The Anatomy of Populism

Is Donald Trump a fascist or a populist? I think he’s both. But it’s a question that can’t be answered without historical consciousness and reference. Robert O. Paxton wrote the definitive book, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004). Here’s his list of its “mobilizing passions,“ slightly compressed for my purposes (see pp. 40-41)

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis
  • a belief in the primacy of the group as against the individual
  • a dread of this group’s decline due to liberal, individualistic, alien influences
  • a desire for closer integration of this group
  • a need for authority by “natural leaders”
  • a belief in such leaders’ instincts over abstract reasoning
  • an infatuation with violence

Paxton writes of the group in question as if the nation is its obvious source and grounding: “At bottom [fascism] is a passionate nationalism.” But then fascism was always a way of defining a nation in divisive, exclusionary terms, as a fixed, racially derived entity, so that, for example, German Jews, who had been crucial participants in the making of modern, cosmopolitan German culture—see Vienna, 1900—became aliens, outsiders, the Other.

Is Donald Trump a fascist in these terms? I now believe so, because by all accounts he represents, in every sense, white voters, women and men, who think the nation itself—now construed as a racially derived entity—is under siege. He’s trying to defend their American nation. His constituents don’t love their country, they love themselves.

The question I want to engage is actually more difficult. Is Donald Trump a populist? If you call someone a fascist, that’s a criticism, but to say the man is a populist, well, maybe that’s high praise. Ask almost any historian, from Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington to John D. Hicks and Fred Shannon, on toward Lawrence Goodwyn, Elizabeth Sanders, and Charles Postner. By their accounting, Populism in the 1880s and 90s was a mass democratic movement because it was dedicated to the abolition of the “trusts,” the late-19th century vernacular term for the corporations.

In 1955, with The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter started a brief revolt against this unanimity by claiming, on solid empirical grounds, that the Populists of the 1890s were prone to conspiracy theories, to anti-Semitism, and maybe to racism as well. This revolt, called “consensus history,” was joined by William Appleman Williams, an intellectual godfather of the New Left, who, like Hofstadter, understood corporations as integral, perhaps even organic parts of the American experience (see The Contours of American History [1962] and The Roots of the Modern American Empire [1969]). The revolt lasted exactly twenty years. Its death was announced in 1976, with the publication of Goodwyn’s huge book, Democratic Promise, a lavish paean to Populism.

I furnish these boring historiographical details because my quarrel with populism has been carried out in these professional precincts. Once upon a time, I agreed with Hofstadter’s critics. But it gradually, eventually dawned on me that the Populists were angry anti-modernists, and that their pro-corporate opponents, including the newborn AFL, were searching for a way into, and maybe beyond, modernity.

Now my quarrel with populism is public because it’s political. I do not believe that democracy means majority rule. I can’t because by this criterion the Jim Crow South was composed of democratic states. Herewith, then, my list of the “mobilizing passions” of populism, which, I believe, lets me characterize and indict—yes, that’s the word—Donald Trump as a populist.

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis
  • a belief in the primacy of the group (yeomen)
  • a dread of this group’s decline due to urban, corporate, cosmopolitan influences
  • a faith in the self-made man, the bourgeois proprietor of himself
  • a hatred of bankers (Jews?) and their alchemy
  • a suspicion of the higher learning, especially Darwinian science

You can measure the overlap of my list and Paxton’s. I will leave you with two more insights from his great book. First, “fascists can find their space only after socialism has become powerful enough to have had some share in governing, and thus to have disillusioned part of its traditional working-class and intellectual clientele.” (43) Second, fascism “has historically been a phenomenon of weak or failed liberal states and belated or damaged capitalist systems.” (81)

Are we sounding familiar?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Anatomy of Populism

  1. pwolman

    Thanks for this, Jim. Paul

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Steve Usselman

    Very glad to have this and your earlier piece on Sullivan and Connelly, Jim, as I sort through the postmortems. Still learning a lot from you.

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