize their goons, purging individuals from top ranks of the military and the state associated with Golden Dawn, arresting leading Golden Dawn members, and denouncing their creation with the same hypocrisy and moral effluvia we now see from the US establishment against Trump. This is in sharp contrast to the past, when Golden Dawn may have been called upon to do the purging, and not be purged themselves.
In Britain and Alberta, momentous events have shaken society which can only be described as political earthquakes: the seismic victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership elections and the electoral victory of the New Democratic Party in Alberta, the Texas of Canada. Prior to the rise of Corbyn and the Alberta NDP, UKIP and Wild Rose, respectively, were making gains, partially thanks to splits in the ruling class, but also by preying on disaffected voters who were turning their back on the traditional parties. The mass movement around Corbyn and the shocking victory of the NDP revealed how flimsy these shifts to the right were, and how they only expressed the weakening and division of the capitalist class and the urgency for an alternative to politics-as-usual for all classes involved.
In a capitalist crisis, the working class needs a party and leadership that can point the way forward out of the dead end of capitalist economic and political crisis. Until a mass working class political alternative becomes a reality, “alternatives” like Trump, who delight in transgressions of bourgeois political decorum, but ultimately only serve to maintain the domination of the capitalist ruling class, will be able to continue in their demogogy without exposure. The only answer to phenomena like Trump is to tap into the enormous potential of our times to build a decisive challenge in the form of a mass party of labor armed with socialist policies.
A sense of proportion
As Marxists we must have a sense of proportion about events, and this includes not screaming “fascist!” at every utterance by right-wing demagogues. The question of how to fight Trump must therefore begin with taking stock of the danger he actually does represent.
What Trump represents is repugnant and reactionary. While we must not overestimate the support behind him we must acknowledge the alarming rise in violence against Muslims in the US. Mosques are regularly being attacked, often with worshipers in them. Muslim transport workers face increasing attacks, and many have been physically assaulted in particular Muslim women. Even without an organic mass social base, he is clearly dangerous and seeks to “divide and rule.” He is the mortal enemy of the working class and would not be averse to mobilizing his supporters to serve as a battering ram against the left—if the left actually constituted a potent social force, that is.
Panicking will solve nothing. Only mass forces can take on and decisively defeat Trump and his ilk. The only fitting response to his calls for working class disunity is concerted working class unity in struggle against our common oppressors. Marxists stand for unity across religious and national divides. We stand against attacks on Muslims and immigrants and for unity of our class around the world.
There are no shortcuts in this battle. As a form of racism, Marxists must explain to workers that Islamophobia only serves the capitalist class. Despite calling some of them “morons,” in the final analysis, even Trump displays unity with his own class. While he fans the fire of bigotry at home he is happy to do business with Muslim capitalists across the world. While a few of his wealthy associates in the Middle East have pledged to drop their association with him, his lucrative connection to capitalists in the Middle East continues. This is the same reactionary, decrepit class that supports reactionary forces like ISIS for their own cynical calculations. Marxists must highlight the reality of this class unity among capitalists who seek to divide class unity among workers.
At the same time, we must explain that the solution to fighting Trump does not lie in supporting Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The Democrats are the smiling face of capital. They make polite noises about not discriminating against Muslims, Latinos and black people while relying on drone attacks, deportations, extrajudicial killings by police, and continued mass incarceration to maintain their rule.
The substance of the ruling parties’ policies is the same. Obama has deported more Latinos than Bush. Due to mass surveillance policies by both Bush and Obama, a “national directory of Muslims” already exists. Immigration from Muslim countries has already been severely curtailed by both parties. Bush, Trump, Hillary, and Sanders all promote various flavors of imperialist adventure overseas. Neither party is able earnestly address the Syrian refugee crisis. Both capitalist parties stand to benefit from rhetoric that shifts blame for the crisis away from the capitalists.
Cause for optimism
Marxists have good cause for optimism. The ruling class is in a deepening political crisis. The molecular process of revolution, the sharpening rift between left and right, the natal “kicks” of revolution and counterrevolution, all point towards an inevitable revolutionary situation in the future. Scientists cannot precisely predict when an avalanche will erupt, or when tectonic movements in faults will cause an earthquake, but they can confidently say where it is that one will inevitably happen.
Trump is such an irreverent representative of his class that his peers originally wished to censor him. But his brashness makes him no less a representation of capitalism. In fact, in his rudeness and backwardness he foreshadows the only kind of future his system can offer. Again, what Trump represents is repugnant and reactionary. This is a fact already bored into the heads of great numbers of Americans. That many workers call Trump a fascist—even if it is inaccurate and pessimistic—ultimately springs from a desire for a better society. Our job is to explain that he is only a harbinger of the capitalist future, and to connect the widespread indignation at his beliefs and character to the long-term struggle against capitalism, for which we have all the reason to be optimistic.
As Marxists, we patiently explain the need for a mass organization that could catalyze these initial impressions and take them to their revolutionary conclusion. And who will build that organization except those already reaching these conclusions? We must connect the perspective of socialist revolution and workers’ unity with the struggle against racism and Islamophobia, explaining that bigotry and nationalism are incompatible with the interests of workers from all races, creeds, and backgrounds. We must consistently explain the need to break with both the Democrats and Republicans, the left and right boots of capitalism, and above all, the need to end the whole wretched system that spawns such miserable creatures as Donald Trump and his cohort on the Republican debate stage, not to mention their counterparts in the Democratic Party, such as the Clintons, who could be found socializing with other members of high society at Trump’s most recent wedding.
To the grief and disease of capitalism we counterpose the vista of world socialism. While the process will not be automatic, if we are armed with a long view of events and an appreciation for the strength and potential of the working class, we can be confident in our future. To fight Trump, fight capitalism! Join the International Marxist Tendency!