American fascism

Interesting podcast discussion from Talking Politics on American fascism. Sarah Churchwell in conversation with David Runciman and Helen Thompson.

Churchwell makes some really interesting points. She notes, for example, that the National Socialists in Germany looked to Jim Crow laws USA as a model for their own racial purity laws, and that drawing on the USA enabled a legitimation of the racial purity laws (e.g. it was not German exceptionalism to have such laws, because they were a common feature of Western democracies). She also makes the point that in some regards Nazi race laws were more ‘liberal’ than those in the USA (e.g. Nazi’s thought that the ‘one drop rule‘ (i.e. any non-white ancestry) was too strict, because ‘pure Ayrans’ were probably not a majority in 1930s Germany).

Churchwell is not alone in pointing to the historical links between Nazi race laws and the USA. James Q. Whitman has written a whole book on it Hitler’s American Model: The United State and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton University Press, 2017). There is an interesting review of the book on the LSE Blogsite.

The Talking Politics podcast includes some interesting discussion regarding whether it is possible, or helpful, to characterise Trump as a fascist. A lot of the discussion I have read on this topic is superficial. This discussion is not. Helen Thompson makes the case for why Trump shouldn’t be characterised as a fascist. She draws on comparisons with Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy to do so. Churchwell pushes back against this. She argues that conceptually it is problematic to use comparison to decide whether the label of fascist is appropriate (e.g. anti-semitism was not important to Italian fascism, and, in as far as it was a significant feature, it was adopted after linking up with the Nazis). The important point that Churchwell makes is that fascism, a form of extreme nationalism, will necessarily emphasise its own national distinctiveness. (Consequently, if we focus in on specific countries we are focusing in on the specific national forms. However, if we zoom out and look across countries then it is difficult to see fascism as a cross-national phenomena, because there is not much that is common across all cases).

As Churchwell puts it in an article that she wrote for the New York Review of Books:

Samuel Moyn recently argued… against comparing Trump’s policies to fascism, because his administration is “pursuing causes with roots deep in American history. No analogy to Hitler or fascism is needed to explain these results.” But this presumes that fascism does not have its own deep roots in American history… Experts on fascism such as Robert O. Paxton, Roger Griffin, and Stanley G. Payne have long argued that fascism can never seem alien to its followers; its claims to speak for “the people” and to restore national greatness mean that each version of fascism must have its own local identity. To believe that a nationalist movement isn’t fascist because it’s native is to miss the point entirely.

She then goes on to note that the opportunistic nature of fascist movements also complicates any attempt at a definition of the phenomenon. Before saying that:

Trying to identify its core, the unsplittable fascist atom, has proved impossible; we are left with what Umberto Eco called fascism’s “fuzziness,” others its “hazy and synthetic doctrines.” There are good arguments against attempting through taxonomies to establish what’s become known as a “fascist minimum,” as if a checklist could qualitatively differentiate fascism from other authoritarian dictatorships. Some think anti-Semitism is a litmus test; others genocide. Does colonialism count? Aimé Césaire, C.L.R. James, and Hannah Arendt, among many other notable thinkers who lived through the first fascisms, certainly thought it did, arguing that European fascism visited upon white bodies what colonial and slave systems had perfected in visiting upon black and brown bodies.

Some have argued that Trump can’t be a considered a fascist, because he is (unlike Hilary Clinton, for example) ‘isolationist’, rather than colonialist by inclination. But, does the absence of one feature mean that Trump can’t be thought of as a fascist? She then points to Robert Paxton‘s work on fascism and notes:

Paxton has argued influentially that fascism is as fascism does. But conspicuous features are recognizably shared, including: nostalgia for a purer, mythic, often rural past; cults of tradition and cultural regeneration; paramilitary groups; the delegitimizing of political opponents and demonization of critics; the universalizing of some groups as authentically national, while dehumanizing all other groups; hostility to intellectualism and attacks on a free press; anti-modernism; fetishized patriarchal masculinity; and a distressed sense of victimhood and collective grievance.

There is more than one thing going on in the contemporary discussions of Trump as fascist. Some who characterise him as a fascist, do so in an intellectually lazy way, as if using the term ‘fascist’ means that we don’t need to think any further. He’s evil and needs to be opposed. Some who argue against the use of the term ‘fascist’ with regard to Trump are equally intellectually lazy. They dismiss the claim because some features from a tick box list are missing. Some of these critics are just academic pedants, others are apologists for Trump.

Myself, I’m not sure whether or not it is helpful to use the term fascist to characterise Trump. But at least those who use the term fascist recognise a dangerous demagogue when they see one, and want to oppose him and his policies. And that is far more important than what term we use.

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