Donald Trump’s entrance into the presidential sweepstakes and substantial lead in the polls reminds me of the warnings issued 35 years ago in Bertram Gross’s widely read Friendly Fascism. Gross was concerned that the ever-closer integration of Big Business and Big Government could well lead to a new, kinder, gentler form of fascism — a fascism that promised citizens cheap and plentiful material goods in exchange for civil and political rights.
Gross’s warning extended well beyond Eisenhower’s concern about the rising military-industrial complex to include the nuclear power complex, the technology-science complex, the energy-auto-highway complex, the banking-investment-housing complex, the city-planning-development-land-speculation complex, the agribusiness complex, the communications complex, and the enormous tangle of public bureaucracies and universities whose overt and secret services provide the foregoing with financial sustenance and a nurturing environment. Coming from a social scientist deeply involved the the New Deal, Gross’s warnings bare attention.
As comedian/commentator Jon Stewart said in one of his last shows, Trump was breaking the rule that the ultra-rich buy politicians rather than run themselves. Trump was upfront about his political contributions during Thursday night’s debate saying he gave generously to both Republicans and Democrats — including some on the stage that night — because he wanted to be able to pick up the telephone and ask them for something whenever he needed them.
In regard to Hillary Clinton, Trump said he commanded her and Bill to attend his wedding. A few weeks earlier, Trump stated that his business interests and real estate holdings were so vast that he didn’t know exactly how much he was worth, which is a frequent problem for the ultra rich according to Gross.
One imagines that he has interests in nearly all the complexes Gross listed. That wealth has given him the freedom to speak his mind on a host of issues while his Republican rivals need to check with their major donors before stating a position. The New York Times recently listed the major donors behind all the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Trump’s ability to speak his mind has apparently attracted a good deal of support from the non-rich. They seem to accept vague promises of a better economic future without a close reading of Trump’s record.
When Fox moderators attempted to nail him down on four bankruptcies in New Jersey’s casino industry, his response was that he had made a ton of money in New Jersey. There was no discussion of the Trump employees or smaller businesses that suffered as a result of the bankruptcies. Apparently Trump’s populism doesn’t include the “little guy.”
Gross didn’t believe “friendly fascism” was a reality in America for several reasons. First, Gross said the United States was still the richest country in the world. Capitalism was still producing material comforts for the masses. However, Gross was writing at the dawn of the Reagan era in which the gap between the rich and poor would begin to widen to an extent that we haven’t seen since the 1920s. Moreover, China recently passed the United States as the world’s largest economy.
Second, although Gross thought there had been substantial erosion in constitutional democracy, he believed the legislative and judicial machinery of representative government plus civil society and unions still provided a bulwark against fascist tendencies. Obviously, the aftermath of 9/11 has witnessed an erosion of civil liberties that would make Gross’s head spin. Most of the Republican presidential candidates applaud the government’s surveillance programs and one of the front-runners, Scott Walker, has achieved his prominence through a successful attack on his state’s unions. And the Supreme Court has taken the integration of money and politics to unprecedented heights.
The debate ignored the fact that the United States has the largest prison population in the world, as well as the unending string of police shootings of unarmed civilians. Of course none of those prisoners include the Wall Street executives who brought about the collapse of our economy in 2008. In fact, some of those same executives are major backers of the presidential candidates.
It seems to me that we are much further along the road to Gross’s “friendly fascism” than we were in 1980. That said, there are some countervailing forces. Technological advances have made it easier than ever to organize through social media. The Internet provides a wealth of resources that were once only available to the super rich and the electorate is much more diverse than it was 35 years ago. Trump’s candidacy could provide a wake-up call for advocates of true representative democracy.