Why, when it comes to the Right, do we ignore events, contingency, and high politics?: What Arno Mayer Taught Me

One of the many reasons I resist the Trump-as-fascist argument is that it often leads to (or accompanies) an inattention to or eclipse of matters of high politics and elite action: the jockeying for position at the highest levels of state, the coalitions and fractures within the dominant regime, the day-to-day events in which policy gets formed and unformed. There’s no intrinsic reason that an invocation of fascism should require that inattention; the best historical studies of fascism don’t ignore these questions at all. In the American context, however, the invocation of that parallel—whether to McCarthyism or now to Trump—often does.

The reason for that, I suspect, is that most people tend to think of fascism as primarily a form of mass politics, that most of the action is on the ground and at the grassroots, far away from the centers of elite power, and that fascism is best studied as a question not of events or policy or elite action but as a simple and straightforward reflection of deep, structural changes in culture, psyche, economy, and society. So the Trump parallel leads people to focus on questions of popular mobilization, the circulation of racist ideas and affects among the working class or lower middle class, long-term changes in the economy, and so on. The point is not that those questions shouldn’t be studied; they absolutely need to be, not only with respect to fascism but conservatism more generally, which I’ve always insisted is both an elitist politics and a populist politics, an elite politics that mobilizes the mass, often more skillfully than the left does. But I think for many people, when it comes to fascism and the right, the question of high politics almost seems irrelevant: it’s just the tail, everything else is the dog.

As my family was driving home this morning from my niece’s bat mitzvah up in Boston, I was thinking about this relationship between the Trump-as-fascist argument and the inattention to elites and elite action—and behind that, to the day-to-day changing polices and configurations of power in the Trump regime—and reflecting back on a panel I was on last week about Trump, which featured many of these sensibilities and assumptions, and I remembered this passage from Arno Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken, a book that—like Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy—had a profound influence on my approach to politics, even at, particularly at, moments of great political evil:

Moreover, the mass murder of the Jews, more than any other single event, points up to the importance of returning to the contextual study of short-term events. In the wake of Treblinka and Auschwitz it is difficult not to scorn Fernand Braudel’s characterization of short-term events as mere “dust.” Braudel went so far as to imply that short-term events were not worth studying since, unlike long- and medium-range events, they “traverse history as flashes of light” destined instantly to “turn to darkness, often to oblivion.” Pace Braudel and his epigones, I have tried not only to contemplate the circumstances in which millions of Jews—along with millions of non-Jews—were reduced to “dust” in seconds of historical time but also to recapture the evanescent “light” of their torment to illuminate the historical landscape in which it occurred.

As we see the Trump regime begin to erode under the weight of the day-to-day events, as the weaknesses in the regime slowly begin to appear amid its crumbling edifice, and as the regime’s remaining strengths will undoubtedly be revealed in that same day-to-day calculus of power, I hope we can heed Mayer’s dictum. Which applies, as he makes clear, not only to fascism, but to politics more generally.




  1. John Maher April 2, 2017 at 11:34 pm | #

    yeah so much of the Trump era is populist atmospherics that discernment is often imprecise

    the problem is the extractive imperitive that agrilogistics hath wrought. one might say that Trump is merely the figurehead for the world’s civilizations which arose in the middle east 15,000 thousands of years ago

    if you resist the “Trump as fascist” leitmotif I guarantee he will double down on the dispotifs of control until you admit it

  2. Chris Morlock April 3, 2017 at 12:00 am | #

    You mention McCarthyism several times, which is ironic to say the least. The only signs of McCarthyism I see today is the Dems obsession with Russia. It has become as ridiculous and senile as any red bating ever way in the early 50’s. It’s an absolute shame.

    Next the constant “fascism” references. I see as much evidence of fascism in the Dems neo-lib actions in the last 8 years than anything coming from Trump, who is an inept basic pop-nationalist at best. Fascism is a silly term and idea anyway, it can be applied to anything on the political spectrum. Why doesn’t anyone use the national-socialism term, it’s much more accurate to Trump and Bannon’s true political beliefs. My theory about the left’s constant use of the “fascism” term is that they do not want to admit that there is in fact a “socialism: aspect to national-socialism, and that every Nazi politician easily harnesses working class support by appealing to “the workers”.

    When will the left wake up to the fact that Trump won by appealing to the working class in a way that the Dems couldn’t because their own policies have drifted to fascism and plutocracy? It’s the key to understanding this ripe mess.

    • Joeff April 3, 2017 at 1:18 am | #

      That’s ridiculous but admittedly pretty sophisticated for a bot.

      • Chris Morlock April 3, 2017 at 2:59 am | #

        Don’t bots post single sentences without the ability to elaborate? This isn’t Twitter.

        • lazycat1984 April 3, 2017 at 11:15 am | #

          It’s not a bot. Having a different take on the issues of the day doesn’t make one a “bot”

    • lazycat1984 April 3, 2017 at 11:21 am | #

      This reminds me of the Lenny Bruce bit “Nazi!? I’m the mailman!” Nazis and Fascists are specific things. Sociopathic power lust dresses itself up in a lot of different Halloween costumes. NKVD or Kempei Tai uniforms…

    • WLGR April 3, 2017 at 12:09 pm | #

      My theory about the left’s constant use of the “fascism” term is that they do not want to admit that there is in fact a “socialism: aspect to national-socialism, and that every Nazi politician easily harnesses working class support by appealing to “the workers”.

      There’s definitely a grain of truth to this, in that the Nazis did valorize the ideal of an organic egalitarian community in which social class distinctions between the masses and the elites would in some sense be leveled and class antagonisms would be satiated by a universal standard of living — but much like the Trump-style critique of neoliberalism, once seeded this grain of truth ripens into a plant with flowering turdblossoms of bullshit. Most obvious is that unlike any genuinely leftist appeal, the Nazi ideal is premised first and foremost on racial and national exclusion: the pseudo-socialistic egalitarian community was a community of Germans, and the intent was never to end the grinding exploitation of capitalism, only to shift its burden onto the subjugated racial “other” whose misery was necessary and inevitable. Which is why fascists’ hatred for leftists who insist on universal solidarity and emancipation has always been primary, even above and beyond their opposition to “globalist” white bourgeoisie they despise for not fully respecting the in-group solidarity of the volksgemeinschaft. For comparison’s sake, those who demonize Mexican immigrant workers as a threat to the US working class don’t generally call for “real [i.e. white] Americans” to enter into the most exploitative forms of plantation/sweatshop labor, which have existed throughout American history and have always been done primarily by oppressed nonwhites (including “lower” European groups like Irish, Italians, and Slavs before US racist ideology retroactively promoted them to “whiteness”) — because the problem isn’t these people’s presence per se, the problem is that an insufficiently racist society might allow them to “steal our [better] jobs” instead of staying confined to “their” [worse] ones.

      Now you certainly can point to strains of nationalism on what calls itself the “left” in the US, and the “anti-imperialist Marxism vs. opportunist social chauvinism” debate that got particularly heated around the Second International and can in some sense be understood as proposing a slippery slope from insufficiently internationalist “socialism” to outright fascism. But as long as you flatten these antagonisms into the caricature of a monolithic (and monolithically nationalist/imperialist) white First-World “left”, these debates will go entirely unheard, and it’s hard not to suspect that this is part of what criticism like yours is intended to accomplish from the get-go.

      • Chris Morlock April 4, 2017 at 12:14 am | #

        I am agreeing with Corey’s idea that applying “fascism” terminology to Trump and his admin is premature, at least that is what I take from this latest article. We are dealing with, at it’s genesis, a type of pop-nationalism with some national-socialist leanings draped in what can only be described as a reality TV star and general charlatan’s concept of media manipulation. The danger of fascism is universal at this point, Obama and the “Left” in this country over the last decade has expanded state powers, removed civil liberties, and bolstered the power of government in the same ways all presidents have done since Reagan. Obama was particularly bad, and all we have to do to learn about “fascism” is to read Glen Greenwald for 5 minutes.

        The true danger now is that Trump does in fact mix his metaphors and push some actual quasi-socialist policies just like Hitler. Remember the auto-bahn, and Hitler’s ascendance to huge popularity based on New Deal like policies. If Trump steals the Left’s lunch while continuing to erode the basic working class policies that have been so popular and productive in American history we might see a similar popular mandate. The working class in America is desperate enough to take any type of advocacy at this point.

    • wetcasements April 5, 2017 at 3:42 am | #

      Yeah, Manafort and Flynn got their millions from Soros not Russia. Duh.

  3. Thomas Rossetti April 3, 2017 at 3:39 am | #

    This is bad politics. Just utterly ignorant. Fascism is at base the denial of the role of consent in the organized operation of the instrument of the state. It is core of what is called through the ages tyranny. From Thrysymachus angry beast forward. Fascism is the mode of hate as persausion. Now is not the time to split hairs about the arrangements of deck chairs. Decent men ought to avoid the kind of politics that is flossing when a sea of shit is descending on the lives literally everyone.

  4. Thomas Rossetti April 3, 2017 at 4:09 am | #

    During the McCarthy era James Thurber had this to say, ” Look out. I figure that one can be hit so hard by something so fast, the one will not only cease to exist, but cease to have existed.”

  5. mark April 3, 2017 at 4:31 am | #

    You haven’t elaborated on your worry, which I see have expressed elsewhere too, that provoking a war could be the Trump administration’s last resort at political dominance.

    Trump has talked to the FT about North Korea.

    What options does the Trump war machine have geopolitically?

  6. louisproyect April 3, 2017 at 8:23 am | #

    There is no fascism without totalitarianism. It required totalitarianism in order to smother a revolutionary workers movement. That started with concentration camps for Marxist parties and proceeded to replacing liberal or leftist teachers and college professors with hardened fascist “intellectuals”, creating a press that dispensed official fascist propaganda. Snitches were on the look out for anybody questioning the regime. If you got caught, the cops would come in the middle of the night and take you to jail to be tortured or worse.

    Does anybody in their right mind think that Donald Trump can impose such a dictatorship? As if he had to? With Rich Trumka showing up at the White House to back natural gas pipelines and strip mining, what is the need? He is the head of the AFL-CIO, not Bhaskar Sunkara.

  7. jonnybutter April 3, 2017 at 3:03 pm | #

    There’s no intrinsic reason that an invocation of fascism should require [the] inattention [of high politics, et. al]… In the American context, however, the invocation of that parallel—whether to McCarthyism or now to Trump—often does.

    The above doesn’t sound very controversial to me. Resisting an *automatic* assessment of a situation sounds prudent too. Resisting to say – which is not *denying* – that the Trump regime is definitely fascist, might be an instrumental, maybe a heuristic, move. What’s the downside? That we will somehow miss how bad it is? How could we do that?! We’re soaking in it!

    There are so many horrible authoritarianisms. I wouldn’t say that, like unhappy families, they are each horrible in really unique ways (I wouldn’t say that about unhappy families either, BTW!); but they all have their own particular negative-‘charms’, their own particular stinks.

    I haven’t thought about it enough to know if this is a fair way to pose the problem, but if it is, I wouldn’t trade intense awareness of the flaws and weaknesses of the regime for an affirmation that it is, definitely, over 50% fascist, or whatever Standard we all agree on.

    I am embarrassed for Braudel there. No doubt he was trying to correct some other historiographical mistake humans had been making, but his concept of time seems really primitive, really dumb.

    • LFC April 3, 2017 at 8:46 pm | #

      Braudel did not rigidly follow his own methodological views in his magnum opus on the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II, a part of which (doubtless thought by him to be the least important part, but it’s in there) does deal with day-to-day events.

  8. bob mcmanus April 4, 2017 at 2:43 am | #

    Thanks for the pointer to Arno Mayer

    If anyone wants a somewhat more sophisticated take on the comment mess above, I can highly recommend Zeev Sternhell, several books but especially The Birth of Fascist Ideology, which follows the early 20th development from Sorel to Mussolini, from socialism (Sorel started as a committed Marxist) to syndicalism to national syndicalism to fascism. Obviously we no longer have the kinds and intensity of populist organization that they were able to tap into via maximal union activism in the 1st quarter of the 20th, so I think we need to look at where that energy is coming from.

    • bob mcmanus April 4, 2017 at 2:56 am | #

      Just a little more from the Sternhell, by 1910-1914 the Italian syndicalists had become committed radical elitists as ideology, following one of their most active local theorists Robert Michels. And their “socialism” was of course capitalist corporatism, a nationalism dedicated to the deconstruction of the state in favor of the nation, etc.

      Looking at Bannon, who calls himself a “Leninist” (vanguardist?) possibly as a diversion away from the Italian syndicalists he really reads, But who knows. In any case, there is plenty of sophisticated political theory for the alt-right to draw on.

  9. John Carnes April 4, 2017 at 9:29 am | #

    You mention that the conservatives are more prone to elitist politics with a populist platform, but we have to compare how liberals address their base. Liberals are also prone to an elitist system, although there is a definite split in the Democrat Party over this, but the platform of progressivism is just “buying” votes with governmental programs. This process puts the same elitist in charge where people have very little to say other than line up for more “what can the government do for me”. The main GOP has come under this umbrella. Then we need to move forward with what is driving Trump’s following and if this support is more of a crossover of those who are more disenchanted with both parties. I believe the last point is more true. The future will tell if this movement is more than a flash in the pan. I would be very reserve about referring to the movement as fascist or even racist. These terms would general the manipulation of the current governmental system to enact polices. These terms would align them selves more along the liberal guidelines.

  10. Billikin April 5, 2017 at 12:28 am | #

    There do seem some similarities between Trump and the early Mussolini, including not being particularly ideological. Trump does seem to have a gut understanding of das Fuehrerprinzip. But now I tend to think that Trevor Noah nailed it last year with his comparison of Trump to an African dictator. It looks like loyalty is more important to Trump than competence, which is why he is resorting to nepotism. Who can he trust outside of his family? I hope he does not resort to war to drum up support.

    • Billikin April 7, 2017 at 5:12 pm | #

      Ah, well! Is this a rally round the Donald moment?

  11. Ajit Hegde April 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm | #

    Arno Mayer is one of great historians of this era. You read one paragraph by him & you realize this is no ordinary scholar. Even a single paragraph combines such breadth of learning , command over facts, stunning insights. You read a book by him & then you read the ravings of a Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria … I mean it’s like watching a genius in action & then watching a village idiot, They are not comparable.

    He also has a way with words. I remember one sentence from his epic book “Why did the Heavens not darken” that is etched in my mind, where he passionately denounces collaboration of german elites with Nazi regime. …………”Hitler’s profane crusade to the East was consecrated by both wings of German Church”.

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