Sam Goldman interviews long-time activist and voice of conscience Dr. Walden Bello about Trumpism and the global spread of fascism. Dr. Bello is currently International Adjunct Professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in Stockholm in 2003 for his work showing the negative impact of corporate-driven globalization.
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Sunday May 31, 2021
Walden Bello 00:00
People have this idealized view of fascism. They underestimate the danger of what’s happening. Certainly, Donald Trump is a fascist. And what Trump did was, in fact, to make it the party of white supremacy. It is a Republican party that has definitely now come in the whole of fascists, a direct assault on white supremacy, through legislation through the streets through all mechanisms of political protest that has to be taken. Otherwise, you will always have this threat of white supremacist fascist movements coming to power.
Sam Goldman 00:57
Welcome to Episode 61 of the Refuse Fascism podcast, a podcast brought to you by volunteers with Refuse Fascism. I’m Sam Goldman, one of those volunteers and host of the show. Since the founding of Refuse Fascism, in late 2016, our slogan has been “in the name of humanity, we refuse to accept a fascist America.” It has not just been for ourselves that we must refuse fascism, but for all of humanity. So I am always excited to speak to people internationally and share some of the important perspectives from outside the borders of the us with our listeners, since we really need to hear them. I’m extremely excited to share today’s interview with Walden Bello, a longtime activist whose bio is too long to recap here. He is the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award. He spoke to me from his home in the Philippines about Trumpism as part of the larger international wave of fascism, including within his home country. But first, I want to touch on a couple of happenings this week that I feel we need to pay attention to. The New York Times reported on Thursday, in a headline that read “Q-Anon now as popular in the US as some major religions.” In an article by Giovanni Russoniello, he writes “the Public Religion Research Institute, and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 15% of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, a core belief of Q-Anon supporters.” The same share said it was true that American patriots may have to resort to violence to depose the pedophiles and restore the country’s rightful order.” Months after Biden’s inauguration, months after the coup attempt at the Capitol on January 6, this is what 15% of Americans are saying, Let that sink in for a minute. Then let it sink in that the Republ-fascist party continues to do Trump’s bidding and are now blocking Congressional inquiry into January 6, even as they attempt to outlaw the mention of modern racist oppression in schools, aka critical race theory, continue to fan the flames of Trump’s big lie conspiracy theory and are on track to seeing Roe versus Wade overturned next year by the fascist-dominated court. Umair Haque wrote this week in a piece titled, This is Trumpism’s Second Coming… And It’s Even More Dangerous Than That, “what happened on January 6, was a hard coup attempt. It was brutal, violent and stupid. It was a clumsy way to try and seize power, the last resort of an incompetent fascist movement. What’s happening now though, is very different and far more dangerous. All the above is not really a coup. It’s not a one-off, an eruption of inchoate violence by dummies and puppets. It’s far more poisonous the that. What’s happening now is better described as the beginnings of a new phase in American fascism. American fascism is making an organized, concerted, sophisticated attempt to stop democracy dead in its tracks.” You can hear more from Umair Haque in Episode 48 “If You Don’t Call it Fascism.” All of what I’m laying out, paints a picture that the fascist program we saw under Trump and the fascist movement behind it, while proceeding at a less relentless pace and not coming from the executive branch, is continuing to propel. We must continue to refuse fascism and to do so with the whole world, all of humanity, in our heart. And now my interview with Walden Bello. On today’s show, we have Professor Walden Bello. Professor Bello is an international adjunct professor of sociology at the State University of New York, at Binghamton, and a co-founder of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South. Dr. Bello is the author or co-author of 25 books. A human rights activist since the Marcos era, Dr. Bello is currently active in opposing the anti-human rights policies of the fascist administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. And he is a highly requested guest by listeners of this show. Today we’re talking with Dr. Bello about an essay he wrote earlier this month, titled “Fascism’s Global Spread is Real, as Real as the Spread of COVID-19” published on Foreign Policy in Focus. This article is adapted from Dr. Bello’a opening speech at the Cambridge Union debate on the resurgence of fascism, which he gave on April 29. Welcome Professor Bello. So glad to have you with us.
Walden Bello 06:05
Thank you, for inviting me, Sam.
Sam Goldman 06:07
Thank you for waking up early on your weekend to join us. I wanted to start with your closing in this piece. I’m not sure if it was the closing that you used in your actual speech. But the piece you ended with: “the beast is struggling against its chains in Germany. it has bared its fangs in Washington, DC. It has shed blood in the Philippines and India. Let us not repeat the mistake of the democracies of the earliest 20th Century of hesitating to call that beast by its name.” And that’s the end of Dr. Bello’s quote. I wanted to start with asking you why you think it matters that we named the beast we see rising around the world as fascism? What difference does it make if we do name it? And what’s the cost if we don’t?
Walden Bello 06:48
Well, my sense is that oftentimes, people are a bit academic, when they face certain phenomena, like what’s happened in the United States with Trump, what’s happening in Germany, with the rise of the alternative for Deutschland, what’s happening in the Philippines with Rodrigo Duterte. And oftentimes, the response is that, “is it really appropriate to use the “F” word?” And when I first branded Duterte here in the Philippines, as a fascist, there was that sort of reaction that, you know, “okay, he’s repressive, but is he really a fascist?” I think what people often associate fascism with is a figure like Hitler, or Mussolini. And they say, “well, we really don’t have guys like those today.” And they often say that, “well, if you look at Hitler, he was responsible for the crime of crimes like the Holocaust.” And you really don’t have somebody like that today. So the problem is that people have this kind of idealized view of fascism, so that when it’s taking place, right under their very noses, because it doesn’t somehow conform to this ideal type of Hitler reincarnated, they underestimate the danger of what’s happening. So that’s why although I admit that fascism has oftentimes then used very loosely, my sense is, it is very important to name these personalities or individuals going around today as fascists because they bring together the key characteristics of fascism. I’d just like to go with about five of those, which I see are exemplified by a lot of authoritarian personalities in the world today. 1) is fascists show disdain or hatred for democratic principles and procedures. 2) they tolerate or promote violence. 3) they have [heated] mass base that supports their anti-democratic thinking and behavior. 4) they scapegoat and support the persecution of certain social groups. And 5) they are led by a charismatic individual who exhibits and normalizes all of the above. And if you use this definition of fascism, I think it fits so many of the threats to democracy today, including in the United States, Donald Trump. I guess to people like you and me, who have been calling attention to the fascist potential of certain political movements over the last several years, what happened in Capitol Hill on January 6, was not a surprise. But for many other people who tended to assume the stability of the American political system, the political process, it came as a big surprise. You had a tragedy occur in the US Capitol, although not many people were killed. Nevertheless, it was a very direct challenge to what Americans felt was the center of democratic life. So that is why it is important to name the beast by what it is or what it potentially can be. For instance, the Alternative for Deutschland, it says it is operating within the constitutional mandates of the German Federal Republic. And yet, what it all stands for is something that goes against the very character of the Democratic Republic of Germany at this point in time. So that’s why I think we have to use the ‘F’ word when the political phenomenon deserves to be seen as fascist.
Sam Goldman 10:39
I think that’s a really helpful and clarifying way to look at it and to think about why it matters that we recognize the danger that we face. I mean, one thing that I think about is, if you have a cancer, and someone tells you it’s a cold, you’re gonna think maybe you can take some chamomile tea, you can rest up and you’ll get better, instead of maybe needing to take a more serious treatment and a deeper look and take the necessary treatment. If you don’t actually diagnose it correctly, you’re not going to be able to fight it. And the same holds true with democracy, however, loose it may be in some of these countries before fascism. So I wanted to get your take looking at the global picture, which I really appreciate in all your writing. One of the things that gets me the most is that you don’t proceed from a place that you happen to live. You’re thinking about the whole world. And I’m wondering, looking at the global picture, how far and how fast do you feel that fascists have advanced in the past few years?
Walden Bello 11:42
I think that it is important to always be very careful when we look at say, the global North and the global South because there are really major structural differences and different histories and different position in the global political economy. However, having said that, I think that you have a fascist types of leaders that have arisen both in the global South and the global North. Jair Bolsonaro, has come up in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. And then when you look at the global North at this point in time, certainly Donald Trump is a fascist. And then you look at Western and Central Europe, which birthed fascism in the 20th Century. And there you have two outright fascist regimes in Poland, and in Hungary, headed by Orban. And then you have four countries in which far right fascist parties are the main opposition party, including in Germany. Then you have another eight, where it is a main actor in the parliamentary opposition or in the streets. So this is very different from say, just as recent as the 2000s. Just looking at Western and Central Europe, you really did not have any far right fascist regime in power, except maybe as a junior partner in coalitions like in Austria for a time. But in power, you didn’t have that till you had the emergence of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the Peace and Justice Party in Poland over the last decade. And then if you look at the United States, who would have thought in the time of Bush and Obama, that Donald Trump would come to power in 2016, and evolve very quickly into a fascist threat and almost got away with it. So clearly, there are factors at work that are creating conditions whereby these people are emerging, and their supporters are emerging. Now, the conditions may not come. Similarly, in the different countries, the way that the factors fused together might have different nuances in different countries. But nevertheless, they are essentially being created and are helping to create these conditions that promote fascist personalities or fascist movement. So it is a global phenomenon is what I’m trying to say. And it can’t be underestimated the way that the conditions are helping to create these people and they themselves are helping create those conditions. So I would adhere to what the German sociologist Max Weber when he defined charisma because fascists are charismatic individuals, okay? When he said that it is a social relationship between an individual and society. At certain times, a guy like Trump would not even make a dent in the political system. But when things get into a certain fashion, and then he appears, that’s when that sort of explosion takes place that creates this fascist movement, which now is embodied in the Republican Party in the United States. I think there are still some individuals or even political scientists that would hesitate to call the Republican Party a fascist party. But I think for people like you and me, and many ordinary progressive observers, it’s very clear, this is no longer the Republican Party of say, George Bush. It is a Republican party that has definitely now come in the hold of fascists.
Sam Goldman 15:41
One of the things that you did in the article was talk about how language used by these fascists gets dismissed and downplayed. Why do you think that pundits are so quick to dismiss rhetoric? Why should people who care about humanity pay attention to and oppose fascist rhetoric when they hear it from their leaders?
Walden Bello 16:07
I think both in the US and say in the Philippines, when Trump and Duterte, for instance, to take these two people, started using rhetoric that was not within the pale of civilized political discourse, according to many people, and started using rhetoric that was wild, conspiratorial, abusive, the tendency was to say “Oh, this is not part of the discourse of democratic life.” Because in normal democratic discourse, there’s the appeal to the people, the appeal to the will of the people, the succession of power through elections. All of those get involved. But these guys were engaging in a rhetoric outside the democratic pale. And that’s why people tended to dismiss them, because they thought that that kind of rhetoric would not appeal to the electorate. Now, however, I think that already in the years before these people came, there was already a lot of dissatisfaction within the social system, within the political system, around how democracy had not delivered, around the fact that democracy had so many promises, but it had not fulfilled them. And so when Trump and Duterte started using this out of the pale kind of rhetoric, it responded to the feelings of people. And it was a rhetoric that catalyzed what they were feeling about their frustrations and their fears. That’s why I think there was a tendency for people who just assumed the stability of democratic norms and systems to just dismiss it, not realizing that this was rhetoric that was tearing up what many had been feeling all along. And I think that despite, of course, the differences between the United States and Philippines, you didn’t have a common set of formal democratic rules and democratic rhetoric and democratic legitimacy, so to speak. And I think, you know, that the rhetoric of people like Trump in the brazen sort of dismissal of basic truths, basic, democratic truths, and even just the outright distortion of realities. That’s why it worked, because they were really appealing to very deep-seated frustrations in people. And I think the genius of these guys like Duterte and Trump — and I hate to call it genius — was the way that they were able to get this irrationalities out, fuse them together into a very attractive rhetoric of fear and resentment, and use that as their road to political power. So I think if you look back to the 20th Century, you had the same way of fusing the rhetoric of fear, resentment that was used by people like Mussolini and Hitler. So there are real similarities across both the global scene as well as historically with previous fascist powers, or personalities.
Sam Goldman 19:18
I think that point is really essential in that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly does echo and I think that the reality that fascism foments and relies upon this xenophobia, this white supremacy, this misogyny, and then uses that to help bludgeon the democratic norms and ultimately erase civil liberty. I think that this is really important. One of the things that we regularly talk with our listeners about is that fascism is a qualitative change in the form of rule of society, that it’s not the baddest of insults that you can throw at someone that you don’t like or a combination of just horrific things. Personally, I think Obama was an imperialist warmonger. I think that what he did with his drone strikes was criminal, and he wasn’t a fascist. So I think that being able to distinguish those things is really important. In our call to act from when we were forming in 2016, we had written that “fascism advances in stages through outrage, shock and intimidation, followed by brief periods of normalization, where people accommodate to the new situation the regime has imposed.” One of the points that you make in your article is that different parts of the fascist program unroll at different times, and also they are unique to the place in time in which they happen. And I’m wondering, do you think that this failure to understand those two points — the point that they unroll at different times, that you don’t get the full fascist program right at the onset, and that they may look different in different places? Do you think that’s why there was so much fascism denial from the left? I’m thinking of scholars who said it’s not fascism, because in the United States, a scholar who repeatedly said so, and was given a lot of airtime said, we don’t have a one party state that therefore it can’t be fascism. Do you think those are the main factors that lead to fascism denial from the left? Or maybe there’s something else?
Walden Bello 21:20
Well, yes. First of all, the way that the key features of fascism come together are very unique in each case, as I said. If you’re expecting a spitting image of Adolf to come along, you will be waiting forever. Whereas in fact, a lesser figure than Adolf has already come to power. But second, you may not have the features of fascism unrolled all at once. Let me give you two examples. In the United States, it was not till the aftermath of the elections of 2020, that you saw the full fascist characteristic or reality of Donald Trump come out. You know, basically, he was out to subvert and overthrow the electoral system. So before that, people had just thought that “Okay, yeah, he’s like, this is like that. He had all this fake news.” They did not think that he would go to the extent of trying to overturn an election. So yes, therefore, it doesn’t all come together in one fell swoop at the beginning of a regime is one of the reasons why people were late in recognizing that in operation. On the other hand, if you look at a person like Duterte, right from the get-go, he started the most fearsome feature of his fascist rule, which was drug war, and the killing, extrajudicial execution of people who were suspected of being drug users. And in the space of three years, over 20,000 people have been subjected to extrajudicial execution. Immediately the most horrible feature of fascism, which is the systematic persecution of a certain sector of the population, not only imprisoning them, but killing them. This sort of just unrolled very, very quickly. That’s why I call this a blitzkrieg, fascism. Now, the effect was a bit different than in the United States. The effect was to stun the population. Is this really happening? And then people began to recover their senses that this was, in fact happening. It was, “Can he really be doing this?” But even that, when people began to ask themselves: “Why is he getting away with it?” He was able to get away with it, not only because he stunned people, but because there was a base he was appealing to, people who felt that drugs and criminals were the cause of society’s degeneration crisis in the Philippines. And not only that, people were so frustrated with the lack of social reform that although they might have disagreed with Duterte’s executions, maybe they thought, “Oh, but maybe what the country really needs is an iron hand to get things together.” So by the time that he was in his second year, there was already consolidated a base for fascism in the Philippines. So the point is that the features of a fascist personality or a fascist movement may come together differently, and they do not just unfold in one fell swoop. I just wanted to use these two examples to show you how in the one case in the United States, there was a protracted kind of recognition of a fascist. And in the case of the Philippines, the fact that the fascist went immediately to the most horrible crime, which was extrajudicial execution of thousands, had the effect of stunning people so that it took them several months to recover and realize that, hey, this guy is the real thing, the real fascist. It’s a different sort of effect on the population. The point here when it comes to the United States is there are already pre existing conditions, which is the racist democracy that the United States has had. And then there was the neoliberal impact on American white working class jobs that the Democratic Party was seen as having promoted along with the Republican Party, of course. And then thirdly, the sense that whites were going to become a minority fairly soon, because the demographics favored colored people. So I think those three things came together. And what Trump did was to bring those things together in his rhetoric, but it’s even hard to call it an ideology in a formal sense. But he was able to bring together these fears and resentments together to consolidate that base that he had. I won’t spend too much time with Duterte. But in his case, I think that he came out, and people saw in him that he was not only somebody who promised to eliminate crime by killing people. During the elections, people probably thought he was just exaggerating, but they said, okay, crime is a big problem. Drugs is a big problem. The only guy who can eliminate this is Duterte. The second thing is there were people who may have disliked his language, disliked his rhetoric, and didn’t really think that he should just focus on crime and drugs, but felt that oh, this guy’s an authoritarian figure. And our democracy hasn’t been working, maybe Duterte is the guy who will be able to eliminate corruption, okay. And he might be the guy who can discipline the elites who have been so selfish. So I think basically, those things came together within the Philippine electorate, and especially the Philippine middle class. The Philippine middle class back in the 1980s, it was part of the movement that overthrew Marcos, the previous dictator. But by 2016, 30 years, the kind of democracy that emerged in 1986 had not delivered. So these resentments and frustrations and fear of crime all came together to produce a base for Duterte that then his followers proceeded to consolidate once again to power. So that’s the case with both in both the Philippines and the United States. One must not underestimate that base, because although for instance, in the Philippines right now, Duterte has been screwing up in terms of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. And he’s being seen as too friendly with China. You know, despite the fact that things are not going that well for him, I would not underestimate his whole been a significant sector of the population. Just like in the case of Trump, 11 million more people voted for him in 2020, than in 2016. So that means, you know, he may have lost the election, but he has consolidated this hold over the Republican Party, and has now a very powerful instrument. He may or may not win in 2024. But let’s face it, what we have now in the United States is a sharply divided electorate. And the way that I would characterize the United States is there is an informal civil war that is taking place here. And on one side of that are the Trump forces who are willing to believe anything he says, and are his willing accomplices at this point in time. And then, of course, we also look at India, we look at Hungary, we look at Brazil. And, you know, we find many of the same features. And one of the things that is very, very striking, when you look at the Philippines, India, Brazil, just take the global South, is the way the middle class has ceased to be a democratic force. But it’s now a force for supporting authoritarian regime. That’s very definitely different from the role of the middle class in the 1980s. In this part of the world.
Sam Goldman 28:49
That was very comprehensive. Thank you so much. One of the things that you pointed to when you were speaking about the United States was the notion of a civil war. And that’s something that here is frequently on the tongues of people but who it’s most on the tongues of is the fascist base. Who are, let’s be real, filled with with the worst of grievances, and the most heavily armed and they believe many of which, even though it’s a diminishing population, those in it are the most vociferous are those who believe they are on really a mission from God that this is a battle for the fate of a nation and that makes them more dangerous. And the reality, I think, that should frighten many people, is that should this get resolved in that fashion, a one sided civil war is a genocide. And you have one side that’s fighting like the futures on the line, like their stake in the game is being ripped away. And the other side is closing their eyes and putting cotton in their ears and hoping that it will go away. And so your piece I think that the need to consistently be sounding the alarm on this danger is really important in practice. In Professor Bello’s article that I’ve been referencing, he writes: “with 11 million more Americans voting for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, 70% of the Republican Party believing against all evidence that he won the election, white supremacy emerging as the guiding ideology of the Republican party and a coalition of angry extremists open to a violent means of seizing power emerging as the party’s driving force, who can deny that American democracy is in intensive care, despite the passage of presidency to Joe Biden.” And I’m wondering, Dr. Bello, what do you think the key lessons from having Trump in power for his full term in the US should be?
Walden Bello 30:44
This is the really big question. Because, again, the past lives on, unfortunately, in the present, and the future, and the origins of the US as a country. You know, on the one hand, there has been the democratic origins, in terms of getting rid of the monarchy, and then establishing institutions of self rule. But that was for the white majority, which was still a very, very vast majority, back in 1776. But on the other hand, you also had the original sin, that this was founded on the genocide of the American native population, and on the slavery of black people. So you had a white democratic republic, that was founded on elimination-ism, on the one hand, and slavery on the other. That has been a legacy that has been very difficult to shake off. I mean, there was a civil war, that ended slavery, but that did not really end be oppression of black people. Because after reconstruction, you had this very, very repressive system in the South of the United States, and then, of course, institutionalized racism in the North. And then you had, you know, the civil rights movement, which really was a very, very important milestone. But nevertheless, the gains from that were still quite limited, in terms of really eliminating the white bias of U.S. democracy. What we had then was the transformation of the racial characteristics of the political system whereby the Democratic Party increasingly became the party of the minorities, and the Republican Party through, you know, the southern strategy that began with Goldwater became the party of the white majority. In the previous elections before Trump, the Republican Party has already become the party of the white majority. And what Trump did was, in fact, to make it the party of white supremacy, no longer having any kind of apologies, it was white supremacist thinking. The lessons I think here is not only should people plug their ears about what’s happening in the United States, but people must really complete the revolution against racism. There’s no going backward, I think progressive forces must tackle this racial legacy of American white male democracy. Now, that is, I think, the big challenge because the racism has consistently divided the American working class. And how does one end that division? You cannot end it by closing your eyes to it, you must challenge us just like Black Lives Matter is challenging it at this point. So I think, a direct assault on white supremacy, through legislation, through the streets, through all mechanisms of political protest, as well as legislative and executive action. That has to be taken. Otherwise, you will always have this threat of white supremacist fascist movements coming to power. That is the challenge that is posed to progressives. But my sense is that an attitude that says: “let’s not polarize things that’s just about slow patient reform process”, I don’t think is fated to be successful. I think the situation is polarized right now. And the thing is, how do you make sure that your side wins because the stakes are very high. If our side loses both in the Philippines and in the United States and in Europe, the consequences will be very great. So people have to realize what the stakes are because the stakes are very, very high.
Sam Goldman 34:44
Professor Bello, I want to thank you again for joining us and for all your work sounding the alarm. It was wonderful to hear your perspective, and I look forward to continuing to read your work. Listeners can find a link to the article mentioned in the show notes and can read more from Dr. Bello at WaldenBello.org. Thanks for listening to Refuse Fascism. It was literally one year ago tomorrow that we released our first show. I’m not glad that we continue to need to chronicle the threat that fascism poses to humanity. But I am glad to be in this fight with all of you. I also want to take a moment and thank the team of volunteers that makes the show happen along with our guests, for their time and expertise to make this show what it is. If you respect what we’re doing here, leave us a rating or review on your podcast listening platform of choice. To support the show, donate at RefuseFascism.org or give via Venmo @Refuse-Fascism, CashApp @RefuseFascism. And of course, subscribe, so you never miss an episode. Drop me a line with your thoughts on this episode, the show in general questions you have. Connect with me on Twitter @SamBGoldman, email [email protected] or you can also record us a voice message by going to anchor.fm/Refuse-Fascism and clicking the button there. You might hear yourself on the show. Until next Sunday, in name of humanity, we refuse to accept a fascist America.