DemocracyDemocracy ForumFeature

Understanding Neo-Fascism (Part 1)

Trump-shock and Resonant Violence Five theses for Comprehending Trumpian Fascism

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones? Since the U.S. election, daily surges of Trump-shock — awful disorienting blasts of outrageous and unaccountable communications and executive decisions — have regularly defied our standard ways of making sense of political life. Something is happening here, indeed. But, each unpredictable wave throws our paradigms into disarray. We are perpetually swept backward into the wake of communications and executive policies that scramble the measures of consistency and inconsistency we desperately try to employ. Trusted weapons of analysis and resistance cannot find their aim fast enough to keep up with the whirlwind.

The new regime bears important similarities to classic fascism, meaning that it buzzes with rapid intensifications of white supremacist nationalism, dismissive attacks on reason, autocratic leadership, deepening entwinements of state and capital, disenfranchisement, the attack on liberal and representative democratic institutions and, increasingly, right-wing populist violence. However, this new fascism relies on distinctive dynamics that must be illuminated to move toward understanding — and ultimately transforming — our current condition. To this end, we offer the following preliminary theses:

  1. Beyond the substantive elements of what is shocking about Trump himself, his regime is a hyper-intensification of shock politics as such. Neoliberal shock politics, as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, has functioned for the past forty years as a set of governing strategies that create and capitalize on crises that send shockwaves throughout the polity. Policy makers employ these shocks to disorganize, dismantle and ultimately reorganize lifeways, institutions, and communities to the benefit of capital. Previous shocks have typically had at least the illusion of a substantive character (as in the cases of financial meltdowns, fiscal crises, terrorist threats, natural disasters). Trump-shock, however, manifests more fully the essential character of shockingness as such. The disjointed, unpredictable tempos of Twitter and Twitter-like communications disorient all who are geared toward ordinary political reasoning and conduct. The chaos of Trump-shock distracts, disorients, and disorganizes the polity in ways that overload the circuits of critical response. By incessantly provoking frenetic scrambles to interpret and react to each appalling new event, Trump-shock disables proactive movement and effective oppositional initiative. Meanwhile, capitalist power consolidates and metastasizes.
  1. Unlike a classic fascist leader who remains bound to an ideology of his own making, Trump enacts a distinctive and extreme form of sovereignty that employs a sheer chaos of unpredictable and unaccountable disruptions and contradictions. Trump-shock is like the sovereignty of William of Ockham’s God, which could be bound by no law, not even one he had made. This unboundedness extends not only to the future, but even to the past, which can be changed willy nilly. We can understand this form of sovereignty as operating through disordered ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. Trump-shock admits of no otherness to which it is accountable, not even himself an eyeblink prior to the present. In that way, Trump exemplifies power as instantaneous event with no stable form or referent. In the extremity of Thomas Hobbes’ explication, such sovereignty is epitomized in the fact that there can be no law prior to the sovereign to which the sovereign can be held accountable — not even one the sovereign has uttered. And this because law can be none other than the sovereign’s interpretive event at each instant. Hobbes writes: “To him therefore there cannot be any knot in the law insoluble, either by finding out the ends to undo it by, or else by making what ends he will (as Alexander did with his sword in the Gordian knot) by the legislative power; which no other interpreter can do.” (Lev., XXVI). Trump articulated this principle — the energized nominalist sword described by Hobbes — when he stated to The New York Times post-election that “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Trump displays this power in tweets, policies, and speeches in which spins out myriad unpredictable and contradictory stances. Analysts and opponents, missing the performativity of this power and the power of this performativity, often scurry to measure the veracity of his missives according to traditional frameworks (law, ideologies, empirical facts) — or even their consistency with his own past statements. While many capitalists are ecstatic about dramatic reductions in taxation and regulation, they nevertheless remain worried about the unregulatability of this sword. Meanwhile, the affective energies and powers of this unleashed sovereignty are not missed by those on the extreme right, who hunger to liberate themselves from all restraints of democratic norms and accountability.
  1. In significant part, the power of nominalist shock functions through a modulation of resonant violence that is ubiquitous and also unaccountable. The affective energies of this movement of will to power animate significant portions of the polity — particularly on the neo-fascist right. As Trump’s Twitter shocks surge directly into the pockets of over 17,000,000 followers, many are propelled into barrages of raging threats against those he vilifies — directly or indirectly. In this way, the violence of shock-sovereignty exceeds the formal channels of the state (themselves already horrifying). For example, when Trump tweets condemnation of a union organizer in Indiana or a woman at a rally, hundreds of threatening communications (including murderous violence) to the targeted follow almost instantaneously. Just as Trump-shocks come anytime and all the time, these expressions of resonant violence can emerge explosively from anywhere and everywhere. This unpredictable ubiquity is amplified by the intimate relationship between the Trump regime and neo-fascist right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News, which spontaneously launch their own call and response shock waves that vilify, threaten, and likely will soon provoke violence. Rather than being met with condemnations from the president-elect, they resonate with and are amplified both by previous and forthcoming kindred tweets sent at 3:00 A.M. from Trump Tower. In turn, these frequently drive mainstream news cycles that perpetuate the resonance in more subtle and insidious ways. Operating according to resonant probabilities, these shock waves have a Teflon-like quality in relation to calls for accountability that follow logics of formal and efficient causality. They come less from a single location and more from resonances among nominalist shocks that move too quickly in and out of being to be caught at rest.
  1. As shock politics moves from being episodic to becoming quotidian, and as it is accompanied by dispersed resonant violence, neoliberal dynamics are both amplified and rendered more unstable. Trumpian power both draws on and transforms the neoliberal smart political energy grid that has been taking shape in recent decades. A smart energy grid is one that employs a variety of modes of (political) energy production, transmission, consumption, and blackout in highly flexible and responsive ways in order to maximize power. No longer relying on a few central nodes of power generation, they work with increasingly interactive forms of energy production to create even and usable flows of power across a wide area. Elemental to the neoliberal grid are, on the one hand, mutually amplifying currents between overwhelming episodic energies of political economic shock and, on the other, myriad quotidian energies associated with radically inegalitarian institutions, practices and circulations of goods, finance, capital, bodies, and media resonances. Each shock wave simultaneously summons new flows, resonances, and institutional reforms that maximize capitalist power and profit, energize vitriol, and enhance capacities for future shocks while shutting down impediments to capitalist metastasization. These amplificatory currents are immanently connected with affective currents of fear and rage that both energize and are energized by capitalist intensities – particularly in manifestations of xenophobia, white supremacy, and fundamentalisms that are hostile to reasoning and science. The Trump regime has announced and begun to implement a tremendous amplification of capitalist circulation unimpeded by democratic power, regulations, and redistributions. It also appears to impede circulations across borders that have been central to capital accumulation under neoliberalism. Simultaneously, the regime’s amplification of right-wing political vitriol both targets enemies of capital and threatens to generate political chaos. All this means that the grid hovers on a razor edge between unprecedented heights of political economic energy and short-circuiting itself. As the regime seeks to stabilize neo-fascist capitalism, it also flirts with forms of destabilization that may be seized by and energize radically democratic alternatives.
  2. Efforts to parse truths, reveal contradictions, or selectively negotiate and collaborate with this mode of power are both blind to and disguise what it fundamentally is — the new fascism. The Italian term fascismo originally referred to the fascio littori, a bundle of rods attached to a battle-ax symbolizing strength through unity and the bolstered authority of the Roman civic magistrate. In the Twenty-First century, the ax becomes the chaotically moving nominalist cyber-sword of shock plugged into the neoliberal power grid of circulations and affective resonances, such that even within government all that is solid melts in the air. In the first weeks of the Trump administration, the nominalist cyber-sword has been quickly turned on the agencies and processes of the American government. In this process, chaos is not only a means of dissolving the recalcitrance of other branches of government and agencies but also a principle of governance itself.

Consider the example of the so-called “Muslim ban” executive order issued January 27, 2017. Preceding the release of the order, different members of the regime leaked multiple, contradictory versions — sowing seeds of speculation and confusion. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway even claimed it may never be released. In rolling out the order, Trump did not consult department heads (including the very relevant State Department) nor did he vet the order with the Office of Legal Counsel. The Department of Homeland Security saw the text of the order only shortly before it was released. In the midst of all this interpretive confusion, the execution of the Order was left largely to the judgment of officers in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office. What all this begins to show is the extent to which the Trump regime enables, deploys and tolerates a high degree of chaos and unpredictability as a mode of reinventing government. While such mayhem in an earlier moment would be an indication of weakness and disarray, the new fascism operates through disordering-ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. Nominalist sovereignty seeks to liquify government to the ever-changeable will of the sovereign. In the ceaseless exercise of prerogative power and its chaotic effects, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception almost seems quaint. Prerogative power doesn’t quite capture this phenomenon. Rather, it is a kind of hyper-prerogative power in which each communicative and ordering action intensifies and proliferates a whirlwind of contradictory and confusing qualities that endlessly call forth new exercises of prerogative.

Do not be fooled by waxing and waning intensities and frequencies in the exercise of hyper-prerogative power — these are part of its evolution. It can seem that orchestrated chaos is simply incompetent governance when push-back by protesters and courts as well as some elites in the Republican Party appears to make the regime reflect upon and modulate how hyper-prerogative power is exercised. Key to understanding the dynamic in play is a quote from Steve Bannon made shortly after the election in which he described the upbuilding of this “entirely new political movement” as a process in which “we’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.” The “throw it up and see what sticks” approach to power refers not only to specific policies but also to the rates, forms and intensities of hyper-prerogative power itself. Hyper-prerogative power perpetually recalibrates in relation to forms of resistance. Indeed, the defeat of the Trump regime itself could be a part of this recalibration process in which the new fascism modulates in its move to enhance power.

Clearly, radical democratic politics must target the classical manifestations of fascism we noted at the outset. As we do so, a monumental challenge will be imagining how to resist and contest the unprecedented apparatus of surveillance, security, and militarized policing whose potentials have been constructed since 9-11, the uses of which are likely to take countless new and horrifying forms. Successful effort to undermine the progress of Trumpism will hinge upon our capacities to counter the shock politics and resonant violence characteristic of the new fascism. This will require engaging in a double politics. On the one hand, we must escalate sustained modes of direct action carefully-targeted to short-circuit the worst aspects of the regime. On the other hand, we must develop a radical democratic politics that shocks in a different way, that overwhelms the unaccountable vitriol of Trump-shock with dramatic engagements and magnetic enactments of receptive solidarity. This will take great creativity among those who oppose Trump and neo-fascism. Stay tuned.

Romand Coles

Previous post

Modigliani in Helsinki

Next post

Tyrant, Demagogue, or Fascist