From our US correspondent: The analysis presented in September’s ‘Notes from the US‘ drew heavily on psychology to make clear that fascism is not a political philosophy, nor has it any ideological legitimacy. Rather, fascism is a ‘cover’ for selfishness. It aims to justify humans’ most destructive tendencies.
We examined ways in which the entire political right in the United States has promoted Trump’s brand of fascism, from the inappropriately named ‘conservative’ wings of the Republican party through the MAGA ‘Freedom Caucus‘ to the fascist militias. They – and the propaganda outlets which normalise all these trends, personalities and ‘policies’ – are to blame.
This month, we examine how this elevation of selfishness and lack of compassion and empathy have reached the stage that it has.
Although these same media portrayed the Republicans as ‘split’ at the beginning of October over the removal of Kevin McCarthy as speaker, we should make no mistake: nearly all factions on the right subscribe to supremacism, intolerance and oppressive inequality. Their voting record in the House of Representatives, in particular, supports Trumpy fascism. Their near-total worship of Trump advances it. Their refusal to disavow his behaviour and the violence he calls for promotes his fascism. So do such suggestions by his fellow Republicans as this. As do moves such as these in North Carolina.
Almost the entire spectrum of the right in the United States has shown itself materially behind Trump’s intolerance, idiocy, supremacism, incompetence and authoritarianism.
It can also be argued that by not using accurate terminology and not rejecting the very essence of Trumpy fascism, a majority in the other main party in the United States, the Democrats – as well as most media outlets – give the trend far too easy a ride.
Also to be exposed are dishonest sleights of hand on the part of most commentators and observers of US politics. What they dub ‘extremism’ is not necessarily to be deplored because its origins and effects appear to occupy a position notionally too distant for comfort from what has been arbitrarily appointed as the ‘centre’. The truth is that (far) right political actions are destructive, oppressive and unethical in and of themselves. Remember the election in which three candidates stood; each advanced a different answer to the question, “What do four and four make?” The first said “4”, the second “5” and the third “6”. Afraid of veering too far from the centre and of being seen to shun ‘consensus’ as extremists, a majority voted for “5”.
Indeed, perhaps the most alarming conclusion to be drawn from this two-part examination of rising fascism in the United States is the lack of pushback by the élites on the elision between what has hitherto passed as acceptable ‘conservatism’ and fascism. For their wish to gain and retain respect (if not for principles), one might presumably have expected more discrimination between Right vs. Left and ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’. But a historical perspective is needed to make such distinctions. And that is lacking.
Those on the right allow emotion, bias, ignorance, precedent and reliance on bias-confirming propaganda to dictate how they act. Indeed, almost all reaction to Israel’s response to the unforgivable horror of Hamas’s attacks this last week completely ignores the roles of Netanyahu’s fascist government and those which preceded it in oppressing two million Palestinians for the previous 16 years. (The psychology here is one where the oppressed party assumes the role of another oppressor to retaliate.)
Similarly, Americans’ support for violence in the Six Counties via NORAID is based more on emotion than thoughtful moves towards a practical solution.
Elevate the Ego
Trump and his cult can be claimed to have inured many people in the United States to their buffoonery, lies and racism. Almost without noticing it, a large minority has accepted – indeed has celebrated – how degeneracy into elevated levels of hatred and violence based entirely on ignorance and supremacist values has bonded with political ‘discourse’ in ways previously unheard of. (Though to anarchists… predictable.)
Two steps towards dictatorship and totalitarianism can be perceived.
Although MAGA rhetoric is barely coherent enough to take those two steps, its proponents still seem to be trying. The result is that Trumpy fascism is potentially just as dangerous as if it were well organised.
The first step insists that every time two things co-exist, they have to be compared so that one of them (whiteness, maleness, strength, patriotism and so on) comes out on top. That way, there is always an ‘other’, an enemy to be derided and blamed against which the powerful and the cult members can rally.
The second step builds on accepting such comparisons as inevitable and legitimate. It dictates which of the two should ‘win’. MAGA is built on the assumption that so indiscriminating are its adherents that they only need minimal schooling in the principle that only the ‘winners’ (heterosexual, gentile, white, etc) in these comparisons count.
When, for instance, Trump calls the District Attorney (the rough equivalent of the senior agents in the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK) for Manhattan who is prosecuting him in the adult film star hush money case, a “racist”, an “animal”, a “thug”, his followers accept the insults not because any evidence for such epithets can be established; but merely because that’s what Trump and his cult members do when they don’t like someone. Absent are evidence and logic. What makes the name-calling and consequent incitement to violence appealing to the cult is the acceptance that anyone whose alignment is different from theirs automatically deserves to be vilified, excluded as illegitimate, and discarded. The enemy ‘other’ again.
Absent is any even remotely astute analysis. Assertions prevail. This has been evident in the last week on the fascistic media outlets – like ‘Fox News’. Their pundits and commentators have consistently accused voices raised in support of Palestinian civilians (at demonstrations, among student groups, in universities and in print) of siding with Hamas. Companies have begun to join in. This is little more (or less) than sheer laziness.
Five factors may be identified which explain how and why the United States has reached the stage it has – just over a year before the next major election:
- Ignorance of politics: as outlined above, from the end of the Second World War to the present the vast majority of political groups (chiefly the Republican and Democratic parties) have done nothing to oppose all those ominous trends whose likely outcomes have been obvious to anyone with a good grasp of twentieth-century history. Indeed the two major parties have – unsurprisingly – enabled, facilitated and encouraged the aggressive steps which capitalism and imperialism have taken, and which now, ineluctably, require more ‘room’ to succeed: fascism
- Ignorance of history: a majority of residents in the United States (and indeed its last president) are insufficiently aware of history to be able to recognise the warning signs… a majority of young adults, when polled, were either ignorant or ‘sceptical’ of the holocaust. Sources from both right and left lament this (ISBN 13: 978-0804799317). Consequently, forces on the right find it extremely easy to lie and be believed
- Denial: a belief that “It cannot happen here”… “we live in a liberal democracy that will (equally ineluctably) right itself in the face of extremism”. This fails to take into account, of course, that ‘liberal democracies’ like that of the United States are already ‘extreme’; they operate on bases which accentuate and exploit destruction, inequality, danger and – significantly – ignorance
- Incomplete and skewed rejection of the status quo by those duped by the Trump cult. They see the conventional spectrum of left and right as irrelevant. Good for Them! They seem to understand and distrust the relative pointlessness of ‘see-saw’ politics… “four years of my policies followed by four years of yours in a cosy, balanced, forgiving, non-confrontational roundabout” (while the real issues are not systematically addressed). Such constituencies across the US right also abhor government overreach. As do anarchists. One difference, though, is that Trump cultists consistently misattribute to state oppression such efforts to ensure greater public health in the face of the Covid 19 pandemic, and when scant attention gets drawn to climate collapse… again, an absence of political nous and a selective opposition to coercion when it suits them
- The broader threat: the US polity is not alone in developing and/or cementing far right forms of government and authoritarianism. Up to 20 fascist governments flourished between the 1920s and 1940s. Is such a major trend likely spontaneously to vanish? Hardly. The United States is now in the company of over another couple of dozen countries (Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom) which all have active fascist or fascistic political parties or movements; and some whose governments are already actually or effectively either composed or controlled by fascist/fascistic parties. So, figures like Trump and DeSantis can claim that what they are doing is not all that eccentric.
Align and Extend
There are two aspects of this state of affairs, perhaps oddly, both causes and consequences of increased fascistic/fascist activity.
The most serious may not seem the most obvious. Opinions, not facts, now, in many cases, determine the alignments people adopt. For fascism to gain traction, its adherents must abandon and/or suppress any alignments based on evidence. By ‘evidence’, we mean science, statistics, reality, what demonstrably actually happens; some call it ‘truth’. The implications of this for the future are terrifying. Once such a free-for-all has been loosed, it seems likely to endure even if fascism is defeated.
Instead of relying on evidence, those duped by a Trump, a Meloni or a Farage find it easier, simpler, and more immediate to believe in a super-leader who can deliver the polity (nation, state, community, race, class or tribal/cultural entity) from a non-existent danger (immigrants, the ‘radical left’, ‘Marxist judges’ etc). To the duped segments of the population, such ‘dangers’ are both dangerous because they are true and true because they are dangerous. Such closed loops of thinking thus provide their own ‘logic’.
Those duped by fascist messages also have to set aside the truth and its manifestations in order for them to make sense of their distorted views of the world. Believe what you want to believe: Covid is a hoax; the climate catastrophe is a leftist plot; the election was stolen; Democrats drink babies’ blood; and – very significantly at the present moment – Trump did not try to overturn the election. Facts take second place to beliefs, opinions, and inclinations.
Secondly, it seems likely that a majority (still) subscribes to what they believe is ‘democracy’ in the United States. So they are concerned to see Trump and his party ‘subverting’ it. But that’s not what’s happening when we consider the first and second of those five factors posited above, the post-War historical context. What Trump and the Republicans are really doing is EXTENDING a sham’ democracy’.
They are reinforcing the weaknesses of US ‘democracy’. They are then exploiting these weaknesses for their own ends.
These weaknesses include the lack of effective brakes on imminent damage. In 2015, the Republican party knowingly failed to block Trump’s acceptance and ascent to power. We can’t know how things would have developed if the Republic party machinery had blocked his nomination. It certainly had the (procedural and legal) power to stop him. After the attempted insurrection of January 6 2021, Republicans could (and should) also have excluded Trump from running for president again. Even before verdicts are reached in the court cases that Trump and his co-conspirators are facing, it can easily be demonstrated that Trump is mentally ill – narcissistic, psychopathic and sociopathic, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders alone.
Antifascists work on principles of resistance and avoidance of damage… had people more vigorously resisted Nazis on the streets in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, the Nazi party might never have gained power in Germany when it did.
Again, even with a century’s hindsight, we cannot be sure. But what would there have been to lose? It seems likely that, at the very least, exposure to the real nature (and hence to the threats) of fascism may have done something to dislodge receptive and anxious members of the public from the complacency examined in Sinclair Lewis’s fictional warning, which is just as relevant today. Now we have another chance, for it can happen here.
What minimal public support there was for Antifa waned – particularly in 2017 after the Unite the Right event, in which fascists murdered 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer. It can be argued that this was largely because of Antifa’s style of operating anonymously and amorphously. Such amorphousness seems to have boosted the effectiveness of the relentless disinformation about (groups like) Antifa and Black Lives Matter from the ‘establishment’ propaganda outlets through such soft left media as CNN to Trump and beyond. Suppose there had been greater appreciation of the venerable, decades long. In that case, history of fighting fascism, which Antifa stood for, perhaps the spotlight which its activities were directing onto trends in the US might have stayed brighter longer.
The official position of the Republican leadership (the Republican National Committee) still seems to be that the last election had such major flaws as could have led to a ‘steal’. There were not, and they did not, of course. Most Republican politicians are less ‘oblique’ in that assertion. This stance is consistent with an approach to ‘public service’ based not on serving (working) people or racial minorities or respecting women’s health; it significantly lacks a commitment to sensible and informed stewardship of the Earth and its creatures.
We need only look at Republicans’ conduct in Georgia, where Trump was indicted for the fourth time two months ago. Several of the counts were for racketeering, where the ‘RICO‘ law targets a consolidated, collaborative, distributed crime with many entities working in concert. So in advance of this set of charges against Trump and his gang, which is likely to be proved, in May 2023, the local Republicans voted to give themselves the power to remove District Attorneys whom they do not like and with whom they disagree. They say they will exercise this power against Fulton County DA Fanni Willis, who has spent two years assembling, sifting, rejecting and collating evidence against Trump for his attempt to overturn the election in her state. And she knows her stuff! Nor are those in Georgia alone… DeSantis is at it too in Florida.
Of course, we do not know how – or even whether – fascism in the US will grow. Nor, if it does, in which form(s). Nor with which results. But we can learn something from history and better understand the thrusts behind fascism.
What is often dismissed as ‘nutty’ far right conspiracy theory-based ‘conservatism’ seems unlikely to gain an exclusive and unfettered hold on the political centre of gravity in the United States in the ways in which Nazism did in Germany, and to a lesser extent in Italy in the 1920s and Spain in the 1930s. Instead, ‘conventional’ (formerly Rockefeller) Republicanism is actively evolving. It is converging with fascistic demagoguery led by Trump and self-proclaimed fascist militias like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Oath-keepers. Indeed, such prominent figures who have criticised Trump as Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger and Mitt Romney have acted on the need which they perceive to exclude themselves from their party. This is but one of several indicators that the merger is almost complete. There is less and less room for ‘conventional’ Republicanism. Such resilient bridges have now been built (and/or re-enforced) between these three pools of political alignment that no effective dam between them seems to exist.
This is useful for the congressional party because it potentially increases the number of votes which the ‘new’, ‘broader’ Republican party can hope to attract. And it allows, for example, the xenophobia many Republicans have to be voiced with some measure of plausible deniability. Democrats, while most play no part in the elision between right wing and fascistic aims, do not oppose it with the necessary vehemence and transparency.
Many MAGA adherents (and not a few congresspeople) seem to see an ensuing ‘Civil War’ as inevitable or desirable. It’s unlikely to be on that scale. The US just no longer works that way. For one thing, capital has too much to lose.
Nor does it seem at all likely that fascism will become the predominant political movement in the United States by mass takeover or election – as happened in Europe a century ago.
One possible scenario for a decisive descent into effective fascistic and openly fascist dominance may begin with a single major event. For instance, the detention of Trump either on his eventual conviction on one or more of the 91 counts against him, verdicts which he hopes to avoid by re-election next year and dismissing. Or by what one of the judges presiding over his upcoming trials rightly sees as breaking the terms of his bail. At least one prominent legal scholar, LaDoris Cordell, retired California Superior Court judge, sees this as inevitable, sooner or later – given Trump’s mouth.
Then, the fascist militias might react in what ought to amount to no more than scattered and token rioting. But members of the police, military and the National Guard are known to be sympathetic to Trump – although recent polls show that to be waning. Under certain circumstances, could enough of them get swept away by the tension of such a turnout and refuse to suppress it? At that point, as they say, “all bets would be off”.
A more likely development would be massacres in the name of ‘Trump, the great leader’ by one or several ‘lone wolf’ actor(s). But unless they were somehow consolidated or aggregated and co-ordinated (which seems unlikely), these would probably be met with a more robust response by law enforcement. A comprehensive survey by Reuters puts political violence in the United States at its most severe in half a century. Other surveys (like this) ought to leave us in no doubt about how many millions of residents in the United States approve of violence to ensure that Trump – in this case – is made president again. Prominent figures like Florida’s DeSantis also seem to be testing the waters with comments like this… he will ‘slit throats’ on day one.
Back to the psychology. Action and adherence based on evidence come in a poor second to supposition, opinion, prejudice, blind alignment and all-consuming cultism.
It is depressing to look at some of the more reliable polls, which are accurate, justly respected, and have the longest histories. This recent one, for example, makes the point well. If the answers given do reflect what people think and believe, then it seems that a vicious, violent, excluding, racist, acquisitive, elbow-your-neighbour-out-of-the-way, selfish, anti-fact, anti-science, anti-intellectual, environmentally destructive society is what a sizeable minority (or even a small majority) of people may actually want. Even though many are surely ill prepared to know and appreciate what that would probably really mean.
Of course, it’s more complicated than this.
Whatever the pollsters say, such soundings reveal only how those who are actually canvassed would behave when faced with a decision of whom to vote for. Nevertheless, such candidates as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (and latterly – increasingly alarmingly – the egregious Vivek Ramaswamy, a climate denier and lying poseur who supports Putin in Ukraine and, if elected, would pardon Trump immediately) have made it pretty plain what they stand for. They gain approval every time Trump is exposed. Scarily, what most informed people know to be lies and cruel measures to oppress and murder gains the Trump cult’s approval.
It’s more accurate and honest to express the apparent ‘mood’ and alignment(s) of the ‘great brainwashed’ (to steal an expression from Bulwer Lytton in terms of ignorance and an inability to perceive and understand – rather than pure malice. Indeed, recent developments in higher education in Florida, where advanced psychology courses are being suppressed and staff are resigning en masse, indicate how little learning is valued by the state’s élite. Worse, Trump has pledged that if he wins the Presidency next year, he will abolish the Department of Education altogether. That would – presumably – mean that actions like this would become unnecessary.
We can see the results of decades of brainwashing in such markers of ignorance and absence of preparedness as these:
- polls by Reason and the Pew Research Center
- the latter’s survey of Americans’ ignorance of the Holocaust
- barely half of the country’s adult population owns a passport and so travels to experience other cultures and histories
- the gullibility and delusion of members of a fascist cult is startling
- much of what passes for ‘political theory’ is no more than infantile dogma… for example – in a Los Angeles suburb this summer the local authority changed its contract for refuse collection to a company which insisted that users separate recyclable household ‘waste’ from non-recyclable material and use differently-coloured bins (provided) accordingly. This was met with resistance since such a change infringed homeowners’ ‘freedoms’
- depressingly – although hardly surprisingly – a poll taken immediately after Trump’s third indictment showed that almost half of those asked (49%) still do not take his crimes seriously. Almost a quarter (24%) said that his attempt to subvert what voter choice there was in 2020 was not serious, including 17% who said it was “not serious at all”. Again, barely half those asked felt that Trump should have been charged with what surely most aware and informed adults would adjudge the most serious political crime of its kind in the (recent) history of the United States.
It’s hoped that no one would suggest that their possession of these traits is not something for which fellow citizens should be blamed or ostracised. Yet such ignorance and arrested (cognitive and social) development cannot wisely be ignored or denied if the challenges they present to (US) society are to be understood and addressed. It’s hard to overlook that the racist, supremacist, misogynistic, selfish, oppressive nastiness of which we always knew humans to be capable is now being systematically, strenuously and approvingly fomented and unleashed for action.
A useful avenue of inquiry is into the extent to which capitalism relies on primarily self-regarding attitudes. Capitalism needs consumers to act on desires and drives that originate in the sense of self (at best reflexive; at worst just plain selfish)… cosmetics, cars and the manic accumulation of cash, for instance.
Credible conclusions about this sizeable minority must include the notion that those infected are so effectively brainwashed that they allow those who exploit their egotism and ignorance to corral them into a bubble of nationalistic fantasy.
In his Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud suggested that civilisation itself (of which his disciple Ernest Jones identified fear as a key aspect) could produce what is arguably a parallel Todestrieb (death drive) to the one which we may be facing now as deniers and fascists try to yank us towards environmental catastrophe.
It’s hard not to conclude that Trumpism could not have got as far as it has if its cult members hadn’t had such unshakeable predispositions towards its tenets: intolerance, social Darwinism, racism (see particularly Trump’s assertion at 1:15 in this interview that criminal and insane immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”, and his anti-Semitic reference to “globalists” at 3:31), misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, elitism, ignorance, denial of science, conspiracy, a cult leader and so on.
Clinging to such alignments and distorted views of the world through a narrow-angled periscope, it becomes easier to understand why adherents to the Trump cult see nothing wrong with basing their actions on lies and fantasy. Remember that Trumpers filed dozens of lawsuits in attempts to suggest that Trump won the 2020 election and lost them all.
~ Louis Further
Image: Rod Webber