Fascism in America?
Recalling the Know-Nothings and Individual Responsibility
Is the President-elect of the United States a fascist? Do the people who elected him believe in a fascist ideology? Will there soon be, or is there already, fascism in America?
A prevalent answer to these questions among leftist academics and commentators has been a qualified “yes.” Many view the rhetoric and proposed policies of the new administration as blatantly fascistic in character. I wish to argue that this is incorrect and that using fascism as the central critical concept in this context leads to serious misunderstandings. Consequently, it threatens to cause catastrophic blunders in dealing with Trumpism as a political phenomenon.
Before arguing that Trumpism is a form of “Know-Nothingism,” I want to consider some prevalent arguments for identifying the ideology as fascism. In Public Seminar, Matthew Filner (“American Fascism”) argued that the campaign-trail rhetoric of Trump proves that he is a fascist. This is so because Trump’s rhetoric emphasizes an imagined singular, organic nation rather than a state governed by laws and institutions and it offers a narrative of decline and rebirth through communal sacrifice.
Chiara Bottici (“The Mass Psychology of Trumpism”) echoes this view. Interpreting the slogan “Make America Great Again” as part of a mythology of “greatness-decline-rebirth,” Bottici argues that this ideological structure goes far beyond mere right-wing populism. As Bottici writes,
In this sense, there is not much difference between Trump’s political myth and the myth of the decline and rebirth that sustains ISIS propaganda: the latter also relies on the idea of the infidel, the kafir evil people who have initiated the decline and should thus be eliminated in the name of a re-birth of the nation. Notice, however, how this identification with the image of the leader is not the general populist identification: precisely owing to its insistence on “again,” its emphasis on those responsible for the decline, it is a populist form of identification that opens the door to fascism, with its call to both symbolic and actual violence.
For Bottici, Trumpism is more closely aligned with the ideology of an Islamic terror group than with prior political movements in the United States or with current political movements in Europe. The word “again” allegedly encodes the same sense of fascistic blame of outsiders and call to violence indicated by kafir from the tongues of the soldiers of ISIS.
The claim that Trumpism is fascism is neither new nor peculiarly leftist. In May 2016 in the Washington Post, the neoliberal Robert Kagan (“This Is How Fascism Comes to America”) found that while Trump does not adopt overt fascist symbolism, he demands blind obedience in the style of Hitler and Mussolini. Kagan concludes, “This 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.” Even Jay Nordlinger in the conservative National Review (“The F-Word”) argues that although “fascism” is a word commonly used by leftists to malign political opponents, in the case of Trump it might actually apply. While not quite committing himself to the view that Trump is a fascist, he writes, “I’d like to play golf with him. Practically any guy would. I do think he is utterly unsuited to the presidency.”
Though I would dispute the statement that most men would like to play golf with Trump, the more important point is that all these analyses — whether from the left or from the right — fail to ask the essential question of what the ideology of Trumpism consists in, and why it appeals to a sizable portion of the public. Though it is true that Trumpism has something in common with the present rise of the right on the other side of the Atlantic (a similarity I analyzed in a previous essay in Public Seminar) I think that even a cursory look at the fascist ideologies of Europe in the 1930s shows that there is little basis for comparison with the present situation in the United States. For example, in “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism,” Mussolini wrote,
The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious, and has itself a will and a personality.
Fascism at its core is an ideology in which individuality and difference are dissolved in the unity of the state. Because this dissolution is the telos of the fascist machine, the prerogative of the state is to achieve its aim through whatever means — coercive or civil — avail themselves to the furthering of that goal. Fascism is thus not simply a form of chauvinism, but rather, it aims to destroy all individual projects and interests not aligned with the state to bring about an eschatological and utopian “final solution.”
There seems to be no evidence that Trump or even his most reactionary supporters have something like this statist program in view. Indeed, faced with the thought that the state is a fundamentally spiritual force that possesses its own will and personality, the vast majority of Trumpists would likely be confused or terrified. Thus to label the American narcissism and xenophobia now present as fascism, even when they are articulated in “organicist imagery” or within a “narrative of decline,” misses an essential point. Unless the proposal is to grant the state a monopoly over agency, destroying religious, institutional, and local forms of communal life, the ideology is not comparable with that of European fascism.
One does not need to dig very deeply to discover a movement with far more parallels to the Trumpist ideology than the latter has to any European fascist movement. The true antecedent of Trumpism is the Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s. Calling themselves the “American Party,” the Know-Nothings were opposed to the “invasion” of America by Catholics and foreigners. In particular, their concern seemed to be that the influx of Catholic immigrants put the very institutions of the United States at risk of a hostile takeover by the pope. The party thus focused its attention on keeping immigrants out of positions of power, and on harassing Catholics, whether foreign-born or native.
Threats and acts of violence were not uncommon. In 1844, a rioting nativist mob in Philadelphia set fire to a number of Catholic churches, burning two to the ground. In 1851, a newly established community of the Sisters of Mercy in Providence, Rhode Island, was subject to harassment on the street, and the windows of its shared dormitory were shattered during the night. Other similar acts of harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and violence were enacted upon the Catholics up and down the East Coast for decades (the Catholic Encyclopedia offers a good summary of these events).
Anti-immigration, xenophobic, bigoted, threatening, and violent words and deeds are nothing new in the United States. The Trumpist phenomenon in many ways represents a return to the status quo. Progressives — whether leftist, liberal, or neoliberal — may be resistant to admitting this fact, because it is evidence against the very idea of progress. Hence they are tempted to treat Trumpism as a fascist aberration in the steady march toward utopia. Yet by treating this moment — a moment for which we are in part responsible — as a non sequitur, divorced from its historical and cultural context, we risk failing to understand not just the Trumpist phenomenon but also our own possibilities as political actors.
Were Trumpism actually fascism, then the battle at hand would be between heroic organicist statism and liberal individualism. Instead, far from individualistic pursuits coming under threat, the current question concerns whether toleration and conviviality can be maintained in an atmosphere of insult, hatred, and bitter disagreement.