“If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.”
Audre Lorde, 1982
The election of Donald Trump as 45th US President ‘is an extinction-level event’. The conservative-cum-libertarian commentator Andrew Sullivan used this phrase back in May during the most divisive election campaign in US history, and it captures the multiple catastrophes already unfolding in the wake of this election. Indeed, one of Trump’s first actions as President-elect was to appoint climate change-denier Myron Ebell to oversee the introduction of radical policy changes in the US Environmental Protection Agency. Climate scientists have responded with horror; as one commented in despair, it’s “game over for the climate.”
Trump’s promise to build walls, hospitals and roads is “an ersatz economic populism” that clearly spoke to large swathes of the white working and middle classes, but which is a triumph for the billionaire class he represents. For the global elites Trump’s election means ‘a restoration’ of unrestrained gambling and hoarding. “Bankers … stand to make a killing. Massive tax cuts, including an elimination of the estate tax and big reductions for top earners seem like slam dunks in Trump’s Washington.” This election promises, then, a continuation of economic policies intent on the production of grotesque inequalities.
I want to reflect on this extinction-level event through the lens of the kind of fascism that Trump’s election represents, a fascism Alain Badiou has termed “Democratic Fascism”. I would also like to hold in mind those in the US who now face a future with limited healthcare and permanent reductions to welfare, and the forms of harm that are secured and legitimated through the sexual violence and racialized capitalism this fascism comprises.
In a 1932 article on Democracy and Fascism, Leon Trotsky argues that what links fascism and democracy as modes of governance are the systems of financial capitalism from which they emerge; democracy and fascism are capitalist in origin. Trotsky suggests that it is when the “normal” forms of compromise between capitalism and democracy fail, when “parliamentary screens no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium”, that “the Fascist regime arrives”.
When democracy fails, fascism masses “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” The fascist mass, which draws support from across the class system, can exist only in the absence of organized opposition, which for Trotsky means the resistance of organized labour movements. Fascism thrives upon the continual destruction of solidarity between different factions within the working classes, such as, for example, that between working-class citizens and migrant workers.
Alain Badiou’s description of Trump’s election as “democratic fascism” resonates with Trotsky’s analysis. For Badiou, Trump closely resembles “the fascist of the 30s”, but what is different, he states, is the absence of “strong enemies”. Badiou’s point is that the primary resistance to fascism in Europe in the 1930s came from the left. It was a massing on the left that enabled a broad alliance against fascism to emerge. As he reminds us, struggles between people and capital have shaped the modern world, and liberal democracy is one of the compromises that emerged out ongoing political struggles for ‘equality’ – for freedom, economic redistribution, and rights. What is unprecedented about the current juncture is that globalized capitalism has won. Thus, for Badiou, what is signalled by Trump’s election and the rising power of other populist figures, such as Le Pen, Sarkozy, Hofer, Wilders, Orbán, Kaczyński, Petry, Akesson, Babis, Grillo, is the receding of equality as the radical horizon for politics.
Foucault argued that after the Second World War, the horrors of Nazism, and the rise of communist states in Central and Eastern Europe, a state-phobic consensus emerged in Western Europe, in which “the big state” was imagined to be the primary enemy of human freedom. This fear of fascism and hatred of communism gave rise to new transnational political projects such as the European Union and the United Nations. It also created the conditions for globalized capitalism, birthing the institutions that would deliver neoliberalism, the World Bank and the IMF. Today, the fear of fascism has been well and truly trumped as authoritarian states are reemerging in the West.
This democratic fascism – we voted for it – is the fascism of TINA: “There is no alternative”. Historically, we associate fascism with a centralized economy in which relations of production are harnessed to the ideological goals of the regime. The ideological goals of this era of fascism are inseparable from those of free-market capitalism. The “fascist party” is the party of the elites, CEOs, bankers, and the finance sector. It is the fascism of the City of London, Wall Street, Fox News, the Daily Mail and Trump Tower.
I received an email from a friend the day after Trump’s election proposing that we were witnessing capitalism uncoupling itself from the remaining tethers of the liberal state form. What we have learnt in recent years in the UK, in Turkey, Hungary, Australia, and in many other states where democratic and human rights and freedoms of all kinds have been steadily eroded, or have just plain disappeared, is that this uncoupling of capital and democracy doesn’t mean the end of the state. On the contrary, it means: the rise of authoritarian forms of state power in conjunction with terrorising forms of ethnonationalism; the election of far-right politicians; permanent states of emergency; the erosion of legal justice; the deepening of surveillance and police powers; expanding prison populations. This is the age of penal power, an era in which walls and cages are proliferating at multiple scales and locations. The election of a fascist President to the Whitehouse marks a new stage in this seemingly inexorable process.
Like ’30s fascism, democratic fascism operates through the continual and violent crushing of opposition through the creation of class fractions. Fascists inflame divisions, undermining sources of solidarity within and across classes. Democratic fascism garners legitimation through this crafting of otherness. It relies particularly on what Barbara and Karen Fields term “racecraft”: the “trick of transforming racism into race”(2012, 15). Racism is the lynchpin of democractic fascism.
Misogyny and sexual violence are also key in producing the gendered divisions that fascism relies on. Fascism is Patriarchy.
The life and death stakes of democratic fascism are being played out on the streets of American cities, where #notmypresident protesters attempt to communicate the cataclysmic significance of the election of a white supremacist billionaire to the most powerful political position in the world: “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” Others are documenting hundreds of incidents of racist violence, and the racist abuse scrawled on walls, scribbled on car windscreens, chanted at games and spat into faces. People everywhere, Black and Brown, Latinos, Women, Queers, the undocumented, find themselves “thrown against a sharp white background”.
Much of this violence springs from the legitmation of racism by politicans, an intensification of existing forms of state racism. The crafting of racism by political and media elites to reproduce the nation, to garner political capital and legitimize exceptional measures is evident on every scale and in every sphere of public life. It is manifested in propaganda campaigns against migrants, in a rush of border wall and fence-building, in the detention and deportation of migrants, in the election of charismatic right-wing politicians on anti-immigration platforms, in the formation by neo-Nazis of “human walls” against refugees on state borders, in the creation of armed citizen militia groups and “border hunters”, in the formal and informal dispersal of border enforcement roles to state officials, medical authorities, schools and universities, welfare agencies and landlords, in the incessant production of racial stigma and hate-speech in news reporting, social media and everyday speech, and in rising levels of hate-crime and everyday violence against racialized citizens and foreigners.
In Europe the impact of the 2008 financial crisis has accelerated democratic fascism. The response of politicians and their corporate media arms to unrest over permanent reductions in welfare and public services was to further harness the animosities of the electorate to “the problem of race”. This racism operates largely along the axis of citizenship: legal/illegal, native/foreigner. It is distinguished by anti-migrant racism and, in particular, Islamophobia, but has hardened and legitimized hatred towards all racialized citizens, extending to white Central and Eastern European migrant workers in Western Europe. Anti-immigrant rhetoric “masses” the people across class divides. In the US different histories of colonialism and racism, and unrelenting violence and discrimination against Black citizens, has seen racism play out more sharply along colour lines. While state racism isn’t new, the rise of democractic fascism is.
Fascism pivots on racism but also incites hate against non-racialized minorities, the disabled, queers, women and fascism’s political opponents, from refugee advocates to feminists, labour movements and intellectuals, to the judiciary. Democratic fascism is not only deepening an existing social and economic crisis, but has become the main source of crisis, splintering social solidarity in ways unprecedented since the 1930s.
The election of Donald Trump as 45th President “is an extinction-level event”. Hope lies in global anti-fascist struggle. As Audre Lorde suggests, we must find common ground: “Each one of us here is a link in the connection between anti-poor legislation, gay shootings, the burning of synagogues, street harassment, attacks against women, and resurgent violence against Black people.”
Imogen Tyler is Professor in Sociology at Lancaster University. She tweets at @DrImogenTyler.