Fascism-Lite in America (or the Social Ideal of Donald Trump)
When the great political writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to witness democracy in America, many in Europe were slowly persuaded that ‘power in the hands of the many, not just the few’ was the best way to govern. De Tocqueville recorded a ‘strong and independent’ community, where the American citizen had ‘an interest in it because he shares in its management’. Near the same time, in 1831, Wolfgang von Goethe famously wrote, ‘America, you’ve got it made – better than us here in the old world’. This was why so many people, including one Frederick Trump in 1885,5 would emigrate to the States over the 19th century. They escaped authoritarian government, the repression of democracy and social justice, and the worst excesses of the industrial revolution. They sought the spirit of liberty. America’s dream was one of a people who, as Pitt the Elder told Parliament in 1775, ‘prefer poverty with liberty to gilded chains and sordid affuence; and who will die in defence of their rights as men, as freemen.’6 So it may seem natural that fascism has never yet taken hold in America.
There were exceptions. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s fascists had taken over Columbia University’s Casa Italiana, 8 where students pledged allegiance to Mussolini. And today, many believe Donald Trump, the embattled presidential candidate in 2016, might be another exception. Words like ‘fascist’ often churn through 24 hour media, unconnected to essential political concepts.9 Nevertheless, Trump is being forced to defend himself. For example, after Trump quoted Mussolini in a tweet, a TV interviewer asked Trump, ‘You want to be associated with a fascist?’ ‘No, I want to be associated’, replied Trump, ‘with interesting quotes.’10 These developments are abnormal. As seen on reality TV, ‘the “Donald Trump” model of workplace relations’ (represented by an authority fgure barking “you’re fred”) has come to politics.
Of course, Trump the man, and his policies, are profoundly uninteresting in themselves: the psychological product of a damaged and insecure individual. He visibly struggles to validate his precarious self-image, 12 yet more evidence that money alone does not make you happy. But the movement in politics, the claim that fascism is emerging in America, matters. We need to know the phenomenon’s causes, relative nature, and consequences, to defeat it for good. This article’s main argument is that America is not seeing a fascist movement.
The political essence of fascism entails welfare protection of vulnerable individuals, who renounce all rights to a strong leader. The welfare element is lacking. American politics is experiencing the consequences of monopoly capitalism, which has successfully shifted its search for economic power into the political realm, but is teetering on the brink of collapse. If we had to give it a name, it is ‘fascism-lite’. The long-term cause of the Trump episode begins with Buckley v Valeo in 1976.
Forty years of Supreme Court decisions, and especially the decisions of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, play the major role. But Buckley v Valeo is the ‘Trump for president’ decision because it decided, over powerful dissent, that the First Amendment to the US Constitution protected unlimited spending of money on one’s own political campaign. As he proclaimed during his primaries, Trump fnanced himself with his inherited wealth, via loans from one of his companies. Buckley long pre-dates the also disastrous decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. But it made Citizens United, neo-conservatism and Trump, possible. This article focuses on the politics of law rather than close doctrinal analysis. But it must be noted at the outset that the First Amendment prohibition on Congress passing laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech’ has little or nothing to do with election spending.
The powerful dissenting judgments in Buckley explained this, and they served as a model for other democratic countries worldwide. Unlimited election expenditures by anyone, like Trump, diminishes other people’s freedom. Other people’s voices are drowned out in scarce media resources by those with the deepest pockets. This may be changing through the internet, which could allow an essentially unlimited supply of discourse so long as network monopolies on the web remain unpriced and open. But advertising opportunities on the web, radio waves and TV channels are fewer, media channels can be purchased, and politicians can be lobbied.
This is why democratic countries reject that money is speech per se. Buckley was not the product of reason. It was one of the frst cases after Justice William O. Douglas had to leave the Court. It was the start of a decisive change in American governance. Antonin Scalia’s passing away, in 2016, marks the end of a four decade phase in judicial composition, unless Congress holds out on an appointment indefnitely, or a Republican wins the Presidency. What led to Buckley v Valeo? It was the crowning success of a detailed plan, started by Lewis Powell, in 1971. For the US Chamber of Commerce, Powell wrote an extraordinary ‘memorandum’ entitled ‘Attack on American Free Enterprise System’. It explained how to roll back democratic organization in politics and the economy for the next generation.20 Powell, a corporate lawyer, said a concerted effort to push their ‘side’ of the argument had to begin in public education, and journalism where news-stand literature was ‘advocating everything from revolution to erotic free love’. Powell also urged concerted action in the courts.
As he put it, This was largely assured as Richard Nixon appointed Powell himself to the US Supreme Court. Even in 1971 it was preposterous to say, as Powell did then, that ‘the American business executive is truly the “forgotten man.”’ But once Buckley was through, fewer and fewer people would ever say it again. The four decades since Buckley saw a slow drift of American society into something resembling monopoly capitalism. Corporate boards, banks, and asset managers monopolize the votes in the economy, almost all with ‘other people’s money’.
They hold immense economic infuence. Economic infuence is translated into politics, policies become law, and law is used to entrench economic privilege. The modern Republican party became a wholly owned subsidiary of large corporations and fnanciers, and the Democratic party has struggled to resist arrest. Democracy in America needs care and attention, or there will be another conclusion. This article explains a taxonomy of social ideals to understand politics today, outlines the essence of the US Supreme Court’s case law, and the social ideal of Donald Trump. Its basic argument is that Trump, and the law that makes him possible, is not fascist, but the extension of a system of monopoly capitalism. If we had to give it a name, Donald Trump is ‘fascism-lite’.