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  • Published in Book Reviews

Trump's presidency is a highly dangerous force, but to defeat its reactionary policies, its nature must be understood, argues Graham Kirkwood

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John Bellamy Foster, Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce (Monthly Review Press 2017), 160pp.

There is no end of issues to worry about when it comes to Donald Trump and his presidency of the United States, the world’s biggest economy and military superpower. Reading John Bellamy Foster’s enjoyable new book Trump in the White House. Tragedy and Farce, what struck me most was the centrality to the whole Trump project of the reinvigorated fossil-fuel industry; coal, oil and gas. Trump’s ‘climate-change denialism’ coupled with his project to place fossil-fuel capitalism at the centre of making America great again, has placed us all on the ‘runaway train of the profit system’ hurtling towards the ‘climate precipice’ (p.96).

The goals of Trump’s administration on this are listed as 1) withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement; 2) dismantle the Clean Power Plan; and 3) approve pipeline projects. Trump is well on the way to achieving these goals; even the much hyped Mexican wall can be viewed as part of a plan to deal with the issue of climate refugees (p.104).

To this end, Trump has surrounded himself with advisors and politicians with links to and backgrounds in the oil and gas industry. The dangers inherent in all this are spelled out in frightening detail in the best chapter in the book, on ‘Trump and Climate Catastrophe’. An associated danger in all this, which has hit the headlines, is also the expansion in plastic production taking place in the US but also in the UK.

Neo-Fascism

A major theme of the book is that the Trump administration represents ‘the entry of neo-fascism into the White House’ (p.55). Particularly important in this is the role of Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News (the alt-right website) and former White House Chief Strategist, with whom Trump has spectacularly fallen out. Bannon more than anyone, as the book spells out, is heavily influenced by fascist thinkers, in particular it seems by the Italian fascist, Julius Evola:

‘… a source of inspiration to and supporter of Mussolini, and later of Hitler, who emerged after the Second World War as a leading figure in the Traditionalist movement of European neo-fascism’ (p.33, and also see pp.69-72).

‘Bannon has demonstrated considerable acquaintance with Evola’s work, professing admiration for Evola’s “traditionalism … particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism”’ (p.77). Bannon’s extreme racism is also evidenced by his referencing of a notorious racist novel, The Camp of the Saints, in discussing immigration in terms of invasion (p.79). Bannon fits well with this description of the alt-right more generally: ‘Indeed, the US alt-right, as represented by Breitbart, could be described today as a toxic mixture of European neo-fascism, U.S. white supremacism, and Christian fundamentalism’ (p.80).

There isn’t really a proper definition of neo-fascism given anywhere in the book. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as a fascist movement which arose in Europe after World War Two. They give two examples: ‘the National Front in France, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the Liberal-Democratic Party in Russia, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are often cited as neofascist.’ Whether Bellamy Foster intends this by neo-fascism, or not, comparisons to original fascisms are clearly required.

The best way to understand fascism and the threat it represents to humanity is to read the sharpest analysis written when it was becoming a political force, first in Italy in the 1920s and then in Germany to such devastating ends in the 1930s. The most politically perceptive writer on this period is without a doubt the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. It is regrettable that Trotsky is only mentioned once in Bellamy Foster’s book in a footnote (p.121).

Trotsky describes fascismas a ‘razor in the hands of the class enemy’. He goes on to argue that:

‘The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.’

Bellamy Foster describes neo-fascism in the contemporary US as a unique form since ‘there is no paramilitary violence in the streets. There are no black shirts or brown shirts, no Nazi Stormtroopers. There is, indeed, no separate fascist party’ (p.22). But without all these essential fascist elements, present in all cases from Mussolini’s Italy, to Hitler’s Germany, to Franco’s Spain, what are Bannon and his fellow travellers able to offer America’s rulers? And we are not in a situation of capitalist collapse where the working class has shown incapacity to ‘take into its own hands the fate of society’, where the ruling class might turn to fascism to allow the capitalist system to continue.

However, it is important to recognise where Bellamy-Foster’s concerns arise from and agree with him that Trump is not a normal president. Many features of the Trump administration are characteristics of fascist regimes; the denial of truth, the demonising of immigrants, and the hatred of the left. He appears intent on providing space, both in the US and here in the UK, for the far right and the Nazis to grow, and in that sense, it is fair to say he is actively encouraging the growth of far-right and fascist groups.

His retweeting of the rump Nazi group, Britain First’s fake news videos was shocking enough, but he seemed incapable or unwilling to take on-board criticism even from the British prime minister. In an interview on Channel 4 News, the Britain First tweeter even implied that her group had the ear of the president. This is clearly bluster on her part as they lie as a virtue, but nonetheless, these are unprecedented times.

Assessing the threat

This an interesting book, an enjoyable and easy read, and is useful in that it puts down in black and white an argument that has been doing the rounds since Trump’s election as US president; that we are now faced with a fascist administration in the world’s largest economy, the USA. The dangers of fascism in the US cannot be overstated. Fascism has previously been at its worst when it reached the most industrialised country it has taken root in so far, Germany of the 1930s and 40s. A Nazi run United States would be on a scale far worse than even Germany under the Nazis and their associated Holocaust.

However, the danger in viewing the Trump administration as fascist is to not understand the true nature of fascism as a mass movement of the middle classes, whipped up into a frenzy by an extreme crisis of capitalism with a failure on the part of the working class to offer a lead to these same middle classes out of the mess they find themselves in. Think of the small businesses potentially driven bust by the collapse of Carillion and their owners driven to despair, multiplied by a thousand, to give you an idea of where the mass base of fascism can come from in a large-scale capitalist collapse. The danger inherent in labelling Trump’s administration fascist is to blunt the working class’s ability to recognise the real fascist beast when it appears, and to take appropriate action to curtail it.

As Trump vacillated and appeared weaker since his rift with Bannon, the prospect of massive protest if he came to the UK clearly altered his plans. It is very welcome that he cancelled his visit to the UK in February 2018, so let’s keep Britain a Trump-free zone.

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