What to make of an American president who claims that “nobody disobeys [his] orders,” says that he wished that the citizens of his nation were more like those of North Korea, and who repeats calls by supporters for his term to be arbitrarily extended? Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime personal fixer – not a term usually associated with the presidency – have have expressed their concerns that Trump may not accept the results of the 2020 election should he lose. Taken at face value, all of this speaks to the possibility that the current president of the United States is, if not a fascist, sympathetic to elements of fascism.
How did we arrive at this moment when, as the CBC’s Paul Kennedy put it, “American democracy is flailing, if not failing?” Two recent podcast episodes I listened to try to put contemporary America’s crisis of democracy in a broader historical context. On Deconstructed, Mehdi Hassan discussed the question “Is Donald Trump a Fascist” with Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale and author of How Fascism Works. On CBC’s Ideas, Naheed Mustafa had a conversation titled “Things Fall Apart” with James Kloppenberg, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University and the author of Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought. Their conversation focused on the question of how America’s foundation shaped the nation it has become and whether or not “America’s early experiment with self-rule” offer usable lessons for the country today.
James Kloppenberg traces the history of American democracy to its roots in the settler colonies of the seventeenth century, and argues that those settlers built institutions of self-government before Enlightenment thinkers had clearly articulated the principles that eventually coalesced into modern American democratic theory. “Without intending to upset every apple cart,” the first English settlers created the “institutional frameworks and cultural predispositions” that made democracy possible. These frameworks and predispositions were embedded in the religious doctrines that were the basis of New England colonial society, where the town meeting provided a living example of consensus-building in action. The settlers’ ideas about politics were inseparable from their theology: they believed that a community of God’s people could make decisions for themselves. While the idea that a community of people could govern itself was radical for the time, upending millennia of naturalized ideas about hierarchy, the limited definition of what qualified as a potential self-governing community meant that only a very narrow slice of humanity had the necessary qualification to do so, that of being God’s chosen people. This may have been a proto-democracy, but it was far from liberal democracy as we understand the concept.
Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers articulated the concepts that American settlers had been living in a set of ideas that ranged from “radical scepticism bordering on anarchy” to the work of the “Scottish common- sense philosophers.” Key to Kloppenberg’s framing of these theorizations of democracy is the link between Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which posits that humans have the ability to use reason to discern right and wrong, and Rousseau’s belief that it was possible to get people to see beyond their narrow self-interest in order to articulate a general will. Free people, in other words, should be able to align their freedom with the pursuit of the public good. What emerges from this is what Kloppenberg calls an “ethic of reciprocity,” essentially a type of political empathy. By being able to see the world through the eyes of others and accept the idea that we may, at least temporarily, as the system allows, be governed by those with whom we disagree, a democratic society is able to flourish over the long haul.
Which brings us back to the possibility that the sitting president, and presumably some number of his supporters, might not accept being governed by a party they oppose. Is this a sign that the political empathy that Kloppenberg sees as a necessary condition for a democracy to function no longer exists? And if so, is fascism what will fill the vacuum created by its absence?
Jason Stanley provides us with a checklist that outlines how fascism manifests itself. Many, if not all of the points on that list remind the listener of something that Trump has done or said since launching his presidential campaign.
Stanley sees fascism as an extension of the ideology of social Darwinism. At its core, it is a political ideology based on the conviction that certain groups are meant to dominate others – say, immigrants of racialized minorities – because of their inherent superiority. A contradiction emerges from that construct: fascism denies equality between social groups in favour of social hierarchy, but it also portrays the dominant group as being victimized by its alleged inferiors. The cities where minority groups live become a threat to the “real,” that is to say rural, national community. Thus the importance of a key fascist trope, the return to a “mythic past” in which the dominant group enjoyed unchallenged superiority. Fascist fear of racial criminality is closely tied to gender: the men from minority groups are presented as being predisposed to rape the women of the dominant group. That gendered dimension of fascism also feeds a sense of sexual anxiety that manifests itself in attacks on LGBT people.
Alongside questions of national belonging and exclusion, fascism has important epistemological dimensions. Fascist assaults on knowledge lead to what Stanley calls an embrace of “unreality,” where conspiracy theories distort a shared understanding of the world. The impulse to undo shared meaning is grounded in a deep anti-intellectualism that distrusts discounts academic and scientific expertise, which makes “things mean their opposite.” In a fascist system it’s the most corrupt candidate who can sell themselves as the one who will eliminate corruption.
Given the evidence, Stanley concludes, “there is no question that Mr. Trump is very high on the scale of fascism when it comes to his rhetoric.” That said, ticking boxes on a checklist devised by a political philosopher hides as much as it reveals: if we are to engage with the question of American fascism in a meaningful way, we have to pay close attention to its specific historical and cultural contexts. How does US fascism differ from its predecessors? What makes it particularly American? Particular to American fascism, Stanley argues, is that it needs to express itself in a way compatible with a political culture that elevates the Constitution to the position of a quasi-holy text. While historic fascism was “explicitly anti-democratic,” there is no space in American political discourse for a politician to “to call explicitly and unambiguously for the end of democracy” in America (at least in the near and medium terms, I would add). American fascism is built on American ideas and institutions. This is why Stanley is critical of what he calls the “crisis of democracy literature,” a term he uses to talk about reactions to Trump’s presidency that frame it as an unprecedented and unique threat. Trump’s fascist impulses have gained traction because they reflect dynamics that have always existed in American society, from the mass incarceration of minorities to “grand failures of imperialism like the Iraq War” that animate politicians and commentators to talk about redeeming America from “the tragedy of loss of empire.”
That’s why it’s impossible to see the emergence of explicitly fascist discourse in American politics as simply a story about an increasingly powerful Republican party. American fascism in built on dynamics that are so central to American politics that it is impossible to see them as the product of one party’s policies. Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the “superpredator theory” is evidence of the extent to which fascist ideas resonate across the political spectrum. Stanley could also have mentioned Obama’s record of using the law to go after the free press and commitment to killing American citizens without due process as evidence of fascist politics at work in a bipartisan manner. Perhaps, then, a better answer to Hassan’s question is not “Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist,” but “America is fascist.” To make such a claim, however, would require a kind of reckoning with history that is largely absent in America, where, Stanley argues, “it’s always year zero,” and it’s impossible to get leaders to even look as far back as 9/11.
Kloppenberg acknowledges that Trump has an “authoritarian streak” but maintains that democratic institutions have held up against the assaults of Trumpism. That said, his deeper and more detailed historicization of American democracy is useful for thinking about how that resilience is more contingent than it might seem to be if we fixate our gaze on the present. Democracy is less a state of being than a process that ebbs and flows.
Exclusion and exclusivity were built into American democracy. This was still true as democracy expanded in the first half of the nineteenth century: The “mass democracy” that defined Jacksonian America was a “herrenfolk democracy” that only included a narrow subset of the people. And yet, the Whigs that emerged in reaction to Jackson’s abuses of executive power worked to advance democratic principles like abolition, women’s rights, opposing the removal of indigenous peoples, and universal education. Democracy may have been inherently exclusionary, but it contained within it the possibility that outsider groups could “call the nation to its founding principles” and frame their demands in terms of the its promises. For Kloppenberg, America isn’t “close to … a fully-realized democracy,” but the mechanisms for getting closer to such a thing are embedded in the system.
That said, the system is fragile. Every element of Stanley’s checklist relies on Kloppenberg’s “ethic of reciprocity” being weakened. That sort of weakening happened in reaction to the radical growth of social and political rights for women, LGBT people, African Americans, and other groups in the 1960s, culminating in a GOP that essentially refused to recognize a Democratic president’s legitimacy. If America cannot regain its commitment to the principle that democracy means accepting the legitimate rule of political adversaries, the exclusionary principles that were part and parcel of democracy’s inception may well come to define the country’s political future as much as its past.