The dismal cartography of Trump’s pre-fascist state (and opportunities for progressive populism)

US Politics
on 36 Comments

Listening to Donald Trump’s inaugural speech on January 20th led me to muse about what it might mean to live in a pre-fascist state. After reflecting on key passages and conversations with friends, I came to the view that all the elements were in place, although set before us with the imprecision of a demagogue. Yet I do not doubt that there are many ideologues waiting in the wings, perhaps now comfortably situated in the West Wing, ready to cover the conceptual rough spots, and supply an ideological overlay, and add the semblance of coherence. Considering the daily outrages emanating from the White House since the inaugural jolt, the coming years will be rough riding for all of us, with many cruelties being readied for those most vulnerable.

Of course, the Woman’s March on January 21st was temporarily redemptive, and if such energy can be sustained potentially transformative. It is odd to contemplate, but there just may be tacit and effective cooperation between the national security deep state and a progressive populism converging around their divergent reasons for being deeply opposed to the shock and awe of the Trump presidency. Trump may invent ‘alternative facts’ to restore his narcissistic self-esteem, but when it comes to program he has sadly so far been true to his word! This alone should encourage a unified, energetic, and determined opposition. If the Tea Party could do it, why can’t we?

The Pre-Fascist Moment

First, it is necessary to set forth the case for viewing Trump’s Inaugural Address as a pre-fascist plea:

  1. Locating power and legitimacy in the people, but only those whose support was instrumental in the election of the new president; the popular majority that were opposed are presumed irrelevant, or worse;
  2. Denigrating the political class of both political parties as corrupt and responsible for the decline of the country and the hardships inflicted on his followers;
  3. Presuming mass and unconditional trust in the great leader who promises a rupture with the past, and who alone will be able overcome the old established order, and produce needed changes at home and overseas;
  4. Making the vision of change credible by the appointment of mainly white men, most with alt-right credentials, billionaires either blissfully ignorant about their assigned roles or a past record of opposition to the bureaucratic mission they are pledged to carry out (whether environment, energy, education, economy);
  5. An endorsement of exclusionary nationalism that elevates ‘America First’ to the status of First Principle, erects a wall against its Latino neighbor, adopts a cruel and punitive stance toward Muslims and undocumented immigrants, hostility to womens’ rights, gay marriage, trans dignity, as well as posing threats to non-white minorities, inner city residents, and independent voices in the media and elsewhere;
  6. Lauds the military and police as the backbone of national character, loosens protection from civilian or military abuse, which helps explain the selection of a series of generals to serve in sensitive civilian roles, as well as the revitalization of Guantanamo and the weakening of anti-torture policies.
  7. The disturbing absence of a sufficiently mobilized anti-fascist opposition movement, leadership, and program. The Democratic Party has not seized the moment vigorously and creatively; progressive populist leadership has yet to emerge inspiring trust and hope; so far there are sparks but no fire.

The Anti-Fascist Challenge

Fortunately, there are some more encouraging tendencies that could mount anti-fascist challenges from within and below:

  1. Trump lost the popular vote, casting a cloud over his claimed mandate to be the vehicle of ‘the people.’ Furthermore, his approval rating keeps falling, and is now below 40% according to reliable polls.
  2. The signs of intense dissatisfaction are giving rise to protest activities that are massive and seem deeply rooted in beliefs and commitments of ordinary citizens, especially women and young people;
  3. American society is not in crisis, and right-wing extremist appeals are forced to rely on a greatly exaggerated and misleading portrayal of distress in the American economy, the evils of economic globalization and unfair trade relations that are widely understood to be largely ‘fake’;
  4. There are fissures within the Republican Party and governmental/think tank establishments, especially on international economic and security policy, that could produce escalating tensions within and challenges to the Trump leadership;
  5. There is growing dissatisfaction within the bipartisan intelligence and national security bureaucracies as whether Trump and Trumpism can be tamed before it wrecks the post-1945 international order that rests on America’s global military presence, a global network of alliances, and a disposition toward a second cold war focused on hostility to Russia; if untamed, impeachment scenarios will soon surface, based not on the real concerns, but constructed around economic conflicts of interests, emoluments, and unlawful transactions.

Certainly in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the Great Depression, America has not been tested as it is now. Maybe not since the American Civil War has so much been at stake, and put at risk.

Traditional reliance on political parties and elections will not be helpful until the political climate is radically altered by forces from below and without or above and within. It is strange, but the two main forces of resistance to the pre-fascist reality menacing the country’s and the world’s future are progressive populism as evident in the widespread grassroots protest movement taking shape in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s ascension to the presidency, and the deep state as exhibited by the anti-Trump defection of intelligence and national security specialists from both Republican and Democratic ranks during and after the recent presidential campaign.

Finally, the depiction of the present political reality as ‘pre-fascist’ rather than ‘fascist’ is crucial to this effort to depict accurately the historical moment associated with Donald Trump’s formal induction as the 45th president of the United States. To speak as if the United States is a fascist state is to falsify the nature of fascism, and to discredit critical discourse by making it seem hysterical. There is no doubt that the pieces are in place that might facilitate a horrifying transition from pre-fascism to fascism, and it could happen with lightning speed. It is also sadly true that the election of Donald Trump makes fascism a sword of Damocles hanging by a frayed thread over the American body politic.

Yet we should not overlook the quite different realities that pertain to pre-fascism. It remains possible in the United States to organize, protest, and oppose without serious fears of reprisals or detentions. The media can expose, ridicule, and criticize without closures or punitive actions, facing only angered and insulting Trump tweets, although such a backlash should not be minimized as it could have a dangerous intimidating impact on how the news is reported. We are in a situation where the essential political challenge is to muster the energy and creativity to construct a firewall around constitutional democracy as it now exists in the United States, and hope that a saner, more humane political mood leads quickly and decisively to repudiate those policies and attitudes that flow from this pre-fascist set of circumstances.

About Richard Falk

Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. He is the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 volumes. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on "the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967."

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36 Responses

  1. Maghlawatan
    January 26, 2017, 10:22 am

    Super analysis. PJ O Rourke said Clinton was wrong on some things but wrong within the normal parameters whereas Trump was for the birds.

  2. just
    January 26, 2017, 11:10 am

    Richard~ While I very much appreciate your article, I feel we’re deep in the quicksand and sinking before the next marches can even begin.

    “It remains possible in the United States to organize, protest, and oppose without serious fears of reprisals or detentions. The media can expose, ridicule, and criticize without closures or punitive actions, facing only angered and insulting Trump tweets, although such a backlash should not be minimized as it could have a dangerous intimidating impact on how the news is reported.”

    So:

    “Four more journalists get felony charges after covering inauguration unrest”

    https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/24/journalists-charged-felonies-trump-inauguration-unrest

    and…

    “Trump bans agencies from ‘providing updates on social media or to reporters’

    Administration put de facto gag order on EPA and agriculture department staff, following similar guidance for USDA and Department of Transportation, reports say”

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/24/epa-department-agriculture-social-media-gag-order-trump

    “Trump administration: EPA studies, data must undergo political review before release”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/25/donald-trump-epa-gag-order-political-review

    and…

    “Trump claims torture works but experts warn of its ‘potentially existential’ costs

    Trump gives first presidential TV interview as draft executive order points to return to practices such as waterboarding”

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/26/donald-trump-torture-absolutely-works-says-us-president-in-first-television-interview

    etc.

    • Bumblebye
      January 26, 2017, 12:36 pm

      There’s also gags on:

      Health and Human Services

      National Institute of Health

      National Parks Service

      and others.

      • just
        January 26, 2017, 12:56 pm

        Yep.

        It’s an avalanche, Bumblebye.

      • RoHa
        January 26, 2017, 6:48 pm

        I think this might be Trump’s business background showing through. Companies frequently do not allow department heads to make public pronouncements, but, rather, require all statements to be approved by the CEO’s office. Trump perhaps sees the entire US Government apparatus as a single company.

    • Maghlawatan
      January 26, 2017, 4:45 pm

      Bannon says the media is the enemy. He is fucking nuts

    • traintosiberia
      January 27, 2017, 11:47 am

      Guardian(UK) is part of the problem- a weak link It is like Colin Powell ,wants to serve the master,the empire and will go over to the dark side to satisfy the needs demands and deceitfulness of the master. It’s record on Iraq war on Syrian war on Iran are despicable It’s attitude to Russian reservations against NATO/Georgia/Ukraine is one-sided ,blindfolded-guided journey shepherded by the master /captor . Other day it was penning article on Orwellian Doublespeak and Trump’s adoption of the doublespeak . How did it forget it’s own doublespeak on Iraq,Syria and Libya ?

      In last 17 yrs ,America has moved much closer to Israel and under it’s clutch and people could see it They see the difference between rich and middle class have sharpened The education is meaningless in terms of job Higher education itself is a big scam of money , rating,donation,and government connection Military wastes billions and the active duty or the vet don’t even get basic necessities . They see how system weeds out people on false charges and how system creates new crimes out of ordinary activities, they notice how the marginal deviation from mainline is punished ,they find how big agency uses loopholes or creates loopholes to deny citizen what’s their due. They also notice that thier own control over their lives and families are restricted denied with nothing better there to replace or to take control .

      White society at some level is disintegrating .Hyphenated-American are not . White wants to blame poor disability -recipient for taking 1000 dollars but wont dare to question trillion dollar missing or spent in war. They have been led to believe that National Health Care doesnt work or government run universal education is not right way to achieve success , they have been led to believe that 16 yrs old or 20 yrs old getting caught in drugs have shirked and avoided their own personal responsibilities. Now those believes and faiths are hurting them to the core .They are looking for scapegoat .

  3. JLewisDickerson
    January 26, 2017, 2:37 pm

    RE: “First, it is necessary to set forth the case for viewing Trump’s Inaugural Address as a pre-fascist plea . . . Making the vision of change credible by the appointment of mainly white men, most with alt-right credentials, billionaires either blissfully ignorant about their assigned roles or a past record of opposition to the bureaucratic mission they are pledged to carry out” ~ Falk

    PUT ANOTHER WAY: Trump is going to throw the bureaucrats’ (i.e., “the pointy headed intellectuals'”) briefcases in the
    POE
    TOE
    MACK! ! !

    SEE: When George Wallace Came to Town – https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/george-wallace-racism-trump-segregation-poor-whites/

    • JLewisDickerson
      January 26, 2017, 2:56 pm

    • Rashers2
      January 27, 2017, 1:15 pm

      Aged (?) nine, I recall one cold morning standing in front of an open fire, dressing for primary school and listening to BBC radio’s 8 o’clock news’ reporting of Gov. Wallace, arms akimbo as a human barrier, in front of the portals of the University of Birmingham to bar the first black students from entering, in defiance of Federal judgments. I realised that this was something profoundly immoral although, at nine, I had never consciously met a non-Caucasian and we socialised with only one Jewish family. Lest we forget, however, that redemption may be rare but is possible, “I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.” – George Corley Wallace, 1979; “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.” – George Corley Wallace, 1979. Amen.

      • Mooser
        January 27, 2017, 2:06 pm

        ““I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure”

        Gee, all that redemption for about 49 cents!

      • Rashers2
        January 27, 2017, 6:44 pm

        Words are cheap; but no-one forced him to say them.

  4. amigo
    January 26, 2017, 3:00 pm

    State Dept –new rules on in citizen dissent.

    An unnamed source in the WH claimed that Pres Trump has directed the justice dept to come up with a law that would make arguing with the POTUS an act of treason.

    He went on to say that any citizen suspected of harbouring traitors would be water boarded until they disclosed the whereabouts of these traitors .Trump is said to have stated that firing people for disagreeing with him is not sufficient punishment and he wants to send a message to all his subjects that he will not tolerate dissension or disloyalty.He also stated , he cannot “reign” without the total obedience of his subjects .

    So let it be written , so let it be done , Trump added.

    • Annie Robbins
      January 26, 2017, 4:22 pm

      arguing with the POTUS an act of treason? shall we start calling him king trump?

      • amigo
        January 26, 2017, 4:38 pm

        “shall we start calling him king trump?” Annie

        I believe the term in monarchies is “Your Highness”. Mind your P,s and q,s Annie , I hope you are an accomplished multi tasker as you will have to learn how to curtsy and bow your head at the same time.

        DR. (donald reigns).

      • Maghlawatan
        January 26, 2017, 4:52 pm

        Asshole is snappier.

      • Mooser
        January 26, 2017, 5:53 pm

        “arguing with the POTUS an act of treason?”

        Steve Bannon Tells NY Times The Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut’

      • RoHa
        January 26, 2017, 6:54 pm

        “Your Majesty” for kings and queens.
        “Your Highness” for princes and princesses.

        DR (Donald Rex)

      • amigo
        January 26, 2017, 7:32 pm

        “Your Majesty” for kings and queens.”RoHa.

        Thanks for the correction RoHa . Thankfully , we in Ireland haven,t had much contact with royals for almost a century. When they visit these days , they are invited.

      • Keith
        January 26, 2017, 7:58 pm

        ROHA- “Your Majesty” for kings and queens. “Your Highness” for princes and princesses.

        “Your Lordship” for capitalist oligarchs. “Wise one” for you and me. Sound good?

      • Mooser
        January 27, 2017, 1:37 pm

        “Sound good?”

        If you want some fulsome salutations, filled with phony honorifics, go right for Britain’s communications with the Saudi Royal House. Everything you need, right there.

    • RoHa
      January 26, 2017, 6:53 pm

      “An unnamed source in the WH ”

      Very trustworthy source.

      ” Pres Trump has directed the justice dept to come up with a law that would make arguing with the POTUS an act of treason. -”

      Fewer squabbles with Melania?

  5. Keith
    January 26, 2017, 5:58 pm

    “Modern fascism should be properly called corporatism, since it is the merger of state, military and corporate power.” (Benito Mussolini)

    The very essence of fascism is the control of the political economy through the military industrial complex. One doesn’t require a Hitler or a Mussolini to be fascist. Likewise, being led by Napoleon Bonaparte did not make France fascist. The term is much abused. It is a fantasy that we are “pre-fascist,” that line was crossed long ago.

    I would argue that following World War II, fearing a return to a Great Depression, the US essentially managed the political economy through the Pentagon system of militarism, a form of fascism. Our form of militarized political economy continues to evolve towards the more visible forms of fascism, the glorification of the military, the continued growth of the CIA and other secret services, the Patriot Act and surge in the prison population all reflect the growing power of the Deep State and elite institutions. Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favorite of the Deep State, not Donald Trump. Yet, I am not so naive as to believe for a minute that Trump opposes the Deep State or that he could do much about it even if he did. At best, I am hoping that Trump will be less of a warmonger than Clinton, hardly a high bar to cross. I do wonder, however, about the phony concern about fascism based upon a smattering of populist appeal in a not-to-be-taken-seriously inauguration speech. Having been accused by “liberals” of being Putin’s puppet and other “treasonous” conduct, of course he is going to emphasize that he puts America first. What choice did he have?

    Is it fascistic to kill the TPP? What if he kills the TTIP? Destroys NAFTA? Sounds good to me! I support those things which weaken empire and neoliberal globalization. I would strongly recommend that folks react to the likely consequences of proposed policies rather than focusing on Trump the person. Going after Trump the person rather than responding to actual policy is to make the policy invisible, a huge gift for the Deep State. Implementing neoliberal globalization is highly destructive regardless of who does it, be it Obama, Clinton or Trump. Rolling back these so called trade agreements (corporate control agreements) is good if Trump actually does it. And I am very disappointed in Richard Falk for this misleading demonization of Trump which vastly overstates the power of the Presidency while simultaneously understating corporate/financial control of the political economy.

  6. marc b.
    January 26, 2017, 6:53 pm

    Falk’s off his rocker. This is very bad, every which way. Progressives for John Brennan? Democratic Party potential as the anti fascist vanguard? The political class of both political parties isn’t corrupt? The added humiliation of mass deportation and drone assassination programs perpetuated by ‘mainly white men’? This isn’t analysis, it’s a power point temper tantrum which reveals more about Falk than the Trump presidency.

    • Mooser
      January 27, 2017, 1:34 pm

      “The added humiliation of mass deportation and drone assassination programs perpetuated by ‘mainly white men’?”

      I know what you mean. There we are, doing our best, and all they can notice is that “mainly white men” are doing it? Maybe if they took a less racist view we wouldn’t have to do these things?

      • marc b.
        January 27, 2017, 3:06 pm

        obama and eric holder did do a bang up job with the remote killing thing, and i wouldn’t have expected clinton to let off the gas. not that this a trump endorsement. i have not cast a ballot for the president since 2008 (would have voted for bernie if he weren’t knee capped). just that my guess is that trump will be less worse than clinton on some issues, and more worse on others.

    • punterweger
      January 29, 2017, 12:15 pm

      @Marc b: Maybe the day you have done a small fraction of what Richard Falk has contributed to the observance of international law and to aid the Palestinian struggle, you will be worth paying attention to.

      • marc b.
        January 29, 2017, 9:12 pm

        Well, that’s brilliant. I’m unworthy of your attention, and yet you had to respond. Regardless of your opinion of me or Falk, his commentary in this post is nonsense. That’s my point. Try re-reading what he wrote and tell me you can’t find fundamental problems with his analysis.

  7. RoHa
    January 26, 2017, 10:34 pm

    “Furthermore, his approval rating keeps falling, and is now below 40% according to reliable polls.”

    Reliable polls? Do such things exist?

    For what it’s worth:

    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/trump_administration/prez_track_jan26

    • marc b.
      January 27, 2017, 7:41 am

      That is a silly statement. Less than a week into his term, with overwhelmingly bad press, and Falk pretends as if there is some significant, historical trend to be read in the trajectory of ‘reliable’ polls.

  8. beruga
    January 27, 2017, 3:46 am

    “…there just may be tacit and effective cooperation between the national security deep state and a progressive populism…”

    Indeed, as the icon of American Civil Rights Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

    “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that….but the Deep State is fine too!”

    “American society is not in crisis….greatly exaggerated and misleading portrayal of distress in the American economy…the evils of economic globalization and unfair trade relations that are widely understood to be largely ‘fake’”

    It wasn’t just right wing bigots, you also had bernie who despite lack of media coverage put up a most impressive fight, yet the author seems to ignore the “populism” that already took hold of the American people and led to a development worthy to be called “historical”, reflected through both trump & bernie, arbitrarily deeming it some form of irrational wave of hatred, a fever, if you will, that will subside given time. Opting to wait instead for a convenient “populism” that matches liberal sensitivities and preferences, If liberals/progressives hope to amount any meaning resistance to trump looking into working class dissatisfaction they ignored for too long would be a first step

    “The Democratic Party has not seized the moment vigorously and creatively; progressive populist leadership has yet to emerge inspiring trust and hope; so far there are sparks but no fire.”

    Does your left hand ever act out on it’s own to punch your right hand? Neither does mine :)

    “Denigrating the political class of both political parties as corrupt and responsible for the decline of the country and the hardships inflicted on his followers”

    A perfect descriptor of folks like Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and Ralph Nader, thank God for the Obama’s and Hillary’s seeking to save us from the evils of fascistic third parties

    “The signs of intense dissatisfaction are giving rise to protest activities that are massive and seem deeply rooted in beliefs and commitments of ordinary citizens, especially women and young people”

    Putting aside “intense dissatisfaction” seven days into his presidency, do the millions(including women) who actually voted for Trump in rust belt states also count as “ordinary people”? If so why are their economic woes relegated to “fake news”? If the think tanks & media bubbles failed to see the “Trump Train” approaching, does that not call for a revision of our understanding of the state of the American populace and Two Party Duopoly? Was this election cycle not a validation of the ever hated spoiler Ralph Nader?

    “There is growing dissatisfaction within the bipartisan intelligence and national security bureaucracies as whether Trump and Trumpism can be tamed before it wrecks the post-1945 international order that rests on America’s global military presence, a global network of alliances, and a disposition toward a second cold war focused on hostility to Russia…”

    It is a mad time when a “right wing bigot” is posing more threat to the endless war apparatus than “progressives” and “liberals”, of course Trump most likely will oil the war machine just as diligently as liberal heart throb Obama did, but to ally with those endorsing the New Cold War (and what will that lead to? A new McCarthyism this time endorsed by liberals? (hint: WaPo) Immoral military interventions blessed by progressives?) and counting the FBI & CIA as comrades in the fight against fascism sounds confused & lost.

    “…and hope that a saner, more humane political mood leads quickly and decisively to repudiate those policies and attitudes that flow from this pre-fascist set of circumstances.”

    Some would say you were lucky to get the orange clown instead of a more sinister, well spoken, therefore effective demagogue, but regardless, I don’t think this to be a train that will stop any time soon, the Obama’s and Clinton’s paved the way for the Trumps & Ted Cruzes. Trump can be assassinated tomorrow, that won’t free the state from corporate control & won’t impress all those Americans who shrink with disgust at the corruption pervading both parties.

    Closing one’s eyes and hoping for a better tomorrow is optimistic, but betting on the democratic party is, imho, magical thinking

  9. Stogumber
    January 27, 2017, 2:32 pm

    The “Trumpian” counterrevolution is of course a deep and emotionally concerning incision – like the McCarthy/Eisenhower counterrevolution.

    To be fair, that counterrevolution around 1950 was a bit more slowed down and cushioned by the fact that Truman unexpectedly won his election, that Eisenhower was a compromise candidate etc. Nevertheless, it meant that an existing leftist hegemony was shattered. And leftists went no less unhinged than Prof. Falk here.

    On hindsight, McCarthy and Eisenhower did a lot of useful work; and the greater part of their opponents learned to appreciate their deeds (and in the case of Eisenhower, the man, too; McCarthy was eternally vilified by his enemies as a person, but his efforts were maintained.) Above all: McCarthy and Eisenhower enforced the Left to take on a new language of freedom, fallibilism and rationality – which was a definite improvement. I suppose that Trump may be a similarly sanitizing influence on the Left.

    • marc b.
      January 27, 2017, 3:19 pm

      I suppose that Trump may be a similarly sanitizing influence on the Left.

      i’m not sure i follow your analysis, or understand the ‘sanitizing’ statement. the ‘left’ in the US has never had more potential, or less power, in the 20th century than at this moment. nixon could be mistaken for a card carrying member of the SDS compared with anyone in congress right now.

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