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The US Is Descending Into a Crisis of Overt Fascism. There’s Still a Way Out.

The right is seeking to steal elections and deputizing vigilantes to constrain our rights. U.S. democracy is in peril.

Police officers in riot gear stand guard in front of the U.S. Capitol where a rally is held to defend supporters of former president Donald Trump who were arrested for storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Part of the Series

The specter haunting the United States consists not only of an impending fascism, but also of the inability of conscience, morality and justice to catch up with reality. The United States has increasingly come closer to tipping into the abyss of a new fascist politics. The latest indications of this include how the GOP is seeking to deputize vigilantes to prevent abortion seekers from even leaving their own states to seek abortions in other states, the ongoing evidence showing that Republicans are actively setting the stage to steal the 2024 election if they lose, new revelations about right-wing brainwashing in K-12 education, the enactment of voter suppression laws, the banning of books, the normalizing of “white replacement theory,” attacks on LGBTQ youth, and threats against librarians for refusing to remove censored books from their library shelves.

What is even more disturbing is the simultaneous crisis of political agency and historical consciousness, and the collapse of civic responsibility that have made it possible for the threat against democracy to reach such a perilous moment.

Politics in the U.S. is no longer grounded in a mutually informing regard for both its residents and the institutions that provide for their well-being, freedoms and a vast array of civic rights. With the collapse of conscience has come the breakdown of politics as the foundation for a democratic society.

As Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit have reported, democracy is losing ground around the world as more people betray a liking for authoritarian leaders. The most recent examples of this global trend can be found in the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S., Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India, among others. According to Freedom House, in 2020, “nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a place that saw a decline in rights and freedoms.” Moreover, the report found that the United States saw “an 11-point decline in freedom since 2020, making it one of the twenty-five countries to suffer the steepest drops over the 10-year period.”

The turn toward fascist politics in the United States has a long history rooted deeply in acts of genocide against Native Americans, the scourge of slavery, Jim Crow violence, the erasure of historical memory, and updated forms of systemic racism buttressed by a merging of white supremacy, the rise of the punishing state, staggering inequality, unchecked political corruption, and a pervasive culture of fear and insecurity. As history is blindsided by the Republican Party, an intentional erasure of political and social memory rule the U.S., unleashing a dreadful plague on civic life and proving that fascism lives in every culture, and that it only takes a spark to ignite it. The Republican Party elite now views historical memory as too threatening to invoke and learn from.

The GOP goal is to disable memory to incapacitate forms of critical agency and the connection between what we know and how we act. The far right’s attempt to erase history presents itself as a form of patriotism whose actual purpose is to control historical knowledge in order to normalize white supremacy and legitimate the poisonous furies of authoritarianism. History in this repressive instance can only serve the function of learned helplessness and manufactured ignorance. As historical consciousness is repressed and disappears, the institutions and conditions that give rise to critical forms of individual and collective agency wither, undoing the promise of language, dissent, politics and democracy itself. Consequently, politics becomes more ruthless and dangerous at a time when the forces of normalization and depoliticization work to unmoor political agency from any sense of social responsibility. Angela Davis rightly asserts that this attack on historical consciousness represents first and foremost an attack on education, an attack that must be taken seriously. She writes:

What we are witnessing are efforts on the part of the forces of white supremacy to regain a control which they more or less had in the past. So, I think that it is absolutely essential to engage in the kinds of efforts to prevent them from consolidating a victory in the realm of education. And, of course, those of us who are active in the abolitionist movement see education as central to the process of dismantling the prison, as central to the process of imagining new forms of safety and security that can supplant the violence of the police.

In an age of demagogues and aspiring autocrats, not only do democratic norms, values and institutions wither, but in their absence, the pathological language of nativism and unchecked lawlessness is reinforced through “vivid images of invasion and demographic warfare [that enhance] the allure of the rebranded fascism,” as Paul Gilroy has noted. While Trump has become a flashing signpost for white supremacy, he is only symptomatic of the party’s deep-seated racism. Indeed the racism that has driven the Republican Party has never been far beneath the surface. Recall, as Thom Hartmann observed, that “the #2 guy in the Republican House Caucus, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, [once stated] that he was ‘David Duke without the baggage,’ and … Reagan’s Education Secretary, Bill Bennett, [stated] that, ‘If it were your sole purpose to reduce crime, you could abort every Black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.’” How else to explain the Republican Party’s “love of white supremacist militias and their embrace of both Nazi and Confederate iconography,” or their aggressive systemic policies of voter suppression, their racialized language of “law and order,” and their relentless attacks on transgender youth and their guardians? How else to explain Trump’s and his political allies either defense or dismissal of the violence that took place on January 6 against the U.S. Capitol?

Alarming echoes of the past have long been evident in a Republican Party that supports Trump’s description of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border as “animals, “rapists” and “vermin.” They were silent (if not overtly supportive) when he disparaged Black athletes, claimed that all Haitians have AIDS, and repeatedly used the language of white nationalism and white supremacy as a badge of identity and as a tool to mobilize his supporters. It is worth remembering that in a different historical context, Adolf Hitler spoke of Jews, LGBTQ people and political opponents in the same terms. In both historical and contemporary cases, demagogues created a cultural politics and discourse that allowed people to think the unthinkable. In the current era of militarized hate, bigotry and white nationalism, the conditions that have produced fascism in the past are with us once again, proving, as Primo Levi noted, that, “Every age has its own fascism.” Again, Gilroy gets it right in stating that there is a need to understand “Fascism as a recurrent and infinitely translatable phenomenon.”

In the face of the Republican Party’s attack on electoral integrity, judicial independence, critical education and voter rights, coupled with its unabashed defense of corruption, white nationalism and support for oligarchs such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the U.S. has become more closely aligned with the nightmare of fascism. As language is stripped of any substantive meaning, and reason is undermined by conspiracy theories, falsehoods and misinformation produced by the right’s disimagination machine, the ideological and institutional guardrails designed to protect democracy begin to collapse. More specifically, the ideals and promises of a democracy are not simply being weakened by the GOP and their followers. Rather, the threat is far more serious because democracy itself is being replaced shamelessly with the hazardous plague of fascist politics. The rule of capital and economic sovereignty is now coupled with ruthless attacks on gender, sexuality, reproductive rights, and a re-energized umbrella of white supremacist ideology and white terrorist policies. The poisonous roots of racial capitalism and its egregious system of inequality can no longer be criticized simply for their casual nihilism, numbing lack of compassion or their detachment from the social contract. Instead, they have far exceeded these social disorders and tipped over into the ruthless abyss of fascist politics.

Fascism today once again wears boldly and shamelessly the trappings of white supremacy. As neoliberalism disconnects itself from any democratic values and resorts to blaming the victim, it easily bonds with the poison of white supremacy in order to divert attention from its own economic and political failures. Instead of appealing to a free-market utopia which has lost its legitimacy due to its ruthless policies of austerity, deregulation, destruction of the welfare state, galloping immiseration and scorn for any vestige of government responsibility, neoliberalism now joins hands with a fascist politics. In this discourse, it blames all social problems, including the absurd claim that white people are victims of racism, on people of color, anti-racist discourse, progressive social movements and almost any source capable of holding power accountable.

Central to neoliberal ideology is the normalizing tactic of claiming there is no alternative to gangster capitalism. This has proven to be a powerful pedagogical tool buttressed by the reduction of political problems to personal issues, which serve to infantilize people by offering them few opportunities to translate private issues into systemic consideration. While neoliberal ideology in the economic sphere has been weakened, this depoliticizing pedagogical tactic still carries enormous power in dismantling the capacities for self-reflection and forms of critical analysis crucial to a vibrant and engaged democratic polity. As Viktor Frankl argued in a different historical context, such reductionism is “the mask of nihilism.” Gilroy advances this argument and states that under such circumstances, democracy has reached a dangerous point. He writes:

As ailing capitalism emancipates itself from democratic regulation, ultra-nationalism, populism, xenophobia and varieties of neo-fascism have become more visible, more assertive and more corrosive of political culture. The widespread appeal of racialized group identity and racism, often conveyed obliquely with a knowing wink, has been instrumental in delivering us to a situation in which our conceptions of truth, law and government have been placed in jeopardy. In many places, pathological hunger for national rebirth and the restoration of an earlier political time, have combined with resentful, authoritarian and belligerent responses to alterity and the expectation of hospitality.

Such warnings by Paul Gilroy, Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Sarah Churchill, Robin D. G. Kelley, and others raise the crucial question: In what kind of society do Americans want to live?

In addition, there is the question of what kind of future we envision for upcoming generations, especially at a time when such questions are being either ignored or relegated to the dustbin of indifference by politicians, pundits and propaganda machines that harbor a contempt for democracy. As culture is weaponized, the horrors of the past are forgotten. Books that speak to struggles for freedom and address issues of social injustice are now banned by Republican legislatures in a variety of states.

As Robin D. G. Kelley has observed, the lesson here is that such practices have no interests in exposing children to historical narratives in which “courageous people risked their lives to ensure freedom for themselves and others.… The implication of this right-wing logic is that America is great, slavery was a good idea, and anti-racism sullied our noble tradition.”

Such policies are about more than suppressing dissent, critical thinking and academic freedom. The more radical aim here is to destroy the formative culture necessary to create modes of education, thought, dialogue, critique, values, and modes of agency necessary for individuals to fight civic ignorance and struggle collectively to deepen and expand a sustainable and radical democracy. Under such circumstances, the warning signs of fascism are overlooked, ignored and run the risk of being normalized.

In the current historical moment, ethical horizons are shrinking, and politics has taken on a deeply threatening stance. This is made clear by the growing popular support for Trump and his political allies who exhibit a contempt for both democracy and a sustainable future while embracing the most profoundly disturbing anti-democratic tendencies, particularly the mix of ultra-nationalism and white supremacy.

Crucial here is Rob Nixon’s notion of “slow violence” because it highlights theoretically those forms of power and violence “that occur gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed over time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” The slow violence of authoritarianism is evident in voter suppression laws, the subversion of election machinery, the embrace of white supremacist policies to define who counts as a citizen, and the use of Republican legislatures to purge critical thinking from public schools and undermine the courts. Trumpist calls to “restore greatness” are code for restoring the U.S. to a time when only white people had access to spaces of power, politics and citizenship.

Weaponized disposability and its language of unbridgeable identities is present in the misery that goes unmentioned as a result of the staggering inequality produced under neoliberal capitalism. Such violence, while destructive to democracy, is not of the eye-catching type that immediately grabs our attention because of its catastrophic visibility. As Nixon points out, such violence is rarely newsworthy regardless of how toxic it may be. Yet, it demands a rethinking of power and its workings as part of the hidden curriculum of violence, one that can only be made visible through a serious and concerted historical and relational understanding of politics and the forces that shape it. Slow violence is often one that is only visible in a totality of events, visible only through a politics that is comprehensive and functions to connect often divergent and isolated forms of oppression. For instance, the right-wing attack on schools that demand students not wear masks in the classroom, if viewed as an isolated event, misses the larger issue at stake in this form of attack which is the goal of privatizing (if not eliminating) public education.

The fast and catastrophic brutality of authoritarianism embraces violence as a legitimate tool of political power, opportunism, and a vehicle to squelch dissent and terrorize those labeled as “enemies” because they are either people of color or insufficiently loyal to Trumpism — or oppose the white Christian reactionary view of women, sexual orientation and religious extremism. Fast violence, in this instance, is not hidden; it is displayed by the Republican Party and the financial elite as both a threat to induce fear, and as a spectacle to mobilize public emotions. In this context, theater is more important than reason, the truth, justice and measured arguments. Violence and lies inform each other to shatter facts, evidence, democratic values and shared visions. As James Baldwin once observed in “A Talk to Teachers,” Americans “are menaced — intolerably menaced — by a lack of vision [and] where there is no vision the people perish.” This 21st century model of fascism legitimizes the ideological and political framework for a cowardly defense of an insurrection intended to overthrow the 2020 presidential election, and the vile claim that Joe Biden had not fairly won the presidency. This is a form of lethal violence that is both embraced as a strategy and denied and often covered over with lies in order to disavow its consequences, however deadly.

As the U.S. House Select Committee investigation of the January 6 attack on the Capitol clearly demonstrated, there is mounting evidence that the former president’s claim of a stolen election was the animating cause of the attempted coup, and that he and other high-ranking members of his party were criminally responsible for the murderous violence that took place. Moreover, they had plotted before the attack to engage in a larger coup aimed at both undermining the 2020 presidential election results and whatever was left of U.S. democracy. Trump and his political allies made a mockery of the law by trying to pressure the Justice Department, state officials, Vice President Mike Pence, election officials, and others into aiding his goal of reversing Biden’s election. Trump and his corrupt cohorts in the Republican Party did more than engage in seditions conspiracy — they normalized crime, corruption, state terrorism, fraud, lies and violence.

As Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows made clear during her deposition before the January 6 hearing, Trump both incited and encouraged the violence on January 6. She told the committee that, “Trump knew a mob of his supporters had armed itself with rifles, yet he asked for metal detectors to be removed.” She also recounted how his desire to lead them to the Capitol caused a physical altercation with the Secret Service. The security set up by the Secret Service was implemented to prevent Trump’s armed supporters from attending the rally space outside the Ellipse where he was scheduled to speak. As David Graham points out, drawing on Hutchinson’s testimony, “Trump didn’t care. ‘They’re not here to hurt me,’ he said. He demanded that the Secret Service ‘take the fucking mags away [referring to the magnetometers used to detect metal weapons],’ and added, ‘They can march to the Capitol after this is over.’”

Once again, Trump asserted the rhetoric of mass violence and revenge as a form of political opportunism, regardless of the lethal consequences. Unfortunately, Trump’s call for the public to arm themselves in order to overturn a stolen election was reinforced by the recent Supreme Court ruling on carrying guns in public. This is not to suggest that the Supreme Court legitimized the violent coup. Instead, it legitimated the conditions that both makes and encourages the conditions for mass violence by ruling that people can carry concealed weapons without applying for a proper permit or due cause.

Lest we forget, the January 6 insurrection, now revealed as an organized coup, resulted in the deaths of at least five people and injuries to 140 police officers, and more than 840 rioters have been charged thus far with a crime. Trump’s response to assault on the Capitol and the ensuing violence was to claim that the mob was engaging in a form of legitimate political discourse and that the attack “was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our country to Make America Great Again.” Peter Wehner rightly notes that such comments and actions suggest that Trump was not simply “a criminal president, but … a seditious madman.” Bennie Thompson, the House Select Committee chair, stated that Trump was a traitor to his country who “engaged in an attempted coup. A brazen attempt … to overthrow the government. Violence was no accident. It represented Trump’s last stand, most desperate chance to halt the transfer of power.”

Yet, in spite of the growing revelations about Trump’s penchant for corruption, sedition, lying, violence, willingness to overthrow democracy, and the almost irrefutable image of him as a would-be dictator willing to do anything to secure power, his “polling position with Americans overall is one of his best, and he remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination.” Incredulously, a recent NBC News poll found that “a majority of Americans (55%) now believe that Trump was either not or only partially responsible for the rioters who overtook the Capitol…. That’s up from 47% in January 2021.”

What appears lost from much of the coverage of January 6 is that it cannot be solely attributed to Trump and Trumpism — his revised brand of fascism. The roots of such violence and the politics that inform it lie deep in U.S. history and its racist machinery of elimination and terminal exclusion. But the deep affinity for violence in the U.S. can also be found in a brutal neoliberal capitalist system that has produced massive inequality, misery, violence and suffering, while threatening the future for an entire generation of people. The roots of the current age of counterrevolution are also present in the falsification of history, degradation of language, the attack on the ethical imagination, a massive abuse of power, the emergence of massive disimagination machines, the cult of the strong leader, the rise of the spectacle, and the perpetuation of mass violence similar to what took place under fascist regimes in Italy and Germany in the 1930s.

History is once again unleashing its crueler lessons amid a climate of denial and counterattacks. Yet ignoring the lessons of history comes at great peril, since they provide a glimpse of not only the conditions that produce the terror and cruelty endemic to authoritarianism, but also serve as warning signs of what the end of morality, justice and humanity might look like. The warning signs of a fascist politics are crucial to recognize because they make visible common attributes of fascism such as ultranationalism, racial purity, the politics of disposability, nativism, the language of decline and resurrection, the appeal of the strong man, the contempt for the rule of law and dissent, the elevation of instinct over reason and an embrace of the friend/enemy distinction, among other attributes. The signpost of fascism and its threat to democracy become even more obvious when individuals surrender their agency, capacity for critique, morality and humanity for the plague of totalitarianism. Such dangers make it all the more necessary to understand the pedagogical forces at work that undermine political agency, reinforce lawlessness and pave the way for what Adorno once called the authoritarian personality. What is being promoted in the current counter-revolutionary moment is an attack on historical consciousness, memory and remembrance, which are elements of history that keep alive traditions that speak to human suffering, moral courage, and the struggle for democratic rights, public goods and social responsibilities.

If the current move toward fascism both in the United States and across the globe is to be resisted and overcome, it is crucial to develop a new language and understanding regarding how matters of agency, identity and consciousness are shaped in terms that are both repressive and emancipatory. This suggests that the struggle over agency cannot be separated from the struggle over consciousness, power, identity and politics, and that politics is defined as much by the educational force of culture as it is by traditional markers of society such as economics, laws, political institutions and the criminal legal system. The poison of bigotry, anger, hatred and racism is learned and cannot be removed from matters of culture, education, and the institutions that trade in shaping identities and consciousness.

As a long tradition of theoreticians and politicians ranging from Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Raymond Williams to Stuart Hall and Vaclav Havel have argued, culture is not a secondary but fundamental dimension of society and politics. Moreover, they have all stated in different terms that politics follows culture in that it is the pedagogical baseline for how subjectivities are formed and inhabited. Furthermore, a number of theorists such as Paulo Freire have rightly argued that matters of agency, subjectivity and culture should be a starting point for understanding both the politics that individuals inhabit and how the most repressive forms of authoritarianism become internalized and normalized. Havel was particularly prescient in recognizing that power in the 20th century has been transformed, especially in light of the merging of culture and modern technologies such as the internet and the social media. In light of this transformation, he stated that power was inseparable from culture and that it was:

grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth. [In addition, he states that] the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans [have reshaped] the horizons of our existence…. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché — all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought depriv[ing] us — rulers as well as the ruled — of our conscience, of our common sense and natural speech and thereby, of our actual humanity.

The role of culture as an educational force raises important, if often ignored, questions about the relationship between culture and power, politics and agency. For instance, what ideological and structural mechanisms are at work in corrupting the public imagination, infantilizing a mass public, prioritizing fear over democratic values and transforming robust forms of political agency into an abyss of depoliticized followers? What forces created the conditions in which individuals are willing give up their ability, if not will, to discern lies from the truth, good from evil? How are such pathologies produced and nourished in the public spaces, cultural apparatuses and modes of education that shape meaning, identities, politics and society in the current historical moment? What role does a culturally produced civic illiteracy play as a depoliticizing force, and what are the institutions that produce it? What forms of slow violence create the conditions for the collapse of democratic norms?

Crucial to such questions is the need to recognize not only the endpoint of the collapse of democracy into a fascist state, but also what the tools of power are that make it possible. At the same time, important questions need to be raised regarding the need for developing a language capable of both understanding these underlying conditions in the service of authoritarianism, and how they are being sustained even more aggressively today in the service of a totalitarian state in the making. Language in the service of social change and justice must be reinvented and once again function in the service of critique and militant possibility. In part, this suggests the necessity for a language of informed resistance in which education becomes central to politics and furthers the efforts to create the conditions for new and more democratic forms of agency and collective struggle.

It is important to note that I am not suggesting that language is the only basis for power. On the contrary, language is defined through notions of literacy, civic culture, and shifting symbolic and material contexts. Power is more expansive than language and also present in the institutions, economic forms and material relations in which language is produced, legitimated, constrained and empowered. Matters of language and civic literacy cannot be either instrumentalized or stripped of the power of self-determination, critical agency or self-reflection. At its core and against the discourse of authoritarianism, cultural politics should be addressed from the point of view of emancipation — a discourse about education, power, agency and their relationship to democracy. Cultural politics should be acknowledged and defended as a pedagogical project that is part of a broader political offensive in the fight for a radical democracy and its sustaining institutions.

What we are witnessing in the United States is not merely a threat to democracy, but a modernized and dangerous expression of right-wing extremism that is a prelude to a full-blown version of fascist politics. One crucial starting point for mass resistance is articulated by Paul Morrow, who, referencing Hannah Arendt, argues that authoritarian societies do “everything possible to uncouple beliefs from action, conviction from action.”

Any struggle for resistance must create the pedagogical conditions that address the connection between agency and action. The great Frederick Douglass understood this when he stated that “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” While it is generally accepted that power cannot be divorced from knowledge, it is often forgotten that this suggests that agency is a central political category and that at the heart of authoritarianism is an uninformed and often isolated and depoliticized subject who has relinquished their agency to the cult of the strongman. Consequently, to resist authoritarianism means acknowledging the power of cultural politics to connect one’s ideas and beliefs to those vital human needs, desires and hopes that will persuade people to assert their voices and actions in the building of a new mass movement and a democratic socialist society.

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