In a variation on what Adorno once said about nationalism, I would suggest that today fascism is both obsolete and up-to-date. Rather than take this as license to embrace facile analogies between interwar fascism and the present, I want to examine some of the categories used to describe interwar fascism and National Socialism and explore their continuing relevance and simultaneous obsolescence in today’s context.
There is no question that radical right-wing fringe phenomena have been normalized under Donald Trump, most spectacularly when he claimed that there were good people on both sides in the Charlottesville riots. What used to be called the lunatic fringe in American politics is being made respectable by such pronouncements, as well as by the euphemism of “alt-right” itself, a term innocuous enough to disguise its white supremacist ideology. Adorno also warned that the afterlife of fascist tendencies within democracy is more dangerous than the afterlife of fascist tendencies against democracy. Today we face a situation where Adorno’s distinction has been cashed in. Tendencies from within, brilliantly analyzed by Wendy Brown in her 2015 book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, are merging in the US with outright tendencies against democracy. The Trump regime participates in both. Just think of the Republicans’ systematic attacks on voting rights through gerrymandering, recently legitimized by the Supreme Court. Or compare Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “move fast and break things” with Trump’s daily practice of attacking and dismantling American governmental institutions, a practice that is fully in sync with Steve Bannon’s demand to “deconstruct the administrative state” and with Breitbart’s call to attack the “Democrat media complex” online. Trump uses Twitter and his fake “fake news” mantra to gaslight the electorate, while much of the real deconstruction of governmental institutions regarding the law and the constitution, health care, the environment, housing, foreign policy, and climate change rarely catches the headlines in any sustained fashion. While right-wing parties in the European Union are gaining ground, with few exceptions they are not (yet) the mainstream. In the United States, the Republicans are the mainstream and further to the right than either the AfD in Germany or the latest incarnation of the National Front in France.
But it is Charlottesville and the zombie fascism of a long-festering white supremacist right that makes talk about fascism today unavoidable. At the same time, it is clear that comparing Trump to Hitler or Mussolini amounts to nothing so much as a helpless anti-fascism, a mirror image of what it opposes. The careless use of the analogy may also suggest to many Americans that fascism is an import from Europe, rather than being indigenous to American politics. Hitler, after all, considered New York lawyer Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) his bible. And the 1935 German race laws took American race legislation as their model. Fascism was always already transnational, just as it is today in Europe, and beyond. We forget this at our peril.
In his book Heritage of Our Time (1935), the German philosopher Ernst Bloch analyzed fascism as a social mass movement, based on a cultural synthesis of major contradictions. He argued that fascist ideology was riven by two opposing tendencies: technological modernization and reactionary modernism versus mythic beliefs in the soul and essence of the German nation and its supreme calling. Such mythic beliefs, fatally ignored by the Marxist Left of the Third International, were captured by Bloch’s concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit (non-synchronicity). The concept usefully pointed to a rift between temporal perception and lived reality, between modern and pre-modern ways of life in the daily experience of segments of Germany’s population. Bloch emphasized the force of so-called “irrational” or “mythic” imaginaries, which could be mobilized among peasants or the lower middle classes whose life experiences had not caught up with the pace of metropolitan modernity and technological cultural change, and focused on divergent temporalities of experience pervading these social strata, which were susceptible to slogans of Führer charisma, Blut und Boden, hostility to urban modernity, racial superiority, and völkisch ideology—slogans that were all thoroughly modern rather than archaic.
It seems evident that cultural synthesis—not as homogenization, but as a bundling of contradictory dimensions—is at stake with the various layers of the conservative movement and its diverse electorate in the US today. What once was the culture war, waged by the neocons in the 1980s, has morphed into an ever more radical cultural self-understanding of the alt-right in the US today, for whom the neocons are merely “cuckservatives.” Not content to attack the influence of postmodernism and poststructuralism in the academy, the alt-right has constructed another bogeyman: cultural Marxism, held to be responsible for the betrayal of American values and equated with political correctness. Cultural Marxism now occupies the discursive space Bolshevism once held as dominant enemy image in Nazi ideology. It is neither the primacy of politics (as in Nazism), nor the primacy of economics (as in traditional Marxism) that holds sway today. It is the primacy of culture that is mobilized by the alt-right.
The back cover of a recent volume of essays, A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders (2018), offers a self-description of the alt-right as “foremost an intellectual movement” whose main goal it is to “offer meaningful resistance to and finally rout the left.” In his introduction, the editor George T. Shaw makes no bones about the movement’s targets: “Diversity and multiculturalism . . . tend to make white societies poorer, more dangerous, and finally unlivable for whites.” And: “White genocide is on the way” because “Cultural manipulations such as state, academic, and media promotion of feminism, diversity, promiscuity, and homo- and transsexuality heavily suppress white birthrates.” Clearly, this is the contemporary version of a cultural synthesis, but is it based on some objective non-synchronicity in Bloch’s sense? A mark of difference between then and the US today may be that such objective Ungleichzeitigkeit may not even exist any longer in 21st-century America. Different real-life temporal experiences have long since been ground down by the homogenization of life worlds achieved by the mass media and the force of capital. In the age of the internet and social media, the present rules supreme.
There is of course a political gap between red and blue states, between rural areas and urban centers. But such very real economic and social differences present in American life similar to those in the Europe of the interwar period have been culturally recoded to create a kind of artificial, largely subjective Ungleichzeitigkeit between a corrupt present dominated by liberal urban elites and a more authentic past. This worldview, captured in Trump’s promise to drain the Washington swamp and to make America great again, is nourished 24/7 with propaganda by Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the Murdoch papers. But the main outlets for the revival of tropes and images of interwar fascism, which has itself become (un)gleichzeitig in a new way, are—of course—platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Discord, 8chan, and others. Real Ungleichzeitigkeit in Bloch’s sense has been undermined by the internet, which sucks all available pasts into its eternal present.
Many other differences with interwar fascism are just too obvious. Contrary to Hitler or Mussolini, Trump does not have a future-oriented utopian vision. He is not the great charismatic leader unifying the nation through a mass movement. Trump speaks only to his base rather than to the nation as a whole. He plays strong man at his rallies, whipping up the crowds, but simultaneously he claims to be a victim of the deep state, just as the alt-right claims to be victimized by liberal censorship of free speech. Of course, the Nazis also played the victim card (Versailles, Dochstosslegende), but this was counter-balanced by an ideologically seductive vision for a German future. MAGA is at best a Schwundstufe, a vestige of such a vision. That’s the difference between the grandiose Nazi spectacles and a baseball cap. Much has been made of the real purchase of this deliberately amorphous appeal to another America, which encompasses a vast array of memories, fantasies, and dreams: not just the good times of post-WWII high wages and full employment, but also the Confederacy and decades of Jim Crow laws; not just the victory over fascism in WWII, but also the romanticizing of indigenous forms of American fascism, which never gained power. Past glory and seamy dreams of white supremacy are the two sides of the explosive mix that fires up Trump’s followers at his rallies. After almost three years of the Trump presidency, it is difficult to imagine anybody believing that MAGA is possible. As a simulacrum of desire after loss, however, this slogan has proven quite powerful. The less it seems able to command reality, the more it needs an image of an insidious enemy that prevents America from being made great again.
Which brings me back to the alt-right’s bogeyman of cultural Marxism. Two years ago, after the election of Trump and with Steve Bannon in the White House, I stumbled upon the role of the Frankfurt School as bête noire in American white nationalist discourse. The idea did not originate with Andrew Breitbart, but he was its great amplifier on the internet and in social media. Here is Breitbart himself in his book Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World! (2011): “Critical Theory was exactly the material we were taught at Tulane. It was quite literally, a theory of criticizing everyone and everything everywhere. It was an attempt to tear down the social fabric by using all the social sciences; . . . it was an infinite and unending criticism of the status quo, adolescent rebellion against all established rules and norms. . . . The real idea behind all of this was to make society totally unworkable by making everything basically meaningless.”
The term “adolescent rebellion” is odd here. None of the critical theorists were adolescents when they developed their work on the culture industry and the dark side of enlightenment. Their American reception, however, is fundamentally linked to the youth rebellions of the 1960s, an obsession of Breitbart and especially of Bannon, who blamed the Sixties generation for the decline of America in his docufiction film Generation Zero. In that film, the Sixties generation is held responsible both for cultural Marxism in the academy and for the banking crisis of 2008, variant of another zombie-like pattern from earlier times: Bolsheviks and bankers.
The obsession with the baby boomers points back to the Clinton years, when another right-wing author, William S. Lind, gave an influential speech about “The Origins of Political Correctness” (2000) at a meeting of Accuracy in Academia, an organization that always linked communism with liberalism in order to better attack the latter. To Lind political correctness is “Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms.” The superficial and distorted focus of his many speeches and articles were Lukács, Gramsci, Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School, the latter being especially dangerous because it was allegedly successful in disguising its Marxism, as it migrated to the US fleeing the Nazis. The generalized attack on the baby boomers has been a conservative cliché for many years, but its outright weaponization is meant to play well with subsequent generations, especially the Millennials and Generation X.
I have written elsewhere about this strange right-wing obsession with the Frankfurt School and cultural Marxism1. Of course the Frankfurt School was a welcome code-name on the right for Jewish influence at a time when open anti-Semitism was still mostly shunned. But there is also an elective affinity to a popular and perverted understanding of critical theory as gravedigger of American democracy. Looking into the mirror of critical theory and its analysis of race hatred and media domination, Lind, Breitbart, Bannon and their likes could recognize themselves and their history. Their over-the-top attack on the Frankfurt School points to the fact that they themselves were doing what they falsely accused their opponents of doing: subverting American politics and culture. For what is the difference between making society unworkable and destroying the administrative state? Between making everything meaningless and creating alternative facts through fake news grounded in conspiracy theories? Adorno and Horkheimer analyzed such processes of mimesis, projection, and inversion in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman put it quite succinctly in their 1949 book about fascist tendencies in the US entitled Prophets of Deceit: The follower of right wing ideology “is nothing but an inverted reflection of the enemy.” In the same way, the alt-right has adapted strategies of left-wing critique and turned them against the left: anti-racism as proof that the left is racist toward whites, and so on. The alleged insurgency of cultural Marxism must thus be confronted by a counter-insurgency from the right. This hall of mirrors is what Schmittian friend/foe thinking produces in the real world.
In 2016 it was quite tempting to see Trump as a re-embodiment of Löwenthal/Guterman’s description of the fascist agitator: “The agitator’s statements are often ambiguous and unserious. It is difficult to pin him down to anything and he gives the impression that he is deliberately playacting. He seems to be trying to give himself a margin of uncertainty, a possibility of retreat in case any of his improvisations fall flat. He does not commit himself for he is willing, temporarily at least, to juggle his notions and test his powers. Moving in a twilight zone between the respectable and the forbidden, he is ready to use any device, from jokes to doubletalk to wild extravagances.”
At the same time, the idea that the fascist agitator’s antics and appeals require an “authoritarian personality” to receive and transform them into blind obedience seems less persuasive today. The intellectual historian Peter Gordon has recently pointed to some of the conceptual flaws and limits of Adorno’s attempt to “develop . . . a correlation between objective socioeconomic conditions and subjective features of individual personalities.” Historical differences, too, make the notion problematic now. Sure, there will always be the Archie Bunkers of the world, many of whom belong to Trump’s male base, but even if this psychological type was once predominant in society, it is no longer. Conventional middle-class values no longer enjoy unquestioned legitimacy, nor do sexual repression and authoritarian submission count among privileged forms of behavior. We must recognize the anti-authoritarianism and anti-conformism of the radical right, which targets democracy itself and goes perfectly together with admiration for the great leader as authoritarian strongman and disruptive force.
The fascist agitator’s modes of operation have also altered with the times. Fundamental differences have emerged regarding the relationship to authority and to our agitator President. While certain analogies between now and the interwar period cannot be denied, the whole structure of agitation and the narcissistic identification with the Führer as ego ideal, as Adorno had it, has changed, as have educational practices that used to be key to creating the authoritarian personality. Blind submission to authority is clearly not in tune with the neoliberal focus on creativity and self-investment. And when the agitator-in-chief uses Twitter, not in order to articulate a coherent vision of the future, but rather to present himself as victim of a deep state cabal and America as victim of global economic wrongdoing and exploitation by other nations, he plays on his followers’ sense of being disenfranchised and betrayed. But the followers themselves are no longer just passive consumers of radio speeches. They have themselves become agents on social media platforms: the older one-way, top-down communication between leader and the masses has been replaced by multidirectional communication and agency in the anonymity of chat networks. Anonymity in digital public space, a key ingredient of Facebook’s business model, is one of the main reasons for the alt-right’s success in normalizing and spreading hate speech.
The new role of agency changes the relationship between chief agitator and followers in yet another way. The chief agitator can limit himself to racist and misogynist dog whistles—until recently immediately disavowed or “walked back”—which his followers would then amplify on digital platforms. Dog whistles point to an efficient practice of maintaining control and inciting action without accountability: that of not giving explicit orders, but of insinuating what should be done, a practice we know to be prevalent among mobsters. The congressional testimony of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen gave new life to another, formerly discredited characterization of fascism in action, which Adorno and Horkheimer had developed: that of racketeering. As the multiple indictments of people in Trump’s closest circle show, political and economic racketeering have merged under the Trump regime, and they are intimately linked to a persistent attack on the law, something no mobster can get away with, but which a President evidently can.
Discursive racketeering describes the link between Trump and his base, including the alt-right. The same digital platforms that have helped spread radical right-wing ideas have been dominant in the mobilization for events like the Charlottesville rally. The technological development from broadsheet-like websites to interactive platforms in recent years has vastly increased the reach of alt-right ideology into the mainstream. There are large differences in the rhetoric of such platforms: some are dedicated to recruiting followers with seemingly mainstream discussions; some make use of the privileged status of memory in our culture and call for the protection of the Southern heritage; others focus on the alleged violation of free speech by the left. Calls for violence, on the other hand, take place in private groups on Discord or Facebook. And there are a lot of them.
The normalization of violence is writ large in many products of the online gaming industry, and sometimes even in fiction, as in the novel Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War (2014), by the above-mentioned William S. Lind, about the wholesale killing of leftist faculty at Dartmouth College, Lind’s alma mater, by Christian militia warriors at a time when the US government has collapsed. Lind’s fictional phantasy of anti-left violence finds its resonance in “A Fair Hearing,” a piece by Augustus Invictus, publisher of the website The Revolutionary Conservative, in which he muses: “The meme of physically removing leftists has gained so much traction because the idea is instinctively both logical and appealing. The means of physically removing leftists, however, is not as simple. While throwing commies from helicopters à la Pinochet has become the alt-right’s favorite policy proposal, this is clearly an inefficient solution.” And so on, and on. It would be a mistake simply to dismiss such ravings.
Tara McPherson, a media researcher at USC, has recently argued that the interlinked and mutually amplifying platforms where this growing right-wing public sphere is emerging produce a new era of racial formation, a structure of feeling (in Raymond Williams’s key phrase) that she calls “immersive racism.” The very immersive design of platforms helps the alt-right by encouraging anonymous comments on postings, trolling, and the proliferation of fake news. Hate speech is not a bug in the platform, but a generative feature of the business model.
Let me conclude with another quote from a Frankfurt School source: “Trumpism has no political or social theory. It has no philosophy and no concern for the truth. In a given situation it will accept any theory that might prove useful; and it will abandon that theory as soon as the situation changes. Trumpism is both capitalistic and anti-capitalistic. It is authoritarian and anti-authoritarian. It will cooperate with any group . . . that is amenable to Trumpist propaganda, but it will not hesitate to flatter authoritarian movements when that is more expedient. . . . Trumpism is for agrarian reform and against it, for private property and against it, for idealism and against it. Such versatility is unattainable in a democracy.” The quote is from Franz Neumann’s 1944 book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944. Of course I have substituted “Trumpism” for the original “National Socialism.” The irony is that this quote may capture Trumpism even better than it explains National Socialism. The Nazis, after all, did have a defined political ideology, whereas with Trump there just is an ever-shifting void.
In Behemoth, Neumann analyzed the Nazi regime’s unprecedented assault on the law and on the state: “Nothing remains but profit, power, prestige, and above all fear. Devoid of any common loyalty, and concerned solely with the preservation of their own interests, the ruling groups will break apart as soon as the miracle-producing leader meets a worthy opponent.” We’re not quite at that stage yet.
Adam Tooze, historian of the Third Reich’s economy and of the recent 2008 crash, has argued that Neumann’s insights are quite germane today: “That there is no natural harmony between developed capitalism and legal, political, and social order; that modern capitalism is a fundamentally disruptive force that constantly challenges the rule of law as such.” Read this together with the warning by David Frum, conservative political commentator and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (2018): ”If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” That is the Benjaminian moment of danger we’re in now, looking forward with trepidation to the 2020 elections.