By a former resident of Bloomberg’s New York
This is a chaotic time for American politics, as the old establishment system falls away globally and newer structures emerge into that power vacuum. At such a moment, the culture and political institutions intersect in unpredictable ways. Videos of unprovoked police violence, for instance, allow for protests and civic argument about authoritarian tactics, dissidence, and racism. But those videos also allow authoritarians to make their case that such open combination of expressed violence and state authority just isn’t a big deal, or is even a good thing.
With this background, we come to Donald Trump and his influence on the Republican primary, which is an unusually vivid and important example of an unorthodox institutional evolution. Trump lost in Iowa, dealing a blow to his credibility. But he is still a scary politician, and not because he’s crazy. He’s not. He’s a flashy racist real estate promoter who sells overpriced gaudy products. He’s a marketer. However, this isn’t so important.
What makes fascism isn’t just the character of the leader, but the economic circumstance of that leader’s rise. Trump’s most important and flashy line at events is a fairly open symbol of policing; a call to build a giant wall on the border to keep out immigrants. But his economic arguments mix traditional conservative ideas about the social role of business – businessmen winners should be on top – with left-wing arguments about how the state must be a useful tool for promoting the social and economic welfare of the people living here (not those with the wrong skin color, of course).
Michal Kalecki, who invented Keynesianism before Keynes (though Kalecki wrote it in Polish and French, so it was ignored), wrote the classic analysis of the economics of fascism in 1943. In this essay, he described one basis of political stability as full employment. Despite full employment bringing in large profits for big business, business leaders despise that economic situation because full employment means workers can easily leave their job and find a new one.
Kalecki’s insight in this essay is that for big business, unemployment is first and foremost a mechanism for disciplining workers. Under full employment “the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure,'” and “the social position of the boss would be undermined.” Discipline and political stability, he argued, “are more appreciated than profits by business leaders.”
He notes, however, that there is one full employment model of economic order that big business will accept: fascism. Fascism replaces the discipline of unemployment with the discipline of policing, concentration camps, and the threat of violence. Therefore, he concluded, “one of the most important functions of fascism… was to remove capitalist objections to full employment.” He then points out that fascist full employment tends towards using people to build weapons, and that carries its own seed for endless war. Kalecki’s work is worth reading in full, but that’s the gist of it.
In order to rise to power successfully, a fascist leader has to build alliances within a country’s natural conservative institutional fabric, aka the forces of order. Mussolini, I believe, was allied with the church, Hitler was financed by certain big business sectors (like steel), and he found allies in the the military. These kinds of institutional links are key in every authoritarian takeover, from Franco in Spain to Pinochet in Chile.
In a time of yearning for jobs and economic stability, fascist arguments can sound appealing. They sound especially worthwhile in the face of establishment politicians who say that alas, the government has no responsibility for your problem, it’s just the grand forces of globalization, or technology, or a lack of skills, or “the market”.
That’s the situation we’re in today, and why populist right forces are rising worldwide. In the U.S., this is why Trump sounds so different than most big business Republicans. He is willing to marry violence against racial minorities, journalists, and, well, just anyone, with a working class lens on economic issues, on everything from trade to eminent domain to infrastructure to health care to political corruption to foreign policy to immigration. His politics are a revolutionary break from the Reagan Republican big business orthodoxy and the neoliberalism of the Democratic establishment.
Trump’s ideological organizing principle is low wage full employment, with the social status of big business in all likelihood preserved through violent discipline. It’s a kind of politics most Americans have really never seen before. Trump is pretty much openly calling for violence against protesters, giving his supporters permission to ‘rough up’ dissidents.
Some say that George Wallace made arguments like this, but he wasn’t doing so in world where labor cost deflation was managed through globalized offshoring. Trump’s economic stance does not mean, however, that he is a genuine advocate for the working class. He’s not. He’s just, at the end of the day, a dishonest real estate promoter. And the ultimate costs of fascism, as Kalecki makes clear and as we’ve seen through history, are borne most savagely by the targeted minorities, and then the working class.
What is worrisome about Trump is two things. First, what should be clear about politics is that the public desperately wants a full employment economy. Trump is promising that. And second, Trump is building institutional links with at least one natural conservative force that hasn’t until recently been considered particularly political: the police.
This is an armed working class unionized pro-government demographic that is not especially fond of plutocrats and has no problem with the government taking responsibility for both full employment and, well, for social order. They are trusted with the legal authority to discipline citizens, and they are the basis for the enforcement of our legal system. A lot of them feel threatened by recent protests. And they are giving Trump enthusiastic endorsements. For instance, the Executive Director of the New England Police Benevolent Association, in explaining the group’s rationale for endorsing Trump, said that the country’s leader should be the one that protects its police, as now it’s “open season” on police officers. Sheriff Joe Arpaio just endorsed Trump.
There are other natural forces of order. The church. The military. The intelligence world. Big business. And Trump, because he is a nationalist, a full employment guy, and someone who looks down on experts, will turn some of them off. Globalized businesses won’t like him, unless he cuts a deal with them. Neither will Wall Street. A lot of military and national security experts find his provincialism unprofessional and embarrassing, while others find it appealing.
Really, though, it’s not that hard to imagine Trump tacitly encouraging his supporters to commit violence against mainstream domestic political opponents in pursuit of his political priorities. I don’t know what kind of institutional immunity we have to this, it’s not a situation considered in a serious way for as long as any of us have been alive. And even if Trump loses, as he probably will, he has opened a pathway for success in the Republican Party that will be followed by others, unless we return to full employment. That may happen, but it may also be the case that Trump, or the next Trump, takes power in 2017 or 2021.
You can usually find a precedent for most developments in modern American politics, we’ve been here before, it’s not that bad, or it’s worse but here’s a way we handled this before. But Trump strikes me as a new element, something that has always been on the fringe but is now on the verge of real institutional power. It’s as if a strong segregationist, say Strom Thurmond when he ran for President, actually had a shot of winning. You’d probably have to go back to World War I and the near-normal sanctioning of anti-German vigilante violence to see anything like this. But I’m not even sure that is a parallel. This is new territory.
Pay attention to Trump and the police. Those institutional shifts are worth understanding.