The danger of someone like Donald Trump is not simply his overt demagoguery and fascism, after all that is the underlying ideal of all the Republican candidates, they’re simply quieter about it. The real danger is that unlike the other Republicans, who are for the most part allied with an economic ideology that is at odds with the streak of xenophobia and isolationism common in their support base and the real material interests of the vast majority of voters, Trump has less ideological and more pragmatic economic ideas which unfortunately can be allied very well with both the xenophobia of his supporters and their material interests. What separated the Nazis and Italian Fascists from other extreme right wing movements and enabled the success they had was precisely the combination of xenophobia and economic pragmatism, in situations where the economy was relatively in far worse shape than it had been previously. Under Mussolini “the trains always ran on time”, under Hitler every German (nearly) got a “people’s car” in his garage and the autobahn, the greatest highway in the world at the time, was constructed. Their success was temporary of course, but it was a relatively long run.
Republicans from Goldwater to Bush II would only go so far in using the xenophobia of their supporters to enhance their power, initially out of fear of their own supporters (put simply, hatred is easily redirected), but later largely because it was against the interests of their wealthy paymasters, who wanted (and continue to want) less social programs, lower taxes on the wealthy, more financial freedom across borders, and the freedom to force wages down by either relocating to lower wage countries or threatening to do so, all of which is opposed to the isolationist, xenophobic and largely not well off base of Republican support.
By contrast someone like Trump, who doesn’t need any more money to run and is oblivious to the dangers of his own supporters’ beliefs, can simply ignore those interests and pander directly to the xenophobia and the disadvantaged economic status of the majority of Republican voters. Republicans were able to sell an economic ideology that is disastrous for the majority of voters via an implication that cuts to social programs etc would only affect minorities and others outside their predominantly white voter base. That this is not the case is all too apparent by now, and Trump can promise to reinstate such programs that materially assist his voter base directly, and pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy and forcing companies to relocate back to the U.S. by punishing tariffs, by simultaneously promising the largest ethnic cleansing in history, so his supporters believe that only the white, American born majority will be the beneficiaries. That such a program, economically speaking, is likely to be more successful than the disastrous ideology of “trickle down” economics, only makes Trump’s pitch both more pragmatic and more dangerous.
Trump is not a Hitler or a Mussolini. Worse, he’s a hustler who will use those ideas or any others he thinks will get him an advantage. Liberals continue to maintain a touching but naive faith that reality can be governed by a simplistic version of Enlightenment rationality, in which false claims, once debunked, will somehow “just go away”, not realizing that in the ethos of hustlerism common to both Trump and the majority of his support, the con is already understood to be precisely that. The “winner” in that ethos is the person who can maintain the lie the longest, who can keep up the bluff while ratcheting up the stakes. When it was publicly admitted that the WWE was scripted, it made little to no difference to its popularity, because everybody already knew it was fake. Trump’s supporters don’t believe him any more than do his detractors, but they believe he will do just about anything to get and keep their support, including following through on promises such as ethnic cleansing and a massive trade tariffs to force companies to relocate manufacturing to the U.S. in return for an almost complete demagoguery. In this belief, they may be dead right. After all, why would Trump oppose radically raising taxes on the wealthy, given the amount he’s spending of his own wealth in order to secure power? Raising taxes on the rest of the wealthy will only benefit him, since it would lessen the power of those within his own party who are in opposition to him.
Scapegoating doesn’t work in the long term, because inherent tensions in society don’t go away with the expulsion of whomever is scapegoated for them, but in the short to medium term it can be very effective if married to a relatively pragmatic economic program that does improve the material status of the non-scapegoated majority. Allowing a demagogue his demagoguery is justified by the populace because “the Boss makes things work”. Democrats as well as Republicans have been largely hamstrung by an economic ideology that, while well marketed, was always a con on the majority of the population, and ‘works’ only by reducing the majority to a condition close enough to destitution that they must follow the orders of the wealthy or risk what little they have. Trump could thus quite easily join his fascist demagoguery with a relatively successful, populist economic program that caters to his voter support rather than to wealthy election donors.
The success in the primaries so far of Sanders and Trump is due to their appeal to largely the same set of voters, a set that has seen through the con of “neoliberal” economics, with its fatalistic sales pitch “we can’t afford social programs or wage increases” and its disastrous consequences for median wage earners. Sanders is appealing to their better natures, while Trump is appealing to their baser natures, but both are gaining huge support over those seen to still be in thrall to an economic ideology that only benefits the tiny percentage of the population that is very wealthy, including Republicans such as Bush and Rubio and Democrats like Hillary Clinton.
In this sense, if Sanders and Trump do win their respective primaries, the election will be a contest between two populisms, similar to that between Trudeau and Harper in the recent Canadian election. That Harper’s attempt to appeal to Canadians’ baser natures was an election disaster shouldn’t make American liberals complacent, since Canada has a history of being a less hustlerish, more socialised country, and the Canadian middle class still exists economically – it hasn’t been decimated by decades of a consistent economic con. Appealing to baser natures is usually more successful when the desperation of the voter base is greater, and the reality is that it is greater in the U.S. than in Canada. Trudeau’s successful (and inclusionary) catchphrase that in Canada “better is always possible” only resonates when things aren’t that bad to begin with for the people one is appealing to. By contrast, Trump’s “make America great again” appeals to the fascist fantasy of a historical utopia “before (insert scapegoat here)” and promises a return to this fantasy “by any means whatsoever”. Showing Trump to be a con artist won’t dent his popularity one bit, since his supporters already know he is a con artist, but believe his con to be more to their advantage than the alternative. In order to defeat Trump’s fascist populism, Sanders has to convince the voters that his alternative, democratic populism will be more to their advantage, a difficult task with the segment that believes their advantage is tied to scapegoating another group. The media will be of little help, since they are (with some justification) seen as in on the same con as Bush, Clinton and most of the other candidates.
I wouldn’t want to live in Trump’s vision of America, an America solely for the white, xenophobic and currently economically disadvantaged group that comprises the core of Trump’s support base. But after decades of pandering to the super wealthy, and the resulting economic decimation of precisely that white, xenophobic, former middle class, that might comprise a small majority of U.S. voters, or at least a large enough minority to carry the vote, supporting an unrestrained demagogue in the most powerful political position in the world.