Reviewed by Stéphanie Martens
Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce is a small, accessible, yet well documented book gathering three recent articles by John Bellamy Foster, published in the socialist magazine The Monthly Review (issues 68.11, 69.2, 68.9). A foreword by Robert W. McChesney, as well as a preface and a brief conclusion are added to the original articles, which have been slightly modified – mainly to account for changes in Trump’s administration that occurred within the few months between the original publications (written between November 2016 and April 2017) and the preparation of the volume. The main argument is two-fold. Firstly, as announced in the preface, ‘although Trumpism is commonly characterized as a form of right-wing populism, the analysis […] focuses on the concrete, sociological reasons for seeing this new political development as a type of neo-fascism, part of the larger fascist genus’ (15). The challenge set forth is thus to convince the reader that ‘fascist’ and ‘neo-fascist’ are more apt and useful descriptors than the now overextended category of ‘populism’. In the process, traditional categories of Marxist analysis, social classes, property rights, labour organization and international and national economic structures, are used to show that the root of the problem lies within capitalism itself. Secondly and much more briefly, socialist and anti-capitalist movements are presented as the only effective means of resistance. This second challenge, suggesting what ought to be done, is developed only incidentally and functions rather as the logical consequence of the critique of capitalism undertaken earlier.
To a large extent, the first challenge is met: not all readers may be quite comfortable describing Trumpism as neo-fascism, but by the end of the book, they should at least be intrigued by the family resemblances and aware of the shortcomings of its characterization as simply ‘populist’. Foster’s presentation of the political economy behind Trump’s ascension and exercise of power is also instructive and thought-provoking. And, most pressingly, the reader will certainly be alarmed (and consider herself warned) by the portrait of Trumpism painted here – whether one chooses to call it ‘neo-fascist’ or not.
The perspective is, as expected, deliberately Marxist and materialist, privileging political economy and class analyses. The book is thus faithful to its subtitle, Tragedy or Farce, echoing Marx’s famous opening line in The 18th Brumaire – which was then referring to the ‘antics’ of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the ‘farce’) repeating the power ‘grab’ enacted by his uncle half a century earlier (the ‘tragedy’). Like in The 18th Brumaire, party politics and ideological manipulation are taking the front seat – an unusual focus for Marx and Marxists. However, the analogy stops here: Trump, his campaign and presidency, are not farcical repetitions of an earlier, world-changing, moment. Rather than a satire, what Foster gives us to see here is more of the horror or apocalyptic genre: a dangerous cocktail of neo-liberalism, neo-fascism and ‘ecocidal capitalism’ (16). By arguing that Trumpism should not be simply considered as an exuberant and idiosyncratic form of populism, but rather more aptly as American neo-fascism, Foster paints a sombre picture of our contemporary predicament. When considered against their ideological background and within the present structures of globalized capitalism, Trump’s antics and inconsistent policy-making are more worrying than ever.
The first chapter, ‘Neo-Fascism in the White House’, defends and explains Foster’s characterization of Trumpism as neo-fascist. The point is first of all comparative: to find commonalities with twentieth century fascism, Nazism in particular, and to highlight the specificities of neo-fascism, by contrast to classical fascism. The comparison is most convincing when detailing the socio-economic characteristics of Trump’s electorate and highlighting the fascistic rhetoric and crowd appeal techniques used during Trump’s campaign and early presidency.
Foster is quite convincing in showing how the supporters and electorate mobilized by Trump in 2016 resemble that of earlier fascist movements, relying heavily on ‘the lower middle class (or petty bourgeoisie)’ and ‘privileged sections of the working class’ (20-21, 63). The selected excerpts from public and media interventions, of Trump himself, or of his close advisers, are also eye-opening, highlighting fascistic undertones as well as quite explicit references to the ideological tenets of fascism – in particular its deployment of a ‘palingenetic [rebirth] form of ultra-nationalism’ (23, 64). Where fascism appears the most clearly yet is in the rhetoric and intellectual references deployed by Steve Bannon, most notably Julius Evola and the 1970s French Nouvelle Droite. Foster recognizes, however, that the comparison only goes so far: the absence of ‘paramilitary violence’ and of ‘a separate fascist party,’ as well as the now globalized nature of contemporary ‘monopoly-finance capitalism’ are among the most notable and consequential differences (22).
Less expectedly, Foster compares Hitler’s Gleichschaltung, ‘synchronization—the period of consolidation of the new political order in the years 1933–34,’ (27) to Trump’s own updated version of this ‘bringing into line’ of institutions and state power. This leads him to focus on the legal and institutional aspects of a fascist regime. The comparison here feels more forced, and overall less convincing, as the legal and institutional contexts at play, post-WWI Weimar Republic and twenty-first century US, are quite incommensurable. What remains relevant today are fascist tendencies towards a dangerous instrumentalization of the state and of the democratic institutions – hollowing them out of their meaning, installing greater tolerance towards illegality and eventually unscrupulously bypassing constitutional and legal obligations whenever possible. The chapter ends with a special focus on the alliances between capitalist class and the alienated lower middle-classes: the unlikely yet powerful collusion between neo-liberal, globalized, forces of financial capitalism and the neo-fascist exploitation of various forms of popular resentment best illustrated in the apparently contradictory combination of tax-cuts for the wealthy with promises of major infrastructure spending and industrial jobs (44).
‘This is not Populism’ presents the other side of the coin: Trumpism is not just (national) populism. Foster opens this second chapter by highlighting the difficulty to clearly define populism, referring to recent textbooks and, quoting Andrea Mammone, insists that too often ‘the terms populism and national populism’ are used to ‘replace fascism/neo-fascism as the used terminology’ and ‘provide a sort of political and democratic legitimization of right-wing extremism.’ (62) This chapter provides a good critique of the way the lexicon of populism may be used, purposely or not, as a ‘cloak’ – a reassuring euphemism, overused and overextended. This critique is reinforced by interesting comments on liberal democratic reactions to fascism, too often stemming from the amalgamation of right-wing and left-wing forms of totalitarianism. This ‘Arendtian consensus’ (62) is accused of ironing out the ideological oppositions between radical right and left, while ignoring their non-totalitarian deployments. The expression itself may be unfair to Arendt’s own studies, but seems indeed to point to an all-too-easy dismissal of all forms of radicality as potentially totalitarian.
Later sections of the chapter, while useful within the original article, feel slightly redundant in the book – tackling themes and concepts already covered in the first chapter, namely: Gleichschaltung, the influence of Evola on Trump’s entourage, and the way Trumpism is undermining, like previous fascist movements, democratic institutions and democratic life itself. The final irony pointed out is the way liberal democracy, through neo-liberalism, tends to ‘dig its own grave’ ignoring the real-life impact of economic crises and increased globalization. As Foster argues, class analysis is necessary to understand these phenomena, but also the disillusionment of working (middle) classes – a set of attitudes which then feeds into neo-fascist movements.
The third chapter focusses on the environmental aspects of Trumpism – or rather lack thereof – and pulls the alarm once more, showing how climate change denial can also be explained through the lens of neo-fascism developed earlier. Foster finds here his area of expertise, environmental politics, and is quite at ease showing both the irrationality and dangerousness of Trump’s policies – notably its collusions with the fossil fuel industry – and the impasses of the capitalist system itself. The connection with the previous chapters is more thematic than argumentative. Disregard for the environment and climate change denial are neither specific to neo-fascism nor easily compared to classical fascism. Rather, this emphasizes the strange complacency and resilience of liberal democracies, accommodating themselves too easily to both environmental destruction and undemocratic forces for the sake of economic growth. Globalized capitalism is not only able to thrive under neo-fascism, in an atmosphere of generalized irrationalism and ‘post-truth’ politics (86-87), but also, by its very accumulative nature, precludes any environmentally meaningful change of course.
Foster’s prescription for change, exposed in chapter 3 and reinforced in the short conclusion, follows logically: ‘the only conceivable answer today to cascading planetary catastrophe is a broad-based ecological and social revolution, in which the population mobilizes to protect the future of humanity: a revolutionary war for the planet’ (106). In the face of such a catastrophic situation indeed, incremental reform won’t do. One can only hope for a radical overall, a true social (and socialist) revolution (109, 118), taking down not just neo-fascism in its latest Trumpesque incarnation, but also the very system at the root of the problem: the capitalist infrastructure and the human and environmental exploitation it entertains. Many less radically inclined readers may not be on board with such a drastic revolutionary injunction. Moreover, many political scientists or historians will remain reticent to using the term fascism or its cognates to describe contemporary politics, reserving it to politics in Europe behind twentieth century human tragedies. Still, Foster’s book shows the categories of fascism and neo-fascism applied to Trumpism can be instructive and eye-opening. And, on this ground, the book may be relevant to readers on all sides of the political spectrum. To those on the side of liberal-democracy, it can serve as a sobering reminder to leave aside illusions of a post-ideological world, to realize the measure of the ‘neo-fascist’ (national populist) threat, and to develop a ‘thick’ liberalism restoring meaning to its historic ideals of freedom and equality.
In the end, the most frustrating aspects of the book are not the author’s own doing but rather Trumpism’s own. Indeed, they are linked to the short life span any commentary on Trump in power is bound to suffer. The original articles, and the book, take as their main material the Trump campaigns (primary and presidential) and the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. Much has changed since then, and not just since the mid-term elections, or with the upcoming second term election campaign, or because of a possible impeachment. Shortly after the book was written, in 2017 already, a puzzling series of diplomatic and military decisions were made, scandals popped up on an almost daily basis, and more importantly here, the rocky departure of Steve Bannon seemed to deprive Trumpism from the ideological consistency that has been analysed in this book. Never before has such an administration been so ever-changing, unpredictable and inscrutable; this continues to unsettle commentators and contributes to making relevant, up to date, analysis all the more difficult. In other words, Trumpism is in constant movement – a possible fascistic feature – and thus, keeps escaping our understanding. In this context, we might look forward to an updated analysis from John Bellamy Foster, tackling the ideological void left by Steve Bannon and some of the many questions and new complications arising at the end of Trump’s first term. Maybe we can hope, modestly, that the looming tragedy will turn into a simple, short-lived, farce.
4 October 2019