There are various ways of coming at this. We can definitely do smart readings of Trump’s own rhetoric and show very direct indebtedness to well-known fascist or neo-Nazi tropes and ideas. The fact that Trump tweets this or that Nazi slogan or uses language the Nazis used definitely is significant. But in the end the more structural question seems more important. That is, what kind of situation makes fascism feasible and appealing? If we think of fascism as a type of politics that wants to suppress and even kill its opponents rather than arguing with them, that prefers an authoritarian state over democracy, and that pits an aggressively exclusionary idea of the nation against a pluralism that prioritizes difference – if we accept that definition for the moment, then the key question becomes: what kind of crisis calls this politics to the agenda? When do people begin to find this recourse to political violence attractive? What makes them see it as necessary?
So what kind of political crisis produces fascism? In my view it’s a dual crisis, in which two separate things happen together. First, the given political arrangements no longer work in a way that enables stable governing to occur. Second, those governing arrangements malfunction so badly that they forfeit the consent of the people.
That’s the kind of dual crisis we’re currently experiencing. The polity is broken. On the one hand, we have the withering of democratic practices in the state, whether inside the legislature or in the relations of Presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court, or in the attack on voting rights and the conduct of elections; or in the curtailment of civil liberties and the size of the carceral state. On the other hand, there’s now a default belief among the citizenry that government consists only in burdensomeness, corruption, incompetence, and non-accountability; there’s a still widening popular belief in the non-intelligibility of power, the belief that power is exercised in a distant place, behind closed doors and opaque glass, by conspiracies of elites who are beholden to no one and SIMPLY DO NOT CARE.
Now when these two crises occur together – crisis of representation, crisis of consent; government paralysis, democratic impasse – we are in deep trouble. That’s what makes sense of the Trump rhetoric. Then we need to add some other aspects. We need to talk about fundamental capitalist restructuring – deindustrialization and neoliberal globalization. We need to talk about drastic class recomposition, including the reorganization of work and labor markets, the rewriting of the labor contract. We need to talk about the global environmental catastrophe, climate change in particular, which now challenges effective and accountable governance at every possible level. Competition among nations for basic resources; struggles to contain economic migrancy and refugee populations fleeing shortages, droughts, and floods; rivalries over resources for energy – these will all reshape the language of national security ever more divisively. Fortress mentalities, idioms of politics organized by anxiety, gatedness as the emergent social paradigm – these increasingly drive the authoritarian and violent tendencies of contemporary governmentality. If we put all of this together, then we have the kind of crisis that can enable a politics that looks like fascism to coalesce. And this is where Trump has prospered.
Now, my purpose is not to make direct analogies between now and the 1920s NOR to make Trump equivalent to Hitler or Mussolini, NOR indeed to establish direct or straightforward equivalences ideologically. [Which doesn’t mean, however, that some careful close readings can’t be helpful and illuminating — e.g. when Trump rails against the Beltway and the establishment and the rottenness of the party system, or talks about “draining the swamp,” he uses anti-political language that’s very familiar to an early 20th century German historian]. In other words, we gain not very much from trying to map now onto then.
Indeed, it seems more useful to think about this question structurally or perhaps typologically. That is, are there aspects of the crises in 1917-22 or 1930-33 (or for that matter 1933-36 in France & Spain, etc) we can theorize in order to help us make sense of the present? What can we learn, as a work of abstraction, from the kind of crisis that created conditions of possibility for fascism in that earlier time? What kind of crisis encourages people (both ordinary citizens and charismatic political figures claiming leadership) to propose setting the existing procedures and practices and assumptions aside? What kind of crisis conduces to the talk (and practice) of violence? What is the character of the fascism-producing crisis?
We can readily acknowledge (as I’ve done often elsewhere) the fundamental differences between now and then, without rendering the above questions nugatory. What are those differences? Well, for starters: no World War I and its outcomes; no total war; no Bolshevism; no revolutionary insurgency across most of Europe; no ascendant mass trade unionism; no mass Communist and social democratic parties; no great pan-European wave of democratization (1918-19). For all of those reasons (and more), it makes no sense to draw direct equivalences between far Right politics now and the politics calling itself fascist then.
At the same time, CAN we detect any political logics and dynamics of radicalization in the early 21st century that seem to be encouraging the kind of radical-right extremism that readily embraces the use of political violence, a turn toward authoritarianism, an attack on juridical democracy, and exclusionary forms of patriotism/radical nationalism? And: what kind of conditions (what kind of crisis) can allow those forms of politics to gain traction? My own view (as I alluded elliptically at the end of my remarks) is that the creation of a borderless world (in the neoliberal sense), the collapse of state sovereignties in a huge expanse of territory from West Africa through to Afghanistan, and the unstoppable continuance of the crisis of global migrancy (these are obviously short-hands) are all generating the materials for virulent popular anxieties about boundaries and borders inside the societies of the advanced capitalist countries, thereby generating dynamics that can only become more and more destabilizing as rivalries over resources grow more and more unpredictable and extreme (hence the structuring determination exercised by climate change). In the end, it’s these anxieties about borders and boundaries and about *difference* that drive a great deal of the right-wing nationalist vehemence that we’ve been witnessing in the Trump campaign and the analogous politics in Europe.
In these terms it surely makes sense to take an informed look at the early 20th century to see if the character of those earlier crises can help us to think conceptually and strategically about what we’re facing today — not least because there’s never any shortage of commentators who are taking horribly UN-informed looks at the same subject. If pundits and politicians are constantly and incorrigibly drawing the analogies, then it’s irresponsible of us not to join that conversation. And when we do, it should go without saying that all of the differences — i.e. everything that DOESN’T help — have to play a big part in what we say.
Geoff Eley is the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at University of Michigan.