The response to the election of Donald Trump has been sweeping and swift. Massive and continual protests have taken place in a number of cities across the United States. Students have led walkouts and called for the creation of sanctuaries on many university campuses. A petition calling on the members of the Electoral College to vote in favor of Hillary Clinton, the clear winner of the popular vote, has already gathered millions of signatures. Progressive organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Our Revolution have begun a coordinated fight back against Trump’s openly fascistic agenda. On the other side, a spate of hate crimes—over 700 as we write this, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s tabulations—has spread across the country, including the shooting of five people at an anti-Trump demonstration in Seattle, countless incidents of xenophobic and racist harassment in public places and even elementary schools, assaults against people speaking Spanish in public, beatings of LGBTQ persons, and the Ku Klux Klan holding a march in celebration of the fact that they will now have institutional support for their genocidal mission. In the midst of this, academics and other intellectuals on the left have written numerous think pieces trying to help us grapple with the myriad questions raised by the election: How did this happen? Why have we failed so thoroughly? Where do we go from here? In what follows, we want to join the dialogue and debate on Trump’s victory and its aftermath by offering seven theses on its political and ethical significance.
ONE: Trump’s movement should be understood as fascism
From the announcement of Trump’s campaign to the days after the election, there has been much debate among commenters about whether or not “fascism” is an appropriate description. For us, Trump and his movement are unambiguously fascist. We are not using the word “fascist” glibly here. Nor are we referencing only the so-called “alt-right” contingent of his supporters. No, Trump’s entire movement is rooted in an ethnic, racial, and linguistic nationalism that sanctions and glorifies violence against designated enemies and outsiders, is animated by a myth of decline and nostalgic renewal and centered on a masculine cult of personality. Indeed, Trump’s “program” meets the fourteen characteristics of fascism famously outlined by Umberto Eco in every way. We therefore disagree with those who prefer to label Trump an autocrat rather than a fascist. While a fascist leader can certainly be an autocrat—and Trump may well turn out to be just that—fascism can be distinguished from autocracy precisely by the dimension of mass support. The important, and frightening, phenomenon here, for us, is not the consolidation of power in the hands of one person, but rather the powerful movement Trump has mobilized, and it is this movement that needs to be understood on a deeper level.
TWO: As fascism, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency must be challenged on all levels
First, we must be clear that Trump’s election is not the will of the people. Far from it: after the popular vote was counted Hillary Clinton beat Trump by nearly two million votes, and indeed won more popular votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history other than President Obama. This is a large part of the rationale behind the movement demanding the Electoral College elect Hillary Clinton when they meet on December 19. Still, some political theorists have argued against this, suggesting that it would undermine the legitimacy of the, already severely weakened, democratic processes. Such an argument is problematic because the Electoral College itself is elitist and racist, designed out of fear and distrust of the popular masses and the desire to preserve slavery by generating more voting power for the Southern states without allowing slaves to vote. In other words, the Electoral College is a constitutively undemocratic institution created precisely to limit the will of the people. It is therefore time for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College—and it has been at least since the 2000 Bush-Gore debacle, if not earlier. But, more importantly for right now, we must demand that the members of Electoral College not only do their job of giving what Alexander Hamilton called a “sober second thought” to the results of the election, but to remain faithful to the democratic will of the people and effectively vote themselves out of legitimacy. Beyond this, however, we also have to face the reality that we are up against a President-Elect who intends to implement a fascist agenda, which is itself a direct challenge to the very legitimacy of democracy. A tepid defense of democratic norms is not nearly enough against a man whose policies and appointees show no regard for those very norms or the rule of law. Finally, we must recognize that movements of students, indigenous peoples, climate activists, and those living in the cities—primarily in the global South—most imminently endangered by climate change are calling upon a legitimacy higher than the norms of U.S. democracy: that of the planet and the life of all its inhabitants, human and non. Given that many climate scientists have designated 2020 a critical year in whether or not the effects of climate change can be slowed down, let alone reversed, we simply do not have the luxury of waiting until the next election. Considering, alone, Trump’s clear program to eliminate all steps taken to protect the environment and his support for coal mining and drilling in protected lands, young people can rightfully claim that Trump is “not our President” because they literally will have no possibility of a life as an effect of his administration.
THREE: Trump’s nihilism should not be taken as a countermeasure to his fascism
Within minutes of Trump’s election, the attempts at normalization began: the media commentators and liberal politicians who, even hours before, were alerting us to the dangers of a Trump presidency, began suggesting that we must “unite” behind him and hope for the best. For instance, President Obama, who spent the days leading up to the election rightly insisting that Trump represents a threat to democracy and justice on a global scale shockingly stated that he was “cheering on” Trump’s presidency. The corporate media and liberal elite either hopes—or wants us to believe that they do—that perhaps a President Trump will temper his open call for the mass deportation of immigrants, for the registration if not internment of Muslims, for the end of abortion rights, for the building of a wall on the Mexican border, for the gutting of the Affordable Care Act, for the end of marriage equality, and so on. One reason for this response may simply be the typical liberal commitment to the norms of democratic legitimacy, which, as discussed above, is wholly ineffective in the face of fascism. Another reason, however, seems to be a recognition of Trump’s nihilism—that is, of the fact that he seems to hold no real or enduring values at all. And yet, it is a complete illusion to think that Trump, bolstered by a Republican Congress (and, soon, a Republican majority on the Court), will not immediately begin to put into practice what he preached. As Oprah has often said: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” The conflation of Trump’s nihilism with reasonableness, or the hope that this nihilism might somehow act as an antidote to his fascist proposals during his campaign, is not only naïve but it shows no understanding of why Trump actually “won” the election and what we are now up against. True, since Trump has no strong belief system, he can say whatever he wants if it happens to benefit him in the short term, but we have no reason at all to doubt that he intends to carry out his “program.”
FOUR: What we are facing, perhaps for the first time, is fascism rooted in open nihilism.
Karl Marx once famously declared that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. To visualize Marx’s claim with respect to the return of fascism in the form of Donald Trump, one only need compare the difference between Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and an episode of The Apprentice, the uniform precision of the Nuremberg rallies with a sea of Trump supporters in ill-fitting red baseball caps, or the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiano with the Taj Mahal casino. On a more serious note, for us the terrifying part of this farce is precisely that it is fascism based in nihilism. One way of understanding twentieth century European fascism through the great philosopher of nihilism Friedrich Nietzsche is that such fascism was a last ditch effort to restore value to a Europe in which even the highest values had collapsed into an abyss of meaninglessness. For Hitler, for example, the decadence of the Weimar Republic, including things like interracial breeding and homosexuality, represented a humanity drained of any moral value. The grandiosity of the rallies, the colossal monuments, were not just a “show” but rather, in a deep sense, were desperate attempts to find something grand in the meaning of human life and to provide a kind of re-valuation of values. Fascism is thus not merely the “aestheticization of politics,” as Walter Benjamin famously described it, but through racial purity and ethnic nationalism, fascists actually attempted to restore value to humanity—at least to a very small group of it. This attempt was, of course, doomed not only to failure—for as Nietzsche had already argued racial superiority is, in the end, itself a form of nihilism—but also to horrific forms of violence that finally brought genocide back into European borders. (For, after all, these forms of violence and genocide were all too familiar to those who had had to endure European colonization and slavery for centuries.) The temptation of 1930s fascism, if we follow Nietzsche, was not in this violence itself, but rather in the last desperate effort to give life and value back to a Europe whose own ideals and values had been allowed to degenerate. And if this fascism was, in fact, a last defense against the abyss of nihilism, then Trump’s novelty is that he is both a fascist and an open nihilist. We in no way mean to valorize twentieth century fascism, but simply wish to point out that the farcical and nihilist nature of the Trump campaign in no way makes it something other than fascism.
FIVE: The appeal of Trump’s fascism to his supporters is not attributable to stupidity, nor only to economic insecurity, but to the real collapse of a horizon of ethical meaning.
Just because Trump is a nihilist does not mean that his supporters are. Associated with Nietzsche’s fundamental insight into the loss of all value is that people rightfully feel that the ethical collapse of nihilism has led to decadence and that therefore there is no shared horizon of meaning. The American Dream was indeed a dream of white male supremacy that was premised on a notion of economic security—security gained mainly through unionized industrial work—which would allow (white) men to live up to a collectively held set of ideals of what it meant to be a man. We, of course, agree that the loss of this kind of economic security through decades of neoliberal policies, as well as the despair that it has caused, is part of the reason why Trump supporters have turned to his brand of fascism as a way to give meaning, and even glory, back to their lives. The American Dream collapsed into a nightmare a long time ago, as any Michael Moore film shows us. And the response and reaction to this collapse, and to what is perceived as a thoroughly decadent society, has been part of the national reality of the U.S. and many European countries for many years now. A growing, and increasingly militant, right wing has been present with us for a long time, blaming not only what Bernie Sanders calls the “billionaire class,” but also globalization, immigration, civil rights movements, women’s moments, and LGBTQ movements. We regrettably—and that’s “we” on the left—have not been paying enough attention to this. While we do not want to in any way underestimate the economic despair as a central factor motivating the rise of fascism, we want to shed light on another neglected phenomenon: that the loss of a horizon of meaning and ethical collapse has led to the distorted re-valuation of values of racial superiority and male superiority to fill in this horrible lack. The immense proliferation of violence that we have witnessed breaking out since Trump’s campaign against groups who have asserted their own rights over the last forty years is part of the mobilization of a sense of collectivity that seeks to restore value to a group of mostly white men who feel that their lives no longer have value. This is, no doubt, a gruesome way to build collectivity, but it manipulates the deep longing that people have to belong to something and feel that their lives have glory—that they are more than just rats chasing after crumbs of bread. Of course, we have always known that scapegoating is part and parcel of fascism, but we are adding that it is promoted by what Nietzsche saw as the draining of all value, that the left has simply failed to take this collapse of meaning seriously, and that it has left many people (again, mostly white men) with no sense that their masculinity or even humanity means anything. For too long, the left has disregarded the fact that people long for a world in which they have economic security, of course, but also a sense that being human means something.
SIX: It is this sense of the loss of value that Trump successfully manipulated through distortions of the truth.
Given the previous thesis, we should therefore not be mystified by this vote at all, but can understand how intelligent and frightened people who are seeking meaning in their lives came to be manipulated by a man who successfully recognized and mobilized this sense of fear and collapse. In Trump’s very ridiculousness he was able to embody a sort of inversion of the famous Horatio Alger myth, which is that a person could come to this country with nothing, cross class lines, and make it into the upper-middle class. This, of course, is not Trump’s story at all, since he was born into extreme wealth. But in his buffoonery, he easily appeared as a twenty-first century Horatio Alger who has overcome one obstacle after another—including six bankruptcies and billions of dollars of losses. Many have questioned how Trump became a working class hero, but the answer is precisely that his farcical, over-masculinized posturing allowed him to oppose himself to the elitism of what Naomi Klein has called the “Davos class” and become a point of identification for so many people. His anti-elitism is, of course, a farcical pose for a billionaire, but one that he took up and owned to become “everyman,” even down to his failed hair transplant. Therefore, every time the media or an elite politician, such as Elizabeth Warren, calls him a “loser,” it only galvanizes his supporters. He refused to speak to his audience through teleprompters and even performed dismantling one onstage. He spoke off the cuff, man-to-man, and, yes, sometimes that man-to-man talk got a little over the top with misogynist views of women, but wasn’t that his point? Unlike the elite, politically correct who pretend not to be sexist, he admitted to being part of a culture of misogyny that many men (and women) recognize as just a form of honesty. Trump therefore exposes the covert nihilism of the elite politicians by acknowledging certain truths that liberals never do. For example, Trump engages in what he calls “locker room talk,” while Bill Clinton screws around and never admits what he does. Or he points out that the Clintons sold out the working class, or that NAFTA has been a disaster, et cetera. It does not matter that he has no real solution to these problems. The people who became his supporters are not stupid: they already know that all value to their lives has been drained by decades of elite politicians who do not care about them and they can easily see that he has almost no substantive proposals to actually “bring jobs back.” The seeming dissonance between working class people supporting a billionaire who admits to stiffing his workers, not paying taxes, and outsourcing jobs, makes sense only when we recognize that Trump was able to manipulate the real collapse of any shared horizons of meaning, such as the American Dream or Horatio Alger myth and make people feel that by supporting a man who at least acknowledges this collapse that they might restore some value to their lives.
SEVEN: All of this calls for a new alliance politics, which takes the promotion of new ideals and values of living together as one of its central tasks.
For Nietzsche, the only way to counter nihilism, as well as the forms of fascism that arise to defend against it, is through a trans-valuation of all values toward a new horizon of meaning—indeed, a new humanity that he referred to with the unfortunate name of the “overman” (ubermensch). In our recent book, The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man, we have called for revolution whose goal is not only socialism as an economic form of organization but a new way of being together with others that could begin to provide a collectively shared horizon of meaning. We have referred to this project as “political spirituality,” and have argued that it is possible only if it faces off and directly confronts the sense that so many people throughout the world have that there is no ethics left. For us this notion of political spirituality opens us to both confronting what is viewed as decadence and to recognizing that ethical transformation and the promotion of new ideals and values is absolutely crucial to the kind of movements that we now so urgently have to create. Part of what we are calling political spirituality demands the recognition of what we call “trans-individuality—i.e., that we only become unique selves in and through our relations with other people and that these relations are not external to who we are but actually undergird how human selves develop. Trans-individuality is, for us, not a political option, but a fact of human being. Neoliberalism is, in its very essence, a denial of trans-individuality because the idea that if you don’t “make it,” then it’s your fault rests on a misguided notion of a bounded individual who is inherently isolated from all others. We can say, then, that the new rise of fascism is a manipulation of trans-individuality because it seeks to replace this atomistic individualism with a sense of collective belonging (at least for some people). And it is that fantasy of individualism that leads so easily to the manipulation of loneliness in the form of collective assertion, as in the case of the white voters who rallied behind Trump to feel that they finally have found a collective to which they belong. The problem, for us, is therefore not that Trump supporters are stupid and falsely deceived—victims of “false consciousness.” No, we are looking at something much more profound, which is how life becomes literally unbearable for so many in neoliberal capitalism and it is unbearable even for those who try to invest in racial, gender, or class privilege so that they can rise above the collapse of all value. Our call for a thoroughgoing ethical revolution, which we refer to as political spirituality, in no way denies that the fight back begins today. We need to celebrate those who have hit the streets. We need to pressure the members of the Electoral College to support the popular vote. We need to intervene in the violence and stop people from being assaulted. We need to hit the streets ourselves. We need to counter cruelty and we need to do this together. Our Revolution, the ALCU, Black Lives Matter, and many other organizations haves called for a nationwide mobilization to begin to counter every single aspect of Trump’s 100-day program. Such organizations are absolutely necessary. But we need to also understand that the fight against fascism demands that we face its basis: the collapse of value and the draining of human being of any sense of meaning and dignity. We must also acknowledge the left’s own failures to recognize and cultivate trans-individuality and we must now allow it to open us to new collective values and new forms of being together. For us, this demands a new alliance politics in which ethical revitalization is seen as part and parcel of the fight against the nihilistic basis of fascism’s ability to mobilize people’s deep desire for value and meaning into a program of horrific cruelty and destruction.
University of Warwick