The author offers one of her periodic assessments of America’s potential to go fascist. And the news is better than it’s been in years.
America has never been without fascist wannabes. Research by Political Research Associates estimates that, at any given time in our history, roughly 10-12 percent of the country’s population has been bred-in-the-bone right-wing authoritarians — the people who are hard-wired to think in terms of fascist control and order. Our latter-day Christian Dominionists, sexual fundamentalists and white nationalists are the descendants — sometimes, the literal blood descendants — of the same people who joined the KKK in the 1920s, followed Father Coughlin in the 1930s, backed Joe McCarthy in the early ’50s, joined the John Birch society in the ’60s, and signed up for the Moral Majority in the 1970s and the Christian Coalition in the 1990s.
Given its rather stunning durability, it’s probably time to acknowledge that this proto-fascist strain is a permanent feature of the American body politic. Like ugly feet or ears that stick out, it’s an unchanging piece of who we are. We are going to have to learn to live with it.
But it’s also true that this faction’s influence on the larger American culture ebbs and flows broadly over time. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with them much at all, because the far-right fringe was pushed back hard during the peak years of the New Deal. It broke out for just a few short years in the McCarthy era — long enough to see the rise of the Birchers — and then was firmly pushed back down into irrelevance again.
But the country’s overall conservative drift since the Reagan years and the rise of the Internet (which enabled the right’s network of regional and single-issue groups to crystallize into a single, unified, national right-wing culture over the course of the ’90s and ’00s) reenergized the extreme right as a political force. As a result, history may look back on George W. Bush’s eight years as the “Peak Wingnut” era — a high-water mark in radical right-wing influence and power in America.
Now, things are changing again. Every year or so for the past five years, I’ve written about the future prospects for America’s would-be fascists on the far right. And it’s time to take another look, because the political and cultural landscape they’re working in now isn’t at all the same one they were working in even three years ago.
Fascist America: We Were Very Nearly There
The last time I visited this subject in 2010, progressives were reaching a point of maximum despair. In 2008, the GOP had taken its most thorough drubbing since the FDR years. But, just two years on, the far right had not only regrouped; it had taken full control of the Republican Party under the resurgent Tea Party banner — and was getting set to elect some of the country’s most extreme political, social and economic Neanderthals. In the process, it was also about to retake Congress, along with control of over half of the state governorships and legislatures.
And take over it did. In the wake of this victory, the far right’s new electees shifted into overdrive, immediately introducing brutally aggressive legislation to bust unions, disenfranchise Democratic voters and roll back a century of progress on reproductive rights. The speed and power of the onslaught was breathtaking — but it was also driven by desperation. What most pundits missed was the fact that the far right had no time to waste, because both the mood of the country and its basic demographic realities were changing under their feet.
Polls over the past decade show that America is, at its core, a progressive nation in every way that matters, and that this trend is solidifying and expanding with time. As Nancy L. Cohen put it in Delirium: How The Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America:
Cultural progressivism is the new American way….A majority of all Americans now supports same-sex marriage. Americans strongly upholding Roe v. Wade, and strongly oppose the position of the Republican Party. Fully 62 percent think that abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, in which 89 percent of abortions occur; only 15 percent favor outlawing abortion in all circumstances. Americans have become less religious and less culturally conservative over the past 40 years. Polling on birth control and sexual morality show that Americans unequivocally reject the sexual fundamentalists’ attempt to take us back to a time when sex was stigmatized and only legitimate when confined within the traditional heterosexual marriage. The majority of Americans believe in the basic values underpinning a culturally progressive approach to matters of sex, gender, family, and culture: privacy, personal freedom, equality, and pluralism.
This progressive bent also extends to the country’s attitudes on ending corporate dominance over our economy, supporting a robust middle class, and addressing climate change and other environmental crises.
The conservatives know that the demographic trends are not on their side, and that whatever limited advantages they enjoy now are receding with every election cycle that passes. Right-wing America is old, white, rural, and religious — a cohort that’s shrinking with every passing year, and is even now in the process of being swamped by a tide of voters who are younger, urban, ethnically diverse, and largely non-churchgoing. It was that tide, mobilized, that elected Obama — the first time it’s been heard from, but by no means the last.
So these hard-and-fast grabs for power are a Hail Mary play. The far right sees that the clock is running out. It’s rushing to consolidate its gains as fast as it can, in the hope of slamming America as far to the right as possible in the time it has left — and also building big, ugly legal obstacles that will make it much harder to undo the damage when the younger, more progressive wave that’s rolling in finally does assume full control.
The Race for the Future
My past assessments of the far fascist fringe’s political prospects were mostly predicated on which side would win this race for the future.
Would the far right — now mostly standing under the Tea Party banner — manage to consolidate power fast enough to hijack our democracy entirely, and institute the fascist theocracy of its dreams? In 2010, the signs were strong that it was on track to move quickly toward that goal.
Or, alternatively: would the basic decency, common sense and patriotism of the American people kick in in time to halt the fascist power grab and knock the country back toward its better, fairer and more democratic side? Despair was deep and time was growing short. There were few signs on the ground that this was even possible.
In the past, I warned gravely that the first scenario was our default future unless something changed radically. Fascism creeps; and one of its hallmarks is that by the time you realize you’re in it, it’s too late to do anything about it. The legislative agendas being pursued in statehouses all over the country — not to mention the stated willingness of congressional Tea Partiers to crash the American economy, tear up constitutional protections, enable theocracy, and bring our government to a standstill — were clear warnings that our country was in the hands of radical revolutionaries who will stop at nothing, up to and including destroying the country, to get their way.
More ominously: a political movement that’s willing to take power through terrorist violence — which the far right threatens constantly, and delivers on often enough for us to take that threat seriously — doesn’t need anything remotely like a majority to take over a country. When you’re willing to use force, democracy becomes irrelevant.
In the dark hours of 2010, it was hard to even imagine that the second scenario was possible. Americans were apathetic, disengaged and resigned. Everybody saw where things were going, but it was like watching a train wreck — that slow-motion horror in your head, the disbelief, the sense that nobody can hear you screaming, and the sickening knowledge that there’s nothing you can do to stop what you know is coming.
Now, from the vantage point of 2012, it’s surprising how quickly the view changed. It’s way too soon to call a winner in the race, but as it stands now, the second scenario has pulled into the more likely position, and the possibility of a fascist America is starting to fade back.
The difference is the same simple signal I was hoping to see back when I started tracking this in 2006. Finally, after years of impotence, average Americans have done the one thing that will make all the difference: they woke up and got pissed. Wisconsin was the first sign. Then came Occupy. Now, this spring, it’s sprouting up everywhere, to the point where our would-be fascists can’t take a step anywhere without getting their feet tangled up by protestors determined to hold them to account.
Mind you: our country’s future still looks like that slow-motion train wreck. But, even though the train is still moving and the horror is still filling our heads, you can finally hear your own voice screaming. And so can everybody else. There’s a gathering sense that even though there’s still nothing we can do, we must do something. Standing on the sidelines and watching is no longer an option. We know the time has come to fight for our country’s future — and our own futures as well.
This uprising of American decency and vision is the critical difference that switches tracks, and puts us onto an entirely new future. As long as this pushback continues, the fascist future that loomed so large in the front window through the years of Peak Wingnut will continue to belong to the receding past.
It won’t happen quickly. It could be another decade before we can fully shove the would-be fascists in our midst back into their box. Wrestling them in there will still be a long, ugly fight.
A lot of the damage will come by attrition. They’ll lose power with every election, as their base and funders (most of whom are quite old now) die off. They’ll lose relevance as their talking heads retire, lose audiences and get canceled, or discredit themselves by saying outrageous things that are increasingly less tolerable to most Americans (and their own corporate sponsors). The fact that the most radical-right candidates in the GOP primary — Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, and ultimately Santorum — all flamed out in favor of Romney speaks volumes about the limits to the far right’s ultimate power within the Republican party, even now. They may pack the state houses and stall Congress, but at the end of the day, they can’t elect a president.
The Tea Party proto-fascists will probably hold onto some legislatures and congressional seats over the long haul in their home regions — but they don’t have anything like the momentum in 2012 that they did in 2010, and surveys of both voter attitudes and expected demographic shifts suggest that this decline is probably a long-term trend. They’re on the wane.
To make matters worse (for them), they’re also reacting to the loss of power by digging themselves ever deeper into their own hole. Most of the Republican establishment knew from the jump that the war on women was a political disaster in the making — but the Tea Party extremists, driven by that ticking clock, couldn’t be persuaded to let it go. That recklessness may well cost the GOP the election. Now that the pushback has started, the GOP has locked itself into a self-destructive cycle in which no change of course is possible. As long as it keeps spinning this way, the odds of a Fascist America will continue to diminish by the month.
In the meantime, the danger of political violence may actually get worse. Right-wing domestic terrorists are at their most virulent when they’re furthest back on their heels politically. Over the course of the next decade — as the very different priorities of that younger, more urban and diverse voter cohort come to dominate the nation’s political agenda — we can expect to see an uptick in violent retribution as the most militant members of the far right make a desperate last stand for their vision of the country’s future.
As usual, the biggest trouble will likely come in the states where the friction between far-right conservatives and this new emergent electorate has already heated up to the flash point — Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and similar states where the old guard had been counting on fascist solutions to keep a new generation it fears under control. Alternatively, the violence will start in these states, but be directed against coastal big-city targets seen as representing the decadent society the far right refuses to accept. Either way, the more ground they lose, the wiser we’d be to expect them to try to take their frustration out on the rest of us.
A Final Word
Some may think that in saying we’ve probably passed the critical switch from a likely fascist future to a likely not-fascist one, I’m somehow suggesting that the threat is passed, or that struggle is no longer required, or that we can all pack up and go home now.
To be very clear: I am not saying that. In many ways, the real fight — the one that pulls up the American economic, political and cultural order by its floorboards and lays down the foundation for something better, freer and more humane, fair and durable — is only just beginning. What I am saying, however, is that the tide has turned to the point that we are not unreasonable to believe that our preferred future has a strong chance of coming to pass. Our enemies are noisy and well-funded, but they are also small in number, crazy and increasingly despised. Everywhere, the growing, rising, creative part of the country is soundly rejecting them, and the future they were offering. And on our side, there are signs of uprising everywhere — the first green shoots of a new world in the making, one that will we will spend the next 20 years bringing into fruition.
As long as that vision continues to spread, there will be good reason to believe that the future will most likely belong to us.