Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Why I Support Sanders Over Warren (And Think You Should, Too)

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters via Newsweek)
Elizabeth Warren, the liberal senator from Massachusetts and Democratic candidate for president, seems to be enjoying something of a surge at the moment; indeed, one recent Economist/YouGov poll put her in second place nationally to Joe Biden, ahead of Bernie Sanders by more than the margin of error for the first time. While it's still quite early and too soon to say anything very definitely, a number of media outlets have begun to promote the idea Warren may be taking over as Biden's main opponent from the left and knocking Sanders out of the spot he's held for months. Although this framing is ultimately questionable, as Matt Taibbi argues in Rolling Stone, I thought it might still be worth offering up my reasons for continuing to support Bernie Sanders even in the face of Warren's newfound popularity.

Don't get me wrong: if Warren's surging in the polls, that a good thing from my perspective as long as she's not simply converting Sanders supporters to her side—and based on RealClearPolitics' polling average, it looks like her rise is, indeed, larger than any decline Sanders has seen in the meantime; both Warren and Sanders are, on average, polling better than they had been in the middle of last month, after Biden entered the race officially and enjoyed an impressive increase in his support (which has now mostly faded). And if Warren does end up being the nominee, I'll ultimately be very heartened by that; she would be, in terms of policy, easily the best nominee the Democratic Party has had in my lifetime (in fact, the best in close to half a century at least). Not to mention that my main concern really is that the nomination doesn't go to Biden or some other centrist-y establishment candidate (which is to say pretty much every candidate, aside from Warren and Sanders, that's currently polling above one percent). The difference between Warren and Biden is much greater—and more frightening—than that between Sanders and Warren. But still, between Sanders and Warren the choice is pretty clear from my perspective, and I want to lay out why.

My answer, in short, is that I think Sanders is more consistently left-wing—or "progressive" if you prefer a more innocuous label—than Warren. There have, of course, been plenty of attempts to deny this, but all the counterarguments fall flat, in my opinion. Let's start out just on a rhetorical level: Sanders openly calls himself a (democratic) socialist; Warren has described herself as "capitalist to my bones." It's pretty clear which of those labels is more leftist. Now, Sanders' platform is hardly anti-capitalist—or even all that much to the left of Warren's—but words do matter, to an extent. The fact is that exploitation of labor is baked into capitalism; profits are made because workers are not given the full fruits of their labor. There are plenty of good things you can point to that have come about as a result of capitalism (and plenty of bad ones, too), and there's a case to be made that it represents a necessary stage in global economic development (which was Karl Marx's position, for those unaware); but the idea that we should cling to capitalism, with its undemocratic and often short-sighted allocation of resources, as we face major crises of inequality and pending climate catastrophe, is ultimately a bad one. Capitalism has proven a lot more flexible and resilient than Marx expected, and maybe it's possible for some form of capitalism (depending on how you define the term) to continue existing even as we overhaul our economic system to deal with climate change, poverty, and rampant inequality; but major, major changes really will be necessary to deal with those things, and now is the time to open people's minds to the idea that capitalism should not be a sacred cow—not to proclaim one's fealty to that failing system.

But actions, as they say, speak louder than words; and I think there are a number of actions that show, more clearly than their own self-descriptions do, the meaningful differences between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. For one thing, there was a significant outcry from progressives for Warren to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when it looked like Clinton might have no meaningful opposition; Warren wouldn't do so, but Sanders would. Keep in mind, absolutely no one thought he had any chance of winning the nomination when he declared. His campaign was designed to attract attention to the issue of economic inequality, and started out as symbolic rather than "serious." Of course, you can offer up any number of decent reasons that Warren may not have wanted to run in 2016—she was a freshman senator, and presidential campaigns, even symbolic ones, do take a great deal of time and energy—but she wouldn't even offer an endorsement of Sanders' campaign and, in her position as a superdelegate, she ultimately supported Clinton.

And what was the benefit of all of that in the end? Clinton lost to Trump, as we know, so even as a pragmatic move Warren's strategy was a failure. This was hardly a one-off, either; in my home state of Ohio, there was a similar battle between center and left in the Democratic primary for governor last year. On the one hand, you had Richard Cordray, a relatively bland establishment candidate who could boast an A rating from the NRA; on the other, you had Dennis Kucinich, a long-time progressive who, while perhaps guilty of saying and doing some questionable things in recent years, had supported Medicare for All long before that became an even remotely mainstream position, had consistently stood against imperalistic wars and "interventions" in other countries, and had outspokenly supported LGBT+ rights back when even Jon Stewart thought it was acceptable to mock trans women as "chick[s] with dick[s]." Bernie Sanders stayed out of the race, which was understandable given some of the controversial things Kucinich had done and said in recent years; but Warren, on the other hand, threw her wholehearted support behind Cordray, who would win the primary—and then lose the general election to Republican lizard-man Mike DeWine.

Warren's squishiness—at least in comparison to Sanders—is evident in this campaign already when you compare their stances on Medicare for All. Everyone knows where Sanders stands; he's been championing the idea for years and years and is outspokenly in favor of it. That hasn't changed.  Warren, on the other hand, is less definite. As Axios notes,
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) supports Medicare for all, but has been vague about how to achieve it. Her campaign website calls for a "down payment." And at a CNN town hall in March, she said she would "get everybody at the table" to "figure out how to do Medicare for all," which could include a "temporary role" for private insurance companies.
This is another attempt by Warren to water down progressive principles with centrist-ish "pragmatism," and we know just how well some of her previous efforts have worked.

On foreign policy and the military, the differences are even more striking. Let's take the ever-contentious issue of Israel-Palestine for starters. In 2014, when Israel had killed over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza (overwhelmingly civilians), Warren said she believed civilian casualties were "last thing Israel wants" and blamed the casualties on "Hamas put[ting] its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools." She then demurred at the suggestion that aid to Israel be made contingent on an end to the building of new (illegal) settlements in the West Bank.

Sanders, on the other hand, has a long (if imperfect) history of criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and even voted to withhold over $80 million in aid to Israel unless it put an end to settlement activity, all the way back in 1991. He offered significant, if measured, criticism of Israel and defense of the Palestinians in his 2016 presidential campaign. Later that year, 88 senators signed a letter to then-president Obama, urging his administration to veto any "one-sided" UN Security Council resolution about Israel and Palestine and approvingly quoting Samantha Powers' disgusting speech from when she had vetoed a 2011 resolution that condemned Israel's settlements. Elizabeth Warren signed it; Bernie Sanders didn't.

Not surprisingly, the two candidates' positions on Israel mirror their positions on Iran, Israel's notorious foe; as Warren ran for senate in 2012, her campaign website falsely claimed Iran was "pursuing nuclear weapons" and stated that "[t]he United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon." Sanders, on the other hand, came under fire in 2016 for saying that the US should "move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran." In 2017, Sanders (along with Rand Paul) was one of only two senators to vote against authorizing additional sanctions against Iran; Warren voted in favor.

Similarly, last year Sanders was one of only seven Senators (Warren not being among them) to vote against a $17 billion increase in the military budget; at the time, Jeff Stein of The Washington Post noted that "[t]his appears to be the biggest military budget outside height of the Iraq War." When it comes to issues regarding the military and foreign affairs, there's no doubt that Warren is closer to the mainstream than Sanders, and that's not a good thing.

I remember back in 2013, Warren's first year in the senate, when Obama nominated John Brennan to be director of the CIA; Brennan had previously lied about civilian casualties from the administration's drone strike program, and I was disgusted at the idea that he might be put in charge of a powerful intelligence agency after so blatantly misleading people. Bernie Sanders voted against his confirmation—and Elizabeth Warren voted for it. That may have been my first real disenchantment with Warren, whom I'd been very enthusiastic about as she was running for the senate in 2012. Brennan went on to preside over the CIA's spying on Congress and to make excuses for the agency's past torture program before ascending to the level of #Resistance hero after Trump came to power. 

Sanders' stubborn insistence on remaining an Independent—even as he caucused with the Democrats in Congress and supported the party's presidential nominees—while a cause of resentment for many, is actually a good symbol of the quality in him that makes him a preferable candidate from my point of view. While I would by no means call his record perfect (or even close), he has been willing to vote as an Independent in a number of cases, such as on the military budget and sanctions bills I mentioned above. While I certainly don't begrudge Warren her decision to identify herself as a Democrat, it's simply true that she's closer to the party's establishment line than Sanders and, as I said, that's not a good thing.

There's also, I think, some legitimate reason to worry about her abilities as a politician. Her DNA test debacle is one instance of that, resulting in widespread mockery from the Right and condemnation from actual Native Americans. Her recent decision to frame climate change as a question of "military readiness" is another example of her ability to be rather tone-deaf. She has an unfortunate tendency to leave people toward the Left disenchanted in her attempts to appease the Right—attempts that it's easy to see from the start are unlikely to succeed. While Sanders has had his failings, he managed to become, for at least a time, the most popular political figure in the country despite openly identifying as a socialist, and seems able to connect with many different people in a way that I'm not convinced Warren is.

Despite my very real issues with Warren, I really don't want this to come off as a hit piece of any sort. She is still easily better than almost all of her opponents, and vastly better than the guy who's currently at the top of every national poll. She has also put out some genuinely laudable proposals lately. Certainly, no one should lose sight of that, nor do I want there to be some split in the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But it seems equally clear to me that Sanders is genuinely better than Warren pretty much across the board; on some issues, the differences are small, but they are pretty consistently in Sanders' favor. And I hope that discussions about the two candidates personally don't overshadow the real, and meaningful, differences in their politics.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Where Have All the Libertarians Gone?

Then-presidential candidate Ron Paul, addressing the Congressional Health Care Caucus (via CNN)
Let's take a journey back to the distant year of 2007. The campaign to decide who will replace the unpopular incumbent, George W. Bush, is well underway. One the Republican side options are plentiful, but one particular candidate boasts a unique status; that man's name is Ron Paul. He's managed to attract support on college campuses, bring in impressive fundraising hauls, and achieve a loyal following on the web. While he's a long-shot for the nomination, the ideology he represents—libertarianism—looks as if it may become a force to be reckoned with. Four years later, Paul runs for president again, and while he's a long-shot this time as well, he attracts impressive support from young voters in states like New Hampshire. It looks as if libertarianism may really be gaining traction.

So why is it that now it seems the libertarian movement (as it were) has all but totally dissolved? Well, some of the young voters who were taken with Ron Paul in his 2008 and 2012 runs have surely gone on to become Bernie supporters in 2016; other former libertarians have gone on to join the alt-right and/or support Donald Trump. Ron Paul's own son, Rand, ran in the 2016 Republican contest and failed to even achieve his father's cult following. Why was the seemingly widespread, if underground, support for libertarianism so fragile? 

To answer this question, we have to look at a few intertwining factors, as I will do here. Admittedly, a lot of what I'm about to write is conjecture, so take it with a grain of salt; but keep in mind, I am basing this off of what I've seen, even if it's not strictly scientific. The factors behind libertarianism's decline, in my estimation, are as follows: that two very different groups of people tend to be initially attracted to libertarianism; that many people in each group, for specific reasons which I'll explain, also have a tendency to end up drifting away from libertarianism after a while; and that libertarianism is an ideology that is ultimately really attractive in its own right to only a small number of people, again for reasons I'll lay out.

Let's start with an exploration of the two groups of people I mentioned. The first group is people who are more or less leftist in their sympathies, which is to say they have a genuine concern with systemic injustice and the rights of oppressed people around the world. These people are attracted to libertarianism because it opposes imperialism and needless wars, mass incarceration, the War on Drugs and other policies that negatively impact vulnerable people around the world. Many of the college students who were supportive of Ron Paul's candidacy in 2008 and 2012 surely fall into this group. It wasn't his free market economic policies that appealed to them; it wast that he wanted to end the War on Terror, legalize drugs, and end intrusive provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

So where does the problem arise? Well, the people in this group—whom we might refer to as "confused leftists"—are fundamentally collectivist in their outlook, in some sense. They think that we should care about more than just ourselves and our friends and the people in our particular in-groups; rather, we should care about the welfare of people around the world. This fundamentally collectivist impulse is, on its face, in contradiction with libertarianism's hyper-individualistic economic ideology: that the economy should be based on private property rights and each individual's pursuit of their own gain, and that we should privatize what common property presently exists. The only way to reconcile this collectivist, humanitarian impulse that we should care about the welfare of everyone with this atomistic free market ideology is to claim that a free market really will allow for the greatest possible freedom and well-being for everyone.

The thing is, this is a pretty difficult view to maintain. It's hard to see how abolishing all aid programs could possibly be to the benefit single parents, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other people who are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing in a market economy. It requires a great amount of faith to think that private charity would simply swoop in and save these people from destitution. And, furthermore, just about every proposal for helping poor and working-class people—Medicare for All, free college, etc.—is coming from the left, and demands that we expand, rather than reduce, the government's role in some respects. For many of these "confused leftists," economics may not have had much to do at all with what attracted them to libertarianism to begin with, and they may have never bought into the whole let's-deregulate-everything approach even as they appreciated Ron Paul's tirades against imperialism and the War on Drugs. So it's easy for many to drift away from libertarianism and towards, well, actual leftism, especially when a figure like Bernie Sanders comes along. Sanders, after all, has a good bit in common with Ron Paul—he, too, is a critic of the drug war, of the War on Terror, of NSA spying and the like—and his views on economics intuitively make a lot more sense, if you want to help the disadvantaged, than, say, converting Medicaid into a block-grant program.

The second group of people who are initially attracted to libertarianism is radically different from the first. These are people for whom the hyper-individualist, "survival of the fittest" nature of an unbridled free market is very appealing, and is, in fact, what attracts them to libertarianism. They have a burning hatred of socialism and collectivism in any form (and they define the terms very, very loosely), and the idea of an economy where the successful are free to hoard their money and spend it as they see fit is a very attractive one to them. For these people, the libertarian's worst enemy is not the neocon or the establishment politician (though they certainly dislike both), but the socialist. Sure, they have some views in common with leftists (at least until they abandon libertarianism altogether)—anti-imperialism, pro-legalization views on drugs—but the reason this sort of libertarian opposes mass incarceration or wars in the Middle East has little to do with a concern for the well-being of others. It's because unjust wars and restrictive laws violate property rights, and for this brand of libertarian—whom we might call a "nascent reactionary"—property rights are supreme because they justify selfishness. It's worth noting that a good number of these libertarians are anti-immigrant (unlike most of their "confused leftist" counterparts, I would venture to say), ostensibly on the grounds that immigrants are taking advantage of the welfare state and that immigration under a non-libertarian system amounts to "forced integration."

It's not hard to see why many of these nascent reactionaries either don't last as libertarians or continue to claim that they're libertarians while embracing right-wing "populists" like Donald Trump. When someone like Trump comes along, presenting himself as a bulwark against both the neoconservative Republican establishment and leftist "political correctness" (which the nascent reactionary opposes because it demands they make some sacrifice on behalf of the marginalized), they quickly overcome any concerns—real or pretended—about his authoritarian tendencies. Plus, their general selfishness slides easily into tribalism—an embrace not of their individuality, but of their "cultural identity," and accordingly a desire to protect "western culture" from all threats, inside and out. Right-wing authoritarians only propose to trample on the "property rights" of the Other: Muslims, immigrants, leftists, women (it's a safe bet that nascent reactionary libertarians are overwhelmingly male), LBGTQ+ people, etc. With manufactured panics about Political Correctness running amok on college campuses and Islam threatening western civilization, it's easy for the nascent reactionary to convince themselves that it's "us or them" and to stop caring at all about the rights of the Other. At that point they become full-blown reactionaries, no longer nascent.

I am not proposing that every libertarian falls into one of these two categories—and even those who do may very well continue to be (more than nominal) libertarians until the day they die, by successfully walking the tightrope and maintaining the challenging view that's essential to their libertarianism (for the "confused leftist," that a free market really will create a better world for all; for the "nascent reactionary," that one must truly respect the rights even of Muslims, feminists and communists). But the fact that so many people who are initially attracted to libertarianism end up treating it as simply a gateway drug to either leftism or reactionaryism highlights an interesting point.

I have certainly seen libertarians argue that their ideology is more consistent that liberalism or conservatism, and in a sense, they are correct; both liberals and conservatives do, in some cases, support government restrictions on "property rights" in the libertarian sense of the phrase, and in other cases, oppose such restrictions (conservatives seek to preserve the property rights of the rich by lowering their tax rate but support laws against drugs and abortions; liberals support greater personal freedom than conservatives but also support higher taxes on the rich and more regulations on big business). Libertarianism, on the other hand, consistently upholds property rights, whether it be your right to have an abortion or smoke marijuana or a CEO's right to pay their employees starvation wages. So on a theoretical plane, looking at everything through the lens of property rights, libertarianism is more consistent than its main competitors.

But most people don't really operate in the realm of abstract concepts like property rights, and it's difficult for them to truly attach much emotional significance to a notion that academic and legalistic. And, on this more common, human level, libertarianism is actually a radically inconsistent ideology, because it asks us to care deeply about the property rights of everyone around the world but to care little about their actual well-being. It's very difficult for most people to, at the same time, fervently support someone's right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion while simply shrugging it off as a necessary evil if they die of exposure because they were too poor to afford a place to live. For better or worse, the ideologies that have gained the most widespread support throughout history tend to lay their emphasis on people, in one way or another—either on the working people, or the "master race," or the citizens of Our Nation (whichever one it may be), or the adherents or Our Religion, or simply on all people, everywhere. Libertarianism, at least in its doctrinaire form (which is the form represented by figures like Ron Paul and, before him, Murray Rothbard) does not lay its emphasis on people; rather, it lays its emphasis on the notion of property and the right thereto. As different as they are, the confused leftist and nascent reactionary have in common that they see libertarianism as the path to the well-being of some group of people—for the leftist, humanity in general, and in particular the oppressed and marginalized; for the reactionary, themselves, and the people most like them. And both grow disenchanted when they begin to feel this isn't the case.

That is why, as a mass movement, libertarianism is almost certainly doomed to failure. Its concept of freedom is far too divorced from the actual well-being of any group that offers some strong sense of identity for a large number of people. One can feel a kinship with people around the world on the basis that we are all human beings, or one can feel a tribalistic kinship with the members of one's own race, religion, national group, etc.; but libertarianism would primarily benefit those who are able to do well in a free market economy, and even predicting with any certainty how one would fare in such a setup takes a reasonable amount of guesswork, meaning it's simply not a group that offers any strong sense of fellowship. The fact is that relatively few people feel personally aggrieved that the government involves itself in the economy to some extent, so it's rather more difficult to create widespread pro-free market solidarity than it is to create unity among the working class, or among marginalized groups in society—or, for that matter, to stir up animosity toward ethnic minorities and immigrants by appealing to notions of a shared culture or religion. In this respect, libertarianism's hyper-individualism is its downfall; for, whatever one thinks of individualism, it can hardly serve as a doctrine that unites the masses of humanity for the purpose of collective action.

Monday, April 1, 2019

It's Time To Move on from Russia

Robert Mueller (Alex Wong/Getty Images via Teen Vogue)
The Friday before last, as most of my readers surely know, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his much-anticipated report (on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the allegations of the Trump campaign's collusion in said interference, and possible obstruction of justice) to the Attorney General, Bill Barr. The following Sunday, Barr released a letter that summarized the report, quoting it as saying: "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." On obstruction of justice, the report seems to be more ambiguous; Barr quotes it as stating that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Barr further explains that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have decided not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.

We don't have access to the report itself, and many are understandably eager to find out what it says—for my part, I strongly support its release in as complete a form as possible, taking into account any legal restrictions or concerns about sensitive information. If we do get access to the rest of the report (a redacted version is reportedly on track for release later this month), it may well contain damaging information on Trump; perhaps about business ties to Russia that, if not illegal, are potentially shady—a prospect that seems entirely believable in light of the reports of an aborted Trump Tower Moscow project that was in the works even as Trump was running for president. If so, these revelations may deserve to be part of a larger conversation, for instance, one about why a businessman who's been involved in projects across the globe is a wildly inappropriate choice for President of the United States. And, certainly, the fact that Mueller could only offer an ambivalent answer to the question "Did the president engage in obstruction of justice?" is damning enough. But it looks like Trump's "NO COLLUSION" mantra may be one of the few true things he's ever said in his life, as bitter a pill as that may be for much of the #Resistance crowd.*

I've been a "Russiagate" skeptic from the start, so I can't pretend I don't feel a little vindicated—and that's not the only reason part of me is relieved by Mueller's finding. Even if Mueller had found collusion and the Democratic-controlled House had impeached Trump, I doubt enough Republicans in the Senate would turn on him to give the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction. And even if they had, what then? President Mike Pence? The idea they'd let him be removed from office, too, and Nancy Pelosi ascend to the presidency, is practically unthinkable. Granted, a finding of collusion would almost certainly damage Trump's odds for reelection, but those have never struck me as all that good to begin with and I'd prefer the 2020 campaign not turn into some anti-Russia hatefest on the Democratic side.

Trump's partial exoneration does leave me a little worried, in terms of what it might do for his approval rating and his chances in 2020. But Corey Robin lays out a decent case for why it might not matter all that much, and Democrats wisely chose not make Russia a focal point in the 2018 midterms, nor has it gotten too much attention in the nascent 2020 campaign season. Russiagate, as Robin notes, "has always been a media and social media obsession[.]" And what a media obsession it's been! Matt Taibbi's recently released piece reveals just how shocking and dangerous the media's failures and gullibility have been over the past few years when it comes to Trump-Russia, in far too much detail to rehash here, and stands as a must-read on this topic.

But I'm not here to re-litigate the failures and delusions of the past few years, though they do deserve to be re-litigated and no doubt will be. My purpose here is much more magnanimous, a simple request to all who have spent the years since 2016 focusing on Russia and Trump's real or imagined relationship with its government, in the hopes that it could bring down his presidency: please, for the love of all things good, move on. I've written before about how unhinged the discourse on Russia has been in the aftermath of Trump's election, and certainly I stand by that now. But, before Mueller had ended his investigation and submitted his report, there was at least some rationale, no matter how far-fetched, in hoping that revelations about Trump's relationship with Russia would spell the end of his presidency. Now, regardless of what you choose to believe about Trump's relationship with Russia and Putin, it should be obvious that this isn't going to happen. The walls are not closing in. They are not going anywhere, and neither is Trump, for the time being.

While certain aspects of Trump's relationship with Russia (like those hypothetical shady business ties) may warrant mention as part of some greater discussion, the focus on Russia patently makes absolutely no sense now that, after almost two years of investigation, Robert Mueller—a man who has literally been elevated to the level of a superhero and a secular saint by some liberals—found no evidence of collusion. That was always supposed to be the linchpin of the whole Trump-Russia conspiracy theory: Trump conspired with Russia to interfere with our elections so he could become president. Mueller's inability, after 20+ months of investigation, to substantiate that notion serves as the final nail in the coffin of the conspiracy theory. There is no longer any reason to lend any particular focus to Trump's relationship with Russia.

But how can I say that when we don't have the rest of the report? When I've already admitted it might reveal Trump does have ties of some sort to Russia? Well, because whatever those ties may be, they clearly haven't done much to shape Trump's foreign policy and behavior toward Russia. Trump is not a Russian asset, agent, puppet or anything like it, despite what Russiagaters might have said over the past couple years. He's bombed a Russian client state (Syria), given lethal arms to Ukraine, which is openly hostile to Russia, and now he's trying to overthrow another government allied with Russia, in Venezuela. Yes, he has praised Vladimir Putin, but Trump has also had kind words for Saddam Hussein, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and other authoritarian leaders from countries whom he is not an agent of.

Of course, the people who are attached to the Russiagate narrative have already gone about rationalizing this new setback. Amanda Marcotte has already decided that Trump has simply been "extremely successful, far more than Nixon, at conducting a cover-up," commenting: "This is why I’ve been such a fun-killer, expressing my skepticism both of 'Trump has dementia' and 'Trump is stupid'." Yes, that's a good sign for your argument: when you start insisting that the president who tweeted about "hamberders" earlier this year is actually more shrewd and competent than a career ratfucker like Richard Nixon. In an article for Salon, Marcotte writes:
Much has been made of the fact that Barr and Mueller are longtime friends outside of work, which most people in the media have assumed means that Barr is unlikely to interfere with Mueller's work. But one could turn that around: Maybe Mueller's personal affection for Barr made him reluctant to interfere with the job the new attorney general was obviously hired to do, which is to squelch the investigation as thoroughly as possible.
So Robert Mueller, who, again, has been venerated as an American hero by large segments of Russiagate liberals over the past 22 months, is now just another stooge who would curb his own investigation just to appease an old pal. Quite a convenient narrative.

Our old friend Jonathan Chait tries to minimize the significance of the Mueller investigation, tweeting: "No criminal conspiracy I believe. No collusion? That absurd." In an article for New York magazine he elaborates:
Of course Trump colluded with Russia. He literally went on camera and asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, promising that Russia would be rewarded by the American media, and Russia responded to this request by attempting a hack to steal Clinton’s emails that very day. Trump’s campaign aides repeatedly welcomed and sought out Russian assistance. His campaign manager passed on 75 pages of intricate polling data to a Russian operative during the campaign. And he did all this while secretly pursuing a lucrative business deal with Russia.
To define this nexus of communication and shared mission as something other than “collusion” is to define the term in a way that nobody would have accepted before this scandal began. 
As I wrote recently, "The unanswered questions here center on how much deeper this cooperation goes, and what laws might have been tripped." Apparently, the answer is none. [emphasis in original] 
Chait writes all of this completely ignoring the fact that Mueller was aware of it and reported not only that no laws were broken but that "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." So whatever one may think of the ethics of the actions Chait mentions, clearly none of them amounted to conspiracy or coordination "with the Russian government in its election interference activities." This is what has always been meant by "collusion"; trying to define it any other way now is blatant goalpost-shifting.

And then we come to David Corn, who bears significant responsibility for getting the Russiagate hysteria going, and just put out a Mother Jones article stating that "No matter what Mueller report contains, a harsh verdict remains: Trump and his gang betrayed the United States in the greatest scandal in American history." Really, David? The greatest scandal in American history? Is it worse than Watergate? Worse than COINTELPRO? Worse than Nixon sabotaging peace negotiations and possibly prolonging the Vietnam War to get elected president?

To back up this bold claim, Corn cites a number of vague ways in which Trump and his team "encouraged" Russia's meddling. To wit:
The betrayal continued after Trump became the de facto presidential nominee of the Republican Party. On June 9, 2016, Trump’s three most senior advisers—Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner—met with a Russian emissary in the Trump Tower in New York City. They had been informed that she would deliver them dirt on Hillary Clinton and that this was part of a secret Kremlin initiative to assist the Trump campaign. 
The meeting, the Trump team has claimed, was a bust. There was no useful derogatory information. But by this point, the Russians had already stolen tens of thousands of emails and documents from Democratic targets and were, no doubt, pondering what to do with the swiped material. This meeting was another signal conveyed to Moscow: the Trump crew didn’t mind Russian meddling in the election and was even willing to covertly collaborate with Russia on dirty tricks.
Again, not that there's any evidence they did "covertly collaborate with Russia on dirty tricks"—were there, Mueller could hardly have reported that "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." Of course, one can certainly challenge the ethics of Trump and Co.'s behavior w/r/t Russia in the 2016 election (and indeed Trump has clearly proven over and over that he is one of the least ethical people to ever be president), but that is not what the Russiagate narrative alleged, nor does unethical behavior come close to being "probably the most significant political misdeed in American history" as Corn claims.

The reason I bring these examples up is to urge you, the reader, not to fall for them. There will probably be many, many attempts to reframe Russiagate and/or explain away the inconvenient fact that Mueller's report fails to substantiate its key accusation. They are bullshit, and deserve to be ignored. Whatever sketchy business ties or unethical behavior Trump et al. may have or have engaged in with regards to Russia, it pales in comparison to the things that have happened since and that are going on right now. That's why Trump/Russia no longer has any justification for being its own discussion: certainly we can discuss whatever else the Mueller report may reveal, but allowing the focus on Russia to crowd out other issues like Trump's destructive bombing of the so-called Greater Middle East, enabling of Saudi Arabia's borderline genocide in Yemen, disastrous climate policy and other deadly and horrific actions—as it all too often has in his presidency thus far—is especially obscene now that the Mueller probe is over and the central claim of the Russiagate allegations has failed to be substantiated.

And, for that matter, let's drop the focus on Russia and its interference and US politics altogether. Sorry, but a bunch of clumsily worded Facebook ads and a third-rate spear-phishing scam don't constitute an existential threat to our democracy. If you want to focus on foreign influence in American politics, maybe we can start with the country that enjoys its own highly influential lobby that you can't even criticize if you don't want to be labeled an antisemite. Or Saudi Arabia, which maintains an impressive network of influence that includes bankrolling tech companies, universities and think tanks. Or the United Arab Emirates, which was, until recently, funding a major "progressive" think tank. Again, I'm not saying we ignore what Russia did, but screaming about the evil Russkies corrupting our political process starts to feel a little absurd when you look at it all in context.

So, please: let's move on from the focus on Russia. I don't have any hope that the Russiagate obsessives will do this, but I realize that a lot of people who aren't crazy and aren't married to the idea of reigniting the Cold War have had some degree of investment in the Trump-Russia scandal. Much of the media has spent the last few years fanning the flames and already we're seeing attempts to explain away the Mueller probe's anticlimactic finale. Don't fall for them. There are many, many valid reasons to hate Donald Trump and his administration. The full Mueller report may well give a few more. But the idea that Trump has some sort of unique and particularly damning relationship with Russia should be well and truly dead now that the centerpiece of the whole narrative—the allegations of collusion—have fallen through. Refusing to reckon with that reality is not just wrongheaded, it's downright dangerous.

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*The common rebuttal to this (coming not just from liberals but even some further to the left) seems to be that we only have a four-page summary of the report from a Trump lackey. That may be true, but the excerpt "[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities" is quoted directly from the report and so far no one has come forward to say that Barr fabricated this quote or took it out of context. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

We Can't Afford to be Moderate in 2020

Beto O'Rourke, a moderate Democrat, raised over $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his presidential campaign
 (Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via Politico)
Last year, as you may have heard, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report authored by some of the world's leading climate scientists. The report concludes that "[l]imiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society," per the IPCC's website, and that, specifically, "[g]lobal net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050." Jonathan Watts in The Guardian summarizes the significance of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in an article about the IPCC's report: 
At 1.5C the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress could be 50% lower than at 2C, [the report] notes. Food scarcity would be less of a problem and hundreds of millions fewer people, particularly in poor countries, would be at risk of climate-related poverty.
At 2C extremely hot days, such as those experienced in the northern hemisphere this summer, would become more severe and common, increasing heat-related deaths and causing more forest fires. 
But the greatest difference would be to nature. Insects, which are vital for pollination of crops, and plants are almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C. Corals would be 99% lost at the higher of the two temperatures, but more than 10% have a chance of surviving if the lower target is reached.
Sea-level rise would affect 10 million more people by 2100 if the half-degree extra warming brought a forecast 10cm additional pressure on coastlines. The number affected would increase substantially in the following centuries due to locked-in ice melt. 
Oceans are already suffering from elevated acidity and lower levels of oxygen as a result of climate change. One model shows marine fisheries would lose 3m tonnes at 2C, twice the decline at 1.5C. 
Sea ice-free summers in the Arctic, which is warming two to three times faster than the world average, would come once every 100 years at 1.5C, but every 10 years with half a degree more of global warming.  
In a nutshell: between now and 2030, we must take "unprecedented" action in order reduce global CO2 emissions and limit climate change, with extremely dire consequences if we fail to do so. Even if we are to abandon the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal and to aim for no more than two degrees of global warming—which would mean accepting all of the potentially disastrous effects mentioned above—the IPCC report projects this would require a 20% reduction in carbon pollution by the year 2030. Currently, Watts notes, "the world is on course for a disastrous 3C of warming."

Obviously, global warming is a problem that must be addressed on a global level. However, given that, according to the Global Carbon Project's 2017 numbers, the United States is the world's second-largest carbon dioxide emitter (behind only China, the single most populous country in the world) and its carbon emissions per capita are significantly higher than those of other advanced countries like Germany, Japan, the Czech Republic and Norway, it's more than fair to say that dealing with the impending climate crisis will require especially major action on the part of the US.

This is not the only crisis we may be facing in the near feature. A 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute projects that automation may displace as much as one-third of the American workforce by 2030 and further exacerbate income inequality, already a serious problem. It's fair, even advisable, to take these numbers with a grain of salt. But the fact that robots have taken over jobs once done by human beings is indisputable, and there's little reason to think that it won't continue.

There's a common thread connecting these problems (and many others): capitalism. It's because of the capitalist economic system—the private ownership and management of businesses—that automation looms over us as a threat rather than promising us freedom from having to do jobs that few people actually want to do, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently noted. A future where all of the world's dirty, boring and unrewarding jobs are done by machines should be an appealing one: then we're free to enjoy the goods and services those jobs create and, since nobody has to do those ugly but once-necessary tasks anymore, we're all free to spend our time on things we actually enjoy. But, because these labor-saving machines and the companies that own them are themselves owned and managed by a relative few, that small elite enjoys the benefits of automation (higher profits as they save money on labor) while the displaced workers have to search for some other job that hasn't (yet) been automated out of existence.

Climate change, too, has a lot to do with capitalism. Certainly, socialism isn't inherently environmentally friendly; it's entirely possible to have worker-owned enterprises that pollute the atmosphere just as much as privately owned companies. But capitalism in its current form makes it especially challenging to deal with climate change. Even as public concern about the impact of climate change grows, the sort of radical action that needs to be taken is unlikely to happen because of fossil fuel lobby's influence over public policy. Many of the measures that need to be taken to adequately address our environmental crisis threaten the profits of major corporations, and would require a bold defiance of these powerful entities.

Even if we don't choose to move past capitalism altogether and replace it with a democratically managed economy (which, in my opinion, is desirable for these and many other reasons), it's clear the system as it currently stands will need to be dramatically altered if humankind is to have any sort of decent future. Changes will have to be radical, even unprecedented, and come soon if we're to avoid catastrophe. We are not in a situation were we can continue on our current path, or make a few minor tweaks, or even just a number of moderately significant alterations: if we're to effectively handle the threats facing us, our whole socioeconomic system needs to be straight-up revolutionized.

It's in this context that the 2020 presidential election must be seen. We need someone who can help to bring truly extreme and fundamental change to the country and the world if we're to avoid the sort of future that looks like more like a work of dystopian fiction than it does the world we have today (as ugly and radically imperfect as that world already is). The current Democratic field does not inspire a great deal of hope in that respect. The American political system is so corrupt and rancid that the person we really need as president is some wild-eyed radical who'd readily take a sledgehammer to the whole thing and call a new constitutional convention on Day 1—or who'd at least serve as the ringleader of a nationwide mob so wild and unruly that they could mercilessly terrify Congress into passing policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. No one in the field, as far as I'm aware, fits this description.

So we're forced to look at the options we do have. Unlike last time, there are actually quite a few options on the Democratic side this time around and I won't pretend I've thoroughly looked over each and every one. I can only speak to the ones that I do know about—rest assured, if Pete Buttigieg or Jay Inslee surges to the top of the polls, I'll be sure to learn more about them and share my thoughts. But out of the candidates currently polling above the low single digits—Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker—Sanders is the one who's the the most willing to challenge (and propose alterations to) the capitalist system. Warren is similar in terms of economic policies but has loudly declared her allegiance to capitalism in a way Sanders hasn't. Realistically, they'd probably be very similar presidents on the economic front (my preference for Sanders relates more to foreign policy, where he's challenged America's support for Israel in ways that Warren often hasn't). But still, Sanders is the only one of them who calls himself a socialist.

The point of this post, however, is not specifically to argue in favor of Bernie Sanders—it's more fundamental than that. Sanders' and Warren's supposed radicalism has often been used as an argument against them (even though many of their proposed policies are actually pretty unexceptional when we look at other highly developed countries). We can debate whether either of the two are actually radicals (they aren't, for the record), but the idea that radicalism is undesirable is not only wrong but profoundly dangerous at this point. Rather, we should be demanding radicalism from the Democratic candidates, because we are in a situation where, because of climate change, automation, economic inequality and other issues, radical change is an absolute necessity—not just if we want a better world (though we should, of course, aim for that), but if we want to keep things from getting dramatically, horrifically worse.

If the Democratic candidate for president wins the 2020 election, they will take office in 2021 and (unless they die, resign or are removed from office) serve at least until 2025. That leaves just five years before 2030—the IPCC's deadline for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent, and the year by which McKinsey Global Institute estimates up to a third of the workforce may have been displaced by automation. If radical change isn't under way at that point, it's a safe bet that we are in some serious trouble.

Furthermore, there's a good chance that if the Democrat wins in 2020, that same Democrat (whoever it turns out to be) will be the party's candidate in 2024 (in all likelihood, if they choose to run for reelection they will get their party's nomination). So if we elect, say, President Beto O'Rourke in 2020, our choice in 2024 will in all likelihood be between Beto and whatever lunatic the Republicans nominate, and whoever wins that election will be in power at least until 2029—just one year before our big deadline. Eight years of moderate Democratic rule will not bring the changes that we need to avert catastrophe, and four years of moderate Democratic rule followed by four years of Republican rule would be even worse. And if major changes aren't underway by 2029, it's pretty much game over.

We're facing steep odds even if we elect a Sanders or a Warren in 2020, given that Congress will still be full of Republicans and establishment Democrats who balk at the sort of "extremist" policies that are desperately needed. But those odds shrink even further if we elect a "moderate" (or re-elect Trump). Beto O'Rourke, who just entered the race and boasts the biggest first-day fundraising haul of any candidate so far, is at least doing us the favor of being openly moderate (and his voting record in Congress confirms that, despite being from a reasonably liberal district, he has often been to the right of the even the majority of his fellow House Democrats). While Joe Biden has (ludicrously) claimed he has "the most progressive voting record of...anybody who would run," this is plainly false and he is perhaps the single most conservative (potential) candidate for president on the Democratic side. Others in the field—Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand—have offered some (largely symbolic or rhetorical) support for policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, but there are real reasons to doubt this would actually translate meaningfully into policy if one of them won the presidency.

It's understandable why, after a few years of the deranged Trump spectacle, left-leaning people might just want some kind of return to the status quo ante Trump. It's also extremely dangerous, given the circumstances. This is not an election where we can afford to vote for candidates on the basis that they're unifying or inspiring or cool or "presidential." The only sane criteria is who will be most willing and able to implement fundamental changes to try to avoid the worst.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Ilhan Omar Affair Shows the Democratic Establishment's Moral Bankruptcy

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP, taken from the The Intercept)
The new Congress is barely two months into its first session and already the Democratic leadership is using their new power as an opportunity to be worthless little toads. When Ilhan Omar, the first black Muslim Congresswoman, did a few entirely accurate tweets about the pro-Israel lobby's influence on Congress, the House leadership took the opportunity to blast her as an antisemite and bullied an unwarranted apology out of her. Now, after Nancy Pelosi cheerfully appeared with Omar on this month's cover of Rolling Stone, Pelosi and some other hacks have drafted a resolution that slimily associates Omar with genuinely awful examples of antisemitism ("justifying the killing or harming of Jews", "accusing Jews of dual loyalty", "anti-Semitic myths...that Jews control the banks, media, and the United States Government") without mentioning her by name, because Omar correctly identified the allegiance to Israel that's demanded of members of Congress.*

Her remarks in both cases were correct and justified, but her opponents took the opportunity to castigate her because, as a black Muslim, she's particularly vulnerable to accusations of antisemitism, and because they want to silence critics of Israel. Anyone who hand-wrung about her phrasing in these comments is, willingly or not, an accomplice in this utterly cynical smear campaign that emanates from people who want Israel's oppression and murder of Palestinians to continue unabated. I won't go into more detail than that here. If my readers want a more in-depth explanation of why Omar is right and said nothing objectionable, I recommended Glenn Greenwald's excellent piece in The Intercept on the Democrats' utterly loathsome resolution gimmick.

Make no mistake. This is not cowardice on the part of Pelosi and the rest of the leadership. The accusation of cowardice is too generous. It implies that they would do the right thing if only they were braver. The reality is much worse: they themselves are supporters of Israel's worst and most sadistic actions and are trying to ensure that no one challenges them. Representative Juan Vargas did us the favor of making this clear when he tweeted that "questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable." Let's take Pelosi: back in 1995, she supported the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the US government to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which didn't end up happening until Donald Trump became president. In 2006, she voted in favor of a resolution that defended Israel's invasion and attack on Lebanon, which would kill over 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians. She faithfully supported Israel in the 2008-2009 Gaza War that killed well over 1,000 Palestinians (16 Israelis were killed in the conflict). As Israel killed over 2,000 Palestinians in 2014, Pelosi once again took its side, blaming Hamas for the conflict (a total of 72 Israelis, 66 of them soldiers, were killed; the vast majority of Palestinian deaths were civilian).

Or we can an even more disgusting case, that of Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, who called Omar's latest comments a "vile anti-Semitic slur." Engel has sponsored a resolution that recognizes Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, in complete disregard to the opinion of much of the world; when the UN Security Council condemned Israel's blatantly illegal West Bank settlements in 2016, Engel introduced a resolution to condemn the Security Council's condemnation shortly after; he opposed giving Iran relief from crushing sanctions as part of the nuclear deal because "Iran will be poised to inflict even greater damage to Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and our Gulf partners"; and he attended a rally in support of Israel's 2014 assault on Gaza, also attended by demented Islamophobe Pamela Geller.

Rest assured, you will find the same sort of shit if you delve into the records of the rest of the Democrats decrying Omar. Notably, the Senate Democrats are currently led by Chuck Schumer, who has indicated he believes God appointed him as Israel's guardian and said that the Palestinians should be "strangle[d]...economically," explaining that the source of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that "they [the Palestinians] don't believe in the Torah". Had Omar made equivalent remarks, she would probably be somewhere in Guantanamo Bay right now.

Israel is certainly not the only issue where establishment Democrats would like to stamp out any challenge from the left, as illustrated by Pelosi's derision of the Green New Deal and Dianne Feinstein's hostility toward a group of children who showed up at her office to push for the GND. As Donald Trump, the epitome of everything sick and ugly about American capitalism, promised in his State of the Union that "America will never be a socialist country," Nancy Pelosi was behind him (figuratively and literally), clapping politely along. What did Trump mean by that? We would never be a Soviet-style communist dictatorship? A Nordic-style social democracy? A country with programs that are commonplace or universal across the rest of the industrialized world, like universal healthcare and free college? All of the above, in all likelihood. And Pelosi's no dope—she knew what she was applauding. She certainly doesn't want Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's vision for the country to triumph, let alone anything more radical. "We're capitalist," she told a young audience member who asked her about socialism in a 2017 town hall, "and that's just the way it is."

And why should it be any other way? Pelosi, after all, is a multimillionaireSo is Feinstein, for that matter. Chuck Schumer, meanwhile—along with his fanatical support for Israel, which seems to come from sincere, deranged personal conviction—has to busy himself making sure he can keep raking in campaign contributions from Wall Street. Capitalism is a system that's been serving them and their donors pretty well, even it's been impoverishing many others and condemning humanity to a future of climate disasters. The establishment Democrats are capitalists through and through, not simply accepting the system of capitalism as a necessary evil that can be managed and regulated as it is in many European countries, but rather eagerly perpetuating the inequality and injustice that's inherent in capitalism to their own benefit—with an occasional bone tossed to the poor and middle class so they don't get too rebellious and so the establishment hacks can soothe their consciences, if they're burdened with any.

This certainly goes beyond the reptiles in Congress, too. One of Obama's parting gifts was to foist the milquetoast suit Tom Perez on his party instead of allowing the left to score a symbolic victory by seeing Keith Ellison elected DNC chair. The centrist establishment of the Democratic Party is, to reiterate, hell-bent on protecting the status quo from any dramatic left-wing alterations and the Omar travesty shows that they're willing to join hands with the most despicable elements of the right in order to beat down anyone who strays too far, say, by criticizing Our Ally, The Only Liberal Democracy In The Middle East™or pointing out their own amoral fealty to it. 

The current crop of Democratic Party candidates is largely not promising, either, in this regard: Kamala Harris, the former top cop of California and beneficiary of Steve Mnuchin's generosity; Kirsten Gillibrand, who co-sponsored a bill to criminalize boycotting Israel (before withdrawing her support for it under pressure) and has issued a pathetically middling statement equating Omar's statements with Islamophobia and racism from the right; Cory Booker, who denounced Obama's criticism of Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital in 2012 and opposed the 2016 UN resolution condemning Israel's settlements; and millennial-bashing, tough-on-crime, segregation-enabler Joe Biden, among others. Sanders is once again the best option and Warren's not bad (relatively speaking) but we'll see whether either of them can avoid being railroaded by the Party Establishment.

Major left-wing change is impossible as long as these lizards are in power, at least until it becomes career suicide for them to keep thwarting it. In the meantime, they are major obstacles to any attempt at seriously challenging the hegemony of corporate interests or ending any number of America's horrific foreign policies. Anyone who supports them against challenges from the left is either too stupid to understand this or too evil to care, and those who attempt to embrace both the Democratic Old Guard and the more left-wing upstarts, both the Pelosis and the Ilhan Omars, are trying to straddle the Grand Canyon. Cooperation between the left and the Democratic establishment is to some extent an ugly necessity when it comes to fighting against Trump, but make no mistake: the establishment lackeys will have to defeated one way or another, whether it's before the 2020 election or afterward. Their problem is not cowardice or weakness—it's that they're thoroughly committed to a system that needs to be destroyed.

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*In the time since I began writing this post, that resolution has been shelved and instead the House approved a generic one condemning hate in general. This shouldn't be taken as any sort of indication of a sincere change of heart on the part of the leadership, but it could be a promising sign for the left.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

On the F-Word (No, Not That One)

Benito Mussolini is credited with coining the term "fascism" as a description for his political movement and ideology.
(Image credit: H. Roger-Viollet, published by Encyclopædia Britannica)

In 1944, George Orwell—who was almost killed fighting honest-to-God fascists in the Spanish Civil War1published a brief essay to answer the question "what is fascism?" He notes:
It will be seen that, as used, the word 'Fascism' is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
This, however is not reason to abandon all hope, as Orwell posits that "underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning...even the people who recklessly fling the word 'Fascist' in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By 'Fascism' they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class...almost any English person would accept 'bully' as a synonym for 'Fascist'." Finally, Orwell concludes with a warning: "All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword."

I have probably not lived by that piece of advice. In this blog alone, I've applied the word "fascism" or "fascist" numerous times to Donald Trump and at least once to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In private conversations I can remember having applied the label "fascist" (or some variant thereof) to Paul Ryan, Eric Holder, Barack Obama and most of the notable Republican candidates for president in 2012.2 But I've begun to reconsider the way I've been using the word, even how I've been using it recently. I've gradually and unconsciously restricted my use of the word in the years since I've grown out of my belated rebellious teenage phase and my main targets when I use the word now are Donald Trump and the other members of the more blatantly nativist and racist wing of the conservative movement (e.g. Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson).

If I had to guess, I would say a solid majority of the socialist/anti-imperialist left (of which I'm a member) sees the term "fascist" as completely appropriate to apply to Trump et al. However, there are some notable dissenters (we'll get to a few of them later), and I have to say the arguments that these dissenters make have been starting to get to me. Originally I'd planned this post to be called "A Defense of the F-Word" and, as that title suggests, for it to give an argument wholeheartedly in favor of calling Trump et al. fascists. But now I've been left more ambivalent. So I want this post now to be an exploration of that issue and of how the word "fascism" is used and how it ought to be used. I don't know that I'll have any strong conclusion to make here, but these are issues I want to air out regardless.

What is Fascism?


We're not going to arrive at any clear answer to this question, I'm afraid. The cursory research I've done indicates that academic types have long been searching for the elusive "fascist minimum," that is, the basic requirements a movement/party/person has to meet in order to be fairly considered fascist. It's a sort search for the Holy Grail except considerably less exciting for anyone who isn't strongly invested in defining the word "fascism."

Novelist/literary critic/philosopher Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy and so should presumably know something about the subject, published an essay on what he called "Ur-Fascism" or "Eternal Fascism"in 1995 and it's (in my opinion) a must-read for anyone trying to figure out a serious definition of what fascism really is. In this essay, Eco lays out fourteen defining features of fascism3 that are too detailed and complex to list here but include notable elements such as a "cult of tradition," opposition to diversity and the embrace of permanent war. The overall picture Eco paints of fascism is that of, in his words, a "fuzzy totalitarianism" [emphasis his] that relies far more on whipping up the masses into a vicious frenzy than any sort of appeal to reason (irrationalism is, in fact, one of the fourteen characteristics he lists).

Eco's essay is laden with with eerily relevant phrases, such as his warning that "[t]here  is  in  our  future  a  TV  or  Internet  populism,  in which  the  emotional  response  of  a  selected  group  of  citizens  can  be  presented  and accepted as the Voice of the People," which certainly rings true in the Era of Trump, where we've frequently seen clips of The Don giving  speeches to stadiums full of legions of his cheering, fervent supporters even as his approval rating has stayed stuck in the high thirties to low forties.

Most ominously, Eco cautions us:
It would be so much easier, for us, if  there  appeared  on  the  world  scene  somebody saying,  "I  want  to  reopen  Auschwitz,  I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares." Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism  can  come  back  under  the  most  innocent  of  disguises.
It's no wonder that this is the essay I've often seen quoted by leftists accusing Trump and his red-capped followers of being our own version of Mussolini and the Blackshirts, given these passages and others. But putting aside the question of whether Trump is a fascist for now, I do think the essay lays out a useful (though complex) analysis of what constitutes fascism and I do urge everyone to read it.

Oxford Brookes University professor Roger Griffin—whom I've cited on this subject before—offers a more succinct (but very technical) summary of fascism as "a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism." It helps to break this down a bit, as Griffin does in his writings. To summarize his elaborations:

Palingenetic: Emphasizing rebirth, "not in the sense of restoration of what has been...but of a 'new birth' which retains certain eternal principles (e.g. 'eternal' Roman, Aryan, or Anglo-Saxon virtues) in a new, modern type of society."

Populist: "a generic term for the 'people power' generated when enough of the 'masses' are effectively mobilized"

Ultra-nationalism: A form of nationalism that rejects liberalism and parliamentarism and encompasses ethnocentrism, racism, and xenophobia

Speaking as a layperson on this issue, this definition does seem to capture the distinguishing features of the best-known fascist regimes (Nazi Germany, Italy under Mussolini and Spain under Franco) and has the advantage of being (comparatively) simple and concise. The idea of restoring a mythologized former glory, e.g. Hitler's proposed "Third Reich," does appear as a rather central and defining purpose for fascist movements and constitutes the "palingenetic core" Griffin attributes to the ideology. It's easy to draw comparisons between this and Trump's famous "Make America Great Again" slogan that's emblazoned on the trademark red caps of his hordes of (often vaguely or explicitly menacing) followers but, as we will address later, this comparison may be a bit hasty.

Coming from a more obviously left-wing perspective, U.C. Berkeley professor Dylan Riley emphasizes the role of the Red Menace and the support of the ruling class in fascism's rise. For instance, he notes that:
a revisionist form of imperialism was a central feature of the classical fascist regimes. Both in Germany and Italy, these were oriented to overturning a geopolitical order that was organized against the perceived and real interests of the dominant classes they largely represented...Aggressive imperial expansion, articulated by Hitler in strikingly concrete terms already in the 1920s, fitted well with the interests and outlook of important sections of the German ruling class, above all the Army.
Fascism's ultra-nationalism, Riley argues, stood in stark contrast with the internationalist socialist ideology of an increasingly mobilized working class, and made it a useful servant to the bourgeoisie's interests. Fascism had relatively little appeal among the "manufacturing working class" but managed to win over "salaried employees and small shopkeepers, a segment of the working class and a considerable number of petty agrarian direct producers." Additionally, the fascist regimes managed to unite hostile sects of the ruling class (e.g. industrial capitalists on the one hand and agrarians on the other) through both imperialist expansionism and "policies of wage repression and direct economic assistance that helped all sectors of the dominant classes." The danger of communist revolution from the working class was a key element in fascism's success, in Riley's opinion, and "a huge mass of unemployed, recently demobilized military recruits" gave it the perfect fodder for its paramilitary groups (e.g. the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany).

Obviously these analyses emphasize different points and don't agree on everything. For instance, contra Griffin, Riley writes that "[f]ar from being a form of populism, fascism was premised on its failure." But there is a broad area of agreement. The definition of fascism I divine from these different analyses is: an ideology that (generally) eschews liberalism4 and egalitarianism and embraces authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism, and war. This definition is not perfect but it will do for our purposes here.

However, there's another, more informal, less academic definition of fascism that might as well be acknowledged, and that's implicit in the way the word has been most often5 used. And while, as Orwell notes, the word has been thrown around a lot (and I'm not talking about in reference to Trump here), it does seem to have some kind of relatively definite meaning. For instance, if we imagine a teenage anarchist punk rock fan telling their friends that "My parents are such fascists" because they insist on a curfew of 10 PM, it's clear what the underlying thought is. As overused as the word "fascist," in the informal sense, may be, it clearly has a more definite meaning than epithets like "jerk," "motherfucker," "bitch," etc. Anyone who, for example, called their little brother a fascist for refusing to do his chores would clearly be misusing the insult.

Orwell alluded to this informal meaning in the excerpt I quoted earlier, as "roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class." Even this is may be a little too specific. If we look at the definitions for the word "fascist" on OxfordDictionaries.com, after a self-explanatory first definition we get definitions 1.1, "[a] person who is extremely right-wing or authoritarian," and 1.2, "[a] person who is very intolerant or domineering in a particular area." For definition 1.2, it even offers as an example sentence: "if I were being a culinary fascist, I would possibly moan about the overdone cooked tomatoes".

In this more informal use, calling someone or something "fascist" seems to be saying that they're in some way anti-freedom. Being a fascist in this sense means imposing your will or some restrictive set of rules on someone without their consent, but it's more than that. It seems to imply that the will being imposed, or the rules being imposed, are needlessly restrictive/cruel/unfair. The fundamental implication seems to be that the person in question relishes forcibly imposing their will on others and does it not for those others' own good but rather because the "fascist" either enjoys exercising their authority in cruel and reckless ways or is fanatically committed to a very specific and restricting conception of how things should be. Orwell hits the nail on the head, then, when he notes that "bully" seems to be a good synonym for "fascist" when it's used in this informal sense.

It's easy to see how the informal definition of the word "fascism" derives from the academic definition. The fascists of 1920s-40s Europe were both fanatically committed to an oppressive idea of how things should be (the idea of "national rebirth" Griffin says is the core of their ideology) and often seemed to delight in imposing their will on others in cruel in arbitrary ways. This is obviously true of the Nazis, but it also thoroughly applies to the less infamous fascist movements. For instance, a New York Times review of Paul Preston's book The Spanish Holocaust recounts these atrocities—targeting women in particular, as fascist movements tend to doby Franco's Nationalist forces (this passage is truly stomach-churning so be warned): 
Franco’s troops practiced gang rape to frighten newly captured towns into submission, and until media-savvy superiors silenced them, his officers even boasted about this to American and British correspondents. Tens of thousands of women had their heads shaved and were force-fed castor oil (a powerful laxative), then jeered as they were paraded through the streets soiling themselves. Many had their breasts branded with the Falangist symbol of yoke and arrows. In Toledo, a United Press correspondent reported, Franco’s soldiers shot more than 20 pregnant women from a maternity hospital. Much larger all-female groups were executed elsewhere. Troops marched through one town waving rifles adorned with the underwear of women they had raped and murdered. “It is necessary to spread terror,” one of Franco’s senior generals declared. “We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.”
This sort of maniacal delight in inflicting suffering does flow through all of fascism's reigns of terror, the most obvious and extreme example being the completely gratuitous extermination of millions of people in the Holocaust. Still, fascists are far from the only people to sadistically impose their will on others or enforce oppressive rules, so it's worth examining why the word has come to be so commonly used.

 

 The Casual Usage of the Word "Fascist" 


I think there are a number of reasons that "fascist" has become the epithet of choice to use against the authority figures of the world. First of all, while fascists aren't unique in being cruel and oppressive, they were truly exceptional in the lengths to which they went. The Holocaust is one of the most extreme and infamous atrocities in human history, and it was perpetrated by fascists. Fascist states started World War II, which was the deadliest conflict in human history. If there's any ideology that deserves to be treated as synonymous with fanatical, needless cruelty and abuse of power, it's probably fascism.

Another reason for the word's common use (in the United States, anyway) has to do with to American culture's relationship with World War II, I would speculate. WWII was, for the U.S., our last Great War; every war since then has been a stalemate (e.g. Korea) or a miserable, drawn-out defeat (e.g. Vietnam) or a ridiculously one-sided exercise designed to boost our national self-esteem (e.g. Grenada) or a nightmarish, post-modern frontier-less global Forever War (e.g. the War on Terror). In WWII, the entire country pulled together to fight the war, build equipment for it, fund it, etc. and we (and the other Allied Powers—but in the American cultural consciousness, the emphasis is naturally on America) won a clear, decisive victory. America emerged from the Second World War as a global superpower that could boast a roaring economy and that had just helped defeat a genocidal madman. Like your cousin who beats you at checkers one time and never stops bringing it up, American culture has (not necessarily unfairly) never stopped obsessing about America's role in winning WWII. Naturally then, to reinforce the notion of America's fundamental righteousness and benevolence, we've embraced the idea that the Axis Powers were history's worst and most evil villains (which has the benefit of being entirely plausible since the major players—Germany, Italy and Japan—were busy being racist, genocidal maniacs and undoubtedly showcased humanity's worst and most horrifying impulses on a staggering scale). It's no surprise then that, given America's role in defeating fascism on the world stage, American culture would embrace the idea that being a fascist is the worst and most diabolical thing anyone can be (which, conveniently, is arguably true) and fascism would be one of the first comparisons that would come to every American's mind when they're faced with something they feel is cruel, authoritarian, deranged, etc.

The fuzziness, to use Eco's terminology, of fascism's nature also has something to to with why it's caught on as an insult (which Eco himself notes). The regimes that were called "fascist" by serious academics have significant differences from one another despite fundamental similarities. Calling someone a Nazi (while it's also popular) has a more specific, pointed connotation than calling someone a fascist.6 It seems like what unites all of the movements described as fascist, more than any coherent philosophy, is a set of impulses. So it does make some kind of sense that the word has become associated with these impulses (intolerance of difference, love of violence, belligerent pride in one's own cultural identity, etc.). 

Additionally, the word "fascist" has a certain sound and mouthfeel that give it a special sort of punch and make it particularly effective as a way to convey anger or disgust. In this way it's sort of like those other f-words, "fuck" and "faggot" (the latter of which, interestingly enough, may share the same etymological roots as the word "fascist"). This isn't to draw some kind of moral equivalence between hurling homophobic slurs and calling someone a fascist; the point is that both "faggot" and "fascist" happen to lend themselves to being angrily spat out at their targets (even if those targets are very different people). As for "fuck," it seems fair to speculate that part of its versatility as a curse word (is there any other profanity that has so many variants and different definitions?) has to do with its similar verbal quality; there's something particularly satisfying about it. Part of the reason the word "fascist" has been "degrade[d]..to the level of a swearword" is probably because it sounds like it could almost be one. 

So now that we have some tenuous grasp on why the word "fascist" is such a popular insult, the next logical question is: Should it be? This might be sort of a pointlessly academic question because, even if the answer is "no," trying to get rid of the informal usage of the word is probably like trying to put the proverbial genie back in its bottle. Words are used in new ways and take on new meanings all the time, but trying to get rid of those new meanings is a significantly trickier endeavor, I'm willing to bet. But still, on principle, I think the question is worth answering.

From a linguistic standpoint, it's reasonably common and accepted for words that originally refer to a specific place/person/movement/philosophy to later be used in a broader sense. For example, if you call someone cynical, you're not likely to be lectured on how the Cynics were actually a specific school of Ancient Greek philosophers and their name should not be used to refer to anyone who simply distrusts other people's motives. If a reviewer says a resort has "spartan accommodations," they will probably not get an angry letter from someone who stayed there and found that it had little resemblance to the Greek city-state of Sparta. If you call your workplace's rules on dating your coworkers "byzantine," no one is going to get mad because the rules are actually rather different than those in Constantinople's royal court.

There are obvious factors that make the informal use of "fascist" deservedly more controversial. Fundamentally, calling someone a fascist means you're comparing their cruelty/violence/authoritarianism to that of some of the cruelest/most violent/most authoritarian people to ever exist. Fascism's worst atrocities are also pretty fresh in the world's collective memory since there are still many people alive today who lived through World War II and remember those atrocities, and may have witnessed or suffered them firsthand. However, we shouldn't assume that the survivors of fascist savagery automatically disapprove of anything being compared to fascists. Holocaust survivor Stephen B. Jacobs, who was held in Nazi Germany's Buchenwald concentration camp as a young child, has compared America under Trump to Germany immediately before Hitler's takeover. To be honest, I can't speak very much to the question of how offensive it is to fascism's victims to throw around the term "fascist" in an informal way. I'm sure, like virtually everything, it varies from person to person. However, it's worth noting that we've popularized terms like "Grammar Nazi" and actor Larry Thomas received an Emmy nomination for portraying the titular character in a Seinfeld episode called "The Soup Nazi", and it's hard to see how these things are acceptable if calling someone e.g. a "culinary fascist" isn't. That's not a defense of using the word "fascist" in a tongue-in-cheek or careless way, but it's worth considering whether all of this is offensive and inappropriate or none of it is, because those do seem like the only two plausible options.

In any case the question of whether it's okay to call people "fascist" in a jokey context is less interesting/relevant for our purposes here than the question of whether it's appropriate to apply the label in a non-humorous (but perhaps hyperbolic) way to politicians and authority figures. Of course, calling a politician, police officer, etc. a fascist could also be offensive to some survivors of honest-to-God fascist regimes, but as illustrated by Stephen Jacobs's example above, others may find the comparison completely fitting or at least inoffensive. Sometimes comparisons are important and powerful enough that they're worth being made even if they offend people, and even if the people they offend are survivors of horrible violence and oppression. There are undoubtedly Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust survivors who object strenuously when any comparison is drawn between Israel's actions and Nazi Germany's, but Israel's treatment of the Palestinians does, in some ways, resemble Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews, and keeping silent about this troubling resemblance to avoid offending anyone may make it all the more likely that Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians continues unabated. 

There's obviously a lot of gray area between calling your parents fascists because they grounded you for smoking and using fascist in the strictly academic sense. For example, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has been described as a fascist because he presided over a regime that was undoubtedly extremely authoritarian and resorted to imprisoning and "disappearing" political dissidents, which does very much call to mind the rule of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, et al. It's questionable, though, whether he really fits the academic definition of a fascist, and Roger Griffin concludes he does not. The War on Drugs has been called fascist, and while it obviously doesn't fit the academic definition, we know that it was motivated by racism on the Nixon administration's part and a desire to target hippies critical of the Vietnam War. So there's certainly more to the accusations of fascism in these cases than in the case of our hypothetical disgruntled teenager whining about their parents, even if all of these cases still rely on an informal, non-academic use of the word "fascist."

That doesn't mean accusations like these are without risks. The most obvious one is the classic Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf problem: if you throw around the word "fascist" too frequently you cheapen it and then, if we ever do have an honest-to-God fascist like Franco or Hitler or Mussolini on the rise, people will just roll their eyes when you scream "fascist!" because you've done it so many times before with people or policies who, bad as they may have been, were decidedly less dangerous than this actual, real fascist. There's something to this concern, I guess. I tend to think that if a real, honest-to-God fascist politician did emerge and gain a serious national following, we could still articulate how this person was different and worse than people who had been accused of fascism in the past. Nonetheless, the word does lose its power through overuse and it would probably gain more attention if accusations of fascism came from people who had never used the word in anything but its strictest, most academic sense.

Another concern depends on whom the term is being applied to. If the person you're labeling a fascist happens to be the head of a "hostile" nation, e.g. Saddam Hussein pre-2003 invasion, or Putin or Assad right now, you may end up carrying water for the people supporting regime change or military confrontation or whatever, whether you mean to or not. Certainly, foreign despots deserve to be criticized, but if your criticism ends up inadvertently promoting potentially disastrous military interventions through imprecise language, perhaps you should reconsider the way in which you're making it. Then again, Francisco Franco, who has been described as a fascist in a serious, academic sense of the word (and who sent a volunteer corps to fight for Nazi Germany in World War II) remained in power until 1975, and it would have very likely been a bad idea to suddenly invade and "liberate" Spain in, say, 1960, even though it was still being ruled by an actual, real fascist.

The problem probably ties back to American culture's relationship to WWII as described above. In order to view America's role in WWII as especially noble and heroic we've portrayed fascism as essentially the worst possible evil in the entire world, which is close to true but in certain cases like Spain under Franco, fascism may be a lesser evil to, say, a full-scale military invasion designed to overthrow the fascist regime in question. Nonetheless, even if it's wrong to assume that fascism ipso facto demands military intervention, it seems wise to avoid using the term to describe the leaders of "hostile" nations unless they are really, genuinely fascist in every sense of the word. Because of fascism's role in history, the word "fascist" risks giving the impression that we should use whatever means necessary to disempower whomever it's being used against, which is a theme we'll revisit later.

It does seem to me, though, that there are some cases when it's acceptable or at least not very dangerous to apply the word "fascist" in an informal sense. If, as happened outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968, a horde of police officers senselessly start beating the living shit out of peaceful protestors, calling said officers, e.g., "fascist thugs" seems like a fair enough response. When a government policy seeks to criminalize a certain race or group of political dissidents in the way Nixon's War on Drugs did, calling it "fascist" doesn't strike me as wildly irresponsible or unfair.7

It's impossible to draw a precise line where the informal use of "fascist" goes from being adolescent or irresponsible to being justifiable or at least understandable. When it comes to politics, though, it might be possible to lay out some guidelines. I realize my own political leanings are showing (as usual), but, in contrast to my examples above, it strikes as pretty ridiculous to call gun control or the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") fascist, as many on the right have done. Gun control and government involvement in the provision of health insurance are extremely common in highly developed parliamentary democracies and hardly indicate any of the sinister tendencies that are captured by the word "fascist," nor do their mild restrictions on personal liberty for the greater good seem particularly reminiscent of fascist regimes. On the flipside, I also think it would be excessive to describe laws against flag-burning and attempts to restrict access to abortion as "fascist" (for similar reasons) even though I strongly oppose both.

If I were going to formulate some kind of rule of thumb about when it's fair to call policies, politicians and other political authorities "fascist," using the word in a hyperbolic or informal sense, I guess I would say that at minimum they have to betray a true willingness to abuse power in order to target real or imagined enemies, at the expense of crucial rights and principles of democracy including (but not limited to) freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free elections, and equal treatment under the law. This is, as I said, a minimum: as noted above, context is crucial and even if a political figure does meet these criteria, that doesn't necessarily mean it's wise or good to call them a fascist. I'm sympathetic, furthermore, to the people who think we should reserve the term "fascist" for fascists in the academic sense, or at least people/policies that are just as oppressive and authoritarian as real, bona fide fascists. But if a person or policy does match the description I just gave, I think it's at least understandable to label them/it as fascist, even if (depending on context) it may not be prudent.

Is Donald Trump a Fascist?


From everything I've laid out above, it becomes clear that this question is actually three questions: (1) Is Donald Trump a fascist in the academic sense of the word, a la Mussolini, Franco and, yes, Hitler? (2) Is Donald Trump a fascist in the casual sense of the word, i.e. someone who cruelly and recklessly imposes their will on others or is willing to ruthlessly enforce their own restricting vision of how the world should look? (3) Does Trump meet the minimum criteria laid out above for when it's at least understandable to to call a person/thing "fascist" in a political sense? We'll start with (1).

First I think it's worth examining the arguments in favor of Trump being a real, authentic fascist. He's built a political movement by exploiting and promoting racial and religious prejudice; he made a promise that he would restore the country to its mythologized past a central part of his campaign; he's promoted the idea of torture for its own sake and killing the families of terrorists; he's praised authoritarian rulers of other countries; he's presided over a horrifying deportation regime; he's signed executive orders designed to prevent people of the "wrong" religion from coming to the United States; people who are pretty clearly honest-to-God fascists have expressed eager support for him; he has vouched for the character of people who attended a white supremacist rally; he has expressed the desire to censor media critical of him; he has spread propaganda from actual fascists.

From this it should be obvious that Trump certainly shares disturbing similarities with Mussolini, Hitler, and other fascist leaders, and that he doesn't seem to view fascists or fascism as being as repulsive and objectionable as every decent person should. That's bad enough for certain. The similarities and affinities between Trump and fascists are nontrivial and should disgust and horrify anyone with a conscience, but that doesn't in and of itself answer the question. 

Conveniently, we can rely on the testimony of actual scholars, including two of the three I cited above, on the subject of whether or not Trump is a fascist. In 2016, Dylan Matthews of Vox asked Roger Griffin and four other experts whether Trump is a fascist; the clear consensus was that he is not. Matthews summarizes as follows: 
[Trump] doesn't want to overthrow the existing democratic system. He doesn't want to scrap the Constitution. He doesn't romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society. He's simply a racist who wants to keep the current system but deny its benefits to groups he's interested in oppressing.
Some of this seems a little glib to me. Trump certainly has attempted to undermine confidence in democracy whenever it's threatened to produce a result other than the one he wants and has tried to sow doubts about the possibility of his political opponents winning elections fairly. Certainly, the things he promised to do (the Muslim ban, shutting down mosques, etc.) were in flagrant violation of the Constitution and I'm one of many people who believe the Supreme Court was wrong not to strike down his travel ban as unconstitutional. But to an extent, Matthews has a point. Trump did not promise to, nor has he, banned opposing political parties or established himself as a dictator. Frankly, I think a lot of presidents have gotten away with things that should have been ruled unconstitutional, so Trump's not truly exceptional in that department, either. 

In the article, Roger Griffin weighs in and explicitly contrasts Trump's trademark "Make America Great Again" slogan with actual palingenetic nationalism:
The word "palingenetic" means rebirth, reflecting Griffin's view that fascism must involve calling for the "rebirth" of the nation. That might at first glance sound like Trump's promise to "make America great again," but Griffin insists on a distinction. Rebirth, in his theory, actually requires the dramatic abandonment of the existing political order. "There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation," he told me. "As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America's democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he's not technically a fascist."
Along with being insufficiently antidemocratic, the article highlights that Trump doesn't embrace violence for its own sake (only ever as the means to an end) and is too individualistic to be a fascist proper. Instead, Matthews deems him a "right-wing populist," like Marine Le Pen, UKIP, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Geert Wilders. Expert Matthew Feldman of Teesside University is quoted as saying of these figures and groups: "They're still at bottom democrats rather than fascists. I think the fitting term is 'illiberal democrats.' They would give full democratic rights for white Christians, or perhaps Jews, but exclude the outgroups of the 21st century: mostly Muslims but also Mexicans. It's really prejudice against them. We're congratulating ourselves to say that anyone who engages in that prejudice is fascist." Dylan Matthews concludes that these non-fascist right-wing populists, because of the sway they hold and their popular appeal, are a much bigger threat than actual fascists, who are relatively marginal in most highly developed Western countries.

Dylan Riley, too, concludes that Trump isn't a fascist. In contrast to the classical fascists, who united the nationalist elite sectors against the internationalist working class, Trump has appealed to nationalism among "workers and middle-class layers who had suffered from the offshoring of jobs and who feared competition from immigrants in employment," he argues. Further, instead of uniting the dominant class, Trump exacerbates the tensions already existing among them by, e.g., "regularly singl[ing] out major US corporations—General Motors, Google, Pfizer, Amazon and Comcast, owner of NBC—for blistering attack" via Twitter. Instead, Riley sees Trump as a sort of anachronism whose method of ruling matches Weber's description of patrimonialism: 
The patrimonial office lacks above all the bureaucratic separation of the 'private' and the 'official' sphere. For the political administration, too, is treated as a purely personal affair of the ruler, and political power is considered part of his personal property, which can be exploited by means of contributions and fees.
However, Trump's patrimonial network (his family and personal associates) isn't numerous enough to actually staff the entire government, and the "legal-rational state," i.e. the bureaucracy, is actively resisting his patrimonial approach. The legitimacy of his regime relies on charisma, meaning his ability to talk like a "regular person."8 From all of this Riley concludes the following:
The extreme form of hybridity [Trump] embodies suggests that it is futile to assign to him any general classification like fascism, authoritarianism or populism, even though he may exhibit traits of at least the third, if not the second—as well as nationalism, racism and sexism. Flukey in origin, this form of rule is too unstable a compound to have much staying power.
In fact, rather than a death knell for American democracy, his rise to power has acted as a "shot of adrenaline" by mobilizing his opposition, Riley posits.

If we return to Umberto Eco's essay, there too we find some elements that don't seem to match up with Donald Trump or the movement behind him. For instance, in common with the experts quoted in Dylan Matthews's Vox article, Eco notes that "Ur-Fascism" believes "life is permanent warfare", which leads to an "Armageddon complex" in which "there must be a final battle, after which the [fascist] movement will have control of the world." Connected to this is Ur-Fascism's "cult of death" in which a heroic death is seen as "the best reward for a heroic life." Granted, Eco says earlier in the essay that not every feature of Ur-Fascism is present in every fascist movement and "it is  enough  that  one  of  them  be  present  to allow fascism to coagulate around it", but these features are not only not present in Trump's philosophy (so to speak) but are conspicuously at odds with certain features of it. The justification Trump has offered for two of the more controversial (and blatantly racist) elements of his platform, the wall and the Muslim ban, are that they will keep America safe. In and of itself that's not incompatible with fascism, but it's illustrative of a general truth which is that, far from offering people the promise of a heroic death or the supposed excitement of war, Trump's appeal largely rests on offering people safety and comfort.

In the process of formulating an answer to (1) I'd also like to briefly visit a piece from socialist writer Corey Robin on what he perceives as the devolution of the argument that Trump is a tyrant, as it addresses the idea of Trump as a genuine fascist. "Originally," Robin writes, "the claim was robust and ambitious: Trump was like the classic fascist rulers of the twentieth century, readying to lead not only a repressive and violent state apparatus, under the unified control of his party, but also a street-based mass movement that channeled a broad and scary consensus of the majority of the nation." This obviously didn't happen, as we know. So the argument shifted to the idea that Trump is ruling as an authoritarian, that is, that "he’s got control over the state and is using his control to smoothly execute his will." But—similar to Dylan Riley's point about Trump's complete failure to unite the dominant sectors of society—Robin notes Trump has not overcome divisions within his own party and has actually been slow to fill government positions, meaning he's done a very poor job of consolidating power. And so the claim has become that Trump "wants to rule as an authoritarian...His intentions are fascist; his motives are repressive; his personality is authoritarian." But, as Robin indicates, if Trump's thoughts and beliefs don't translate into meaningful actions, they're not really relevant to political discussions. This, I think, is a key point. We can certainly speculate that Trump is a fascist (in the un-hyperbolic, academic sense) who presents his philosophy in a way that's more palatable to the American electorate and whose failures to enact a fascist agenda have to do with personal incompetence and/or institutional limits on his power, but then the argument is purely about what's going on in his head, which really doesn't matter much if it doesn't determine his course of action. And in any case, when it comes to Trump's personal beliefs on fascism Stephen Jacobs, the Holocaust survivor I referred to earlier, may have it right: "I couldn’t say that Trump is a fascist because you’ve got to know what fascism is. And I don’t think he has the mental power to even understand it."

So the answer to (1) is, in my judgment: No, Trump is not a fascist in the genuine, academic sense, even if he does some have very disturbing similarities to actual fascists and, to some degree, affinities with actual fascists (e.g. when he's retweeted their propaganda). He certainly hasn't succeeded in transforming America into a fascist police state and as xenophobic, racist and disgusting as his public statements and promises have been, they don't add up to fascism in the literal sense.

So we can move onto (2): is Trump a fascist in the casual sense of the word? Given how much the word has been thrown around, this may seem like a trivial or meaningless question. But, as I noted earlier, there is a certain real, meaningful accusation behind the word even when it's being abused. So the question here is really, is Trump either (a) someone who mercilessly enforces his own oppressive vision for the world on others or (b) someone who readily flaunts and abuses his power over others in cruel and reckless ways? Trump has certainly made extravagant promises in the past which would require fanatical commitment to ever conceivably realize, such as his plan to make Mexico pay for a gigantic border wall and to deport every undocumented immigrant within a matter of years, which lends some credence to (a). He hasn't really shown that commitment, however, much to the dissatisfaction of his erswhile fans, e.g., Ann Coulter. Ultimately I don't really think Trump has much in terms of an authentic vision for the world. He's first and foremost a narcissist committed to building up his own wealth and glory, not an ideologue, let alone a fanatic. So the answer to (a) is no.

That leaves us with (b): does Trump use his power over others in ways that show callous indifference to the harm being inflicted, or even delight in inflicting that harm? The answer to this, in my opinion, is an obvious yes. Trump's travel ban and deportation policy have absolutely had cruel effects, as have his escalation of our bombing of the Middle East and Asia. But even before his presidency, he's consistently shown a ruthlessness in the way he used his power and influence, from calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five to pressuring financial analyst Marvin Roffman's employer into firing him after he (correctly) predicted the failure of Trump's Taj Mahal casino. And, not to get too Freudian, but Trump's sexually predatory nature as revealed in the infamous Access Hollywood tape perfectly encapsulates his general willingness to use his power (physical or otherwise) for his own greedy pleasure, with at best reckless indifference to others' well-being and at worst actual delight in their suffering. So, yes, the de facto definition we've divined from the informal use/abuse of the word "fascist" does apply to Trump. This doesn't tell us whether we should call him a fascist, but it does tell us that the people calling him a fascist are at the very least relying on a real, if informal, definition.

Having established that the answer to (2) is yes, we can then proceed to (3): does Trump abuse power (or try to abuse power) to target real or imagined enemies at the expense of principles that are fundamental to a free and democratic society? Again, yes. His travel bans are blatantly designed to target Muslims, which violates the principle of freedom of religion; he issued a proclamation designed to ban people who crossed the border anywhere other than at a point of entry from receiving asylum (in violation of federal law); his family separation policy has gratuitously inflicted psychological harm on children who did nothing wrong; and his transgender military ban pointlessly discriminates on the basis of gender identity. So, yes, Trump does meet the minimum qualifications I laid out for it to be at least understandable, and not ipso facto irresponsible, to call a person/policy fascist. To summarize: Trump is not a fascist in the formal, academic sense, but he does exhibit the tendencies people tend to allude to when they use the word "fascist" in an informal way, and he does abuse his power in egregious enough ways that the accusation is not entirely unfair. But this still leaves important questions to be answered about whether using the label is wise, effective, etc., which we now must address.

Should We Call Trump a Fascist?


There are a lot of factors to consider here. I mentioned earlier that calling Trump a fascist (and throwing the word around in general) could be insensitive to those who have survived actual fascist regimes. But on the other hand, Trump has absolutely killed innocent people; his immigration and border policies do inflict real, serious harm; his racist rhetoric can arguably help to incite acts of violence, e.g. in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh; and, as noted above, an actual Holocaust survivor—while not deeming Trump himself a fascist—has compared the national atmosphere under Trump to that in Germany before the Nazis took power, and has called Trump an "enabler" of the far right. So I'm not sure how offensive it really is to use the word "fascist" against him.

That's certainly not the only concern, though. In a piece for Current Affairs, writer and Chapo Trap House co-host Amber Frost makes an argument that feels closely related to the issue we're dealing with here:
[A]fter Charlottesville, a Guardian reporter wrote that it had “[become] clear that a surging far right has created the rudiments of an organised, effective street-fighting force.” This, however, is not necessarily true. The fact is, we don’t know just how organized the far right are; information like that would require the sort of serious investigative journalism that is sorely lacking at the moment. But we do know that the (inaccurate) image of roving bands of violent Nazi street gangs will haunt readers’ imaginations. One has to be very, very careful before coming to these conclusions.
[...]
It’s true that the far right are coordinating, but they are not on the precipice of seizing power—the traditional right (that old Republican base) already have that squared away. The brownshirts are not at the gates just yet, but if they ever get there, we’re not going to beat them back if we lose our heads. [Emphasis and hyperlink in original]
Earlier in the piece she also notes the divisions that exist in the far right, e.g., "alt-light" figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, Gavin McInnes et al. weren't involved at all (and in some cases actually disowned) the infamous Unite the Right march in Charlottesville. It is, certainly, important to know the divisions that exist in the far right, and given that Ann Coulter has now deemed Trump "the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States," it's fair to assume that self-identified fascists do not see Trump as one of their own at this point. While it's true that major divisions existed in genuine fascist movements (e.g. Hitler ended up having a number of fellow Nazis assassinated in the "Night of the Long Knives"), because of how loaded the term has become9, this nuance doesn't necessarily come through; and, as with the case of the heads of "hostile nations" discussed above, it may be easiest and safest to simply avoid using the term in this context unless one is talking about honest-to-God fascists (which we have established Trump is not).

This may seem pedantic, but it is significantly scarier to think that the country's fascists and neo-Nazis have one of their own in the White House and that they're united in support of him rather than seeing that many are disenchanted and angry with him and that the far right is full of its own internal divisions. Fear can be a powerful motivator on the one hand, but on the other hand, as Frost correctly notes, "panic and hopelessness go hand in hand[.]" It's important, then, to paint an accurate picture lest we contribute to feelings of helplessness and impotent terror or promote the notion things are so far gone we might as well all move to Canada before the stormtroopers start kicking down our doors.

There's also another danger that strikes me as being more probable and therefore a bigger concern. Dylan Riley mentioned this danger when he said in an interview before the 2016 election that "[t]he characterization of Trump as 'fascist'...serves the obvious purpose of rallying the electorate behind the loathsome Hillary Clinton." Any long-time readers may know that I encouraged leftists in swing states to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy as a way to keep Trump out of the White House, which I still think was the right move. However, I think labeling Trump a fascist did, in some cases, serve as a way to not just call for support of Hillary Clinton's candidacy but to try to shut down criticism of Clinton. Take this tweet from writer Bob Cesca:
It's clear to see how the label "fascist," as explosive as it is, can play into this mentality. What makes this such a serious risk is that the establishments of both parties are absolutely responsible for the conditions that helped Trump win the 2016 election. Overemphasizing the threat posed by Trump and his supporters risks distracting from the factors that helped create him, and the fact that what replaces him could, if we're not careful, also end up being pretty terrible (and even unwittingly lay the ground for something more genuinely fascist than Trump). 

This risk is highlighted when we look at some of the people who have openly labeled Trump a fascist. The first source Dylan Matthew's article cites as having accused Trump of fascism is "neoconservative columnist Robert Kagan". Another prominent figure to lob the accusation at Trump is Max Boot, the "Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies" at the Council on Foreign Relations.10 Maybe Kagan, Boot, et al. are being totally sincere, but it’s hard not to suspect a certain cynicism behind this use of the label, i.e., that neocons (who have practically no popular base at this point) are hoping to get liberals to embrace them as allies in the struggle against "fascism" and thereby regain the clout they lost after Bush’s popularity tanked and Barack Obama came into office on a pledge to put an end to their military magnum opus, the war in Iraq. And, given that liberals have been uniting with neocons for new ventures like the Alliance for Securing Democracy (a joint Democrat-neocon policy group), figures like Bush speechwriter David Frum and The Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol have become darlings of (at least some segments of) #Resistance Twitter and polls have shown that George W. Bush is now viewed favorably by a majority of Democrats, it’s safe to say this ploy on the part of the neocons is not without a certain degree of success.

The thing is, there is a certain logic to the decision to embrace neocons as allies if we agree that Trump is a fascist, because if some Mussolini/Hitler type figure really were president, wouldn’t you want to unite with pretty much anyone, neocons included, to make sure this figure didn’t fully cement their power and turn America into a totalitarian police state? I think I would, for sure. Viewing Trump as a true, Mussolini-style fascist also serves to justify and reinforce liberals’ worshipful attitude toward intelligence agencies like the CIA and FBI, which is another real concern given that these are agencies that have their own long, sordid histories (coups against elected leaders, assassinations of political dissidents, wiretapping Martin Luther King, torture, entrapment of mentally ill people in fake terror plots) and little to no democratic accountability. Rallying behind the “Deep State” in its struggle against a U.S. president would make sense if that president really were about to do to America what Hitler did to Germany, or Mussolini to Italy, or Franco to Spain, but it’s a concerning and dangerous mistake in the case of Trump.

As terrible and disgusting as Trump is as a person and as dismal as his presidency has been so far, I think it’s worth keeping things in perspective. So far, he hasn’t done anything as flagrantly destructive and criminal as W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. His immigration policy, while extremely cruel, is largely not too radical a departure from Obama’s. A lot of the worst things about him—the tax bill, his escalation of bombings in the Middle East/Central Asia, his environmental policy, his support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen—are things that he has in common with other Republicans both current and historical, not deviations. The biggest thing that sets him apart is his personality, which (while certainly not without its dangers) has often made it, if anything, harder for him to enact his agenda. It makes no sense to look at neocons as allies against him since their president (George W. Bush) is still worse than Trump and they agree with a lot of the worst things Trump has done. Singling Trump out with a word like “fascist” risks losing sight of all of this and promoting the liberal-neocon alliance that the latter crave as a way to restore their former glory and influence (even if that’s not at all the intended effect when the word is used) which is certainly a strong argument against calling Trump a fascist, in my book.


But there is another angle to look at this from, I think. That angle is: that even if Trump isn't a fascist in an academic sense, he does, ideologically, have more in common with actual neo-Nazis and other neofascists than any other president in modern history. No other president since the end of World War II has been quite so open about stoking prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities, I think it's fair to say. I don't know of another recent president that has been so blatantly xenophobic and so unabashedly willing to celebrate rule through force. As I pointed out, Trump has (so far) been less militarily aggressive than G.W. Bush, to his credit. But, while that is a good thing, his criticism of neocon foreign policy doesn't separate him from fascists. To see what I mean, take this quote from the American Nazi Party's website (I'm not going to link to the site and I don't recommend you poison your brain by visiting it):
Currently, America’s military forces all over the globe are sucking our economy dry and serving special interests over the interest of the people. We demand the withdrawal of all US military presence from around the globe, and place our troops instead at our borders to defend from foreign invasion. This will free up tremendous resources for our Aryan Folk and allow our soldiers to be home with their families with much greater frequency. It will also mean a large reduction of our military forces, since "policing (exploiting) the world" will no longer be acceptable. We believe that the proper function of an Aryan foreign policy is to serve the needs of our own people. We do not believe that it should be our concern to tell other peoples and countries how to live or manage their affairs, so long as they do not threaten vital Aryan interests. We do believe, however, that the Aryan Race has an inherent right to employ whatever means may be necessary to ensure its safety and survival.
This sounds a lot more like Trump's foreign policy ideas than it does Bush's. To take another example, Richard Spencer says he voted for John Kerry because of the Iraq War, which Trump has also criticized many times. Uncomfortable as it is to admit (and please do not take this as some endorsement of fascists/fascism or a call for a "red-brown alliance"), when it comes to some (narrow) foreign policy questions, neofascists give the right answers while neocons give the wrong ones. Granted, the fascists give the right answer for all the wrong reasons (racist self-interest, the belief that American foreign policy is being influenced by a Jewish conspiracy, etc.) but nonetheless, they oppose the extremely damaging interventions neocons support. The point of this certainly isn't that fascists are preferable to neocons or that the left should see fascists as allies against imperialism (I vehemently disagree with both of those propositions), but just that it's possible for Trump's foreign policy to be both preferable to, i.e. less awful than, George W. Bush's and simultaneously closer to a neofascist foreign policy than Bush's was. And it feels strange to argue that we shouldn't call Trump a fascist because Bush was a worse president when Trump's differences with Bush actually mean he has more in common with neofascists.

Furthermore, I'm not sure how much differently a committed neo-Nazi in Trump's position would have governed (and some of the differences I can think of, e.g. on the issue of bombing the Syrian government, are ways in which the neo-Nazi might have actually been better, not worse, than Trump, as incredibly uncomfortable as it is to admit). Trump has governed in a pretty unabashedly racist and xenophobic fashion, even if he hasn't stood as strong on The Wall as some of his erstwhile supporters would have liked. The conditions for a full-blown fascist takeover11 don't seem to exist in the United States right now, and certainly not if the leader of the movement is as unpopular as Donald Trump. Trump's own incompetence and the opposing powers that exist in the government and society seem to be the main reason he isn't ruling by fiat and suppressing criticism of his administration (as he threatened to do), and neither of those things would necessarily be any different even if he were a committed fascist. So, if Trump is ideologically the closest thing to a fascist president we've had in modern history and he mostly governs like a fascist would (albeit an incompetent, unpopular fascist), is it really so wrong to just call him a fascist?

Once again I think we're running into the connotation vs. denotation issue here, i.e. that although forming an alliance with the neocons, the FBI et al. wouldn't necessarily be the right approach even if Trump were a literal fascist (at least if he were still as unpopular and incompetent as he is right now), the word is so provocative that that level of nuance generally gets lost, meaning the best solution may be to simply not apply the label to Trump since we've concluded he's not a fascist, strictly speaking. It may be fair, in some sense, to label Trump a fascist, and may not even be too much of an exaggeration, but if the hyperbole (however minor) risks justifying the worst anti-Trump political strategies it seems best not to use it.

One could take the opposite approach, though, and simply label the neocons, the FBI, etc. "fascists" as well as Trump. Given the Bush administration's record (indefinite detention, torture, needless invasion of another country leading to the deaths of probably hundreds of thousands of civilians) and the FBI's ugly history (continuing on into the present), the label doesn't seem too unfair to me. But I'm not sure that solution is the best. For one thing, people can have selective hearing. When everyone hears from a variety of people across the political spectrum that Trump is a fascist, they'll probably pay more attention when you say "Trump is a fascist" than they will when you say "but so are the neocons and the FBI." Secondly, by applying the same label to groups that are openly at odds with one another and certainly have rather different philosophies about how the world should work, one risks making it seem like that label really is nothing but a swear word, like Orwell warned. 

There is, though, an argument that I've kept coming back to on the topic of whom we should label a fascist, with implications that go far, far beyond Trump. Instead of just looking at what politicians advocate for their own countries and what actions they want their nation's military to take, we could look in more detail at what political movements and changes they've supported for other countries when judging whether the politician in question should be called a fascist. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the conclusions we could draw from doing so may alarm a lot of people. For instance: Nixon's administration supported the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected president and the installation of the brutal, quasi-fascist Pinochet regime; Reagan's administration supported apartheid and funneled money to right-wing death squads in South America that were accused of attacking civilians and engaging in rape, torture and murder; officials in the second Bush administration reportedly backed an attempted coup against Venezuela's democratically elected president and the administration strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia's ultra-repressive theocratic government; even Eisenhower, who's remembered by liberals as being from the Republican Party's good old days, supported the overthrow of Iran's prime minister and the installation of the dictatorial Shah. But it certainly goes beyond Republicans. The Obama administration supported Saudi Arabia's brutal attack on Yemen and ignored U.S. law in order to give aid to Egypt's brutal military dictatorship after its president was overthrown; as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton supported a coup against the elected government of Honduras that plunged the country into violence; even Jimmy Carter provided military aid to the dictatorial government Indonesia as it was engaged in a genocidal occupation of East Timor. The governments and forces that U.S. presidents have supported in other countries might not be fascist in the academic sense of the word, but at this point we really are talking about an academic distinction that's not much comfort to the people raped, murdered, tortured etc. by those governments and/or death squads. So if we're using "fascism" in basically any sense other than the strictest, most academic one possible—if we're using it to mean dictatorial regimes or terrorist forces that engage in murder, imprisonment and/or torture of political opponents and other innocents, which is almost certainly what most people would think of when they hear the word in a political context—then there is a long, bipartisan legacy of presidents supporting fascism in other countries, if not their own. Trump, for his part, is continuing this legacy by warmly welcoming Brazil's neofascist president Jair Bolsonaro, enabling Saudi Arabia's mercilessly destructive assault on Yemen and now supporting yet another coup against Venezuela's president (which, incidentally, is a attempting to install another politician who has praised Bolsonaro). 

If I were to choose one president from the last fifty years (Trump included) who most deserves to be labeled a fascist—based on actual policies and actions, not just rhetoric or ideology—I guess it would have to be Richard Nixon, for presiding over the actual assassination of political dissidents by the FBI, launching a borderline genocidal bombing campaign against Cambodia, his racially and politically motivated War on Drugs and (infamously) making a secret list of "enemies" and covertly undermining the opposition party in the 1972 election. The runner-up would probably be George W. Bush for his international regime of torture and indefinite detention, erosion of civil rights at home and completely unjustified invasion of another country. From this standpoint, I guess the problem with calling Trump out as a fascist in particular is that it overlooks that he's not necessarily any more fascist (in actions if not in words) than some of his predecessors. 

Conclusions


I'm sorry to disappoint anyone who's read this far but my answer to the question "should we call Trump a fascist?" is: I don't know. When we look at what his administration has supported in other countries it may seem entirely fair, but you had better be ready to apply the label to a lot of other presidents from both parties. It's more of a hyperbole, but certainly not entirely insane or unfair, if we're judging him by his domestic policy and immigration policy. But no matter what, the fact the label is so widely applied to Trump in particular does seem to indirectly promote some rather disconcerting ideas about what we should do to defeat Trump, and it does potentially exaggerate the threat he poses compared to his predecessors. So, what I can personally say is that I'll be thinking twice before I throw the label at him from now on.

If Trump isn't a fascist, then what is he? Dylan Matthews and Dylan Riley both offer their own labels as mentioned above—a "right-wing populist," a "patrimonial misfit". I'm not sure I have anything quite so succinct, but in my ultimate analysis Trump is a bloviating narcissist septuagenarian who represents prejudices held by many (though not all!) in his generation. His first and foremost concern, though, isn't a white ethnostate or a national rebirth or even Making America Great Again, but just his own comfort, popularity and wealth. The best and most apt description of the archetype Trump falls into still comes, I think, from Hunter S. Thompson's piece on John Wayne and the "Hammerhead Ethic": "The New Hammerhead was a perfect cowboy. He was vicious & stupid & ignorant of everything except his own fears and appetites. He beat the mortal shit out of anything that made him uneasy, for any reason at all...He learned to understand words like 'orders' and 'patriotism,' but the secret of his success was an ancient taste for blood. He thrived on action." Trump is a weird, ugly throwback to the days when using the n-word was acceptable in polite society and the government could have a program called "Operation Wetback" without anyone batting an eye. At the same time, he's the embodiment of the awful reality-TV side of twenty-first century American culture, that throws any ideas of decency and dignity to the wind in the name of money and entertainment. His psyche, by my best estimation, is a bundle of ugly, selfish impulses that are unattached to any sort of deeper ideals or principles and don't form any kind of coherent system. That explains why he's been an inconsistent, generally ineffective president who seems more eager to praise himself and whine about the media, the Mueller investigation and the Democrats on Twitter than actually pursue any sort of policy goals, good or bad. 

In a strange way, Trump is sort of a nightmare re-imagining of Ronald Reagan, from his fame in the entertainment industry before his presidency to his past life as a Democrat to his obviously decaying mental state and even down to his famed "Make America Great Again" mantra, which is literally one word away from the Gipper's 1980 slogan. Except where Reagan cloaked his reactionary, racist ideology (and make no mistake, that is what it was) in his sunny "Morning in America" optimism and movie star charisma, Trump serves it up so straight and unvarnished that most people have never wanted to buy what he was selling, in stark contrast to Ronnie. If Reagan's generally upbeat, witticism-sprinkled, charismatic brand of right-wing politics is what we might call "Hollywood conservatism," Trump's version is a sort of Las Vegas conservatism12: gaudier, raunchier, meaner, and more openly concerned with the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.13 But it is still just another mutation of the same conservative ideology that's been around for decades—nothing as bold or deviant as authentic fascism.

I'm not going to start policing everyone else's use of the word "fascist" (applied to Trump or anyone else) just because of the conclusions I've reached here and if you've read all of this and still think it's right to call Trump a fascist, that's okay with me, for whatever it's worth. I can't even promise I'll never apply the word to him again, especially if he does something to get me particularly angry as he has often done in the past. But hopefully if nothing else this post has given you a new way of thinking about this issue that's of some use or some interest and hopefully before too long we'll be at a point where the meaning of the word "fascist" can feel more strictly academic and practically irrelevant than it does right now.

___________________________

1. There is some academic dispute over whether Francisco Franco and the Spanish Nationalist forces were genuinely fascist, but Orwell refers to them as such in his personal account of his time in the war, Homage to Catalonia, and for the sake of simplicity if nothing else I will concur with his judgment for the purposes of this post.

2. Part of the reason for my liberal use of the word "fascist" is because Hunter S. Thompson, who readily used words like "Nazi" and "fascist" against his targets of criticism, served as my gateway of sorts to leftism. Thompson, for what it's worth, still continues to be one of my favorite writers and someone who I think offered a sometimes frighteningly prescient insight into the character of modern American society even if I'm no longer completely sure how I feel about the way he threw these words around.

3. Eco notes that these characteristics are contradictory and seems to acknowledge not all of them will be present in every variety of fascism, telling us "it  is  enough  that  one  of  them  be  present  to allow fascism to coagulate around it."

4.  By "liberalism" I mean the Enlightenment ideology emphasizing individual rights and parliamentary democracy, not liberalism in the contemporary American, Democratic Party sense.

5. I'm completely guessing when I say the word has been more often used in an informal, pejorative way than in reference to actual, honest-to-God fascism, but the guess seems pretty safe. 

6. Obviously, the term Nazi is also used in an informal, often humorous context (e.g. Grammar Nazi, Seinfeld's Soup Nazi) but I think the humor here relies on juxtaposing the extremity and pointedness of the label "Nazi" with something comparatively trivial.

7. While it might seem strange or arbitrary, I do think it's significantly more questionable to refer to a policy like the War on Drugs as "fascism," noun form, rather than "fascist," adjective form. To me, using the noun form to refer to a policy seems to indicate that that policy is, in itself, enough to make it justifiable to say that the country is living under a fascist regime, which strikes me as a potentially dangerous degree of hyperbole in the case of the War on Drugs. Ultimately, though, as is the general rule for labeling things as fascist/fascism, it comes down to context.

8. Dylan Riley doesn't use these words but they're close to (maybe an exact quote of) the descriptions I've heard from Trump supporters.

9. Which, again, connects to American culture's relationship with WWII and our desire to see the enemies of America and American Values (e.g. fascists) as a sort of united monolith rather than being subject to their own factions, disagreements, etc. (This impulse to see one's enemies as being co-conspirators who are all tightly allied with one another seems a pretty universal human one, but that's a topic for another discussion.)

10. This should be self-explanatory for anyone who knows who Jeane Kirkpatrick is.

11. Meaning the criminalization of opposition parties, suppression of trade unions, mass incarceration and/or murder of political opponents, etc.

12. I'm aware Trump isn't from Las Vegas and, to my knowledge, doesn't have any particularly notable ties to Las Vegas, but if there's a city whose public image better matches his, I don't know it.

13. This comparison might be unfair to Las Vegas, a city I've admittedly never been to and that my impression of comes from its portrayal in various TV shows, movies and other media, but this is certainly the impression of it I've gotten and it feels all too appropriate to rely more on appearance than truth for this analogy.