America's Descent Towards Fascism - Sazi Bongwe
When one considers the events at the US Capitol on the 6th of January 2021 - otherwise labelled an insurrection, a coup, anarchy - Jason Stanley’s 2018 novel ‘How Fascism Works’ reads as prophecy. Jason Stanley - a Professor of Philosophy at Yale University - has long attempted to guide discourse toward a more mainstream recognition of the fascist politics of the Trump Administration (and other emerging fascist governments elsewhere in the world). In the preface to the paperback edition of his book, Stanley writes in hindsight:
“I wrote this book as a warning about fascist politics, essentially the danger of rhetoric that encourages fear and anger as a means to foment ethnic and religious division, seeping into public discourse. Today, the effect of such talk seem clear, as that rhetoric now shapes the outcome of elections and makes its way into policies.”
That rhetoric saw its most articulate expression at the Capitol on Wednesday. Stanley, and other political commentators alike, have rightfully argued in the wake of the rioting that while Fox News, OANN and far-right proponents incited the violence, the vast majority of us who reside in the ‘mainstream’ or liberal media remained oblivious to the true threat that Trump & Trumpism posed, and that Wednesday’s insurrection was long in the works. Stanley wrote of the book, “since publishing How Fascism Works in September 2018, global events have only substantiated my concerns about modern fascism...understanding the lessons of this book has acquired an urgency even I did not predict.” In contemporary discourse, fascism has long seemed to be an age-old, taboo pseudo-political system far too extreme to take its place in modern politics. Through that same thinking it may sound like an exaggeration to call Trump a fascist, or to call Wednesday’s events an attempted coup. But the pro-Trump riots that ensued at the Capitol are only but the loudest remider that fascism not only remains prevalent, but that it is on the rise; and that the parallels between Trump’s four years in office and the most infamous fascist regimes in history continue to appear. Stanley rightly labels fascism as ‘the politics of us and them.’ As divisiveness becomes the norm, we must become aware of the politics that drive it. Here are the lessons that I took away from How Fascism Works, through the lens of Wednesday’s anarchy in D.C.
“It is a core tenet of fascist politics that the goal of oratory should not be to convince the intellect, but to sway the will.”
Trump has long defined himself in opposition to ‘the liberal media’ and Stanley identifies challenges to intellect and expertise as being inherent to fascist politics. It is no surprise that Trump has caused millions of deaths by downplaying the severity of the Coronavirus and failing to listen to and side with science. Wednesday saw the Capitol become a flashpoint for one long war waged by Trump and his followers over which side of the political spectrum truly values and supports free speech. Stanley describes Trump’s campaign as “one long attack on ‘political correctness.’” The most commonplace description of Wednesday’s events has been ‘an attack on the Capitol’ - one of America’s most sacrosanct buildings, heralded as a hub of democracy - and so it holds true when Stanley writes “the tactic of attacking institutions standing up for public reason and open debate occurs under the cloak of those very ideals.” Despite the anarchy that was loosed upon the Capitol Building, Trump, the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn election results and those who forced their way into the Capitol believed themselves to be right in what they affirmed. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and the four other Senators who objected to the results of the election did so with conviction and certainty, and rooted their objection within the ideals of democracy and justice. These visible signs that Trump and his loyalists view themselves as correct not only speaks to their delusion, they represent a far scarier and more bleak outlook for Americans: that the effects of the Trump presidency will long be felt. As history may end up revealing, Wednesday’s events may be but the beginning of the aftermath of four years of America’s descent towards fascism. Put most aptly by Jason Stanley, “by rejecting the value of expertise, fascist politicians also remove any requirement for sophisticated debate.” The void of sophisticated debate was seen most visibly as Trump's terroristic mob invaded the Capitol - and the U.S. has a long way to go in order to ensure that it is filled.
Jason Stanley argues that the hallmark of fascist politics is an undoing of reality itself. Through blatant denials of truth, empirical evidence and trends, “fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncement of a single individual, or perhaps a political party.” The replacement of reason with fear and anger has been characteristic of the Trump administration, and it is in that vein that his followers undertook to the Capitol upon his request.
The fascist politics employed by Trump have brought us to a point where we are unable to argue political implications or consequences because reality itself cannot be agreed upon. This is most clearly seen in Trump’s unrelenting and baseless claims that the election was stolen from him. Truth itself cannot be agreed upon. Stanley goes on to say that ‘regular and repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space...By replacing the world with a person, fascist politics makes us unable to assess arguments by a common standard.” This distortion of reality is what allows Trump’s proponents to cast themselves as democratic and those who support Black Lives Matter as being against America. Trump has long been in the business of passing whatever ill-conceived notion suited the day as fact, and a four year culmination of absorbing that as fact is ultimately what sent rioters marching into the Capitol Building. The comfort provided by the false thinking of Trump’s America has ultimately led its members to a point where they are no longer guided by reason in political debate. Many are quick to assert that Trump and those who follow him are “crazy” or “sick” but those descriptions only belie the truth nature of the fascist politics they are guided by. To allow Trump the excuse of mortal error would be inconsistent with the pedestal Republicans have put him on, but even more so it would falsely portray what is a measured, conceived and frankly dangerous descent towards fascism. Stanley argues “if the society is divided (which the American one is) then a demagogic politician can exploit the division by using language to sow fear accentuate prejudice, and call for revenge against members of hated groups. Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a pistol.” It is out of that last assertion that calls for Congress to evoke the 25th Amendment come - the now commonly held conviction that America’s descent towards fascism has reached the ground, and that even 13 more days of a Trump presidency would send the country spiralling down even further.
America’s descent towards fascism began, as many often do, with an appeal to the mythic past - and this same rhetoric has been apparent today. Those who have denounced the riots as being against the traditions and values of America, make an attempt to hearken back to an everlasting period of time in which America emerged as the haven of democracy. We see this as Rep. Nancy Mace steps forward and boldly asserts on live television, “this is third world country stuff, it has to stop.” We see this as the rioters are meant to be going “against everything America stands for” in launching a coup on its own grounds, fully oblivious of the scorn held by many of the world’s nations who have fallen victim to American foreign advances which themselves have resembled coup attempts. We see this as the whole affair has been labelled “a threat to our beautiful democracy.” The sooner America is able to reckon with the falsehoods under which it aims to quell the rise of fascism, the better able it will be to succeed at that. America’s current failure is its inability to reconcile the mythic past it advances so auspiciously with the turmoil it has witnessed in recent times - because the two go hand in hand.
There are perhaps two applications of Stanley’s detailing of the mythic past that resonate today - one rooted in the past, and one in the future. Firstly, the former: Stanley writes, “fascist leaders appeal to history to replace the actual historical record with a glorious mythic replacement that, in its specifics, can serve their political ends and their ultimate goal of replacing facts with power.” This same appeal has run rife in the rhetoric of the Trump administration, most notably in that infamous proclamation: Make America Great Again. It is through this thinking that Trump has based his anti-immigration policy, his neglect toward racial inequity, his unambiguous bigotry. To Trump (and indeed to many outside observers of U.S. politics) the mythic past of the American system is one which holds an exceptionally narrow view of American identity and of humanity. It is the same system which discharges pepper spray and tear gas against peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and yet opens the gates of the Capitol to usher in pro-Trump rioters. It is a false history, widely held. The idea that Wednesday’s events “go against everything America stands for” is one that needs to be deeply scrutinised, most importantly by Americans and American leaders themselves. The longer America continues on with this conforming vision of its history, the less able it will be to adequately address the reality of its present.
The second, while it offers a note of caution for what follows, is similarly rooted in the past. To illustrate this point, Stanley called on a study conducted by Katie Rotella and Jennifer Richeson as a part of a paper entitled “Motivated to ‘Forget’: The effects of In-Group Wrongdoing on Memory and Collective Guilt.” In this study, American participants were presented with stories about the oppressive, violent treatment of American Indians framed in one of two ways: the perpetrators of the violence were described either as early Americas (in-group condition) or as Europeans who eventually settled in America (out-group condition). The study showed that people are more likely to experience a sort of amnesia of wrongdoing when the perpetrators are presented to them as a few of their own, as part of an ‘us’ - when the American subjects were told that those who committed the violence were American (as opposed to European), they had significantly worse memory for negative historical events. This assertion did not need to be uncovered through a study, however, as when Stanley writes of the Reconstruction era, “In the United States, the history of the South is continually mythologised to whitewash slavery and was used to justify the refusal to grant black U.S. citizens voting rights until after slavery’s end.” How Wednesday’s events are remembered (and more broadly how the months of the end of the Trump presidency is remembered) is a direct product of how we choose to collectively remember them. The facts of the day and how it came to be only exist as we choose for them to. One cannot help but contrast the responses to these riots and the Black Lives Matter protests in the middle of last year. Side by side, their relative mark on history depends on what is remembered and how. Philip Roth called history “the relentless unforeseen,” saying that history was “where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” How Fascism Works succeeds at reminding us that this description holds true, even when we observe Wednesday’s events in the immediate present. They were inevitable because they had a direct and unrelenting cause, and that cause was Donald Trump; as the product of a much longer, more insidious descent towards fascism. Right now, it’s easy for most of us to see the discrepancy between the police responses to Trump’s terroristic mob and the Black Lives Matter protesters. These events are in conversation with one another because they offer the strongest indictment of the American system. Whether or not they are remembered in that manner is a matter of whether or not our public consciousness choses to curtail the trend of American history : to meaningfully uplift and celebrate the voices that have advocated for racial equality, and to explicitly denounce those who further white supremacy and hold them in perpetual contempt.
Law and Order
Outspoken members of the public were quick to reject the term ‘protest’ as a description of the events at the Capitol. What we witnessed was not a protest - a fact Americans themselves know all too well because they witnessed protests in the middle of last year. Yet, Trump and those who support him wish to sway the public depiction of what defines lawful protest and what does not; in the words of Stanley, “Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of their chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless.” The contrast between what Black Lives Matter activists did and what pro-Trump supporters did is the most pertinent depiction of this division of citizens: live and centre-stage for the world to see. The discrepancy in responses, of course, speaks to a much larger truth of the American system - that it is selective about who it sees as a ‘criminal,’ a word which has the capacity to “both mark that person with a terrifying permanent character trait and simultaneously to place the person outside the circle of “us.”” Black Americans were especially quick to reject the description of Wednesday’s events as a ‘protest’ because so often the term which describes what they really were- a riot- has been wrongfully turned back on them. James Baldwin wrote at the time of the Civil Rights Movement:
“When white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this.”
Of course, black people and those in support of them are thoroughly aware of this same inconsistency as it played out on Wednesday. Yet, there is an assertion that James Baldwin puts forward which particularly white Americans have been reluctant to recognise. While most will recognise the difference in police response, and the contrast between the media perception, a far lesser number will jump to characterise those individuals who breached the Capitol in the same terms as they would black people. To label these people as white supremacists, as terrorists, as fascists would be to concede that these groupings exist in the United States in such large numbers. Should these people be denounced under these stark terms, the commonplace response that their actions “go against what it means to be American” would not suffice, and quite frankly would not be true - as evidenced by the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in the recent election. It is under this same thinking that a Muslim terrorist may be labelled as one but a white American shooter acted out of impulsivity, family trauma, or whichever mental illness fits the description. It is under this same thinking that American will leaders will look to guide the country through a process of ‘healing,’ rather than a genuine reconciliation with the realities of its system. While America has and will recognise the insidious and fascist nature of Wednesday’s events, its way forward will be determined by whether or not they will turn that recognition into reckoning.
Where black Americans have suffered from mass incarceration, and where immigrants and refugees are held in detention centres, the police themselves opened up the gates of the Capitol for the mob to enter. As Stanley said in a recent tweet, “The media lack the vocabulary. The police weren’t incompetent, they were complicit. They were friendly in a way I have never seen. The President didn’t intend to calm anyone down. The president intended to incite.” Thus, any attempt for Wednesday’s rioters to submit to law and order remains a futile one, as the ‘law and order’ so dearly held by Americans played an integral role in the success of the riot. As Stanley asserts, “fascism is lawlessness in the name of law and order.” The law enforcement that met Black Lives Matter protesters with tear gas are the same ones who let Wednesday’s events happen. The president that President-elect Biden called upon to call for an end to the events at the Capitol is the same one who incited insurrection explicitly. Fascists in the US don’t see themselves as defeated, as President Trump himself boldly said “this is only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again.” Laleh Khalili said of the events “the police stood aside, let them in, didn’t arrest but a dozen people. They helped them by inaction. Next time they will help them with coordinated action.” Left unchecked, fascism will continue to rise in America.
A triumphant Josh Hawley
Finally, Jason Stanley writes this : “democracy cannot flourish on soil poisoned by inequality.” The study of America’s descent towards fascism is but one of many current examples which he gives of the trend towards fascist politics across the globe. While the world at large may not be headed on a collision course with fascism; the rhetoric, destructive policy and divisiveness it is inspiring will pervade. Frontline writes that How Fascism Works “should appeal to anyone who cares for democracy and dignity.” As Wednesday showed, that care is scarce and it needs to be upheld. The last, and perhaps most significant reminder from the contrasts made is that those in support of Black Lives Matter and the intersection of minority movements will find themselves on the right side of history. Yet, that work continues. In the words of Stanley:
“Through democratic activists throughout our communities, we can be reminded that the struggles we face are ongoing, and the forces - on both sides - strong. It remains for us to join that struggle, realising that it’s not to overcome a moment, but rather to make a permanent democratic commitment.”