Fascism. It’s about time Americans got as comfortable with that ‘F word’ as they are with the other one. A two-tiered system of US fascism is emerging: ‘fascism-lite’ for most people, and full-blown repression for stigmatized ‘Others’ – Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the undocumented, and those protesting the government and police. Americans must call fascism by its name even if it’s not hitting all of us – yet.
Just because Trump caught COVID-19 and Biden is favored to win the upcoming US Presidential Election doesn’t mean we have a reprieve from democratic backsliding. ‘Fascist’ is the descriptor of an increasingly consolidated corporate-oligarchical, racist, anti-democratic regime and of a violent movement that will endure no matter who triumphs on November 3rd.
Consider the new ‘normal.’ Despite a flurry of outrage in 2019 the US government is still separating migrant children from their parents and imprisoning them in squalid concentration camps. In Portland, Oregon, in July, federal agents without badges or insignias forced protestors into unmarked cars and whisked them away. Right-wing vigilantes have repeatedly assaulted and killed peaceful protestors. Dozens of attacks involving vehicles plowing into demonstrations have taken place, including as recently as September 23. Trump’s incitement is getting shriller. Remember: Mussolini and Hitler seized power when fascists and anti-fascists were battling in the streets.
Trump and his surrogates are enamored of Nazi-style claims about racial hierarchies. Jews “are only in it for themselves.” Black heads-of-state run “shithole countries.” Endorsing ‘the racehorse theory,’ Trump told White Minnesotans ‘You have good genes.’ Eric Trump, echoing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, told a Pennsylvania rally that protestors are ‘beta people‘ and exhorted the crowd to ‘tear them to pieces.’
Nazis pioneered the ‘Big Lie‘ technique that Trump has taken to new heights. The President’s lies try to paper over an extraordinary record of self-dealing and pro-big-business and anti-labor measures. They extend to efforts to delegitimize mail-in balloting, purge voter rolls, intimidate voters, and suppress registration. The lies justify calling into question – for the first time in history – democratic continuity. To this end, the GOP has bent erstwhile neutral institutions from the Postal Service to the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to partisan ends.
Even if Amy Coney Barrett doesn’t join the Supreme Court – and she probably will, though against the majority of Americans’ wishes – we could see the end of the Voting Rights Act, women’s right to choose, and government protections for the environment. Fox, the most-watched cable channel, celebrates right-wing vigilantism and Kyle Rittenhouse, the accused killer of two Black Lives Matter demonstrators. No matter who wins the election, the future is perilous.
It is no longer a stretch to think that Trump might fabricate a Reichstag-style ’emergency‘ to seize absolute power. Soviet émigré journalist Masha Gessen reminds us that even under regimes based on lies rule number one for surviving authoritarianism is ‘believe the autocrat‘ when he announces malevolent intentions. Trump comments frequently that he can’t guarantee a peaceful transition.
The main difference between fascist rulers and authoritarian populists is that the latter claim legitimacy on the basis of elections, however corrupted these may be. Trump instead increasingly treats likely electoral outcomes as inconvenient obstacles to staying in power. Historical analogies are always imperfect, but we fail to learn from history at our peril.
Words matter. Words allow us to make sense of reality and not using certain words elides unpleasant truths. Facism is not just an epithet. US-style fascism is not German or Italian fascism. The feds or Trumpist vigilantes won’t come after me for writing this article. US-style fascism-lite leaves open some political space to placate, mystify and entertain the media and intelligentsia. For those who rule, it doesn’t matter if the chattering classes’ blood boils and pundits go ‘tsk tsk’ in the media. The far-right gangs, their corporate backers, and their many authoritarian fellow travelers inhabit an alternative information universe.
US fascism is ‘lite’ for people like me. But Americans are now grasping that African Americans who are systemically confined in heavily policed neighborhoods or who are in the ‘wrong’ place at the ‘wrong’ time have never gotten the ‘lite’ treatment. They get full-blown fascism for jogging-while-Black or sleeping-while-Black. As the New York Times’ Charles Blow wrote about Breonna Taylor, she “was an innocent woman, sleeping in her own home, breaking no law. The state broke down her door and shot her dead.” Immigrant workers feel similarly vulnerable to workplace raids or when appearing in court or picking kids up from school. For the undocumented, US fascism isn’t so ‘lite’ either.
Fascism-lite is one reason Americans have a hard time pronouncing this particular ‘F word.’ Another is that we’ve failed to teach younger generations about the barbarism of historical fascism. In the 1950s and ‘60s my father, who served in the Army during World War II, told me war stories at bedtime. The big death camps were well known then, although today two-thirds of young Americans are unaware that Nazis slaughtered six million Jews in the Holocaust. My father’s jobs in the Army were capturing post offices, splicing communications cables and blowing up bridges. But he also told us that in addition to Auschwitz and the concentration camps, there were slave labor camps in many German towns he passed through, filled with emaciated survivors and dead bodies piled up like cordwood.
Later I learned that many veterans did not tell their families what they had witnessed. These members of the Greatest Generation didn’t want to revisit those horrors. Together with the Western allies and the USSR, they defeated Nazi Germany, along with Mussolini’s fascists, Japan’s imperialists, and all those lesser fascists like Hungary’s Arrow Cross. Some of their grandchildren became today’s Proud Boys, Patriot militias and neo-Nazis, which surely has many World War II vets turning over in their graves.
In the aftermath of World War II, almost all Americans were unequivocally anti-fascist. Now, for those in power, ‘anti-fascist’ has become a term of opprobrium. That might be because fascism applies to them too.