The United States Is Growing in the Phase of Fascism. Should You Be Worried?
“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”
The above were the opening words of Toni Morrison’s 1995 address at Howard University, entitled Racism and Fascism, which detailed 10 strategies for advancing a society from first to last.
According to the Guardian, Morton was not interested in fascist regimes or fascist demagogues. It was rather in “forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems.” As she described, the procedures were intended to normalize such way out, to “construct an internal enemy,” isolate, criminalize and demonize those sympathetic to its ideology, and, through media, give those on the inside the illusion of power and influence.
As Morrison wrote during the era of the “super-predator” myth (a Newsweek headline the next year read, “Superpredators: Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?”), Morrison unflinchingly interpreted US racism in fascist terms. After 25 years, these “forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems” are nearer to winning the long-standing national battle.
For oligarchical interests such as those in the hydrocarbon business, the public good represents an impediment in the contemporary American fascist movement. A social, political, and religious movement with roots in the Confederacy also leads the movement. With Donald Trump, these forces have found a leader unconstrained by democratic regulations, as they have in every fascist movement.
Raised during the Nazi era in Berlin, my father saw fascism in Europe as a path any nation could follow. He knew, however, that the US democracy was not exempt from the forces that devastated his family and destroyed his youth.
For 44 years, my mother worked in American criminal court stenography, and she noted parallels between racist attitudes in the American legal system and the antisemitic persecution she encountered growing up in Poland — attitudes that allowed eastern Europeans to participate in fascism. Ise Stanley, my grandmother, also wrote a memoir of her experiences in Berlin which was published in 1957. On a later episode of This is
Your Life, she discussed it. In a way, it is a memoir of the period when German fascism was becoming normalized, before the Second World War and the Rwandan genocide. In the memoir, she describes encounters with Nazi officers who assured her they did not mean her in their vilification of Jews.
Philosophers have always been at the forefront in the analysis of fascist ideology and movements. In keeping with a tradition that includes the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, I have been writing for a decade on the way politicians and movement leaders employ propaganda, centrally including fascist propaganda, to win elections and gain power.
It is common for fascists to employ cynical tactics – they don’t really believe their enemies are as bad or as powerful as their rhetoric suggests. The point comes, however, when rhetoric evolves into policy. Those who are now in thrall to Donald Trump exploit fascist propaganda to their advantage. They are now imprinting it on fascist policies.
In the United States, fascism thrives in fertile soil – racial strife and incarceration rates have led to an extremely high prison population.
As a result of law enforcement being militarized to address the wounds of racial injustice, and due to a recent history of failed wars, we have become vulnerable to suspicions of national humiliation both from within and the outer. Business elites have historically backed racism and fascism out of self-interest to divide the people and destroy labor movements, as WEB Du Bois demonstrated in his 1935 masterwork Black Reconstruction.
There is no doubt that a brutal would-be dictator has marshaled these fascist forces and turned them into cults with him as its leader. As a result of the latter, we are now witnessing its repercussions. In this scenario, fascist lies, such as that the 2020 election has been rigged, have begun to restructure institutions, such as the electoral infrastructure and law. By normalizing these processes, the media encourages Morrison’s tenth and final step: “Maintain at all costs, silence.”
In the Process of Creating the Enemy
Understanding current US fascism requires paralleling it to eras of the 20th century, both where it succeeds and where it fails.
The antisemite Hitler was a genocidal monster. Although fascists disregard human life. Even Hitler’s regime did not resort to genocide until relatively late in its reign. Not every fascist was antisemitic. There were Italian Jews who supported fascism. Despite the successful integration of Jews into all aspects of German life during the Weimar Republic, my father warned, “if they had chosen someone else, some of us would have been among the very best Nazis.” We American Jews feel firmly at home. There certainly would be fascist Jews in the US, where the fascist movement’s internal enemies are leftists and racial equality movements.
German National Socialists did not seize a mainstream party. As it sought greater electoral success, it faced various pressures as a small, far-right, anti-democratic party.
The Nazi party grew dramatically in popularity for years despite its radical starting point, in part because it strategically disguised its explicit antisemitic agenda to appeal to moderate voters who convinced themselves that the party had outgrown the racism at its core. The movement presented itself as the antidote to communism. There were clashes between communists and the far right in the Weimar Republic, therefore the writer drew on that history to warn of a violent communist revolution. By promising to smash labor unions, it attracted the support of business elites. Socialists, Marxists, liberals, labor unions, the cultural world, and the media were portrayed as representatives of, or sympathizers with, the Nazi revolution. This message was ratcheted up once they were in power.
During a speech in 1935, Communism with its Mask Off, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels referred to Bolshevism as embarking on “on a campaign, directed by the Jews, with the international underworld, against culture as such”.
Contrary to this, “National Socialism sees in all these things – in [private] property, in personal values and in nation and race and the principles of idealism – these forces which carry on every human civilization and fundamentally determine its worth.”
Family, faith, morality, and homeland were all used by the Nazis as justification for brutal violence against an enemy that was perceived as opposing all of these. Throughout Nazi politics, a set of constructed enemies, an unholy alliance of communists and Jews, were demonized and ultimately criminalized.
Popular belief would have us believe that the Nazi government of the 1930s was capable of genocide, nor would we believe that its notorious concentration camps were filled with Jewish prisoners, until at least the November pogrom of 1938. Meanwhile, the concentration camps of the regime initially targeted communists and socialists. Apart from Jews, the Nazi regime encouraged vigilante violence against its other targets, obscuring the role of state agents in order to separate themselves from this violence.
In those days, many people, including non-Jewish Germans, misled themselves about the brutality of the regime, believing the regime’s harsh methods would defend Germany against threats from communism.
In a stateless and non-state environment, militias played an ambiguous role. Before becoming an independent agency of the government, the SS were violent supporters of Nazism. All the Nazi state’s institutions were influenced by the message of violent law and order.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes in the book On Tyranny, that “for violence to transform not just the atmosphere but also the system, the emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion have to be incorporated into the training of armed guards.”
Training police to be ‘warriors’ in the United States, along with the unofficial substitution of the American flag with a thin blue line flag, is auguring poorly for the democratic commitment of this institution.
A far-right party must develop an image it can defend as moderate, and cultivate an ambiguous relationship with its most explicit members’ extreme views and statements, in order to be effective in a democracy. Typically, this is achieved by projecting on the opposition the fact that it violates the rule of law.
The pretense must be stronger when a far-right antidemocratic movement takes over the mainstream right-wing party. A significant challenge that must be sought by the movement is its members who adhere to democratic procedures, such as one vote per person or that the loser in fair elections give up power – examples in the United States today include figures like Adam Kinzinger and Elizabeth Cheney. ‘Fascist’ political parties are under pressure from their supporters and the media both to hide their affiliation with violent racism and to cultivate their anti-democratic agenda.
Even the most skeptical of Republican politicians can admit that they have at least tried to cultivate a mass of violent vigilantes for their cause, after the attack on Washington, DC on 6 January. Republicans are hailing Kyle Rittenhouse as a hero after he ‘killed’ two men as a vigilante in Kenosha, WI. Kyle Rittenhouse, in the US, may not be enough to justify the threat of armed vigilante militias enforce a result of the election demanded by Donald Trump in 2024. To deny that Trump’s party is creating such a movement would be purposeful deception at this point.
Revolt of Blacks, Backlash of Whites
The National Socialists relied heavily on street violence in their quest for power. By instigating and escalating violence in the streets, the Nazis vilified their opponents as enemies who should be punished severely. Throughout Ferguson and Baltimore, Black protests of police brutality have led to Trump’s rise. Recent events such as the murder of George Floyd and a historic protest movement in the US in late spring have added fuel to fascist misrepresentation.
Black rebellion against white supremacy, and the ensuing white backlash, are only a few of the latest developments in a long US history of rebellion.
In the aftermath of Black rebellions, white vigilante groups formed to “defend their families and property against Black rebellion”, according to Elizabeth Hinton’s recently published history of these rebellions. Several of these groups cooperated with the police, Hinton also demonstrated. All these have long been the act or acts of police violence against members of the community that has triggered these rebellions, coming after a long period of disproportionately violent over-policing that aggravated the grievances of these communities.
A number of US street movements have been accompanied by vigorous protests on campuses, from demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s to the racial justice protests on campuses lately which attracted media criticism (surprisingly, as “chilling free speech”). In both political parties, politicians have pounced on these moments to troll for votes. US politicians were involved in these episodes of protest and rebellion, placing black protests against over-policing alongside campus protests. This resulted in severe law-and-order policing and attacks on leftists. The Nixon campaign and administration, according to John Ehrlichman, “had two enemies: the anti-war left and Black people”, and invented the drug war to target both:
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
In poor Black urban communities, politicians are less interested in addressing the conditions that contribute to violence. How can they? The underlying conditions that allow politicians of either party to campaign on fear can continue as long as they promise tough law and order measures. In his 1995 address, Morrison warned that a fascist movement could use these conditions to target democracy itself.
It has enflamed the flames for an aggressive right-wing political movement by demonizing Antifa and student activists, as well as reacting to Black Lives Matter protesters.
Rachel Kleinfield documents the rise of political violence in the United States in an article published in October 2021. As stated in the article, the “bedrock idea uniting right-wing communities who condone violence is that white Christian men in the United States are under cultural and demographic threat and require defending – and that it is the Republican Party and Donald Trump, in particular, who will safeguard their way of life.”
It is classically fascist to justify political violence through racial or religious equality on the basis of a leader who promises a violent response.
The Best Way to Overthrow a Democracy
At this point, we are legally present in the fascism phase. 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with threats of violence against leftists and Black rebels used to justify them. This is according to the International Center for Not for Profit Law.
Judeo-Bolshevism was used by Nazis as a constructed enemy. In the Republican party, the fascist movement has changed to critical race theory instead. As a result of national humiliation caused by internal enemies, fascism thrives. It is a classic fascist strategy to incite fury and resentment to defend a fictitious past of a country and present its enemies as maligning it. A total of 29 states have introduced legislation restricting the teaching of racism and sexism in schools under the bogeyman of critical race theory. Meanwhile, only 13 states have already completely banned such teaching.
A well-informed electorate is crucial to democracy. People who are aware of the persisting racial injustice in the United States in all its dimensions, from the racial wealth gap to the consequences of over-policing and over-incarceration, will not be surprised by political rebellion against persistent refusals to address these issues. Only ignorant voters react to Black political unrest not with comprehension, but with fear and horror.
The roots of a fascist movement are sometimes traced to Nazi influences on its leaders, such as the RSS in India. However, causal relations in the United States run the other way. A recent book by James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, shows how Jim Crow influenced Nazi law during the United States. In 2021, legislative action was taken in 19 states that made it harder for minority communities (such as Texas) to vote. In obscuring the facts about this period in our education system, it is possible to obscure a resurgence of legislation that draws on its past practices.
In fact, the very practice of withholding political information from children is a remnant of the Jim Crow era. Carter G Woodson’s 1933 book titled The Miseducation of the Negro contains a corresponding chapter entitled Political Education Neglected. According to Woodson, history has been taught “to enslave the Negroes’ mind”, thereby erasing slavery’s brutality and the causes behind racial disparities. According to Jarvis Givens’ Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Black educators employed methods to convey history in Jim Crow schools, methods that, sadly, educators must adopt once more today.
Fascist ideology strictly enforces gender roles and restricts the freedom of women. For fascists, it is part of their commitment to a supposed “natural order” where men are on top. It is also integral to the broader fascist strategy of winning over social conservatives who might otherwise be unhappy with the endemic corruption of fascist rule. Far-right authoritarian leaders across the world, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have targeted “gender ideology”, as nazism targeted feminism. Freedom to choose one’s role in society, when it goes against a supposed “natural order”, is a kind of freedom fascism has always opposed.
Abortion, regardless of when it took place, was considered murder according to National Socialist ideology. As the same was true for the murder of disabled people and members of other groups deemed harmful to the “Aryan race”, meanwhile, abortions on these groups were acceptable. A harsh crackdown on the birth control movement occurred during the first six years of Nazi rule, between 1933 and 1939. An anti-abortion campaign was then led by the Gestapo targeted doctors who performed abortions on Aryan women. In the United States, the recent attacks on abortion rights, as well as the upcoming attacks on birth control, which are being driven by a hard-right supreme court, suggest that we are, in the United States, heading toward fascism.
Toppling a democracy begins with taking control of the courts. Despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes in 2016, Donald Trump appointed one-third of the federal supreme court, three far-right young judges under who will sit on the court for decades. Roberts court has consistently undermined democracy for more than a decade by destroying the Voting Rights Act and allowing unlimited corporate money into elections, as well as partisan gerrymandering in elections. As long as anti-democratic practices, including stealing elections, are legalized by gerrymandered Republican statehouses, the court will likely allow even a semblance of democracy to crumble.
Since the 1960s, the United States has seen an increasing fascist social and political movement. In addition to internal contradictions, it is no less a threat to democracy than other fascist movements. A self-centered aspiring autocrat, Donald Trump seeks only power and material success. Trump’s time in politics has normalized this movement by providing a classically authoritarian leader.
Others have seen what is possible because of Donald Trump. However, he is leading a fascist movement that preceded him and will survive him. The ideology in question is deeply rooted in the history of American society, as Toni Morrison warned. Thinking that it cannot ultimately win would be a grave error.