Just so you know, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. I despise his racism and xenophobia, his brutal sexism, his shallowness, vacuousness, and egomania, his cultish ‘I can fix everything because I am Trump’ policy prescriptions. I’m repelled by his sociopathic encouragement of the violence that so often accompanies his rallies, and the more I see of him the more repelled I feel.
That said, I don’t regard a Trump victory as the end of civilization as we know it, and I can’t help feeling feeling that some of Trump’s critics are somewhat overdoing it in their attempts to present him as the harbinger of some new American fascism.
These critics cover a wide spectrum, from Clintonite liberals to neocon supporters of the Bush wars and members of the same Washington elite that Trump has attacked with such cunning and ferocity. In the first category there is Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who described Trump, in March as a ’21st century American fascist’ and ‘ a profound danger to America and the world.’ Now Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), who wrote an article for the Washington Post that has been getting a lot of traction entitled ‘ This is how fascism comes to America,’ which warns:
‘ This is is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.’
And Hillary Clinton has suggested that Trump is a laughable and incompetent clown whose ideas are ‘dangerously incoherent’ and a threat to American security. I find a lot of this overblown. I agree that Trump is a danger to America and the world, but I also thought Reagan was a danger to the world, when he unleashed a series of vicious covert wars, financed the Contras and brutal fanatics like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
I thought the Bush/Cheney gang were a danger to the world when they took advantage of the 9/11 atrocities to declare a new era of total war against the ‘axis of evil’ and unleashed a swathe of destruction that the Middle East has yet to emerge from. Kagan was an outspoken and influential supporter of these wars, and still is, like his mate Bill Kristol, who has also become one of Trump’s critics.
And as for ‘Crooked Hillary’ – as Trump rightly calls her, well she is not one to give lectures on the dangers of incoherence in foreign policy, having leapt gleefully on board every single war that the US has fought since the end of the Cold War, with barely a thought for their consequences.
This record does not suggest that Clinton would be any more competent, or any less reckless, than Trump would be. She has never reflected, never repented, never wavered from her shrill and blinkered hawkishness, and that is why people like Kristol and Kagan now see her as their preferred candidate.
As for fascism, ok, Trump has some elements that we have historically associated with fascism. There is the cult of the strong leader, the racism and xenophobia, the violence that accompanies his meetings. But frankly folks, fascism is a little bit more than that, and some of the qualities that Reich, Kagan and others see as defining features of Trump fascism have also been part of movements, trends and politicians that have not been fascist.
According to Reich:
‘ Fascists glorified national power and greatness, fanning xenophobia and war. Trump’s entire foreign policy consists of asserting American power against other nations….In pursuit of their nationalistic aims, the fascists disregarded international law. Trump is the same. He recently proposed using torture against terrorists, and punishing their families, both in clear violation of international law.’
Reich shouldn’t have to look far back in history to find American governments that have glorified national power and greatness, asserted American power against other nations in pursuit of nationalistic aims, disregarded international law or proposed using torture against terrorists.
All these things were part and parcel of the wars carried out by the Bush administration, and to a lesser extent by Obama, in the name of post- 9/11 American ‘exceptionalism’. According to Robert Kagan, ‘ What he [Trump] offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.’
The restoration of this ‘aura of crude and machismo’ was precisely the point of the Bush administration’s unhinged militarism, and it received the full support of Kagan and others who hailed the Bush/Cheney wars as a return to Reaganite ‘moral clarity.’ Those critics who condemn Trump’s hollow obsession with American ‘greatness’ as a mark of incipient fascism forget how deeply ingrained this notion has been in American politics for many years.
Where the British political establishment can’t let go of the idea that it has not been great for some time, the American elite – and to some extent the American population itself – cannot stand to see its ‘greatness’ evaporating, and continues to see American military might as the guarantor of American ‘greatness.’ In this, Trump is no different from his predecessors. Consider these extracts from Trump’s ‘America first’ speech:
‘The world is most peaceful and most prosperous when America is strongest.’
‘ And always – always, always, we must make, and we have to look at it from every angle, and we have no choice, we must make America respected again. We must make America truly wealthy again. And we must – we have to and we will make America great again.’
‘ We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind. Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.’
These goals would fit perfectly well within the Project for the New American Century’s vainglorious and maniacal vision of American ‘preeminence’ and ‘preponderance’ in Rebuilding America’s Defenses. In her speech this week attacking Trump, Clinton painted the election as a choice between “two very different visions.”
‘One that’s angry, afraid and based on the idea that America is fundamentally weak and in decline. The other is hopeful, generous and confident in the knowledge that America is great, just like we always have been.’
So Trump thinks America is weak and wants to make it great again. And ‘Crooked Hillary’ just thinks America is already great and wants to keep it that way. Where Trump differs from Clinton, and from the PNAC militarists like Kristol and Kagan, is in his rejection of the ‘false song of globalisation’, and the neoimperial regime change experiments that Bush and his supporters embarked on with exactly the same arrogance and insouciance that they now condemn in Trump.
That arrogance brutally unraveled in Iraq, and this is worth bearing in mind when we are invited to see Trump as a unique danger to America and the world. Trump has said a lot of things on his campaign, in the course of his slick and ruthless destruction of his really quite pathetic opponents. He has said a lot of things because it isn’t clear what he actually thinks, or what he would actually do if he was elected, once he works out what he actually thinks.
But whatever he wants to do, he will be subject to constraints that will prevent him from enacting some of his wilder schemes. The main constraint is reality itself – and the limitations that the world imposes on American power. Despite Trump’s vainglorious posturing, he would be no more able to escape reality than his predecessors. And the reality is that America is no longer ‘great’ in the sense that it once believed, and its military power cannot change that.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think that Trump is dangerous. On the contrary, I think he would be a disaster, but I also think that Hillary Clinton would be disastrous. Presenting Trump as an ‘American fascist’ tends to obscure the dangers that are already present in a country with too much military power, and which takes its ‘exceptionalism’ for granted, and which has drifted over to the dark side for a long time now.
So let’s condemn and oppose Trump by all means, but let’s not present him as a freakish aberration that sprang from nowhere, or as some inexplicably nihilistic antithesis of respectable, common sense ‘normal’ politics. And let’s not call him a fascist just to circle the wagons around the lesser evil, because his conception of American power is not very different from many politicians before him, and he has more in common with many of his critics than he does with Hitler or Mussolini.