To defeat fascism, you must be willing to stare into the darkness. After four years of Trump's regime and more than a year of continually escalating democracy crisis, America's political class and news media — and the vast majority of its citizens — are still unwilling to do so.
We in America, and many people in other parts of the world as well, are experiencing a type of political Doppler effect: The train is heading straight at us, yet many of us are covering their eyes and ears because they think — or hope, or believe — the destruction is far away, something that may arrive in the future as opposed to something that is here now.
My friend's granduncle was a train engineer who told wonderful stories about traveling across the country, all the people he met and places he saw. I will never forget his warning that when people are killed by trains, it's because they misjudge the distance. "The train is always closer than you think it is!" he would say.
Sometimes he shared a story about the only time he ever hit a car while driving his train. His voice would get low and quiet: "I couldn't stop. That poor young woman — she was so beautiful. It looked like she was sleeping." When I think about America's democracy crisis and the rising tide of fascism, I think of that "sleeping" young woman. In too many ways, she is the American people.
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One core tenet of fascism is the normalization of political violence. While the mainstream news media and political elites look away, the Republican fascists and the larger white right have been escalating their threats of violence and mayhem. They did not stop with Trump's coup attempt or the Capitol attack of Jan. 6, 2021.
These threats of right-wing violence and terrorism are not hyperbole; they are both promises and predictions.
Two weekends ago, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held its annual meeting in Florida. This event serves as a bellwether or test market, gauging the state of the Republican Party and "conservative" movement. As such, the conference is a rite of passage for would-be right-wing leaders who seek the approval of the Republican base. The road to American neofascism and Trumpism can be tracked straight through CPAC.
Writing at Nation of Change, Zach Roberts summarized the event's evolution as: "Over the Trump administration, the faces of CPAC have changed from a more traditional conservative (tax cuts, pro-corporation) to an odd mixture of libertarian isolationism and cultural dog-whistling so loud that my labradoodle back at home started howling."
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CPAC 2022's theme was "Awake, Not Woke." Its panel discussions offered a litany of right-wing reactionary obsessions: "The Moron in Chief," presumably a reference to Joe Biden; "Put Him to Bed, Lock Her Up and Send Her to the Border"; "Domestic Terrorists Unite: Lessons From Virginia Parents"; "Lock Downs and Mandates: Now Do You Understand Why We Have a Second Amendment?"; "Are You Ready to Be Called a Racist: The Courage to Run for Office"; and "Obamacare Still Kills."
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who also leads the Senate Republicans' campaign operation, gave the keynote address, offering his "11 Point Plan to Save America." He also said this:
We survived the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. But today we face the greatest danger we have ever faced. The militant left-wing in our country has become the enemy within.
The militant left has now seized control of our economy, of our culture and our country.
The woke left now controls the Democrat party, the entire federal government, the news media, academia, big tech, Hollywood, most corporate boardrooms and now even some of our top military leaders. ... [T]hey are destroying just about everything they touch and they've got their hands on everything.
This is not the time to be timid. This is the time to be bold. Our nation's future can be bright, but we need a plan to take this country back. I warn you before you read it, though. This plan is not for the faint of heart, it will trigger a lot of people…. Based on how Democrats are attacking me this week, I'd say we've hit the bullseye…. In their new socialist America, everyone will obey and no one will be allowed to complain. If you do speak up, boom: You will be canceled…. It's time to take our country back. and I'm here to tell you the American people are going to give a complete butt-kicking to the Democrats this November.
Like so many other speakers at CPAC and its related events, Scott was making a not so coded appeal for political violence against the "woke left," which in practice means all Democrats, liberals, progressives and others opposed to the Republican-fascist movement.
Human rights experts describe such language, and the outcomes it makes possible, as "eliminationism." That also describes the violence experienced in the ethnic conflicts in Rwanda and Yugoslavia — and, yes, what also took place in Nazi Germany.
Predictably, the mainstream news media largely treated Scott's threats of violence as a curiosity, perhaps something to be mocked rather than treated as a serious matter of public concern. In fact, his threats of violence — which are both clear and direct as well as implied through "stochastic terrorism" — are part of a much larger pattern.
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The right-wing media and larger echo chamber has used eliminationist rhetoric and other violent appeals for decades in their vilifying of political opponents as "libtards," "commies," "takers," "parasites," "vermin," "rats" and "traitors," along with other dehumanizing epithets.
Eliminationism involves several steps. There must be a leader, an "entrepreneur" of political violence, who targets a group in society identified as the Other. There is a repeated use of themes and language intended to dehumanize the targeted group, so that violence against them (by the dominant and more powerful group) is made to appear both necessary and legitimate. The targeted group is also presented as an existential threat to majority society, which must be purged and cleansed through violence.
For example, Fox News propagandist Tucker Carlson has repeatedly spread lies about how white people will somehow become "minorities", and then "oppressed" and "dominated" as part of some fantastical "great replacement". That is a textbook example of eliminationist rhetoric.
Entrepreneurs of political violence require a receptive public who will follow through on their commands. Public opinion and other research shows that millions of white Republicans, Trump supporters and other members of the far right are potentially willing to engage in acts of political violence in order to "save" what they understand as "traditional America."
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In his book "The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right," investigative journalist David Neiwert explains this phenomenon as "a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination":
The history of eliminationism in America and elsewhere shows that rhetoric plays a significant role in the travesties that follow. It creates permission for people to act out in ways they might not otherwise. It allows them to abrogate their own humanity by denying the humanity of people deemed undesirable or a cultural contaminant.
In a 2009 interview with Buzzflash, Neiwert explained how the American right-wing (and even more so, today's Republican fascists) share core beliefs and attitudes that make eliminationism and political violence especially attractive to them:
Well, it's simply become a cornerstone of conservative beliefs that all the world's ills can be laid at the feet of liberalism. It's also a built-in feature of right-wing ideology to construct an Enemy. So when the Enemy is something as broad and popularly embraced as liberalism, it's not too long before your world becomes narrow and enclosed, and everything outside of it is the Enemy.
What that's produced has been a nonstop harangue from the right demonizing liberals generally, and liberal politicians particularly. Remember that Bill Clinton was evil because he had "bad character." John Kerry "lied" about his war service. Barack Obama was a scary "Mooslim" brown man. And more generally, antiwar liberals have been dismissed as mere "Bush haters" and "America haters" and, in the early years of the Iraq war particularly, as "traitors."
This rhetoric is not simply dehumanizing — it also characterizes its subject as fit only for elimination, expurgation, exile or extermination. So we get frequent references to them as diseases and vermin, or carriers of them, as well as scum or filth of various kinds. We get spoken wishes to purge them, drive them out, do away with them — often couched as "jokes" for which it's only possible to see any humor if you share that wish….
I think a lot of it has to do with the psychological construct of movement conservatism, which is distinct from actual conservatism.... These folks are essentially authoritarians for whom a dualist worldview is natural and essential (almost always a product of individual psychological needs), and from it proceeds the need to construct an Enemy, an Other upon whom it can project all of its own worst fears about itself.
Ultimately, right-wing political violence, potentially on a large scale, is the logical end result and likely goal of the Republican-fascist campaign to end America's multiracial democracy. That movement is making no effort to conceal that fact; many of its leaders and followers are direct and transparent about it.
To stare into the darkness and then confront that horrible reality would require acts of parrhesia (bold public truth-telling) that most of America's political class, the news media, and other elites are unwilling to face for reasons of personal and professional self-preservation.
In his memorial tribute to author and social activist bell hooks, philosopher George Yancy offered these observations about America in this moment of democracy crisis:
As the US stands on the precipice of undoing its fragile democratic experiment, as we bear witness to massive forms of disinformation, crude and rude political divisiveness, as we witness political cowardice, and as so many kowtow in the face of strongmen — who are actually morally weak, politically inept, and wanting in terms of a critically informed consciousness — I am even more saddened by the profound loss of bell hooks and the ethical and critical standard of courageous speech that her work and praxis exemplified. You see, I am under no illusions. Like bell, I refuse to be silent. What better way to remember her? This country, one founded upon the enslavement of Black people, the brutalization of their bodies, and the genocide committed against Indigenous people, is moving toward a massive social implosion. And from the spineless and reckless rhetoric and actions carried out at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, it is clear to me that there are many who are so enamored by false gods, idols, and barefaced lies — who have sold their souls to neofascism, and where anti-intellectualism, sycophancy, and lustful hatred are palpably in the air that we breathe — that they are prepared for a form of existential cleansing that will take no prisoners. They are more than ready to see blood run in the streets of this nation predicated on convictions saturated with lies.
What if anything can be done to force Americans to confront the truth about the future of their nation, and society if they are determined to not do so?
In the months and years to come, we will ask and answer that question, along with many others. Who are we, and what are we in the process of becoming? If we are willing to stare into the fascist darkness, who or what will stare back? And what if we see ourselves in that darkness?