Photo: Kürschner

A great hot air balloon: Donald Trump and fascist kitsch

  • July 21, 2016

Fascism & Far Right

With Trump securing the Republican candidacy, the question unavoidably rises if a fascist is now running for president. The short answer is: “No, but…”

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, …

Donald Trump is no fascist.

Just ask all the historians and specialists consulted for mainstream articles in Slate, The Atlantic, Vox, etc. Trump has definitely made some spooky, fascist-like promises: mass deportation of millions of undocumented migrants, an unconstitutional ban on Muslim immigration, and restricting freedom of the press. But these popular articles generally come to the same conclusion: there may be a fascistic flair to Trumpism, but at the genetic core the family relation just isn’t there.

Fascism has been notoriously slippery for historians to define — as an ideology, a governmental form, a political style. Umberto Eco famously noted that the out-of-joint features that make up fascism’s ur-form “cannot be organized into a system” because “many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” Fascism was never “a closed canonical apparatus” organized around foundational texts or ideas (like, say, Communism or Christianity).

Basically, it has proven difficult to generalize a definition of fascism that (1) is distinct from other forms of authoritarianism and (2) fits both Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, let alone fascist and proto-fascist swells elsewhere (Spain, France, Hungary, Scandinavia). Still, fascism does have its own tendencies, and the experts tend to cycle through them to assure readers that Trump does not fit the bill. Here are some of the big objections to the “fascist” label that come up:

  • Fascism is a revolutionary nationalist project, openly calling for the violent overthrow of the existing (liberal-democratic) state form. Trump, for all his criticisms of the Washington establishment, has made no attempt to argue that the existing state form and constitution need to be done away with. Yet.
  • People see violent clashes between Trump protesters and supporters and draw connections to the violence we historically associate with fascism. But violence was not simply an effect of fascism. Violence heated fascism’s blood — it made vital, committed subjects. Mussolini’s Blackshirts and Hitler’s “Storm Troops” were a brutal, cleansing force clearing the way for a new order. Compared to this, scenes of violence at Trump rallies, as shocking as they appear on replay, are still minor. Trump — a postmodern political P.T. Barnum — has learned to play up the anger of his crowds, and egging on supporters to punch protesters in the face is not a staple of his philosophy (if he has one); it’s part of the show.
  • Fascists presented themselves as the remedy to a widespread, poisonous individualism, which they perceived to be among the largest causes of the crises that had humiliated their nations (Germany’s defeat in WWI, the Great Depression, Italy’s social and economic decline). It would require a pretty serious blow to the head for someone to argue that Trump and the Republican Party are anti-individualists.
  • A strong, homegrown “racialist creed” is a typical feature of fascism, but racism is by no means a dead giveaway that someone or some group is fascist. Geoff Eley points out that such a creed, mixed with a violent hatred for liberal democracy and socialism, must fuse with “radical authoritarianism, militarized activism, and the drive for a centralist repressive state” to join the fascist family tree. Our liberal democracy has enough of its own racism to deal with. To pretend that racism and xenophobia are the exclusive property of fascism is self-serving and delusional.

There’s something wildly important that debates over Trump’s “fascism” miss, though: to make sense of this election, the technical-historical specificity of fascism is perhaps less important than the desires that make people want to call Trump a fascist. The same is true for Trump himself and his supporters — it’s not about how accurate Trump’s statements are but how “true” they are to people’s existing hopes and anxieties. But, accurate or not, there still might be something hugely valuable — a powerful kitsch — in using the term “fascist.”

What do we call you?

Many would argue that Trump could better be described as a racist, right-wing populist, not a fascist. Stripping away the American varnish, Trump does seem to be part of a larger Western trend towards this brand of so-called populism, which also includes Marine Le Pen (France), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Norbert Hofer (Austria), Geert Wilders (the Netherlands), UKIP (Britain), and so on.

Trump, as Gary Younge points out, is a brash rebranding of the “racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic demagogue appealing to a mix of nationalist nostalgia, patriotic myth, class grievance, and economic insecurity.” In many ways, this populist wave seems to be the symptom of a slew of injuries brought about by capitalism’s destabilization of daily life, which finds its expression in steeper wealth gaps, rising indebtedness, the outsourcing of jobs, the loss of social security, and so on.

“Neoliberal globalization,” Younge remarks, “is a force without a face, and a system without a center. It’s everywhere, until you try to find someone responsible for the mess we’re in, and then it disappears.” Yesterday’s rebels without a cause are today’s disenfranchised without someone to blame. Things just hurt and no one seems to be accountable. Enter Trump, the loud mouth and the pointing finger: he gives people somewhere to direct their anger.

Valuable as they are, articles attempting to clarify that, technically speaking, Trump may be more of a populist than a fascist still don’t get to the heart of the matter. And, as Michael Kazin notes, there are probably just as many problems with calling Trump a populist as there are with calling him a fascist. “Populism” has become just as much of a vague, historically un-specific term in common speech as fascism.

We can’t just blame this loss of technical correctness on pure ignorance, though. That may be comforting to us who are in the know, but it’s a hollow and politically useless comfort. We need to take seriously what these terms can and do mean for the people who use them. Yes, of course, frivolously throwing around the term “fascist” can desecrate the memory and the historical reality of actually-existing fascism. I’m not suggesting otherwise. The tall flames of this election season will not die down, though, by arguing over the most “accurate” name to call Trump. Deep down, I think we know that.

You’ll probably find even more articles out there that do use the fascist label than articles attempting to invalidate it. More significantly, these articles come from both the left and the right. It’s easy to dismiss these opinions as uninformed. But, believe it, the stuff that matters most in politics today runs through them.

Here’s the thing: even if they’re terrified, people still really like calling Trump a fascist. There’s something cathartic about it. Painting Trump in Nazi-esque colors resonates in our cultural atmosphere; it fits in our common sense of what good and evil look like. In the same way that Trump’s racist, nativist tactics give his supporters a clear vision in the shapeless haze of socio-economic insecurity, the chance to absorb Trump into established ideas about fascism gives us — the comfortably conscientious — the chance to point out an obvious danger. And we can project onto this danger the most uncomfortable parts of American life without acknowledging our role in them.

For example, it’s easy, but only partially accurate, to argue that Trump’s attack on “PC culture” has struck such a profound chord with his supporters because of the backwardness and resentment of white America. It’s about time that liberals and the left also acknowledge that, for all that is good and necessary in political correctness as a goal, we have failed in our ground game to convince the general population of its worth. And Trump has seized on that failure.

How things float

Consider the hot air balloon. There are many things we could call Trump — fascist, populist, opportunist — and this inability to pin him down to one category is precisely what makes him so peculiar. Trump is what you’d call a floating signifier, or, as I prefer, a hot air balloon; a symbol that is open enough to allow many different people to fill it with many different meanings.

There is a physics to this great hot air balloon that is open and unrestricted enough by conventional rules that it can expand its membrane and fill itself with the various expectations, frustrations, fears, nostalgia, and pride of all the sectors of the population that are buying what Trump is selling; a balloon that rises higher and higher the hotter people’s angers get.

The floating signifier is a staple of political advertising: a vague, if not completely meaningless, sign whose strength comes from its openness, which allows people to invest in it their own meanings and desires. For example, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans “Hope” and “Change” were so open-ended and emotionally charged that voters could pour into them more and more changes to the status quo to be hoped for.

Because of this, Obama’s presidency was always going to feel like a disappointment, and we can see the repercussions in Hillary Clinton’s campaign rhetoric: “temper your expectations.” Trump’s slogans and signs, though, including Trump himself, have gone the other way. Floating signifiers become hot air balloons when they are filled with the oxygen of negativity and frustration.

People filled up Obama’s floating signifiers with hopeful (if unrealistic) expectations for a candidate, a party, and a state system that would also be held responsible for the failure to deliver on those expectations. However, Trump’s hot air balloons have, from the beginning, taken flight on fear and anger — and not just from the white working class. Trump has expanded, bringing more and more frustrations into his sphere.

But if and when Trump fails to deliver, the hot air will only get hotter; the failure will be directed back at the same powers-that-be that Trump has scapegoated from the beginning. This is what has made him so successful, and dangerous: he has tapped into a seemingly endless source of rage, fear, and heat. And he is rising. Even if he is a farce, the heat that makes him float is very real.

If Trump has proven anything, it’s that the factual reality (or unreality) that words or claims point to is less important than whatever makes these words stick for people (“Trump,” “America,” “Great,” and so on). Finally, less snooty, more nuanced approaches have started emerging that refuse to take the easy bait of balking at Trump’s absurd, offensive claims, but, instead, take more seriously how and why those claims resonate with voters. It’s not about how factual these claims are, but what makes people want to hear them — what conditions make them more receptive to some news, promises or threats, and deaf to others.

It is easy to dismiss those conditions as being rooted in racism, ignorance, backwardness; but if the recent Brexit vote in the UK can teach us anything it’s that this kind of liberal superiority won’t stop the ground from moving. It’s not about the hot air that comes out of Trump’s mouth but the more powerful air that is pumped into his image: the real frustrations of the multitude that turn signs into hot air balloons.

This is why fact-checking him has seemingly had no effect. You can fact-check the definition of a term and the validity of a claim, but you can’t fact-check the shapeless feelings and hopes that people invest in those terms, those claims. And those feelings can be dangerously manipulated. This is what makes Trump’s rise so unsettling, and also what makes discussions of his “fascism” harder to dismiss than we would like to admit.

Along with the points mentioned earlier, there is one that stands central to specialists’ dismissal of calling Trump a fascist: Trump is too much of an undisciplined opportunist to be a fascist. He does not have a core philosophy; he plays the tune that he thinks will be the most popular among his supporters. Taking what we have suggested about signs and hot air balloons, though, the question is whether and when Trump’s tune will change, not because of his fascistic designs, but because of the people’s evolving fascistic desires.

If Trump, for his own personal gain, sticks to “giving the people what they want,” we should perhaps be less worried about him than about the want, what causes it, and what directions it could take. The reality show has the potential to turn into the Colosseum.

The brotherhood of kitsch

In closing, I want to talk about “fascist kitsch.” In 1944, George Orwell famously lamented the troubling fashion for “recklessly [flinging] the word ‘Fascist’” around to the point that it becomes “almost entirely meaningless.” “By ‘Fascism’ [people] mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class… That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”

Orwell was a diehard advocate for clear, “responsible” speech and a bitter critic of the vague language that clutters up popular discourse, keeping people’s thoughts cloudy at the same time as it enables politicians to hide the reality of things. In a way, our objections to popular desires to label Trump a fascist stem from this same Orwellian bile for imprecise meaning and historical inaccuracy. We’re not wrong to feel this way, but dismissing it outright as incorrect misses the point. There is a desire, a kitsch, that makes the term “fascism” soar in popular speak.

I’m thinking of Milan Kundera’s beautiful description of kitsch in The Unbearable Lightness of Being — a kitsch that is more complex than something that just describes what’s cheap, corny, artificial. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” Kundera writes. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

The kitsch for calling Trump a fascist causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How terrifying to see the rise of this fascist, Trump. The second tear says: How good it is to be moved, together with those who also fear for mankind, to call this man, Trump, a fascist.

Again, it’s easy to dismiss this kind of kitsch for using the term “fascism” as something contrived or bad that not only keeps people from understanding what fascism really means, but also provides them with the cheap comfort of reducing the complexity of something and calling it out as pure “evil.”

Basically, we are falling into the same lazy habits of simplifying “the enemy” that we accuse Trump of having. And calling him “fascist” becomes more of a way to purify and publicize oneself than do anything about it. After all, we’ve developed a weird cultural obsession with being on the “right side of history,” and this seems like a pretty easy chance to do so. But here’s the thought worth considering: this transition from clear definition (real historical fascism) to floating signifier (“fascism”) is exactly the kind of thing that has made Trump, the great hot air balloon, soar.

Listen. We can’t give up on trying to explain what fascism (and populism) mean historically, specifically. We can’t sacrifice our intellectual duty to be precise and make good arguments for pop intellectualism or, worse, the snake-oil salesmanship that has made Trump so successful.

But there is one intellectual duty that “trumps” all others: be useful. And the elitist crap that allows us to chalk up Trump’s success to people’s ignorance, brainwashing, or prejudice is simply not useful. There is a connected elitism in outright rejecting people’s impulse to call Trump fascist without trying to understand what it means for them. Our elitism and self-confidence in our (political-historical) correctness has done no good against Trump. Because there is a physics to the hot air balloon.

While the fight for clear language and precise definitions is necessary, the political struggle to understand Trump, let alone defeat him, demands that we look more carefully at the way Trump’s words and words like “fascist” draw people in, bring them together, absorb into themselves the various desires, fears, and frustrations of a non-uniform public. To call Trump a fascist may not be technically correct, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true in some sense.

The kitsch that draws people to the term may be simple and self-serving on the surface — there may not be a genuine feeling or understanding in the expression of fascist kitsch, but there is a genuine want to feel and say something. Trump has harnessed this kind of want for his own benefit and pointed it in certain, dangerous directions. And our fight will be more useful if we address the want, the desire, the frustration that fills such signs with meaning instead of the technical specificity of their definition. There is a world-making power in the kitsch that draws people to floating signifiers. “The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.”

Maximillian Alvarez

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.

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