How fascism ascends: 2020 election may be the crisis of democracy that opens the door to a coup

How fascism ascends: 2020 election may be the crisis of democracy that opens the door to a coup
McConnell and Trump, Screengrab

American democracy almost certainly faces a real crossroads this year: If Donald Trump—who just this week refused to say that he would make a peaceful transition, and threatened to “get rid of the ballots”—loses the popular vote on Nov. 3 to Joe Biden, as polls currently indicate, he appears poised to dismiss millions of mail-in votes. He would likely do this through the courts that he has assiduously packed over the past three years, particularly via the Supreme Court seat he and his fellow Republicans are intent on seizing just prior to the vote. The legitimacy of both our system of elections and the foundational courts that embody the rule of law will have been not just undermined, but potentially destroyed.


Fascism, historians tell us, has only ever arisen in mature democratic states, and the main condition that permits it to seize power is a crisis of legitimacy for its major democratic institutions. The election of 2020 may well bring the crisis that does the trick for America.

Many observers—notably including authors Jason Stanley and Jared Yates Sexton—have remarked that the nation’s path under a Trump presidency has much more than a passing resemblance to the descent into fascism that has befallen other societies, the best-known examples being prewar Germany and Italy. The correlations are powerful:

  • Eliminationist rhetoric is the backbone of Trump’s appeal, and has been from the start. His opening salvo in the campaign—the one that first skyrocketed him to the forefront in the race poll-wise and proved wildly popular with Republican voters—was his vow (and subsequent proposed program) to deport all 12 million of the United States’ undocumented immigrants (using, of course, the deprecatory term “illegal alien”) and to erect a gigantic wall on the nation’s southern border. Significantly, the language he used to justify such plans—labeling those immigrants “criminals,” “killers,” and “rapists,” contending that they bring crime and disease—was classic rhetoric designed to demonize an entire class of people by reducing them to objects fit only for elimination. This became more refined and pronounced over the course of his presidency, as when he attacked four women Democratic congressmembers of color: “If somebody has a problem with our country, if somebody doesn’t want to be in our country, they should leave!”
  • Trump’s palingenetic ultranationalism is his central theme. After the race-baiting and the ethnic fearmongering, this is the most obviously fascistic component of Trump’s presidency and its neverending campaign, embodied in those trucker hats proclaiming: “Make America Great Again.” (Trump himself puts it this way: “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the country back. We’re going to make America great again.”) That’s almost the letter-perfect embodiment of palingenesis—that is, the myth of the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of an entire society in its “golden age.” In the meantime, Trump’s nationalism is evident not just in these statement but in the entire context of his rants against Latino immigrants and Syrian refugees.
  • Trump’s deep contempt not just for liberalism (which provides most of the fuel for his xenophobic rants, particularly against the media) but also for establishment conservatism. Trump’s biggest fan, Rush Limbaugh, boasts: “In parlaying this outsider status of his, he’s better at playing the insiders’ game than they are, and they are insiders. He’s running rings around all of these seasoned, lifelong, highly acclaimed professionals in both the consultant class, the adviser class, the strategist class, and the candidate class. And he’s doing it simply by being himself.”
  • Trump constantly proclaimed America to be in a state of crisis that has made it “the laughingstock” of the rest of the world during the 2016 campaign, and insists that this occurred because of the failures of (primarily liberal) politicians. During his presidency, the crises varied according to Trump’s political needs—an immigrant caravan’s arrival on the border with Mexico was portrayed hysterically by Trump during the 2018 midterm elections as an existential threat, while this year, America is in grave danger (according to Trump and his fellow Republicans) from a largely imaginary “antifa threat.” The coronavirus pandemic that the world knows his incompetence allowed to kill 200,000 Americans—not so much.
  • He himself embodies the fascist insistence upon male leadership by a man of destiny, and his refusal to acknowledge factual evidence of the falsity of many of his proclamations and comments embodies the fascistic notion that the leader’s instincts trump logic and reason in any event.
  • Trump’s contempt for weakness (another classic fascist trait) is manifested practically every day on the campaign trail, ranging from his dissing of former GOP presidential candidate John McCain (a former prisoner of war) as “not a hero” because “I like people who weren’t captured,” to his mockery of a New York Times reporter with a disability, and more recently to his decision not to attend a ceremony at a World War II gravesite near Paris because the American soldiers there who had died in the war were “losers” and “suckers.”

Some of have argued—myself included—that Trump is not a fascist ideologue in the classic mold, but rather a living model of a right-wing-populist demagogue. But fascism, properly understood, is itself a species of right-wing populism: one that has simply turned metastatic, a cancer raging out of control in the body politic. If, as it seems, he is nonetheless leading America into fascism, it would be a distinction without a significant difference.

But, as one Twitter wag adroitly observed recently: “The road to fascism is lined with people telling you to stop overreacting.” Conservatives (see, for example, claims by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and right-wing pundit Candace Owens that the threat of white nationalism is a hoax concocted by Democrats) and centrists have unsurprisingly dismissed such observations as undue alarmism and hyperbolic exaggeration. But then, movement conservatism, as I explored in some depth more than 15 years ago, is in many regards the source of the problem, as it has been the all-too-hospitable host for the fascist cancer. Centrists and some liberals, meanwhile, seem so emotionally wedded to a belief that underneath our ongoing chaos all these things are still normal that they’re incapable of comprehending that there is nothing remotely normal at all about them.

Even within a certain bandwidth of progressive thought—primarily Glenn Greenwald and his million-plus-follower Twitter cohort—the response to the rise of a fascist threat to American democracy is greeted with a kind of sneering dismissiveness. Recently, that was how Greenwald and Co. reacted when Max Berger, the cofounder of the Jewish anti-Israeli occupation organization If Not Now, tweeted: “The most surreal part of living through a fascist coup is that we’re not even talking about it as such.”

Greenwald quote-tweeted Berger in reply:

Liberal stars have spent 4 years convincing their followers of 2 claims:

1) Their domestic opponents are Nazis, fascists, and White Supremacist Terrorists.

2) Russia is lurking everywhere, an existential threat to US democracy.

Ponder what that means for how they’ll wield power.

Greenwald’s colleague at The Intercept, Lee Fang, appeared to chime in later that day:

What motivates the ruling class is a routine desire for maintaining power and self-interest. But political storytellers need lurid emotionally driven narratives, so the far left invents a white supremacist elite in charge of the country, just as the far right imagines a pedo cabal.

This line of argumentation is nothing new for Greenwald, who has previously dismissed concerns about the rising tide of white nationalism by suggesting that the politicians and activists raising those concerns were analogical to the right-wing “neocons” who used Islamophobic rhetoric to bash Muslims after 9/11. In these tweets, he’s extending that argument to suggest not only that the threat of white nationalism is an imaginary concoction existing solely as a club to bash the right, but that Democrats are the real fascists, or at best loony-tunes conspiracists, as does Fang.

This is nothing short of an outright denial of established facts. The reality we are confronted with daily—that the United States (and the rest of the world, with no small assist from Russian interests) are awash in a tide of white nationalism and its attendant violence, and that moreover this tide has been enabled, encouraged, and empowered by Donald Trump, both on the streets of America and within his administration—is not something that can be erased with a sneer.

Predicated by his mutual embrace of the far right in the 2015-2016 campaign, Trump’s election to the presidency unleashed a Pandora’s box of white-nationalist demons, beginning with a remarkable surge in hate crimes during his first month, and then his first two years, in office. Its apotheosis has come in the form of a rising tide of far-right mass domestic terrorism and mass killings, as well the spread of armed right-wing “Boogaloo” radicals and militiamen creating mayhem amid civil unrest around the nation.

Trump’s response all along has been to dance a tango in which, after sending out a signal of encouragement (such as his “very fine people on both sides” comments after the white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017), he follows up with an anodyne disavowal of far-right extremists that is believed by no one, least of all white nationalists. Whenever queried about whether white nationalists pose a threat—as he was after a right-wing terrorist’s lethal attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, when he answered: “I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems”—Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of the radical right.

More recently, the appearance at the very least that Trump is deliberately encouraging a violent response to his political opposition has been growing. When far-right militiamen have gathered in places like Richmond, Virginia, and Lansing, Michigan, to shake their weapons in an attempt to intimidate lawmakers and other elected government officials, Trump has tweeted out his encouragement. When a teenage militiaman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot three Black Lives Matter protesters, two fatally, Trump defended him while mischaracterizing the shootings. When far-right conspiracy theorists created a hoax rumor that antifascists and leftists were responsible for the wildfires sweeping the rural West Coast—resulting in armed vigilantes setting up “citizens patrols” and highway checkpoints, sometimes with the encouragement of local police—Trump retweeted a meme promoting the hoax.

The reality currently confronting Americans is that the extremist right has been organizing around a strategy of intimidation and threats by armed “Patriots”—embodied by street-brawling proto-fascist groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, American Guard, and the “III Percent” militias, along with their “Boogaloo” cohort, all of them eager to use their prodigious weaponry against their fellow Americans in a “civil war.” And what we have seen occurring as the 2020 campaign has progressed is that the line of demarcation between these right-wing extremists and ordinary Trump-loving Republicans has all but vanished.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—Trump has empowered far-right white nationalist and conspiracy theorist elements within the walls of his administration, and pursued an agenda friendly to extremist elements. The architect of Trump’s immigration policies (not to mention his eliminationist scare campaigns about immigrant caravans and refugees from the Middle East) has been senior adviser Stephen Miller, whose deep ties to white nationalists were exposed last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Trump’s resulting policy agenda has been a white nationalist’s dream.

Trump’s see-no-evil approach to white nationalism meanwhile has translated into a deliberate blind spot within federal law enforcement agencies, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, where a whistleblower recently revealed that he was directed to skew intelligence assessments to minimize the threats of both white nationalist terrorism and Russian interference in American elections.

These are all established factual realities—in stark contrast with the utterly fantastical world of QAnon and other conspiracy theory universes that Fang seems to think they are comparable with—though Greenwald, who after all resides in Brazil, appears unfamiliar with them. Certainly his well-established blind spot for far-right extremism contributed to his decision to continue harping on Berger’s remarks a few days later, tweeting:

The United States is currently living under a “fascist coup,” and we must destroy the Nazi dictator who has seized power by spending the next 60 days vigorously campaigning against him and then obtaining more votes than he in the regularly scheduled election to be held Nov. 3.

Greenwald’s subsequent tweets in the thread laid out his argument further, pointing out that even though the Nazi party won a plurality of votes in the 1933 German election, paving Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship, “once in power, he wasn't susceptible to being removed by a democratic election because he was a fascist dictator.”

This is a remarkably simplistic approach to historical fascism, both in the 1930s and currently. First, as historian Robert O. Paxton explained in his definitive text The Anatomy of Fascismneither Hitler nor Mussolini ever even won their positions of national leadership through election. Rather, they were appointed by conservative establishment powers because their democratic states were mired in significant crises of legitimacy—crises they had major roles in inflaming themselves.

Both Mussolini and Hitler were invited to take office as head of government by a head of state in the legitimate exercise of his official functions, on the advice of civilian and military counselors. Both thus became heads of government in what appeared, at least on the surface, to be legitimate exercises of constitutional authority by King Victor Emmanuel III and President Hindenburg. Both these appointments were made, it must be added at once, under conditions of extreme crisis, which the fascists had abetted.

Moreover, as Paxton pointedly observes: “We are not required to believe that fascist movements can only come to power in an exact replay of the scenario of Mussolini and Hitler. All that is required to fit our model is polarization, deadlock, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, and complicity by existing elites.”

Greenwald’s formulation of the history completely misapprehends the nature of fascism itself, as well as how it spreads and seizes power. As Paxton explainsfascism is not a single, readily identifiable principle but a political pathology, best understood (as in psychology) as a constellation of traits. He defines it thus:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Fascism is moreover highly mutative, changing shape and appearance as well with each successive phase of its development. Paxton identifies these five stages:

  1. The initial creation of fascist movements
  2. Their rooting as parties in a political system
  3. The acquisition of power
  4. The exercise of power
  5. Radicalization or entropy

In each phase, fascism behaves differently and pursues different agendas, often in sharp contradiction of the ideals and policies it had previously embraced. What Greenwald is describing with regard to Hitler is fascism in its fourth stage, exploiting the powers Nazis already had obtained—while the “fascist coup” Berger describes, and indeed what we are currently experiencing in the United States, is the process: namely, fascism in its third stage, that is, in the process of acquiring enough political power to declare a dictatorship.

This process can vary according to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the established democracies that it infects. The fascists in prewar Germany and Italy—where the systems of democracy and their institutions were both comparatively recent developments and accordingly unstable—were able to rise to power through discrete and explicitly fascist political parties, seizing the political stage from outside the normal parameters of the established democracy, as it were.

In the United States, Paxton explains, fascist elements have always been present—and indeed, many threads from American history contributed powerfully to the ideologies of European fascism—but there has never been the “political space” for them to form discrete fascist parties capable of winning broad support.

The United States itself has never been exempt from fascism. Indeed, antidemocratic and xenophobic movements have flourished in America since the Native American party of 1845 and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. In the crisis-ridden 1930s, as in other democracies, derivative fascist movements were conspicuous in the United States: the Protestant evangelist Gerald B. Winrod's openly pro-Hitler Defenders of the Christian Faith with their Black Legion; William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts (the initials "SS" were intentional); the veteran-based Khaki Shirts (whose leader, one Art J. Smith, vanished after a heckler was killed at one of his rallies); and a hot of others. Movements with an exotic foreign look won few followers, however. George Lincoln Rockwell, flamboyant head of the American Nazi Party from 1959 until his assassination by a disgruntled follower in 1967, seemed even more "un-American" after the great anti-Nazi war.

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally. The Klan revived in the 1920s, took on virulent anti-Semitism, and spread to cities and the Middle West. In the 1930s, Father Charles E. Coughlin gathered a radio audience estimated at forty million around and anticommunist, anti-Wall Street, pro-soft money, and—after 1938—anti-Semitic messages broadcast from his church on the outskirts of Detroit. For a moment in early 1936 it looked as if his Union Party and its presidential candidate, North Dakota congressman William Lemke, might overwhelm Roosevelt. The plutocrat-baiting governor Huey Long of Louisiana had authentic political momentum until his assassination in 1935, but, though frequently labeled fascist at the time, he was more accurately a share-the-wealth demagogue. The fundamentalist preacher Gerald L.K. Smith, who had worked with both Coughlin and Long, turned the message more directly after World War II to the "Judeo-Communist conspiracy" and had a real impact. Today a "politics of resentment" rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same "internal enemies" once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights.

As Paxton explains, in the United States, as in France and elsewhere, fascism typically failed in the second stage because it failed to become a cohesive political entity, one capable of acquiring power. But make no mistake, he says: It can happen here.

It would, true to its mutative nature, adapt its shape, appearance, rhetoric, and agenda to its peculiarly American audience:

The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models. They would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans. No swastikas in American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.

Around such reassuring language and symbols in the event of some redoubtable setback to national prestige, Americans might support an enterprise of forcible national regeneration, unification, and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State (creches on the lawns, prayers in the schools), efforts to place controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.

Similarly, the mechanism by which fascism can acquire power is more likely to adapt to the nature of the nation it infects. Whereas both Italian and German democracies were relatively new and unstable when fascists overwhelmed them, American democracy is the most robust and mature in the world, with over 200 years’ history behind it. Its democratic institutions are more deeply established and less susceptible to attack—which is a large reason why fascism has failed to previously obtain the political space required to attract a large enough following to succeed as a discrete party.

I have contended for many years—since at least that 2004 Orcinus series on what I then called “pseudo fascism”—that in America, fascism is far more likely to worm its way under the foundations of our democracy by taking over an established party, “the transformation of an existing party into a fascist entity from within — not necessarily by design, but by a coalescence of political forces already latent in the landscape.”

As I explained then, this mechanism was suggested by one of the significant American fascist "intellectuals" who arose in the 1930s named Lawrence Dennis. He penned an ideological blueprint entitled The Coming American Fascism. Dennis predicted that eventually, the combination of a dictatorial and bureaucratic government and big business would continue exploiting the working middle class until, in frustration, it would turn to fascism. What's especially noteworthy was the political path he foresaw for this to happen:

Yet how infinitely better for the in-elite of the moment to have fascism come through one of the major parties of the moment than to have it fight its way to power as the program of the most embittered leaders of the out-elite.

This indeed is what has occurred. Rather than being guided consciously, this transformation has happened almost spontaneously as the forces that fascism comprises gradually have come together under their own gravity. As I explained, the takeover really occurred within the realm of movement conservatism, which by the 1980s had almost completely subsumed the Republican Party:

The primary impetus has been the change under which conservatism became a discrete movement intent on seizing the reins of power. In the process, the means—that is, the obtaining of power—became the end. And once the movement became centered around obtaining power, by any means necessary, then ideology became fungible according to the needs of its drive to acquire power, just as it was with fascism. This virtually guaranteed it would become a travesty of its original purpose. The nature of today's "conservative movement" is no more apparent than in how distinctly un-conservative its actual conduct has been: busting budgets, falling asleep at the wheel of national security, engaging wars recklessly and without adequate planning.

Two things occurred to the conservative movement in this drive for power:

  • It increasingly viewed liberals not merely as competitors but as unacceptable partners in the liberal-conservative power-sharing agreement that has been in place since at least the New Deal and the rise of modern consumer society. Ultimately, this view metastacizes into seeing liberals as objects to be eliminated.
  • It became increasingly willing to countenance ideological and practical bridges with certain factions of the extremist right. This ranged from anti-abortion and religious-right extremists to the neo-Confederates who dominate Republican politics in the South to factions of the Patriot/militia movement.

The combination of these two forces exerted a powerful rightward pull on the movement, to the point where extremist ideas and agendas have increasingly been adopted by the mainstream right, flowing into an eliminationist hatred of liberalism. In the process, their own rhetoric has come to sound like that on the far right. A lot of the dabbling in far-right memes has been gratuitous, intended to "push the envelope" for talk-radio audiences in constant need of fresh outrageousness.

Back in 2004, however, the primary reason not to fear the ascension of fascism directly was that there was not, at that point, a crisis of democracy and its legitimacy, even though George W. Bush’s 2000 victory via the Electoral College decidedly set the stage for the current crisis, as did the right-wing authoritarianism his administration and its cohorts unleashed. Paxton agreed that the danger was not imminent despite the growth of far-right groups in the American body politic: "Of course the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setback and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream,” he wrote.

However, that caveat has vanished because the 2020 election is unmistakably a looming crisis with effects we are already feeling. And that crisis has, historically speaking, always been the trigger that opened the door for fascists to seize power, as Paxton explains:

Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion. That suggests its spatial and temporal limits: no authentic fascism before the emergence of a massively enfranchised and politically active citizenry. In order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty -- for better or for worse.

… In other words, it's clear that the "crisis of democracy" necessary to create a genuinely fascist dynamic is a real potential that lies around many corners on our current path. The key, then, is to finding the path that does not take us there.

Paxton concludes The Anatomy of Fascism with this warning:

Fascism … is still visible today. Fascism exists at the level of Stage One within all democratic countries—not excluding the United States. “Giving up free institutions,” especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans. We know from tracing its path that fascism does not require a spectacular “march” on some capital to take root; seemingly anodyne decisions to tolerate lawless treatment of national “enemies” is enough. Something very close to classical fascism has reached Stage Two in a few deeply troubled societies. Its further progress is not inevitable, however. Further fascist advances toward power depend in part upon the severity of a crisis, but also very largely upon human choices, especially the choices of those holding economic, social, and political power. Determining the appropriate responses to fascist gains is not easy, since its cycle is not likely to repeat itself blindly. We stand a much better chance of responding wisely, however, if we understand how fascism succeeded in the past.

While there is no shortage of voices denying the reality of the fascist threat we now face, American democracy really does stand on the precipice in the 2020 election. Should we step off, then only the abyss awaits.

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