“There are far too many candidates,” writes Dana Milbank at the Washington Post. “And to gain attention they are juggling, tooting horns and blowing slide whistles like so many painted performers emerging from a clown car.” The two clowns making the most noise in recent weeks are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
At first glance, it would seem they couldn’t be more different: a Democrat and a Republican, a friend of the unions and a CEO, a man of relatively modest means by congressional standards and one of the wealthiest men in the United States. But a closer look reveals some interesting similarities and teaches us an important lesson about the history of ideas. What Sanders and Trump have in common is no laughing matter.
Recent articles by libertarians on both candidates have suggested that they are both strongly nationalist. Dan Bier tore apart Sanders for his views on immigration, and both Jeff Tucker and Jason Kuznicki have associated Trump with nationalism and perhaps even a variant of fascism. I think they are all on to something: Sanders and Trump have a lot more in common than many think. But before I get there, we need to take a detour into the history of socialism and fascism.
In its original conception, Marxian socialism was strongly internationalist. Marx’s theory was based on the idea of class struggle and the disparity in power between those who owned the means of production (the capitalists) and those who did not (the proletariat).
Marxism has nothing to do with nationality. It’s all about class, defined as whether or not one owns capital. For true Marxists, a German worker has much more in common with a Russian worker or an Italian worker than he or she does with a German capitalist. Marxism did not give any importance to national borders.
For many in the early 20th century, this was a problem with Marxism, especially in the aftermath of World War I. Much like today, people were looking for a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. For many of those people, that third way was fascism.
Today we use the word fascism as an epithet, especially for bossy people. We associate it with dictatorships, and especially with Nazism. It turns out that fascism was a fairly well-worked-out theory of how to organize a society, and in its original form was not about racism or anti-Semitism directly. Fascism was an attempt to combine what people saw as the best parts of capitalism and socialism, and then to do so in the context of putting nationality before class.
The most extensive writing about how fascism would work came from the Italians in the 1920s and 1930s, and interested readers should find a copy of Luigi Villari’s The Economics of Fascism to see the details. (You can find a nice summary of those ideas in Sheldon Richman’s entry on fascism in the online Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.)
The fascists argued that the whole notion of class conflict was the problem. Instead of pitting class against class and tearing nations apart, why not bring all the parties together and give them the chance to cooperate with each other rather than struggle their way to socialism? The fascist economy was built around a series of cartels where the state, the nominal owners of the means of production, and the workers (represented by labor unions) would get together and figure out what to produce, how to produce it, what to charge, and how much profit would be “allowed.”
The fascists agreed with socialism’s desire not to leave markets to spontaneous ordering forces, but they thought the nation-state should direct the economy, not the workers. Both capitalism and socialism involved conflict, not cooperation. The same third-way thinking, and some of the same structures, were present in the first two years of the New Deal in the United States. The cartels of the National Recovery Administration were modeled after Italian fascism, and FDR and Mussolini were mutual admirers.
You can see how fascism took elements of both capitalism and socialism, then added nationalism. The idea was to look out for the welfare of the nation-state first. The Italian capitalist and the Italian worker were both Italians first and foremost, and that should be the first call on their allegiance. Lashing socialism to the glorification of the nation-state gives us fascism, and you can see why anyone who represented a threat to national identity would quickly become a problem.
This is one reason why the German version of fascism so easily linked up with a long history of German anti-Semitism. The Nazis were undoubtedly socialist (recall that Nazi is short for National Socialist German Workers Party), as even a quick glance at their 1920 platform will tell you. They were also, even at that date, fiercely nationalist. In Hitler’s hands, that national pride quickly became a desire to glorify the Aryan race.
Plus, recall that Jews were disproportionately both capitalists and supporters of the Marxist revolution in Russia — not to mention the symbol of the cosmopolitan, rootless nomad for centuries. Many of those who wanted to reject both capitalism and Marxian socialism saw the Jews as the symbol of both.
So what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?
I would argue that they are both “nationalist socialists.” That is, they both embody key elements of fascism. They both think the nation comes first, and they both think the United States is an organization (not a spontaneous order) that should be under someone’s control.
The difference is that Sanders sees both the problems and the solutions from the workers’ perspective, so he’s focusing on both the exploitation by capitalists and keeping immigrants out to protect the wages of US workers. The losses to US workers matter more than the large gains to foreign-born workers coming here.
Trump sees all of this from the CEO/owner/capitalist perspective. He thinks the United States is, or should be, like a big firm where we all work together for a common goal. He envisions himself as the CEO, negotiating deals with other countries as if they, too, were just big corporate firms. But nations are not firms — they are spontaneous orders.
As I argued in an earlier column, “Socialism Is War and War Is Socialism,” this desire to turn spontaneous orders into hierarchies is characteristic of both war and socialism. It is also deeply embedded in fascism, and Sanders and Trump exemplify that tendency among the presidential candidates, though they do so with different emphases and rhetoric.
Their commonalities are also why our conventional binary left-right political spectrum makes no sense. That one candidate is perceived as far to the left and the other as (to some degree) a right-wing capitalist shows the depth of our failure to understand history. They have both rejected the spontaneous order of the market as well as the cosmopolitanism of liberalism and socialism. They are fascist brothers under the skin.
That both are getting the attention and support of so many Americans should be a matter of grave concern. After all, some clowns are far more scary than funny.
Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.