To brand someone a fascist is to invite a rarely rewarding debate over definitions. Indeed, if even Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler had no common theory for what they were doing, it is puzzling to hear the category “fascism” extended to Ba’athism, ISIS, or, indeed, the rise of Donald Trump’s white nationalist movement.
Not only are these examples not all united by classically fascist themes of national rebirth, economic corporatism, or armed expansionism, but nor are these themes the sole preserve of fascists. We never seem to discuss it, but even good-old British liberalism had its millions of dead and its concentration camps. But in media-political discourse the use of “fascist” normally means little but a bully who doesn’t respect the rules. And its use often tells us more about the person making the accusation than the intended target.
After all, the invocation of fascism is a long-established call to arms — a demand for unity against the outside threat. An inflated story of Churchill’s refusal to appease Nazism still today justifies many an imperial exploit, with the numbers of modern-day Hitlers who must be combated (Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi . . .) seemingly ever-increasing despite our efforts to bomb their subjects into submission. Never mind what we’re trying to achieve — the Nazis are coming. And appeals to antifascism now also make their appearance in the (currently) less violent setting of the US presidential primaries.
The portrayal of Trump as not just a worse racist and nationalist than his opponents, but a fascist, allows the likes of Hillary Clinton to pose as high-minded defenders of decency in public life and democratic values. To put it kindly, these terms would not likely be associated with her dynastic candidacy if she could not transplant #ReadyforHillary onto the contest of “status quo versus barbarism.”
Dylan Riley has aptly referred to this as the “hysterical lesser-evilism implicit” in calling the Republican front-runner a fascist — a call for maximum unity behind the Democratic nominee, on whatever platform. It is a program for demobilization, turning movements for social change into conservative get-out-the-vote operations.
Of course, it is easy to see why this could work. Media are already predicting a very high turnout of black, female, and young voters in November, to stop Trump. And quite rightly. If Clinton is the Democratic candidate, she will, indeed, be the lesser of two evils. Her rule would do less to galvanize racist cops, and probably also mean less economic chaos, than would Trump’s. Her supporters will not beat up black people at her rallies.
But what is obnoxious is the use of these facts to demand message discipline in advance; as if Sanders’s candidacy itself, or even the mere discussion of Clinton’s terrible record on race, active role in the Middle East collapse, or shameless service of the super-rich is somehow “letting the side down” when all progressive forces must be devoted to bashing Trump. Out with Black Lives Matter and the movement against the 1 percent; in with the defense of corporate liberalism. Such is Clinton’s cynical antifascism.
Indeed, although almost all polls suggest Bernie Sanders would actually do better than Hillary in a head-to-head with the Donald, lesser-evil antifascism is near-exclusively invoked as a call to rally behind the former secretary of state. Sure, she isn’t what you wanted — the argument goes — but you have no choice, because only her impeccable moderation can win over center-right voters — and the alternative is fascism.
Something of a parallel dynamic is happening even among Republicans, as party grandees seeking a more establishment candidate now rally behind Ted Cruz — the single figure closest to Trump’s misogyny and racism, and with a divine mission to boot — in order to steal some of the front-runner’s hard-right clothes.
Hence lesser-evilism drags the whole political spectrum toward the lesser evil — or rather, helps the second-worst evil pose as your antifascist friend. Even as his Republican competitors profess their outrage at Trump’s demagoguery, all of them have been pulled right during the campaign, with Cruz even imitating the demand to build the wall across the Mexican border.
And so, too, would Clinton invariably tack to the center or center-right if she were the Democratic nominee, anti-Trumpism providing her the perfect excuse to roll back all previous concessions made to the Sanders movement. A corrupt establishment insider and leader of the war on terror (the proponent of what would have been a disastrous attack on Syria) thus comes to stand for decency and caution.
Ironically, it is Trump’s areas of similarity with classical fascism that most demonstrate the dangers of such establishment lesser-evilism. Firstly, because the coronation of an elite figure like Hillary feeds the far right’s claim to represent the sole anti-establishment voice, for want of any candidate giving a left-populist alternative to working-class and left-behind rural Americans. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the current campaign is Trump’s particular success agitating among poor whites, with around 10 percent of Sanders’s supporters threatening to vote for the billionaire over Clinton. Secondly, because tacking right to meet the fascist danger effectively means more poverty, more attacks on racial minorities, and more violence both at home and abroad.
Indeed, history hardly demonstrates that established bourgeois elites are an ally for the Left against far-right populism, even in its overtly fascist form.
The German Social Democrats voted for the conservative nationalist Paul von Hindenburg to stop Adolf Hitler in 1932, withdrawing their own candidacy while using their police powers to repress Communists; Hindenburg won, and then appointed Hitler chancellor just one year later. Benito Mussolini denounced the entire political elite, boisterously vaunting “the theory of action, not words”; sure that they could contain him within establishment ranks, it was the Liberals who voted his first government into office, inaugurating a twenty-year regime.
Fascism is not coming to America, and it remains highly probable that Clinton will win the presidency come November. But a very real danger exists of something like the current French situation developing: the far right becoming the sole anti-establishment force, hoovering up working-class support from the Left, while liberal elites club together in defense of republican legality.
The establishment adopts ever harsher anti-immigrant measures to quell the populist storm, street racism is fueled, and the far right increasingly claims a monopoly of dissent. All that can result is a toxic mix of precarity and violence — a rising far-right populism fed by the cynical antifascism of the elites.