Donald Trump: populist? fascist? Neither.

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Jan-Werner Mueller has written an excellent editorial for Al Jazeera America, entitled “Trump is a far right populist, not a fascist.” I like this analysis because it goes into a few distinct and important areas when talking about politics, especially to an American audience. Essentially, it’s an attempt to counter the easy ‘fascist’ descriptor with something more rooted in history and ideology.

While the term ‘populist’ has a progressive connotation in the United States, in Europe is applied to race-baiting demagogues like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France. Populism itself is not an ideology. It’s an approach to politics, relying on relating to the struggles of the common people and rallying them towards a goal. This goal can be anything- Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both be considered populists in their anti-establishment stance. In the late 19th century, the People’s Party gained traction by stirring up farmers to oppose urban finance capital that exploited them. All the variation in populism comes from who the villain is. For the Trump campaign, Latinos were the initial target. Now it’s expanded to Muslims, both groups being linked by their ‘foreignness’. Trump appeals to poor whites, the same who have been behind the spike in popularity of far-right groups like the National Front, along with Golden Dawn in Greece and the Danish People’s Party.

As with populism itself, “people’s party” reflects tactics rather than ideology.

But calling the Trump campaign populist is problematic. On the surface level, his rhetoric fits the bill. Yet the entire structure of the campaign is different. American populism grew at the grassroots level- it was a bunch of broke common people up against a small clique of bankers and politicians that created this inequity in the first place. Zach Carter is right to deem him a ‘plutocrat populist.’ I don’t think of Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long when Trump floats into conversation. I think of Charles Foster Kane, a man who has profited from exploitation and claims that as experience for office.

His campaign apparatus has been slow in becoming anything other than a planning team for rallies. In populist fashion he stirs up his followers, but their zeal doesn’t carry. Big turnout, yes, but a noncommittal base. There has been no effort to change this; for a front-running campaign there is no systemic gathering of data and follow-up. What makes supporters of populist parties and figures distinct is their commitment above and beyond the normal politics of voting. In America, they battled the banks over monetary policy, and many fought and died in labor actions against mining and timber interests. Far-right supporters in Europe often engage in street protests and sometimes open conflict with political opponents. Despite the left and right selling very different ideas of what a just society is, and who is keeping it unjust, populism creates rabid followers. I don’t recognize what we call populism at anything beyond a surface level.

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Located here (http://virallysuppressed.com/2014/04/04/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-equality-how-the-far-right-co-opted-american-populism/)

Even with mass support, this is still a Trump vanity campaign. His political shifts haven’t been justified by new experiences or ideas. Right-wing rhetoric is just the easiest way to get noticed- especially in a Republican Party that lacks high-caliber figures that could steal the spotlight. Thus just like ‘populist,’ the label ‘fascist’ also falters beyond a surface basis. Yes, in Italy and Germany there was physical violence between true believers and the opposition. Xenophobia was strong then and continues to be. Be that as it may, fascist ideology was complex and sophisticated, and those that crafted it were serious about everything they said and did. Trump’s politics are scattershot and shallow- the xenophobia is present, but it’s not directed in any way.

I don’t get the feeling that if he was elected, the fascist-seeming aspects of his stump speeches would be formalized and put into law. Some people advocate extreme ideology because they believe mainstream politics has failed and radical measures must be taken to reforge society. Others use it to gain attention and power, because they are no different in mindset than the discredited mainstream. Trump seems to be the latter.

So I take a third option on who Donald Trump is in this election cycle. His campaign isn’t the work of common people at all, and while his nominally populist outlook draws big crowds, it hasn’t created the warriors for the cause. While Trump rallies do often resemble fascism, or something just as odious, there isn’t any ideas about the role of the state and the nation. Trump is a consummate opportunist who taps into the energy of an alienated white working class, but not for any larger purpose. Populists, then and now, used these tactics to further a particular cause. Movements were populist and then something else. He is just one shade of the fallout from gridlock and corruption in the mainstream. Hollow demagogues have the same opportunity to harness popular anger as everyone else.

Voting against, rather than voting for

Here’s a somewhat different perspective on American electoral policies: what happened last month was not an election. It would be defined better as a referendum. In an election you vote for a candidate. In a referendum to accept or reject a person or issue.

The term election encompasses referendums (here are some definitions) and other forms of democratic election, but voter mentality is firmly against one party and thus for the other.

In a two-party system, all elections inherently boil down to either accepting or rejecting the incumbent party. A certain portion of voters are ideologically for one party or the other, but the swing demographic that decides power mostly votes on a core sense of frustration.

Why do midterm elections almost always go bad for the party which won the presidency two years prior? It can’t be a radical shift in policy, but rather a realization that election promises are more symbolic than anything else.

The greatest encapsulation of the see-saw elections of modern states like America comes from a Canadian progressive leader named Tommy Douglas. Douglas was the mind behind universal healthcare and was named by voters as the greatest Canadian of all time. The parable is called “Mouseland”.

November 4, 2014 is the latest in a line of mice choosing cats to hold power over them. That deep sense of anger, that most people are getting screwed over, comes from the government of cats. Some may be red, some may be blue, however the key issue is that they are cats- they will always do wrong because that’s what cats do to mice.

Two things are needed to begin the process towards a more authentic democracy:

1) Money must be removed from politics, and the system of lobbying based on sorta-bribes eliminated. A series of steps could help make politicians look more like their constituents- racially, culturally, and economically.

2) Multi-party democracy must come into existence. This relates to the first party in that big, money-laden political machines help suppress alternatives. Much of this stems from an electoral system that values entrenched interests. If there are several viable parties, elections becomes less of a referendum and more about ideas. Whatever issues the German system may have, their five main parties represent the spectrum from anti-capitalism to classical liberalism to Greens to social conservatives. In America a liberal have two options in most cases when they are frustrated- vote Republican or abstain.

Whatever form and function a democratic gains, it is clear that the people need something to vote for rather than vote against. For all votes against a certain person or policy is a vote rooted in fear. And as one of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms stated, in a good society there must be freedom from fear.

2014 Midterms: Something about nothing

The 2014 midterm elections were boring. They fit into a long historical trend of midterms going against the president’s party, and one only needs to look at the distorted ratio of Democratic seats in the Senate that needed defending to Republican ones. Gerrymandering makes the House increasingly predictable and dull- any interesting results occur months earlier in primaries.

Something was learned. Something about nothing. Because nothing was the Democratic Party’s platform going into the elections.

Their economic policy plank was insubstantial. Little effort was dedicated to big-picture ideas, the sort that might override voter cynicism and record-low approval ratings for Congress. Broadly speaking, the Democrats had a reactionary campaign. Rather than defending the president’s agenda or the liberalism that will always be tied to the party, they ran away and tried to find shelter, either with local issues or populist conservatism.

In the end, moving yet further to the right is not going to win elections. If people wish to vote for a conservative candidate, that’s what the Republican Party is there for. Polls show that the public wants economic justice and ending elite privilege. But that’s ignored, so the plan instead is to ignore empirical evidence and go with pundit wisdom. 2014 shouldn’t be thought of as the voters choosing R’s over D’s, but rather a mass of people that saw nothing worth voting for.

As someone outside the two-party mindset, I have no anticipation that the Democratic Party will see the error of its ways and become some great progressive engine worth supporting. But even in the limited spectrum in the United States, it’s clear that there’s no winning scenario at the end of all this. The Republican Party has coalesced around a selection of bold, simple, and terrible ideas. They have an agenda worth hating. There is substance. Democratic Senate candidates fled substance, and often latched onto GOP ideas in the absence of anything else.

Personally I’m glad that Proposition 47 passed in my home state of California. It is a great step towards ending prison overcrowding and the mass incarceration culture. It’s also the sort of sensible policy that isn’t getting passed in Congress anytime soon. A bit of direct democracy is the only respite from gridlock.