Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 3, 2017

Neofascism in the White House?

Filed under: Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm


Leftist analysis of the Trump presidency has ranged from those like Boris Kagarlitsky who believe that “Trump took to consistently fulfill everything that the Left in the US and Western Europe was talking about for a quarter century” to those who have seen him as the second coming of Adolf Hitler. Since Trump is such a mercurial figure, one day threatening to go to war with North Korea and the next saying that he’d like to meet with Kim Jong Un who he described as a “smart cookie”, developing a theory about “Trumpism” is like hitting a moving target.

I’ll give credit to John Bellamy Foster for trying to hit that target in “Neofascism in the White House”, a 15,000 word article that should be required reading since John Bellamy Foster is an important Marxist intellectual worth considering even when he is wrong. For Foster, the term neofascism is meant to convey the difference with Nazism or any of the other fascisms of the 1920s and 30s. Primarily, neofascism is marked by an absence of paramilitary violence in the streets, black shirts, brown shirts or Nazi Stormtroopers. The new fascism is what Bertram Gross called “Friendly Fascism” in a 1980 book. (Foster cites him approvingly).

Gross was a CUNY professor who held a number of government posts, including executive secretary of Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers. He had first advanced the notion of “friendly fascism” in a 1971 NY Times op-ed piece that sounded pretty much like the “new left” theories that were current back then largely under the influence of Herbert Marcuse:

Finally, direct repression would operate through, around, under and over the old constitutional procedures. The guiding principle—to be developed by an expanded Rand Corporation—would be to get a pound of terror from an ounce of schrecklichkeit [frightfulness]. This economizing would be facilitated by extensive use of indirect controls: welfare state benefits made conditional upon good behavior; credentialized meritocracy; accelerated consumerism; and market manipulation. Equally important would be extensive co‐optation to buy off the most intelligent leaders of dissident groups.

This polished and flexible form of public repression would need no charismatic dictator. It would require no one‐party rule, no mass fascist party, no glorification of the State, no dissolution of legislatures, no denial of reason. It would probably come slowly as a cancerous growth within and around the White House, the Pentagon, and the broader political establishment.

Accelerated consumerism? Extensive co-optation? Market manipulation? I don’t know quite how to put this but this “fascism” is not very neo. In fact, it describes the United States before Hitler was born.

Foster examines Hitler’s gleichschaltung, a term which meant “bringing into line” or—more concretely—the Nazification of the German state. This involved an assault on bourgeois democracy, from purging the universities and other dissident institutions such as the press and publishing houses to finally granting Hitler absolute power.

Will we see a Trumpist gleichschaltung? Foster admits that we will not see a repeat of the 1930s but warns about the “effective dissolution of the liberal-democratic order” and its replacement by the “alt-right”. However, this does not square with the unfolding events. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has replaced Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief adviser and his national security aide Sebastian Gorka is rumored to be fired soon over his alt-right connections. (Apparently, Foster must have written his article before the slid was greased for Bannon and Gorka, since he described them as prime movers in the Trump administration with no reference to their recent fall from grace.)

As each week passes by, the Trump administration is adopting the coloration of the Reagan administration with its decidedly non-populist “trickle down” economic policies and its heavily militarized foreign policy rather than anything ever proposed by the alt-right. This seems like Republican Party business as usual rather than anything “neofascist”.

Foster does not seem to connect Trump’s ideology—such as it is—with core Republican values, especially those of the Tea Party that now plays a dominant role. If Steve Bannon is Trump’s Joseph Goebbels, we must accept that some of his precepts are key to the White House’s neofascist program: the restoration of the “Judeo-Christian West” as the spiritual framework for a restored capitalism and the promotion of extreme ethno-nationalism targeting non-white immigrants. I am not sure if Foster watches much Fox-TV or listens to people like Michael Savage or Steve Deace on the radio, but this has been part of the core beliefs of the Republican Party for decades now. Ideologically, the only difference is opposition to “globalism” and a commitment to rebuilding the American economy through infrastructure projects like Hitler’s autobahn (or FDR’s public works projects for that matter.) But like much of Trump’s promises, these are empty. Jared Kushner came this close to concluding a deal that would have investors closely connected to the Chinese Communist Party pouring billions into his flagship property in New York. If that isn’t globalism, I don’t know what is. You can be sure that Trump’s “populism” was designed to win votes, not change society in the way that Tom Watson hoped.

Foster is rightfully concerned about Trump’s attempted ban on immigration from Muslim countries and his tongue-lashing of judges who overturned his order. We can be sure that Trump will fill vacancies in the Federal judiciary that reflect his own nativist agenda but that would have been true if his chief rival Ted Cruz had been elected President. This is how bourgeois democracy works, after all. Judges are appointed by the party in power. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, she would have appointed people that continued Obama administration policies. By 2014 President Obama had deported over 2 million people – more in six years than all people deported between 1892 to 1997. Considering the onerous vetting restrictions imposed by Obama on immigrants from Syria, Somalia et al, there’s not much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans except the rhetoric.

As someone who rightfully earned the reputation as one of the most respected environmental scholars, you can understand why Foster would sound the alarm over Trump’s assault on climate change accords, his appointment of a man to lead the EPA who has a record of fighting its rulings, and opening up public land to energy exploration. But this is Republican Party policy. If Trump had a heart attack tomorrow, could we expect Mike Pence to retreat on any of these measures? Is it possible that neofascism is not Trump/Bannon but the Koch brothers, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Ann Coulter and all the other creeps that have been pushing us back to the 1890s?

Considering the role of fascism as the last resort of the bourgeoisie against proletarian revolution, it is puzzling that Foster devotes only 6 sentences to the trade unions. While he is correct in pointing out that a “right to work” law is in the works, he neglects to mention that Trump has been lining up support from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. Rich Trumka was not only pleased with Trump’s push for pipelines and stepped up drilling; he also saw eye to eye on immigration: “Will we partner with him to try to rewrite the immigration rules of the country? Absolutely because those will help workers, it will decrease the imbalance between corporate America and workers.”

Does this mean that the American working class is becoming part of this neofascist danger? Foster alluded to Hitler drawing “on a minority of the working class, disproportionately represented by more privileged blue-collar workers.” The problem is that a fascist movement, either “old school” or neo, is not really needed in the USA. Workers are not revolutionary. They are not even liberal in the sense of supporting affirmative action, gay rights, or other issues that were supposedly the cause of Hillary Clinton’s defeat. They tend to be for benefits like Medicare, Social Security and unemployment insurance but there is little indication that the Republicans intend to gut these programs, mainly because there is no need for that presently. If unemployment went up to 30 percent as was the case in the Weimar Republic and Trump slashed unemployment benefits in half, maybe then you’d find truck drivers or construction workers discussing Chris Hedges’s latest column. But American capitalism has a lot more wiggle room, even with competition from China.

Foster calls attention to Trump’s war on the media, the last battle being his baiting of John Dickerson on “Face the Nation”, a show he called “Deface the Nation” to the interviewer’s face. There might be a war being fought by Trump but there are very few victories so far. The NY Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and ten thousand websites continue to pillory the White House with no letting up. If you want to see how a press can be muted, you need to study Turkey, Russia or China where reporters and bloggers are routinely harassed, arrested or even killed. Trump will not silence the media by calling it “fake”. He will only succeed by sending the cops into their offices and hauling the staff off to jail where they will be tortured or killed. That is how fascism operates, not by calling names. Nixon was just as openly hostile to the press as Trump but that did not shut them up. (Then again, Nixon was supposed to be Adolf Hitler for much of the left in the 1970s.)

As someone who has been on the left since 1967, I have become somewhat inured to warnings about Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and now Trump posing a fascist threat. Unless you understand fascism, either old or neo, as dictatorship, you are not making much sense. Fascism does not operate by “indirect controls” as Bertram Gross put it. It operates through the truncheon, the kangaroo court, the suspension of constitutional rights and the total control over society by a single party whose Bonapartist ruler has absolute power.

There is zero possibility of Trump gaining such power over the next four years since there is no need for it. Even though Trump is a clumsy and self-defeating chief executive, he has control over Congress and likely the Supreme Court before long. The Democrats might defy him on key legislation but will likely go along with a “compromise” just the way they did when Ronald Reagan had meetings with Tip O’Neill over key legislation. It will be the same old shit for the next four years.

Timothy Snyder, an expert on totalitarian societies at least by academic standards, was interviewed by Salon on May first in an article warning that Trump “will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy”. As most of you know, Salon has the same laser-like focus on Trump as MSNBC. Why? Because it is commercially advantageous.

The interview was prompted by Snyder’s new book titled “On Tyranny” that warns of the possibility of Trump using the next big terrorist attack as a Reichstag fire type incident to stage a coup. To be consistent, Snyder would have to say that if such a coup took place, the Connecticut state troopers and the FBI would come to Yale University and arrest him for subversive activities. Additionally, as is happening in Turkey today, every liberal or radical professor would have to be fired if they aren’t arrested and replaced by other professors who were loyal to the dictatorship’s gleichschaltung. Are there enough adjuncts available to fill their shoes, even if in the unlikely event that they could be relied upon to prepare classes based on the writings of Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos? Can you imagine that you were a doctor, lawyer or investment adviser spending $50,000 per year to send your kid to school where they would come out with a diploma that was worth about as much as the paper it was written on? They wanted their kid to be taught by Timothy Snyder, an academic superstar like Paul Krugman, not somebody with a degree from Oral Roberts University. And for what? Because someone set off a bomb in Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game or used an AK-47 on crowds watching the fireworks on July 4th? I don’t think so.

My recommendation for people believing such a thing as fascism or a coup happening in the USA over the next four years is to have a drink of cold water and read Corey Robin’s article in yesterday’s Guardian titled “Think Trump is an authoritarian? Look at his actions, not his words”. It is really quite astute:

Trump, in other words, has failed to fill 85% of the positions in the executive branch that he needs to fill in order to run the government to his specifications. It’s a strange kind of authoritarian who fails, as the first order of business, to seize control of the state apparatus: not because there’s been pushback from the Senate but because, in most instances, he hasn’t even tried.

Ah, Trump’s liberal and left critics will respond, but that failure to fill key positions is all part of the White House’s master plan. Back in February, Steve Bannon, Trump’s top strategist whose star lately has fallen, claimed that the administration’s goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state”. As Bannon made clear, that was just a fancy way of describing the longstanding Republican goal of gutting rules and regulations the business class hates. What better way to do that than simply not staffing the agencies that are tasked with enforcing those rules and regulations?

There are two problems with this theory. First, Trump has failed to fill positions in departments and agencies he actually wishes to empower and expand. He’s only filled one out of 53 positions in the Pentagon, two out of 14 in the Department of Homeland Security, one out of seven positions in the intelligence agencies, one of out 28 positions in the treasury department, and almost none of the key positions in the justice department having to do with terrorism, drug crime prosecution and the like.

Second, many of those positions are not empty. Until Trump appoints someone to fill them, they will remain mostly occupied by holdovers from the Obama administration – who will continue to enforce the thousands of rules and regulations Obama passed and Trump hates.

Though Trump has had limited success overturning some of Obama’s rules through an obscure piece of legislation, the real work of deregulation and undoing Obama-era rules will require a much heavier lift that Trump is not yet in a position to execute.

Despite the fact that Trump, whose party is in control of all the elected branches of the federal government, has lost virtually every legislative battle he’s waged, and backed down from virtually every bluff he’s made, the faith in Trump’s power – not in his probity or purposes but in his ability to dominate the political scene – dies hard. And nowhere harder, it seems, than on the left.


  1. Trump can easily be understood as part of the continuum of Republican presidents going back to Reagan in 1980. While there has been variations in emphasis, all of them have operated within the same expedient political framework that manipulates racism, xenophobia and ethnic resentments to increase corporate power and profits at the expense of labor. Sometimes this means supporting the global free trade treaty system (as did Reagan and the first Bush), and other times it means rhetorically condemning it (Trump). Sometimes it means supporting US military interventions (Bush I in Iraq, Bush II in Iraq), other times it means engaging in pseudo-opposition or even withdrawing from them (Reagan in Lebanon 1983, Trump’s pseudo-isolationism and Bush II’s pseudo-isolationism pre-9/11).

    Just as Reagan’s signature achievements were accelerating the reduction in progressivity in the tax code for business, and reducing spending upon New Deal and Great Society programs, they are likely to be Trump’s as well. it is an endeavor that must be undertaken carefully, so as not to anger lower middle income evangelicals who support government social programs (like Social Security, Medicare and, now, the ACA) that help them, but Republicans have been pretty skilled in going about it. House Republicans may not yet get it in regard to the ACA, but Trump has been able to keep a distance from their efforts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans abandon efforts to gut the ACA after this one fails.

    The Democrats have already implicitly acknowledged that Trump is not a fascist threat. More and more, congressional Democrats, such as Pelosi and Schumer, express a willingness to work with him, as they did with Reagan and the Bushes, to achieve mutually beneficial objectives, such as the implementation of neoliberal tax and regulatory policies as well as more specific local pork barrel projects. “The Resistance” is melting like the Sierra Nevada snows to the east of the Sacramento Valley where I live.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 3, 2017 @ 7:05 pm

  2. you wrote about kushner coming close to a deal with the chinese communist party re some NYC property; is there still a communist govt in china?

    Comment by isabelle rawich — May 3, 2017 @ 8:30 pm

  3. In name only.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 3, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

  4. It is interesting for me, as an Iranian who escaped actually existing fascism, that some of the left organizations here in the west bend backwards tenfold and go through countless bizarre contortions to justify the gigantic crimes of real fascists like Assad, for example (or the theocracy in Iran), at the same time that they see fascism where it doesn’t exist. I love how they’re the loudest trumpets announcing: ‘Fascist Trump will start World War 3’.

    Trump as a person may have racist, sexist and authoritarian tendencies, but that doesn’t render the system fascistic. If it was really fascistic, WSWS would not be publishing a thing, let alone critical pronouncements from a socialist perspective on Trump’s political leanings, on a legally available website that is not blocked, nor its publishers hunted down, thrown in prison and tortured.

    Trump’s most prominent characteristic is his money grubbing face, actually. Him and his whole family, starting with that Evil Princess Ivanka and her husband to his sons.

    As for the ‘imminent’ wars … Whatever wars may be started by the U.S. does not need, nor has it ever needed, a fascistic state. The political leaders here have been invading and starting wars since 1846 (when the U.S.-Mexican war started), under liberal bourgeois democracy. It seems to be working just fine for them.

    Comment by Reza — May 3, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

  5. I just spent the last week with my students talking about It Can’t Happen Here and its contemporary political relevance. Most said they thought it is best read as allegory, as opposed to literally, when speaking of prospects for fascism today. We then looked at common elements of a definition of fascism:
    – suppression of dissent and use of terror/coercion against the mass population.
    – beligerent nationalism/jingoism, fused with demonization of minorities.
    – centralization of power, concentrated within a charismatic figure who is larger than life and cultivates passionate, cult like support from large numbers of people.
    – a reliance on a grand narrative, promising the return of lost economic and cultural greatness. It’s often linked to imperialism and construction of fifth column threats.

    Most students agreed that they saw Trump as a fascist or an authoritarian, but that his authoritarian personality and desires have been kept in check by mass opposition and institutional checks. I thought this was a pretty nuanced way of looking at it. I can imagine Trump doing something crazy like declaring martial law in the face of a terror attack. He has no commitment to the rule of law or checks and balances or minority rights. But so far he’s been pretty limited in what he’s been able to accomplish.

    Comment by anthonydimaggio612 — May 4, 2017 @ 2:53 am

  6. I agree with the point that much if his agenda is straight reactionary talk radio Republican neoliberal nonsense that’s been around for a long time. Trump may very well end up being a fusion of Jerry Springer and right wing conservatism of the American variety. But he’s also made so many horrific statements supporting the beating up of protesters, calling for a dismantling of the first amendment, his blatant contempt for the press, his demonization of Islam, and his anger that members if Congress don’t obey bctbey listen to their constituents on health care, that are all red flags. These things are not new. Trump is notable, however, in the intensity of his blatant attacks on the law, facts, and rights. He’s the Dems and Repubs on crack. The inevitable intensification of authoritarian rule that has accompanied the rightward drift of this country by both parties. Whether we call him a fascist or not, I believe we’ve long been heading in the direction of authoritarianism. At some point the political economic system is headed for collapse, and the public will have to decide if they want to have some version of democracy or a authoritarian police state.

    Comment by anthonydimaggio612 — May 4, 2017 @ 3:14 am

  7. Gleichschaltung has to be understood as the second phase of a two-step Nazification process, the first stage being the machetergreifung or machtuebernahme, the capture or takeover of power.

    The sequence of events in culminating with Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on January 30, 1933 was the first stage. What led up to that was a complex series of opportunistic maneuvers within the legal limitations of the Weimar constitution, which amounted to a hollowing out or neutralization from within of the rules and rituals of bourgeois parliamentary government. This was accompanied by a buildup of coercive forces under the banner of the Party and the expansion of military-style organization to every corner and aspect of life in the Reich.

    Despite a long history of preparation for power, the bringing into line of the German state and people through an aggressive program of organization, regimentation, and legal repression can be seen as beginning in earnest with the Enabling Act of March 28, 1933, which established the formal dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. This process of organization and reorganization would continue for twelve years and would involve a continuous doubling down on the most extreme outrageous positions and practices of the Nazis, leading eventually to the Final Solution and the total defeat of the German armed forces in 1945.

    You could allege that the current regime in Washington completed the seizure of power in January 2017 and that the bringing into line is now under way. But in fact, there are few signs of anything really analogous to the rise to and consolidation of power by Hitler.

    Where the Nazis–while defiantly incoherent intellectually–were utterly on point when it came to organization (albeit with a multitude of mutually hostile fiefdoms), Donald Trump is chaotic and almost deliberately inconsistent. Indeed, Trump appears to be making no more practical use of his majorities in congress than Barack Obama did when first elected.

    Where everything in the Nazi state aimed to mobilize the German masses toward the goals of the State, Trumpism seeks to put the masses to sleep.
    The message from the chaotic and wildly undisciplined Trump isn’t “join us and we will conquer the world.” It’s “Relax: you’ve elected the right guy and he will take care of everything.” Trump’s icons are the wildly eccentric and unclubbable Kid Rock and Alex Jones, not Himmler or Goebbels. He has no SS, no SA, and his rallies–so far–are merely intended to stimulate passive approval of his actions and improve his standing in the polls. His White House is a chaos of impulsive appointments and firings where the only consistency is supplied by the members of Trump’s own family.

    Indeed, Trump appears bewildered by the very powerful authoritarian machinery bequeathed to every American president since Roosevelt, and even to be at war with such nominal icons of U.S. fascism as the FBI and the CIA. While he has appointed a disingenuous right-wing fanatic to the Supreme Court, and an out-and-out Ku Kluxer as head of the Department of Justice, the much-bruited total reorganization of the federal government has yet to begin in earnest and may never happen.

    Furthermore, enormous rallies like the Women’s March and last week’s significant Peoples’ Climate march take place with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators cursing the name of Trump–while White House staffers gather in the open door of the mansion and look on–and yet nothing happens to the protesters apart from a few right-wingers calling them “morons.”

    I do not disagree that the present situation is only transitional and is very dangerous. We can’t assume that Trump will remain, as he appears so far to have been, largely a paper tiger–or at least, someone whose governance in the long run will not differ much from what we would have seen under Hillary Clinton.

    But the problem with wielding the “fascist” swear-word is not that Trumpism is less dangerous to the peoples of the world than fascism, but rather that it may be significantly different but even more dangerous, causing us to look in vain for the wrong enemy and ignoring the one that is under our noses. Indeed, fascism itself is by no means synonymous–as American liberals always try to assume–with the Final Solution. It includes such relatively mild infractions as hauling your enemies into a police station, dosing them with castor oil, and literally beating the crap out of them with rubber hoses–or merely, like the fascist Putin, ordering a relatively small number of your political enemies to be assassinated in broad daylight. But Hillary Clinton is not going to be locked up or shot–and neither, for that matter (if things go on as at present) is Louis Proyect.

    Historical fascism was a temporary response of capitalism to a crisis that included the powerful presence of militant and effective Communist Parties in Italy and Germany. After the cataclysm of the Second World War, actually existing fascism–historical fascism or true fascism if you like–was utterly defeated as an overt political force for many decades. But capitalism and imperialism went on much as if nothing had happened, as indeed they do today–albeit in new guises.

    If we are going to understand Trumpism in relation to fascism, we must first see him in relation to the political crisis of capitalism without immediate reference to fascism. It is quite possible that Trump will never head a truly fascist regime. Where are his storm troops? Where is his Enabling Act? The danger to which the absence of these things may blind us is that Trump is not a fascist because he does not have to be–in other words, that the capitalist system does not require Nazi pseudo-revolution because in reality, as things stand to day (with a nod to M. Thatcher) “there is no alternative.”

    What could be worse than fascism? If you look at the broad spectrum of actual fascisms excluding the Final Solution, a great many rather different things could be at least as bad if not worse. But beyond that, there is at least the “metabolic rift with the environment”–a problem that does not appear to be solvable within the limits of capitalism–which raises the specter of human extinction.

    If that isn’t worse than fascism, what is? And climate and the environment are not the only things that could be worse.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 4, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

  8. I see I’ve committed my usual share of howlers–e.g. “machetergreifung” for “machtergreifung.” I guess that could be construed as “seizure of the machete.” I give up.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 4, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

  9. Did you read the Notes from the Editors in the May issue of MR? It picks up where you left off, but proposes the notion of “beachhead appointments”. They spin it to be a more “ominous” sign than you.

    Got anything to sell, Louis? I’d buy it.

    Comment by Aaron — May 5, 2017 @ 3:43 am

  10. This is more bs trivializing the very real differences between Trump and Obama. Obama as deporter-in-chief has to do with a change in classifications and statistics but it hides a real drop in deportations of settled immigrants.

    Also Obama ended the secure communities program while Trump’s ICE has been deporting people for the pettiest of infractions, targeting them in churches, hospitals etc.

    ICE did plenty of horrible stuff under Obama but now they’ve been really unleashed. The situation a few years ago was not comparable.

    Comment by Dima — May 12, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

  11. […] you follow my blog, you might remember that I criticized John Bellamy Foster’s article “Neofascism in the White House” on May 3rd. The editor’s note […]

    Pingback by Reactions to recent anti-fascist analysis | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 25, 2017 @ 6:24 pm

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