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Donald Trump and friendly fascism reconsidered

Charles Henry, professor emeritus, African American studies | August 7, 2015

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.

Donald Trump at podium

Donald Trump at a rally in Laconia, N.H. (Photo by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

book cover

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.

Comments to “Donald Trump and friendly fascism reconsidered

  1. Oh Dr. Kelleher, that last sentence is a doozy; i can’t get my head around it. I can only imagine a replay of 2016 with the major TV networks once again providing lopsided attention to Trump’s agenda while focusing on his opponents e-mail mishandling, or some such minor issues. As we saw, nothing like it happened in regards to Pence’s mishandling of _his_ email account in conducting state business. So i think it’s fair to conclude, the reshaping of the media landscape since Reagan has been a major factor in the advance of friendly fascism. (…Along with a more corporate-friendly and perverse Supreme Court IMO.)

  2. Thanks for the timely topic, Charles! I would add that US Friendly Fascism is sweetening the exchange with promises of more power and influence to the Christian right. SCOTUS in a ribbon. The Dems – especially the LimoDems who are supported by the very corporations that feed off for-profit health care, and student loan debts – are aiding and abetting the process with milquetoast opposition. Our public education system fails to teach students how to figure out what their own political interests are, so corporate advertising can mold them to see happiness in consumption. Repubs will run Trump for re-election, and right now it looks like a win, against a Dem wet towel.

  3. If you didn’t understand how this book applied to all the administrations since it was written, including Obama’s, and can only see how it applies now, with Trump in office, you missed the point of the book entirely.

  4. “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.”

    Well, they have taken the civil and political rights. Where are the cheap and plentiful material goods?

  5. I read Gross’s book when it was first published, and have kept his admonitions close to my heart.

    I enjoyed your read until you brought the police shootings issue to the fore; a very complicated politicized and mal-reprted issue that does not add, but detracts from an other wise interesting piece.

    May I suggest that you elevate your concern for America a notch or two and stick to the point.

  6. After taking a class on Germany between the Wars from Susan Ashley 40 years ago at Colorado College, I became convinced that the US was particularly susceptible to fascism. I remember when I saw Bertram Gross’s book on the shelf of an American friend in Paris at that time, and I thought he might be setting forth my theory. Not exactly, but the Reagan era was just beginning. Time to re-read and set out prominently.

  7. A really interesting article. The entire development leaves me pretty frightened. Who will be the next Trump? What if he would be a king of technique 4.0? (the latest discussion about Mr. Zuckerberg and FB influence) The book of Bertrand Gross is unfortunately not available, it would have interested me. I already read about the thoughts of Jaron Lanier. He already warns about the power of concentrated money piles and big data. Why people didn’ the say the truth about their favourite candidates? Are they already fear the it provides days could be a danger? Quo vadis world? Governments ( with olfashioned people) don’t even seem to have a bit of overview. They are running behind the fast world and will be surprised by the next charismatic billionere- hopefully not one with access to to the new gold-data.

  8. Really interesting now. I add: “he’s the nation’s political clown, […] things he say are considered by the sensible people as demagogy and ignorance” This was written in the nytimes by j.shaplen, not about Trump, but about A.Hitler (nytimes 09/21/1930)

  9. Except that the growing police brutality state is on the rise… nothing too friendly about that.

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