The Democratic Party Surrenders to Nostalgia

Now that the Michigan Democratic primary is over and Joe Biden has been declared the winner, it’s time to read the handwriting on the political wall: Biden will be the Democratic nominee for president, and Bernie Sanders will be the runner-up once again come the party’s convention in July. Sanders might influence the party’s platform, but platforms are never binding for the nominee. Sanders has lost, and so have his many progressive supporters, myself included.

I am nothing if not a realist. The idea that Sanders might have become the Democratic candidate was always a fantasy, not unlike my youthful dreams of one day becoming an NFL quarterback. Even after Sanders’ triumph in the Nevada caucuses, I never thought the party establishment would ever allow a socialist—even a mild social-democratic one, such as Sanders—to head its ticket.

Funded by wealthy donors, run by Beltway insiders and aided and abetted by a corporate media dedicated to promoting the notion that Sanders was “unelectable,” the Democratic Party never welcomed Sanders as a legitimate contender. Not in 2016 and not in 2020. In several instances, it even resorted to some good old-fashioned red-baiting to frighten voters; the party is, after all, a capitalist institution. Working and middle-class families support the Democrats largely because they have no other place to go on election day besides the completely corrupt and craven GOP.

Now we are left with Donald Trump and Biden to duke it out in the fall. Yes, it has come to that.

In terms of campaign rhetoric and party policies, the general election campaign will be a battle for America’s past far more than it will be a contest for its future. The battle will be fueled on both sides by narratives and visions that are illusory, regressive and, in important respects, downright dangerous.

Of the two campaigns, Trump’s will be decidedly more toxic. The “Make America Great Again” slogan that propelled Trump to victory in 2016 and the “Keep America Great” slogan he will try to sell this time around are neo-fascist in nature, designed to invoke an imaginary and false state of mythical past national glory that ignores our deeply entrenched history of patriarchal white supremacy and brutal class domination.

The fascist designation is not a label I apply to Trump cavalierly. I use it, as I have before in this column, because Trump meets many of the standard and widely respected definitions of the term.

As the celebrated Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1935, fascism “is a historic phase of capitalism…the nakedest, most shameless, most oppressive, and most treacherous form of capitalism.”  Trumpism, along with its international analogs in Brazil, India and Western Europe, neatly accords with Brecht’s theory.

Trumpism similarly meets the definition of fascism offered by Robert Paxton in his classic 2004 study, “The Anatomy of Fascism”:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Trump and Trumpism similarly embody the 14 common factors of fascism identified by the great writer Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay, Ur Fascism:

  • A cult of traditionalism.
  • The rejection of modernism.
  • A cult of action for its own sake and a distrust of intellectualism.
  • The view that disagreement or opposition is treasonous.
  • A fear of difference. Fascism is racist by definition.
  • An appeal to a frustrated middle class that is suffering from an economic crisis of humiliation and fear of the pressure exerted by lower social groups.
  • An obsession with the plots and machinations of the movement’s identified enemies.
  • A requirement that the movement’s enemies be simultaneously seen as omnipotent and weak, conniving and cowardly.
  • A rejection of pacifism.
  • Contempt for weakness.
  • A cult of heroism.
  • Hypermasculinity and homophobia.
  • A selective populism, relying on chauvinist definitions of “the people” that the movement claims to represent.
  • Heavy usage of “newspeak” and an impoverished discourse of elementary syntax and resistance to complex and critical reasoning.

Joe Biden is not a fascist. He is, instead, a standard-bearer of neoliberalism. As with fascism, there are different definitions of neoliberalism, prompting some exceptionally smug mainstream commentators like New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait to claim that the concept is little more than a left-wing insult. In truth, however, the concept describes an all-too-real set of governing principles.

To grasp what neoliberalism means, it’s necessary to understand that it does not refer to a revival of the liberalism of the New Deal and New Society programs of the 1930s and 1960s. That brand of liberalism advocated the active intervention of the federal government in the economy to mitigate the harshest effects of private enterprise through such programs as Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That brand of liberalism imposed high taxes on the wealthy and significantly mitigated income inequality in America.

Neo-liberalism, by contrast, deemphasizes federal economic intervention in favor of initiatives calling for deregulation, corporate tax cuts, private-public partnerships, and international trade agreements that augment the free flow of capital while undermining the power and influence of trade unions.

Until the arrival of Trump and his brand of neo-fascism, both major parties since Reagan have embraced this ideology. And while neoliberals remain more benign on issues of race and gender than Trump and Trumpism ever will be, neoliberalism offers little to challenge hierarchies based on social class. Indeed, income inequality accelerated during the Obama years and today rivals that of the Gilded Age.

As transformational a politician as Barrack Obama was in terms of race, he, too, pursued a predominantly neoliberal agenda. The Affordable Care Act, Obama’s singular domestic legislative achievement, is a perfect example of neoliberal private-public collaboration that left intact a health industry dominated by for-profit drug manufacturers and rapacious insurance companies, rather than setting the stage for Medicare for All, as championed by Sanders.

Biden never tires of reminding any audience willing to put up with his gaffes and verbal ticks and miscues that he served as Obama’s vice president. Those ties are likely to remain the centerpiece of his campaign, as he promises a return to the civility of the Obama era and a restoration of America’s standing in the world.

History, however, only moves forward. As charming and comforting as Biden’s imagery of the past may be, it is, like Trump’s darker outlook, a mirage. If Trump has taught us anything worthwhile, it is that the past cannot be replicated, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.

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