Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Trump and the Fascist Tendency

The American celebrity-cum-reality TV ‘star’ Donald Trump, since he became President of the US, has dominated news reporting, week in week out. His daily outrageous and bizarre Tweets match his naive and extremist policies. If ever there is any news item likely to be critical, he actively pre-empts the news coverage by yet another headline-hijacking Tweet. The mass media react with outrage at this unprecedented and uniquely awful phenomenon.

But we would argue that Trump is far from unique. Historically, you can find plenty of examples of individuals very like him.

One of his characteristics is his refusal to obey rules, his flouting of norms and even the law: e.g. his persistent refusal to make public his tax returns; his past sanctions-busting business dealings with Cuba; his past dealings with the Mafia who controlled New York’s cement supplies; his move into Mafia business interests like casinos and hotels, etc.

Over 100 years ago, the poet-playwright Oscar Wilde, in a letter home, wrote that “Americans are great hero-worshippers, and they always take their heroes from the criminal classes”.

An unscrupulous criminal can advance his career in ways not open to the honest man. This is not just an American phenomenon: back in the 19th century, the Russian writer Gogol wrote a great satirical novel, DEAD SOULS in which the anti-hero – a man without money or connections, stuck in a dead-end clerical job, gets himself noticed and promoted as the only man in the office who did not take bribes. (This was based on a true story.) More recently, Putin – also stuck in a lowly clerical job and without connections – saw this was the only way to advance his career. In the St Petersburg planning bureaucracy, noted for corruption, he was picked out as the only one who did not take or seek bribes, the only honest man. And his career took off from this. Appearances are deceptive, and Putin the kleptocrat is now creaming it off Russian trade.

Donald Trump was a serial tax-dodger, a ruthless con-man, a businessman who routinely shafted any who did jobs for him, even refusing to pay his architects and lawyers. But not to worry. As Shakespeare put it: “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” (TWELFTH NIGHT, Act 2).

The satirist, Fielding, wrote ironically of a certain ‘Great Man’, i.e. ‘criminal’ (the politician Walpole), that he adhered to some basic principles, all of which are very Trumpian, e.g.

* Never to do more mischief to another man than was necessary to ... effect his purpose ...
* Not to trust him who has deceived you, nor who knows he has been deceived by you.
* To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
* To foment endless jealousies in his gang...
* That many men were undone by not going deep enough into roguery; as in gaming any man may be a loser who doth not play the whole game.

Fielding continued:

... we see our hero... setting himself at the head of a gang ... we view him maintaining absolute power, and exercising tyranny over a lawless crew, contrary to all law but his own will...
THE HISTORY OF THE LIFE OF THE LATE MR JONATHAN WILD, 1743, from English Satire, ed. Norman Furlong, 1946

When Trump forced a prolonged, indefinite, government shutdown over the funding of his wall, it was only about his will, his absolute refusal to negotiate with or concede to Congress. In this he echoed the absolutism and gangster politics of Putin, Xi of China, al-Sisi in Egypt, and countless other authoritarian dictators.

In past centuries there were many similar tyrants. At the dawn of British capitalism, Cardinal Wolsey was satirised by the poet John Skelton:

He baiteth them like a bear,
Like an ox or a bull.
Their wits, he saith, are dull;
He saith they have no brain
Their estate to maintain;...
Judges of the King’s laws,
He counteth them fools and daws...
WHY COME NOT YE TO COURT? from Colin Clout, c. 1523 - English Satire, pp 46-7

Like Wolsey, Trump cows his political opponents with coarse abuse and scornful nicknames, and is noted for his dislike of an independent judiciary. In the 17th century, Samuel Butler’s poem HUDIBRAS is also revealing.

Trump boasts of being “a very stable genius”, of knowing more than his generals do about warfare, and in his illiterate ignorance used a coined word ‘covfefe’. Of Sir Hudibras, Butler wrote:

For he could coin or counterfeit
New words, with little or no wit....
And when with hasty noise he spoke ‘em,
The ignorant for current took ‘em ...
HUDIBRAS, 1663-78 – English Satire

But mockery and satire by themselves can achieve little. In ON HEROES AND HERO-WORSHIP, AND THE HEROIC IN HISTORY (1843), Thomas Carlyle made serious arguments about the so-called Great Men of history. Unlike Socialists, Carlyle held that we do need to follow great men – Socialists argue that only sheep need leaders but intelligent and class-conscious Socialists don’t.

But Carlyle made some valid points. He argued that many of those supposed Great Men were nothing of the sort, that there is a big difference between truly public-spirited men like Cromwell, and the celebrity or sham.

Examine the man who lives in misery because he does not shine above other men; who goes about producing himself... ; struggling to force everybody, as it were begging everybody for God’s sake, to acknowledge him a great man, and set him over the heads of other men! A great man? A poor morbid empty prurient man; fitter for the ward of a hospital, than for a throne among men. I advise you to keep out of his way. He cannot walk on quiet paths; unless you will look at him, wonder at him, write paragraphs about him, he cannot live. Because there is nothing in himself, he hungers and thirsts that you would find something in him.
HEROES AND HERO-WORSHIP, lecture 6

Carlyle warns us not to be taken in: “first discern what is true, we shall then discern what is false”. As for political ambition, “you have two things to take into view. Not the coveting of the place alone, but the fitness of the man for the place withal”.

As the Tory party faithful struggle to discover a new leader, able to deliver Brexit and reach the “sunlit uplands”, they look like choosing the shammest of fakes, the most unfit, unreliable and unqualified. But then being a Tory hardly suggests commonsense or intelligence , and maybe they prefer liars.

Socialists have enough problems of our own so we are thankful that the SPGB has from the start rejected any question of a leadership. In our party only the members make our policy, and all members are expected to contribute, as far as they can. Such is our socialist sense of democracy.

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