The first time I heard the phrase “politically incorrect” was in 1973 or thereabouts, in a steamy city of the South. It came from the mouth of an actual American Communist, and he was referring to a woman he knew who had stopped drinking Coca-Cola because of a dispute between one of Coke’s sugar suppliers and a leftist union. Coke was no longer politically correct, he said, and the tone of the remark was “some of our comrades need to lighten up. The Revolution does not need distractions.” The speaker here was a man who owned the complete works of Kim il-Sung (over twenty volumes) and similar volumes full of Stalin’s speeches. I was there because I worked for the county government and I thought it would be a good idea if we had someone on the metro council who was poor, a working stiff, or a union guy. I stupidly imagined that one is on the left because one thinks that ordinary people often get a raw deal, and that capitalism needs a good whack upside the head once in a while, lest capitalists imagine they are gods, and that such a person might be thought to look with favor on gaining political power, so as to do that kind of good for real people. But I had misunderstood the Marxist project, which seemed at the time to be getting adjunct professorships at public universities and hoping for the armed workers to seize control of the power plants and TV stations. Electoral politics was a fraud, it seemed, and a front for the exercise of bourgeois hegemony.
Now it’s forty years later and the phrase “politically correct” has become a weapon of the right, essentially to excuse any vile public language, or to mock those who object to it. But that’s not why I keep thinking about that long ago evening. Even back then it was obvious that no avowed Communist could ever have a place in electoral politics. The Democratic party had long since purged actual leftists from their party. For decades, the presence of commies or fellow travelers in the Democratic Party was a potent stick used by Republicans to suggest that Dems were somehow soft on Stalin. The purge was effective. What we now call the political left in America is what in my youth we called the center. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are Humphrey Democrats. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are Rockefeller Republicans.
On the right, however, the purge of the extremists didn’t happen. Nixon embraced with enthusiasm the racist wing of the old Democrats, and their ideological descendants now dominate the GOP, along with the kind of religio-fascists who, were they Muslim rather than nominally Christian, would be Taliban. Where the Dems further purged the McGovernite wing of their party after the debacle of 1968, the Goldwater wing took over the party after his in 1964. In 1980 and 84 Reagan won in landslide elections on platforms indistinguishable from the one that sank Goldwater. From there the rightward slide (or rise) has continued.
It’s hard to grasp that what has happened to the Republicans, starting with Reagan, is essentially equivalent to the CPUSA having taken over the Democratic Party, winning control of the government, and trying to establish a Leninist program. What saves us now from a form of actual fascism, on the Russian model, is the incoherence of Republican ideology (economic libertarianism doesn’t really fit with sexual and racial repression, etc.) and the transcendent incompetence of Mr. Trump. We can easily imagine, however, a competent fascist like Vladimir Putin in power. Unlike Putin, a professional chekhist and a self-made man, Mr. Trump is a show-business personality with inherited wealth. He is soft and foolish where Putin is hard and serious. The fate of such fools is to be made into figureheads or eliminated, and I believe this will be Trump’s fate too. But he’s not an important figure. The Russians wanted a tool who would bring chaos, disunity and disgrace to the US government and work against historic American interests in the world—and they got it. They won this round. The question is, what’s the next round like?
To figure this out, you have to get that both Trump and Putin are creatures off the same world-historical event—the collapse of doctrinaire communism in both China and the USSR during the 1980s. Most economic concessions to wage earners, such as the kind that liberal governments established between the late 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries are the result of fear (Marx’s famous “specter of communism”) which is nearly the only factor that makes capitalists give up anything. If FDR was the father of the New Deal, Josef Stalin was the Mom. The prospect of being hanged from a lamppost, it seems, uniquely concentrates the minds of bankers on allowing the common people a decent life.
Such a prospect no longer exists, of course, leaving capital free to maximize profits and the incomes of the hyper-wealthy at the expense of the general population, whose response is (of course!) to continually return to public office the enablers of this process. It is hard for me to see a way out of this from the left. That’s because there is no left left, if by “the left” we mean a disciplined party (not a mere congeries of interest groups) aimed at curbing the excesses of capital, driven by and responsible to, a sense of social solidarity among people who work for a living. The reason for this vacuum is the same reason why the the United States is not a social democracy like Finland, Germany or Japan, or really every other developed nation—the American Dream, wherein the ideal career is entrepreneurial: I’m gonna make it big and if you don’t, you’re a loser and I have no responsibility for you. The Great Depression was particularly hard on the Dream, another reason why the New Deal could be put into place, and then, after the War, the Dream became reality. Guys who drove fork lifts at Ford could live like European bourgeois: they could own a home, or two homes even, a car and a boat. They could take vacations and send their kids to college. Their wives did not need to work outside the home. They had generous health care and pensions.
That this aspect of the Dream occurred via unions driving liberal politics, that it had to be fought for, often with actual spilled blood, was once widely understood, but not so much now. The reactionary right has been astoundingly successful in liquidating social solidarity among Americans. The Democrats, while pushing the necessary social revolutions, forgot about the people they originally helped save, a deadly oversight. The American race thing did not help either. People do not like being forgotten, and it was easy to characterize the Dems as the party of giving our stuff to Them: hence Reagan Democrats, hence Mr. Trump. Now the Dream has become (for everyone but the highly educated and the fantastically lucky) mere nostalgia, a manure from which only fascism grows.
The only interesting question now is whether the United States will follow the path many younger democracies have taken, and descend into authoritarian blood-and-soil nationalism. Fortunately, Mr Trump is as incompetent at fascism as he was at his many other endeavors, so we are unlikely to see actual assassinations of journalists carried out by his regime, nor prominent opposition politicians imprisoned on phony charges. Or not just yet. Unfortunately, along with stupid, Mr. Trump is extremely lucky. After each screw-up, each bankruptcy, he has landed on his feet, with his few billions more or less intact. This is often underestimated in affairs, but not by Napoleon, who always demanded that his generals, whatever their military talent, also be fortune’s darlings. A massive, deadly, lucky Muslim terror attack on US citizens, for example, would set Mr Trump up nicely, and that could happen, whether naturally, or arranged by some third party with an interest in encouraging American fascism, and American weakness in the world. Nearly everyone would instantly forget the corruption and the Russian business and rally around the throne.
Mr. Trump should have organized a private army before he started his run; we are lucky he did not. The next Trump may correct this oversight, and also be the things Mr. Trump is not: ascetic, disciplined, a religious fanatic, coherent, strategic. Such a person might actually take over a version of the Republican Party and actually drive through a frank nationalist/white supremacist program. The current GOP is now just six states short of the number of legislatures needed to convene a Constitutional convention, and redraft the national charter, one that might begin “We the white, Christian people . . .”
Can’t happen? Unimaginable? Here’s a fun fact: Mr. Trump’s fanatical support seems to have settled around 37 per cent—nothing he does seems to cut too deeply into that core. Thirty-seven per cent happens also to be the proportion of representatives the Nazi Party had in the 1932 Reichstag. It seems to be all you need.
As noted above, this prospect can only be scotched by conservatives putting country above party. Some things are more important than tax cuts, just as some things were more important in 1932 than the revenge and military expansion that the Nazis promised. The conservatives flubbed their chance then, and it remains to be seen if there is any real resistance to nascent fascism on the American right from people who are not either dying or resigning or impotent eggheads.. The greatest act of political courage I’ve seen in my lifetime was Lyndon Johnson pushing through the civil rights and voting rights acts, even though he understood it would destroy the Democratic Party in the South. He thought it was worth losing elections to expel racism from his party. It remains to be seen if decent conservatives will risk that in order to expel fascism from theirs.