Back in 2012, on the eve of Barack Obama’s reelection, Republican senator Lindsay Graham made a frank and telling observation. “The demographics race, we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term”. This analysis may well be true, and there is a large body of evidence to support it. But as John Maynard Keynes famously remarked: “In the long run, we are all dead”.
At the time of writing, the result of the 2020 presidential election remains too close to call. But this very fact makes one thing abundantly clear. Donald Trump’s 2016 win was no fluke, and his fascism is no aberration. Rather, it is the authentic expression of something real and widespread in the socio-political culture of the United States.
Trump launched his reelection campaign with a gruesome Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore, denouncing the Black Lives Matter uprising of the preceding weeks. Trump positioned himself as the champion of a white America whose history and identity was endangered by a violent “mob”. This reframing of the maintenance of white supremacy as an act of self-defence is central to the ideology of the modern far right. It’s also a familiar theme in Trump’s rhetoric.
The message was hammered home relentlessly over subsequent months, as again and again Trump blew hard on the dog-whistles of ‘law and order’ and ‘defence of the suburbs’. Of course, the Black Lives Matter protests had passed off largely peacefully, while the violence overwhelmingly came from the police and Trump’s supporters in various far right militia, with his support and approval. The real ‘order’ Trump was promising to enforce was the racial order. This was the heart of his case for reelection.
In 2020, unlike in 2016, voters had a record to judge Trump on. He hasn’t reindustrialised the Rust Belt. He hasn’t ended America’s foreign wars. He has presided over catastrophic levels of unemployment. He has separated toddlers from their families at the border, caged them, and then lost track of their deported parents. He has egged on right-wing terrorists who plotted to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan. He has done much else to mark him as a sociopathic bigot with less than nothing to offer economically to the average American. And he has increased his vote.
After four years, and especially after the last few months, Trump’s tens of millions of supporters know exactly what they’re voting for. Or to put it in the most generous terms possible, they know what forces they are empowering when they give their votes to Trump. Whether they positively favour violent white supremacy, or whether they think violent white supremacy is a price worth (other people) paying to keep Trump in the White House, the upshot is the same.
Last weekend, dozens of historians and experts on fascism and authoritarianism signed an open letter warning that Trump threatened the survival of American democracy. They acknowledged debate about whether the terms ‘fascist’, ‘post-fascist populist’ or merely ‘autocrat’ might apply to Trump, but plainly these are the analytical parameters within which he should be understood. And however much they might reject such terminology, this is what his supporters have chosen.
Overwhelmingly, those voters are white, economically affluent, middle aged and older, and without a college education. They are authoritarian in their social attitudes and hostile to anti-racism. To a significant degree, they have voted in accordance with their interests. Not only, or perhaps even primarily, their economic interests. But also the interests of the wider social order which they have long benefited from.
To mistake the minority of Trump voters in the American working class for his voter base as a whole is to mistake the proximate causes of his success for its underlying structural cause. Likewise, any marginal gains Trump has made this year among non-white voters do not change the fundamental picture in terms of Trumpism’s social base. White supremacy has always relied on a degree of collaboration and socio-political obedience from a minority of racialised subjects. The drivers and incentives of this are obvious enough, and the phenomenon should not surprise us.
Nor should the fact that the politics of white nationalism can thrive in the US. There is no need for us to compare Trump to European fascists of the past when the US has its own rich traditions to refer to. This is a nation built on centuries of genocides and slavery whose sadism was comparable to history’s worst totalitarian regimes. This was followed by a century of apartheid in the southern states, which ended much less than a lifetime ago.
Naturally, the material and ideological legacy of all this has not simply melted away. On the contrary, white supremacist backlash is a recurring theme in US history, from the Confederacy to Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Republican ‘southern strategy’. Democrats are hardly innocent in this story. Joe Biden’s opposition to busing, and leading role in introducing the notorious 1994 crime bill, are exemplars of a centrist politics of appeasement that have sustained white supremacy up until the present day.
Indeed, the reservoir that Trumpism drinks from contains much that is mainstream in US political culture. The nationalist chauvinism that proclaims American greatness, lording it over lesser mortals in implicit or explicit terms, is a bipartisan discourse that was always ripe for appropriation by an outright fascist. Not least given its racial undertones. American white supremacy applies to its imperial power as much as it does to the domestic order. Trump has made this abundantly clear as well.
Fascism has always operated as an extreme defence of social hierarchy. The long-term trends identified by Graham in 2012 threaten not only the future of the Republican party, but the future of white supremacy itself. In that context, Trumpism is a short-term political fix, born of genuine fear and a lack of serious ideas as much as of strategic calculation.
Trump may still lose, and a sharp decline for the Grand Old Party may set in from there. But after tonight, any complacency about those processes, especially their near-term effects, would be inexcusable. What we are up against here is no mere side effect of neoliberal capitalism. It is a formidable socio-political force in its own right, and one that could take a generation to defeat.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.