Now that the U.S. has elected a fascist-leaning president, it’s worth remembering that fascism originally arose as an outgrowth of the left. It appealed to those who felt they’d been betrayed and exploited by the ruling class, and of course added an element of blood loyalty to its appeal.
Fast-forward 85 or so years. Last night’s result wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been decades of art and rhetoric advancing the argument that the average American had been screwed over by an uncaring and irredeemable Washington elite. For 40 years, that has been the theme of American culture. Conspiracies in movies and television shows inevitably go all the way to the top. Those celebrities who rallied for Clinton have spent their careers depicting an American democracy that was a sham, an American economy that was a shell game. Think of Washington as depicted on television: Veep, Scandal, House of Cards. Think of the career of Bruce Springsteen, who has spent 40 years writing about the dreams of working class men being betrayed. Is it any wonder that when he appeared with Clinton in Pennsylvania at the last rally of the campaign, he was unable to help her win the Rust Belt states?
Years ago, when I was a history student, I spent my last year working on an honours essay and directed readings course on the intellectual environment of the 1920s and ‘30s, when vast numbers of western writers and artists supported Stalin and a not-negligible number supported fascism. This abandonment of the centre occurred because of a widely held belief that the system, with all its compromises and hypocrisies, was hopelessly corrupt. The only course of action was to raze it in order to build something new. (Virginia Woolf, you may recall, wrote a famous essay after being asked to give money to establish a woman’s college – she answered that, rather than support an effort towards progress within a fundamentally flawed social, political and educational system, she would make a donation to buy “rags, petrol, matches.”)
For decades, the left has been passing around words of wisdom about the futility and fraudulence of democracy. We’ve seen the t-shirt slogans: “If voting could change the system, it would be illegal.” We’ve seen the assessment of Gore Vidal (who went to his grave with kind things to say about the Oklahoma bomber) that the Republicans and the Democrats are just the “two right wings” of the Property Party. Years of this allowed for such a degree of disgust with America that a substantial number of Americans were quick to jump on the 9-11 Truth bandwagon (which began on the left before the extreme right jumped on board). Years of this allowed for the return to a kind of legitimacy of actual communists, most notably Slavoj Zizek, who openly hoped for a Trump victory. And obviously years of this thinking allowed for the spread of the idea that trade agreements are evil – an idea the left has been spreading for the last 30 years and one to which Trump made direct appeal in his promise to end NAFTA and force American companies to bring jobs back to the manufacturing heartland.
And then there’s the toxic mix of racial appeals and anti-establishment anger. Are we really that surprised that white voters in the poorer parts of the country were ready to make that connection? After all, a precedent for racial politics had been set by the left. One of the largest Latino organizations in the U.S. is called La Raza. The Black Lives Matter movement is based on nostalgia for the black nationalist Maoism of the Black Panthers (cool half-time show, Beyoncé!). Progressives have used the term white privilege for the last few years to shut up white people, who, if they wanted to express support for racial equality or appreciation of non-white cultures, also ran the risk of accusations of white saviour complex or cultural appropriation. It has become an article of progressive faith in recent years that white people need to become more conscious of their race, but only in a way that highlights the bad things white people do and have done. Does anybody outside of a university Cultural Studies department believe that this fits with the way human beings actually behave?
Ultimately, then, the left has been increasingly vocal in support of three toxic ideas: 1) that democracy is so rotten that is requires a wrecking ball rather than a repair crew; 2) that trade is not an exchange of goods and services based on supply and demand but a conspiracy to impoverish workers; and 3) that race, rather than a fixation of a few backward relics of the past, is the natural and unavoidable dividing principle in society. Good job letting those genies out of the bottle, progressives. Too bad they call someone else master.