Is Donald Trump a fascist? It’s an interesting question that has generated insightful commentary over the past few months, with the best answers situating Trumpian illiberalism within America’s long history of racial oppression, slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, and the ongoing backlash to the loss of white privilege. But a key concept is missing from this discussion: empire. In particular, the way in which the end of the American empire—especially the exhaustion of its two most recent expressions, neoliberal economics and neoconservative militarism—has profoundly transformed its domestic politics.
One of the things that has made America exceptional—compared to other crisis-prone and class-conflicted countries—is that it has long enjoyed a benefit no other modern nation in the world could claim: the ability to engage in ceaseless, endless movement outward.
There have been many other empires, formal and informal. And many countries have something approximating a frontier. But in no other nation has the idea and experience of expansion been so integral to its nationalism: America, even before it its constitution as an independent republic, was conceived in expansion, its settlers exhibiting what Thomas Hobbes called an “insatiable appetite, or Bulimia, of enlarging Dominion.” From frontier settlement to post–Cold War neoliberalism and the drive into the Persian Gulf, there have been many different phases of this expansion. But through it all, the idea of America was predicated on a rejection of limits, on perpetual motion outward, on the seizing of territory, the opening of markets, and the grudging necessity of war to remove obstacles to the opening of markets. According to some tallies, since 1776, the United States has been at war 93 percent of its existence, passing through a mere 21 years of peace.
Since 9/11, critics of US foreign policy have mostly focused their analysis on blowback: on the way endless war produces endless enemies, which justifies endless war. Win win. But earlier, New Left intellectuals gave us another way to think about the relationship of foreign relations to domestic politics: how endless expansion—either through militarism or markets—helped defuse domestic tensions and allowed for the establishment of durable and stable institutions.
There were many different versions of this argument, but, as it pertains to the United States, its central idea is as simple as it is profound: Empire allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with the social problems, such as poverty, inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and domestic violence, caused by America’s brand of largely unfettered capitalism.
There is a lot to unpack in that idea, including answering the question, How, exactly, does the “safety value” of empire work? Some scholars argued that imperial expansion allowed the United States to “buy off” its domestic working class (or at least the working class’s elite, white, male strata), either through social welfare or higher wages made possible by Third World exploitation. Others said that overseas markets were needed to absorb the overproduction of US manufactured goods and overseas investment was needed to soak up excess capital.
Some stressed the political benefits of expansion, through the reconciliation of competing interests and the segmentation of factionalism. On this point, many historians, starting with the great Charles Beard, like to cite none other than Founding Father James Madison, who in the Federalist Papers urged the United States to embrace its bulimia: “extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of others.” Demands for a leveling of wealth or a distribution of power could be defused by opening up “surplus social space…surplus resources were necessary to maintain economic welfare, social stability, freedom, and representative government.” Thomas Jefferson agreed, writing shortly before he purchased the Louisiana Territory and doubled America’s size: The success of the United States “furnishes a new proof of the falsehood of Montesquieu’s doctrine, that a republic can be preserved only in a small territory. The reverse is the truth.”
Others still emphasized that ongoing war was needed to psychologically displace domestic violence outward. Writing in the wake of the Vietnam War, William Appleman Williams argued that “Americans denied and sublimated their violence by projecting it upon those they defined as inferior.”
America is exceptional, it is asserted, because, with the exception of the abolition of slavery, it has been able to extend the promise of liberal reform mostly peacefully, through its democratic institutions. But there’s a shadow side to this narrative of liberal progress—the fact that every great achievement of civil and social rights in US history has been accompanied by war and expansion: the Age of Jacksonian Democracy and the genocidal Trail of Tears and the invasion of Mexico; Reconstruction and the pacification of the West; Progressivism and 1898; World War I and the franchise for women; the New Deal and the global expansion of US corporate power; Civil Rights and the Cold War; the Great Society and Vietnam; the EPA and, almost, a universal guaranteed income, and the massive bombing of Laos and Cambodia.
Coincidence, causation, or correlation? Whatever the answer, the relationship between domestic reform and militarism could be nakedly transactional. Some suffragists and labor leaders traded support for Woodrow Wilson’s war in Europe for his support for the vote for women and the AFL. More recently, Hillary Clinton has admitted that she voted in favor of George W Bush’s 2002 war authorization in exchange for domestic funding (“I’m sitting there in the Oval Office, and Bush says to me, ‘What do you need?’ And I said, ‘I need $20 billion to rebuild, you know, New York,’ and he said, ‘You got it.’ And he was good to his word”).
The real watershed was the crisis of the 1890s, with the consolidation of the free-market/interventionist establishment, which, with waxes and wanes, has lasted to this day. With profits falling, cities swelling, workers marching, and agrarians protesting, the United States looked outward. Empire—formal for some, informal for others—became a way of reconciling competing national visions. Militarists might have dreamt of national regeneration, farmers and industrialists of international markets, labor leaders of social peace and a slice of the pie, intellectuals of an outlet for individualism in a world of corporate concentration, and missionaries of deliverance, but they all came to share a vision in which domestic progress and prosperity were dependent on unfettered expansion. The result was 1898, when the United States took Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, annexed Hawaii; soon thereafter it invaded Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
Whether the American economy objectively needed to expand abroad, or whether it simply generated a widespread belief, an ideology, that it needed to expand, is arguable. What is certain is that, from 1898 until the years after the Cold War, all politicians who reached the upper levels of power embraced the faith. Woodrow Wilson: “Our domestic markets no longer suffice. We need foreign markets.” Calvin Coolidge: “Our investments and trade relations are such that it is almost impossible to conceive of any conflict anywhere on earth which would not affect us injuriously.” Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Foreign markets must be regained.… There is no other way if we would avoid painful economic dislocations, social readjustments, and unemployment.” And Bill Clinton (via his National Security Council): “the line between our domestic and foreign policies has increasingly disappeared…we must engage actively abroad if we are to open foreign markets and create jobs for our people.”
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What does all of this have to do with the current crisis? What, exactly, is the relationship between Trumpian illiberalism and American expansion?
Here’s one way to think about it: Starting in 2008, around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, the safety valve of empire closed, gummed up by the catastrophic war in Iraq combined with the 2008 financial crisis.
In trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s racism—which even as he pivots from the primaries to the general election remains the animating spirit of his campaign—many have pointed to a long tradition of Republican dog-whistling, reaching back decades. Trump is the “Frankenstein’s Monster” of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s welfare queens, and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton. Jamelle Bouie asks the key question: “why now?” Writing in Slate, Bouie rightly links the explosion of politicalized racism to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, to Obama’s upending the racial hierarchy, during a time when the dislocations caused by over three decades of deindustrialization are being acutely felt by the white working and middle class.
But the answer to the “why now?” question needs a larger context: Trumpism is more than merely the culmination of Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the full flowering of white resentment caused by economic dislocation. Similar cycles of dislocation have happened in the past and have given rise to racist populists similar to Trump, such as Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. But those backlashes remained marginal, contained either geographically or institutionally. Trumpism has broken the constraints, and its threat is that it has a good shot at gaining national power.
Why now? Because Obama came to power in the ruins of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, when empire no longer able to dilute the passions, satisfy the interests, and unify the divisions. Expansion no longer allows an evasion of, in FDR’s words, “painful economic dislocations, social readjustments, and unemployment.”
Washington is still waging a worldwide counterinsurgency, with military bases that span the globe. Yet for the most part, Obama, in cleaning up his predecessor’s mess, has secularized the imperium, reframing global war as a matter of utility, competence, and pragmatism—technocracy. This has made it difficult for the ideological right to muster itself through war and foreign policy. With back-room supervisors preparing kill lists and game boys flying the drones, the romance is over.
When it comes to economics, the official line is still “free trade.” But you only have to look at Mexico and Central America—and the United States, where NAFTA is correlated to a spike in suicide, cancer, drug addiction, racial violence, and incarceration—to know that Bill Clinton’s assertion is now a reality: “the line between our domestic and foreign policies has increasingly disappeared.” But instead of shared prosperity, we have shared immiseration. Global neoliberalism as a sustainable governing policy has reached a dead end.
So, the idea of the frontier—American Exceptionalism’s central metaphor, a symbol of the future, the place where America deflects and dilutes its domestic contradictions into a horizon of endless promises—is dead, a place to be cordoned off. Trump’s wall is more than one-off racism. It taps into this primal shift, of the frontier transformed from possibility to peril, where the world’s surplus population—victims of decades of US trade policy—need to be kept out.
The foreign no longer soothes or contains the domestic. With nowhere left to go, the “furies” of the right, as Sam Tanenhaus describes the conservative fringe, whip around the homeland. Ideas that in the past had been suppressed, or deflected into war, now burst out in domestic policy. Conservative activists and politicians can’t mention healthcare without turning the discussion to rape. Bring up taxes, and suddenly they are stuttering on about slavery. Mexican-hating is metaphysical. The election of a black man to the White House drove the Republican base insane. Yet even before there was the Tea Party, there were the anti-immigration populists during the last years of the Bush administration. If the neoliberals and neoconservatives hadn’t driven their policies to disastrous extremes, these movements might have been kept fringe, as they had been in the past. Instead they’ve been nationalized into Trumpism.
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Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are both post-frontier politicians. Both criticize, in their own way, the free-trade/interventionist establishment that drove into Iraq in 2003 and into the abyss in 2008.
But there is a difference, and it is a moral one. In Sanders’s case, socialism allows him to mount his challenge to neoconservative and neoliberal hegemony. It is socialism that gives him an alternative to both market expansion and endless war. His program—free universal healthcare, free universal education, jobs, and so on—is a call to end the great evasion, to face inward and reckon with domestic problems in a forthright manner.
Trump too critiques neoliberalism and neoconservativism. He predicts that, under his leadership, the Republican Party will turn into a Workers’ Party! He wants out of NATO, condemns NAFTA and the TPP, and critiques regime change. Neocons and neolibs hate him. But he has no social program, much less socialism, so he turns to nativism and white supremacy.
The free-trade/interventionist establishment, now united behind Hillary Clinton, will present their vicious economics and cruel militarism as “internationalism” and say that we have but one choice: internationalism versus Trumpism. “This is how fascism comes to America,” says Robert Kagan, one of the intellectual architects of the Iraq War, in The Washington Post, presenting Trump’s domestic racism as foreign to Kagan’s global brutalism (“Trump’s domestic belligerence is the transposition of Kagan’s international belligerence,” Corey Robin writes).
But that’s not the choice.
The real choice is socialism versus barbarism, as the near-platonic opposition of Sanders’s democratic socialism and Trump’s racism reveals. The choice won’t be settled this election cycle, and maybe a Clinton presidency will keep the wheel spinning a bit longer, signing the TPP into law (despite her current opposition), entering into a new cycle of aggression with Iran. But, as those under 40, whose allegiances are up for grabs, seem to realize, the great evasion can’t go on much longer.