If America really surrenders to fascism, then what? Painful questions lie ahead

If the worst happens in 2024, will you stay or go? It's not too early to have a Plan B for life under fascism

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 2, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump | The US Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | The US Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Each week brings us further confirmation that Donald Trump and members of his regime staged a coup attempt. It appears abundantly clear that they will face few if any consequences. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice give no impression that they are prepared to prosecute Trump personally, or any of the other major organizers of the Jan. 6 insurrection — and what little they are doing is moving very slowly. 

Without significant intervention, the world's so-called "leading democracy" will go quietly to sleep.

The Guardian offers new details about Trump's leadership role in the January coup attempt, which was more extensive and serious than previously known. According to Hugo Lowell's reporting (drawing on multiple unnamed sources), Trump made several calls from the White House to his "top lieutenants" at the Willard Hotel in Washington on the afternoon of Jan. 5 and the morning of Jan. 6, all on the topic of "ways to stop the certification of Joe Biden's election win."

Trump told his team at the Willard that Vice President Mike Pence was reluctant to go along with a plan "to commandeer his largely ceremonial role at the joint session of Congress" and try to engineer a second term for Trump. These conversations "reveal a direct line from the White House and the command center at the Willard," Lowell writes, and "also show Trump's thoughts appear to be in line with the motivations of the pro-Trump mob that carried out the Capitol attack."

RELATED: Right-wing media and the pandemic: A toxic feedback loop that nurtured fascism

Trump was furious, as we already know, after Pence resisted his entreaties in an Oval Office meeting. But Trump wasn't done. He followed up with "several calls" to loyalists at the Willard, a group that included Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Boris Epshteyn and Steve Bannon:

On the calls, the former president first recounted what had transpired in the Oval Office meeting with Pence, informing Bannon and the lawyers at the Willard that his vice-president appeared ready to abandon him at the joint session in several hours' time.

"He's arrogant," Trump, for instance, told Bannon of Pence — his own way of communicating that Pence was unlikely to play ball — in an exchange reported in "Peril" [the book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa] and confirmed by the Guardian.

But on at least one of those calls, Trump also sought from the lawyers at the Willard ways to stop the joint session to ensure Biden would not be certified as president on 6 January, as part of a wider discussion about buying time to get states to send Trump electors.

The fallback that Trump and his lieutenants appeared to settle on was to cajole Republican members of Congress to raise enough objections so that even without Pence adjourning the joint session, the certification process would be delayed for states to send Trump slates.

Of course, this new reporting cannot be considered a "revelation." It simply adds more evidence to an already huge pile, making clear that the Trump cabal was vigorously engaged in a conspiracy to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election, with the goal of making Trump a de facto dictator.

Effectively, the coup was not defeated; and America's democracy crisis is worsening.

Our failing democracy is close to being fatally undermined by a rigged electoral system designed to ensure that it will be almost impossible for Republicans to lose an election.

Public opinion polls and other research has shown that those Americans who are deeply concerned for democracy and want to see Trump and his cabal punished for their obvious crimes are increasingly exhausted. Many have stopped believing that true justice will ever be done.

By comparison, most Republican voters have internalized the Big Lie that the 2020 election was "stolen," and are inclined to believe that Donald Trump is still the legitimate president. A large percentage of Republicans also believe that their "traditional" way of life is under threat, and are willing to endorse or condone violence to "defend" it. 

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In the end, a plurality of Americans, if not a majority, through tacit consent or just plain indifference, are surrendering to the neofascist tide and allowing themselves to be submerged in it. Trump's followers and other "conservatives" are energized by their belief that the rising fascist tide will carry them back to their imagined "greatness" as the "real Americans." They will be drowned too — that will just take longer. 

America's supposed pro-democracy leaders should be rallying the people to resist the Republican fascist assault. Most are not. In the most high-profile example, President Joe Biden is choosing to publicly embrace "bipartisanship," in the empty hope that the Democratic Party's legislative successes will somehow blunt the power of the Republican-fascist movement.

Meanwhile, the mainstream news media remains trapped in obsolescent norms of "fairness," "balance" and "objectivity," rather than engaging in the type of pro-democracy advocacy journalism demanded by the country's escalating political crises.

The right-wing media and its larger echo chamber is a propaganda and disinformation machine. Its foremost role is to convince the right-wing public — and "low information" voters as a whole — that empirical truth and reality no longer exist, or are tools of a condescending "elite" and "deep state".

Many Americans are overwhelmed with a feeling of civic death, which is only compounded by the literal and unending plague of the coronavirus pandemic. These feelings of despair and doom are a further consequence of the Age of Trump, in which what was heretofore unimaginable becomes almost normal. This normalization process involves both large and small acts of surrender as a means of maintaining relative sanity in a deranged society. A country cannot easily purge itself of such a state of malignant normality. 

America is not the first country to experience such a crisis. Lessons of the past are supposed to help us better understand the present as to avoid repeating those same mistakes. That becomes more difficult in a country afflicted with organized forgetting.

In his book "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45," Milton Mayer reflects on his experiences living under the Nazi regime in Germany. In one passage, he shares a friend's insights:

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted,'"that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice — "Resist the beginnings" and "Consider the end." But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

That remarkable passage serves as both testimony and warning. Many Americans, especially white people, lack a real understanding of the country's history: The price of admission into "whiteness" is a type of myopia and intentional forgetting. Black and brown Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, many recent immigrants and others who have suffered under power are not allowed such fantasies.

As such, many white Americans will soon be forced, against their collective will, to relearn these historical lessons about fascism and authoritarianism and how societies can be driven to madness. For those Americans who do understand the depth of the country's democracy crisis, important choices await. What does effective resistance look like? What can be salvaged from the country's democracy in the years ahead? Is it better to stay here and fight toward another day, or give up and leave? 

In the most recent installment of her newsletter, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat explores that final question, and her insights merit extensive quotation:

The hand of the US government and its enforcers will become heavier if the Republicans do well enough in the 2022 midterms to take control of the House and the Senate. Things could accelerate after that.

Anyone in public education, from kindergarten through advanced degree institutions, is fair game in red states. South Carolina is considering a bill to abolish tenure at public colleges and universities. It will also be increasingly dangerous, no matter where you live, to be a transgender person.

So, one answer would be: start exploring your options now if you are in a threatened category of people, as are many of those who write to me. "Better exile than prison," wrote former Italian Prime Minister Francesco Nitti to King Victor Emmanuel III in 1925, explaining why he'd left Italy when the Fascists took power. Nitti worked from abroad to counter authoritarian propaganda about what was happening in his native country, as exiles from Hong Kong, Myanmar, and other places do today.

It's unlikely that Republican rule would mean mass imprisonment for political opponents, the way there is in Erdogan's Turkey. Viktor Orbán, darling of the GOP, has not gone that route. And it's a shame to lose capable people when they are most needed at home — which would be the situation in the USA if Republicans gain more power and if they retake the White House in 2024.

Numbers matter for the success of nonviolent protests, for compensating at the ballot box for manipulated elections, and for constructing the kind of broad-based democracy movement America desperately needs, in which everyone finds their own way of working to protect our freedoms — or regain those we might lose. 

Each person acts for their own reasons, and each situation is unique. But there is one constant in the history of exile. It means watching from afar the travails of your country, and, for those who desire to return, entering into a state of suspension: waiting for things to get better, waiting for the tyrant to die, waiting for freedoms to be restored. 

If American democracy was a patient, it is self-medicating to numb the pain, but the fascist disease is almost fatal and time for effective treatment is rapidly running out.

What should a people do — individually, collectively or both — when there is so much more work to be done and they are already exhausted? Or when fatalism seems more rational than hope? The current crisis will put these questions to the American people, sooner rather than later. Tomorrow is not guaranteed — and we certainly cannot assume it will be better than today. 

More commentary on America's deepening crisis of democracy:

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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Authoritarianism Commentary Coup Democracy Donald Trump Fascism Jan. 6 Media