I had the remarkable privilege of spending the past two weeks with a family in Puebla, Mexico, where distance offered room to reflect on the American politics without the omnipresent reactionary media and its grip on American cultural and political thought. The family I stayed with was middle class, which in Mexico means earning between $10 and $50 a day as a household (despite its apparent rapid growth, the Mexican middle class has little more economic power than it did 25 years ago), and they were well educated and up to date on the political scene north of the border. We had enlightening discussions about non-interventionism (a tenet of the Mexican constitution) and anti-capitalism (the overwhelming majority of Mexicans, like nearly 90% of the people in the world, believe that free market capitalism has failed them). But in Mexico, as in the United States, people were most interested in our election, and in particular, in the campaign of racist real estate heir-turned-failed businessman-turned-fascist Donald Trump.
Of course the Trump campaign terrified the Mexican people. Famous for starting his campaign by accusing the Mexican government of sending their “killers” and “rapists” over our border and openly contemplated invading the country, the Republican party’s presidential front-runner has risen to power by mobilizing working class white Americans through a blatant and vocal racism that has been hidden from the political mainstream (but very much alive in the cultural mainstream) since the 1950s. Many commentators have observed the links between Trump and the fascist demagogues who came to power in Europe before World War II, a comparison he has been hesitant to disavow. Everyone in the world has reason to fear the rise of a fascist candidate in the most powerful military and economic force in human history. But we Americans, despite the benefit of an actual historical precedent, have been complicit in decades of plutocratic imperialism that have recreated the circumstances in pre-fascist Europe. We have no right to be surprised by the threat of a new American fascism that, like the neo-Nazi resurgence in Europe and the radical Islamism in the Middle East, is the inevitable result of our neoliberalism.
After World War I, the victorious Allies (US President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando) headed the negotiations for peace and new order at the Paris Peace in the Treaty of Versailles. The results were the organization of an international League of Nations (with the Allies, notably excluding Italy, wielding disproportionate and permanent power) to enforce a new global economic and political structure, and the imposition of extreme sanctions (not unlike the current austerity measures imposed by the EU on Greece) on the war’s loser, Germany. While heralded as a major victory in the Allied states, whose new economic hegemony would help bring about a brief era of unprecedented economic growth for their ruling classes, the Treaty of Versailles was an economic death sentence for the working classes in the rest of the world, especially Germany, Austria, and Italy. (This is a side note, but the treaty also codified the imperial division of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, ignoring the protests of a young Parisian hotel worker named Ho Chi Minh, the future liberator of Vietnam).
As is typical of the suddenly disenfranchised, Germans and Italians were filled with anger and despair. The working classes faced historically unprecedented rates of unemployment and inflation, while taxes rose steadily to pay off war debts, leaving them violently angry at their governments which had failed to protect them from the fundamentally unfair treaty, and desperate for a new hope. Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler were a pair of charismatic performers up to the task. They appealed to Italian and German nationalism, respectively, by promising to restore their once great nations to their former glory, by blaming the economic crisis on minorities and cultural liberals already distrusted by the working classes, and by establishing cults of personality based off of unapologetic aggression (sound familiar?). Had it not been Mussolini and Hitler, fascism would have been born from some other pair high-functioning sociopaths; history has very clearly demonstrated the abundance of high-functioning sociopaths.
You know the rest. After coming democratically to power with overwhelming populist support, the fascists assumed absolute control of their countries, cemented it with brutal secret police forces and elaborate propaganda and indoctrination machines, and ultimately launched a massive genocide and the largest single conflict in human history. While Americans from every point on the political spectrum condemn fascism’s brief and disastrous waltz on the world stage, the imperialist retelling of history fails to remind them that fascism was almost an inevitability. Like every other group in world history to be stripped of their autonomy and prospects in a sudden political shift, the German and Italian people were going to rebel against the oppression of the status quo. Aside rabid nationalism, the only way to satisfy the radicalized workers would be a populist (aka leftist) revolution that would establish a proletarian state designed to protect the working class from imperialist profiteering; far more dangerous to the Western capitalist hegemons than Hitler ever could be, and far more likely to be crushed by those in power. (Many American and British capitalists, especially bankers, actually financed Hitler’s Nazi Party in its early stages because they saw it as an effective deterrent to communism in Germany, and American politicians tacitly endorsed the Nazi paramilitary violence against the German Communist Party).
Neoliberalism is the belief that the spread of Western economic liberalism (the so-called “free market”) through imposing policies such as privatization, deregulation, austerity, and anti-socialism on “developing” economies (imperialist code for any economy that benefits anyone outside of the Western ruling class) is the key to global societal progress. While all US foreign policy since World War II, and domestic policy since Lyndon Johnson, could be described as neoliberal, the “neoliberal era” of American politics is generally considered to have started in the 70s and drastically increased under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (who, despite their partisan differences, shared a warm smile and down-to-earth tone that let the public forget their constant war on human dignity). Despite its near-uniform acceptance in the American economic mainstream, neoliberalism has only devastated poor and working class people around the world.
President Reagan moved to normalize economic relations with the failed revolutionary state in China, not to improve the country’s human rights record (which to this day remains atrocious), but to convince the despot of Chinese state capitalism, Deng Xiaoping, to convert his country into an anything-goes dystopian hellscape of production for American capitalists. Deng accepted. American corporations began to move their manufacturing centers en masse to China, where they wouldn’t be held accountable for atrocious labor conditions or catastrophic disregard for the environment (today, minimum wage in some regions of China is as low as $130 per month). While the greatest victims of this shift were the Chinese workers, still recovering from Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward, who were left with no option but to submit to de facto slavery to produce goods for American capitalists, those who experienced the most sudden change were blue collar American workers: American manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979, two years before Reagan took office, with 19.4 million jobs, and has since been in rapid decline, with 2 million fewer when he left office in 1989 and nearly 8 million fewer today. Reagan also started the neoliberal tradition of trickledown economics. He slashed taxes for the top tax bracket in half on the bizarre premise that this would make them more likely to employ the working class. This cut so much revenue, which could have paid for basic humanist social programs, that he had to actually raise taxes seven times, although the increases were almost all on lower tax brackets. Under Reagan, economic inequality in the US skyrocketed while the working class plunged into an inescapable collapse.
Democrat Bill Clinton was possibly worse. He lobbied heavily for the General Agreement On Tariffs and Trade in 1994, which facilitated the exploitation of foreign labor for capitalist profit by making large tariffs and basic regulatory measures illegal around the world. As a result of these reductions, US companies are now taxed on average less than 1.5% to import goods they manufacture in other countries. He signed the North American Free Trade Act, which sent many American manufacturers to Mexico, cost almost a million US jobs, collapsed the value of the Mexican peso and subsequently the Mexican economy, and corporatized agriculture in Mexico. The last element was possibly the most significant; millions of rural Mexicans suddenly found themselves without work and were forced to either join drug cartels or cross the border illegally in search of work. The overwhelming increase in Mexican immigrants (and in Central American immigrants fleeing political violence launched by the CIA) piqued the xenophobia and racism of working class white Americans, who feared more competition in an increasingly small job market. Despite all of this, the Clinton presidency is seen as an economic success, since the ruling classes saw their worth expand exponentially.
Clinton also expanded the violent side of neoliberalism, launching brutal sanctions against countries that would not submit to Western economic hegemony, as I have discussed elsewhere. This completely destabilized the political structures in the Middle East and Central Africa, plunging both regions into their worst-ever periods of violence, which linger on today and have killed millions. The response to neoliberal intervention in both regions has been, if not strictly fascism, an explosion of violence along ethnic and religious lines that, while occasionally pointed for a moment at the power centers responsible for the subversion of the people, have largely resulted in the slaughter of innocents (though far fewer innocents, of course, than the imperial invasions). As in Nazi Germany, the rise in Islamist extremism in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East is an inevitable and completely predictable result of the neoliberal brutality the regions have been subjected to.
And now here we are. As President Obama has just a few weeks ago signed the largest international accord on neoliberalism of all time, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and as neo-Nazi parties are rising in Europe in reaction to the EU’s financial despotism and the refugees of imperialist wars, America is moving closer and closer to nominating a fascist to be the presidential candidate of a major political party, and we the bourgeoisie are still baffled by his rise. It really is quite simple.
The working class in the United States has been decimated in only a few decades by policies that have never been explained to them. They understand that the existing political establishment, with its two mainstream neoliberal parties, does not protect them, and is unlikely to protect them in the future. The middle and upper classes treat them as ignorant failures. To keep them from turning to the left, the reactionary media has for generations presented them with the easy narrative that racial minorities are stealing their country and their opportunities. They have been soaked in the mainstream culture of militant nationalism for their entire lives. They can remember a time, before globalization, when blue collar jobs meant middle class life in the United States. Donald Trump may not speak truths, but he (or his handlers) is genius enough to discern what the white working class wants to hear on each of these points and then say it unapologetically. No conventional American politician will ever claim the same.
Maybe, as the polls suggest, Donald Trump will not win this election. Maybe there will be four more years of another neoliberal Clinton in the White House, or maybe (and this is a stretch) a former revolutionary who calls himself a socialist will fight his way into the Oval Office only to find that the fundamental constraints of that office will keep him from turning back the deluge of capitalist imperialism. But because the realities for the ever-growing underclass will not improve, and because the status quo will continue to block any left wing revolution at all costs, there will be a fascist President of the United States, and that President is coming very soon. And that will be bad. In our post 9/11 panic, we let the state create the most advanced system for population observation and clandestine policing in the history of the world, something Hitler’s Gestapo or Mussolini’s OVRA would have drooled over. In our duel with the Soviet Union, we let the state build weapons capable of annihilating all known life in the universe in a few seconds. Twenty-first century fascism already has the tools to far exceed the horrors committed over seventy years ago.
There is, I truly believe, an alternative. The left (the true and urgent left, not the Democratic Party) must organize. The left must prepare to militantly resist the forces of fascism. The left must reach out, without judgement, to those who are marginalized by society. The left must collaborate with the few surviving anti-imperialists around the world. The left must defend, with their lives if necessary, the basic human rights of the millions of Latino and Muslim Americans who are already experiencing the violence of white supremacy on top of the oppression of the imperialist state. The left must fully understand, and must clearly articulate, that there is a hope for working class white Americans and for refugees from Mexico and Syria and Honduras and for the victims of neoliberal violence everywhere in the world, who outnumber their oppressors a thousand to one. And that hope is the immediate disestablishment of the global neoliberal empire, and the immediate collapse of the inevitably doomed capitalist superstructure. It is challenging, it is radical, it will call on every person to change their lives, and it certainly is no promise of a utopia, but the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.