On Fascism, Trumpism, and the Whitesheets

[Content note: descriptions of white surpemacist violence and intimidation. Links may contain triggering material.]

Throughout the election season, on social media and in academic settings, I had the same argument with colleagues. Was it apropriate to compare Trump to Hitler? To Mussolini? Academics adhering to one or another of the many definitions of fascism, and those of us who saw alarming historical parallels were often shushed with the admonition that such comparisons were not to be made lightly, the correction that Trump didn’t quite match historical parallel X because of Y point, and the assertion that Trump wouldn’t win anyway.

Well. The time for academic debate about Trump is over.

James McDougall at the University of Oxford partly speaks for me in his piece about identifying Trumpism as fascism:

Discussion of fascism suffers from an excess of definition. That often, ironically, allows far-right groups and their apologists to disavow the label because of some tick-box characteristic which they can be said to lack. But just as we can usefully talk about socialism as a recognisable political tradition without assuming that all socialisms since the 1840s have been cut from one mould, so we can speak of a recognisably fascist style of politics in Europe, the US, Russia and elsewhere. It is united by its espousal of a set of core ideas.

The theatrical machismo, the man or woman “of the people” image, and the deliberately provocative, demagogic sloganeering that impatiently sweeps aside rational, evidence-based argument and the rule-bound negotiation of different perspectives – the substance of democracy, in other words – is only the outward form that this style of politics takes.

More important are its characteristic memes. Fascism brings a masculinist, xenophobic nationalism that claims to “put the people first” while turning them against one another. That is complemented by anti-cosmopolitanism and anti-intellectualism. It denounces global capitalism, blaming ordinary people’s woes on an alien “plutocracy” in a language that is both implicitly anti-Semitic and explicitly anti-immigrant, while offering no real alternative economics. In the US, that was perfectly exemplified in Trump’s closing campaign ad.

I highly recommend the whole thing. (And, by the way, if you are wondering how to prepare for all this, I heartily recommend Milena Popova’s “ ‘Welcome to fascism’ reading list.”)

Encouragingly, major American media outlets are recognizing that Trump’s success takes place in a world of rising global white nationalism and new alliances amongst authoritarian regimes. And when the Holocaust Museum called out a recent “alt-right” conference for what it was—--Neo-Nazism--and reminded Americans that the Holocaust began with words before action, media outlets took notice. And Trump’s threatening meeting with major media outlets and attacks on Broadway theatre are being taken for what they are, too. They are a serious threat to basic rights of expression, rather than amusing buffoonery, as too many of Trump’s outrages were presented for most of the 2016 election.

Yet too many on the left still seem to be struggling to comprehend how fascism, this foreign export, could so quickly become mainstream in the United States. In the week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law center collected over 700 hate incidents, many more than the previous three months combined. Who are these people? Jen Broderman at the Daily Banter calls Trumpists who threatened Megyn Kelly’s life “brownshirts” at the Daily Banter, while Forbes writer Dan Simon recalls Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts while challenging Trumpism’s hate. Such comparisons, I think, are useful in driving home the reality of what we face.

Yet they also provide the comforting illusion that Trump’s movement is essentially foreign. The cutesy name-bullying tactic of calling him “Drumpf,” per his family’s original German surname, was of a piece with this. His followers are outside the American norm, his thought process essentially foreign to the United States. I agree in one important respect: Nazi salutes, swastikas, and the like are an insult to the generation of Americans who fought In the Second World War, particularly those like the Tuskeegee Airmen or the 442nd Infantry Regiment who tackled fascism despite being considered second class citizens in their own country. Such allegiance to Nazism is a rejection of the best of American values, the genuine progress in the United States since 1945, and the hard work of activists to bring us forward.

Yet, I am equally aware that violent white supremacy is not some foreign value imported to the United States. Instead of borrowing “Blackshirt” and “Brownshirt,” those European labels from the early 20th century, perhaps we should look closer to home. We’ve seen this play before, and it keeps producing more nauseating sequels. Once again, the Whitesheets are marching.

The KKK and similar groups have been more prominent in this election than in any in my memory, and with good reason. Trump appeals simultaneously to white supremacy, to anti-immigrant nativism, and to conservative Protestant Christianity. It's perfectly in line with over a century of homegrown hatred. Klan doctrines have expanded to give virulent antigay hate a more prominent place than in years past, and these groups have been violently anti-abortion since at least the 1990s. In this, the Klan is only mirroring the mainstream right wing, but also maintaining its old role as moral arbiter. The hate incidents at the SPLC have anti-LGBTQ violence as the third largest category. The Klan of the 1920s presented itself as the enforcer of moral doctrine, punishing adulterous wives and alcoholic husbands alongside waging its war on the lives, bodies, and civil rights of African-Americans and other minorities. Attacking "sinful" queers is of a piece with this.

And anti-blackness has also been a truly central part of the post-election violence, making up the second largest category of hate incidences. Trump’s insistence on the essentially depraved and depressed nature of black communities speaks to something very old within American white supremacist psyches, masking its viciousness in the language of paternalism. Like the Redeemer Democrats of the Reconstruction era, Trump insists on framing black progress as black failure, and for years has framed black political leadership (embodied by president Obama) as essentially invalid, via birther conspiracies. Those comparing this election’s results to Germany in 1933 aren’t necessarily wrong, but the U.S. election of 1876 is also very instructive.

The largest category of post-election violence listed at the SPLC? Anti-immigrant incidents. Today’s anti-immigrant incidences focus heavily on Hispanic and Muslim Americans, whether actually immigrants or not. In the 1920s, Catholic immigrants as well as Italians and Poles received a great deal of the Klan’s ire (without any lessening of its anti-black violence, of course.)

It’s tempting to focus on the contradictions amongst the various forms of white supremacy that Trumpism encompasses. The KKK and its attendant movements have long embraced states’ rights as a bulwark against federal power, when that federal power is used to promote civil rights or provide benefits for people of color as well as whites. Nazism, fascism, and attendant movements emphasize authoritarian national power, seemingly a contrast to the libertarian-streaked ideologies of traditional white supremacists. But there is less contradiction here than liberals may wish for. The KKK has a long history of seizing political power at the local, state, and regional level. With David Duke breathlessly praising Steve Bannon’s position in Trump’s White House, it’s pretty easy to see their comfort with assuming federal power, as long as that power is wielded in the service of white supremacy.

Trump has not yet fully harnessed the power of his Whitesheets, and plenty of them are not formally affiliated with a hate movement. They have been here for years, attacking Black Lives Matter movements, perpetuating Gamergate, setting themselves up with the ridiculous “alt.right” label, as if there is anything “alternative” about white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, nativism, Christian supremacy, and the like. We do not yet have the Trump Army, the Trump Scouts, or similar paramilitary organizations directly controlled by Trump, merging the forces of his NeoNazi, KKK, and other organized supporters. Nor has he openly admitted to having any control over them. The spontaneous post-election hate incidents, however, give an indication of how dangerous the Trumpists are, even without direction or central organization. And it emboldens every prosecutor who already treats nonwhite defendants as less than human, every forced-birth protester agitating at Planned Parenthood’s door, every law enforcement agent cheering on the water hoses at Standing Rock.

Yes, it is long past time that white liberals, particularly those with straight, cis, Christian privilege, admit that Trumpism functions much like fascism and Nazism. But it is also operates a lot like our familiar, home-grown white supremacy, empowered on a national scale to come out of the shadows and stop hiding behind coded language. Too many Americans have been living in a police state for years, because of the color of their skin, immigration status, religion, or other reasons. And that has been under Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton—relatively moderate men, at least compared to the dictator wannabe we have just elected. In order to prepare for him, we must be able to look both abroad and at home.

Whether hidden under a sheet or openly “heil”-ing the President Elect, the face of Trumpism is not some faded sepia picture from decades past. It is not even the face of its insufferable leader, who will doubtless continue to weakly distance himself from those carrying out hate in his name, even as he winks at their crimes. It is a face we have known for a long time, and see every day. It is the face of our neighbors, our fellow Americans, contorted in hate and anger. Only by recognizing that, can we hope to survive.

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