Those of us who have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the Republican Party's threat to democracy and American society have often been told we were exaggerating or being ridiculous. We were hyperbolic, attention-seeking or just plain wrong — because, after all, the Republican Party's leaders and voters really do love America.
Last week the Republican National Committee dropped any remaining pretexts of patriotism or love of democracy with its now-infamous statement that those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were "ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse." Reports suggest that a draft version of that RNC statement was even bolder in its embrace of right-wing terrorism.
Last Friday's statement of support for fascism announced that the Republican Party has birthed a monster that will ultimately eat it alive. But looking beyond outrage and disgust, what does this tell us about America in this moment of existential crisis?
In terms of the mainstream news media and America's political class, it reveals how deep the capacity for denial goes. Many of the same voices who insisted that the Republicans were not fascists and did not pose an existential threat to democracy also downplayed or outright dismissed the obvious evidence that Donald Trump and his cabal were going to attempt a coup to nullify the 2020 presidential election.
Many of these same gatekeepers and boundary keepers then claimed that the Jan. 6 coup was a one-off, a disorganized and spontaneous "riot," and that the long-term existential dangers were exaggerated. Why? Because they were invested in the idea that "the institutions" had worked, and that Trump's coup was doomed to fail from the beginning, thanks to "democratic norms" and the "rule of law."
Now, more than a year after the attack on the Capitol, there is a mountain of evidence that confirms what was obvious at the time, and even before: Trump's coup attempt was a highly coordinated nationwide effort, whose ultimate goal was to overthrow multiracial democracy and install Trump as de facto dictator.
Ultimately, the Republican Party's embrace of fascism as a now-indispensable part of its identity should not be a surprise. This devolution was years in the making. In a recent essay for the New Republic, Michael Tomasky summarizes this:
The conservative movement that started in Barry Goldwater's time was once an element within the GOP. Then along came Newt Gingrich, the key figure who intensified the culture war, and in time the conservative movement swallowed the party whole — and moved hard to the right while doing it.
And now, in the Trump era, it has become what it's been in process of becoming for some time: an extremist, pro-violence party. The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report finding that more than 100 Republican candidates on various ballots in 2022 have explicitly embraced extremism or violence — House candidates boasting about having the backing of white supremacist leaders, at least 45 candidates giving credence to QAnon conspiracy theories.
This is not some aberration that time will correct. It is a storm that will continue to gather strength, because it's where the action and the money are, and no one in the GOP is opposing it — except the two people who were just essentially read out of the party (Kinzinger is retiring after his current House term).
The Republican Party, like Michael Palin's parrot, has ceased to be. It has become an appendage of Trump dedicated to doing his will and smiting his enemies.
A week or so after the fact, the mainstream news media has already moved on from the Republican National Committee's embrace of fascism. If the American mainstream news media was truly the "guardian of democracy," it would explain how the Republican fascist movement is an indictment of the country's political culture.
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The headlines of the month and central narrative of the year should be grappling with the following damning question: How did one of the country's two main institutional political parties come to embrace fascism and right-wing terrorism? What does this mean for the future of the country? These questions are not being asked in a sustained way. Instead, the media is defaulting to the story of the day: "hot takes," horserace reporting, Beltway gossip and both-sides-ism, amounting to a refusal to take any moral stand on the country's democracy crisis and the Republicans' responsibility for creating it.
More than 50 years ago. Hannah Arendt described the role that today's Republican Party plays as a front organization for fascism and authoritarianism in her essential work "The Origins of Totalitarianism":
The front organizations surround the movements' membership with a protective wall which separates them from the outside, normal world; at the same time, they form a bridge back into normalcy, without which the members in the prepower stage would feel too sharply the differences between their beliefs and those of normal people, between the lying fictitiousness of their own and the reality of the normal world.
The ingeniousness of this device during the movements' struggle for power is that the front organizations not only isolate the members but offer them a semblance of outside normalcy which wards off the impact of true reality more effectively than mere indoctrination….
The world at large, on the other side, usually gets its first glimpse of a totalitarian movement through its front organizations. The sympathizers, who are to all appearances still innocuous fellow-citizens in a nontotalitarian society, can hardly be called single-minded fanatics; through them, the movements make their fantastic lies more generally acceptable, can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognizable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions.
As a front organization for American neofascism, the Republican Party's long-term strategy and goal is to normalize right-wing violence as a means of creating a "state of exception," in which they can impose their will on others without restraint by usurping civil and human rights, free speech, the rule of law, the Constitution and finally democracy itself.
The Republican Party's open declaration that it supports terrorism and other political violence offers an opportunity to remind the American people of the power of lists and keeping accurate records and accounts of this crisis. What is fascism, on its most fundamental level? An assault on reality, time, facts and truth. Correctly documenting reality and the facts are a practical way of staying grounded and refusing to be overwhelmed by this tsunami of events.
Americans who support democracy must now accept that elites and other political leaders will not save them. In fact, they must pressure the country's elites through a range of actions, perhaps including national strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of direct action. They should consider joining (or even forming) local organizations and other civil society groups to make possible the grassroots organizing that can resist and then defeat American neofascism. Those who have the material resources to support such efforts must consider how best to use them.
Pro-democracy Americans need to understand that the struggle against American neofascism will be long and difficult. There is no rapid or easy solution to this crisis. Defeating fascism will require personal and collective sacrifice.
Writing at the Atlantic, Linda Hirshman offers these lessons from American history and the Black Freedom Struggle, which merit being quoted at length:
The fault lines of today's political chasm go back to the decades that preceded the Civil War. One can see them in our geography — most of the states that will recriminalize abortion, for example, are in the old Confederacy and the rural or deindustrialized regions it influenced — and in our racial division, which continues to render the country into, more or less, two camps. ...
Today's challenges are different — and no offense can be compared with the slavocracy of the antebellum period — but anyone who cares about basic principles of democracy can see that our struggle is much the same. In 2013, the Supreme Court put the Democrats at an enormous disadvantage by gutting the Voting Rights Act and handing back elections to the minority-party-dominated rural-state legislatures. Despite repeated efforts of most of the Democratic senators, Congress has refused to pass a new voting-rights act. In several key states, Republican legislatures have set up new systems that may overturn future election results. Sometime in June, the Supreme Court is likely to rule that American women no longer have a constitutional right to refuse to bear a child, despite the fact that polls regularly show that the overwhelming majority of Americans support some level of abortion rights.
These are dark times, but dark times do not always prevail. Four decades after Black spokesmen told their white so-called friends in the execrable American Colonization Society that they would not be returned to Africa, and just 30-plus years after the Black activist David Walker published an "appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" promising that "the blacks," once started, would form a "gang of tigers and lions," the newborn Republican Party won the presidency on a platform of restricting slavery. Ten years after Garrison torched his copy of the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. How did they do it?
The specifics of their fight are not identical to what prodemocracy Americans now face. But the work of the abolitionist movement is comprehensible and replicable. It is the closest thing we have to a blueprint for how to rescue our democracy.
Almost every tactic the mostly white abolitionists used derived from methods that Black organizers tried first. Walker's appeal, published in 1829, inspired Garrison. There was a Black convention and Lodge movement well before the first white or interracial antislavery society. But one lesson emerges loudly from history: Neither Black nor white Americans could have done it alone.
They made an alliance, and they dug in for the long haul. And they left a playbook.
Americans who believe in democracy must balance optimism and realism, but without succumbing to fatalism. The fight has hardly begun, and too many people are exhausted and have preemptively surrendered. Most important of all, pro-democracy Americans should resist the temptation or urge to compromise with their enemies or appease them. There is no room for "bipartisanship," compromise or truce with the Republican fascists and their allies. That only normalizes evil and all but guarantees the fascists an eventual victory.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the Democratic Party have not learned this lesson. President Biden recently spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, one day before the Republican National Committee's official embrace of the Jan. 6 insurrection. At the breakfast, Biden spoke directly to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, saying, "Mitch, I don't want to hurt your reputation, but we really are friends. And that is not an epiphany we're having at the moment. You're a man of your word, you're a man of honor. Thank you for being my friend."
In the midst of an existential threat brought on by the Republicans and their followers, the president of the United States told the most powerful Republican legislator, with evident sincerity, that he was a friend. That crystallizes all the ways the Democratic leadership is not reacting with the urgency of now to save American democracy. Biden's words suggest that he and his party are simply not up to the challenge of defending American democracy from the fascist onslaught.
As so often occurs in moments of great struggle and challenge, the few must save the many. And that salvation, if it comes, will not come from the so-called leaders in Washington. Who will step forward?
Read more on the resurgence of fascism in America: