INTERVIEW

Jelani Cobb on the anti-CRT campaign's high stakes and the deep roots of fascism in America

Salon talks to the writer and professor about why America especially needs Black History Month now

By Chauncey DeVega

Published February 27, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Martin Luther King Jr. | Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. | Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump and his cabal attempted a coup to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election and by doing so to end American democracy. Part of this plot involved a lethal assault by Trump's followers on the Capitol. Those actions have been described by the mainstream American news media as the stuff of a "mob" or an "insurrection."

Such language obscures both the real goals and desires of Donald Trump, the Republican fascists, their followers, and the larger white right in their attacks on American democracy – attacks which have not stopped and are escalating.  

RELATED: The distorted "freedom" of the truck convoys: "A huge number of Americans want a dictatorship"

Donald Trump was America's first white president. In that role he was a human opioid of white identity politics, white rage, white violence, white aggrieved entitlement, white male victimology and white supremacy.

Trump and his Republican party and their followers and allies want to create a new American apartheid where white people (specifically Christian fundamentalist fascist male plutocrats) maintain control over every area of American life and society. They are so committed to this goal that they are willing to embrace authoritarianism and fascism in order to achieve it — thus their collective admiration of strongmen and other political terrorists and thugs, such as Vladimir Putin.


Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


On this point, Amanda Marcotte details this revolutionary vision of destruction and misery in an essay here at Salon:

One important document that points to the answer was released this week by Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, a pamphlet titled, "An 11 Point Plan To Rescue America." Needless to say, the title is misleading, as this pamphlet is very much about destroying America — by dismantling basic freedoms and democracy itself — under the guise of "saving" it.

Despite the heavy declarations of patriotism, the document presents a depressing and dystopian vision of America that is at total odds with the values of freedom, equality, and democracy that are supposed to define this country. Through rhetoric heavy on euphemism and doublespeak, Scott's plans are not hard to suss out: Replacing fact-based education with nationalistic propaganda, destroying voting rights, ending all efforts to ameliorate racial inequalities, and forcing rigid and sexist gender roles on all Americans. Scott justifies the latter by declaring it's "God's design for humanity," which of course, violates the very first amendment to the constitution that protects freedom of religion….

Like Putin, Republicans know that their views cannot win in a free, fair democratic debate. The tension between claiming to be for democracy in Ukraine while opposing democracy in the U.S. is causing way too much cognitive dissonance on the right. It's why Trump is going with a simpler message of blatantly rooting for Putin. Trumpism has always been part of this transnational war on democracy. Bannon in particular loves to trumpet this fact. With this invasion of Ukraine, this alliance between Trumpists at home and authoritarians worldwide is only going to strengthen — and strengthen Trump's hold on the Republican Party.

The goal here is to "Make America Great Again."

In practice this means restoring a fictive American past and "golden age" where Black and brown people (as well as women, gays, lesbians and other marginalized groups) were silent, submissive, obedient, deferent and happily compliant with and to White America. Of course, such a country never really existed; whiteness is built on many fantasies and other lies.

The proof of how white supremacy motivated Trump's attack force on Jan. 6 (and beyond) is easily demonstrated by the things they carried, wore, said, and their other behavior.

Trump's attack force carried a huge white Christian cross, prayed for protection to their "god" in battle, sang out and screamed passages and various prayers from the Bible, and engaged in other acts of worship to militant white Christianity.

RELATED: How Christian nationalism drove the insurrection: A religious history of Jan. 6

Anthea Butler, who is a leading scholar of religion, American society, and race, offered this context in a recent conversation with Salon:

White Christianity is a Christianity that is based on the following: Jesus is white. Jesus privileges white culture and white supremacy, and the political aspirations of whiteness over and against everything else. White Christianity assumes that everybody should be subsumed under whiteness in terms of culture and society.

White Christianity assumes that it does not have to look at poverty. We see this in the form of the so-called prosperity gospel, and that any blessing you get from God is because God favors you. If anybody else is out of favor, let's say some poor kid in Northwest Philadelphia who doesn't have enough to eat, well, that's just too bad because they're not blessed of God.

When suffering happens, it's blamed on anybody else but God.

Trump's attack force also erected a gallows — imagery that cannot be separated from the Ku Klux Klan and America's history of white on black lynchings and other acts of white supremacist terrorism — with the presumed purpose of executing "traitors" such as Vice President Pence (chants of "Hang Mike Pence" rang out during the attack) and Democratic Party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others deemed to be "the enemy."

Trump's attack force included neo-Nazis and other declared white supremacists.

Trump's attack force assaulted Black and brown Capitol police and other law enforcement officers with racial slurs and other hateful invective.

Trump's attack force carried the flag of the Confederacy, a symbol of hatred, violence and white supremacy that is acknowledged as such around the world.

Trump and his coup cabal and the other Republican fascists and their followers failed in their immediate short-term mission on Jan. 6 to nullify the 2020 Election and by doing so to end American democracy.

However, they are undeterred. For example, in dozens of states across the country the Jim Crow Republicans are enacting laws and other rules (both "legal" and quasi-legal) that are specifically designed to keep black and brown Americans and other supporters of the Democratic Party from voting.

Ultimately, the battle to protect America's multiracial democracy is fundamentally a fight for democracy itself and the basic tenet of one person, one vote in a society supposedly governed by a Constitution and the rule of law.

In all, this dire moment of existential crisis for American democracy and society, with its fascist assaults on truth and reality itself, is also an opportunity, once again, for all Americans (and people around the world) to learn from the triumphs and struggles (and tragedies) of the civil rights movement and the long Black Freedom Struggle.

Jelani Cobb is The Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including "The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress." His essays and other writing have appeared in such leading publications as the Washington Post, The New Republic and The New Yorker. His essay "The importance of Black History Month" was recently featured at The Deseret News.

In this conversation Cobb explains how Black History Month and its emphasis on truth, facts, and real history stands against the lies and other fictions that are the heart of fascism and racial authoritarianism. He also warns that most Americans are hobbled in their ability to understand the existential danger posed by neofascism and white supremacy because they lack a real understanding of American history and how such evil forces are endemic to this country and not something foreign or abroad.

Towards the end of this conversation, Cobb highlights how lessons in hope and resistance can be learned from the Black Freedom Struggle and the ways that they can help to sustain what will be a long war against American neofascism and white supremacy.

With the assaults on America's multiracial democracy and this tide of rising neofascism across the color line it feels as if so much is fundamentally broken and out of sorts. How are you making sense of all these events?

It is jarring and disturbing, some times more so than others. We, Black folks especially, have a certain inheritance of progress in this society. And we, at some point, could have presumed — and I think that I was guilty of this too — that whatever else might happen that we were fighting to preserve that inheritance and build upon it. We weren't thinking so much about just how swiftly you could lose that inheritance altogether. At present we are looking at the resurrection of old regimes. We have been fighting battles over voter access, for instance and now also seeing xenophobic, nationalistic, violent white supremacist movements that are now an open part of the country's political dialogue.

Thinking about the long Black Freedom Struggle and our history of resistance as a people, I have found myself asking what year is it really here in America.

This is just a point where we can see more clearly the cyclical nature of this struggle. We always knew that there were ebbs and flows and that progress would be met with backlash. That reality and dynamic is now just extremely apparent right in this moment.

America is a project that can be easily undone, and we're watching it in real time. The country has only been, at least on a paper, a multiracial democracy with full and equal rights for Black and brown people for 50 or so years. How do we explain this to a more general public?

When you talk with people about full enfranchisement for Black Americans that conversation usually starts in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. The fact that on every front at present, from voting to affirmative action to employment protections to abortion and reproductive rights, we are now looking at a vast reactionary wave that is trying to push us back to earlier eras of American life.

For me at least, it has been a reminder that when we talk about history our task is to look at history for the case studies it provides as opposed to, for example, looking at the Montgomery bus boycott as a static frozen display of what happened in one place in Alabama in 1955 and what the implications of it were.

Instead, we should look at history and such examples as a broader metaphor for how repressive forces work, how people can strategize and counter-strategize in the midst of that kind of repression and what kinds of leadership models and objectives that we can take from that.

For Black Americans, we have an intergenerational experience with American fascism. Likewise, scholars of American history and the color line also see these connections and continuities between Trumpism and neofascism in the present and the old history of such forces in this country. But there are many white folks, including those who should know better among the pundit and commentariat and larger political class, who are still treating this like something mysterious and shocking. What do we see that they are not?

I believe that many people have never really countenanced the full narrative of what America is and so they can't really understand it collectively. For example, we have people debating about whether the Civil War was fought over slavery and if you have not ever countenanced what the true full narrative of this country is you are left with a distinct inability to understand how the country operates right now.

Moreover, you will also be left with a distinct inability to understand what the country's weaknesses are.

There's always been this broad anti-democratic thread in American life. There has been, for a very long time, a pro-fascist element in American life — but that many Americans have chosen to not talk about. But both things resurrect themselves from time to time, and now is a moment where you see just how significant and how prominent those forces have been.

How are you making sense of white backlash politics at present?

I think that it's part of the zero sum formulation that people have adopted and promulgate as it relates to race in this country. From the moment that we saw Barack Obama being sworn in as president, we could have known that white backlash was imminent. The empirical evidence actually pointed to that outcome. For example, there was a growing number of white people across Obama's presidential terms who thought that white people were the most disadvantaged population in the United States. That is absurd and at odds with any kind of empirical study of advantage and disadvantage. But for those who believe such a thing the facts do not really matter.

That white backlash and related fictions was accompanied by a furious attempt on the right to discredit even the idea of white privilege, even though, again, empirically, we can point to such a thing existing and the ways in which it operates. Having imbibed this idea of this zero-sum kind of racial reality, that anything that Black people achieve, and other non-whites groups as well, comes at the expense of white people sets in motion a cascade of other events and reactions that we have been witnessing for some years now.

How do we you locate the importance of Black History Month in this moment of rising authoritarianism, neo-fascism, and Orwellian assaults on truth and reality itself? What does Black History Month help us to better understand in this moment of democracy crisis?

I think that Black History Month helps contextualize everything we've just been talking about. And we also have to keep in mind that when Dr. Carter G. Woodson created what was then "Negro History Week", he was thinking about these same things. Woodson was in the midst of a fight and attempting to use history as an evidenced claim and type of proof for Black humanity and therefore equal and full Black citizenship. What has happened is that there are forces in this country that have tried to strip away the connection between his scholarship and that narrative. They've tried to sever the links that people understand between those two things, which is what we are seeing in the right-wing's attack on so-called critical race theory.

Black History Month has never been more crucial; but we've also never been closer to the reasons why Black History Month was founded in the first place.

When I was a child, I remember my parents, my Black elementary school teachers, and other adults giving me books about Black inventors and Black facts about history and Black civilization and the importance of Black Americans and the Black Diaspora to American and global history. I was also given all these documentaries to watch and made to go to various talks and workshops about Black history and culture. At the time, I found so much of this to be very tedious. Now, these years later, I truly appreciate all those experiences. It really was a type of armor and preparation.

Those books and scholarship and thinkers were trying to present the basis of a narrative, even if it was just starting with disembodied facts. That was literally the point of it. When (white) people said that Black people were inferior, that we had no claim to the span of human civilization, you and others were then empowered to respond with the facts about African and Black civilizations.

Those facts were meant to dispute the narrative of our non-humanity as Black people. That literature and those materials were revolutionary in their own right.

What specific lessons can we draw there from the Black Freedom Struggle in this moment of democracy crisis? Black folks have been trying to warn white American society about these vile forces for centuries.

W.E.B. Du Bois tried to warn people in his work "Black Reconstruction" about this moment of crisis. The Black Freedom Struggle has taught us about the fundamental fragility of democracy and the possibility of democratic institutions being corrupted and becoming non-democratic, authoritarian, dictatorial and the like.

We saw what fascism looks like in the post-slavery, post-Reconstruction Jim and Jane Crow South. We saw what authoritarianism looked like in America more generally. We saw the kind of racial authoritarianism that is an implicit part of the history of this nation.

When we consider these now shocked observers, aghast at how far the United States has fallen in the scale of global democracy these last few years, the question then becomes perhaps American should not have been ranked as high as it was in the first place.

It is Black History Month, and we are also having this conversation the same week as Valentine's Day. Brother Frederick Douglass chose Valentine's Day as his birthday. What do you think he would make of this America?

And just thinking about Black History Month, Brother Douglass, and yeah, we can't reanimate people. We could read David Blight's new book. We can't summon them up like a zombie. What do you think he would make of this moment? I was thinking about Brother Douglass on January 6th.

I think that he might look around in ways that were both affirming and disturbing. He would perhaps look at the world that we now occupy and say, "Just as I expected."

What are you most concerned about in this moment and is there anything that gives you hope?

The forward creep of authoritarianism gives me the most concern. What gives me the most hope is reacquainting myself with the long lineage of people who fought to oppose it and the victories that have been won against great odds.

More in-depth conversations about democracy under attack:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics 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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVegaFOLLOW chaunceydevegaLIKE Chauncey DeVega


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Black History Month Capitol Riot Interview January 6