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The Trump and fascism question

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John Ganz has an excellent post about the debate surrounding the new book edited by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, a protege of leading anti-anti-Trumper Sam Moyn. I agree there’s a lot of protecting academic turf and if-the-facts-don’t-fit-the-theory-so-much-worse-for-the-facts to the increasingly implausible position that fascism cannot tell us anything about the threat posed by Trump (if indeed Trump is a threat at all).

After an amusing discussion of Corey Robin continuing to cite Robert Paxton as a dispositive source for the theory that trump is not a fascist threat despite Paxton himself explicitly arguing that Trump is a fascist threat (in an essay apparently included in the new collection), Ganz continues:

So what’s really embarrassing here? The fact is Corey Robin has been wrong since the beginning. A good theorist, he has terrible judgment of events. He thought Trump would lose in a landslide. Then he thought Trump would be a right-wing Carter presidency. That he would be toothless and ineffectual in every way. Shortly before January 6th, he said that “Trumpist/GOP politics” was the “almost the complete opposite of fascism.” Since Robin once accused me of twisting his words in this regard, I will reproduce the whole quote:

It’s ironic to me that people would choose this moment, and Trump’s presidency, to assign the label “fascist” to the right, for what fascism is about, above all else, is a politics of strength and will. That’s why fascists traditionally loathe the constitutional order: because they think it constrains the assertion of political will. The irony of Trumpist/GOP politics is that it is completely dependent upon the constitutional order. In that regard, it’s almost the complete opposite of fascism.

I don’t think we can honestly say that Trump is dedicated to the constitutional order although he may benefit from certain aspects of it. That’s just not true. But the unwillingness to incorporate novel facts or even provide a comprehensive explanation of all of them is not Robin’s fault alone: it is the hallmark of the entire anti- side of the debate. They are trying to jam what actually happened into epicycles that save their theory but have to ignore or reinterpret into nothing what actually happened. The biggest problem for them, of course, is January 6th. Here’s how Steinmetz-Jenkins rolls his eyes Timothy Snyder: “Snyder doubled down on his use of fascism analogies by predicting that it was ‘pretty much inevitable’ that Trump would try to stage a Reichstag fire to overthrow democracy. Snyder believed that January 6th vindicated his claims. Whether one agrees with him or not, Snyder’s interventions blur the line between history and prophecy.” I also do not care for the rhetoric used by Snyder and many others closer to my side of this question. But even the crudest, most melodramatic version of the “fascism thesis” predicted something like January 6th would take place. And it did! Whether or not it had any hope of succeeding is another question. People on our side said that Trump would turn the January 6th fallen into martyrs and he is. The other side is just uninterested in the facts. They are totally uninterested and unaware in the state of the actually-existing right: its increasing openness to authoritarian ideas, its messianism about Trump the man, and the infiltration of the extreme right into its ranks, etc. No matter how many examples you can show them, they don’t care. They have their theory and they are sticking to it.

With its capacity to predict new facts and give an explanation the old ones, a theory that includes fascism as a key context and touchstone is the better research program, to borrow a concept from the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. Everything the other side says in this debate relies on the hiding or doctoring of evidence: it didn’t happen, and if it did happen, it’s not important: January 6th happened, but it was just silly basically. The militias don’t exist, and if they do exist, they aren’t significant…

[….]

The other side likes to do armchair sociology and psychoanalyze their opponents, but two can play at that game. I think a lot of this is really about turf and status. Calling things “Fascist” is lowbrow, its for cheap propagandists, not serious scholars. They deflate, they qualify, they complicate. These people disdain the melodrama and vulgarity of the “It’s fascism” camp. And I don’t blame them. So do I often. I’d much rather be on the side of the deflationists: it’s cooler. But the facts being such that they are, I can’t. The other thing is that these people are mostly academics trying to secure their little oligopoly on the production of knowledge and they can’t abide upstarts who would dare have their own ideas. Hence all the condescension. Robin, without a doubt their most able and intelligent guy, seems to view himself as “the right wing knower” and resents the proliferation of amateurs who have dared to offer their own interpretations since the emergence of Trump. He has done the work. They have not. And there’s nothing more to say about the right that’s not already in his book. This is not reading between the lines: he practically just says it. Well, maybe we all wouldn’t be in business if his theory was doing better.

Some crucial context here is Robin’s very strange 2019 essay arguing both that the “Trump is an authoritarian menace” and “green lantern presidency” questions had been decisively decided in favor of those who share his vision of a weak, unthreatening Trump presidency on the one hand and a potentially heroic presidency liberal presidency on the other. Among many problems it was critically unable to identify people who had actually changed their mind on either question. The strongest argument available to skeptics of the Trump-is-fascist thesis is that the institutional constraints on the presidency remain a considerable check on his obvious fascist aspirations — but this isn’t really available to Robin, who has being arguing for a long time that the presidency isn’t so much constitutionally constrained as occupied by “weak” presidents. But accepting that the primary constraints on Trump’s authoritarian are structural and that legislative policy during times of unified government is largely determined by the median votes of Congress and not by the “strength” of the president makes it hard to, for example. treat the 2016 Democratic primaries of being of existential importance. And the structures don’t hold in a second Trump presidency, it won’t be because Trump has become “stronger” but because the Republican congressional leadership supports (whether affirmatively or passively) his authoritarian aspirations.

While we’re here, speaking solely for myself I would like to add some remarks to Rob’s recent point that “the current authoritarian moment on the right bears no resemblance to “fascism” is a pleasant fantasy that enables the self-identified Left to reject any notion of a crisis that requires solidarity with mainstream liberalism.” This is true, but requires two critical points of context:

  • For the most part, solidarity amongst the broad left has happened. Moyn and Robin (as well as Twitter-prominent podcasters etc.) are outliers rather than being representative of the general left reaction to the threat posed by Trump. And the left end of the Democratic congressional caucus has been considerably more influential than it was during the Obama administration, let alone under Clinton or Carter.
  • Dismissing Trump as a threat for ideological reasons as at least as common among radical centrists and some disaffected conservatives, if not more so. My favorite example remains Josh Barro and Ross Douthat asserting — after Biden had defeated Trump in a high-turnout election! — that the Democratic Party was screwing up by not emulating the successful liberal resistance to reactionary authoritarianism in…Hungary and Israel. It is better for fascists to win, in other words, than for mainstream liberals to make Bernie Sanders the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. And cf. also Shadi “Democrats are the real threat to democracy” Hadid.

Whether Trump represents a fascist threat is not a “liberal” vs. “left” question, it is a “people who are looking at the evidence” vs. “people who would prefer not to for various ideological reasons” question.

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