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Ignoring Elites

How not to think about politics in the age of Trump.

Donald Trump exits Air Force One at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville on March 20. Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office / Flickr

One of the many reasons I resist the Trump-as-fascist argument is that it often leads to (or accompanies) an inattention to or eclipse of matters of high politics and elite action: the jockeying for position at the highest levels of state, the coalitions and fractures within the dominant regime, the day-to-day events in which policy gets formed and unformed.

There’s no intrinsic reason that an invocation of fascism should require that inattention; the best historical studies of fascism don’t ignore these questions at all. In the American context, however, the invocation of that parallel — whether to McCarthyism or now to Trump — often does.

The reason for that, I suspect, is that most people tend to think of fascism as primarily a form of mass politics, that most of the action is on the ground and at the grassroots, far away from the centers of elite power, and that fascism is best studied as a question not of events or policy or elite action but as a simple and straightforward reflection of deep, structural changes in culture, psyche, economy, and society. So the Trump parallel leads people to focus on questions of popular mobilization, the circulation of racist ideas and affects among the working class or lower middle class, long-term changes in the economy, and so on.

The point is not that those questions shouldn’t be studied; they absolutely need to be, not only with respect to fascism but conservatism more generally, which I’ve always insisted is both an elitist politics and a populist politics, an elite politics that mobilizes the mass, often more skillfully than the Left does. But I think for many people, when it comes to fascism and the Right, the question of high politics almost seems irrelevant: it’s just the tail, everything else is the dog.

As my family was driving home yesterday from my niece’s bat mitzvah up in Boston, I was thinking about this relationship between the Trump-as-fascist argument and the inattention to elites and elite action — and behind that, to the day-to-day changing policies and configurations of power in the Trump regime — and reflecting back on a panel I was on last week about Trump, which featured many of these sensibilities and assumptions, and I remembered this passage from Arno Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken, a book that — like Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy — had a profound influence on my approach to politics, even at, particularly at, moments of great political evil:

Moreover, the mass murder of the Jews, more than any other single event, points up to the importance of returning to the contextual study of short-term events. In the wake of Treblinka and Auschwitz it is difficult not to scorn Fernand Braudel’s characterization of short-term events as mere “dust.” Braudel went so far as to imply that short-term events were not worth studying since, unlike long- and medium-range events, they “traverse history as flashes of light” destined instantly to “turn to darkness, often to oblivion.” Pace Braudel and his epigones, I have tried not only to contemplate the circumstances in which millions of Jews — along with millions of non-Jews — were reduced to “dust” in seconds of historical time but also to recapture the evanescent “light” of their torment to illuminate the historical landscape in which it occurred.

As we see the Trump regime begin to erode under the weight of the day-to-day events, as the weaknesses in the regime slowly begin to appear amid its crumbling edifice, and as the regime’s remaining strengths will undoubtedly be revealed in that same day-to-day calculus of power, I hope we can heed Mayer’s dictum. Which applies, as he makes clear, not only to fascism, but to politics more generally.