Trump’s speech to a joint-session of Congress, 2-28, is a milestone in political-ideological deception. Joseph Goebbels could not have said it better, the “it” being the inversion of American reality as the nation seeks a further leg up on global hegemony and at the same time cheapens if not degrades its labor force. Liberals feel a sense of outrage, focusing their criticism on much benighted Jeff Sessions, rather than on the emasculation of government, near-destruction of the social welfare sector, a monstrous arms build-up, absolute spoliation of water and other resources, and defying other environmental needs and safeguards, not least the effect of fracking and coal mining on climate change.
Liberals, i.e., Democrats, are either unable and unwilling to protest on the systemic level (whatever the issue) or have already become, as complicit partners, a hazily leftwing extension of the Trumpian weltanschauung or consensus forming in the United States. From a Left standpoint, they are a disgrace to human identity and humanitarian ideals, like the Republicans corporatist in assumptions (here a modified hierarchical social order) and militaristic in every fiber of their being, a heritage of anticommunism still subscribed to and intended by their patriotism to remove all stigma to disloyalty. The pusillanimous fight they are putting up against Trump tends to confirm the preceding characterization.
By descent I don’t mean final destination arrived at, merely, up until now the circumnavigation of fascism (in its early, more corporatist form, as in the activities and approval of the National Association of Manufacturers, rather than—isolationism quite pronounced—militarism in overt form) beginning in the 1920s. In Europe and Japan there are of course stirrings of fascism in that decade, with Italy actualizing the form, and in the 1930s Germany and Japan truly come into their own in that respect. The source for this development is capitalism, with specific ideologies, now incorporating avowed militarism, becoming rationales for both intra-capitalist rivalries and blunt anti-socialism.
With and following World War II, militaristic underpinnings have become a necessitous element in the definition of capitalism, nowhere more clearly seen than in the US. Now, with Trump, circumnavigation around, is turning directly into the penetration of the genuine article. We move, under Trump, as in his address to Congress, from “exploitative capitalism,” the traditional form, to “liar capitalism,” which subsumes into itself the former, yet adds a dimension of ulterior disguise and motive that makes one alert to the prospect of permanent change.
Fascism can be many-layered, and, as in Nazi Germany, seemingly less bottomless in depravity, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, it doesn’t require the concentration camp or gas chamber, and primarily, in historical form, it is based ultimately on the close alignment (co-partnership) of capitalism and the state, or more concretely, business and government. In that structural context, the impetus of the first to the second (although a reverse influence is also manifest) is the creation and reinforcement of hierarchy as the organizing principle of the social order. The capitalist class system, already in place, is then superimposed on what becomes a class-state, to defend and replenish of which the military factor springs forth as though by necessity.
For fascism to operate, the parallel structures require the degree of integration which renders each of them more internally advanced, the better to complement and reinforce the potential war-provoking tendencies of both. And more, social regimentation as well is a long-term product of class and war (or its constant threat as presented by its leaders). Even without their closeness in a formal sense, we see that each, especially starting with the twentieth century, contains, as a separable factor, the same quest for hegemony and self-aggrandizement having the effect of creating a common, synthesized ruling group.
Trump, in all his arrogant innocence—innocence in the sense of ignorance of how devastating his role is, for the destruction of a society that still claims to be a democratic polity—is fairly transparent in the deceptions practiced, measured by the policies already charted or enacted compared with statements he is making (the speech to Congress) or has already made. He is adept at locating the discussion of military strengthening, tax favoritism to giant corporations, the near-destruction of public-school education (only one of several options, with no special tax benefits), and the generalized dismantlement of government, in a context with platitudes about citizenship, patriotism, American greatness, in sum, a demagogic mishmash whose function is, beyond promoting concentrated wealth, deregulation, and national power, the obfuscation pure and simple of all policy making because detrimental to societal democratization and the heading off of the threat of fascism (itself subject to all manner of euphemistic expressions).
Let’s turn, then, to the speech. (I am drawing on the prepared text, and may have missed slight alterations or verbal asides—as well as his use of repetition.) Trump begins with a celebration of “our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains,” and a philo-Semitism addressing the threat to Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. High-minded and certainly unobjectionable, save that his framework and appointments—a genuinely white man’s party—and his remarks in defense of Judaism which come down to the ironclad support for Israel, purposely lack a (small-“d”) democratic thrust in relating to each. He follows the tribute with, typical throughout the speech, a splurge of sentiment in which his speechwriters (Bannon? etc.) must have taken delight in their craftsmanship: “Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice—in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present. This torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world. I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”
The American future converges on Trump, a frightening thought when one considers how he is reaching already to become the Leader, his melding with his followers (it is presumed he speaks for the Nation), the toleration hardly expected to be coming applied to dissident views or, in steamroller mode on his part, resistance and opposition. Thus, he states: “A new chapter of American Greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our Nation. And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.” After more of the same, this wondrous state of mind is joined by hints at military superiority and greatness: “Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead. All the nations of the world—friend or foe—will find that America is strong, America is proud, and America is free.”
In his contemplation of the future (America soon will celebrate its 250th year), he then begins to pull out the stops on his fervent nationalism, his ridicule of past presidents, his claims of generosity in foreign policy: “I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future. For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries [outsourcing on the part of the very corporations he praises in the speech and as a constant theme]. We’ve financed and built one global project after another [not to say, his own activities in creating international projects], but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit—and so many other places throughout our land.”
Concern for the poor is touching, but it seems contrary to his Billionaire Cabinet, plans for military expansion which directly affect the fate of ameliorating conditions in the inner cities, and his active promotion, the whole weight of his administration, on furthering the inequitable distribution of wealth. And the recriminatory spirit continues, this despite his previous disregard for borders where investment is concerned: “We’ve defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross [open sesame for anti-immigrant policy and feeling]—and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate. And we’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.” That infrastructure, frequently mentioned in the speech, is the province of privatization, not, like the New Deal, testimony to the will of government to stand on behalf of the public function.
Here Trump the megalomaniac speaks up, the undisputed leader of a mass movement bursting the seams of government itself, so vast the groundswell for change as he directs it: “Then, in 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet. The rebellion started as a quiet protest [from the Nazi playbook, making “rebellion” the basis for a popular movement of the dispossessed, and not the rich industrialist or banker], spoken by families of all colors and creeds—families who just wanted a fair shot for their children, and a fair hearing for their concerns.” It grew, plain folk angry and on the march: “But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus—as thousands of citizens now spoke out together, from cities small and large, all across our country.” (In all fairness to Trump, this was a somewhat accurate description of the 2016 election, in which the fascistic proclivities of a wide swath of the citizenry came out of the woodwork to give him the nomination and election, provided of course it is also recognized that electorate and candidate each reinforced these proclivities of the other.)
He completes the description of political inundation, a tidal wave of Reaction: “Finally, the chorus became an earthquake—and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first—because only then, can we truly MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN [the form in the transcript]. If this is not a good introduction to incipient fascism, I don’t know what is, as if, to go back, Hitler told the workers (another euphemism, “soldiers in industry”) you are first and foremost a German, divorced from class roots or alternative identities.
From there to the aforementioned mishmash, militarism and monopoly capital get somehow lost in the deeds putatively to be accomplished. Thus, “Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve. Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land…. Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.” Here Trump wants “to update the Nation on the progress I’ve made in keeping those promises.”
The honor roll of corporate wealth is presented as exemplification of America First, yet in several cases known previously for their overseas investments: “Since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart, and many others, have announced that they will invest billions of dollars in the United States [that may be true, to be on the good side of Trump] and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.” But none with a practical presence in international economic affairs is going to divest and return home, nor attempt to alter the structure of world capitalism (except as it continues to further US prominence and predominance globally), which is already in America’s favor.
In Trump’s bag of rhetorical tricks, we see the inveterate boastfulness, he, the near messiah, flattered by the loyalty of a large public in the maw of false consciousness, take credit for the rise of the market simultaneous with, not coincidentally, drastic cutting of the welfare sector, his supporters cheering “U.S.A.” along the way. Only the military benefits from his priorities and framework of government: “The stock market gained almost three trillion dollars in value since the election on November 8th, a record. [I think here of Huey Long’s “Every man a king,” except that Trump operates on a gigantic scale—and Long possibly had some redeeming features, such as eschewing race-baiting in the deep South.] We’ve saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price of the fantastic new F-35 jet fighter [debatable savings given the record thus far, and, when Trump uses “fantastic,” unlikely to upset the apple cart given his admiration of weapons systems], and will be saving billions more dollars on contracts all across our Government. We have placed a hiring freeze on non-military and non-essential Federal workers.”
Behind the theme of budget savings, however, lies the cardinal demand for deregulation, which opens the way for an attack on the environment: “We have undertaken a historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations [the use of working people to camouflage staking out a claim for corporate capitalism], creating a deregulation task force inside of every Government agency: imposing a new rule which mandates that for every 1 new regulation, 2 old regulations must be eliminated; and stopping a regulation that threatens the future and livelihoods of our great coal miners.” The 1 for 2 ruling is, in conception, a veiled effort to destroy, given its arbitrary nature, the regulatory effectiveness of the process—cynicism nonpareil. As for the environment, on pending measures, he says: “We have cleared the way for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines—thereby creating tens of thousands of jobs—and I’ve issued a new directive that new American pipelines be made with American steel.”
Quite a first five weeks of activity, this reminds me of a dystopian vision of FDR’s Hundred Days in microcosm, a vicious approach to what should have been a rebuilding effort of renaissance proportions. Stopping the supply of drugs from entering America becomes the whipping boy for unrelated, or seemingly related, aspects of Trump’s program: obviously, the construction of the wall, but also the purification of domestic America, immigration-controls in general, and job creation. Trump’s get-tough policies represent a top-down framing of injecting totalitarian controls on society, using crime as a catch-all for pretext of embellishing the theme of Fortress America, which implicitly suffuses the speech.
He states: “We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth—and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.” Then the direct jump: “At the same time, my Administration has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security. By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.” Hard to know if he here fuses Mexicans and Muslims from the seven proscribed countries as a unified threat, but the speech constantly invokes a genocidal vision of so-called deplorables or undesirables: “We want all Americans to succeed—but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law to our borders.”
Rule of law is problematic, with the much-feared round-up already in progress. Restoring integrity means, “we will soon begin the construction of a great wall [now Trump, Chinese Emperor] along our southern border. It will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime. As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I have promised.”
Trump has not forgotten the presumed Muslim threat: “Our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States. We are also taking strong measures to protect our Nation from Radical Islamic Terrorism.” In fact, he sees that practically lurking under every bed: “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country,” and then there are attacks “in France, in Belgium, in Germany and all over the world.” And so, “[i]t is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur. Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values.”
Spoken like a true patriot. Trump is on the job, having issued orders for the “Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS,” impose “new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program,” and reaffirm “our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel,” all of this immediately followed by a tribute to the late Antonin Scalia, whose wife sat in the gallery. As he approaches the closing, his speech takes on a current of hyper-nationalism, achieved through criticism of previous, especially Obama’s, administrations.
The gloves are off: “Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited.” Perversely, these are the very facts which give a lie to what he hopes to accomplish, given his failure to consider any but rightist proposals for societal improvement: “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force. Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps. More than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working. We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years. In the last 8 years, the past Administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other Presidents combined.” To boot, “we have inherited a series of tragic foreign policy disasters.”
Much of which Trump criticizes could be said by a radical, on unemployment and a consequent maldistribution of wealth, except that his premise for constructing and justifying the criticism is the near-irrefragable principle (to him) of privatization, the self-evident goal in displacing the welfare and/or regulatory functions of government. We have no assurance that each problem he cites would not fare still worse under his aegis. He even calls at this point for bipartisan cooperation in advancing his agenda: solving the foregoing, “and so many other pressing problems, will require us to work past the differences of party. It will require us to tap into the American spirit that has overcome every challenge throughout our long and storied history.”
With that flourish, we now, but briefly, find the emphasis on antigovernment privatization: “But to accomplish our goals at home and abroad, we must restart the engine of the American economy [as though it was in the hands until now of nefarious socialists]—making it easier for companies to do business in the United States, and much harder for companies to leave.” To sugar the pot, Trump adds: “Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world [a dubious assertion]. My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so that they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. [Fortress America is not the abandonment of foreign markets. Autarky here has an expansive dimension of growth.] At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class. We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.” Both workers and the middle class provide buffers against the government’s getting too close in the regulation of these companies.
Complaining about high tariffs placed on American goods, yet “when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them almost nothing,” Trump, using Harley Davison (“they proudly displayed five of their magnificent motorcycles, made in the USA, on the front lawn of the White House”) for illustration, he lambastes other countries for their protective tariff, proclaiming: “I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be FAIR TRADE [caps in the original transcript].” By now his message is clear: the wall to protect against immigrants is analogous to the wall sealing America from global restrictions by its aggressive business and military leaders, this through leaping over economic battlements without fear of retaliation.
He wants the adoption of a merit-based system of immigration, infrastructural improvement, citing Eisenhower’s record on the interstate highway system, and, on rebuilding, the observance of two principles: Buy American, and Hire American. This he attaches to what is quite different: “Tonight, I am calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice [privatization], increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better Healthcare. None of these is, or will be, shown for likely adoption. Of course, instead, again privatization: “Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for America. [That compulsory in practice?] The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we will do…. One third of counties have only one insurer on the exchanges—leaving America with no choice at all. Remember when you were told that you could keep your doctor, and keep your plan? We now know that all of those promises have been broken.” Not a word on the public option or sIngle-payer system, which would go a long way to correcting the present high costs and his other complaints, freedom of choice, another barrier, ideological in nature, to prevent direct government involvement.
Trump is impatient. On health care, he says: “Obamacare is collapsing—and we must act decisively to protect all Americans. Action is not a choice—it is a necessity.” He presents a five-part plan, in scrapping the existing system never mentioning the privatization route by name, and he does this with a plea for bipartisan cooperation, which, for Democrats, surrenders what little there is worth retaining. Hence, he says: “I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.” A private system is the watchword, so that, on point one, the movement to that status is clear from his demand that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage [implying a transfer of coverage], and that we have a stable transition [again implying a transfer from public to private] for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.” Second, more specific, “we should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts—but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by the Government.” (One might see Trump’s thinking revolving around the fetishism of choice, except that “choice” is coded to indicate the correct direction.) Third, “we should give our great State Governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.” That is, sacrifice Medicaid to the states entirely, the likelihood of adequate coverage for all problematic. Fourth, afford the medical profession absolute protection against malpractice and other suits—patients, like workers and the middle class, a barrier to taking effective action, and fifth, provide direct assistance to the health insurance industry, allowing companies to cross state lines—“creating a truly competitive national marketplace [once more sanctioning the private] that will bring cost way down and provide far better care.”
Introducing from the gallery another guest, a young woman who at 15 months had contracted “a rare and serious illness,” whose father “founded a company to look for a cure, and helped develop the drug that saved Megan’s life.” She is now 20. What is interesting is the use made of a purely human interest story—a criticism of the Food and Drug Administration for not hastening the review process in evaluating the safety of drugs: “If we slash the restraints, not just at the FDA but across our Government, then we will be blessed with far more miracles like Megan.” This of course applies to regulation in general, a persnickety federal government gumming up the works, inconsistent with—as in coal—the dismantling of government by the new forces in Washington.
And in a neat quarter turn to a pressing subject on the regulatory front—the survival of public education—Trump, as in his selection of DeVos as education secretary, throws himself four-square on several alternative possibilities all on the private side of the ledger. On the offering of choice, and using blacks and Latinos as enticement for his plan, he states: “I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.” In politicizing school education—quite a menu of choices—Trump has the chutzpah of wrapping schools in a context of civil rights, perhaps calculated to resonate among liberals (to the sacrifice of public education), for as he says preceding the list: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”
More guests are recognized, each supporting one of Trump’s talking points. One, Denisha, “failed third grade twice…. [b]ut then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit and scholarship program.” Then came remarks on violence, the murder rate in Chicago, and the need for cooperation with and respect for the police: “We must build bridges of cooperation and trust—not drive the wedge of disunity and division.” This is well put, although he sentimentalizes the topic bringing it into line with the tenor of his law-and-order self-created mandate: “We must support the incredible men and women of law enforcement.” And to drive home the dangers out there (immigrant scare?) he states, “I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims. The office is called VOICE—Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement,” a prejudgment further enflaming the populace when it comes on board. Then, not through, he introduces four more guests from the gallery, victims, themselves or a loved one, of crime. The emphasis on crime and violence suddenly introduces him, as though related, to the virtues of a strong military.
Brief and to the point: “Finally, to keep America Safe we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war and—if they must—to fight and win. I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester [that which sets it apart], and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” There is to be more for veterans in the package: “Our veterans have delivered for this Nation—and now we must deliver for them. The challenges we face as a Nation are great. But our people are even greater. And none are greater or braver than those who fight for America in uniform.”
He then uses the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owen, his “legacy etched into history,” although there remains doubt about the efficacy of the raid, to assert: “To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform.” Coming from on high, already to dissuade critics of policy, here foreign policy, Trump softens—for home political consumption—his Fortress America idea, first conceding little, “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security issues that we share with our allies across the globe.” Next, he gives, contrary to his recent record, qualified support to NATO: “We strongly support NATO…. But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that.”
Acknowledging his nationalist (from what just preceded, nationalism itself is code for the corporate-militarist paradigm) deeply-embedded viewpoint, Trump announces: “We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations…. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict—not more.” Let’s leave matters at that; he does not let go of dramatizing the high ground: “Think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people.” Setting free, liberating, follow from reducing the intervention of government in the people’s lives. Why not proclaim victory, given the moral virtue of America? He outlines the factors in part composing America’s greatness: “This is our vision. This is our mission. But we can only get there together. We are one people, with one destiny. We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God.’
Trump wants Americans to Think Big, capitalist in inspiration, a vital private sector buttressed by taking regulation off the table, venerating and appreciating the contribution being made for all of us by successful men of business, and possessing armed might second to none. I see fascism in the spirit and substance of the harmonious relations between capitalism and the state, found in earlier administrations going back, but now reaching a tipping point to seemingly irreversible structural-ideological trends under Trump. Without wishing to sound cryptic, I believe being is becoming, that is, the present context of power is rapidly progressing into a new political reality, a state having the makings of authoritarianism, which foretells the future—its petrification—of democracy. The military neatly tucked into more pacific concerns, I have sought to point out some of the contradictions in Trump’s speech.
Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.