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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/22/16

We Are Ignoring the Worst Dangers of Trumpism at Our Own Peril

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Donald Trump
Donald Trump
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As the mainstream media keep up their relentless barrage of criticism of Donald Trump's personal foibles, and as Hillary Clinton's campaign takes advantage of it in a manner that seems clearly coordinated, the genuine concerns of nearly half of all Americans Donald Trump has tapped into are being ignored and sidelined by the intellectual elite. But Trumpism is a new constitution of populist authoritarianism in America, a permanent ideological tendency that will not fade away, regardless of the outcome of this election.

In one sense--having been up against the entire political and intellectual establishment--Trump has already come out the winner, because he has put into radical doubt (as did Bernie Sanders on the other side) the neoliberal consensus around which both major parties and their institutional supporters cohere in Washington. His is a renegade candidacy that will have a lasting impact on world politics, though it is easy to overlook this amid the din of moral righteousness currently trumped up by the establishment.

Whether or not Trump is a neo-fascist is less interesting than tracing his similarities to European right-wing populists like Jean-Marie Le Pen, JÃ rg Haider, Umberto Bossi, Gianfranco Fini, and others. It can't be denied that every extreme right-wing movement has a tendency to slip into overt fascism at times, as when entire populations are targeted for exclusion and punishment. But to understand Trumpism we are better off searching for familiar strains in American populism, from Father Coughlin to George Wallace, from Huey Long to Pat Buchanan. I mention Long, the populist governor of Louisiana during the Great Depression, because there are elements of Trump's critique that have something of the redistributive element as well, though Coughlin's charismatic media presence, Wallace's appeal to white supremacy and Buchanan's America First xenophobia and protectionism are clearer markers of Trumpism's homegrown origins.

Because Trump has taken his blunt critique of elite politics further than any of his recent predecessors in the major parties, sometimes it appears he is manifesting Mussolini-like fascist tendencies, but to think like this would be to stretch fascism's definition beyond meaningfulness. Fascism is the close alliance of corporations and government in a movement of national regeneration, mobilizing the resentful parts of the population toward racist and militarist aims. Though Trump likes to say that he's fond of the military, I do not see war as being a priority for him; nor do I see the integral corporate-government merger that is a sine qua non of fascism; and nor do Trumpists seem to have any enthusiasm to dissolve their personal identities in the cause of the state, as is true of fascism.

The closest we came to fascism was in the 2001-2003 Bush period, but at that point hardly anyone in the commentariat was interested in picking up that frame of reference; now they throw the term around whenever someone utters anything the least bit racist or xenophobic. The deployment of the epithet becomes hollow and dismissive. Indeed, it was said about Italian fascism that it had no ideological content, which excused European liberals in the 1920s and 1930s from addressing the root causes of the movement and allowed them the kind of moral distancing we see again in the American intellectual reaction toward Trumpism.

Trump does, however, have the charisma that Bush the younger lacked, which among other reasons makes me convinced that November 8 will not be the end of his movement. I have believed for many years that about a third of the population is primed to a message of his kind at any given time, but this proportion can go up to 50 percent or more during crises. There is no way that the Republican Party will be able to reassemble the coalition that has defined it since the Reagan years. Trump has questioned the fetish for "small government" in substantive ways, sidelined evangelical Christians for the first time in 35 years (though he makes a feint at acceding to their sensitivities), and blown the cover on the bipartisan neoliberal consensus around trade, taxes, immigration, and other economic issues. Whatever happens on election day, there will be a new reckoning for Republicans--and for Democrats as well.

It is helpful to look at the precedents of the various right-wing populist movements in Europe over the last four decades to understand Trumpism. Every major European country has had its parallel movement, which arose in reaction to a new form of globalization (or postindustrial modernization) that began eroding the security of middle-class constituencies, and which targeted some typical scapegoats to alleviate their anxieties: foreign workers, refugees and asylum seekers, and Muslims above all.

The Front National (FN) in France, the Freedom Party (FP-) in Austria, the Lega Nord and Alleanza Nationale (AN) in Italy, the Vlaams Block (VB) in Belgium, the Progress parties in Denmark and Norway and the New Democracy party in Sweden, the NPD, DVU, and REP in Germany, the Center Party and Center Democrats in the Netherlands, the Democratic Union of the Center (DUC) in Switzerland, the British National Party (BNP) in Britain, and the Reform Party in Canada, to mention some of the prominent examples, are all direct precursors of Trumpism, bearing strong similarities across time and space, patterns of resentment and mobilization that Trump is faithfully replicating in his movement.

All of these parties are populist in the sense that they refuse the elite consensus around the contours of governance amidst postindustrial transformation, and they refuse, as well, the accompanying and essential cultural consensus, namely multiculturalism, that all Western democracies have adopted in some form or another to go along with the neoliberal economic creed. One does not find, in any of these parties, a purely economic critique centered around trade and protectionism, or welfare and taxes; rather there is always a corresponding cultural counterinsurgency as well, namely around breaking the various taboos and silences that have been imposed by the neoliberal elite on what is or is not acceptable social behavior in the new economic milieu.

So contemporary neo-populism is better understood not in terms of the earlier fascist model, but as a productivist impulse that identifies collectivist groups supposedly benefiting from multiculturalism as standing in the way of entrepreneurial individualism. To some extent, indeed, there is truth to the alleged chain of causation, since it is the offshoring of manufacturing to cheaper Asian locations that has caused the erosion of the manufacturing base in the Western democracies, and likewise it is the exploitative importation of cheap labor that helps create a downward push on wages for native white populations.

Of course, to stop at this point in the analysis--as unfortunately neo-populists do--is to grievously abridge the logic of economic inequality, which, if it is to be complete, must take in the overall composition of neoliberal economic philosophy. In fact, to a large extent, the productivist mentality enshrined in Trumpism and European populist authoritarianism is as much a reflection of neoliberalist individualism as it is a yearning for the principles of 19th-century laissez-faire economics.

Trumpism and allied movements cannot take on globalization without also taking on multiculturalism. The neo-populists see no way around neoliberal globalization except through overcoming multiculturalism. They see those unfairly benefiting from the multicultural model as being the cause of their misery, their perpetual uncertainty in the new economy, because there is no telling when their jobs might be permanently lost due to lower wages in other countries or because of unfair competition from immigrants who ought to have less of a rightful claim than natives. Whether it's called France for the French, Germany for the Germans, or Make America Great Again, the idea is the same.

The Brexiteers knew well that they wanted to blow up the system which wasn't working for them; every charge by the American media that Trump wants to do the same only makes him more popular among his supporters, since that is exactly what they want. That's the level of deprivation a quarter-century of unresponsiveness by the governing elites has brought them to.

The language of multiculturalism that comes so smoothly to elites on either side of the Atlantic is precisely the problem for neo-populists. End the reproduction of this language and you end the transmission of new mechanisms of globalized production and exchange, they tend to believe. Trump, in this country, has made this connection more explicit, more robust, and more durable than anyone in the past. He speaks a constantly irritating politically incorrect speech because it is central to his critique that the decks are stacked against hardworking Americans--real Americans, white Americans--who cannot get ahead despite their best efforts because there is a conspiracy of intolerance against their individualist mores (here, guns and the Second Amendment come in as crucial elements of the mythology of victimhood, as well as explicit refutation of the politically correct language that has developed around race, religion, and gender).

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Anis Shivani is the author of several critically acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (more...)

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