In words commonly, if erroneously, attributed to American novelist and prominent 1930s socialist Sinclair Lewis, we are told that ‘When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’.
Though no serious person would attempt to equate the current Trump administration with the goose-stepping fascism of Sinclair Lewis’s era, the aforementioned quote makes the salient point that cultural, historical and national specificities dictate what fascism looks, sounds and operates like in a particular country in any given period.
On the scale of fascist tendencies, we live in a worrying time wherein authoritarian and ethno-nationalist leaders bestride the world stage as they haven’t since the 1930s. Netanyahu, Modi, Erdogan, Orban and Trump reflect the rise of the politics of demonisation and dehumanisation with regard to the despised ‘other’ in their midst, offending a worldview forged in the womb of white and/or religious supremacy.
The most powerful antidote to fascism is and has always been socialism. And just as back in the 1930s in the context of a global depression that resulted in the collapse of the centre ground, leading to an ideological struggle between left and right of world-historical importance, so today we are experiencing a chilling parallel in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and consequent global depression, the consequences of which were only deepened by the embrace of austerity in response.
The result today is just as Martin Luther King pointed out — namely that ‘The dogmas of a quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present’.
In the UK Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed democratic socialist, rose to prominence as the most unlikely future leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition it would have been possible to conjure during the peak years of Blairism. Similarly in the US Bernie Sanders has emerged as the antithesis of the confected media trained political mannequin the American people have been force fed for decades as as the idea of a credible putative president.
Sanders is currently providing the same diagnosis when it comes to what ails America as Corbyn provided when it come to the ailing patient that is Britain at the start of the third decade of the 21st century— to wit: untrammelled greed at the top buttressed by grinding and expanding poverty, injustice and despair at the bottom. Absent of divisive and polarising right wing tropes attacking migrants and minorities, tropes offered up and peddled by a reactionary billionaire-owned media with the objective of sowing false consciousness, Sanders represents the most potent threat to the staus quo in America since FDR unveiled his package of radical New Deal reforms in the previously mentioned 1930s.
The congruence between both Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, continues with the character and venom of the smear campaigns raised in opposition to them, reflective of the terror of the ruling establishments of their respective countries at the prospect of socialism coming to pass. Corbyn’s failed bid for Downing Street last December was to great extent a product of this smear campaign, one of unprecedented ferocity which saw a jam-making, allotment-tending, mild mannered socialist transformed into the second coming of Reinhard Heydrich.
Sanders and his supporters should expect the same treatment as Corbyn, if not worse. Because it is only the most naive who could possibly believe that corporate America will not exert every sinew to stop Sanders succeeding. And here the history of FDR’s struggle against the ‘money changers’ of Wall Street and corporate America in his time provides a warning of Sanders and his supporters can expect to face in ours.
In opposition to FDR’s New Deal reforms prominent business leaders and corporate heads, along with their right wing allies in Washington, formed the American Liberty League. The organisation’s stated aims were to combat radicalism, defend property rights, and protect the Constitution. The lengths to which its proponents and their fellow travellers were prepared to go to stop what they considered was FDR’s dangerous flirtation with socialism and radical ideas is revealed by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick in their excellent work, The Untold History of the United States.
In the course of a congressional investigation in 1934, retired US Marine General Smedley Butler claimed that he’d been approached to ‘organize a military coup against the Roosevelt administration’. In a statement that was corroborated by another witness, Butler also claimed that a bond salesman by the name of Gerald MacGuire told him, ‘We need a Fascist government in this country to save the Nation from the Communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built in America’.a
However as Stone and Kuznick go on to conclude, ‘Butler rejected MacGuire’s entreaties’, telling him, “If you get the 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right here at home”.’
With Sanders currently commanding a significant lead in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, the prospect of him facing off against Trump brings with it the kind of ideological struggle between left and right which America hasn’t seen in generations. It will test the Constitution and the country’s institutions as they haven’t been tested since the Civil War.
Sanders is America’s Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus rolled into one, like them a tribune of the plebs and like them a threat to those in power and at the top. The Roman elite, history records, enlisted the mob to destroy the Gracchi. No one should be in doubt that Trump and his allies will attempt to do likewise when it comes to Sanders – though only figuratively of course.
Yet, having said that, this is Trump’s America we’re talking about, a land in which the crazed gun lobby has never had it so good, where hate has never been more entwined with racism in a toxic embrace, and where socialism is equated with devil worship by a billionaire class that mirrors the Roman elite of ancient history in its determination to not only hold onto but to see its wealth and privileges increase.
FDR opined that he welcomed the hatred of this in corporate America and Wall Street who opposed his New Deal reforms. Sanders, if he is to prevail, must take the same stance and place his faith and trust not in the Constitution or the country’s institutions, but instead in the American people’s support for socialist reforms that sit on the right side of history in a nation crying out for compassion and solidarity to replace cruelty and greed as its dominant values.