Neofascism After Trump

A conversation with political theorist Ajay Singh Chaudhary on contemporary fascism in a global context.

David Klion
January 22, 2021
Trump and Modi
Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India on February 25th, 2020. Photo: White House, via Wikimedia Commons

While Donald Trump is finally out of the White House, the debate over whether the term “fascism” can be reasonably applied to Trump and the strain of right-wing politics he represents remains ongoing. Last month, I discussed this topic in an interview with the political scientist and historian Corey Robin, an outspoken skeptic of using the term. This week, I spoke with Ajay Singh Chaudhary, a political theorist and the executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. In contrast to Robin, Chaudhary does think “fascism,” or at least “neofascism,” is an appropriate term for Trump’s movement. His analysis situates Trumpism in a global context, drawing insights from countries like India and Hungary that have gone further in the same direction.

Our conversation below has been condensed and edited. This conversation originally appeared in yesterday’s email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

David Klion: What’s your working definition of fascism?

Ajay Singh Chaudhary: Fascism and what I’ll call “neofascism” must be addressed in a contemporary, global context, encompassing both historical cases (Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Chile) and also contemporary cases (India, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, the National Front [FN] in France, and the Alternative for Germany [AfD] party).

A meaningful concept of fascism changes over time, while still maintaining certain features. Fascism is a tendency toward a mass, right-wing political formation—authoritarian in character, nationalist in its promotion of class and social harmony in the context of cultural or ethnic homogeneity, and presenting a vision of a hierarchical society as utopian. Fascism offers a thorough critique of liberal society from the right. Although fascism is often imagined as a unified, all-powerful, all-encompassing state, in practice it often works more like a handshake deal. Fascism is able to offer capital a mobilized base in exchange for supporting its particular program. Fascism is one of many possible responses to what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic crisis” in capitalism—not just a periodic downturn, but when serious cracks appear in nearly every edifice of capitalist society, and capital can no longer convincingly claim to be ruling in the universal interest. It’s increasingly obvious that the latest stock buyback or Jeff Bezos windfall is not a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s under these conditions that fascism has a shot as a real political movement.

Capitalism’s ideological underpinnings are increasingly, and rightly, questioned, not only on the left but also in the business press, which keeps talking about better capitalisms—responsible capitalisms, green capitalisms, stakeholder capitalisms—no matter how implausible. A specter is clearly haunting the world’s boardrooms—not the specter of communism, but a free-floating anxiety of crisis management. This is reflected in public opinion polling worldwide, showing a decline in the legitimacy of both capitalism and liberal democracy. Neofascism is developing as a mode of crisis governance for capital in a moment in which capitalism is malfunctioning, even on its own terms. Both climate change and secular stagnation—the long global decline in economic growth—are forces that apply so much pressure on capital.

But capital does not conjure fascism out of thin air. Fascist ideologies often draw on largely historically contingent questions, in particular about national identity, religion, or race. For the Nazis, race science and the Jewish question were the main attraction. In Francoist Spain, it was Catholicism. Capital embraces fascism somewhat reluctantly, because mass politics is non-ideal for capitalists, who would prefer the political realm stable, comfortable, and predictable. But neofascism can come to be seen as the only option for crisis management. The right has a motion all its own, but it moves particularly well in concert with the needs of capital.

DK: Where do you stand on the Trump fascism debate?

ASC: Too often, this debate starts by comparing Trump and Hitler. Instead, we should start with a case like India under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the contemporary example that most resembles the “classic” European model of fascism. It ticks almost all the boxes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes out of a long-standing fascist social movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP not only espouses an extreme right-wing ideology in Hindutva (a particularly vicious form of Hindu nationalism), it has organized the whole of the right and made Hindutva a part of everyday Indian life. It commands not only security forces but also street-level irregulars who routinely commit horrific acts of violence with impunity. The BJP has persuaded capital that it is the best bet, all while expanding its already formidable cross-class activist and electoral bases and more firmly entrenching itself institutionally.

Of course, not every neofascism looks exactly like the BJP. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary is not exactly the BJP, just as it is not exactly the resurgent FN in France or the AfD in Germany. And none of these are exactly Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, or Trump. The “neo” in neofascism marks some pretty key differences. While the BJP has suppressed many civil society organizations and a number of dissident intellectuals, it hasn’t ended formal political contestation. This seems to be the case with nearly every case in question. In classical fascism, ending parliamentary democracy and multiparty states was standard nearly across the board. But neofascists have come to embrace a more nuanced view of power. They are often faced with empty vessel “status quo” parties, which can be useful not only for building power but for maintaining it.

Neofascism is emerging not from the mass democratic conflicts of the early 20th century but from the mass depoliticization of late 20th- and early 21st-century neoliberalism. Neofascism mobilizations won’t look exactly like fascist mobilizations of the past. The question is not so much whether Trump and his movement are “fascist,” but why we’d expect the United States to be uniquely immune to this recognizable global phenomenon. Trumpism is merely the American variation on a very common global tune.

DK: How do you address the major critiques of the use of the term “fascism”—for instance, that Trump was a weak president constrained by institutions, that he never organized a true mass movement around the militarization of the whole society, and that his bluster and unique persona don’t amount to a coherent ideology? 

ASC: Trump was definitely weak in the sense that he marks a nascent or premature expression of neofascism. There is no organized social force to carry such a project to power across American society. He’s weak in the sense that key partners he would need—capital, the military, the bureaucracy—all seem to prefer neoliberal crisis management. Even so, could Trump have done more? I think so, but I’m happy to concede that Trump did not exercise the extraordinary power of his office to its fullest extent, nor try particularly hard to induce social pressure on Republicans when they wavered on his agenda. 

But in other senses, Trump was not weak. He acted as a unifying figure for so many disparate, contradictory elements of the existing American far right, revealing just how much mainstream Republicans were comfortable with those tendencies. These groups coalesced around a heady mix of nativism, patriarchy, and radical right-wing Christianity. Running through all of these was a culturalist white supremacy, distinct from Nazi or classically American race science principle. It had space for some racial minorities, if they hewed to the national formation.

Evangelical Christians and xenophobes were Trump’s most fervent supporters, and he delivered for these groups in droves—in executive orders, in judicial appointments, and in rhetoric. Even moving the US embassy to Jerusalem should be seen in terms of delivering to these constituencies, not only to Christian Zionists but to those who see Israeli “ethnocracy” as a model. The Republican Party used Trump for its needs (primarily judicial appointments, tax cuts, and deregulation), but this was a two-way street. Trump delivered for the actually existing Republican base. The movement that has coalesced around Trump, while still in the minority, has room to grow.

Regarding Trump’s bluster and lack of a coherent ideology—fascism has always been incoherent. Mussolini’s writings are absolute gobbledygook. The Nazis professed a host of contradictory, downright silly, occult, and conspiratorial ideas. Fascism not only expresses this incoherence but incubates in a broader culture.

One of the arguments Theodor Adorno makes in Minima Moralia is that occultism, fascism, and antisemitism all have a similar structure of thought. People can see that the official line is clearly at odds with reality but are denied both an emancipatory politics and a framework, such as Marxism, to make sense of the world, so they seek out some alternative explanation for the way things are: the suppressed national community; the secret cabal; the revealed mystical truth. Adorno is not saying these are necessarily the same things, but that each serves a similar explanatory role. For Adorno, fascism is always a latent possibility within liberal capitalist society, and the proliferation of conspiratorial and occult thinking is a decent indicator that the ground is ready.

This helps make sense of the most outlandish conspiratorial thinking, such as QAnon, which was well-represented at the January 6th Capitol siege. Phenomena like QAnon are often dismissed as insane or inexplicable. A recent article in Jacobin argued that since QAnon is a totally incoherent cult, it shouldn’t be understood politically. Well, would you believe that Heinrich Himmler ran a cult within the Nazi Party for the SS, complete with made-up Teutonic pagan rituals and insignia? He bought a special castle in Westphalia where he hosted occult rites as well as dinner parties.

Trump’s 2016 campaign and most of his time in government, at least pre-pandemic, told a deeply compelling story: You’ve been screwed. The people who rule you do not have your interests at heart. They work for themselves and serve a global elite. You’re being robbed blind of your hard-earned wealth. And they’re moving all these largely unidentifiable brown people into your country. All of these people and this global elite are bleeding the American people dry. And then, straight out of the leftist rhetorical playbook: There’s something you can do about it. Join together and fight back.

But for what? Trumpism may not have a coherent ideology, but it does articulate a powerful fantasy that accompanies that story. It promises a romantic return to a utopia, drawing on familiar right-wing cultural institutions and signifiers. It is not so distant from ordinary Republicanism, but tweaked just enough to seem like a novel movement. I suppose we should call that bluster and incoherence. But it’s pretty compelling fascist bluster and incoherence.

DK: Now that Trump is finally out of office, do you foresee a live fascist threat continuing to haunt US politics, or has that threat peaked with Trump’s presidency? If you do see that threat continuing, what forms do you see it taking?

ASC: In the 2020 elections, capital stood nearly unanimously behind Joe Biden. But the Trumpists aren’t going anywhere. They have a fairly sizable foothold in Congress, much more so than the expanded “Squad” of democratic socialists within the Democratic Party. What’s more, they have a seemingly unshakable majority of Republican voters, as well as an ability to attract those newly politicizing. The Republicans will either give in and become the party expression of the neofascist movement or they will break up.

With the Capitol attack, the Trumpists have shown the degree to which their most committed elements are willing and capable of engaging in street violence. Some read the attack as a sign of weakness; I see it as a further test of the limits of liberal democracy. It’s also a demonstration that the right understands affective politics far better than the left does. You can really see this in the most neofascist of Trumpist formations, like the Proud Boys. The Anglo-American left still approaches politics like it’s forever the first half of the 20th century. It’s not.

Again, it’s instructive to look at the case of modern India. The BJP came to power in India before Modi. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first BJP prime minister, in the 1990s. He had little political support, and could not deliver on much of the cultural program so important to the BJP. But this period saw the infamous Gujarat Riots, in which Hindus engaged in a pogrom against Muslims for nearly two months, killing a thousand people. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, was accused not only of neglecting the situation but actively inciting it. Meanwhile, Vajpayee proved the economic utility of a BJP government by accelerating market reforms and leading to stunning profits for Indian capital. The BJP did not win the following election; it was not repudiated, but it underperformed, and neoliberal “normality” was reinstated with Manmohan Singh. Modi came to power a decade later.

No analogy is perfect, but Trump is more Vajpayee than Modi. This is not the end of something; it’s the beginning. We have yet to see what Trumpism 2.0 will bring. There will be a fallow period as these forces regroup post-Trump, but neofascism is likely to continue to develop in the US. Meanwhile, we are likely to see an uptick in sporadic neofascist violence outside of electoral politics.

I’m not saying it will be identical to India. There are many unique challenges in the US for a formation like Trumpist neofascism, not least the US’s role as essentially the world’s central bank and imperial guarantor of capital. But the organic crisis only promises to intensify; there is no simple way for capital to get through secular stagnation and climate change that doesn’t involve novel, radical politics. Alternatives like liberal nationalism or Macronism face serious headwinds, as they depend on a return to post-World War II conditions that is simply impossible.But this moment is not hopeless. It truly is an inchoate time; things are far less determined than some argue. We recently saw a neofascist takeover pushed back in Bolivia—not by a liberal party, but by an explicitly left-wing, socialist, anti-colonial party and movement. Closer to home, the Black Lives Matter uprisings over this past summer were an incredibly powerful moment for the American left. Still, the socialist left here is much more splintered and disorganized than the nascent neofascist right. A radically different left politics is needed.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.