Jacksonville, FL - The world watched in horror on the night of July 21 as billionaire casino mogul Donald J. Trump officially became the Republican Party's nominee for president.
Worth an estimated $6 billion, Trump embodies big business and corporate America. Unlike most previous GOP candidates, however, Trump's campaign shocked the country with its open racism and unapologetic xenophobia. Many liberals assumed this would torpedo his campaign. Instead, it helped him win the Republican nomination.
Trump's disturbing blend of right-wing populism has critics on the left and even some parts of the right labeling him a fascist. And on the surface, it's not hard to see a lot of similarities. Trump's calls to ban Muslim immigrants, create a database of Muslims in the U.S. and raid mosques are disturbingly similar to the Nazis' policies against Jews in Germany. Other aspects – racist demagoguery against Latinos, cynical populism directed at the working class, and outright violence against protesters at campaign rallies – bear a striking resemblance to the tactics of Mussolini and Hitler. White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have flocked to support Trump, including former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. Even the man himself keeps a well-worn copy of Hitler's speeches on his nightstand, according to his ex-wife, and sprinkles Mussolini quotes into his insane rants on Twitter.
Most people are familiar with the unspeakable crimes committed by fascists in the 20th century. The word brings to mind images of death camps, dictators, genocide and war, which makes it effective political profanity to throw at strong-arm politicians or repressive policies. But for all the noise around whether Trump is – or could become – a fascist, there's startlingly little discussion about a broader question: What is fascism?
To some, fascism is just a greatest-hits collection of authoritarian traits – extreme nationalism, political repression, rigged elections, etc. Others focus on fascist dictators, like Mussolini and Hitler, and the crowds of people following them supposedly because of their charisma as leaders. While these features existed in fascist regimes, they don't really tell us anything unique. After all, you can find all of these practices in some form in every capitalist country, including the United States.
If we want to understand fascism, we have to go beyond the surface-level horrors. Why did these regimes exist? Who benefited from them? And what is their relationship to 'democracy' and capitalism?
We're often told that fascism is something different and opposed to 'democracies' like the U.S. and Britain, but this simply isn't the case. The state – laws, government institutions, courts, police and the military – exists for one class to dominate another class and rule society. In a capitalist system, the state is a dictatorship of banks and corporations, who control the economy and exploit the working class for their own profit. Their dictatorship can take a variety of forms, from welfare states (Sweden) to liberal democracies (United States) to Germany under the Nazi’s. But whether they hold elections or not, every capitalist state is a class dictatorship of the 1%.
Fascist regimes are also class dictatorships ruled by monopoly capitalists – not by one, all-powerful charismatic leader. Unlike other forms of capitalist dictatorship, however, they enforce their rule through open terrorist violence against the working class, extreme racism and imperialist military aggression against oppressed nations. Simply put, fascism is terrorist rule of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.
The ruling class may prefer one form of government over another depending on time, place and conditions. Such is the case with fascism. The countries that became fascist after World War I experienced deep economic crises and mass civil unrest led by workers and peasants. Banks and big business saw their profits drop due to rising wages, inflation and taxes used to fund public education and social programs. To insure their continued rule, something had to change. Their top priority became imposing harsh austerity measures on the working class - banning unions, rolling back labor laws, slashing important government programs, etc. – at all costs and by any means.
It's more difficult for the 1% to impose their agenda if unions, mass movements and opposition parties have legal rights to fight back. But under a non-democratic arrangement, the ruling class can simply destroy the opposition by force and impose whatever agenda it wants on the people.
That's exactly why Italian big business planned and bankrolled Mussolini's infamous March on Rome in 1922, which brought the Fascists to power. Similarly, German President Paul von Hindenburg – another politician of the 1% – appointed Hitler as chancellor in 1933 with the full backing of German industry and finance. In both cases, the ruling class sidestepped the formality of elections and installed fascism from above.
Part of fascism's appeal to the monopoly capitalists is its ability to mobilize a mass base to support its agenda. Importantly, however, fascist movements never won any substantial support from the working class in Germany, Italy, Austria or any other country, despite their best efforts. Instead, they drew their supporters from struggling 'middle class' elements, like small business owners and unemployed professionals. A large segment of former military officers, scarred from the battlefield and unable to find jobs, also gravitated towards fascist politics, along with street gangs and violent criminals.
Fascism accomplished this by presenting itself as radical, 'anti-establishment', and sometimes even critical of big business. They played on real economic hardships and promised to deliver radical 'new' solutions, which turned out to only favor the 1%. This fascist populism was completely cynical, of course. But in a time of deep political and economic crisis, like the post-WWI period and the Great Depression, these movements and parties diverted 'middle class' anger away from the system and directed it against workers, unions, oppressed people and other nations.
Using its base, fascism delivers an army of shock troops for the monopoly capitalists to terrorize the working class. After World War I, Italian workers and peasants launched a wave of strikes, factory occupations and land-takings that shook the power of the ruling class. This revolutionary upsurge, dubbed the 'Red Years', scared the big landowners of the south into hiring Mussolini's paramilitary death squads, the fasci di combattimento, to roam the countryside – burning villages, murdering militants and revolutionaries, and terrorizing peasants. The major industrialists of the north took note and recruited fascist gangs to break strikes, burn union halls, close newspapers and destroy socialist and communist party headquarters.
The same was true in Germany, where Nazi Stormtroopers battled communists and union workers in the streets long before 1933, when Hitler came to power. Similarly in the U.S., plantation owners in the South hired the Ku Klux Klan to repress African Americans after the defeat Radical Reconstruction. Their terrorist methods – lynchings, show trials before all-white juries, and burning crosses – are well-known, even though we seldom hear the U.S. media refer to the KKK as 'fascist'.
Trade unions are among the first targets of fascist terror. Organized labor faces attacks in every capitalist country – fascist or not – because it poses a threat the profits of the 1% and their tyranny in the workplace. However, fascism unleashes open violence and dismantles unions by force on behalf of the ruling class. The Nazis, for instance, shut down all German trade unions less than two months after taking power. Stormtroopers raided union halls and offices, seized their funds and arrested their leaders. Militant workers and communists faced torture and execution, and many were shipped off to die in Hitler's concentration camps.
Although fascist movements developed a mass following among small business owners and professionals, they turned on those same groups after coming to power. Both Mussolini and Hitler oversaw the takeover of small businesses by large corporations in order to further consolidate the wealth of the monopoly capitalists. In Germany, Jewish businesses – particularly retail outlets – were the first targets of Nazi monopolization, which they accomplished through 'legal' decrees as well as outright criminal theft. While German small businesses initially supported these anti-Semitic measures to drive out competitors, they found themselves taken over by monopolies and their wealth doled out to big business and Nazi officials.
Fascism and war go hand in hand. Under monopoly capitalism, also called imperialism, the 1% dominates entire nations and exploits their labor and resources for profit. Military conflicts, like World War I, break out between rival imperialist powers for control of these colonies. Both Italy and Germany had fewer colonies than the U.S., Britain and France after WW I, and with most of the world already colonized, the only way to expand their weak empires was through war. To this end, fascism used its open violence and internal repression to mobilize the country for aggressive military expansion on behalf of monopoly capitalism.
Using fascist ideology and national chauvinism as justifications, Hitler looked towards Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for lebensraum, or 'living space' for German colonial settlers. At first, the ruling class in the U.S. and Britain maintained an uneasy neutrality towards Hitler, hoping he would attack their common enemy – the socialist Soviet Union – first. However, war broke out between these rival imperialist powers when Nazi Germany annexed Poland and began expanding westward into Europe.
At the root of World War II sits imperialist profit and colonial rivalries – not some clash between U.S. 'democracy' and German 'tyranny'. Banks and corporations run all imperialist countries, and whatever conflicts emerge over who-gets-to-exploit-what-nation, their goals and even methods aren't as different as we often hear in movies and media. After all, Hitler based his genocidal designs on the U.S. extermination of indigenous people, which took place in a so-called 'constitutional democratic' country.
Donald Trump's right-wing populism and open racism poses a real danger to the people of the U.S. and the world. However, it's not a fascist danger at this time. The ruling class has yet to line up behind Trump. Nor yet has the Trump campaign developed actual organization capable of winning a presidential election, let alone carrying out fascist terrorism. While Trump supporters have reacted violently towards protesters at rallies, it's not on the same level or scale as the barbaric terror committed by Mussolini's Blackshirts or Hitler's Stormtroopers.
As we consider Trump's racist right-wing populism and the history of fascism, we need to remember that imperialism – whether it's fascist or 'democratic' – is the cause of wars and poverty around the world. Workers and oppressed people defeated fascist imperialism in World War II. Nearly 70 years later, it will take a united front of workers and oppressed people from all nations to defeat imperialism and create a better world.