Is the fascist label useful in discussing Trumpism and the Jan. 6 Capitol riots by hardcore Trump supporters? Perhaps that’s a strange question to ask given the oft-repeated claim that “it can’t happen here” – a claim that’s been a staple of U.S. exceptionalism for a long while. However, the attack on the Capitol represented a crossing of a red line for the liberal managerial class. A liberal/centrist anti-fascist discourse has emerged as an extension of anti-Trumpism. Robert O. Paxton, professor of social sciences at Columbia University, wrote in Newsweek that the breach of the Capitol “removes my objection to the fascist label …. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.” It’s clear that the label can be applied beyond the rioters to other Americans. 2017 polls indicated that 10% of the public supported the “alt-right,” with 9% (roughly 22 million people) calling holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable.
Even so, there are clear grounds for concern about the liberal anti-fascist discourse. Here are some:
- It blames Trump and his enablers for letting the cat out without explaining the conditions that produced Trumpism itself. Liberals call Trump and his enablers out for normalizing white supremacists and neo-Nazis, welcoming them in their ranks and coalitions, and using them as useful street thugs. They underscore the cult of personality around Trump, the dismissal of any news source that challenges him, the inflammatory discourse, the hostility to verifiable reality, and the spreading of untruths and violent conspiracies, especially the “Big Lie” of the stolen election. They view these as precursors to full-blown fascism. As the Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in The NY Times Magazine on Jan. 9: “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place…. Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.” We can agree, yet we’re left without an explanation for what needs an explanation: Why do so many support Trump? That Trump is both cause and symptom eludes the liberal framing.
- It reproduces the myth of the U.S. as a democracy. Elites repeat this claim ad nauseum. It doesn’t help either that politicians reflexively offer soothing speeches about constitutionalism every chance they get. Thus, the centrist discourse offers a simplistic picture of a fragile democracy threatened by Trump-incited proto-fascists, violent bigots, and insurrectionists. To be clear, fascism is real, but bourgeois electoral politics doesn’t equal democracy. An oligarchic class has captured the state and exercises control over politics. They’ve managed to steal at least $50 trillion from the bottom 90% of the population since the 1970s. They’ve transformed politics into an art of austerity-pushing by corporate-backed careerist politicians. Their greatest fear is democracy, and they’ve used fascism to beat back democracy around the world. Those who accept the myth of U.S. democracy need to pay closer attention to history.
- It ignores the roots of white supremacy and fascism in U.S. politics and culture. The U.S. is a settler-colonial state with a history of genocide against the indigenous population. It’s also a racial capitalist state with centuries of slavery and racist terror against blacks. Racism is foundational to the U.S. Racist hooliganism, and white nationalism are rooted in a history of extermination and super-exploitation.
- It hides the complicity of the system and the elite in the rise of violent reactionary forces at home and abroad. The U.S. is an imperialist state with a history of global alliances with Pinochet-type fascist forces, ruinous wars of aggression, torture, and death by economic strangulation waged against mostly the darker nations of the world. There are also four decades of neoliberal assault on the population during which capital engaged in a counter-revolutionary class war to discipline the working class and roll back the New Deal gains it had made in the post-war era. Neoliberalism serves the oligarchs well while effectively abandoning the common good, causing despair and anger among the public. These conditions were replicated in other parts of the world as millions have become resentful and lost trust in institutions. Ignoring this history lets the elites hide their and the system’s complicity in using and empowering the far-right to prop up empire and class rule.
- It lets the establishment use the Capitol riots to expand the powers of the national security state. The ex-CIA Director John Brennan likens the homegrown ultra-right to foreign insurgencies (say al-Qaeda), clearly implying a counterinsurgency approach to domestic “terrorism.” The Biden team he said, is “now moving in laser-like fashion to try to uncover … what looks very similar to insurgency movements that we’ve seen overseas, where they germinate in different parts of the country … and it brings together an unholy alliance frequently of religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists, even libertarians … there’s been this momentum … generated as a result of the demagogic rhetoric of people that’s just a part of government but also those who continue in the halls of congress.” Yesterday’s “deplorables” and “cultish members” are today’s “insurgents” and “terrorists.” The centrist consensus is pushing for a 9/11-style War on Domestic Terror. Yet, the U.S. is already a heavily militarized surveillance state needing no new coercive measures to confront violent ultra-right groups.
Late capitalist normality produced Trumpism. Liberal anti-fascism obscures this fact. Centrist liberals hide their role in upholding oligarchic class rule and hide the U.S. empire and its alliances with fascist forces. They support suppressing dissent to hide these facts and preserve the neoliberal global order. The U.S. has a tradition of suppressing the independent left. The capitalist carceral state is fascism. The genocide of the natives is fascism. Centuries of racial terror is fascism. Supporting fascists in the global South is fascism. As the Black Agenda Report’s columnist Margaret Kimberley told me, fascism is not “something new and Trumpian” and that it’s “a mistake to think that he is unique.” The left should oppose the centrist liberal consensus on the grounds of principle and self-preservation. Defeating fascism requires that we stop producing the conditions that give rise to it. That means building a radically different society. For now, let’s stop the elites from hijacking 1/6 to silence critical voices and make the world safe for capitalism.