Trump Gives Fascism a Bad Name
From the Series: American Fascism
Since Trump was elected in 2016, I have been haunted by the question, how does a fascism emerging after neoliberalism differ from a fascism that had the Weimar Republic as the backdrop? Or put another way, can abiding support for Trump be partially motivated by Trump’s apparent rejection of some basic neoliberal tenets? Others have spoken eloquently and often about how much his supporters are relieved no longer to have to listen to simply dog whistled racism. Yet could Trump’s appeal be more than his unrepentant racism? Might his spoken and Tweeted words be American fascism’s rebuttal to the logic of American neoliberalism?
Let me begin with Trump’s irreverence for contracts. With The Art of the Deal in his back pocket, Trump refuses to consider any contract sacrosanct. As I write this, he has stiffed Guiliani for hundreds of thousands of dollars that he promised to pay, one among a long list of business contracts he has refused to honor. In Trump’s first presidential campaign, he promised to renegotiate every international contract, insisting that his business acumen would allow him to carve out a better deal. And as president, he has indeed withdrawn from the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Global Compact on Migration, and on and on. Yet contracts are the foundational legal technology under neoliberalism—the tool through which corporate entities freely enter into relationships that putatively distribute risk and responsibility in mutually beneficial ways (which shapes all relationships, since every social unity and person is metaphorically a corporate entity under neoliberal logics). When markets are the best available spontaneous order undergirding modern societies, contracts are the primary source of stability (Gershon 2011). Without contracts, how can competitive corporate entities enter into any form of alliance with each other? True, in practice, Trump’s heavy reliance on nondisclosure agreements and other forms of contract reveals that he understands all too well how essential contracts can be for managing the risk of relationships. What he openly claims about contracts however is that he will not be confined by any contract—contracts will have no stabilizing effect on him. For those who wonder why so many people are willing to continue working with Trump despite evidence that he treats his allies and employees so badly over time, perhaps this bad behavior is merely evidence of his power—this is what a fascist exercise of power looks like against the backdrop of the neoliberal fetish for contractual sociality. And this exercise of power against legal commitments might appeal to a populace whose daily lives are filled with terms and conditions agreements they cannot understand or alter, and with contracts whose terms are invariably experienced as nonnegotiable.
Trump’s vaunted nationalism rejects the neoliberal version of national pride expressed through nation-branding aimed at an international audience. Instead he espouses an inward-looking rejoicing in an imagined America of yesteryear. This form of nationalism is a direct rejection of what Hayek and others hoped a global market would enable. The intellectual founders of neoliberalism saw the market as a way to create shifting and impermanent allegiances based on momentary needs—they hoped for a global market, one without borders and tariffs, as a way to undercut deep historical commitments to a region and a people. As a counter to the German and Italian fascism that Hayek found anathema, he hoped a global market would shift the ways in which people commit to their neighbors, and to fellow country-people—he believed that a global market would render these types of bonds temporary. Part of what neoliberal global markets are supposed to create are alliances based on market advantage, not regional historically rooted ties. Trump’s cartoonish nationalism is a strong rejection of how global markets are supposed to erode neighborly ties. He is asserting a naturalized identity after years of neoliberal investments in socially constructing ties less fervent and supposedly less prone to violence.
Lastly, Trump offers a much simpler and more viscerally compelling version of risk than neoliberals do. For Trump, risk is danger, and often danger clearly embodied by immigrants, by Mexicans, by Muslims, by leftist protestors. For neoliberals, risk is a much more ambiguous possibility—it is after all what keeps the market fluid, how capital grows. To be an entrepreneurial self is to engage with risk, hoping it will pay off. To follow one’s passion, a rallying cry for neoliberal self-fashioning, is a call to embrace risk. For neoliberals, relationships are inherently a contractual agreement to balance risk and responsibility in a mutually beneficial way, and what precisely that would look like is the constricted framework inside of which negotiation and debate around contractual relations occur. This is what Trump forcibly rejects by insisting risk is embodied in people one should not be in relationship with.
He also resists engaging in any way with trying to distribute responsibility in a mutually beneficial way, or pretend this is ever a hoped for goal. This rejection underlies his admittedly baffling resistance to masks during a pandemic. Many have been furious at how refusing to wear a mask is refusing to engage with the common good, a rejection of classic liberal principles. I am struck by how effectively refusing to wear a mask also rejects engaging with any kind of balancing act in allocating risk and responsibility in one’s relationships with others.
Trump is not especially talented at the other attributes that have kept fascists in power elsewhere. He lacked the political acumen to ally effectively with the military. His administration made no moves to offer national daycare, or free higher education, or any sort of jobs programs. His much-vaunted tariffs weren’t even well thought out. Let’s face it, Trump was not an especially effective fascist. But what he did do, time and time again, was refuse many of the trappings of neoliberalism (experienced as traps by his followers)—no stable contracts, no accountability for him!
Gershon, Ilana. 2011. “Neoliberal Agency.” Current Anthropology 52, no. 4: 537–55.
Hayek, Frederich. 1939. “The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism.” New Commonwealth Quarterly 5, no. 2: 131–49.