Fascism is terrifying. So most people look away.
Fascism is disorienting: A basic understanding of truth and reality, of what is certain in the universe, is replaced by "malignant normality," a surreal environment. As a democracy slowly succumbs and then quickly collapses — which appears to be what America is experiencing right now — everything that was once familiar and comforting is replaced by a new order. Those who follow the fascist movement are subsumed in mass ecstasy. Others are disoriented as they variously decide to resist, to collaborate or simply to muddle through in their own day-to-day way.
In a new essay for the Guardian, philosopher and author Jason Stanley describes such a moment coming into existence in America:
There has been a growing fascist social and political movement in the United States for decades. Like other fascist movements, it is riddled with internal contradictions, but no less of a threat to democracy. Donald Trump is an aspiring autocrat out solely for his own power and material gain. By giving this movement a classically authoritarian leader, Trump shaped and exacerbated it, and his time in politics has normalized it.
Donald Trump has shown others what is possible. But the fascist movement he now leads preceded him, and will outlive him.
America's current democracy crisis and moment of interregnum feels like a state of collective cognitive dissonance.
Those outside the Trump-Republican fascist movement are increasingly disoriented and confused. They exist but are not truly alive in the civic, political and social sense. This is known as "zombie politics."
Perhaps most confused are those who truly believed in the myth of American exceptionalism — the idea of the United States as the one "indispensable nation," a shining city on the hill. The rise of neofascism, for those believers, is a type of narcissistic injury. It is also a shroud, marking the death of deeply ingrained but childish fantasies about American democracy, American society and America's future.
In 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote the following in his book "Darkwater" about the global struggle against white supremacy, "And then—the Veil. It drops as drops the night on southern seas—vast, sudden, unanswering. There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears."
Given that America's native form of fascism is white supremacy, Du Bois's insights ring with especially painful clarity today.
Most Americans, faced with the terror of fascism, will do nothing. That is not an opinion or a judgment. It is just a fact. They know something is wrong — almost everything, in fact — but do not know what to do about it. They have been captured by inertia.
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How many years of life has the Age of Trump cost the American people?
We know that the coronavirus plague, made dramatically worse by the Trump regime, will take more than a million people's lives in America.
It has also stolen millions of hours of life from the American people.
But what have the last five years or so cost us in terms of our peace of mind? How do we even quantify such a thing? What has this cost us existentially? What has already been lost, and what will be lost in the future?
On a personal level, I have concluded that the Age of Trump and this struggle has cost me at least five years of my life. I know this for a fact. In private conversation, other travelers have shared their number with me: Sometimes it is lower, and sometimes higher. The cost takes many different forms.
Since last Jan. 6, I have found myself repeatedly singing this part of David Bowie's haunting song "Five Years":
We've got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that's all we've got
I wonder daily about other Americans and what songs they sing in lamentation for their country.
I have also reflected on George R. Stewart's essential science fiction novel "Earth Abides," whose narrator shares memories of a country that no longer existed after a great plague had spread across the world:
It had been a great thing, in those Old Times, to be an American. You had been deeply conscious of being one of a great nation. It was no mere matter of pride, but also there went with it a profound sense of confidence and security in life, and a comradeship of millions.
There is much woe in my contemplation and reflection on America's crisis of democracy, and what appears to be imminent doom. Anyone who is truly paying attention feels the same way.
Those of us who have insisted on warning the American people about the rising fascist tide have often become objects of rage and anger from the very people we are trying to help. I understand this logic: Somehow they believe that the horrible thing can be made to go away if those who keep talking about it can be silenced or driven to disappear. Those who feel powerless exercise what they perceive as their only remaining option, which is, in effect, to make the messenger be quiet.
In a recent conversation with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat on my podcast, she explained this:
They want it to go away. They want the situation to go away. And sometimes they want you to go away. Sometimes they want me to go away. They wanted my book to go away…. The more interesting ones are the ones where they just can't handle it, you are irksome to them…. They don't want to accept what America is becoming. Some of those are the people writing us those notes.
America's democracy crisis and the fascist darkness are not going away. They are only getting worse. This is a moment when those Americans who care about the country's future need to lean into the fascist darkness and its collective evil with eyes fully open as to prepare themselves for what is to come next.
It has been almost a year since Donald Trump and his regime attempted a coup that involved a lethal attack on the U.S. Capitol and a nationwide plot to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. In the past year, the world has learned how perilously close American democracy actually came to the abyss.
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It was mostly incompetence, dumb luck, timing and the choices of a few patriots who refused to cooperate that prevented America from becoming a Putin-style autocracy, with Trump as de facto dictator. Such a revolution would not have occurred without widespread violence. Indeed, in that alternate timeline the U.S. might well now be in the midst of a civil war or sustained insurgency.
Here is a thought experiment: What would happen if Donald Trump were to now admit his crimes against American democracy? Of course he would do so in cowardly fashion, with a wink and a nod. Something like: I am not saying I did anything illegal — but what if I did?
Trump would continue by explaining that he did it all for the American people — the real Americans! He did it to save America from Joe Biden and the "socialist Democrats." To save America from "cancel culture" and "political correctness" and "critical race theory". He did it to Make America Great Again!
"I did it for you!" he would tell his believers. "I am always fighting for you! We will no longer be victims in our own country! I would do it again for the people who truly love America!"
Donald Trump is rapidly moving toward such a moment. He has repeatedly said that the Jan 6. coup attempt was an act of patriotism and that the "real" insurrection happened on Nov. 3 when the election was "stolen" from him and his followers, in what was surely among the greatest crimes of history.
Last Saturday, Trump issued this pronouncement from his shadow government headquarters at Mar-a-Lago:
All the Democrats want to do is put people in jail. They are vicious, violent, and Radical Left thugs. They are destroying people's lives, which is the only thing they are good at.
They couldn't get out of Afghanistan without disgracing our Country. The economy and inflation are a disaster. They're letting thugs and murderers into our Country — their DA's, AG's, and Dem Law Enforcement are out of control. This is what happens in communist countries and dictatorships, and they don't think they'll be held accountable for rigging the 2020 Presidential Election.
The Jan. 6 Unselect Committee is a coverup for what took place on November 3rd, and the people of our Country won't stand for it.
Trump is reportedly planning "counter-programming" on the anniversary of Jan. 6 to celebrate his Big Lie and further encourage his followers to attack American democracy.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director at the FBI, said in response that when Trump "sends out something like this it's indicative that he's learned something he didn't know," and that his targeting of Democratic district attorneys suggests that:
Word has gotten to him that something is happening, about to happen to him. He doesn't like where the investigation is going. He's lashing out. It's the possibility that either the state of New York or Manhattan district attorney's office and/or the DOJ is getting closer to him. Some word has gotten back to him that triggered that message.
So what will happen if Trump literally admits to high crimes against American democracy and society? Likely nothing. President Biden and the Department of Justice have shown a deep reluctance to prosecute Trump or his inner circle for their many alleged or apparent crimes. Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland remain afraid of "politicizing" the DOJ and creating a precedent that a former president can be held criminally responsible for their actions while in office.
In the most likely scenario, Trump and other members of his inner circle could face fines or suspended sentences. Perhaps Mark Meadows (or another ranking Trump sycophant) will be sacrificed for symbolic reasons and serve a brief prison sentence. Trump will face no significant consequences, and will be free to plot his return to power and his next attempt to bring down American democracy. Trump and his followers will, if anything, be even more energized in their crusade to seize and hold power.
What will the Democrats do? Not much. They will continue to hold hearings. There will be resolutions, investigations, and press conferences. They will scream, rightfully so, about each new set of "revelations" and what they tell us about the perilous state of American democracy and the rule of law. The Jan. 6 committee will make referrals to the Justice Department that will result in nothing substantial. Perhaps some Republican collaborators in Congress will be censured or removed from committees, as has already happened with Rep. Paul Gosar and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Even if Trump and his cabal admit to high crimes, Democrats will in all probability still be unable to craft an effective political message, and will remain riven by factional infighting.
As for the Republicans — they will be even more loyal to Donald Trump. His admission and public embrace of his criminal actions will become the new litmus test for being a "real Republican". The coup plotters will be elevated to even higher status in MAGAworld as "role models" and "heroes." Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney and a few other prominent Republicans will condemn Trump. But they are minority voices, near-pariahs at risk of purge or expulsion for disloyalty. Most Republican elected officials and national figures will remain silent — and a large and growing number will consent enthusiastically when Trump and his allies talk of "extraordinary times" and the need for "extraordinary measures".
Republicans will almost certainly win control of the House and Senate after the 2022 midterms. As promised, they will seek revenge on the Democrats through endless investigations, rolling back legislation and perhaps attempting to impeach Joe Biden. It is increasingly likely that either Donald Trump or his hand-picked successor will take power in 2024.
For the mainstream news media, Trump's hypothetical confession would be one of the largest stories in recent American history. But sustained and articulate advocacy for democracy in mainstream journalism will still be lacking. Some opinion leaders and other prominent media figures will tell the truth without fear. But the traditions, norms, incentive structure and institutional culture of the mainstream media are simply insufficient to effectively confront a bold and unapologetic authoritarian movement led by a former president.
After the initial shock and awe at Trump's confession, the media's focus will begin to fade. Soon it will move on to the next controversy, and the one after that.
As for the American people, Democratic voters and other liberals and progressives will be mobilized — at least for a while. There will be marches and protests and similar events. There may even be punctuated moments of civil unrest. But there will be no national strike, nor any sustained nationwide protests and other forms of direct action and corporeal resistance.
Republicans and "conservatives" will of course deny that Trump admitted to committing crimes or will simply support him. Any disapproval will be muted and polite, insufficient to turn Republicans and other Trump cultists against him. The Big Lie has become a master narrative, capable — for Trump's followers — of encompassing almost all possible events.
Public opinion polls have shown that a large number of Americans, across party divides, are simply exhausted by the aftermath of Jan. 6 and they escalating democracy crisis. They just want all the discord to subside, and a collective return to some type of "normal." Most Americans are politically disengaged, and will explain Trump's confession as just another example of the corruption and dysfunction of a fundamentally broken system.
Trump's followers — especially the right-wing paramilitaries and street thugs — will only be emboldened. Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly shown that Republicans are increasingly willing to endorse violence against their perceived enemies — Democrats, "liberals" and "socialists," nonwhite people and Muslims — as a legitimate political tactic.
Benito Mussolini supposedly observed that if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, people don't really notice. America's fascist movement has nearly plucked that bird naked before the world.
Once again, the Republican fascists are telling the American people and the world what they are going to do. There is little subtlety or subterfuge involved.
The American people must peer steady into the fascist darkness and resist every temptation to avert their eyes or run away. Unfortunately, most do not have the courage for such a task. The burden falls on the rest of us.