There are so many things about the modern world that are different from the 1920s and 1930s that I’m reluctant to make comparisons between the two eras. But there is one commonality that has me very concerned as the country heads toward the 2020 presidential election. I’m worried about what will happen if a significant fraction of our economic elites in the business community conclude that their interests are better protected by siding with Donald Trump. This isn’t an ordinary progressive concern. It’s usually taken as a given that rich business executives will mostly side with the Republican nominee for president. The reason this upcoming election is different is because Trump and his political movement are different, and in many ways un-American.
This Wikipedia entry on the economics of fascism is far from perfect, but it is a serviceable starting point:
The first fascist movements arose in the last years of World War I. They were a form of radical nationalism carrying a promise of national rebirth, they blamed liberalism, socialism, and materialism for the decadence they perceived in society and culture, and they expressed an appreciation for violence and the role of leadership and willpower in shaping society…
…Fascism rose to power by taking advantage of the political and economic climate of the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the deep polarization of some European societies (such as the Kingdom of Italy and Weimar Germany), which were democracies with elected parliaments dominated by supporters of laissez-faire capitalism and Marxian socialism, whose intense opposition to each other made it difficult for stable governments to be formed. Fascists used this situation as an argument against democracy, which they viewed as ineffective and weak. Fascist regimes generally came into existence in times of crisis, when economic elites, landowners and business owners feared that a revolution or uprising was imminent. Fascists allied themselves with the economic elites, promising to protect their social status and to suppress any potential working class revolution. In exchange, the elites were asked to subordinate their interests to a broader nationalist project, thus fascist economic policies generally protect inequality and privilege while also featuring an important role for state intervention in the economy.
As a caveat, I want to be clear that I’m not predicting an imminent reprise of the Holocaust or an outbreak of World War III. I hope we can agree that fascism would have been undesirable even without extermination camps and wars of aggression. What troubles me is the potential for a breakdown in our basic system of checks and balances which protects our civil rights, economic freedom, and First Amendment rights.
The commonalities I see between today and the interwar period should be pretty obvious to you as well. We have two sides of a political divide that are increasingly unable to work together, making a functional government harder and harder to assemble. The American public now holds Congress in extremely low regard and is beginning to doubt the integrity of many other core institutions, including our law enforcements agencies, courts, the intelligence community, and even the media.
One side of the political divide is promoting “a form of radical nationalism carrying a promise of national rebirth.” They are attacking liberalism and socialism. The attack on materialism doesn’t originate at the top with Trump, obviously, but it is a key element of the religious conservatives’ critique of American society. They call it “secularism,” and they are Trump’s most ardent and reliable supporters.
On the economic front, the Trump movement isn’t consistently aligned with big business (on free trade and cheap labor, for example) but their anti-regulation and anti-tax policies are a way of promoting the elites’ interests and protecting their social status.
Since the Great Recession hit in 2007-2008, the Democrats have been gradually moving in a more economically populist direction, and their current crop of candidates is collectively far to left on economics than in any previous presidential election cycle. While the party doesn’t resemble the #Occupy Movement, it is still perceived as threatening. Some of the leading Democratic contenders, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are explicitly threatening to the business community, and proudly so.
I’m not making an argument against populist progressive Democrats when I say that I worry about the consequences if we reach a tipping point where business leaders conclude they need to fall in with Trumpism in order to protect themselves from a bigger threat. Just in terms of freedom of the press, our major media outlets are big business conglomerates now, and if they don’t rigorously defend our First Amendment rights, we will lose a free press and potentially our rights to free expression. That’s what I hear echoing when I read that the fascists protected the economic elites and “in exchange, the elites were asked to subordinate their interests to a broader nationalist project.”
I’d like to think that our business elite is different from the folks in Italy and Germany during the rise of fascism. I hope that they have enough patriotism and respect for our Constitution to see that it would be a mistake to align with Trump. But this isn’t something I have a lot of confidence in, and that’s what is keeping me up at night.
I guess this is less of a prescription than a warning. If the left in this country wants to run on an economically-populist platform that scares the bejesus out of our big business community, they cannot afford to lose. As a country, we’re in a bad position now because Trumpism, by its nature, corrupts the morals of its adherents and undermines support for our rights and institutions. When it begins to undermine our elites’ support for civil rights and the rule of law, that’s when it gets truly dangerous. There is more to think about here than just needed reforms to our laws. We have to think about how what we do has an influence on others.
It’s looking like the left is going to inspire quite a reaction. Are we prepared to face the consequences if we don’t win that battle?