The attorney Mike Godwin coined his famous Rule of Nazi Analogies way back in 1990. Everyone now knows the adage: the longer an online discussion continues, the greater the certainty that someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis.
But, most of the time, appeals to the so-called law don’t really challenge ubiquitous and inappropriate Nazi references so much as simply invert their logic. Internet trolls describe everything as Hitleresque—and then an invocation of Godwin implies that Hitler was sui generis. Nazism is everywhere or it’s nowhere. Either way, we can’t imagine fascism politically and so we’re rendered incapable of discussing its re-emergence in the modern age.
That’s why, in the time of Donald Trump, imaginative literature provides an important resource. Fascism shouldn’t be understood as a philosophy or kind of organisation so much as a trajectory or perhaps a conjunction, with certain attributes and ideas (often common on the populist Right) metastasing into something different in particular circumstances. While literary depictions of fascist America cannot provide a checklist, they do offer a way of thinking about tendencies, even when those tendencies remain quite inchoate.
Interestingly, just as the American media began to use—tentatively at first and then with increasing urgency—the F word in relation to Trumpism, voters curious to see a star-spangled fascism needed only turn on their TV. For, throughout the year, Amazon Prime was streaming The Man in the High Castle, an adaption of Philip K Dick’s novel about an alternative universe in which the Axis Powers had won the Second World War.
The series portrays America as a fascist protectorate, divided between states governed by the Japanese and those ruled by the Germans. The show visualises its conceit with great panache, juxtaposing images of Norman Rockwell Americana with the iconography of Nazism in a mash-up so disturbing that ads for the show were pulled from the New York subway system.
The book on which the series draws offers a deeply subversive take on American politics, in which Dick contrasts the reality in which the Nazis won and the reality in which they lost so as to present fascism as the awful truth lurking behind the pleasantries of suburbia. As Noah Berlatsky argues, ‘Dick’s novel suggests, disturbingly, that the defeat of the Nazis did not, in fact, truly transform the world. Their evil was not banished; it’s still here with us, a dystopia we can choose, and that many of us do choose, every day.’ ‘Choice’ might even be the wrong word: Dick’s obsessed with what we might call ontological fascism, an awful and perhaps unavoidable reality dimly discernible beneath our day-to-day lives.
By contrast, the screen version of High Castle turns edgy paranoia into something rather less troubling. On TV, the horrors of the-America-that-might-have-been actually offer an implicit reassurance about the-America-that-is. Some locals might have adapted to their conquerors’ ideas but fascism’s shown as fundamentally alien, an external, un-American ideology imposed only after catastrophic military defeat.
Which, of course, reflects the usage prevailing in the public realm. Until recently, if ‘fascism’ appeared in serious newspapers, the word invariably referred to a particularly wicked foreign regime—and usually one about to be unseated by western powers. Early in 2015, Jonathan Chait published an article entitled, ‘61 Times Bill Kristol was reminded of Hitler and Churchill’, a neat documentation of the multiple occasions in which the influential neoconservative referenced Nazism in respect of international crises. For Kristol, and others like him, it’s always 1937. Obstreperous foreign dictators are Hitler and so American presidents must become Churchillian—particularly because Kristol invariably sees European leaders as Chamberlainesque appeasers.
The TV version of High Castle rests implicitly on a similar understanding of fascism, which is why, despite its edgy iconography, the show doesn’t especially challenge the nativist militarism on the contemporary right. On the contrary, it reinforces a traditional sense of the importance of military as to securing the nation from whatever New Hitler currently menaces its borders.
It’s worth comparing High Castle to an earlier fascist counterfactual, Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America. Roth posits a very different what-if. His book doesn’t show Nazis coming to the United States. On the contrary, it depicts the US coming to the Nazis, via the electoral triumph of Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.
Roth builds his alternative history from the substantial documented support for fascist anti-Semitism within the US in the thirties and early forties. In the book, Roosevelt loses the 1940 election to the famous air hero Lindbergh, who is running on an isolationist platform with the backing of Henry Ford and the radio star Father Coughlin. As Roth explains in his postscript (‘A True Chronology of the Major Figures’), the real Lindbergh did indeed admire the Nazis, seeing his beloved aviation as ‘one of those priceless possessions which permit the White race to live at all in a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown’. Ford obsessed over the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and used his fortune to transform the Dearborn Independent into a Jew-baiting propaganda sheet; Coughlin built up an audience of some 30 million listeners by broadcasting anti-Semitic anti-Communism. A pro-Nazi presidential run by ‘Lucky Lindy’ possesses, then, a certain historical plausibility.
Roth narrates the book as ‘Philip Roth’, a child growing up in a country made suddenly terrifying by Lindbergh’s candidature. The effectiveness of the exposition derives from its understatement. The new president does not rant and rave, and even some Jews—including Philip’s aunt—support his efforts to keep the US out of a war with Germany. When the Lindbergh administration encourages Jewish children to ‘Americanise’ through farm stays with gentile families, it advertises its ‘Just Folks’ program as a voluntary scheme ‘introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life.’
Eventually, the disappearance of Lindbergh’s plane unleashes a savage pogrom—and then Roosevelt returns and restores history to its expected course. But the novel is less concerned with the Roths’ reaction to racist terror than with their response to subtler, more quotidian snubs. Its emotional climax comes during a family holiday in Washington, where strangers call Philip’s father a ‘loudmouth Jew’ for criticising Lindbergh. When a hotel manager refuses the family accommodation, Mr Roth’s protests seem to his son not only futile but vaguely embarrassing, in an excruciating demonstration of institutional racism’s ability to undermine human dignity.
Inevitably, The Plot Against America’s presentation of twentieth century events was received as an intervention into contemporary politics. ‘[T]he immediate context of the book’s publication, the year 2004, was also the middle of the Bush presidency,’ argues Christopher Vials, ‘and a time when the “religious right” was arguably at the peak of its political influence. At a moment when the President’s evangelical loyalists were in charge of a range of federal agencies, liberal fears of a Christian fascist America found expression in two best-selling works of reportage that explicitly branded the Christian Right as a fascist movement: Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming (2006) and Chris Hedges’ American Fascists (2007).’
Paul Berman provided one of the more interesting readings of Roth within that context in a long review for the New York Times. In it, Berman acknowledges that nowhere does the Plot Against America even gesture at contemporary politics.
‘Still,’ he continues, ‘after you have had a chance to inhabit [Roth’s] landscape for a while and overhear the arguments about war and fascism and the Jews, The Plot Against America begins to rock almost violently in your lap—as if a second novel, something from our own time, had been locked inside and was banging furiously on the walls, trying to get out.’
Berman points out the similarity between the plainspoken President Lindy campaigning in his airman’s outfit, and George W Bush delivering his Mission Accomplished speech while kitted out as a fighter pilot. Then he continues:
The anti-Semitism Roth describes in the 1940’s springs mostly from an antiwar resentment—from the belief that the Jews, and not the Nazis, bear responsibility for the war, and are trying to advance their own narrow interests at everyone else’s expense. And perhaps a bit of this has likewise turned up in our own time. During the last two or three years, large publics in Western Europe and even in the United States have taken up the view that, if extremist political movements have swept across large swaths of the Muslim world, and if Baathists and radical Islamists have slaughtered literally millions of people during these last years, and then have ended up at war with the United States, Israel and its crimes must ultimately be to blame. And if America has been drawn into war in Iraq, it is because President Bush’s second-level foreign policy advisers include a few Jews (though all of his top-level advisers are Protestants), and these second-level figures have manipulated everyone else to the bidding of Ariel Sharon.
It has become natural in these last years for political cartoonists in Europe to draw Sharon in the memorable style that Nazi cartoonists used to reserve for Jews; natural for a notorious and well-designed poster in San Francisco to suggest, in the spirit of medieval anti-Semitism, that Israelis murder Palestinian children in order to eat them; natural for Jewish students to feel intimidated at more than a few American college campuses; natural, in Paris, for a handful of militants to veer off from the biggest of the protest marches against the invasion of Iraq and rough up a few Jews —these many astonishing developments that depart pretty sharply from the protest atmosphere of the Vietnam era, yet do conjure a few scents and flavours of the 1930s and 40s.
Now, Paul Berman possesses an obvious stake in arguments about recent wars. In his Terror and Liberalism, Berman identified Islamism as the most recent incarnation of familiar totalitarian impulses, and suggested liberal reluctance to endorse the War on Terror reflected the same pusillanimity that led an earlier generation to acquiesce to Nazism. It was Berman, more than just about anyone (other than, perhaps, the late Christopher Hitchens) who popularised a presentation of American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as anti-fascist crusades.
Not surprisingly, in his review, he interprets Roth as a co-thinker.
Yet, from the vantage point of 2016, Roth’s book—or, at least, Roth’s book as read by Berman—illustrates just how badly Berman and his co-thinkers read the political culture both during and after the Iraq war. Quite clearly, if there’s an authoritarian stench wafting out of the Trump campaign, the odour bears little relationship to the specific ‘scents and flavors’ identified in Berman’s review. Whatever else Trump might be, he’s no Jew baiter. Trumpism does not rest on anti-Semitism. It does, however, employ Islamophobia.
Which is not to say we should dismiss the possibility of parallels between Trump and the politicians Roth depicts. Think, for instance, of the diatribes of Father Coughlin, the radio priest who backs Lindbergh in The Plot Against America. The real life Coughlin sermons can be found online. They consist entirely of the priest reading out a long and tedious address: basically, a sermon about the week’s events. The format seems impossibly turgid compared to slickly packaged infotainment delivered by shock jocks today. Yet, when you overcome the dissonance of historical distance, Coughlin’s message becomes startlingly contemporary.
In a broadcast from 1938, he protests against accusations of anti-Semitism. ‘I distinguish most carefully between good Jews and bad Jews,’ he says. Nevertheless, he explains, ‘The Jews of America cannot afford to be associated with communism or communistic activities. They are asked to disassociate themselves from the atheistic Jews who espouse communism’. Coughlin draws attention to the fate of the ‘twenty million fellow […] butchered by the Trotskys and Bella Kuns, the Bronsteins and the Cohens in Soviet Russia in the Ukraine and Hungary and elsewhere.’ This association between Judaism and communist terror, means that ‘[t]he eminent sons of Jewry’ have a responsibility not only to condemn communism but to ‘launch an effective and determined campaign against the red menace’.
The diatribe represents an obvious antecedent to the style of demagoguery with which we’re more familiar: the insistence that moderate Muslims denounce radicals; the demands for Islamic groups to do more to fight terrorism; the calls for Muslim leaders to apologise for crimes committed by their co-religionists abroad; and so on. Listening to Coughlin, one’s struck by realization of just how much of his rhetoric would be entirely unexceptionable in the present context—so long as it were addressed to Muslims rather than Jews.
In his interesting reading of The Plot Against America, Walter Benn Michaels describes its reliance on a tripartite logic.
‘[P]art of the book’s power,’ he says, ‘derives from its realism, the fact that it feels like the truth—one reviewer called it Roth’s “most believable book in years”—while another part derives from the fact that, of course, it’s not true—when the police come to remove the Jews from the hotel, it’s scary but, like a horror movie, pleasurably scary because its history is counterfactual—it didn’t happen here. And both these facts—the fact that it could have happened here and the fact that it didn’t—are given additional power by a third fact, the fact that, of course, it did happen here, only not to the Jews.’
In the real America of 1940, hotels did not, as a rule, exclude Jews. They did, however, consistently bar African-Americans, so much so that a black family visiting from interstate in that era would have been forced to search (perhaps consulting the Negro Motorist Green Book or similar guide) for a ‘colored hotel’ before even attempting to book accommodation.
Michaels argues that Roth presents fascism from a post-Holocaust perspective in which anti-Semitism has become its defining (almost sole) characteristic. He draws a comparison with Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, another counterfactual about a fascist regime in America. Set in 1936, Lewis’ texts features thinly disguised portraits of the same real individuals who feature in The Plot Against America. But, as Michaels says, ‘where anti-Semitism is only one weapon in the arsenal of Lewis’s dictator, it’s absolutely central to Roth’s President Charles Augustus Lindbergh’.
One could, in fact, make more of that comparison. If, for Roth (writing in 2004), fascism’s primarily about race, for Sinclair (writing in 1935), it’s largely about class.
It Can’t Happen Here—a title more often cited than read, one suspects—portrays the victory of Senator ‘Buzz’ Windrip during the election of 1936. In many respects, Windrip’s a perfect anticipation of Trump:
The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. […] There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect. […] He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, in the especial nobility of dogs, all dogs [ …] and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.
Lewis’ partner, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, had witnessed the rise of the Nazis first hand and Lewis drew heavily on her reports from Germany. Though Windrip uses racism (‘nothing so elevates,’ says Lewis, ‘a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, on which he can look down’), his campaign rests primarily on a direct economic appeal to ‘the forgotten men’: those caught between organised labour and big business. Windrip’s backers thus sing a version of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’:
Berzelius Windrip went to Wash.,
A riding on a hobby—
To throw Big Business out, by Gosh,
And be the People’s Lobby!
The League of the Forgotten Men
Don’t like to be forgotten,
They went to Washington and then
They sang, “There’s something rotten!”
It’s a lyric that could be adopted by almost all of the Presidential candidates today, both Republican and Democrat, in a campaign dominated by a revulsion against so-called Washington insiders. Trump, of course, is a billionaire, as he often reminds his audiences. Yet, in a piece for the National Journal, John B Judis identifies Trump’s constituency as ‘Middle American Radicals’: hostile to the poor and to minorities but supporting government employment schemes, price controls, federally funded education, social security and health insurance. Indeed, much of the attack on Trump from the Republican establishment rests on labeling him insufficiently conservative.
That being said, the plebeian element in Trumpism remains far more muted than the campaign that Lewis describes. Windrip’s platform contains several elements one might expect from a socialist campaign: the first of his fifteen planks promises to take control of finance and nationalise the banks; the fifth puts a limit on personal incomes and accumulated wealth.
Lewis modeled the Windrip character on Huey Long, the populist Louisiana governor. Prior to his assassination, Long was thought to have been planning a 1936 presidential bid in association with Father Coughlin. The names of the two men’s respective organisations give a sense of their platform: Long’s was called Share the Wealth; Coughlin’s was The National Union for Social Justice. Both groups were militantly anti-communist, but they weren’t simply rightwingers. Rather, they manifested the insurgent dynamic typical of fascism: as per the Nazis’ ‘national revolution’ against ‘Jewish’ finance.
Furthermore, in the novel, Windrip’s supporters do far more than sing. He establishes a marching-band-cum-paramilitary organisation known as the Minute Men: ‘the knight-champions of the rights of the Forgotten Men—the shock troops of Freedom!’ During Windrip’s rallies, the Minute Men beat up Communists and other hecklers (again, you can see the influence of Thompson’s reports). After the election, the Minute Men kill or arrest Windrip’s opponents, allowing society to be restructured on corporatist lines.
The Trump rallies have occasionally taken on a menacing tone, particularly when The Donald confronts hecklers. On one occasion, Trump responded to protesters by launching into a discussion of how Vladimir Putin assassinated hostile reporters. ‘I’m totally against that,’ he said. ‘By the way, I hate some of these people [the protesters] but I’d never kill them. I hate them, I’ll be honest. I’d never kill them.’ He then made a gesture as if weighing up the decision, before repeating, ‘I’d never kill them. I just hate them. But some people are such lying, disgusting people—it’s true, it’s true—but I’d never kill them.’
The crowd erupted in applause.
Yet, despite such episodes, Trump possesses no equivalent to the Minute Men and has shown no interest in forming one. He and his Tea Party allies might enthuse about deporting refugees, excluding Muslims and killing terrorists but they do not smash up opponents’ meetings and nor do they control the streets. That’s one reason why, as Charlie Post explains in Jacobin, ‘neither the Tea Party nor Trump can be described as fascists. Both seek to win power through electoral politics, not abolish elections and representative government.’
To put that in context, it’s worth turning to one of the earliest American depictions of a recognizably fascist regime: Jack London’s The Iron Heel.
In 1937, Leon Trotsky wrote a short appreciation of London. By then, of course, fascism was entrenched in Italy and Germany, well on the way in Spain, and a serious force in almost every industrialised country. From that vantage, Trotsky expressed his astonishment at the predictive power of London’s novel The Iron Heel, a book written in 1908. ‘In reading [The Iron Heel] one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its governmental technique, its political psychology!’
You can see what he means. London published his book before the First World War, before the Russian Revolution and well before the March on Rome publicised the term ‘fascism’. Yet he offers a remarkable anticipation of the political landscape in which Hitler and Mussolini came to power. The Iron Heel describes a capitalism dominated by huge trusts, with this plutocracy deploying thugs to break picket lines and smash strikes. Deeply influenced by the 1905 revolution in Russia, London calls these gangs—his version of the ‘Minute Men’—‘The Black Hundreds’, after the ultra nationalist movement backed by the Tsar.
Three years after Trotsky, Orwell reviewed The Iron Heel alongside HG Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and The Secret of the League by Ernest Bramah (another early anticipation of fascism, albeit one written from a pro-fascist perspective).
Orwell praised London’s book for its recognition that, in times of crisis, the capitalist class would not ‘slink from the political scene’; that, rather, it would defend its power with ‘the most bloody and unscrupulous [struggle] the world had ever seen’. But he also offered a curious explanation for London’s foresight.
‘With his love of violence and physical strength,’ Orwell said, ‘his belief in ‘natural aristocracy’, his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, [London] had in him what some might fairly call a Fascist strain. This probably helped him to understand just how the possessing class would behave when once they were seriously menaced.’
To see what Orwell means, consider the speech that the industrialist Wickson gives to outline the policy of the oligarchs. ‘We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces,’ Wickson says. ‘The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. … In the dirt […] shall [labour] remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words – Power. Not God, not Mammon but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.’
It’s a remarkable anticipation of fascism’s eroticisation of power. Fifteen years later, Hitler explained in Mein Kampf that:
The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher development of organic living beings would be unthinkable.
Trump, of course, launched his presidential campaign by boasting about his wealth (‘I’m really rich’) and then insisting ‘I’m not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don’t have to brag.’ As Jeet Heer puts it, ‘When he’s not hurling invective at others, Trump can be heard preening on his own greatness, exulting over his intelligence, his wealth, and his way with women.’
In his University of Massachusetts study of 1800 registered voters, Matthew Macwilliams found that the most significant variable in predicting support for Trump was what he called ‘authoritarian inclination’, followed by ‘fear of terrorism’. This, he suggests, is key to Trumpism: ‘From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.’
How does this work? What aspect of Trump’s wealth and power appeals to voters, the vast majority of whom lack both?
Interestingly, in The Iron Heel, London associates an almost sexualized appreciation of power not only with the fascists but also with their ostensible opponents. After all, the socialist hero of the book goes by the unfortunate name of Ernest Everhard. The novel’s narrator, Avis (Ernest’s wife) explains that ‘never was there such a lover as Ernest Everhard’. He is, she explains, ‘a natural aristocrat—and this in spite of the fact that he was in the camp of the non-aristocrats. He was a superman, a blond beast such as Nietzsche has described …’ Elsewhere she describes him in action: ‘[H]is eyes snapped and flashed, and his chin and jaw were eloquent with aggressiveness. … It always aroused people. His smashing, sledgehammer manner of attack invariably made them forget themselves.’
In other words, Everhard’s an embodiment of eroticised power: an anti-fascist hero with distinctly fascist tendencies.
As Orwell notes, London always possessed a ‘fascist strain’. He was, for instance, an overt white supremacist, as inspired by Nietzsche and Spencer as by Marx. London wrote The Iron Heel when he was a supporter of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. Shortly before his death, he signed a copy of The Iron Heel for a friend with the words: ‘This was the stuff I devoted twenty years of my life to and found the “people” wouldn’t fight for it.’ Even in the novel itself, you can see elements of that disillusionment—his sense that the ‘people’ themselves were a disappointment, even a danger.
In a crucial scene, Avis confronts the ‘people of the abyss’: the workers kept in subhuman conditions by the oligarchy. She regards the crowd with a mixture of fear and almost existential dread:
It surged past my vision in concrete waves of wrath, snarling and growling, carnivorous, drunk with whiskey from pillaged warehouses, drunk with hatred, drunk with lust for blood—men, women, and children, in rags and tatters, dim ferocious intelligences with all the godlike blotted from their features and all the fiendlike stamped in, apes and tigers, anaemic consumptives and great hairy beasts of burden, wan faces from which vampire society had sucked the juice of life, bloated forms swollen with physical grossness and corruption, withered hags and death’s-heads bearded like patriarchs, festering youth and festering age, faces of fiends, crooked, twisted, misshapen monsters blasted with the ravages of disease and all the horrors of chronic innutrition–the refuse and the scum of life, a raging, screaming, screeching, demoniacal horde.
That’s the context in which to understand Ernest Everhard, the socialist superman. He’s presented as an ubermensch because London sees the masses as untermenschen: ordinary people not as builders of a new society but as a menace threatening not merely the wealthy but also (and perhaps especially) those only slightly above them. The fascist impulse thus arises from political despair, when middle class radicalisation fixates, with a mixture of terror and loathing, on the enemy within. In the face of economic and political crisis, the desperate shopkeeper or clerk or dentist identifies an internal foe (the working class, the Jews, the blacks, the Muslims) as an almost existential evil, and then turns to those whom might deliver him from it.
It’s not difficult to identify embryonic forms of this eliminationist sentiment today, particularly in relation to Muslims. For instance, at a recent event in Arizona, Trump was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, the conservative pundit, who raised Trump’s recent pledge not only to kill Islamic terrorists but to also ‘take out’ their families. According to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, O’Reilly said that he didn’t believe that, as President, Trump would ‘put out hits on women and children’. When Trump replied, ‘I would do pretty severe stuff’, the crowd roared its approval.
Lizza commented: ‘I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.’
In the New Republic, Alexander Hurst draws a fascinating parallel between Trump’s personal germaphobia (he regards shaking hands as ‘barbaric’ and washes his hands ‘as much as possible’) and the rhetoric he uses about both immigrants and his opponents, which is invariably underpinned by disgust. ‘When Trump invokes “rapists, drug dealers, killers,”’ Hurst argues, ‘or talks about Marco Rubio’s sweating, or says that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged,” it presents his supporters, caught in the intersection of disgust and fear, with people against whom they can recoil. Feminism, Islam, a majority-minority society, pressing 1 for English and 2 for Spanish, Barack Obama himself—there is something bad, something impure that has infiltrated America, and it must be expelled.’ Compare Avis’ response to ‘bloated forms swollen with physical grossness and corruption’ that she sees in the slums.
Nonetheless, the most nakedly eliminationist rhetoric aired in the presidential campaing remains directed at external threats, particularly at the Muslim world. Trump might raise the prospect of killing protesters and reporters—but he does so only to immediately reject it. Neither Trump nor any other major figure has centred their campaign on the extermination of an internal enemy.
Trotsky’s admiration for The Iron Heel rested on its identification of the conditions that made a fascist movement viable. The book’s set in a society mired in recession: ‘All markets were glutted; all markets were falling; and amidst the general crumble of prices the price of labor crumbled fastest of all.’
Yet it’s also a society in which an organised opposition to capital is growing. When the plutocracy strikes, it’s in response to what London calls the ‘great socialist landslide that took place in the fall of 1912’, with the oligarchy embracing the fascist option not out of choice but from desperate necessity.
As Trotsky notes, this was characteristic of European fascism. Big business, he says, ‘likes fascism as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled’. In Germany, for instance, the Nazis represented the option of last resort for capital, in a situation of deep economic and political crisis.
In It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis gives a good illustration of the calculations business leaders make in such a situation.
‘Of course,’ explains a banker, ‘Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he’ll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism’ …? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours–not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.’
The bankers don’t like the Minute Men—they fear Windrip’s promise to carry out nationalisations—but they recognise he’s the only man capable of disciplining American labour and so in desperation they make their peace with the movement.
You can see at once the difference with contemporary America. The US economy might be stagnant but it’s not in the midst of a Weimar-style collapse. American trade unionism remains weaker than at any time in the last century. All the recent attempts to mount some kind of anti-capitalist program from the Left (think of Occupy Wall Street) have collapsed ignominiously. With industrial disputation in the US remaining at almost historically low levels, the real life equivalents of Senator Windrip’s bankers see no need to encourage paramilitary strikebreaking.
It’s difficult to imagine the growth of a serious fascist movement in the US without a more intense polarisation. American politics has become bitter and spiteful but most ordinary people remain cynically disengaged, even as some shift their allegiance to demagogues like Trump.
Nonetheless, if the hour of the rough beast has not yet come around yet, it’s far easier now to imagine it slouching towards Washington than even a decade ago. The story of American fascism in the twenty first century has not yet been written. But the drafts we’ve already seen should be a wake up call.
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster, and an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University.