Twenty-two months into the Trump administration, the United States is a country in denial. Even amid the Democrats’ recent electoral gains, Trump’s would-be opposition is not poised to halt the rise of fascism. Nancy Pelosi announced plans to pursue “bipartisanship” and “common ground,” even before her own electoral victory was complete. Trump himself endorsed Pelosi as Speaker of the House — making clear that there is no leadership in the legislative branch that is equipped to confront the steady rise of Trumpian fascism. Meanwhile, as Pelosi flaunted her establishment takes, some on the left smugly mocked leftists who had joined Democratic electoral efforts, backing candidates and working to get out the vote. Was this what they had been fighting for, the critics asked? For a Pelosi-Trump partnership that would aid in Trump’s expansion of the military-industrial complex?
Even as those divisions simmered, another moment of left-of-center conflict broke out when news emerged that protesters had paid a visit to Tucker Carlson’s home in Washington, DC. Protesters, who apparently knocked on Carlson’s door a few times, chanted and shook a tambourine, before one of them spray-painted an “A” on Carlson’s driveway, were characterized as “monstrous” by Stephen Colbert and condemned as “disastrous for any republic” by television producer David Simon. Colbert and Simon had apparently made no inquiry about the protests before commenting, instead basing their analysis on Carlson’s now-debunked version of events, thereby accepting the account of a white supremacist propagandist (who was not home at the time of the protest).
Critics like Simon have stated that by “normalizing” the already common tactic of visiting people’s homes with political messaging, antifa are putting marginalized people at greater risk. As organizers and journalists who are Native and Jewish respectively, we are among those Simon claims to be defending with his critiques, and we feel we must, in this critical moment, name the errant nature of such assertions. People who are attempting to interrupt right-wing violence are not responsible for the violence of the right. You will not defeat fascism by example, and any belief that enforcing a standard of respectability will stop bombs and bullets is a dangerously misguided perspective.
What We’re Up Against
All of these points of division, and the online scuffles they inspire, are a sign of a much larger threat to our collective freedom and survival: We lack the united front that will be required to fight fascism in this country. And that front is necessary, because fascism is rising.
In his book, Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, Shane Burley describes fascism as a “form of extreme nationalism, broadly defined, that bases itself on a mythological past that a group intends to return to.” Burley addresses fascism not as a hard-and-fast set of laws and circumstances, but as a phenomenon that can be recognized through its prevailing traits. “The fascist project is not about achieving totalitarianism,” writes Burley, “it is about reclaiming the mythological identity and order, and if totalitarian means are the way to get there then so be it.”
The reclamation of a mythological identity and order is inarguably at the heart of Trumpism and its ascendance in American culture. While much attention was paid, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, to the idea that white workers were feeling left behind by multicultural politics amid economic downturn, such headlines never kept pace with the facts: White people who supported Trump voted for the supremacy of whiteness. Trump’s cult of personality, his self-professed nationalism, his fear-mongering against marginalized groups, his sermons about white victimhood and his scapegoating of the media for the violence of his supporters all fall within a fascist frame.
The political landscape of Trumpism calls for an embrace of the myth of a nobler time, when Americans were “great.” “Make America great again” is quite rightly understood by many as a call to reify racial hierarchies that privilege whiteness while putting out-of-line marginalized communities back in their place. Such a project happens not only at the governmental level, but also at a basic social level, and it is augmented by both state violence and violence that, while not officially sanctioned, occurs with the tacit or stated consent of the state.
At this juncture, we have seen an increasingly normalized evolution of Trumpian fascism. While some of Trump’s more inhumane policies, such as the Muslim ban and child separations at the border, have prompted immediate public outrage, the ongoing barrage of Trump’s catastrophic policies and proclamations has had a profoundly desensitizing effect on the public. When a Trump supporter recently attempted to assassinate Trump’s political rivals, including two former Democratic presidents, no state of emergency was declared, and the attempted bombings were barely a topic of discussion during the closing days of the midterms. And while the Trump administration and its fandom push full steam ahead with their agenda and attacks, Trump’s would-be opposition continues to flail, with CNN condemning antifa on the basis of Carlson’s now debunked exaggerations, as though antifascism were indiscernible from the violence of fascism itself.
With much of the “resistance” focused on targeting the left for its alleged incivility, how can we hope to create a mass movement that can actually thwart the continued rise of fascist politics in the United States?
First, we must acknowledge that fascism really is rising. While the oppressions being amplified under the Trump administration have long been with us, there is a distinction between a society where inequity exists, and one where inequity is explicitly endorsed, codified and openly maintained by brute force. Trumpian fascism is a collision of neoliberalism, old-guard conservative values and Trump’s ego-driven mainstreaming of “alt-right” ideas and positions.
In The Anatomy of Fascism, political scientist and historian Robert O. Paxton characterizes fascism as being “marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity.” The sense of decline and victimhood plays into the creation of scapegoats and political villains — those who are supposedly to blame for the suffering of those whose identity is being privileged within the fascist construct. Inequality, as it functions in fascist understanding, is not a social condition but an innate reality of what it means to be human. The greatness of those being privileged is natural and preordained, and if the privileged are suffering, it is because lesser peoples have been allowed to thwart their prosperity.
The fact that this narrative is simply untrue does not deter its adherents. Facts are all but irrelevant in any debate with Trump or his supporters. To Trumpian fascists, the truth is not simply unimportant, it is a liability, since it has the potential to interrupt Trumpian narratives, and must be subverted, invalidated or simply mocked out of the conversation.
Fascist ideas have, of course, always been at work in American society — after all, German fascism took a number of its cues from the United States. As such, we have fine examples of our own to examine, when it comes to the dehumanization and political vilification that characterize the endgame of fascist repression.
Learning From Incarcerated Organizers
While it’s useful to take lessons from organizers who resisted fascism in other countries and other eras, examples of organizing under fascist repression also live closer to home. The nearly 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in the United States already live under conditions that meet many of the criteria for fascism. As imprisoned Black liberation activist and author George Jackson put it in a 1971 interview, the prison is an “institution serving the needs of the totalitarian state.” Imprisoned people also offer a model of what the end of line looks like for those persecuted under fascism. Unable, at this time, to simply execute those he would reject from society, Trump has embraced carceral solutions, such as prison camps, to propel his social and political refashioning of the United States.
Incarcerated people are monitored at all times, to the point of being stripped of their clothes and dignity at random. Their communications are continuously scrutinized. When organizing, they face constant investigation and reprisal — and often horrific retribution. Imprisoned people live their lives under siege, surrounded by state-sanctioned abusers and factionalized groups that are often at odds with one another, and yet they persevere in the name of freedom, dignity and survival. We have much to learn from those who find hope in the darkest of places and cooperation in their darkest of hours.
Organizers behind bars show us that it is possible to build movements with who is there. In a cell block, denied free range of motion even within the prison itself, the luxury of screening for exact political alignment simply does not exist. Of course, those behind bars work to build communities with like-minded people. However, in general, you cannot choose your cellmate. You cannot choose your cellblock. You cannot choose what prison you will be sent to, or when you’ll be transferred. You cannot choose when you will be allowed out of your cell for yard time, or who will be allowed out with you, or where you might be able to go when that door is opened. Under the fascistic conditions of the prison, organizers have demonstrated that movements can be grown from an extremely powerful uniting factor – a common oppressor.
The most striking examples of build-with-who-is-there organizing may be those building movements from within solitary confinement. The California prison hunger strikes of the past decade, and particularly the massive statewide strike that took place in 2013, demonstrate how oppressed people can forge strong ties across seemingly great differences, in even the most repressive of circumstances. The 2013 hunger strike, in which roughly 30,000 people inside California prisons participated, was launched by the Short Corridor Collective, a few men trapped in solitary cells, always alone, kept in concrete boxes. They organized by shouting through vents and toilet drains.
The men formed what might at first appear to be a highly unlikely alliance. They had each been placed in solitary because of accusations of gang membership – in rival gangs. (Many “validations” of gang membership procured in prison are the result of confidential informants, targeting based on political activity, or a refusal to provide incriminating information about other prisoners.) However, preceding the hunger strike, the Short Corridor Collective released the historic Agreement to End Hostilities, resolving to work together across racial lines to build a united front against the system oppressing them.
“We must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention, and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners], and our best interests,” the Agreement reads. “We can no longer allow CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to use us against each other for their benefit!! Because the reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force….” The Agreement was not a pledge to total “unity,” but rather a recognition that a collective struggle was the only workable — in fact, the only possible — path.
Those behind bars also built formidable, sustained relationships with a wide range of allies on the outside, including activist groups, faith communities, and their dedicated families and friends.
The 2013 hunger strike made headlines around the country and reverberated across the political and cultural landscape. The pressure on politicians to confront the issue of solitary confinement intensified, and eventually, the California Department of Corrections made several concessions to the strikers. In 2015, a class action lawsuit filed by one of the strike organizers resulted in a momentous settlement aimed at significantly reducing the use and duration of solitary confinement. There’s still a long, long road to the end of solitary, but in many ways, the strikers – organizing across massive boundaries, both physical and political – won the day. They organized with who was there, and they rose up mightily against impossible odds.
There are other lessons we can glean from battles waged behind bars. During the prison labor strike earlier this year, organizers took great care to acknowledge that participants would not be perfectly politically unified, and that this diversity of opinions came with the territory of organizing a mass front against an oppressive system. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the group of incarcerated people that spearheaded the strike, stated on its Facebook page in September, “Anyone believing 2018 prisoners strike was one issue or grounded in a particular view are manipulating the fact on how diverse the prison population really is (hence, the diverse 10 demands). Salute to every prisoner that stood up, and continues to stand up for what JLS simply calls ‘your human rights.’” Moreover, organizers recognized that a broad range of tactics would be deployed in various prisons, based on different circumstances and different communities. They realized that although many participants would choose a labor strike, lots of incarcerated people don’t have jobs, and others might simply feel that a hunger strike or a boycott might be more effective. The point was to build a united front against brutal oppression, while living under conditions of near-total repression.
Embracing a diversity of tactics and perspectives acknowledges a basic tenet of organizing in the face of authoritarian power: Numbers matter. As renowned organizer and writer Mariame Kaba puts it, “We need more people.”
An image from the August Rebellion of 1974, when the women of Bedford Hills Correctional Center revolted and took over parts of the prison, resonates here. The women rose up after guards dragged Carol Crooks, an incarcerated Black organizer, from her cell, beat her severely, and then threw her in solitary confinement indefinitely. Her friends didn’t know if she was alive or dead. The August Rebellion was brief, but powerful: Once one woman got hold of a set of keys, a growing group quickly liberated about 200 prisoners. As formerly incarcerated journalist JB Nicholas writes, “They went floor-to-floor, building-to-building, flowing through hallway gates, overwhelming guards, snatching more sets of keys, opening cell doors, gathering numbers, building momentum, spreading the word ‘that they killed Crooksie.’” They seized control of two buildings.
Although the occupation lasted only several hours, it had long-term impacts. After the August Rebellion, when the uprising’s leaders were fighting their cases in court, they were supported by a multiracial, multifaceted outside coalition (including Black liberation activists and a range of feminists), and a broad coalition within prison. Women under severe repression testified about abuses they’d experienced, as part of Carol Crooks’ defense. Moreover, the women filed multiple lawsuits — and saw victories. As Nicholas points out, “the women’s revolt eventually led to prison reforms that still protect female prisoners from arbitrary and excessive segregation in solitary confinement.”
The image of women literally freeing each other from cells, hall after hall, rapidly building up the numbers necessary to “overwhelm guards” and empty cages, is instructive. We must build up our numbers. We must gain a critical mass capable of overwhelming the forces of fascism. We must recognize that, in the context of the current national moment, liberation will mean collective liberation. We must realize that there is no time to waste. And we must understand that when survival and freedom are at stake, sometimes the answer is not “bipartisanship” or civility. It’s collective revolt.
Locking Arms in the Face of Fascism
If we are to reconcile the severity of our situation, and fight accordingly, we will have to take our cues from people who have already reconciled their worst-case scenarios and resolved to organize their way out, whatever it takes. While we may be overwhelmed by the realities of modern-day surveillance, the power of the police state, and our own long-held fears and resentments of one another, prison organizing offers a much starker example of these phenomena, and how people can draw on all their resources — including their abilities to build unlikely bonds — to face them down.
To work in concert with people we may not agree with, some of whom we may view as political enemies in other contexts, may seem unthinkable to some. To understand why such unthinkable alliances at times prove necessary, we must understand the kind of thinking we are up against. Benito Mussolini, describing the goal of fascism, said:
The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State — a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values — interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people … everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state.
As Burley writes, adherents to fascist ideologies are attempting to return to a mythical past — a greatness that never was — and therefore, also require a mythological understanding of the present. Reality is rewritten, as needed, such that knowledge and belief fall within the jurisdiction of the ruling power.
So, what does it mean to exist in opposition to such a construct? To begin, we would have to acknowledge that, as resistors, we will not be “a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values” that “interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.” We are not the state, and in rejecting the fascist project, we are in fact determining to live in that space that Mussolini would characterize as a void, since there is “nothing outside the state.”
We do not have the option of allying everyone with a stake in ending fascism under the same set of politics at this time, if ever. That is not to say that we must abandon our visions of what the world should be, or that we should cease to challenge one another’s visions of a just world. But if we put the fight for fascism on pause until the battles of the left have been resolved, there will be nothing left to liberate. According to the UN, we have until 2030 to stop the clock on climate change. With men like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in power, we simply stand no chance of doing so.
In a mass movement against fascism, we will see many approaches. Those who prefer to organize for policy change within the halls of government have a great deal of work in front of them. Rather than concentrating on the case for impeachment — a tactic that only appeals to Democrats who are already politically activated — Democratic advocates should be pressuring politicians to throw their energy into issues like Medicare for All, free tuition and other issues that could benefit a yet-to-be-activated progressive base. Such advocates could also be building a wide-ranging strategy to confront voter suppression in all its manifestations, recognizing that such suppression is necessary for the forces of fascism to thrive. This kind of organizing is a tall order, and it is not the work of critics and pundits — it is the work of people who are legitimately determined to stop fascism.
Individualism has long made fools of those who might find liberation in collectivity: Proudly divided into factions of one, the governed remain governable. In this moment, it is not merely liberation that is at stake, but also survival itself. We, on the left, do not know how to get along, but the stakes have never been higher.
We have failed to understand that a united front and unity are not the same thing, and will not always exist in concert. Any mass movement large enough to take on fascism will not be governed in its entirety by any of our particular ideologies. To fight the “embracing entity” of fascism, we will need a moral and social cohesion of our own as we operate in opposition to its violence. We must lock arms in the face of our common oppressor. As we look to prison-based struggles for lessons on fighting fascism, one theme rises again and again, and that is unyielding solidarity.
Solidarity is not theoretical. A real commitment to it forces us to ask ourselves: If our neighbors are being targeted, will we work to protect them? Will we dissent publicly against policies that harm our friends, even if that might put a target on our own backs? Who will we defend? And if it comes to it, who will we hide?
Who are we in this moment, in relation to each other, and who do we want to be? Whether or not we realize it, we are all answering these questions, in real time, in the face of fascism.