Red-pilled conservatives ready to give up on democracy and embrace fascism

Red-pilled conservatives ready to give up on democracy and embrace fascism
Image via Screengrab.

After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, American conservatives were faced with a stark choice: Recognize that their movement had inspired a seditious attack on democracy itself and work to restore the damage, swallowing the cold blue pill of the reality that they lost the 2020 election; or instead embracing the authoritarianism that had inspired a significant chunk of their base to attempt to lynch members of Congress and overthrow the legitimate counting of ballots, gulping down the red pill of conspiracism that fueled those warped beliefs.

It is now abundantly clear that they have chosen the latter. They have lied brazenly about who committed the attack, tried to claim that efforts to counter extremists' presence in the military and law enforcement are an attack on conservatives, and muttered darkly about secession while punishing members of Congress for voting to impeach Donald Trump. The final step—an open embrace of fascism—is now being discussed as a rational option among their leading pundits, including Fox News' Tucker Carlson.

Tucker Carlson and Jesse Kelly agree that Republicans are headed into

On his nightly Fox News show last Thursday, Carlson invited radio talk-show Jesse Kelly on to discuss how Hunter Biden's gun permit somehow proves Democrats have rigged the system to their own exclusive benefit (no mention of Ivanka's multitudinous business deals was made). Kelly complained that "it's just item Number 1,000 in proving to people that there's two sets of rules in this country, there are rules for powerful Democrats, and there are rules for people like you and I. This is what they do and people are sick of it. It's making people feel helpless, it makes people feel like there is no justice out there, it feels as useless as going to a feminist rally and trying to find a woman who can cook."

Carlson then veered into a discussion of how all this undermines society:

CARLSON: I think you make a really solid point about the sadness and the powerlessness that people feel in the face of this. And at some point people are going to say, "Why should I follow the rules? Why should I be a good citizen if they don't have to follow the rules?" I mean, things kind of break down at some point, don't they?

KELLY: They will break down, they are breaking down, Tucker. I have said this before, and I'm telling you I'm worried that I'm right, the right is going to pick a fascist within 10 to 20 years. Because they're not going to be the only ones on the outs. There's 60, 70 million of us. We're not a tiny minority, and if we're going to be all treated like criminals and all subject to every single law, while antifa, Black Lives Matter guys go free and Hunter Biden goes free, then the right's going to take drastic measures.

And it's not about Hunter Biden and his drug use. Nobody cares that he was bumpin' Booger Sugar and European hookers on the weekend, it's about justice, that he's never held accountable for it and none of the Bidens are, but you would be, Tucker, and so would I.

CARLSON: That's so well put, and you're absolutely right. We're moving toward actual extremism because they're undermining the system that kept extremism at bay. I don't think we can say that enough. I'm so glad that you just said it. Jesse Kelly, thank you.

This is an argument straight out of a Matt Bors cartoon—you know the one, where a young MAGA fanatic embraces neo-Nazism because of mild criticism from a liberal , saying: "I feel bullied, really"—that is recycled with great regularity on the right, particularly by young men who've embraced a proto-fascist ethos: "The left is making people become Nazis!" Portland Proud Boys figure Tusitala "Tiny" Toese is fond of regaling audiences with a similar origin story.

I have heard versions of this legend for many years in covering the radical right, and each time, given further probing with questions, it uniformly became clear that people who say they were pushed into extremism were already there in most regards, and whatever "pushed" them simply removed the pretense. Each of them had a pre-existing antipathy toward liberalism and "the left"—the same animus that historically fueled fascist movements—as well as a predilection toward conspiracism and violence.

But take special note of how Kelly frames the discussion: The Jan. 6 insurrection is never mentioned, but it forms the subtext of his complaint that "we're going to be all treated like criminals and all subject to every single law, while antifa, Black Lives Matter guys go free"—because in their minds, those are the factions responsible for terrorist violence in America, not a mob of right-thinking MAGA folks.

This narrative runs throughout much of mainstream conservative discourse in the aftermath of the Capitol siege. Seizing on modern variations of the timeworn "bloody shirt" trope, they have tried to depict the insurrectionists as "decent Americans in good standing" being victimized by a vengeful left. When the military sought to offer fresh training intended to weed out far-right extremists from their ranks, right-wing pundits complained that it was an "attack on conservatives."

The left is not driving conservatives towards fascism: Rather, their own embrace of far-right radicalization is the engine in all this. The simple existence of "the left" is enough to drive them into an eliminationist rage, and provides a handy rationalization for their own radicalized worldview.

This reality was crystallized in an article published this week in the house organ of the right-wing Claremont Institute, The American Mind, headlined "Conservatism is no Longer Enough: All hands on deck as we enter the counter-revolutionary moment," from an Institute fellow named Glenn Ellmers. Unlike Carlson and Kelly, the piece does not embrace fascism explicitly, but rather explicates in detail a political ethos that is almost classically fascist in the scholarly sense.

Besides being authoritarian, populist, and palingenetic, the piece—an attempt at laying out a fighting plan for the American right after the epistemic break of Jan. 6 (which again goes unmentioned specifically, but is an essential subtext of the piece)—is a remarkable example of undiluted eliminationism, rhetoric that dehumanizes, demonizes, and disenfranchises other members of a society and argue for their elimination.

Ellmers divides the nation into two warring halves: the "real Americans" (who, seemingly, engage in violent seditionist insurrection out of patriotic impulses) and the "not Americans"—i.e., the rest of us. And only the former half deserves to hold the political franchise:

Fewer are willing to take the next step and accept that most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.

I don't just mean the millions of illegal immigrants. Obviously, those foreigners who have bypassed the regular process for entering our country, and probably will never assimilate to our language and culture, are—politically as well as legally—aliens. I'm really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.

Like so many other red-pilled right-wing authoritarians, Ellmer's cognitive worldview is so skewed that he engages in outright projection here, especially in describing the enemy in greater detail as "a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism," and that the Real Americans voted against a "senile figurehead." This cognitive difference made voting for Trump "an easy choice," and in his view, voting for Biden branded one instantly a Not Real American: "Both Right and Left know where they stand today… and it is not together. Not anymore."

Ellmer somehow concludes that "the progressive, or woke, or 'antiracist' agenda" attacks and "repudiates" the notion that "any temporary majority in power must represent the rights and interests of all"—a concept that seems not to apply to vote-suppressing, anti-immigrant Republicans, not to mention precluding a liberal majority from applying policies that represent the rights and interests of people outside the majority—and so it "now corrupts our republic, assaults our morality, and suffocates our liberty."

Ellmer explains that his goal "is to show why we must all unite around the one, authentic America, the only one which transcends all the factional navel-gazing and pointless conservababble." A photo illustrating the piece, showing a muscular man in a tank top wrapping his hands in preparation for a fistfight, suggested what he has in mind: the thuggish street-brawler strategy of the Proud Boys.

As historian John Ganz explored in a responding piece at Substack, given there really is only one word to accurately describe this kind of authoritarian political ethos: fascism. His opening salvo—arguing for the disenfranchisement of the majority of the nation's voters on the basis of being insufficiently American is really only the beginning.

"These themes of pervading national corruption and decadence, and the need for a counter-revolution and a national rebirth put this text firmly in the radical reactionary or fascist ballpark," Ganz observes.

He also notes the obvious eliminationism: "Like many fascist theoreticians, the author of the Claremont essay puts the condition of America in terms of a 'toxin,' a 'disease,' a 'sickness,' and awaits the appearance of a providential man with the cure: 'What is needed, of course, is a statesman who understands both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure.'

"There are also hints of the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that fascist propagandists employ: 'If you are a zombie or a human rodent (who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Real men and women who love honor and beauty, keep reading.' "

Ganz also discusses Kelly's appearance on Carlson's show, noting that both of them clearly stated that fascism is a justifiable response to the left, one forced on the right. "Carlson, of course, has long been a mouthpiece of mainstream conservatism, and has now taken a more radical turn," he adds.

It's probably also worth noting that Kelly has a history of spinning reality through his own authoritarian prism, as Vanity Fair details:

In a 2018 Federalist piece titled "It's Time for the United States to Divorce Before Things Get Dangerous," Kelly pointed to intracountry division on the issues of firearms, immigration, and religion to predict that "sooner or later, the left-wing rage mob will start coming for the careers (and lives) of any normal American who sees things differently." He further warned that right-wing Americans could be massacred in a liberal-led purge, writing in his Federalist post "America Is Over, but I Won't See It Go Without an Epic Fight" that conservatives should fight to the death against "an eventual socialist abyss" that Kelly believes will take over the country. "Close your eyes and imagine holding someone's scalp in your hands," the article's first line reads. "I mean a real scalp, Indian-style, of some enemy you just killed on the battlefield; somebody you hated and who hated you back." After projecting that conservatives will "almost certainly" be massacred in an America's "inevitable communist purges," Kelly jumped "back to the scalping thing" and insinuated that conservatives should prepare to wage a bloody insurgency against fellow Americans: "When you make that long trek to the reservation the leftists have set up for you—and make that trek you will—what memories do you want to take with you? When living in the liberal utopian nightmare of 57 genders and government control over everything in your life…You'll want to know, to remember, even just cherish the knowledge that, one day, you rode out onto the plains and made them feel pain."

In the epistemologically demented world that people like Kelly and Carlson occupy, the left is the source of all the world's ills, its political violence, its social dysfunctions, while "real Americans" like themselves are standing up for goodness and righteousness. In the end, this is why fascism becomes an acceptable option, especially after Jan. 6, when the web of denial that normalized the American right's descent into radicalization was wiped away and its inherent authoritarianism and anti-democratic intent became unmistakable.

As I wrote after the insurrection:

The Republican Party's hostility to democracy—embodied by conservatives' running refrain that "America is not a democracy, it's a republic"—has become its official policy over the past decade, manifested most apparently in its egregious voter suppression policies and court rulings that reached a fever pitch in recent years. It's now a commonplace for Republican politicians (notably Trump himself) to fret that a high voter turnout is nearly certain to translate into Democratic wins as a reason to even further suppress the vote.

As David Frum (a never-Trump conservative) noted in his book Trumpocracy: "If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. The will reject democracy." On Wednesday, that rejection became undeniably, irrevocably manifest.

Rather than taking a hard look at what they have become after the mob their president ginned up stormed the Capitol, today's lame attempts by conservatives to gaslight the public about what happened Wednesday (with figures like Matt Gaetz and Mo Brooks trying to gaslight the public by claiming the invaders were actually "antifa") make all too clear that the Republican Party, now consumed by right-wing authoritarianism, has ceased to be a viable partner in a working democracy. The problem the rest of us now face is how to proceed from here.

The red pill of authoritarianism is a helluva drug. And as its addicts descend into an embrace of fascism, it's clear they have the capability of not only warping their own reality, but everyone else's too.

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