President Barack Obama declared to CNN on Dec. 26 that he could have beaten Trump had he the chance to run against the president-elect for a third term. However, he may have done more than anyone else to assure Trump’s victory.
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While Trump’s election has triggered a rapid expansion of fascist currents in U.S. civil society, a fascist outcome for the political system is far from inevitable and will depend on the fight back that has already begun. But that fight back requires clarity as to how we got to such a dangerous precipice. The seeds of a 21st century fascism were planted, fertilized, and watered by the government of outgoing President Obama and the bankrupt liberal elite that Obama’s presidency represents.
By the final years of the George W. Bush regime, and especially with the financial collapse of 2008, seething discontent burst out into mass protest in the U.S. and around the world. The Obama project was, from the start, an effort by dominant groups to re-establish hegemony in the wake of its deterioration during the Bush years. Obama’s election was a challenge to the system at the cultural and ideological level that shook up racial/ethnic foundations upon which the U.S. Republic has always rested – although it certainly did not dismantle those foundations.
However, the Obama project was never intended to challenge the socio-economic order. To the contrary, it sought to preserve and strengthen that order and to sustain capitalist globalization by reconstituting hegemony and conducting a passive revolution against the mass discontent and growing popular resistance that began to percolate in the final years of the Bush presidency.
The Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of passive revolution to refer to efforts by dominant groups to bring about mild change from above in order to defuse mobilization from below for more far-reaching transformation. Integral to passive revolution is the cooptation of leadership from below and the integration of that leadership into the dominant project.
Obama’s 2008 election campaign tapped into and helped expand mass mobilization and popular aspirations for change not seen in many years in the United States. The Obama project co-opted the brewing storm from below, channeled it into the electoral campaign and then betrayed its aspirations. The Democratic Party establishment effectively demobilized the insurgency from below with a more passive revolution even as it resumed and actually accelerated the project of capitalist globalization and neoliberalism. The mass enthusiasm that the first Obama electoral campaign generated quickly dissipated.
Transnational corporate capital financed both of the Obama presidential campaigns and purchased the Obama presidency. Obama pushed forward the agenda of global war, neoliberalism, and the drift towards an authoritarian state. He became the corporate bailout president, the mass deportation president, and the drone-warfare president. His government pushed the construction of a repressive police and surveillance state. It authorized the indefinite detention without writ of habeas corpus of anyone the state deems an “enemy,” waged war against whistleblowers and leakers, and defended NSA domestic and global spying. It ramped up the military budget, which had already reached a historic high under the Bush regime. It brokered the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Trade in Services Agreement.
In this sense, the Obama project weakened the popular and left response from below to the crisis, which opened space for the right-wing response: an insurgent project of 21st century fascism. The Obama administration appeared, certainly in this respect, as a Weimar Republic. Although the Social Democrats were in power during the Weimar Republic of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s they did not pursue a leftist response to the crisis, but rather sidelined the militant trade unions, Communists and Socialists, and progressively pandered to capital and the right before turning over power to the Nazis in 1933. Obama’s 21st century Weimar Republic generated conditions propitious to the development of neo-fascist forces in the United States.
During the Bush regime, these neo-fascist forces spread throughout U.S. civil society, exhibiting a growing cross-pollination between different sectors of the radical right not seen in years. Right-wing elements among the transnational corporate community broadly funded during Obama’s presidency neo-fascist movements like the Tea Party and neo-fascist legislation such as Arizona’s notorious 2010 anti-immigrant law, SB1070. That legislation sparked “copy-cat” laws around the country and helped spawn a vicious anti-immigrant, border vigilante, and white supremacist movement. The far right-wing billionaire Koch brothers, for instance, were the prime bankrollers of the Tea Party and also of a host of foundations and front organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center.
These organizations pushed an extreme version of the neoliberal corporate agenda, including the reduction and elimination of corporate taxes, cutbacks in social services, the gutting of public education, and the total liberation of capital from any state regulation. This neoliberalism on steroids is precisely the economic program of the incoming Trump regime and converges perfectly with the interests of the transnational capitalist class, even if its cultural and ideological garb is dramatically distinct from that of Obama and the liberals.
Trumpism’s far-right agenda – contrary to superficial interpretations – constitutes a deepening, not a reversal, of the program of capitalist globalization pursued by the Obama administration and every U.S. administration since Ronald Reagan. The crisis of global capitalism has become more acute in the face of economic stagnation and the rise of anti-globalization populism on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Trumpism does not represent a break with capitalist globalization, but rather the recomposition of political forces and ideological discourse as the crisis deepens and as international tensions reach new depths.
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Whether in its 20th or its emerging 21st century variants, fascism is, above all, a response to deep structural crises of capitalism, such as that of the 1930s and the one that began with the financial meltdown of 2008. I have been writing for the past decade about the rise of 21st century fascist currents in the context of the new global capitalism. One key difference between 20th century fascism and 21st century fascism is that the former involved the fusion of national capital with reactionary and repressive political power, whereas the latter involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. Trumpism is not a departure from but an incarnation of the emerging dictatorship of the transnational capitalist class.
Trumpism and the sharp turn to the extreme right is the logical progression of the political system in the face of the crisis of global capitalism. The liberal elite and its project of capitalist globalization through a “kinder, gentler” discourse of multiculturalism reached a dead end and led the system into a new crisis of hegemony. To paraphrase Clausewitz’ famous dictum that “war is an extension of politics by other means,” Trumpism is an extension of neo-liberalism by other means.
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There is a near-straight line here from Obama to Trump. It was the Obama government and the liberal elite that more fully opened the Pandora’s box of Trumpism and 21st century fascism. As the 2016 elections approached, the question was how renewed mass discontent would be expressed. The liberal elite marginalized Senator Bernie Sanders and his insurgent progressive campaign and lined up behind neoliberal hawk Hillary Clinton. But unlike 2008, this time it failed in its effort to pull off another passive revolution. By once again quashing a left-wing response to the crisis the liberal elite fed the turn to the far right.
The liberal elite’s refusal to challenge the rapaciousness of transnational capital and its brand of identity politics served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes and of anti-capitalism, pushing white workers into an "identity" of white nationalism and helping the neo-fascist right organize them politically. Alongside voter suppression of largely Black and Latino voters, Trump deftly mobilized a significant portion of the white working class around a demagogic discourse of racist scapegoating, misogyny, imperial bluster and the manipulation of fear and economic destabilization.
Trumpism’s veiled and at times openly racist and neo-fascist discourse has “legitimated” and unleashed ultra-racist and fascist movements in U.S. civil society. These forces seem to be achieving a toehold in the U.S. state through the emerging Trump regime. This regime brings together billionaire bankers and businessmen with politicized warrior generals and neo-fascist activists in a deadly cocktail that threatens to lead us to disaster if the fight back is not able to derail Trumpism.
This is an extremely dangerous moment but it is very fluid. Political and economic elites are divided and confused. Trumpism has further fractured ruling groups and may well be generating a crisis of the state that opens up space for popular and leftist responses from below. A significant portion of the elite opposed Trump during the electoral campaign. Will they accommodate themselves to his regime or turn against it?
We are not at this time in a fascist system and it can be averted if the fight back is expansive, organized, and unified into an anti-neo-fascist front. In order to do that, the fight back cannot turn to the decadent liberal elite organized in the Democratic Party. Foundations and corporations will fund the liberal anti-Trump groups to try and shape the agenda of the anti-Trump fight back. The Democrats and their corporate backers will try to channel the fight back it into the next legislative and presidential elections.
Working-class politics must achieve hegemony in any united front against neo-fascism. Trump’s electoral base among the white working class will discover very early on in his regime that his promises were a hoax. How will their rage be contained? Will they be recruited into projects of 21st century fascism or into a popular and leftist project of resistance and transformation? For the latter to happen we need to move beyond identity politics to reconstruct a working class identity by coupling anti-racism and defense of immigrants with a program of economic and social reconstruction that brings the language of class and socialism back into the vocabulary. Only by building up the organization of the global working class in all its diversity and placing its multitude of struggles at the center of the fight back can we win.
William I. Robinson is a professor of Sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.