“One thing is sure. Democracy is doomed. This is our last election. It is fascism or communism. We are at the crossroads — I take the road to fascism”. — Father Charles Coughlin, 1936
In a day of stark images, one symbolized American descent like no other: the busts and portraits of patriots past gazing down from the walls at a lone terrorist walking through the halls of the Capitol, a large Confederate flag unfurled behind him. One hundred and sixty years have now passed since Abraham Lincoln gazed out at the Potomac in early 1861, anxiously awaiting the arrival of federal troops to save Washington from insurrectionists. It was saved then. Only now, long after Bull Run, is the flag of treason, of white rejectionism, displayed in the Capitol.
American fascism is ascendant. Those who ignored its rise, who both-sides’ed the rising schism in America, can no longer avert their eyes from the ascending illiberalism and resultant fragility of the republic. Donald Trump is the orchestrator of Wednesday’s horrific events, but as Edward R Murrow once said of Joseph McCarthy, “he didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully.” Trump could not have brought the country to the brink of catastrophe without the assistance of people who not only should know better, but probably do. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful in what we pretend to be” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night and if the functionally illiterate president is ignorant of Vonnegut’s wisdom, two Harvard educated scions of the establishment, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, likely aren’t. And yet each faux-earnestly pretended to swaddle Donald Trump’s Klu Klux Koup in the respectable garments of fighting “electoral fraud” or “irregularities” or whatever nonsensical nomenclature cloaked reality and gave rhetorical cover to the very real threat against democracy metastasizing on the ground. Each, presumably was well aware that Trump simply seeks to retain power in defiance of the will of the people, to end, in essence, 242 years of Constitutional governance, and yet each self-appointed Constitutional Conservative dutifully supported efforts to infer the darkness of dictatorship in the parchment of liberty. In years to come, we’ll be told that they didn’t really mean it- that they knew there were no grounds, but that play-acting concern was pleasing to their master, hence pleasing to their own ambitions, and anyway, nothing came of it, did it? What’s a few broken windows in the Capitol building, really?
Cruz, who once read Dr. Seuss on the Senate floor as a filibuster, is no stranger to grandstanding. Yet this effort was different. Here, Cruz, Hawley, and their fellow travelers in Congress took affirmative steps to disenfranchise 81 million Americans, for no reason other than a sociopathic President demanded it. Worse, in doing so, each objector made a cynical calculation that doing so would rebound to their electoral benefit: in other words, that American voters by the millions would reward rather than punish an effort to impose the heel of a a modern American fascism on the face of our democracy. Worse still, they’re probably right. The GOP coalition has been primed for decades to view Democratic politicians and their voters as illegitimate per se. Trump’s naked efforts to stamp out what remains of multiparty democracy follows in the tradition of Reconstruction-era Americans stating in essence that in a contest between primacy and democracy, it’s the latter they’ll throw overboard first. The central question for the incoming Biden era is therefore a stark and knotty one not posed in America for over one hundred years: how does a democracy survive if almost half of its voters prefer it doesn’t?
There are a host of questions to resolve as America, and our vision of ourselves, burns. But two overarching reactions are necessary if we are to disenthrall ourselves from the rising internal menace, and reclaim some hope for the future. For hope is not yet lost. American fascism, carried forward on a throne of aggressive lies and active disinformation, is both ascendant and formidable, but not yet inevitable. If there is a footpath to safety, it’s time for Americans to trod forward.
The first, and most immediate, is accountability. At 3:40 am, when Vice President Pence finally certified the election for Biden/Harris, democracy gave the illusion of having been successful, but make no mistake- fascism won the day on January 6. By breaching the supposedly impregnable United States Capitol, with the apparent inaction and even aid of the very police force sworn to defend it, by following eagerly the incitement of a lawless President prizing fidelity to himself above the republic to which he serves, and by the shockingly low number of arrests which followed so horrific an intrusion into the people’s hallowed halls, fascism has been told that it must quiet down for today, but that it is free to try again at a later time of its choosing. That Biden/Harris were certified as the winners by Congress is not a victory- it is the minimum of what has been required, a ministerial act for hundreds of years that was turned into high drama only by the willing choice of those whose attachment to an erratic fascist was stronger than to both reality and the Constitution to which they swore an oath. That members of Trump’s administration have apparently, through the coward’s veil of anonymity, begun to criticize him, that members of Congress have accepted the reality that Biden will be President, is not a moral awakening to be celebrated but the meek words of small men who, having gleefully provided matches to the arsonist now denounce the ashes.
If Donald Trump, the members of Congress who aided and abetted his attempt to overthrow the United States government, and those individuals who followed his lead do not face a legal reckoning, they will be back, sooner or later, in growing strength and firepower, for the very air we breathe. That their immediate objective of noncertification was not met does not mean that their larger project of destroying American democracy has been undermined. Fascism teaches us that without larger consequences the ultimate goal of both leaders and foot-soldiers alike are deferred but not deterred. While commentators have been since 2017 primed for a Reichstag fire moment, the breaching of the Capitol was an American Beer Hall Putsch, which similarly failed, and even more spectacularly than did our pathetic effort. Weimar democracy’s survival in 1923 did nothing to arrest the forces that crushed it a decade later. As with Weimar, failure alone is insufficient to alter the overall course. Fascist leaders gain part of their power from thumbing their noses at the established order and sheltering their followers within the patina of impregnability. Each time they violate rules and come out stronger, the bond is strengthened. Already, we see the results: the very failure of the terrorist attack on the Capitol, while shocking, apparently is not sufficient reason for Republican voters to abandon their project. 45% of Republican voters in a yougov poll taken immediately after the terrible event support the storming of the Capitol. One of Trump’s earliest public lies was that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers; that was false, but twenty years later, the same citizens who eagerly swallowed those lies now celebrate the fall of the Capitol.
Responsible Republican leaders, slim as they are, must follow this glance into the abyss and at long last, begin to act responsibly. The speeches of Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, late as they were, were perhaps some recognition that Vonnegut’s maxim was consuming them whole. But words cannot suffice for action. Without the immediate removal of the President, his prosecution for electoral fraud (the Georgia call was the worst crime ever committed by an American President for all of three days) and conspiracy to incite sedition, and severe consequences for the Republican members of the House and Senate who aided and abetted Trump’s farcical coup with each bleated utterance they knew was transparent fiction, fascism will mutate to an even more virulent strain. Voltaire’s quip that his one prayer was “Lord, make my enemies ridiculous” was reborn in a Giuliani press conference fronted by a dildo shop, his face melting like a lost outtake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet even in ridiculousness, in shameless lies bleated on blast, the coup attempt, voted on after the breaching of the Capitol, received the support of 147 members of Congress. Next time, competence will marry itself to incitement with a far greater effect.
So there must never be a next time. Lest we forget the preeminent lesson of fascism past: appeasement doesn’t work, it only whets the appetite for greater bloodshed. Consequences must fall on those who were incited to invade the Capitol, but there will always be gullible authoritarians willing to be let loose for mayhem: the snake must be killed at the head, not the tail. In confronting an earlier era of insurrectionists, Lincoln once asked “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier-boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?” So it goes again: the insurrectionists who strike at the heart of American democracy must be stopped from inducing violence, and that begins with the President, and extends down to his appeasers in the Senate and House. If they do not believe in democracy, they should be expelled from its hallowed halls. Donald Trump must be impeached if his cabinet will not act- a man who cannot be trusted with a twitter handle cannot possibly be trusted with the Presidency. The Hawleys and Cruzs who were his willing handmaids must pay a price as well. The Constitution (Article I, Section 5, Clause 2) provides that “Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” Seventeen out of the twenty Senators and Congressmen expelled in American history were expelled for supporting treason in 1861. Those who by knowing concurrence helped bring the Confederate flag marching through the Capitol building on our new day of infamy should be expelled for doing no less. Sedition is no more honorable cloaked in a suit and tie than it is in a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt. It stands on the same side, and must share the same fate.
Punishing the guilty is only part of it. Replanting the bitter soil that has permitted open acceptance of fascism to grow among the populace is the longer-term, but no less important goal. How, in sum, can Americans be turned from the willful embrace of fascism back to the messy, squabbling, but ultimately functional form of democracy?
Some is legal — certainly, now is the time for Congress to amend laws which have proven all too malleable for a would-be autocrat — but for the larger population of would-be Good Germans, economics must play a major role. Fascism is built in the ruins of decaying capitalism. Where neither party provided hope, Americans flocked to Trumpism because he at least provided a story. A story of grievance, of victimhood — “You’re all victims”, spoken by Trump in Georgia, was the truest expression of his appeal — but a story of belonging nonetheless. The men and women who stormed the Capitol conceived of themselves not as globalization’s bitter losers assaulting democracy, but as patriots with a key role to play in a renewed 1776. If they are to return to democracy, democracy must provide a grounded hope for a better life. For while nothing excuses the totalitarians in our midst, the story of economic degeneration is a clear and telling marker for fascism’s durability, and a prerequisite for dampening the flames of fascism is reversing its malign effects.
Out of work or underemployed citizens of working age are the backbone of rising fascism, something the generation which conquered fascists understood intrinsically. In 1944, FDR unveiled his economic bill of rights, intended to carry forth the ideals of the New Deal into the postwar order. The President was keenly aware that the economic power of the working class and their security within it was critical to the survival of democratic values:
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
So then, what are we to make of the fact that the share of American men in their prime working years (25 to 54-years-old) but not employed has jumped sharply in the last four decades? Today, one in five of them isn’t in the labor pool at all, and given the increasing mechanization of the economy, the worst may be yet to come. The conclusion of a 2017 McKinsey report is as stark as it is brutal: “We estimate that between 400 million and 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030 around the world.”
Support for fascism is both an end result of the predations of runaway capitalism and an accelerant of the very trends which midwifed its ascension. Placed at the mercy of international financial flows, American workers, as it turns out, react exactly as the petit bourgeoisie of foreign countries have responded when the security of their lives have been tied to the anchor of mercurial and mobile capital. Prizing their place above the working class below, the increasingly insecure American middle class, devastated by mechanization, foreign investment, and squeezed by runaway costs in education, housing, and health care, finds itself increasingly drawn to the simplicity of a political movement which provides both a target for burgeoning fury and the promise of a placebo of prominence, basking in the glow of the strongman’s permissive aura of rule breaking and favoritism.
In one way, we are lucky: when our fascist movement arrived, it arrived without a broad ameliorative economic agenda to marry to cultural reactionary theology. That in theory opens the door for an economic agenda to be advanced by those who do seek the survival of representative democracy.
Some of the changes we can, and must make, are not complicated. Labor unions, once the backbone of American industrial democracy, have been devastated. Yet in this era of increasingly racialized fascism, labor unions can provide not only a collective vehicle for action, but a tool of racial reconciliation. A 2020 paper titled “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, provides new data affirming that multiracial unions do indeed positively transform white workers’ attitudes about race. Largely, unions provide exposure to members of different races and require them to work together on a common goal. The results can often lessen the racial hatred that fascist movements prompt and the economic hardship that births them. Federal policy which encourages organized labor, as it once did, is vital to beat back fascism.
Job retraining, too, could be far better done in America. Mostly, workers whose jobs have been dislocated by international capital are left to founder on their own, becoming increasingly bitter, alienated, and cut off from the life they believed they’d lead, easy targets for fascistic appeals. But there is another way. Germany, for instance, refashioned its national unemployment agency into a job-matching entity that gives career advice and vouchers to cover retraining costs. Sweden provides even greater access to job retraining to ensure its laid-off workers have opportunities to succeed. So too, college. Virtually everyone agrees that a college degree provides a long-term premium on earnings — there’s a reason suburbs, long a Republican stronghold and of a higher education level than the average population, placed the shiv in Trump’s re-election. Yet state support for college degrees have declined from 79% in 1980 to just 55% last year. College is increasingly out of reach, necessitating the student loan crisis overhang which depresses everything from spending to social mobility. Federal policy to reduce college costs at public colleges is not within the realm of the impossible, and whether good economics or not, is important to beat back fascism.
There’s so much else. America has long promoted democracy initiatives in nascent or failing democracies abroad. Some of the medicine prompted abroad- truth and reconciliation committees, civil society support to promote economic development, combat violence, and empower youth, and anticorruption initiatives at the federal level — should be used at home, in a national version of doctor, heal thyself.
“Besides, he promised everything to everybody, which naturally brought him a vast loose army of followers and voters from among the ignorant, the disappointed, and the dispossessed.” A description that could apply to Donald Trump, certainly, but it doesn’t: it’s a portrayal of Hitler written in 1933 — long before the camps or the war- by German émigré Sebastian Hafner. Fascism doesn’t start with mass death. It starts with an appeal to those who feel themselves economically and culturally victims of a new order. That appeal can’t be destroyed all at once. Only the wholesale rejection by the people of anti-democratic stratagem pursued by ambitious politicians, even ones they agree with, can do that for good. In the meantime, by holding such perpetrators accountable and by instituting long-term economic reforms to ameliorate the harshness of America’s atomized economic landscape, Americans can at least begin the long road back from the brink of democratic deconsolidation. At minimum, if we want to avoid scenes like the assault on the Capitol and the gleeful mirth of those who encouraged it, we need to get serious about mobilizing legal and economic tools in defense of the survival of ordered liberty. Otherwise, we’ll see a new Confederate flag of sorts draped not over the Capitol, but over the entire future of American government.