By Keith Preston
Between the time that Donald Trump entered the Republican primaries in 2015 to the moment of the January 6, 2021 supposed “coup attempt,” the specter of “fascism” has been raised by critics of Trumpism. Analogies to the failed Weimar liberal-capitalist regime of the pre-Nazi era also became commonplace as political violence escalated in the United States during the past few years. In some marginal ways, the Weimar comparison may be appropriate. Consider the following:
Imagine a scenario where a major world power is facing a contentious upcoming election. The country’s democratic institutions have experienced a loss of public confidence. The political system has widely come to be regarded as unresponsive to public concerns including those involving emergency situations. The existing elected government is even believed by some to have been installed by a foreign power as a result of acts of treason and collaboration with external enemies. The nation has recently experienced serious military failures and is in the midst of major economic turmoil. The wider society has become highly polarized. Extremist movements are becoming more prominent and influential. Large-scale civil unrest has taken place and violence between rival political factions has become increasingly common.
Imagine that one of the country’s major parties has obtained the support of sectors of the military and intelligence services seeking to undermine the elected government. Other party supporters include capitalists engaged in political rent-seeking and elites who are disdainful of the common people. The party has the support of government bureaucrats, the clergy, and arbiters of public morality, intellectuals, professionals, and academics. The party includes homosexual and socialist factions. Other supporters have an affinity for ecology, animal welfare, anti-smoking campaigns, and the use of social engineering and the administrative state to improve public health. Many party members have an ideology reflecting a pathological obsession with racial identity and gender roles. It is widely speculated that following the election the likely President, who will be an elderly, sickly man in a state of decline, will relinquish the reins of power. A potential successor is a much younger person that is widely perceived by critics to be an unscrupulous opportunist but by supporters as representing a new era in the destiny of the nation.
With reasonable accuracy, the scenario above describes both the Weimar republic and the original Nazi Party leading up to the 1932 German election, and the United States and the contemporary Democratic Party leading up to the 2020 American election. No doubt such an analogy will be met with accusations of reductio ad Hitlerium and violations of “Godwin’s Law” but the comparison generally holds up. Of course, there are important differences between Germany then and America now. The United States has a much longer and enduring tradition of constitutional republicanism. World War I was certainly more ruinous to Germany than recent Middle Eastern wars to the United States. The German depression was worse than the present US economic situation. US civil society has not (yet) experienced the same level of collapse as Weimar where extremist parties raised their own armies and carried out gangland murders of their opponents.
“Orange Man=Hitler” comparisons are “a dime a dozen” but if “Godwin’s Law” is to be violated, Trump’s immediate opponents demonstrate the greatest number of actual parallels to the NSDAP. Trump voters, at least those in the Rust Belt states who were pivotal in his 2016 victory, may be less analogous to the supporters of the Nazi Party and, ironically, more comparable to the Communist and Social Democratic voters in Weimar, who tended to be conventional working-class people decimated by the Great Depression. It has been observed that Marine Le Pen’s strongest support is in the districts that used to go for the Communist Party of France (who were the last Western European CP to de-Stalinize). Traditional communists were social conservatives on virtually every issue except organized religion. They were not modern “pink, green, and rainbow” leftists. Nor did they support unrestricted immigration. Trump was elected in 2016 due to his ability to flip the Rust Belt states, which have been decimated by the globalization of capital, and not racial or cultural issues. While immigration was arguably the issue on which Trump was furthest to the right, where he was still way to the left of Eisenhower, Trump was often more stereotypically “progressive” than Biden on key foreign policy, trade, and criminal justice issues. However, the previous year does indicate a serious shift in American political culture.
The Democratic Party in its present form represents a significant alteration in the ideological framework utilized by the elites as a means of self-legitimization. Their opponents, from the talking heads at FOX News to former President Trump himself, have responded largely with predictable talking points. The Democrats supposedly represent the “socialist Left.” Sean Hannity has referred to Bernie Sanders as “Bolshevik Bernie,” and insisted that Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are puppet-mastering the Democratic Party. The mouthpieces of “Conservatism, Inc.” have railed incessantly about how the Democrats have somehow become revolutionary Marxists. The reality is that the party has gone out of its way to marginalize anyone in its ranks with remotely “anti-capitalist” views, such as Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, or the comparatively moderate Elizabeth Warren. Indeed, the alleged “anti-capitalist” credentials of figures such as Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Warren are generally dubious.
Murray Bookchin had Sanders pegged as far back as 1986, during Sanders’ tenure as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. As Bookchin wrote at the time,
“Viewed in terms of its overall economic policies, the Sanders administration bears certain fascinating similarities to the Reagan administration. What Sanders has adopted with a vengeance is ‘trickle-down’ economics — the philosophy that ‘growth’ for profit has a spillover effect in creating jobs and improving the public welfare. Not surprisingly, the City’s 1984 ‘Annual Report’ of the Community and Economic Development Office (a Sanders creation) really begins with a chunky section on ‘UDAG Spur Development.’ UDAGs are Urban Development Action Grants that are meant to ‘leverage’ commitments to growth by the ‘private sector.’ The Office celebrates the fact that these grant requests to Washington will yield $25 million from ‘the private sector’ and ‘create an estimated 556 new full-time, permanent jobs, and generate an additional $332,638 per year in property taxes.’ Among its many achievements, the grant will help the owners of the Radisson Hotel in Burlington… The project also includes expansion of retail space (32,500 square feet) within the Burlington Square Mall…The other grants are less lascivious but they invariably deal with projects to either construct or rehabilitate office, commercial, industrial, and department-store construction.”
In other words, Sanders’ “democratic socialism” has always been just another variation of “crony-capitalism” and closer to Reaganomics or Clintonian neo-liberalism that to Lenin or Mao.
What about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? OpenSecrets.Org reports that her top campaign contributors in 2019-2020 were an interesting combination of Big Tech, Big Media, Big Pharma and universities. AOC’s top 15 contributors were the University of California, Alphabet Inc. (Google), the city of New York, Amazon, Apple, New York University, Microsoft, Kaiser Permanente, AT&T, the City University of New York, Facebook, Disney, the US Postal Service, Columbia University, and IBM. In other words, the primary backers of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the rising sectors of the ruling class. As for Elizabeth Warren, it should be noted that Warren was a Republican well into the 1990s (when she would have been in her mid-forties). Her switch to the Democratic Party and supposed economic populism interestingly coincided with her efforts to gain Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts. Not exactly a standard Marxist-Leninist trajectory.
Kamala Harris as an Emblem of “Woke Capitalism”
Such limited and hyperbolic analyses from the faux populists of “Conservatism, Inc.” miss what is truly interesting about the present moment. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative accurately describes the emerging ideology of the Democrats as “woke capitalism.” Dreher points out that Wall Street and Silicon Valley were quite pleased with the party’s selection and subsequent election of Joe Biden as its candidate, and with Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate and now Vice-President. Saager Enjeti of The Hill notes that the professional-managerial sectors who reside in the suburban regions of major metropolitan areas have expressed a similar satisfaction. Enjeti points out that someone like Harris, who is both pro-Wall Street and pro-slavery reparations, barely fits within the Left/Right paradigm as conventionally understood.
Dreher points out that Kamala Harris is woke capitalism’s “dream pick” for the Vice-Presidential spot and, perhaps, as the future President. Certainly, she appeals to the multicultural Left as a woman of half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry. However, while she “checks the boxes” as a “woman of color,” she has no ancestral roots among the indigenous African-American slave population. In fact, her Jamaican father claims that their family’s ancestors included Jamaican slave owners. She gives every appearance of being an empty vessel media personality who stands for nothing and instead resembles a generic character from an episode of “Law and Order.” During a telling moment in a primary season debate, Tulsi Gabbard pointed out numerous examples of Harris’ past hypocrisy and mendacity. Kamala offered no plausible defense to these accusations because she apparently has none.
During the mid-1990s, Harris was involved with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown who was 30 years her senior and granted her two political appointments during the same period. She was later involved with former talk show host Montel Williams. Those who have pointed out her history of involvement with influential men are criticized for “sexism” (or a variant of sexism known among Social Justice Warriors as “slut-shaming”) but this aspect of her personal life is a relevant issue. Harris gives every appearance of using and then discarding wealthy and powerful men for purposes of self-advancement, which speaks to her motivations and character. In spite of her dismal performance in the Democratic primaries, including her failure to perform well in her home state of California, Kamala was chosen as Biden’s running mate. The choice was likely rooted in several considerations in addition to her race and gender. Harris originates from the same San Francisco Congressional district as Nancy Pelosi. Her connections to Hillary Clinton are well-known. The backing of Silicon Valley and her popularity with Wall Street and Democratic Party donors likely finalized her selection for the vice-presidential spot on the ticket.
More than a few commentators observed the declining quality of Biden’s public performances during the campaign and speculated about possible if not probable cognitive decline. Given Biden’s advanced age and likely deteriorating mental faculties, Harris will quite likely be the de facto acting President as the Biden administration progresses even if a de jour transfer of power is not formally made. Such a prospect is particularly interesting as Kamala Harris largely symbolizes the transformation that is taking place in the Western world and the form that Western capitalism is presently assuming. The “woke capitalism” that is currently emerging, and for which Kamala Harris would seem to be an ideal front-woman, represents what appears to be a new era of plutocratic liberalism functioning within a framework of “globalized technocratic multicultural statism.”
“Woke Capitalism,” Globalization, and the Digital Revolution
Capitalism is nothing if not highly dynamic, as no less than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels enthusiastically pointed out in The Communist Manifesto. During the five centuries in which capitalism has been the dominant “mode of production” in the West, the mechanics of capitalism have passed through multiple transitional phases. The evolution of capitalism begins with the rise of the market economy and mercantilism during the Age of Exploration, followed by the emergence of bourgeois capitalism and colonialism parallel to the Industrial Revolution. The transition to managerial capitalism in the mid-20th century has been examined by scholars such as James Burnham and Samuel Francis. However, the “managerial revolution” still functioned within the wider framework of the industrial-capitalist economic model and the bourgeois-liberal nation-state system which became the dominant model of political organization in the 19th century. The present transformation involves a transition away from a form of capitalism that is rooted in the Industrial Revolution to one that is rooted in the “digital revolution” that began at the end of the 20th century. The digital revolution is being accompanied by a shift away from the 19th century model of liberal-bourgeois nationalism toward an emerging system that might be characterized as the aforementioned “globalized technocratic multicultural statism.”
Capitalism in the early 21st century is not the capitalism of top-hat wearing, tuxedoed 19th century industrialists in the vein of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. Nor is it the comparatively dull managerial capitalism of the 1950s “organization man” which was originally described by William A. Whyte. Capitalism in the 21st century is the rising “woke” capitalism of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue. The icons of woke capitalism are not figures comparable to Lee Iacoccca and Jack Welch from the era of managerial capitalism. Instead, the new model of capitalism is represented by financiers such as George Soros and Warren Buffett, and newly rich technology entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates, along with media or entertainment moguls such as Oprah Winfrey and David Geffen. Their principal political allies are not traditional conservatives or middle-class sectors fearful of socialism but what David Brooks identified as the “bourgeois bohemians” of the cosmopolitan professional managerial class, along with the upwardly mobile sectors of traditional minority groups.
Parallel to the digital revolution has been the emergence of what Joel Kotkin refers to as the “new clerisy” that collectively functions as the arbiters of moral and cultural values. The new clerisy consists of those involved in what might be called the “ideas industries” such as education, journalism, entertainment, public relations, marketing, and human resources management, among others. As the last vestiges of traditional religion disappear (at least among the power elite and managerial class) the “new clerisy” of woke “priests” is taking its place. The globalization of capital has resulted in the hollowing out of what Samuel Francis called the “post-bourgeois proletariat,” the traditional working to middle classes that have experienced a drastic decline in their living standards and social conditions in recent decades. Kotkin refers to the emerging economic order as “neo-feudalism” because of the widening degree of stratification between social classes and between ordinary people and the power elite.
The digital revolution, the globalization of capital, and the emergence of the new clerisy have been accompanied by the decline of the nation-state system. Decision-making authority is gradually being transferred from communities, institutions of civil society, and independent nations to multinational corporations, transnational federations, and global financial institutions. The Dutch-Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld observes that the nation-state model, which was rooted in the Treaty of Westphalia and came into full fruition in the 19th and 20th centuries, appears to be in its final phases. The military theorist William S. Lind points out that the decline of the nation-state is being paralleled by a rise in warfare waged by non-state actors such as terrorists or criminal organizations. Serious thinkers on the Left, such as the post-Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have offered a critique of the impact of globalization that is somewhat similar to that of conservatives such as Van Creveld and Lind in terms of the decline of the nation-state system and the concentration of power on a global scale.
The new “woke capitalism” does not embrace multiculturalism and feminism merely out of a zeal for egalitarianism, libertarianism, or humanitarianism. To be sure, there are sectors of liberal and left opinion that takes this seriously, but such is not the general thrust of the new “woke capitalism.” Instead, the new capitalism embraces the “cultural left” largely for the purpose of meeting the material and human resources needs of a globalized technocratic economy and the related public administration state systems. It is not a coincidence that the rise of modern consumer culture has been accompanied by the emergence of a feminist ethos or that the evolution of digital capitalism has been paralleled by the growth of a multicultural state administrative framework.
During his tenure as Iraqi’s dictator, Saddam Hussein once remarked, “Women make up one half of society. Our society will remain backward and in chains unless its women are liberated, enlightened and educated.” Similarly, Bill Gates once remarked to a Saudi audience, “If you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top ten” among the world’s most competitive economies. The point behind such statements is that industrial and technological development is generally accompanied by the weakening of traditional social structures and mores. The digital revolution and the globalization of capital are dramatically accelerating this effect. Singapore is widely considered by Western liberals and leftists to be a semi-fascist country. However, Singapore is a multicultural society that bans “hate speech,” imposes gun control, limits religious and press freedoms, provides state healthcare and has other features that contemporary “progressives” would admire in other contexts. What Bill Gates, Saddam Hussein, and Lee Kuan Yew shared in common was their recognition that economic and technological modernization leads to the disintegration of traditional organic societies, which must then be held together by the brute force of the state.
It remains common for capitalism to be denounced by leftists as unforgivably conservative, racist, sexist, fascist, etc. Once again, the serious Left is able to see through the hollowness of such claims. For example, Noam Chomsky observed that much of the US business class, along with their counterparts in South Africa, actually supported dismantling apartheid and that many US business elites, even in the South, favored the civil rights movement. Capitalist interests adopted such positions simply because both apartheid and “Jim Crow” segregation were “bad for business.” Chomsky observed that “capitalism is not fundamentally racist — it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn’t built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional…And race is in fact a human characteristic — there’s no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangeable cogs who will purchase all the junk that’s produced — that’s their ultimate function, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevant, and usually a nuisance.” With this statement, Chomsky sounds remarkably similar to Richard Spencer.
Similarly, modern “woke” capitalists do not want to discriminate against traditional out-groups. The new capitalist class wants to absorb previously marginalized or excluded populations as workers (including both low-skilled illegal immigrant laborers and high-skilled legal immigrant tech workers), consumers (as a source of new markets), taxpayers (as a source of state revenue), soldiers (the military is one of the most diverse US institutions and includes non-citizens), voters, constituents for ethnic lobbies, recipients of public sector services, bureaucrats, managers, and administrative functionaries. The globalization of capital is antithetical to traditionalism. Martin Wolf, a former World Bank economist, once observed: “Liberals, social democrats and moderate conservatives are on the same side in the great battles against religious fanatics, obscurantists, extreme environmentalists, fascists, Marxists and, of course, contemporary anti-globalizers.” In other words, the capitalist elite of developed nations are essentially waging war on the rest of the world, including their own domestic populations.
Obviously, it is wild hyperbole to compare the present day Democratic Party with Hitler’s NSDAP, even if many incidental or peripheral parallels could be found, just as it is equally silly for the Democrats to be equated with the Bolsheviks. Plenty of stretched analogies to 20th century totalitarian movements can be found if one looks hard enough. During the 1930s, Josef Stalin ordered the Communist parties of Europe affiliated with the Comintern to temporarily abandon plans for a Marxist revolution in their respective countries. The new plan advanced by the Kremlin was to create a “popular front” consisting of “all antifascist parties,” including centrist liberals and social democrats, against the rising fascist regimes and movements of the era. In many ways, “Bidenism” could be considered a kind of “popular front-lite” in the sense of uniting neoconservatives, Never Trump Republicans, most the capitalist class, most of the media, centrist corporate Democrats, liberals, progressives, social democrats, “social justice” activists, antifascists, anarchists, and Marxists. The target of the “popular front-lite” is Trump’s low-rent neo-Nixonian “silent majority” populism, which liberal and left opinion often embarrassingly equates with “fascism.”
A common tactic of old-guard Stalinists was to perpetually label their opponents as “fascists” including not only actual fascists, but the entire spectrum of right-wing opinion, along with rival leftists. Hence, Trotskyites would be referred to as “Trotskyite fascists,” social democrats as “social fascists,” and anarchists as “anarcho-fascists.” Similar tactics have been used by current “popular front-lite” adherents against a range of figures on the Left who dissent from the party line in one way or another. Among the targets have been Jimmy Dore, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Kim Iverson, Jill Stein, Michael Tracey, and not a few others. Stalinists were also very quick to purge coalition partners that were no longer considered to be useful. Already, in the early days of the Biden administration, a popular Antifa account on Twitter has been eliminated, and left-wing anarchists like Crimethinc have been purged from Facebook in the same way as, for example, Alex Jones. The Trotskyite World Socialist Website has been purged from social media as well.
During the riots of 2020, it was fashionable for FOX News commentators like Tucker Carlson to foolishly refer to the Antifa as the Democratic Party’s militia. But such exaggerations aside, most of the elite in the United States did seem to give a wink and a nod to the rioters in the likely hope of weaponizing them against Trump. The incumbent Democratic Party lost the 1968 election following the wave of riots which occurred during that year. Both Trump and his opponents were no doubt aware of this. Trump’s use of Nixonian “law and order” rhetoric throughout his campaign was obviously an effort to compensate for this liability. However, now that the Democrats have assumed power they can no longer countenance threats to their own legitimacy, or the creation of an appearance of instability, and will likely display considerably less tolerance for civil unrest while they hold the reins of power.
Paul Gottfried has characterized the Antifa as “Nazis without a plan,” noting the similarity between the nihilistic violence of 1930s brown-shirted street hooligans, and present day Antifa hooligans engaged in the same, along with the failure of the Antifa to articulate a coherent political program. But while the Antifa may not have a plan, the Democrats likely do. Following the election of President Trump in 2016, a Professor David Faris published a book calling for the Democrats to “fight dirty” in the future by restructuring the electoral system in order to insure permanent Democratic dominance at the federal level. Recommended measures include creating more states and Congressional districts (and therefore more Senate and House seats), court packing, and extending voting rights. Presumably, Democratic control of the judiciary would mean reinterpreting the First and Second Amendments out of existence. The Democrats would not need to create a formal dictatorship or Chinese-like one-party state to achieve permanent control. It would be possible to retain formal democracy with regular elections but with opposition parties being of merely token and marginal status. The Democrats could potentially assume a position similar to Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power for 71 years, or Sweden’s Social Democrats, which retained electoral hegemony for 44 years. Both systems of multi-generational one-party dominance took place within the context of a formal multi-party system.
The “Anti-Woke Coalition”
The above analysis has portrayed the Democrats and their Blue Tribe supporters in bleak and scathing terms. While it is possible to make very loose comparisons between the Democratic Party in its present form and the far-right/far-left totalitarian movements of the 20th century, the reality is that the Democrats are the party of the new “woke capitalism” that has been generated by globalization and the digital revolution. So who are the Republicans? Michael Lind provides some insights:
“The donors to American politicians in all 50 states are concentrated in a few ZIP codes. According to Open Secrets, of the ZIP codes that delivered the most campaign funding for the Democrats in 2020, not counting dark money or soft money for liberal groups, four of the top five were in New York City (10024, 10023, 10022, 10011), followed by Chevy Chase, Maryland (20815), a suburb of Washington, D.C. Other top Democratic ZIPs this year were Silicon Valley (94301 and 94022) and Cambridge, Massachusetts (02138). New York City was also overrepresented among donors to the Republican Party, whose donor base is more geographically diverse, with a lot of money coming from Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Palm Beach, Florida.”
The Democrats’ donor class originates mostly from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the media and entertainment industry, Washington-based corporate and other lobbies, and the federal public sector. The Republicans’ donor class is rooted in Sunbelt industries like armaments, petroleum, agribusiness, traditional Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers types, and, in the case of Las Vegas, the casino industry, largely due to the influence of the now deceased Sheldon Adelson.
Modern American “conservatism” first developed in the postwar era as the emerging Sunbelt industries began to challenge the traditional hegemony of the “northeastern establishment.” The priorities of postwar conservatism involved waging the Cold War with the Soviet Union and protecting the interests of Sunbelt capital by, for example, opposing the influence of labor unions and keeping the minimum wage low. It was these interests that provided the financial backbone of the Goldwater-Reagan Republicans during the 1960s and 1970s. Initially, the upstart Sunbelt conservatives were a fringe sector within a party that continued to be dominated by Rockefeller Republicans. In 1964, conservative activists managed to gain control of the party apparatus and nominate Barry Goldwater for the presidency. At this point, the ideas of the new conservatives were unpopular among the general public, as the New Deal paradigm was still dominant, as evidenced by Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat in the 1964 election.
Conservatism subsequently became ascendant for multiple reasons. Nixon’s successful efforts to draw Southern whites to the Republicans in the aftermath of the civil rights movement provided the party with a solid base in the South. Nixon was affiliated with the Rockefeller rather than Goldwater-Reagan wing of the party but his “silent majority” faux populism played well with Middle America during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, particularly after the leftward drift of the Democrats began with the McGovernite capture of the party’s apparatus in 1972. The rapid social changes of the era generated a backlash from cultural and religious conservatives which found its expression in the emergence of the “religious right” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The loss of the Vietnam War convinced many foreign policy hawks, however incorrectly, that the USA was losing the Cold War. The economic crises of the 1970s generated a reaction against Keynesian economic policies (some of which had actually been implemented by the Nixon administration). The rising influence of neoliberalism began to challenge the Keynesian paradigm that had been dominant since the Great Depression. The entrance of the neoconservatives into the conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s provided conservatism with an intellectual gloss and respectability that it had until then lacked. Previously, academics and journalists had been inclined to dismiss conservative intellectuals as anachronistic pseudo-royalists and rank and file conservatives as ignorant hillbillies. However, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, conservatism came to be the dominant paradigm in American political life for a quarter century. The Clinton Democrats of the 1990s were able to gain success primarily by reinventing the Democratic Party as the new Rockefeller Republicans in a way that eclipsed the older New Deal Democrats and the legacy of the 1970s McGovernites.
The hegemony of conservatism in US politics was ended largely due to the incompetence of the administration of George W. Bush with its series of failed wars, economic meltdown, and bank bailout. The impact of these patterns was coupled with the rising wealth gap between social classes which had been developing since the beginning of the neoliberal era, and the influence of growing demographic, cultural, technological, and generational changes in American society. It was this combination of factors that produced the Obama presidency. However, with the exception of his accommodation of ongoing cultural changes, Obama did not govern in any way that was fundamentally different from the style of a moderate Republican. In 2015, Donald Trump stepped into the American electoral scene. Trump’s rhetoric was implicitly reflective of the political strategy that the paleoconservative writer Steven Sailer had long advocated for the American Right, which was to adopt an ideological and rhetorical framework of foreign policy isolationism, trade protectionism, and immigration restriction similar to that advocated by previous populist figures such as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in the 1990s.
Having likely been influenced by Buchanan and Perot, Trump’s advocacy of such positions proved to be a major slap in the face to the leadership of the Republican Party as Trump easily eclipsed the party’s in-house candidates in the 2016 primaries. Trump’s victory in the general election subsequently provided an additional slap in the face to the entire spectrum of the American ruling class and power elite. For the most part, Trump did not govern in any way that was fundamentally different from that of a “normal” Republican. He was obviously more interested in personal self-aggrandizement than policy. For this reason, he eventually won the grudging support of at least some old-guard Reaganites while his disregard for upper class social norms completely alienated others. But what he managed to do in the process is create a personality cult with millions of “fans” who are clearly more loyal to Trump as an individual than to the Republican Party or any particular set of policy ideas.
The conservative paradigm that emerged during the Goldwater-Reagan-Bush-Bush era was one that emphasized foreign policy hawkishness, fiscal conservatism, and cultural traditionalism. Trump was a departure from every part of this paradigm. While not nearly as pacific as his some of his antiwar supporters have claimed, Trump did depart from the neoconservative foreign policy program that has dominated the GOP for decades to the point of earning the ire of superhawks like John Bolton. On fiscal matters, Trump was a “big spending Republican” if ever there was one. And, the comically ironic evangelical support for Trump, a New York playboy and vice merchant with more in common with Hugh Hefner than Anthony Comstock, was perhaps the most incongruous of all.
The riot staged by Trump supporters at the Capitol on January 6 indicates that Trump has managed to tap into cultural undercurrents well beyond those which normally comprise the conservative “base,” many of whom still cling to their older Goldwater-Reagan perspective. Trump’s fan base has likewise moved past the populist-nationalism associated with figures like Buchanan and Perot. The currents represented in the January 6 riot indicate the presence of those with far more extreme views than what has until now been acceptable within the Republican Party. Of course, the partisans of the “popular front-lite” have reacted with predictable hysteria to the events of January 6.
Veteran newsman Dan Rather remarked in an interview that during his 89 years of life he had never witnessed such an event, specifically citing the Great Depression, World War Two, Watergate, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as previous events that he had lived through but apparently does not consider to be as of great a magnitude. Others have cited the Capitol riots as proof of Trump’s incipient Hitlerism, with the presence of individual rioters wearing shirts with Nazi-inspired logos and slogans fueling their arguments. The January 6 riot has been compared to the “beer hall putsch,” an attempted coup by the original Nazi party in Germany in 1923, ten years before the party actually achieved state power. Serious scholars of historic fascism have offered a more sober perspective, such as Stanley Payne, who said of the Capitol incident, “Sometimes a riot is just a riot.”
The US media is overwhelmingly dominated by Democratic Party partisans. The exceptions are FOX News, fringe networks like Newsmax and OANN, some traditional newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, tabloids like the New York Post, talk-radio programs, religious broadcasters like CBN and Trinity, and conservative websites. The reaction of the Democratic media to Trump’s electoral performance was usually along the lines of “Can you believe 74 million Americans voted for this guy?”
Approximately 331 million people reside in the United States. About 239 million are eligible to vote in public elections. Approximately 161 million did actually vote in 2020. The media would have everyone believing that 45% of voters, 30% of eligible voters, and more than 1 in 5 residents of the US voted for Trump simply because they are ignorant yokels, white supremacists, religious fanatics, or lunatic conspiracy theorists associated with tendencies like QAnon. A breakdown of the data concerning the results of the 2020 election reveals that this is hardly the case. Trump voters included the full range of conventional Republican interests, casual Republican voters, independents, moderates, Democratic swing voters, and voters favorable to Trump’s Ross Perot-like rhetoric on trade.
Trump’s electoral performance actually improved in 2020 among virtually every population demographic other than white males lacking a college education. In other words, it was only among the population group that the media considers Trump’s core demographic that his electoral performance actually declined. Trump managed to improve his performance among women, gays, minorities, Muslims, blue collar workers, and others normally considered to be core Democratic voting blocks. Additionally, Trump seems to have attracted at least some liberal or left-leaning voters who feel that “political correctness” has gone overboard, as evidenced by the “Walk Away” project, a movement of disaffected Democrats founded by a young gay man. Clearly, the 74 million Trump voters include much, much more than mere “right-wing extremists” of the kind portrayed by the mainstream media.
However, it is clear that the Capitol rioters of January 6 represent a sector of Trump supporters who are more than merely warmed-over Reagan conservatives, recycled Perot/Buchanan trade protectionists, or disaffected liberals. It was not these sectors that stormed the Capitol on January 6. Of course, mainstream liberal pundits and others further to the left have insisted that Trump has inspired a kind of American neo-fascism. But for reasons that will be explained below, Trump’s riotous fans have less in common with European fascist movements during the interwar period than they do with previous strands within American political and cultural history.
To be sure, emerging right-wing paramilitaries or street gangs such as the Oathkeepers, Proudboys, Three Percenters, or Boogaloo Boys could be remotely compared with the Freikorps stormtroopers of interwar Germany, the Brownshirts of the early Nazis, Mussolini’s Black Shirts, the right-wing Catholic Falangist militias of the Spanish Civil War, or the Maronite militias of the Lebanese Civil War. But Trump appears to have tapped into a much older and solidly American tradition, with roots in the 19th century, perhaps even the 18th century, and which has experienced something of a revival among fringe cultural currents during the past quarter century. Such currents been mainstreamed in more recent years due to the Internet and the influence of figures such as Alex Jones.
In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter published a somewhat classic essay in Harper’s magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which was later turned into a book with the same name. With some justification, Hofstadter’s work has been criticized for historical inaccuracies, but his core thesis was valid. Hofstadter pointed to a lengthy tradition in US politics of movements that occasionally emerge representing a “paranoid style” in the sense of embracing implausible conspiracy theories and other bizarre claims. Hofstadter was a former Communist turned liberal of the “vital center” type and his article was written as a critique of the John Birch Society and other “far right” elements that offered support for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. However, conspiracy theories and other comparable modes of thought have a lengthy tradition in American history.
During the colonial era, slave insurrections were often blamed on conspiratorial manipulations by Catholics and Spaniards. Thomas Jefferson’s presidency was portrayed by some as having been orchestrated by the Illuminati. The introduction of universal white male suffrage in the early 19th century gave rise to fringe political parties promoting conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons which found their way into the mainstream politics of the era. Anti-Catholicism was commonplace in mid-19th century politics and inspired currents like the “know nothing” movement. Conspiratorial thinking was often associated with nativism and involved anti-Irish or anti-German sentiments, and was frequently combined with religion, particularly though not exclusively among low-church Protestants.
The “paranoid style” often appears during times of economic hardship when people are experiencing difficulties with complex causes and looking for simple explanations. During the farm crisis of the 1980s, which gave rise to the militia movement of the 1990s, a range of ideas of these kinds began to once again appear in fringe US politics. During the 1990s, cultural undercurrents began to develop that combined anti-establishment politics with conspiracies, religious extremism, the occult, pseudo-science, science fiction, pseudo-history, mythology, crank economic and legal theories, crank medicine, (sometimes) racism, and all kinds of other general eccentricity. These currents were normally considered to be “far-right” by observers or critics but much of it could not really be categorized as any traditional ideology. Adherents of such views included some people with a leftist, libertarian, or ethnic minority background as well as the usual right-wing subcultures. Over the past quarter century, such ideas seem to have been worked into the mainstream through the influence of Alex Jones and, more recently, the QAnon phenomenon.
According to polling data taken a few years ago, about 1 in 5 Americans believe the conspiracy theory that the government is hiding evidence of a crash landing by aliens in Roswell, New Mexico in 1948. Some pollsters have alleged that as many as 12 million Americans believe David Icke’s conspiracy theory about extraterrestrial lizard people controlling world events through behind the scenes machinations. While the accuracy of this data and the research methods on which it is based have been challenged, ideas of this kind clearly have more in common with cults like Scientology than conventional political ideologies. The mainstreaming of outlandish conspiracy theories is evidenced by the election of QAnon-friendly figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert to Congress.
As mentioned, conspiracy theories are not unique to the “far right.” It could be argued that the “Stop the Steal” or “QAnon” conspiracies embraced by some rank and file Trumpists are merely a ground-level Republican counterpart to the “Russiagate” conspiracy proclaimed by leading Democratic-friendly media outlets like MSNBC. The centuries-old conspiracy theories regarding the Illuminati and the Freemasons are widely believed by African-Americans. Conspiracy theories insisting that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack was an “inside job,” that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax, or that the Earth is actually flat are sometimes embraced by libertarians and leftists as well as sectors of the “far-right.” Conspiracy theories related to the assassination of President Kennedy are probably among the most widely believed. Allegations of conspiracies can range from the partially factual to the silly but harmless to the potentially dangerous, such as those which promote complete rejection rather than mere caution regarding medicine, or which involve racial, religious, or ethnic scapegoating.
The only point of unity among Republicans at this point appears to be the party’s de facto status as the “anti-woke coalition” just as the only thing that unites Democrats is the party’s hostility to Trumpism and the traditionally hegemonic White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that Trumpism is seen as representing. On the question of the “culture wars” that drive so much of American politics, it is clear that “conservatives” are on the defensive while the cultural left is an ascendant force. No contentious social or cultural issue can be identified where conservatives are clearly the winning side or in the lead. It is clear that as the core demographic base of the Red Tribe is shrinking in size and losing power, its partisans are becoming more militant and determined to go down fighting. Once again, it is also important to note that Red Tribe diehards are only a portion of Trump voters, along with the usual array of moderates, swing voters, independents, cross-over single-issue voters, and casual Republican sympathizers. Most Trump voters are not Republican true believers who live and die by the pronouncements of the talking heads at FOX News just as most Democratic voters are not cultic devotees of MSNBC. Research indicates that serious “political junkies” are less than 15-20% of the US population.
The Dangers Ahead
The ascendency of the techno-oligarchy/new clerisy alliance that Joel Kotkin has identified is being accompanied by widening class divisions, conflicts between elites and common people, and the ongoing fragmentation of US society into warring ideological tribes. A backlash against the rise of techno-oligarchy/new clerisy alliance and its growing hegemony is likely to occur in the future. The rise of Trumpism could be seen as a partial backlash and an even more serious challenge could be presented to the rising ruling class in the future. The USA is comparable in many ways to other multinational, multicultural, and multi-religious states from the past which were dominated by a ruling class ostensibly committed to a universalist ideology. Obvious examples include the former Soviet Union, its satellites in Eastern Europe, and the former Communist regime of Yugoslavia. Regimes of this type tend to be inherently unstable due to internal fractiousness. Modern India, which is a nominal liberal democracy but which has been plagued by inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, is another example.
The deeply entrenched unresponsiveness of the US political system, even to emergency situations, and the sham nature of US elections, increasingly resembles some of the worst Third World electoral systems. The ongoing fracturing of US society into warring tribes will continue to increase, particularly as the US becomes more diverse and the demographic changeover where there will no longer be an ethnic majority takes place over the next few decades. It is possible and even likely that backlashes will emerge from the left, right, and center. The Center may try to hold its position through increased repression, both public and private. Former CIA director John Brennan’s comments following the January 6 incident comparing alleged domestic terrorists with al-Qaeda indicate that “war on terrorism” methods may increasingly be utilized on a domestic basis. Certainly, there are plenty of historical prototypes for large scale domestic repression in US history including the COINTELPRO operations from the 1960s, Palmer Raids and Red Scare from the World War One era, and the “War on Drugs” from the late 20th century.
A potential right-wing backlash to prevailing trends could potentially emerge, and in a way that is more extreme and overtly authoritarian than Trump’s neo-Nixonian “silent majority” populism. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are potential prototypes for a future American right-wing leader promising to avenge the Red Tribe. A possible left-wing backlash against growing poverty and an expanding underclass could result in the emergence of demagogues promising economic relief and/or racial, ethnic, and cultural retribution. The result could be the appearance of figures similar to Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Robert Mugabe, or waves of violence such as those which have plagued South Africa in the post-apartheid era.
Other potential dangers include rising domestic political violence akin to Germany during the 1920s Weimar period, or pre-civil war Spain in the 1930s. It is also possible that tribal, sectarian, and ethnic conflict could escalate to the point that a genuine civil war situation emerges. Past prototypes might include India/Pakistan during the 1947 partition, Lebanon during the 1970s/1980s, Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, and Syria in the 2010s. However, if a total societal collapse of this kind were to eventually occur, it would likely be in the relatively distant future. At present, the US is becoming more like a hybrid of Europe and Latin America, combining the neoliberal economic policies and cultural leftism of the European ruling classes, but with the social stratification, violence, corruption, and instability of Latin America.
However, the US still has a long way to go before it reaches the condition of even many Latin American countries much less countries that have experienced total collapse. Latin America continues to be the most violent region of the world, with the world’s highest homicide rates. And yet every nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the exception of Cuba’s one-party state (which has also undergone some degree of liberalization), is now considered by observers to be a liberal democracy, although there are concerns that some nations in the region may be reverting to authoritarianism. However, nations such Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have generally been able to maintain elected parliamentary governments even while they continue to experience armed insurgencies in their midst. The US may follow a similar pattern in the future.
It is easy to envision an American scenario of the near-future where increasingly extreme individuals are elected to offices in a greater number, where increasingly extreme movements and ideological tendencies continue to proliferate, and where low-level political violence continues to escalate and become commonplace. It is even possible that some local areas of the US may increasingly resemble a civil war-like situation in the future, and in ways comparable to what is found in certain local or regional areas of some Latin American, African, or South Asian countries. But even the emergence of such a level of instability in the US would still not constitute a civil war of the kind that has been experienced by Syria during the past decade or which plagued Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. High levels of instability and political violence are still not the same as a full-blown civil war in which state authority completely disintegrates with rival factions engaged in a martial struggle for power.
The key issue facing the United States in the future will be the question of to what degree the “woke capitalist” regime is able to maintain the support of state security forces, or whether institutions such as the military and police will fracture along ideological, ethnic, regional, socioeconomic, or other lines. Thus far, there is no particularly strong evidence of any inclination of the “top brass” of the military toward the instigation of a coup, or significantly sized mutiny on the part of rank and file military troops. However, that could change in the future. While the “top brass” appears to be sufficiently loyal to the emerging hegemony of “woke capitalism,” it is possible revolt by lower ranks could eventually occur. Such a “revolt” would more likely result in general acquiescence (similar to the way in which police have simply disappeared during incidents of civil unrest) rather than outright mutiny or insurgent action. But the acquiescence of state security forces on the ground level, similar to acquiescence of the rank and file military of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries during the “fall of Communism,” would likely prevent the “woke capitalist” center from effectively holding the line and maintaining a unitary regime.