March 18, 2017
Labeling Donald Trump or his administration "fascist" doesn’t, in itself, help us to understand the gang in power because, among other reasons, the terms "fascist’ and "fascism" are ill-defined. However, it’s worth noting that the conditions which gave us Trump bear some resemblance to those which have preceded the rise of authoritarian governments and far-right parties, including to those now appearing in Europe. That may be useful in explaining how Trump garnered almost 63 million votes (46% of those cast) and why polls show that 40% approve of his performance.
"Making America Great Again" is a slogan that excuses right-wing nationalism. The extreme example in this genre is the term "Third Reich," coined before the Hitler era to appeal to the desire to make Germany great again, imagining a rebirth of the glory days of the Holy Roman Empire and the Prussian Kingdom/German empire. Contrast the alleged weakness of the democratic Weimar Republic and the Obama administration.
Several writings on right-wing populism offer interesting insights. None refers to the rise of Trump or the recent election; each sets out characteristics that seem to be present in those phenomena. One is a small book on fascism  (in which the author more or less abandons an attempt to define the term): "[S]ome situate the emergence of the radical right in the context of the 'revolt against reason', which was said to characterize the last decades of the 19th century. Certainly, many fin-dc-siècle thinkers opposed rationalism and its ramifications: liberalism, socialism, materialism, and individualism. They were pessimists who refused to see history as progress, and instead saw it as a desperate struggle against degeneration." The make-America-great-again slogan in effect complains of degeneration. Many of Trump’s followers are opposed to liberalism, socialism, and, at least among his evangelical followers, materialism. Their attitude toward individualism is mixed, but to the extent they are individualistic, it consists of resenting government regulation. That makes support for an authoritarian leader ironic.
"In Germany, various strands of spiritualist thought, descended from Romanticism, informed the idea of the German ‘volk’—that is the people defined as an ethical, socially united, patriarchal, ethnic, and linguistic community." The white nationalist element of Trumpism dreams of an American volk.
"The radical right did not . . . derive simply from ultranationalism or anomie. It was rooted in daily contests for jobs, financial reward, educational success, and political honour against socialists, ethnic minorities, feminists, and liberals, in a context of nation-building and imperialism, and interest in improving the quality and efficiency of the race." Trump’s position on imperialism isn’t clear, except that he expects the U.S. to give orders; most of the rest applies.
In a study a few years ago of postmodernism’s connections to the right, the author considered the social and economic forces behind the emergence of the European New Right. He found generational differences, but both the old and more recent right show similarities to Trumpism. "Historical fascism was able to draw upon a fairly large middle-class electoral base: small town dwellers and farmers, small proprietors, the lower middle classes, and white-collar workers. Often, this group has been collectively characterized as the ‘losers of the modernization process’: individuals most vulnerable and exposed to the social dislocations involved in industrialization. . . . The constituency of the New European Right is also heavily comprised of potential ‘losers of the modernization process’."
Fear of loss is the key. The far-right parties do not appear to draw support primarily from the ranks of the unemployed, but from "those social groups who feel in danger of being left behind by new developments in a globalized, postindustrial economy . . . ." Putting it more broadly, "[s]tatistical breakdowns of the New Right's constituency abound with examples of how ‘feelings of anxiety and social isolation, political exasperation and powerlessness, loss of purpose in life, and insecurity and abandonment’ provide social conditions conducive to the success of far-right political views." As here, "New Right politicians are skilled at playing on such feelings and fears."
According to a recent article, contemporary right-wing parties in France, Denmark and The Netherlands present a picture different from Trumpism and the old European right, in general and as to some particulars. "These parties . . . have made a very public break with the symbols of the old right’s past, distancing themselves from skinheads, neo-Nazis and homophobes. . . . They have effectively claimed the progressive causes of the left – from gay rights to women’s equality and protecting Jews from antisemitism – as their own, . . ." However, here’s the point of contact: they have done that "by depicting Muslim immigrants as the primary threat to all three groups. As fear of Islam has spread, with their encouragement, they have presented themselves as the only true defenders of western identity and western liberties – the last bulwark protecting a besieged Judeo-Christian civilisation from the barbarians at the gates."
There’s another parallel: "These parties have steadily filled an electoral vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties, who ignored voters’ growing anger over immigration – some of it legitimate, some of it bigoted – or simply waited too long to address it." They respond to "economic anxiety and fear of terrorism by blending a nativist economic policy – more welfare, but only for us – and tough anti-immigration and border security measures."
As in the U.S., so in Europe: "nostalgia for an older, whiter France has become a potent political force." The Dutch new right, by "framing its anti-migrant politics as a battle against imperious elites and political correctness, . . has been able to capitalise on a panoply of grievances, from anger over asylum seekers to Euroscepticism." There is "a strong anti-PC tone to the Dutch right: do not tell us what to say, what to celebrate and who we must live next to." How did this happen? "The Dutch Labour party . . . gave up on its working-class base." In Denmark, the attitude was summed up thus: "Immigrants can’t do right. When they’re unemployed they’re a burden to society. When they’re in a job, they just stole the job from a Dane."
Finally, Britain: "Not least among the lessons of Brexit was that, for millions of disaffected voters, immigration is just one more thing nobody asked them about. This is what makes the issue an especially potent weapon: it combines the resentful energies of nativism, economic instability, and hatred of a remote and unaccountable political elite."
In all this we can identify several public attitudes common to the rise of authoritarian governments and the election of Donald Trump. Prominent is resentment of immigrants, which derives, at least in part, from fear of terrorism and from a sense of threat to jobs, prosperity and status. In addition, there is a sense of political powerlessness; resentment of elites who allegedly run everything, including government; and social attitudes forced on an unwilling citizenry, i.e., political correctness. Underlying these developments is economic inequality and the power of the wealthy. One of the ironies of the American version of right-wing populism is that it leads to the election of those who will protect and expand such inequality.
How do we deal with this? One solution was offered by Tony Blair, writing in The New York Times on March 3. The new wave "is a revolution that is partly economic, but mainly cultural." It is caused by "the scale, scope and speed of change." That occurs "economically as jobs are displaced and communities fractured, and culturally as the force of globalization moves the rest of the world closer and blurs old boundaries of nation, race and culture." In other words, the nationalism of the new right blames globalization for lost jobs and immigration.
To Blair, it would be a mistake to respond with a wave of leftist populism. Left populists, as he sees it, also revolt against globalization, and they "agree with the right-wing populists about elites, though for the left the elites are the wealthy, while for the right they’re the liberals." Should there not, then, be a revolt against the conservative elite, especially now that the wealthy and the government have merged? He says not: left populism, he thinks, has no chance of success and "dangerously validates some of the right’s arguments. This only fuels a cynicism that depresses support for the more progressive parts of the left’s program." He doesn’t elaborate on, and I don’t see the merit of, that argument. If, in rejecting populism, Blair is proposing a policy of polite, patient advocacy, with no enemies and no demonstrations, he’s out of touch with the times.
He’s correct in saying that left populism is a response to the failure of the liberal establishment or, as he puts it, the paralysis of the center. "The parties and politicians of the center have become the managers of the status quo in an era when people want change. So, the center — in both its center-right and center-left camps — is marginalized, even despised." A focus on the center is not surprising in an advocate of the third way but, at least in this country, the center-right has vanished; the "center" is the Democratic establishment, which has failed to address the issues that give rise to right-wing populism, such as concern about immigration and globalization.
One aspect of his centrism has merit, the toning down of certain liberal arguments and, better yet, reconsideration of some of them, in his words learning "the difference between being progressive and appearing obsessive on issues like gender identity."
Populism can be an elusive subject. The term is more often used than defined, and definitions aren’t consistent. Some definitions are useless; my unabridged dictionary  defines "populist" as "a member of the People’s Party," which expired a century ago; "populism" is simply a derivative with no separate definition. Some definitions include negative aspects, such as anti-intellectualism, prejudice or mob mentality. That may be why Blair avoids it. However, there are more neutral, useful definitions, for example: "A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite." That is what Trumpism purported to be during the campaign.
A liberal populism, that is, a movement focused on improving the lot of ordinary Americans rather than the one percent, is, despite Blair’s concerns, the way forward. The anti-Trump rallies show that many people are ready. Bernie Sanders demonstrated populism’s appeal and force, and it could succeed if it had the support of the Democratic establishment. The goal must be to convince people, including many who currently support Trump, that there is a better way than his — and better than anything mainstream Republicans have offered in years — and that Democrats understand them and will work for their benefit. Democratic dithering won’t do it and Democrats beholden to Wall Street can’t. It’s time to choose sides.
13. See Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), p. 121.
14. Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (2014), pp. 28, 35
15. Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason (2004), 275-77
16. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, "The Ruthlessly Effective Rebranding of Europe’s New Far Right, "https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/the-ruthlessly-effective-rebranding-of- europes-new-far-right
17. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language
18. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language