Henry Wallace, varieties of fascism, and two classes of Trumpists (an experiment in diagnosis)

Here’s a further experiment in my ongoing effort to understand what is happening around us in the USA. I’m going to quote Henry Wallace, then I’m going to throw some thoughts out—experimentally, I want to emphasize.

First, Henry Wallace. For those who, like myself few hours ago, can’t even remember who he was, an 2015 article by an Occidental College politics prof will be helpful. What I am going to quote from below is an essay that Wallace wrote for the New York Times in April 1944. For the reference to specific countries, remember this was written during World War II, a couple of months before the invasion of Normandy:

The symptoms of fascist thinking are colored by environment and adapted to immediate circumstances. But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice. It may be shocking to some people in this country to realize that, without meaning to do so, they hold views in common with Hitler when they preach discrimination against other religious, racial or economic groups. Likewise, many people whose patriotism is their proudest boast play Hitler’s game by retailing distrust of our Allies and by giving currency to snide suspicions without foundation in fact.

The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy. They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism. They cultivate hate and distrust of both Britain and Russia. They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.

And now for my thoughts. I find a parallel to the “snide suspicions” of the Allies in the bothsiderism and the cynicism regarding all politicians professed by Class II Trumpists in our current moment.

But I have used a term that I just made up. What is a Class II Trumpist? Here comes the experiment in diagnosis:

The Class I Trumpists are the vulgar, undereducated MAGAists who reveled in Trump’s speaking his mind, “telling it like it is,” owning the libs—i.e., in his truth-indifferent spewing of negative emotionality. Faced with his gross personal offenses, they either denied them or came back with “What about . . .” or both. And they voted for him. Twice. They are the product of several decades of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fox News.

The Class II Trumpists are educated, refined conservatives or Republicans who profess to recognize Trump for the vulgar fool that he is. They scoff at MAGA hats. They tell themselves that they are not Trumpists, and many of them even believe it. Faced with Trump’s (and his most avid supporters’) gross personal offenses, they do not deny them but express disapproval—but, like the Class I Trumpists, they resort to “What about . . . ?,” professing to see no substantial difference between Trump and his promoters on the one hand and liberal Democrats on the other. And, like the Class I Trumpists, they voted for Trump. Twice. Which is what falsifies their claim that they are not Trumpists, and which is what got him elected once and now, despite the defeat to which he led the way in November 2020, keeps him in control of the zombie party called Republican; there were never enough Class I Trumpists to accomplish these things.

What is the genealogy of the Class II Trumpists? I was confused about this for several years, but I think I understand it better now. I tried attributing their perceptions of the Democrats to their watching Fox News. I don’t know how many times over the last several years I have made comments to them along the lines of, “Well, of course you would think that if you’re getting your information from Fox News” only to be told “I don’t watch Fox News.” I used to think they were being disingenuous. But now I think I understand better. They are not children but cousins of the Limbaugh-Hannity-Fox crowd. Their lineage is through Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan—prior to and arguably independent of Gingrich and the talk-radio and cable-news hyenas. If they are old enough, they occasionally refer to the good old days when the voice of conservatism was William Buckley.

And their lineage goes farther back than Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan. It goes back to the critics of FDR (the people Henry Wallace worried about). They profess belief in free enterprise. They profess belief in democracy—as it was understood in the days when it meant that WASP males got to decide everything and others were effectively disenfranchised. They think that social-welfare and public-infrastructure programs take money unjustly from its rightful owners and give it to undeserving others. They think it should be hard to vote, because if you’re really committed you’ll stand in lines at the polling place on a working day, and if you can’t (because you have to work on working days) it’s because you are not successful enough to have a right to vote anyway. They are comfortable with oligarchy because they are unaware of it. It doesn’t seem like the rule of “a few” to them because it’s everybody they know, or at least everybody they’re prepared to respect as their equals. They want “small government” because they benefit when the power of billionaires and massive corporations is unrestrained, and they don’t suffer when government fails to uphold its responsibility for “the general welfare.” (They care about securing the blessings of liberty and tranquility for themselves and their own posterity, but not so much about justice for all and the general welfare; i.e., they are selective in their acceptance of the basis for national government laid out in the Constitution.)

And really, their lineage goes back further than the critics of FDR. Heather Cox Richardson has demonstrated (in “How the South Won the Civil War”) that their ideology is rooted in the Confederate States of America, or rather, in the ways of living and thinking, traceable far earlier than the 1860s, that spawned the CSA. But this is a sophisticated historical analysis on Richardson’s part; the Trumpists wouldn’t like it. The Class II Trumpists are for the most part not shy of expressing admiration for Reagan, but they are less likely to avow Nixon as their progenitor, and they would certainly deny descent from the CSA.

The Henry Wallace essay quoted above relates in this way: Henry Wallace observed, crucially, that fascism is not invariable in its manifestations. It is variable. Fascism in the USA, he argued, would not look exactly like fascism in Germany or Italy. What all forms of fascism have in common, he suggested, was willingness to spread untruths in order to maintain a grip and power and wealth. Here is the opening paragraph of the essay quoted above:

A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.

This is a broader than usual definition of fascism. But I suggest that we could differentiate Class I fascism and Class II fascism. In Germany in the 1930s, the Class I fascists were enthusiastic about Hitler, quick to become operatives in the Sturmabteilung, and open in their antisemitism. But they never would have succeeded without the Class II fascists, who thought Hitler was a vulgar joke who would not last, but then when he showed staying power were willing to play along—not out of loyalty to the man Hitler but out of loyalty to their idea of German identity and destiny, which was not seriously incompatible with his, and above all out of loyalty to their own wealth and power. The Class II fascists (Nazis) of the 1930s and early 1940s had a prodigious ability to ignore the implications of Hitler’s particular way of voicing and enacting the political ideology which they more or less shared—just as the Class II Trumpists express strong dislike for his personality and personal morals but excuse voting for him because his policies are good. But his official conduct as president did more harm in the world by far than his nasty personality and morals.

The f-word (“fascist”) could be seen as inflammatory. Well, it is inflammatory, empirically speaking. It gets people riled up: both those who call others fascist and those who get called fascist. So I think probably it’s a better idea not to use it if one of your aims is to avoid getting people riled up and thereby avoid provoking reactions that won’t solve anything. So Joe Biden, who is a better man than I, doesn’t call anyone a fascist. I think he is conducting himself wisely.

But for me: I am still working on diagnosis. Treatment is a further step. For diagnosis, I see analytic value in calling a thing what it is. As far as I can see, Class II Trumpism is still Trumpism, and Class II fascism is still fascism, and Trumpism—of both classes—is the contemporary American expression of the same tendency—namely, fascism—that gave us both the Confederate States of America and the Third Reich. I use the word not to express hatred but to express deep concern. It seems to me that we are swirling around the toilet bowl at an increasing velocity, which implies that we are on our way down. Into fascism.

And the fault is not attributable without remainder to the Class I Trumpists. It is attributable equally to the people who held their noses while voting for Trump because they despised his uncouthness but thought he was right about the things that matter. They are the less moral half (or more) of the tribe of the small-government conservative Republicans. These are the Class II Trumpists. Their mode of operating (corruption of truth, restriction of voting rights, or passive acceptance of these) is Class II fascism. The telos is in the end just fascism; how we got there won’t much matter.

That’s my experiment in diagnosis. I am also interested in treatment: in figuring out how to respond to the Trumpists in ways that will help them get better rather than in ways that will make them think I don’t like them. The Trumpists whom I dislike are nearly all people whom I don’t know personally; as far as I can recall, running through faces and names in my head, I like all the Trumpists I know personally—some of them quite well. It bothers me when I realize that I have said something that makes them think I don’t. I have much to learn, and I’m working on it. I hope I’ll get better at it. But I reckon I’ll always think it’s best to call a thing what it is.

People who hear their ideas called fascist have a choice. They can be angry at the person applying the label, or they can undertake a rigorous self-examination. I’m pretty sure that the latter is the road less taken, but I hope.

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