Fascist spectacle on the American democratic stage

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Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

In 2017, Trump’s political strategist Steve Bannon called Robert Kuttner out of the blue about forming an “economic nationalist” alliance of the right and the left. Kuttner is a progressive journalist and editor of The American Prospect who has been highly critical of pro-corporate “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership. He is also fervently anti-Trump. 

The phone call was shortly after the horror of Charlottesville and Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the fascists. Kuttner was “stunned” that Bannon thought that some shared opinions between them “might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism,” he wrote in a 2017 Prospect article. Bannon was the Darth Vader of white nationalism who used Breitbart to stir up racial bigotry, misogyny and Islamophobia. He helped create Trump’s far-right base.

So Kuttner asked Bannon what was the connection between his “economic nationalism” and the white nationalism typified by the racist violence of Charlottesville. Bannon said the far rightists were “a fringe element” and “a collection of clowns” who can be “crushed.” Then he told Kuttner:

“The Democrats — the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Bannon never said the phone call was off the record. He lost his White House job shortly after Kuttner’s article was published.

Reflecting on Bannon’s remarks today, Kuttner says that this strategy helped Trump win in 2016 but it isn’t working so well now. As he wrote recently in The Prospect:

“Thanks to four years of Trump egging on America’s worst instincts on race, compounded by escalating police violence, most white Americans are not doubling down on racism. They are saying, enough is enough.”

Trump’s reality TV show has not only become tiresome and repulsive but it is deadly. His spectacular failure in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unnecessary mass death and sickness.

His White House “coronavirus task force” is being stifled. 

Trump refuses to use the Defense Production Act to produce medical supplies so public health officials can perform tests to quickly identify and isolate infected people and find out who they were in contact with.

Trump is simultaneously a weakling and a strong man. When confronting the virus, Trump refuses to be a national leader. He tells mayors and governors who ask for help with the pandemic that they are on their own.  At the same time he is sending secret federal troops into big cities run by “the radical left” to suppress supposedly out-of-control “violent anarchists” and criminals. The mayors and governors don’t want the troops.

Germans are afraid, according to Paris-based New York Times columnist Roger Cohen:

“No people has found the American lurch toward authoritarianism under President Trump more alarming than the Germans. For postwar Germany, the United States was savior, protector and liberal democratic model. Now, Germans, in shock, speak of the ‘American catastrophe.’”

Michael Steinberg, a professor of history at Brown University and the former president of the American Academy in Berlin, wrote to Cohen:

“The American catastrophe seems to get worse every day, but the events in Portland have particularly alarmed me as a kind of strategic experiment for fascism. The playbook from the German fall of democracy in 1933 seems well in place, including rogue military factions, the destabilization of cities, etc.”

Steinberg continued, “The basic comparison involves racism as a political strategy: a racist imaginary of a pure homeland, with cities demonized as places of decadence.”

This sort of happened awhile back.  Shortly before 2018 midterm elections, Trump ordered a surge of U.S. military forces to the Mexican border in order to protect it from “invasion” by “caravans” of asylum seekers traveling from Central America. Fox News provided fevered “coverage.”

This time, he is sending secret federal forces into the interior of the country to combat supposed sinister forces considered to be internal enemies. It might be a dress rehearsal for bigger spectacles.  

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.