A growing number of political observers are lobbing the label “fascist” at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Fair or not, the f-bomb mess could splatter onto fellow billionaire businessman Peter Thiel. The Silicon Valley investor is upfront about his libertarian political views, and his name is on the official list of delegates who are pledged to vote for Donald Trump at the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
So, what does libertarianism have to do with fascism? Or Thiel with Trump beyond his delegate status? Read on to find out.
Donald Trump and fascism
The term fascism has taken on different shades of meaning since it first arose in the 1920s. Loosely, it refers to a manner of attaining and holding political power. Fascism uses the framework of rigorous national identity to push back against a supposed moral malaise or stagnation. It places the status of enemy on anyone who does not fit that identity, whether or not they are citizens.
One leading authority, Columbia University’s Robert Paxton, emphasizes that there are several “profound” differences between Trump and the conventional understanding of fascism.
However, Paxton also catalogued some important “echoes” of fascism exhibited by Trump. His analysis appeared in a Feb. 10 interview on Slate. Do follow the link for the full context. In the meantime, here is a snippet:
“The use of ethnic stereotypes and exploitation of fear of foreigners is directly out of a fascist’s recipe book. ‘Making the country great again’ sounds exactly like the fascist movements … Then, there’s a second level, which is a level of style and technique. He even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out, and also the bluster, the skill at sensing the mood of the crowd, the skillful use of media.”
George Orwell’s famous 1944 essay “What is Fascism?” also demonstrates how difficult it is to nail down the nature of fascism in the abstract. Orwell argues that the real-world application of the term provides for some consistency:
“… Even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist.'”
Peter Thiel and libertarianism
With its emphasis on small government, libertarianism may seem to be the opposite of fascism. However, critics have pointed out a serious shortcoming in the libertarian ideal and its reliance on the concept of “spontaneous order.” In the era of modern global commerce, corporate titans can engineer their own ideal order; they can treat individual rights just as cavalierly as any government agency.
That brings us around to Peter Thiel. As the 2016 presidential cycle heated up, Thiel’s carefully cultivated image as a leading venture capitalist underwent a political transformation.
Chief among these is Thiel’s emergence on Trump’s pledged delegate list in May. Absent an internal coup, Trump has enough delegates to win the Republican nomination. If Trump wins the general election this fall, Thiel will have been instrumental in his ascendancy to the most powerful position on the planet.
Aside from shocking some of his fans, Thiel’s support for Trump may also be a source of dismay for those who appreciate his attachment to libertarianism. The libertarian philosophy has been under fire for its potential drift into fascism. And Thiel’s willingness to hop from libertarian candidate Ron Paul to Trump adds more fuel to that view.
Other developments at odds with the libertarian ideal of small government include Thiel’s secretive funding of multiple lawsuits that effectively crippled Gawker Media and sent it into bankruptcy; privacy and civil rights concerns related to his Palantir Technologies’ data mining-platform; and a scheduled appearance at the annual meeting of the Property and Freedom Society this September. That group was recently outed by the civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center for its connections to the white nationalist movement in the U.S. and Europe.
Though described as “ultra-libertarian” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, PFS has relationships with white nationalist influencers who have articulated the elements of fascism noted by Paxton and Orwell:
“The Society’s inaugural meeting featured Paul Gottfried, the American white nationalist who founded the H.L. Mencken Club, along with Tom Sunic, another white nationalist and an ex-Croatian diplomat who spends his time speaking at racist gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic. Sunic also serves as a director with the American Freedom Party, the most visible American white nationalist political party.
“In 2013, the Society invited Jared Taylor, head of the New Century Foundation, which hosts the annual white nationalist American Renaissance conference, traditionally the largest annual racist gathering in the U.S. Taylor once wrote, “Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears …”
Peter Thiel and Ezra Pound
The recent revelations about Thiel’s political and legal activities sent ripples of concern across the investment community. But one thing that escaped much attention is his May 22 appearance as the commencement speaker at Hamilton College in upstate New York.
The small liberal arts college states that it is a leader in “teaching students to write effectively, learn from each other and think for themselves.” It’s a rather off-beat choice of venue for an in-demand Silicon Valley veteran like Thiel, especially since the commencement speech was a first for him. (If you know of any others, drop us a note in the comment thread.)
One attraction could have been the award of an honorary degree to Thiel from Hamilton. The only other such honor he received comes from libertarian-leaning (to put it mildly) Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala.
Another attraction could be the school’s most famous alumnus, the highly influential poet Ezra Pound. A contemporary of George Orwell, Pound was a notorious, self-identified fascist. As outlined by Harvard historian Louis Menand, Pound was an associate of Mussolini long before World War II began, and he supported the Italian dictator all through the war years:
“In 1941, Pound began delivering broadcasts from the Rome studios of Ente Italiana Audizione Radio, attacking the Jews, Roosevelt, and American intervention in the war. The broadcasts continued through the Allied invasion of Italy, in 1943 … “
Pound’s wartime activity ended in 1945, with his arrest on charges of treason. Though the case never went to trial, he was confined to a psychiatric hospital in the U.S. for 12 years. The charges were finally dismissed in 1958, and he went back to Italy.
It appears that Pound, with all that time to think at his disposal, never changed his mind. According to Menand’s account, he gave the fascist salute as soon as his boat landed in Naples.
As for Thiel’s commencement speech, skim through and you’ll find the usual boilerplate of uplifting messages. Messages about national malaise are also there, but cautiously peppered in without much elaboration.
Thiel did includes a brief, somewhat innocuous homage to Pound. Here is the reference in its entirety:
“… Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done, and what they never thought of doing.
“This is not to say that we should assume there is no value in teaching and tradition. Here we can take inspiration from a graduate of Hamilton College, the illustrious (and notorious) Ezra Pound, class of 1905. Pound was a poet; he was also a prophet, and he announced his mission in three words: “Make it new.” When Pound said “make it new,” he was talking about the old; he wanted to recover what was best in tradition and to render it fresh.”
Scholars attribute the “make it new” slogan to Pound’s advocacy for the Modernism art movement. Some also traced his adoption of the phrase to his familiarity with a Confucian text on good government. It includes an anecdote that calls for “daily renovation” of one’s self. This call for constant self-reflection is quite a bit different than the spin both Pound and Thiel put on it.
The important thing, perhaps, for Thiel is that through his newly minted Hamilton degree, he can lay claim to sharing the same alma mater with one of the most ambitious, highly regarded (and notorious) poets in all of Western literature.