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It’s Happening Here and Now

Thoughts on the recent immigration detentions and William E. Connolly's 'Aspirational Fascism'

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

Donald Trump has occupied the Oval Office for the past year and a half. It has been a particularly dark time for Americans who care about freedom, human rights, and democracy. During this period a number of commentators have expressed alarm about the authoritarian and dictatorial dimensions of Trumpism (As readers of Public Seminar will know, I am one of these commentators; I discuss this literature, and share my own profound concerns, in my recently published #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, which is available here as a free download). Much recent attention has focused on Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die. Levitsky and Ziblatt draw upon their own expertise as empirical scholars of the politics of democratization and de-democratization, identifying the conditions under which democratic norms and practices erode and sometimes are overthrown. Their work is inspired by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s classic 1978 volume The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, which centered on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s.

Over the past few weeks worries about the parallels between then and now have intensified, as Donald Trump and his administration have escalated their attack on immigration and on immigrants: the ratcheting up of a “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants; the treatment of undocumented border crossing as a criminal act rather than the misdemeanor that it is, and the mass detention of violators; the hostility toward the many thousands of migrants fleeing real danger and presenting legitimate asylum claims; and, most shockingly, the separation of thousands of very young immigrant children from their parents and families, and the dispersal of these children, often with little documentation, in detention centers across the country, where they are traumatized and treated as criminals.

As terrifying as these measures are, equally disturbing are some of the broader moves in which they are embedded: the treatment of the detention centers as “secure” spaces, and the refusal of public access to them by elected officials, including members of Congress and mayors, and by journalists; the mobilization of military personnel and military facilities to handle many of the logistics of the detention; and the militarization of both the southern border with Mexico and the northern border with Canada.

Perhaps even more disturbing still is the way that Trump has used his “bully pulpit” to bully critics and opponents, blaming Democrats for his own ill-advised maneuvers, demonizing immigrants as “vermin” and criminals who threaten America and Americans, and again denouncing both Democrats and journalists as veritable enemies of the people who support “open borders” and sympathize with criminals rather than with ordinary Americans. Trump has done this both before and after his very recent, and misleading, reversal on the question of family separations. The angry speech he delivered in Duluth last Wednesday, June 20, is littered with xenophobic calumnies and lies. And his comments at the more recent Friday, June 22 White House event memorializing the “victims of crimes by illegal aliens” and celebrating their so-called “Angel families,” go further in demonizing immigrants and the supporters of immigrant rights and in assaulting truth itself, claiming that it is these people rather than the imprisoned immigrant children who suffer from “real separation.”

I do not believe it is “tyrannophobic” to assert that in the past week Trump has behaved increasingly like a dictator, confirming some of the worst fears of his liberal critics.

In the face of these developments, it is impossible to avoid comparisons with the 1930’s.

And so it is no surprise that Edward Luce just published a piece in the Financial Times bearing this title: Donald Trump and the 1930s playbook: liberal democracy comes unstuck,” and Jonathan Freedland has published a very similar piece in the Guardian: “Inspired by Trump, the world could be heading back to the 1930’s: the U.S. President tears children from parents, and in Europe his imitators dehumanize migrants. We know where that leads.”

In a review that is forthcoming in the September issue of Perspectives on Politics, I explain why I think that William E. Connolly’s Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017) is a profoundly important book.

Below is a version of that review. I hope readers will read the review, and will then read the book, for its message is indeed urgent: Trumpism represents a deeply authoritarian and indeed neo-fascist form of rhetorical, political, and psychic mobilization of resentment, and resisting it requires a pluralistic, “multifaceted” form of democratic mobilization. Connolly’s way of developing these themes is distinctive and important. And it is particularly distinctive, and important, that Connolly writes as a well-known critic of conventional liberalism and its forms of political “normality,” who cannot easily be accused of being any kind of apologist for liberalism (at the same time, while Connolly is a critic of and not an “apologist” for liberalism, he is not hostile to liberalism, and indeed in some ways this book can be read as a version of the “radical liberalism” promoted by his University of Michigan teacher, Arnold Kaufman, back in the early 1960’s).

On the topic of democratic mobilization, I should mention an excellent article that I recently came across in the journal Jazz Perspectives, Jonathon Bakin’s “Jazz and the ‘Popular Front’: ‘Swing’ Musicians and the Left‐Wing Movement of the 1930s–1940s.” The topic of the Popular Front, an initiative of the international Communist movement during this period, is a complex one, and I am not a celebrant of either its ideological goals or the populist anti-modernism of its cultural approach (Connolly indeed offers some penetrating criticisms of both 1930’s Communism and contemporary efforts to revive communism on pp. 54-58 of his book). At the same time, a propos the musical sonance of “Blue Monday,” Bakin makes clear that many of the jazz greats of the 1930’s and 1940’s—including Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Carter, Fats Waller, Lena Horne, and W. C. Handy—were active participants in both “the Harlem Renaissance” and the broader struggle against racism and fascism (white musicians like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra were also involved in these efforts). And while only a few of these musicians were close or sympathetic to the Communist party, many played benefits for, and were involved in, efforts such as the Scottsboro Boys Unity Defense Committee, Musicians Committee for Spanish Democracy, the American Committee to Save Refugees, the Exiled Writers’ Committee, and the United American Spanish Aid committee. Indeed, in an earlier Blue Monday column, “Brown and Blue,” I drew explicit connections between Duke Ellington’s famous symphony, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” and the politics of anti-fascism and of democratic contestation—what Connolly calls “multifaceted democracy.”

Here, then, is my review of Aspirational Fascism:

This is a terrific book. Its topic is important and indeed urgent. The rise of Donald Trump—and of “Trumpism” and authoritarian populism more generally—raises serious questions about the future of liberal democracy. U.S. political scientists are taking notice. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018), which treats Trumpism through the lens of the comparative politics of democratization and de-democratization, has received much scholarly and journalistic attention. Bright Line Watch, founded by John M. Carey, Gretchen Helmke, Brendan Nyhan, and Susan C. Stokes, deploys multiple methods “to monitor democratic practices, their resilience, and potential threats.” William E. Connolly’s Aspirational Fascism is a work of political theory that directly engages these same concerns, employing, and expanding, the approach to “agonistic democracy” for which its author has long been famous.

While Connolly in the past has written favorably, and wisely, about the Nietzschean idea of “untimeliness,” this book is nothing if not timely. Beautifully weaving together genealogical, empirical, and normative modes of argument, it offers deep insight into the “fascist” dimensions of Trumpism and the forms of “multifaceted democracy” that might serve to counter it. As Connolly explains in the Preface, the book is a “brief, preliminary study” that grew out of a graduate seminar on “What Was/Is Fascism” that he quickly put together and taught in the Fall of 2016, as the U.S. Presidential campaign was coming to a head. Drawing upon and extending Connolly’s postings on Facebook and on his blog, The Contemporary Condition, and published, expeditiously, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivatives license, the book’s very form exemplifies its purpose—to contribute in a critical and accessible way to the defense and deepening of democracy at a time of crisis.

The book opens, cleverly and starkly, with the OED entry on “fascism.” In the Preface that follows, “Apples and Oranges,” Connolly explains the reasons, experiential and theoretical, why he wrote the book; why, contrary to a certain kind of methodological rigor mortis, he thinks it important sometimes to “compare apples and oranges,” drawing loose and perhaps unconventional connections between disparate phenomena when the situation, like Trumpism, calls for it (he states of his genealogical approach, sardonically, that “we practice a minor tradition in the human sciences”); and why our time is particularly “dangerous” and requires both intellectual and political care.

Each of the book’s three core chapters does what its title suggests. Chapter 1 brilliantly compares “the rhetorical strategies of Hitler and Trump,” and also lays out the book’s core thesis: “Trump . . . is not a Nazi. He is, rather, an aspirational fascist who pursues crowd adulation, hyperaggressive nationalism, white triumphalism, a law-and-order regime giving unaccountable power to the police . . . and a practitioner of a rhetorical style that regularly creates fake news and smears opponents to mobilize support for the Big Lies he advances.” Chapter 2, “Bodily Practices and Fascist Modes of Attunement,” develops a broadly psychoanalytic account of the kinds of bodily comportment encouraged by authoritarian/fascist demagogues such as Hitler and Trump (“hardness, ruthlessness, and obedience to arbitrary authority . . . these instincts now become set in the cast of the male jaw; the rigidity of his stance . . . the visceral agitations set off by a bloodred flag and black swastika; the determined gait . . .”). Connolly here draws on a wide range of theorists, including Freud and Foucault, but especially Klaus Theweleit’s account of Nazi hypermasculinism in Male Fantasies, and Theodor Adorno et al’s analysis of The Authoritarian Personality. This is the longest chapter in the short book, and while it ranges widely, it is very sharp, and Connolly is very careful in the ways he outlines the stylistic affinities between Hitlerism and Trumpism and the kinds of behavior each typically evoked in staunch supporters, particularly in crowd settings.

If the book’s first two chapters lay out the rhetorical and affective dimensions of Trumpism as a kind of “aspirational fascism, American-style,” the book’s third chapter, “Democracy, Plurality, and Class Inequality,” addresses the challenges that Trumpism presents to democracy, and the ways that these challenges might best be addressed.

It is here that Connolly develops the idea of “multifaceted democracy,” expanding on the themes of “agonistic respect” and “agonistic democracy” for which he is well known.

Connolly’s discussion is compact and rich. he makes very explicit the commitment to core institutions of liberal democracy that his writing has always been presumed: “Let us set periodic elections, court and popular commitment to equal voting rights, a strong legislature, and periodic practices of citizen activism and agitation as at once critical to democracy and essential consolidation of its pluralist mode.” At the same time, he insists that such institutions and practices, currently at risk, need to be energized by a range of social movements and institutional experiments animated by an egalitarian ethos. Central to his argument throughout the book is a theme that he first developed decades ago in a discussion of Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb’s 1973 classic The Hidden Injuries of Class, and that he extended more recently in his 2008 Capitalism and Christianity, American Style: the link between neoliberal forms of individualism, economic inequality, and white working-class alienation and resentment. Like many commentators, Connolly understands that Trumpism centers on the mobilization of this resentment, and that the opposition to Trumpism must center on a reversal of this resentment, by social-democratic type public policies promoting greater economic security and equality, and by the promotion of a new “ethos of pluralism” capable of both recognizing differences and supporting new commonalities.

In his recent The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Harper, 2017), Mark Lilla argues that liberalism can only be revived by a repudiation of “identity politics” in the name of a new reformist politics of the broad (and mainly white) political center. Connolly, defending a “multifaceted democracy,” thinks such a centrist politics neither possible nor desirable. He understands that the politicized demands for “recognition” and “redistribution” are often in tension, and that any politics of democratic renewal must manage this tension without imagining it can be easily or finally resolved. His book is appreciative and also critical of much that goes by the name of “identity politics.” And it is appreciative and also critical of labor-centered conceptions of politics, including Marxism, that rightly emphasize class but too often deny the plurality of struggles. Critical pluralism is one of Connolly’s bywords, and this short book wrestles with the dilemmas such a pluralism presents.

One of the strengths of the book is indeed the way it combines nuanced advocacy of an “agonistic democracy” with an at times deeply personal and even agonizing honesty. Connolly is worth quoting at length:

It is thus a dangerous time. My sense is that the best hope to make reasonable adjustments to American decline and the Anthropocene will emerge as pluralists come to terms more actively with the real grievances of the working and lower middle classes at the same time that we resist manifestations of racism and patriarchy emanating from sections of those classes. Is that more than a hope? I am unsure. Sometimes I think that the tensions and binds I encounter reflect unresolved knots in my thinking. At others I suspect they reflect binds in a world that does not necessarily escape tragic possibility. Because I also think that a demand for purity often backfires—the purities of morality, community, race, markets, individualism—I allow such indecisions and worries to find expression as the study proceeds.

Connolly is analytically serious about the sources of both Trumpism and the possible oppositions to it. He is also intellectually and ethically serious about the uncertainties we face and the limits of even our best attempts to comprehend and confront them.

Aspirational Fascism incorporates, refines, and reworks many of the ideas that Connolly has developed over the past fifty years, since his earliest 1960’s critiques of mainstream behavioralist political science (see especially his 1969 The Bias of Pluralism). What is perhaps most interesting is the range of thinkers on whom he draws, including writers, such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, with whom has he recently been associated, but also Hannah Arendt, Franz Neumann, Karl Polanyi, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and many others not typically associated with Connolly’s mode of political theorizing. Strikingly, Connolly favorably invokes a number of “late-modern pluralists” who he has strongly criticized in the past, including Isaiah Berlin, Judith Shklar, Robert Dahl, John Maynard Keynes, and Jurgen Habermas. Connolly argues in the book that a democratic renewal capable of countering Trumpism must have a “broad bandwidth.” One way of reading the book is as a theoretical enactment of such a broad approach; and Connolly does go to great length to draw a wide variety of interlocutors into conversation, to wrestle with them, and to be as clear as possible about what he appreciates and what he disagrees with.

But I think the breadth of his reach is more than a rhetorical enactment of the kind of pluralism Connolly considers appropriate to our time. It is also a mobilization of the entire range of intellectual-political resources necessary to best understand how dangerous is our current moment. Within the political theory subfield—a subfield Connolly did much to shape, especially during the period in which he edited the journal Political Theory—Connolly is known as a kind of radical democrat (indeed, he wrote regularly in the early 1980’s for Sheldon Wolin’s short-lived journal democracy) and a “postmodernist” influenced by the writings of Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, and others. And there is no doubt that his work has foregrounded these themes. At the same time, Connolly is also a political scientist. He is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins, where he once served as chair of the political science department. He is the winner of a major award (the Lippincott Award) of the American Political Science Association. He earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan, where he studied, among others, with Arnold Kaufman, whose writings on “radical liberalism” had a major impact on sixties thinking about “participatory democracy” (On this, see James Miller’s Democracy is in the Streets).

Aspirational Fascism is a book of political theory that is also a book of political science that exemplifies the insights that are possible when the discipline’s arbitrary, outmoded and foolish methodological and subfield divides are effaced in the interest of political understanding. I am indeed struck by the similarities between the book and another book written by another luminary of Connolly’s generation, Ira Katznelson’s Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge After Total War, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust (2003). Kaztnelson’s book is largely an intellectual history of what he called the “political studies enlightenment” developed in the post-WWII period by a range of writers that included Hannah Arendt, David Truman, Robert Dahl, and Karl Polanyi. Katznelson’s purpose was to re-read these writers as contributors to a “usable past” relevant to the revitalization of both liberal democracy and American political science. Whereas these writers had been associated with different disciplinary tendencies, and had not typically been read together, Katznelson suggested that these writers in fact were in conversation, explicit and implicit, with each other, and that we can improve our understanding by reading them together, and then thinking, together, both with and against them. Connolly’s book is a different kind of book, written at a different moment and for a different purpose. But its purpose is not that different, and I believe that his book can usefully be read alongside Katznelson’s earlier book. Both writers came of age politically in the 1960’s, identified with the New Left and with its critiques of mainstream political science, and went on to have distinguished careers that shaped, in different ways, the current discipline of political science. Neither fit easily into the simple-minded categories that all too many political scientists take all too seriously. Both are now alarmed by the current crisis of liberal democracy and by the ascendancy of authoritarian populists who threaten the partial and precarious achievements of the past fifty years (for Katznelson, see the September 2015 symposium in Boston Review centered on his “Anxieties of Democracy”), and are moved to write as serious and engaged scholars supporting the defense and the deepening of these achievements.

Aspirational Fascism is a short book. But it is also a very big book. In 113 pages, William E. Connolly demonstrates that political science at its best can be both timely and deep; can incorporate a range of approaches, seamlessly blending empirical and ethical-normative concerns; and can say something of real world importance. This is an aspiration well worth emulating, and it is one that has never been more needed than now.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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