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Fascism Is Rising, But It Does Not Have to Be Our Future

Fascism won’t be defeated with reactive organizing. We need long-term strategy.

Anti-fascists, LGBTQ people and local residents oppose a far right protest against a Drag Queen Story Time event on April 29, 2023, in London, United Kingdom.

Most organizers are exhausted, striving to balance the impossible load of community crises, family crises and urgent campaigns. Addressing long-term visionary campaign work can feel particularly challenging in these times of increased attacks from the right. Organizers are reeling within a political terrain where the left is working to preserve reproductive justice and bodily autonomy; address the criminalization and state violence against communities of color; navigate rising legal, political and interpersonal violence against Queer and Trans communities; address the increased violence, scapegoating and criminalization of immigrants; contend with the climate crisis; respond to the rise in mass shootings; care for communities still struggling from current COVID infections and long COVID, and so much more.

However, as leftist organizing becomes more defensive, the onslaught of attacks from the right keep increasing. It’s critical for organizers to understand that these attacks are being fueled, supported and strategized by fascist movements. Organizers must know how fascism works to develop proactive organizing strategies before fascists utilize chaos, fear and violence to freeze leftists into submission.

Defining Fascism

Fascism is an ultranationalist, anti-democratic, far right movement. As author Shane Burley points out, fascism is a set of political practices fundamentally based in upholding rigid, identity-based hierarchies. These hierarchies manifest as forms of supremacy depending on the country and cultural context. For example, fascist movements can be white supremacist, nativist, male supremacist, Christian supremacist, and more. Under fascism, the majority sees itself as a victimized community that’s fighting against marginalized communities for its survival. Within the U.S., fascists have convinced themselves that immigrants, Trans people, Black people, and many more marginalized communities are working to eradicate their way of life. In order to maintain their position, fascists believe in “purifying” society of the communities they see as undesirable to maintain the status of their conception of the “master race.” Fascists believe that democracy has failed them and allowed the majority (in the U.S., white Christian men) to be tyrannized by communities that have no right to power. Therefore, fascists seek to eliminate both democratic processes and marginalized communities to return to an often fictitious and glorified past where their power reigned unchecked.

Scholars are currently tracking fascist movements in India, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, Russia and the U.S., among others. In each of these places, fascism has different qualities. What they have in common is that these movements seek to take over all aspects of public and private life and to eliminate people and communities who don’t conform with their worldview.

Organizers and activists must understand and monitor fascism because these movements are more easily stopped before they have time to make significant advances and increase violence. Fascist movements can grow, expand and take over political parties. Fascist movements can take over government functions and eliminate democratic processes, leading to authoritarian states. Fascist states espouse a militaristic, violent worldview, imprisoning and inflicting violence against their opponents. Fascism grows best when it is appeased or ignored, and history has shown that you can’t negotiate with fascists — you must defeat them.

Fascism can be confusing and contradictory, utilizing ideology and practices that we see on the right and the left, including elements of mass mobilization and mass suppression, revolutionary fervor and hierarchical obedience, pseudo-science and mythology. It is often a contextual and reactionary movement that can be difficult to characterize ideologically. Robert Paxton, author of the “Five Stages of Fascism,” points out that “there is no fascist manifesto,” meaning that without a core text or definition, fascism can shapeshift based on location and cultural context. For these reasons, it can be exhausting to try and precisely define fascist ideology; instead, it’s more helpful to focus on how fascist movements work — and the types of repressive political developments we can anticipate.

Fascist Movements Under Biden’s Presidency

When Donald Trump’s re-election campaign was defeated, many of us breathed a sigh of relief — not because we thought that Joe Biden’s presidency would be progressive, but we felt that we would be more equipped to contend with a centrist Democrat than a far right fascist and authoritarian Republican.

During Biden’s presidency we’ve neither seen a rollback of fascist advances nor an increasing and strengthening of democratic processes for all communities. Instead, as researchers Steven Gardiner and Tarso Ramos from Political Research Associates point out, “Biden’s anemic interventions significantly increase the chances that his administration will be remembered as a brief interregnum, one that lulled too many into complacency.”

These political times can feed the growth and expansion of fascist movements. Fascists hate the political and cultural advancements of marginalized people, the language of equality, and representative political systems. George Jackson asserted that “the common feature of all instances of fascism is the opposition of … socialist revolution.”When marginalized communities exercise power, it stirs up the anger and fear of fascists, motivates their organizing, and expands their base. Since fascism has risen historically in response to leftist advancements, we can predict rises in fascism as leftists progress toward liberatory goals. This is a dynamic that we should expect, anticipate and strategize around. Keeping fascists out of the presidency does not inherently protect us from fascism, because while the Democrats are holding some forms of state power, fascists are organizing to capture the minds, hearts and lives of their base. We must stay vigilant to the difference between fascist state capture and societal capture and recognize that they do not have to occur concurrently.

How Can We Track Fascists’ Progress?

There are several indicators to help monitor the advancement of fascist movements:

  • Fascists use nationalist messaging to inspire and mobilize their base — particularly if it harkens to a glorified past.
  • Fascists work to grow and consolidate right-wing movements under their political frame.
  • Fascists create or take over existing political parties to increase their electoral powerand use these parties as tools for state capture.
  • Fascists move their talking points into policy, working to concretize hatred, fear and violence against marginalized communities, further enlivening their base.
  • Fascists work to control narrative, academic discourse in service of the “nation’s” needs and criminalize or eliminate opposing perspectives.
  • Fascists remove, disempower or discredit democratic processes, including reducing voting rights and electoral power for marginalized communities.
  • Fascists consolidate their formal military power and normalize paramilitary organizations, resulting in increased incidents of violence against leftists and marginalized communities.

Several of these indicators are already occurring, and it’s critical for leftists to be present with their progress.

Fascists have used nationalist messaging to inspire their base and increase power within Republican Party

The MAGA wing of the Republican Party exhibits many tendencies of fascist movements. “Make America Great Again” is a nationalist slogan in itself. The concept that the U.S. was previously great (and can be returned to this period) appeals to people who haven’t historically experienced oppression, namely white Christian male citizens. Various studies characterize MAGA Republicans as those who believe that Biden is an illegitimate president, that “native-born” white people are being replaced by immigrants, and the “traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may need force to save it.” This movement is utilizing its messaging to consolidate and grow its power among the far right and exercise substantial power within the Republican Party as a whole. Even President Biden has said that the Republican party is “dominated by MAGA Republicans” and is increasingly beholden to their politics. Current studies measure MAGA Republicans as between 40 percent — 70 percent of the Republican party with an overall estimate that 50 million Americans identify with these messages and politics.

Fascists use their increased power to move their beliefs against Trans communities, abortion and immigration into policy

As this movement grows, proponents are moving their beliefs into anti-Trans, anti-abortion and anti-immigration legislation. Fascists adhere to strict gender roles, and particularly within the U.S.’s white nationalist fascism, patriarchal roles and viewpoints are a foundation of the mythic past they desire. Fascists are fighting to end the decline in their “way of life” and they see the disintegration of gender roles as part of the downfall of their “nation.” LGBTQ, non-binary, Trans communities, and drag performers challenge rigid concepts of the gender binary in ways that fascists consider highly threatening. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, a prominent speaker declared that “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life.” Fascists are actively seeking to attack Trans communities, Queer communities, and drag performers to remove these communities from public life and increase violence against them. In 2023 alone, the ACLU tracked 482 anti-LGBTQ bills, ranging from reducing necessary health care for Trans people, limiting access to public accommodations including restrooms, banning conversations of LGBTQ issues in schools, limiting access to sports for Trans young people and banning drag performances. This dramatic increase in anti-LGBTQ (and particularly anti-Trans legislation) comes paired with increased threats against drag shows. According to GLAAD, there were 166 documented cases of threats against U.S. drag shows and events since 2022, including “increasingly violent rhetoric and incidents […] including armed white supremacists demonstrating” at and even attacking many venues across 47 states.” Through these sentiments and policies, fascists whip their base into a frenzy of false victimhood to enact structural and interpersonal violence against an extremely oppressed community.

MAGA continues to operate as a fascist movement by working to eliminate abortion rights. Abortion is a form of bodily autonomy that directly challenges the centrality of the patriarchal family. Individuals do not have freedom over their bodies under fascism, particularly individuals who aren’t cisgender men. Since the goal of reproduction in the fascist worldview is to continue the “master race,” bodily autonomy and abortion challenge fascist belief systems. During his administration, Trump worked to assuage his fascist base by appointing far right justices, which resulted in the overturn of Roe v. Wade through the Dobbs decision. Since 2022, 13 states have completely banned abortions. The right has also increasingly criminalized traveling for abortions, self-managed abortions and assisting people to have abortions, creating a treacherous landscape.

Fascist movements have also moved their anti-immigrant agenda deeper into policy and practices. A 2022 study on American political views found that 50 percent of respondents believe that “native-born” white people are being replaced by immigrants.” In 2012, the U.S. Census predicted that as of 2043 the country would no longer be majority white, and scholars named children of immigrants as the fastest-growing demographic. This accelerated fascist fears of the “great replacement theory,” a conspiracy theory that immigrants and people of color are actively working to exterminate white people. The intertwining of demographic shifts and fascist beliefs have created a landscape for dramatic budget increases for immigration enforcement, the increased militarization at the border, reduced access to asylum for migrants, and dangerous and deadly conditions for migrants.

Fascists work to control academic discourse

Critical Race Theory (CRT) speaks to structural racism, and the role of racism as foundational to U.S. institutions. From 2021 to 2022, lawmakers introduced 563 measures against critical race theory, which included measures in all 50 states. These bans misapply the label of Critical Race Theory to a broad range of topics and consequently prohibit the teaching of race, racism, and white privilege. Fascist lawmakers misleadingly claim that these concepts disparage white people and indoctrinate young minds. These bills have been adopted 241 times. Attacking critical race theory aligns with fascist goals of asserting the U.S. as a country with a “master race,” and removing and criminalizing all forms of thought that contradict this worldview.

Fascists work to remove, reduce and discredit electoral processes

One of the biggest examples of fascist challenges to electoral processes was the January 6 insurrection, when MAGA Republicans sought to disrupt the Electoral College certification of Biden’s presidency through violently storming the Capitol. Additionally, The Guardian reports, between 2020 and 2022, fascist movements have worked to introduce “130 bills across 42 states that would increase law enforcement within the voting process.” These bills have ranged from creating or expanding agencies to investigate “election crimes,” to criminalize the turning in of absentee ballots for others, and increasing penalties for false voter registration.” These actions, coupled with the fact that 37 million voters believe that the election was stolen, highlight disconcerting trends toward reducing the U.S. voting systems and power. The history of fascist movements’ challenging of electoral processes is well documented. Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism, highlights the connection between Trump as a fascist leader, and also compares the January 6 insurrection to a pro-fascist riot in France. In 1934 groups of French veterans attempted to invade the French Parliament to stop the vote to confirm the elected government and instead elevate a fascist dictatorship modeled after Hitler and Mussolini’s, a moment eerily similar to the January 6 insurrection.

Fascists normalize paramilitary organizations and incite political violence

The presidential debates in 2020 highlighted the normalization of fascist paramilitary power. When asked to disavow the Proud Boys, Trump defiantly stated, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.” As named in their legal testimony, the Proud Boys believed this was a cue from Trump, and were later charged with seditious conspiracy, which requires prosecutors to prove that two or more people attempted to overthrow the government.

Whether it was the storming of Michigan’s state capitol, also in 2020, or the January 6 insurrection, the MAGA movement believes in political violence, highlighting its fascistic practices. The power of these sentiments continues to grow at an alarming pace. Studies show that 50 percent of Americans believe that there will be an upcoming civil war in the U.S. and 30 percent of Republicans believe that violence is necessary to save the country. The recent Texas mass shootings and the Buffalo mass shooting in 2022 were perpetrated by followers of fascistic websites and organizations, highlighting a connection between these beliefs and gun violence.

How Do We Defeat Fascism?

“[Fascism is recognizable] by its terror of truly democratic agendas.” — Toni Morrison

The United States’ long history of white nationalist and white supremacist fascism has been intertwined within the U.S.’s articulation as a liberal democracy. Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color within the U.S. have often lived underneath a fascistic and supremacist state. Fascism scholars regularly cite the Cornerstone Speech as one of many examples of U.S. fascism. The vice president of the Confederacy gave this speech, claiming a need to ensure that their new principles of governance align with the principles of “nature in opposition to the Constitution”:

Those ideas, (the constitution) however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.” Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Fascism remains embedded with U.S. politics; Italian fascism and German fascism took inspiration from the U.S.’s Jim Crow laws, and the KKK inspired many leaders within European fascism. The MAGA movement continues and enlivens the legacy of fascist beliefs that have always existed within this country.

Despite this history, fascism does not have to be the U.S.’s future. Our current trajectory is alarming, yet the increasing power of fascists can still be curtailed. Fascism produces and thrives on a culture of fear and chaos. Chaos can create conditions where it is almost impossible to focus on long-term strategy — yet long-term strategy is exactly what we need to win against fascists. The left’s potential strategic pitfall is an overreliance on short-term, reactive organizing. The goal of fascists is to scare leftists into stopping a progressive agenda. Yet to truly defeat fascism we must create the opposite —movements that are so vibrant and relevant to everyday people that the allure of fascism is eliminated. Leftists need to focus on the strategies of creating liberatory governance where people have access to their needs, freedom within their bodies, and rights separate from societal hierarchies. This is what scares fascists the most — that the left will envision and execute a world that eliminates the hierarchies that they depend upon.

Fascism has been defeated multiple times in history. Fascists need to be out-organized through collaborations that often require broad alliances, typically among the left and center political forces. In these times where our movements are facing serious fractures, when many of the movement organizations are struggling to engage and align their internal strategy, it’s important to remember that our survival is dependent on the strength of our organizing and our collaborations. As Shane Burley states, “Fascists’ end game is not to rule the state, but to rule our lives.” The foundation to the fascist thinking is that we are out to eliminate them, and we need to do just that.

The author would like to thank Shane Burley for offering his insight into fascism for this article.

Note: A correction has been made to clarify that Steven Gardiner and Tarso Ramos are not “right-wing researchers” but rather researches associated with Political Research Associates, a leftist organization that researches the far right. A direct quote from their report has also been added to this article.

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