There’s a piece in The Guardian today called “Should We Even Go There?” in which historians discuss whether it’s wise to compare Trumpism and fascism. For my part, I doubt that “Trumpism” even exists as a coherent concept, and I’m entirely convinced that it’s folly to compare the focused rage of National Socialism to the slurry of emotions and interests that comprise Trump’s support in 2016.
Still, this is the kind of question that annoys me at 3 a.m., because I’m morbidly inspired by the notion that while history rarely repeats itself, it often rhymes.
No one has better captured this particular dark narrative of our current space/time coordinates better than Tobias Stone, who wrote this long piece back in July in response to Brexit. My inadequate and simplistic summary (read the essay, kids): Because our species apparently struggles to imagine the past beyond the living memory of our grandparents, we don’t fully benefit from the wisdom of our ancestors’ mistakes.
Writes Stone: “So zooming out, we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another.”
And, zooming out, I tend to agree. I’m also generally inclined to agree with his long view of these “phases of mass destruction,” too: While they may be cataclysmic for the poor bastards in their path, they often lead to better conditions for those who follow.
This isn’t necessarily because the forces behind the mass-destruction are enlightened, mind you: Stone starts by pointing out that, while the Black Death in the 14th century wasn’t exactly a social policy, it did a great job of raising the standard of living for the survivors’ children. More to our point, Hitler and Tojo were disasters for their own people, but thanks to their demonic ambitions, Americans sold an awful lot of cars in the 1950s.
No, the problem with comparing Trumpism to fascism isn’t that there’s no meaningful comparison, it’s that the question is entirely too limiting. After all, this really isn’t about Trump, who lost the popular vote by more than 2 million (and counting). It’s about studying the forces at play in a world order that’s becoming less stable by the day.
To understand that, we have to stop thinking about fascism and World War II — which ended 71 years ago — and go back a bit further, to 1914 and the start of The Great War.
If you’re not feeling particularly current on your World War I history, now might be a good time to watch Cambridge historian David Reynolds’ outstanding three-part 2014 BBC documentary series “Long Shadow,” which examines the causes and effects of the War to End All Wars. He also did a one-off documentary called Armistice that’s worth your time. It’s all available right now on Netflix.
In the first place, comparing Trumpism to early fascism fails immediately in terms of context: The U.S. economy has largely — though unevenly — recovered from the Great Recession, and it’s not like Vladimir Lenin is governing Canada while openly plotting to overturn both capitalism and democracy. The Weimar Republic and pre-fascist Italy simply bear zero resemblance to the Obama-era United States in terms of dire economic or social conditions.
And that’s the telling clue: Fascism is the wrong analogy.
We aren’t at the moment where the true fascist movements arise. We’re at the moment where the large structures that give the global order a relative stability start to become increasingly untenable.
World War I didn’t occur because some random Balkan anarchist shot a Hapsburg royal in Sarajevo. World War I occurred because time had rendered the great European empires — the Austro-Hungarians, the British, Tsarist Russia, France and Prussia, even the Ottomans — overly cumbersome.
Today we view The Great War of 1914-18 as an incomplete act, precursor to “the Interwar Years” of 1919-1938 and the “resolving conflict” of World War II. But even “The Good War” of 1939-45 proved an incomplete act, leading immediately to the 45-year standoff between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. What lessons we might have learned from that conflict were almost literally frozen by the Cold War.
It’s worth remembering that just 25 years ago, our ideological rivalry with Marxist-Leninism so consumed American thinking that triumphal conservatives here trumpeted the collapse of the Soviet system as “the end of history.” Neoliberal Western-style capitalism had defeated all competing ideologies, so all the big questions were resolved. The neo-conservatives of 2001-03 couldn’t wait to test their theories about 21st century economic and military power in the resulting vacuum.
From one perspective, it’s hard to imagine that our status quo is actually losing its strength and stability. If you want to see how resilient any establishment is, trying bucking one for a day or two.
But from another, the demise of the current American oligarchy seems as inevitable as the ultimate failure of the USSR appeared to many analysts as early as the mid-1970s. The obvious flaws aren’t the giveaway. The systems’ inability to correct those flaws peacefully is. It may continue churning along for years in a degraded state, but it will bear the burden of every unresolved new problem until eventually the only remaining option is collapse.
Which brings us back to World War I, and specifically to the winter of 1916-17. After two years of bloody conflict — including the mind-bending horrors of Verdun and the Somme — regimes across the continent teetered on the brink. Tsarist Russia dissolved in the spring. There were uprisings in Italy and street demonstrations in Germany. French soldiers mutinied in the trenches, and anarchists called for a general strike. Even the United Kingdom faced rising civilian discontent. The problems were evident. The power to solve them was not.
If we view World War I as the beginning of a century-long conflict centered on resolving the destabilizing failures of Imperialism, colonialism and various forms of autocracy, then 1917 looks like a missed opportunity. In their exhaustion, the people seemed to intuit — even as their leaders did not — that no side had the remaining resources required to end the war successfully. Had such hopeless circumstances continued into the fall of 1917-18, it’s entirely possible that France, Germany and Austria-Hungary might have followed Russia into collapse. The Great War could have easily ended not in victory or defeat, but entropy, with old aristocratic oligarchies across the continent consumed by their disillusioned plebes.
What changed? An outside party– the United States — entered the war in mid-1917 and provided the decisive power needed to bring the war to a conclusion. President Wilson promised that America fought to “make the world safe for democracy.” Instead, Wilson’s interference in Europe gave the world Hitler, the Holocaust and an arbitrarily redrawn political map that continues to produce bloody conflicts around the globe.
Here’s what I think a Trump presidency — however achieved, however long — means: None of America’s current problems will be resolved, many of our current problems will be made worse, new crises will accumulate, and the rules of our democratic system will be rewritten to make self-correction even less likely. The problems will be evident. The political and economic solutions will not be.
Yes, Trump represents a big boost to America’s overtly fascist elements — the so-called “white nationalists.” But the bigger trends toward authoritarianism are not new. Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex in 1961. Kevin Phillips defined the Republican Southern Strategy in 1968. Roger Ailes perfected the concept of profitable non-state political propaganda in the late 1990s. Bush and Cheney established a national security state after 9/11. Karl Rove went full Big Brother when he mocked “the reality-based community” in 2004. The Roberts Court gave us Citizens United on a 5-4 vote in 2010.
If there’s an analogy to be found in Trump, per se, it’s to the Ubermensch mania of the Great Depression years. Trump is a laughable Superman, more Berlusconi than Mussilini — but for all the bad conclusions we can reach from his rise, the desire for a “strong leader” from “outside” is unmistakable among many of his supporters. The particulars may be different — the anxiety of modern American conservatives is a deliberate media product, not the result of food shortages and street brawls with communists — but the outcome is eerily familiar. Whatever becomes of Trump’s presidency, the authoritarian attraction of the vindictive Strong Leader has now entered our political mainstream. History suggests it will be with us for years.
In the meantime, we’ll ignore the frog-boiling effects of global climate change until they show up — in the form of desperate, starving, helpless refugees — at our borders. It won’t just be us, either: Any country located far enough north or south will reel under resettlement pressure as millions of people are displaced by disaster and war.
Liberals like to think that this will be the moment when the people say “You we’re right all along!” and turn on the conservative interests who lied to them about global warming, among other things.
But that won’t be what happens. Another man — better suited to the job than our president-elect — will take the stage and speak to the fears of Americans faced with an actual influx of climate refugees. What we’ll do to them — and to each other — will likely be unspeakable. Unimaginable.
But we’ll do it.
Just like the Canadians will do it to us, when our turn comes.