All empires fall, y’all. At least that was the thought I had on repeat as I watched an undisciplined fascist mob attack the Capitol in Washington, D.C. I watched in fascinated horror as these mostly white activists rioted to essentially tear apart their own system, unmasked as the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives. As a Black queer person who’s attended many protests in D.C., I was struck by the lack of law enforcement’s presence, violence and force. The disparity between the police response to the Trumpist mob and the police response to the protests I’ve attended made it even more clear that the goal of law enforcement is to facilitate and protect white supremacy, not challenge it.
Over the last few years, I’ve been in community with a group of organizers and strategists studying fascism and authoritarianism in order to better understand both the movement that elected Trump and our organizing conditions on the left. The white supremacist, fascist movement seeks to eliminate Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color (BIPOC communities), as well as many oppressed communities. Many of its adherents have been fed years of lies and had their worst fears incited, with mainstream media and social media either stoking the flames or being silently complicit. In the aftermath of the 2017 white supremacist mobilizations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of a counterprotester, many of us anticipated violent attacks from right-wing activists around the 2020 election and between the election and inauguration.
I know some leftists see Joe Biden’s inauguration as a respite from the violence and repression of the Trump administration. People are longing to move into a place where right-wing attacks are confined to policy, and right-wing politicians allude to white supremacist frameworks, not openly condone them. Though under a Biden administration we may have more progressive policy options and may be able to reverse some of the most draconian of Trump’s policies, right-wing violence will continue and could escalate. For when the people poised to gain most from a system of their creation are ready to destroy it, what won’t they do? Their system, the U.S. political system, was founded on the genocide of Native people and the enslavement of Black people to increase white Christian power and white profit. This white patriarchal, capitalist, cisgender, Christian system was designed to dominate and exploit all people who don’t fit these identities or belief systems. By design, it promotes white capitalist culture and the murder, enslavement, exploitation and theft of land, freedom and autonomy from BIPOC communities.
Timothy Snyder, a historian who studies fascism, highlights a self-victimizing mentality as a critical part of fascist messaging and ideology. This belief system requires people with power within a society to convince themselves that they deserve even more power, privilege and access than is currently afforded to them. The outrage and fear around ending up at the bottom of the social order motivates fascist and right-wing populist activists to mobilize and carry out violent public acts. The sense of being violated and endangered allows members of fascist movements to betray their sense of morality, values and religious beliefs, and to even see their violent and repressive acts as “righteous.” Trump and his supporters believe they are oppressed and that BIPOC communities, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, Queer and Trans people, disabled people and many other marginalized communities are their oppressors. These right-wing activists believe and are disgusted by the idea that people who they think of as “subhuman” have taken something that belongs to them. They must, therefore, eliminate these people, before their “way of life” is destroyed. Following this logic, members of various right-wing movements believe that the only way they could have possibly lost their God-given right to govern this country is because the election must have been stolen. Their racism, xenophobia, fear and anger does not allow them to see their own incompetent electoral endeavors or the impressive and exhausting victories of BIPOC organizers who coordinated an effective mass mobilization of left-leaning and possibly otherwise disenfranchised voters.
To some degree, they are right in their assessment of their relative power. Many studies show that white people will be in the minority in the U.S. by 2045. In some age groups, white people are already in the minority. BIPOC elected officials are rising to increasingly more powerful roles. Outright racism is less publicly accepted than in years past, and BIPOC communities, immigrants, religious minorities, and queer and trans communities are more visible than ever before. Fascism partly relies on seeing these advances as threats. Within this ideological frame, the organizing of oppressed communities infuriates right-wing fascists. This is exactly why leftist movements must continue to grow, for our safety and liberation.
The virulent combination of hatred and self-victimization creates a violent and unstable social and political situation. As white right-wing activists fight against their potential “extinction,” the left builds more power and fascists feel more threatened and become more violent. The reality, however, is that they aren’t oppressed, they are being out-organized. Their attack on the Capitol shows us that some members of the right would first destroy the system that is designed to benefit them in order to ensure their ability to oppress BIPOC and many other communities. It is often the end of many authoritarian and fascist regimes that are the bloodiest. So here we are in a deeply volatile place. I believe this attempt to steal the election, and any other potential short-term right-wing power grabs, will ultimately fail. But their motivations will grow, their actions will become bolder, their militias will get larger, and the violence will increase.
The question becomes, How will we show up as the empire crumbles? This attack on the Capitol, and multiple attacks on state houses across the U.S., is designed to scare the left into submission. Yet, we give up our hard-won advances if we let our fear, trauma and terror constrain our organizing. Recognizing that fear can polarize and isolate people while heightening conflict within organizing spaces, we must pay attention and attend to how these traumatizing times, and the trauma of the past year, is impacting us. And though fear, terror and trauma can reduce our individual and collective capacity, we are safer in political relationships with each other, and we are safer maintaining and increasing our political engagement.
It was the left’s ability to win electoral victories that was a final push in scaring the fascist right, leading to their attack on the Capitol. Many of the electoral organizers who led the most transformative strategies made deep and sometimes exhaustive commitments to win. These organizers are deeply rooted in racial justice, abolition, queer and trans liberation, climate justice, mutual aid efforts, and many other movements.
If you have been waiting to become politically active, it’s time to join an organization. If you have been in a political conflict, it’s time to assess how that conflict can be attended to and navigated in order to build deeper political engagement. It’s time to think about what broad multi-issue and multi-community collaborations your organization can commit to, and which ideological differences matter and which don’t within these times. And if you feel frozen by fear and trauma, our movements still need your presence. We’re all moving through different layers of trauma and we must also assess how we can prevent our trauma from keeping us from being politically active. Our trauma will not protect us when fascists come to attack us. What support do you need to move with your trauma? What strategies can you commit to be a part of movements? What support and mutual aid can we provide for each other to build deeper movements?
Liberatory organizing for BIPOC communities has always confronted violence in order to seek liberation. During the civil rights movement, Freedom Riders would routinely write and update their wills before actions. To this day, activists and organizers face death threats regularly. We organize to survive, and we survive in relationship with each other. As political institutions and norms crumble around us, the stakes become really clear and many of our “impossible” political beliefs — including police and prison abolition, transformative justice, community governance, cooperative economics, universal health care and climate justice — become more politically possible. The right is organizing with a level of urgency and alignment that tells us that they believe we have the power to completely transform this society. They are not scared to use violence. The question is, are we ready and willing to fight for the justice we desire?