As the election comes closer, it’s worth asking how much remains of the fear, which was widespread two months ago, that Trump would refuse to accept the election result? Or, indeed of the related concern that Trump is pushing the United States closer to fascism?
The answer I’m going to give is that this election is best understood as a “90-10” election; in other words it’s 90 percent likely that once the dust has settled on the Trump Presidency, we’ll look back at this time as an aberration in US politics: a moment when the abyss could be seen and people pulled back from it. There is still however something strange and hostile about how Trump operates. If you want, you can all it a 10 percent chance that something really unpleasant is just about to start.
The hard thing in the next day couple of days is going to be balancing these two kinds of possibilities: one which is unlikely but could be exceptionally bleak, and another which is more likely and reassuring but contains its own dangers.
The starting point, for me, is the argument I’ve just put in my book Fascism: History and Theory. What I say there is that if you read through the history of Marxist theories of fascism, a coherent understanding of that politics emerges.
First of all, such writers as Klara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Trotsky, etc, saw fascism as part of the political right. It wanted bosses to win against workers, the army strengthened, increased power for the police. It sought to deepen and entrench all the social privileges, of men against women, of “aryans” against racial outsiders, it sought to destroy the few organisations that protected workers against the poor.
Second, fascism was unlike mainstream conservative parties (or indeed the military dictatorships around it) in that fascism gave a much greater active role to a mass movement, whose members would listen to Hitler on the radio, or see him in the cinema, and take part in his parades. Its “activism” included shooting socialists off the streets, in hundreds of political murders, culminating in the fascist seizures of power.
Third, the real place at which fascism distinguished itself was that it kept this reactionary and this mass element in balance. Most far-right parties opted for state power at the expense of their own movement and ended up behaving much like other conservative parties just without elections. Fascism went much further, kept on radicalising, culminating in the war and the Holocaust.
The 90 percent chance
From that perspective, how different is Trump from an ordinary Republican candidate? After all, anyone with any knowledge of US politics will know that ever since 1945, the Republicans have been accusing the Democrats of being closet Communists, and the Democrats have been accusing Republicans of being actual fascists. From Nixon to George W. Bush, the left has used the same line of attack, and (until recently) its main effect has been to make Democratic candidates seem bolder than they were, while exaggerating the difference between them and their rivals.
Moreover, as I’ve pointed out on this site and elsewhere, the US state has not taken on new authoritarian power compared to 2016: deportations are running at half the rate they were four years ago, the border wall has hardly grown…
It’s in this context, especially once you factor in the extreme negligence of Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid crisis, and the way he has risked the lives of the most important part of his voting base, that the “90 percent” part of this 90-10 election emerges. Kit Adam Wainer has set out the dynamics which point to a “normal” handover: the lack of support from the military for American business or a coup (I’m pretty sure that’s right), the satisfaction of the Republican grandees now they have their Supreme Court majority (looking at their record, I think she’s being unduly optimistic).
Focussing just on the shrinking support for Trump and the continuity in carceral power between 2016 and 2020, by far the most likely result of the Presidential election is that Trump will lose, his plans to declare a victory will look like bluster. In three months’ times everyone will be thinking, why did we ever call him a fascist?
The 10 percent chance
On the other hand if you go back to my book on fascism the one thing, I argued, which distinguished fascist parties above all else from other far right traditions was what I called the “fascist style”, i.e. a leadership cult (think QAnon), an emphasis on violence (think of the Patriot and the Proud Boys). Normal conservative parties, I argued, didn’t have a relationship with people who used violence repeatedly against the left. On the other hand, Trump has built that movement, multiplied its audience, and (even now) still envisages a role for it.
It’s in this context that Trump’s plans for the election take on their most menacing overtones. The point is not just that he is likely to declare a victory on election night, even if the popular vote has gone against him, but an election where much of the voting is done postally gives him untold opportunities to do so. From that perspective, the most troubling things we’ve seen in the election campaign were Trump’s two comments during the first election debate: his “stand by” order to the Proud Boys, and his call for “poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing,” in other words for his supporters to go the polling stations, harass the people voting, and those counting the votes. Those weren’t mere boasts, rather they’ve been listened to: just think of what happened in Texas to the Biden bus.
What that means is that, alongside the 90 percent chance that this election will end peacefully, in a clear victory for either camp (or, almost certainly, a clear victory for Biden), there remains a ten percent chance that the result will be close enough so that Trump will be able to derail the election count before it finishes, and that groups of his supporters will be involved in harassing voters and vote-counters, in a repetition of the 2000 election count, except this time with guns. And that this process of relying on Trump’s supporters in QAnon, the militia, etc, will so change Trump’s government that his next four years will be radicalised even compared to what went before. If you want to understand how bad it could get, with Trump losing controlling of his supporters, and the police backing them, read this piece by Adam Turl, then imagine those dynamics – which have shaped American and global politics – turned up to 10.
Fitting these two things together
What I’m encouraging people to understand, in speaking of this 90-10 moment is that both routes remain open. We have the impossible, unbearable, task of living these last few hours in the knowledge both of the overwhelming likely of relief, and the real possibility that politics in America is about to change for the worse. It’s not like watching a conflict you expect to win, or an argument that could end terribly, it’s both of them at once, and it could easily stay like this for days.
The last point I want to make is that if Trump wins, the political battle is going to be straightforward. Every cause in which I and you believe will have suffered a reverse but, at least, the immediate task will be obvious: take to the streets. You need to go there even in the certainty that the police will be against you – and that the Democrat governors will be on their side. We saw the BLM protests in the summer: we’ll need them and more of them.
But, if Biden wins, the American army will be in no way reduced. Any measures to reduce global warming will operate at a pace capable of stop ecocide somewhere only in such a distant future that hundreds of millions of lives will be lost. And, if Trump has been negligent in solving Covid, do not expect much better from a Democratic Party whose hostility to socialised healthcare is entrenched. Even if Biden wins this round, in other words, anti-fascist are going to be facing a far right whose leader will still have in his possession 90 million followers on Twitter and all the authority of his recent spell in office. His relationship to them will continue. They will still hold all their guns. They will have been told that his election defeat was illegitimate. And they will be looking for a new leader figure to take forward an increasingly unhinged right.
The civil war in American hearts and minds isn’t going to end this week.