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Is White America Fascist at Its Core?

August 14, 2022

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In America, Negroes do not need to be told what fascism is. We know.” –Langston Hughes

Americans usually think of fascism as something that happened somewhere else–in Europe, or Latin America, not in the United States. But as the country lurches toward the all-too-possible prospect of being under the control of an increasingly fascist Republican Party, it’s time to re-think that.  Fascism is actually as American as apple pie–many scholars argue that it originated in the American South–and it has ebbed and flowed throughout our national history. What’s different now is that it is starting to affect nice white people, who in the past could look the other way and either ignore it or call it something else.

In the wake of the January 6 insurrection and coup attempt, which Republicans now dismiss as inconsequential or even normal, a group of eminent historians met with President Biden last week to warn that American democracy is seriously endangered. Republicans and the radical right ecosystem unanimously erupted in outrage that the FBI had carried out a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago for classified documents whose possession by Trump was clearly illegal. This week, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks published a thumb-sucking piece arguing that prosecuting Donald Trump for his crimes could make it more likely that he will be re-elected. Nothing that Trump did or does seems to shake his hold on white Americans, a large majority of whom remain his ardent supporters. In the 2020 election, after being impeached, Trump received the votes of an estimated 61% of white men and 55% of white women. Immediately after the January 6 insurrection, 147 members of Congress–all Republican and all but 2 of them white–voted against certifying the election results. For most of White America, Donald Trump is its champion.

Its high time to recognize this for what it is: Fascism, which is not an ideology, but rather a style of politics based on racism, hyped grievances, and the threat or actuality of violence.

A brilliant essay by Sarah Churchwell published in 2020 in the New York Review of Books explores the origins of American fascism. Since it’s behind a paywall (albeit a very inexpensive one), I’ll try to summarize it here.

Churchwell cites academic experts on fascism, who note that “fascism can never seem alien to its followers; its claims to speak for ‘the people’ and to restore national greatness mean that each version of fascism must have its own local identity….Historically, fascist movements were also marked by opportunism, a willingness to say almost anything to get into power, rendering definitions even murkier.” This is why a rigorous definition of fascism is such a slippery problem. But there are features common to all such movements, which include: “nostalgia for a purer, mythic, often rural past; cults of tradition and cultural regeneration; paramilitary groups; the delegitimizing of political opponents and demonization of critics; the universalizing of some groups as authentically national, while dehumanizing all other groups; hostility to intellectualism and attacks on a free press; anti-modernism; fetishized patriarchal masculinity; and a distressed sense of victimhood and collective grievance. Fascist mythologies often incorporate a notion of cleansing, an exclusionary defense against racial or cultural contamination, and related eugenicist preferences for certain “bloodlines” over others.” Is this starting to sound more familiar now?

At the time of Hitler’s rise to power, African-American newspapers recognized the similarities between Nazism and Jim Crow and also drew causal connections. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1933 that “German universities under the new regime of the Third Reich were explaining that they drew their ideas from ‘the American pathfinders Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard,’ and that “’racial insanities’ in America provided Nazi Germany with ‘a model for oppressing and persecuting its own minorities.’ The African-American New York Age similarly wondered if Hitler had studied “under the tutelage” of Klan leaders, perhaps as “a subordinate Kleagle or something of the sort.” Historians have revealed how Hitler used American race laws as models for the Nuremberg Laws. W. E. B. DuBois also made the connection in his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America, and more than a generation later, Amiri Baraka wrote in 1991 that the end of Reconstruction “heaved Afro America into fascism. There is no other term for it. The overthrow of democratically elected governments and the rule by direct terror, by the most reactionary sector of finance capital… Carried out with murder, intimidation and robbery, by the first storm troopers, again the Hitlerian prototype, the Ku Klux Klan, directly financed by northern capital.” It took a while for white historians to catch up. It wasn’t until 2004 that Robert O. Paxton in his book The Anatomy of Fascism observed that the Ku Klux Klan can be viewed as the world’s first fascist movement. At its height in the mid-1920s the Klan had about 5 million members.

In the 1930s, there were other American groups modeled after Mussolini’s Black Shirts and Hitler’s Brown Shirts whose purpose was to threaten and intimidate blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Then there was the Canadian-born self-proclaimed “fascist” Catholic priest, Father Charles Conklin, whose radio broadcasts from Detroit reached an audience of 30 million Americans with their anti-Semitic propaganda and defended Kristallnacht as just retribution for Jewish “crimes”. And Louisiana governor Huey Long who “imposed local martial law, censored the newspapers, forbade public assemblies, packed the courts and legislatures with his cronies, and installed his twenty-four-year-old lover as secretary of state.” Roosevelt feared he would become a Hitler-type candidate for president, but he was killed during an assassination attack in 1935. More than 200,000 people attended his funeral. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist American president, was modeled on Long, who once told Lewis’s wife that “American Fascism would never emerge as a Fascist but as a 100 percent American movement; it would not duplicate the German method of coming to power but would only have to get the right President and Cabinet.” FDR’s vice president Henry Wallace wrote in 1944 that “American fascism will not be really dangerous, until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.” Which is pretty much what we have now.

Churchwell notes some of the obvious examples of fascist markers during the Trump presidency, but adds that “American fascist energies today are different from 1930s European fascism, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fascist, it means they’re not European and it’s not the 1930s. They remain organized around classic fascist tropes of nostalgic regeneration, fantasies of racial purity, celebration of an authentic folk and nullification of others, scapegoating groups for economic instability or inequality, rejecting the legitimacy of political opponents, the demonization of critics, attacks on a free press, and claims that the will of the people justifies violent imposition of military force.” Fascism is propelled more by feelings than thought, and it needs to mobilize passions, which partly explains why Trump’s support base never wavers. She concludes: “Trump is neither aberrant nor original. Nativist reactionary populism is nothing new in America, it just never made it to the White House before. In the end, it matters very little whether Trump is a fascist in his heart if he’s fascist in his actions.”

In the two years since Churchwell’s essay was published, we have seen The Big Lie metastasize and become the sacred text of the Republican Party, which has closed ranks around Trump and dares not cross him in any meaningful way for fear of retribution from the faithful base. Republicans in states they control have gerrymandered themselves into permanent supermajorities to the point that they can’t lose elections. Republican-controlled state legislatures are passing laws that potentially would allow them to overturn elections, including presidential elections, and have nominated candidates for secretaries of state (who control the election machinery) who endorse the Big Lie. Republican-controlled states are passing laws imposing criminal penalties for teachers who deviate from the sanitized and white-centric approved curriculums for history, civics, and even math. Control measures about concealed or open carry of firearms have been eliminated in many Republican-controlled states, as radical right militias proliferate and grow and the stockpile of military-grade weapons in private hands has reached frightening levels. A decades-long campaign to dominate the court system by installing rightist judges at the state and national level has now reached fruition with complete control of the Supreme Court. The list of these fascist-style measures already in force or in the works goes on and on.

Trump is the essential symbol and catalyst for the movement, but he’s no longer necessary to be its actual leader. He works just as well as a virtual deity in the metaverse and/or as a martyr, and there are plenty of mini-me’s like DeSantis or Abbott or Hawley or Cruz vying to seize the reins and take it to a new level.

The reversal of Roe v. Wade may have finally startled some white people into a realization of what is actually happening. Suddenly, it’s not just blacks, or gays, or Muslims, or undocumented immigrants who are being targeted. Before, nice white people could tut-tut about what a shame it was that “those people” were being mistreated, but now it’s hitting us! Whether it’s already too late to stop being sucked into the black hole of fascism is now the existential question.

This morning on the CBS show Sunday Morning, there was a segment in which Ted Koppel talked to passengers on a tourist bus in Mount Airy, North Carolina–which lives off its fame as the real-life setting for the fictional Mayberry of the nostalgic Andy Griffith Show of the 1960s. The passengers were all white, mostly in their 40s through 70s. Koppel asked them if they believed Biden had won the 2020 election legitimately. Only two raised their hands. The rest had clearly bought into the Big Lie and weren’t at all shy about saying so. I’m sure all the people on that bus consider themselves good, decent folks and would be mightily offended at being called fascists. But if fascism takes power in America, they will be the reason why.

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