Fear, American Style

Trump doesn't need to subvert American institutions to achieve his goals, because they are already powerful tools of oppression.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Someone recently asked me: if you don’t think Trump is a fascist, what do you think is going to happen? I answered her as truthfully as I could: I don’t know. The fact is: none of us knows. Not even, I suspect, Trump or Steve Bannon.

In the course of several arguments and conversations over the last few days — about Trump, what he’s up to, and so on — I’ve sometimes found myself, against my better judgment, drifting into predictions. I start out trying to think about what this current moment means, and I wind up making claims about where we’re going.

That’s not a place I want to be. Not simply because my prediction about the election was so completely wrong, not simply because I’m trying to be more attentive to the mistakes I’ve made in the past lest I repeat them now, but also because prediction is a mug’s game. None of us knows what’s going to happen, and what’s going to happen with Trump, as I’ve repeatedly said, depends in part on what we do. This is not a fixed or frozen force field; it’s changing every day. What makes things especially challenging, however, is that analysis so often lends itself, or bleeds into, prediction.

In the coming weeks, I’m really going to try avoid getting drawn into debates about the future or what’s coming. While I’ll continue to analyze and explain what I’m seeing, I’m going try and be more circumspect about whither we’re tending.

Before I launch on this predictions fast, though, let me explain a bit about where I am coming in my assessments of Trump and Trumpism.

Before I wrote my book on conservatism, I was a student of the politics of fear. My first book, which was based on more than a decade of research, was an analysis of how political theorists since Hobbes have understood the politics of fear. In the second part of the book, I offered my own counter-analysis of the politics of fear in the United States. “Fear, American Style,” I called it. I focused primarily on McCarthyism and the “war on terror,” but my archive was based in an array of American experiences: from slavery to the labor wars of the Gilded Age, from Jim Crow to the contemporary workplace.

As a follow-up to that book, I began working on a book about American political repression, which I was co-authoring with Ellen Schrecker, the noted historian of McCarthyism. We never finished the book, but we amassed quite a bit of research and wrote a couple of chapters, from an even deeper and richer array of archival resources.

Here’s what I learned about Fear, American Style: The worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism, and the rule of law. All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression, and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them. (You can read an article-length version of the argument here.)

My position on Trump and the possibilities of American fascism, in other words, does not rest on any optimism or faith about the American experiment or the resilience of American institutions. Just the opposite: it is precisely because I know how easily mobilized for terrible purposes the American regime can be that I am skeptical of the possibilities or necessity for a strong-man politics of the sort we see in authoritarian regimes elsewhere.

This is a country that managed to enslave — to torture and drive unto death, both physical and social — millions of black men, women, and their children, for over two centuries, and then to reenslave them by another name for another century, not by shredding the Constitution but by writing and interpreting and executing the Constitution. This is a country that managed to mow down trade unionists and dissenters, to arrest and throw them into jail, to destroy vibrant social movements, to engineer a near-complete rout of American social democracy after World War II, to build and fill concentration camps, to pass legislation during the Cold War authorizing internment camps: all without a strongman; indeed, often with the collusion of some of the most esteemed voices of liberty in the country.

This is a country that in the last half-century has managed to undo some of the precious achievements of liberal civilization — the ban and revulsion against torture, the prohibition on preventive war, the right to organize, the skepticism of the imperial executive — through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.

When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie. The most prized elements of American constitutionalism — shared and fragmented power, compromise and consent, dispersed authority — are the very things that have animated and underwritten Fear, American Style.

Insofar as Trump and Bannon believe that we need authoritarian strongman politics in order to achieve their ultra-revanchist aims, they don’t understand American politics. When it comes to American revanchism, that kind of strongman politics is almost entirely superfluous. Indeed, it’s pure surplus. And may be well counterproductive to what they and their constituents truly want.

We have in this country legions of intellectuals, journalists, and scholars who are steeped in the knowledge of the American terrible: racism, slavery, imperialism, misogyny. Yet when it comes to analyzing the relationship of that American terrible to American institutions, in this moment, these same intellectuals, journalists, and scholars are driven for their explanations either to exotica from abroad — fascism, Putinism, and so on — or to a notion of the American terrible as a shape-shifting anti-institutional, anti-legal, anti-traditional, anti-rational, psychological, cultural, ever-bubbling stew of affect and evil.

The truth of the matter is that Trump and Bannon could get most if not all of what they want — in terms of the revanchism of race, gender, and class, the white Christian nation that they seem to wish for — without strongman politics. American institutions offer more than enough resources for revanchism.

That they seem not to know this — that they are willing to make opponents of the military and the security establishment, that they are willing to arouse into opposition and conjure enemies out of potential friends — may be their biggest weakness of all. Or, if they do know this, but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.

So I do think Trump and Bannon are vulnerable: Not because American institutions are so strong and resilient, but because Trump and Bannon don’t seem to understand how weak and pliable those institutions actually are, if you know how to delicately use and manipulate them. And if you only hear in my analysis a hope for the future, you’re missing the cloud in the silver living.

But enough with the predictions.