George Santayana famously wrote “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Perhaps a lesson from the 1930s can be applied to help understand the phenomenon of the Donald Trump presidency and its relation to Fascism.
Georges Bataille was a prolific French writer, philosopher and activist from the 1920s through the 1950s. He was associated with multiple movements, magazines, secret societies; he was colleague and/or friend to people with the most droppable names (Breton, Satre, Camus, Orwell, … ). He influenced later philosophers such as (postmodernist) Michel Foucault, (deconstructionist) Jacques Derrida, (accelerationist) Nick Land, … . His elegant erotic fiction was described by Susan Sontag as “the most original and powerful intellectually” of the genre.
In his Psychology of Fascism (1933), Bataille analyzes the phenomenon of Fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Interestingly, this was published the same year as Wilhelm Reich’s classic The Mass Psychology of Fascism; put simplistically, Reich’s starting point is Freudian psychology, Bataille’s is the sociology of Durkheim and Mauss. But how does Bataille’s analysis match up with the phenomenon of the Trump presidency in the US?
To start, Bataille emphasizes the role of a base formed from a segment of society that was once part of the main-stream population but which has lost its status and has become part of a discontented, violence-prone, alienated class.
In the case of Trump, the base is the white working class, a once-proud group that has been dramatically marginalized in the US since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Not long ago, there was the New Deal that empowered industrial unions; there was the Second World War where this class provided the bulk of the GIs; post WWII, people worked for powerful, successful, competitive, giant companies. These were the “30 glorious years” of post-War economic growth where union leaders like John L. Lewis (coal miners) and Walter Reuther (automobile workers) made regular appearances on TV. The white working class were fully part of main-stream America. But then by the late 1970s things began to change as US industry became hollowed out when confronted with keen competition from Europe and Asia. American capitalism switched from Industrial Capitalism to Financial Capitalism – more money was to be made by financing the deal rather than by actually making anything! The unions were crushed, the factories were closed. Except for those who managed to move into the middle class (mostly through a college education), the white working class has since been turned into an angry proletariat: economic insecurity, food insecurity, the opioid crisis, the breakdown of family structure, college unaffordable – all without the safety net provided to their own citizens by European countries. Characteristically, fascists promise a break with the present by means of reviving a mythologized past to restore the base to its position of prestige; thus Make America Great Again is the motto of the Trump ascendancy.
Bataille emphasizes the role of organized violence in the rise of fascism. In Europe, the fascists had para-military gangs from the outset – the blackshirts in Italy, the brownshirts in Germany. Trump is cultivating para-military support by bringing gun wielding haters to his convention, by shout-outs to white supremacists, to QAnon and other conspiracy theory groups. He has deployed federal troops and Homeland Security agents to police the citizenry in violation of law and protocol.
Bataille discusses the all-important role of the leader (for which he employs the absolutely quaint French term meneur : a word one would use for, say, a goatherd). The Republican party is now totally Trump’s party. The Republicans have nominated him without a party platform – loyalty to the leader is the only thing required. This concentration of power gives the movement transcendence as Bataille puts it; Bataille notes further that the leader and his people must repeatedly break the law to firm up the belief that they are above the law, something Trump and his minions excel at – the Emoluments Clause, the Hatch Act, etc. In fact, this is a reason that people take seriously the threat the Trump will not honor the results of the upcoming election if the returns do not suit him.
Bataille argues that for fascism to triumph, the regime to overturn must be a weakened, liberal, democratic one: this certainly applies to the present day US where we have watched the legislature have its power eroded constantly in favor of the executive – reminiscent of the Senate of the Roman Republic.
Bataille emphasizes the role of esthetics – the uniforms, the rallies, the symbols, the cult rituals, the myths, the music and marches, the heroic architecture, the films. Somehow, this misogynist adulterer has co-opted the votes and symbols of Evangelical Christians and uses a Bible as a stage prop at every opportunity. The QAnon conspiracy theory even makes a messiah of him and he has grown into the role: “And we are actually, we’re saving the world.” For Trump, his “wall” is to be his architectural triumph, 40 foot high and extending 2000 miles – and work has begun in places. He turns every appearance into a ritualistic political rally, but with the exception of some of Melania’s prison guard outfits, the MAGA hats and other swag fall way short of the esthetics of classical fascism.
Bataille does not bring up the role the “big lie” can play in fascist control of the population – one might say, though, that it falls under the category of breaking the laws of society. Certainly, the Nazis pushed this tactic to its limit with Goebbel’s saying “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Trump’s used this gimmick in his anti-Obama “birtherism” campaign which served to give him standing among racist segments of the population. Now Trump and his staff lie all the time. (Since his loss to Biden, this has kicked into overdrive with “the Big Steal,” Jan. 6 etc.)
Bataille addresses racism as a way to rile up the base and to define a scapegoat. Trump outrageously uses immigrants as a target: putting babies in cages, separating children from parents – sadism as theater. More and more he is appealing to out-and-out anti-Black racism, posing as the defender of Law and Order. His call to “save the suburbs” for white womanhood is the latest dog-whistle. For Bataille, racism is a tool for changing the nature of the host state. Certainly, the sense one has is that undoing Obama’s legacy with such relish is racist in origin – and “birtherism” is now being used against Kamala Harris.
The moral of the story: if Bataille is your guide, Trump is a fascist.