Philosopher Jason Stanley: Fascism's definitely not beaten — but there's reason for hope

Author of "How Fascism Works" on the question raised by Georgia's new voting laws: Do we live in a democracy?

By Chauncey DeVega
March 29, 2021 10:10AM (UTC)
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Donald Trump | Impeachment Trial in the Senate Chamber (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The hope-peddlers and their related ilk in the mainstream news media and elsewhere would like the American people and global public to believe that Donald Trump and his neofascist movement were defeated on Election Day and by Joe Biden's ascendance as president of the United States. They were not.

Trump's forces attempted to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, a plot that culminated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

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Law enforcement and other experts predict that the United States may experience years, if not decades, of terrorism and other political violence by right-wing insurgents who have been inspired and mobilized by Trump's presidency and movement.

The Republican Party is the front organization — the "polite face" — of American neofascism. In that role, the party and the broader "conservative" movement (including think tanks, interest groups and consulting firms, as well as individual political operatives) have escalated their long-planned strategy to destroy multiracial secular democracy.

In Georgia and 42 other states, Republicans and their operatives are enacting legislation to stop Black and brown voters and other members of the Democratic coalition from voting. Ultimately, this is an attempt to impose a new Jim Crow-style apartheid regime in America.

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The New York Times summarizes the details of this new war on voting rights:

After record turnout flipped Georgia blue for the first time in decades, Republicans who control the state Legislature moved swiftly to put in place a raft of new restrictions on voting access, passing a new bill that was signed into law on Thursday.

The law will alter foundational elements of voting in Georgia, which supported President Biden in November and a pair of Democratic senators in January — narrow victories attributable in part to the turnout of Black voters and the array of voting options in the state.

Taken together, the new barriers will have an outsize impact on Black voters, who make up roughly one-third of the state's population and vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

The Republican legislation will undermine pillars of voting access by limiting drop boxes for mail ballots, introducing more rigid voter identification requirements for absentee balloting and making it a crime to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote. Long lines to vote are common in Black neighborhoods in Georgia's cities, particularly Atlanta, where much of the state's Democratic electorate lives.

Republican policies and ideas are unpopular with the majority of Americans. Demographic changes are also making the Republican Party's white supremacy and racism unappealing to large swaths of the public. In response, Republicans and the white right are attempting to end multiracial majoritarian democracy and replace it with a pseudo-democratic system political scientists describe as "competitive authoritarianism."

In a recent tweet, the Atlantic's Adam Serwer neatly describes this anti-democratic and anti-human logic: "The country is simply theirs; if democracy produces an outcome other than Republican victory then democracy as they understand it has ceased to function."

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The hope peddlers, stenographers of current events, professional centrists and others who have consistently underestimated the Republican threat to democracy have done so largely because they deluded themselves into believing that fascism is something that happens "over there," and was defeated on the battlefields of Europe and Asia during World War II.

The troubling reality is that American fascism has existed for centuries in such forms as white on black chattel slavery; genocide against First Nations people; the creation of a white American empire under Manifest Destiny; concentration camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned; white supremacist violence against brown people along the U.S.- Mexico border and in Texas, California, and the Southwest more generally; and Jim and Jane Crow terrorism and its legacy in "post-racial" America in the Age of Trump and beyond.

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Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale University and the author of several books, including "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them" and "How Propaganda Works." His essays and other commentaries have been featured in such leading publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Review and the Guardian.

In this conversation he explains how the Republican Party and white right are manipulating language and symbols in their campaign to stop Black people from voting in Georgia as part of a larger attack on democracy. Stanley also details how Trump's coup attempt and his forces' attack on the Capitol was a crystallization of various elements — including Christian Nationalism, the QAnon conspiracy theory, the neo-Confederate movement, and right-wing paramilitaries and militias — which constitute the core of the American fascist movement and imagination.

Stanley also warns that the attacks on democracy in Georgia and across the country are an ominous sign: Donald Trump may no longer be president, the neofascist movement marches on and American democracy is still imperiled.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joe Biden's approval level is high, and even some Republicans are temporary converts to his cause of healing the nation. The American people have gotten more support through Biden and the Democratic Party's survival checks and other programs. Biden is trying to be a true leader who obviously cares about the American people and loves the country. But he has only been president for two months. There is all this organized forgetting about the evils of the Trump regime. The American people have been so traumatized that they are desperate for hope. But it is far too early to celebrate given Trumpism's enduring power, his coup attempt and a growing right-wing terrorist insurgency. Am I being too cynical?

You can't have unrelenting hopelessness. At a certain point people just shut off. Hungary is a good example of a country without any political hope at all right now. Democracy is done there. Viktor Orbán is going to be in power until he dies. What happens if a people do not have any success in fighting back and resisting to save their country's democracy? They acclimate. If you are going to live your life in an authoritarian society, often with brutal dictators, a person acclimates to it. They shut off their political side.

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I think it's important to have those moments, like in Georgia, those victories that people can look to. The battle there is by no means over. The Republican Party knows its weakness in terms of winning elections democratically. Now the Republicans are systematically targeting democracy. The other day I was thinking: What was it like to live during Jim Crow as a white person in the North? You knew that the South was robbing all Black Americans of the right to vote. Well, we are looking at such a situation now, with the Republicans systematically taking away the right to vote. It is an emergency. The rot is deep. The Republican Party has become an anti-democratic party and they know that they are not going to win elections by a majority vote. Democracy is not over – but there is a potentially very grim future ahead.

As an expert on fascism, what did you see as you watched Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol?

It was a moment of social chaos. With Trump's claims about the election, it gave license to his followers. But I was actually expecting much worse and I have felt that way for some time.

I am surprised the attack on the Capitol was not more violent. I was also concerned that law enforcement agents would join in the attack too. There were concerns about other formal parts of government too given the likes of Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.

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How does the Capitol attack on Jan. 6 by Trump's supporters cohere into an over-arching narrative of American neofascism?

The kind of fascism here in the United States is white Christian nationalism that is connected to the Southern Confederacy "lost cause" mythos. Now there is an additional dimension, which is a new "lost cause" myth that is the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and his movement.

At the Capitol attack there were people dressed up like Vikings and other characters from Norse myths, which is more of an example drawn from classic European fascism — for example, the "shaman" wearing the horns. In total, the attack on the Capitol involved the unification of Southern white Confederacy supporters, the lost cause, and Christian nationalists. Add the worship of Trump, and it is a cult of the leader.

What is the role of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and conspiracism more generally, in American neofascism?

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It is utterly central, in that the "enemy" is not legitimate in terms of democracy. The "enemy" is depicted as being a fundamental threat to the nation. The structure with this new American neofascism and its conspiracism mirrors KKK ideology and Nazism with the idea that there are these "leftist elites" — in the past and even in the present, those "leftist elites" would be "the Jews." In that imaginary, "the Jews" are trying to provoke and manipulate Black people into a "race war" that would destroy the nation. Now they have included feminism and the rights of gays and lesbians in their conspiratorial narrative.

In the end, it is really an old story about "defending the nation," which in turn means defending white Christian patriarchy. The importance of patriarchy in these neofascist conspiracies must be remembered. These conspiracy theories are deeply patriarchal. They are centered around child sex abuse and the sex trafficking of women.  At its root the narrative is: "Your women are at risk and you need a strong leader to protect them." Those enemies want "your women." The enemy is going to turn your boys into girls. They're going to take "your women" and traffic them. They're going to take your children. These conspiracy theories are central to a politics of fear, and a politics of fear makes a person and group crave a strong leader.

The role of emasculation, both literally and metaphorically, is important in the QAnon neofascist imagination. That and many other right-wing conspiracy theories are fixated on embattled masculinity and weakness, and fears by men that they cannot protect their women and children. And the ultimate protector in their view of the world is the white Christian male.

That is correct. These types of conspiracy theories such as QAnon make that aspect of fascism very salient and central. If a man cannot protect "his women," then he is truly emasculated.

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The "cancel culture" right-wing myth-making is also centered on similar threats and anxieties. It is all deeply existential, where the internal logic is that we white right-wing Christian conservatives are going to be "canceled," meaning destroyed by "those people." Violence, then, is a natural and logical response.

The economic is shifted to the cultural. Then the language becomes one of how it is a culture war of annihilation. You are correct: The culture war narrative is about existential enemies. What the right-wing's narrative involves are claims of existential threat because "they," "the enemy" — here being the "left," Democrats, progressives, liberals, etc. — are trying to destroy "our" culture.

Now the focus becomes central elements of childhood. The "enemy" is trying to rob you of your childhood identity. And remember your childhood? It was nostalgic and innocent. They're trying to rob you of your past! The right-wing culture war narrative is creating a narrative and logic that "the enemy" is doing a horrible wrong to you. The sense of anxiety you feel, it's because your past was stolen away. They're trying to say that your past, the nostalgic childhood things you loved, are evil. Dr. Seuss, Disney. And moreover, they're trying to tell you your childhood was racist and evil. The right-wing cancel culture strategy makes their public furious. Now the anxieties about the future are refocused there instead of on other matters.

How does one counter this?

The first thing is to remove the sense of impending doom and anxiety from them. That's what the Biden administration is trying to do. The only way we know how to do that is economically. You will always have people with immature emotional impulses. The only thing you can do is try to minimize the anxiety.

The idea that white supremacy, racism, neofascism and other anti-human philosophies and movements can be stopped through money and resources is a very orthodox left way of approaching these problems — this idea that material realities are at the root of such social problems. There is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. For example, there are many rich or upper-class white people who support Trumpism and other forms of American fascism. They are not suffering from "economic anxiety."

We are never going to get rid of the problem. We can only reduce the support for these types of fascist conspiratorial ideas and movements.

Slavery and Jim Crow are America's native form of fascism. How does that help to explain what is happening in Georgia and other parts of the country, with these efforts to stop Black and brown people from voting?

What is happening in Georgia and other parts of the country is clearly continuous with our Jim Crow past, with superficially race-neutral barriers to voting designed specifically to place serious obstacles to voting for Black, poor and urban voters. Instead of literacy tests, you have well-designed strategies based on empirical research about voter access that are being implemented to impede democracy. Most frighteningly, these laws further politicize the election administration process, to a degree that compromises the claims of states that pass such legislation to be democracies.

Republicans clearly were paying attention in 2020 to the obstacles that prevented Trump from overturning the election. They have focused precisely on those obstacles across the relevant states and removed them with surgical precision. You will now legally be able to discard votes from Black-majority cities. It's legal. That's vitally important to pay attention to — when you write into law the basis for disenfranchising populations you don't like, it's time to reevaluate whether or not you are living in a democracy.

What did you make of the anti-democracy Georgia voting bill being signed into law in a room of masked white men, under a painting of a Black slave labor prison camp, while a Black Georgia state representative, Park Cannon, was being arrested for trying to enter the governor's office to witness these events?

Politicians pay close attention to imagery. It is implausible to think that the symbolism was not intentional.

How are the Republican Party and white right using propaganda and other manipulations of language — which are in fact assaults on reality — to create a new Jim Crow system?

This is what I describe as "undermining propaganda." You use an ideal to subvert that very same ideal. "One person, one vote" is used to push voter disenfranchisement laws. You claim that you are "protecting" democracy while in fact you are undermining it. It is a standard approach to propaganda — undermine the thing you are claiming to protect. An even better description for that strategy is "immolation." Democratic ideas are being immolated. The way the destruction is concealed is by racism. The Republican Party and broader right wing, in its attacks on democracy, say that they care about "real votes" and "genuine votes." What are the genuine votes? In their mind, the genuine votes are the white votes.   


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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