For the last six years or so, most Americans — especially white Americans — were in denial about the monster rampaging across the country. Like privileged children, they believed that if their eyes were closed, the monster couldn't harm them. The real world does not work that way.
Those slumbering Americans are not entirely responsible for their bad decisions. In one ear they had the hope-peddlers and centrist pundits whispering, like faeries or gods in some pre-Raphaelite painting, that everything would be fine and they should just keep sleeping. In the other ear were Donald Trump, the Republican fascists and their allies, assuring them that everything would be fine and good because the Trump movement was fighting for "real Americans" like them.
As the song lyric (drawn from an Elizabethan poem) warns us, sleep is the cousin of death. That is especially true for democracies in crisis and under siege by fascism and authoritarianism. A much-discussed new poll from NBC suggests, however, that slumbering Americans may finally be waking up. The poll found that "threats to democracy" has overtaken the "cost of living" in perceptions of the most important issue facing the country, and that the legislative package meant to address climate change and health care that was recently enacted by Democrats is widely popular:
But hovering over the entire poll is a deep dissatisfaction from the American public.
Three-quarters of voters — 74% — say the country is headed in the wrong direction, representing the fifth-straight NBC News survey showing this number in the 70s.
Additionally, 58% believe America's best days are behind it, which is the highest percentage on this question dating back to 1990.
Another 68% of voters think the United States is currently in an economic recession.
Too many among the mainstream pundit class have latched onto one convenient data point in this poll as further proof that the tide is finally turning against the Republican fascists. Such a superficial analysis is more about wish-casting and a desire for a return to "normalcy" than a reflection of reality. In fact, a more complicated dynamic is at work.
The same NBC poll also finds that 61% of Americans "say they're so upset by something that they're willing to carry a protest sign for an entire day," but the potential protest signs vary widely. Democratic voters say they would favor "Women's rights," "Equal rights," "Prosecute Trump" and "Abortion rights," while Republicans would prefer signs reading "Impeach Biden," "Protect our freedom," "Protect 2nd Amendment" and "Stop Democrats."
In the real world, Biden has committed no high crimes or other actions that remotely merit impeachment. The Second Amendment is not under threat. Indeed, American society remains sick with gun violence and mass shootings, and the gun lobby continues to have a literal death grip on American society.
In all, the NBC poll offers further evidence that the Trumpists and Republican-fascists of the MAGAverse have constructed an alternate reality in which the basic understanding of facts and truth — and also the meaning of democracy and freedom — have been debased and distorted. Fascism is fueled by such fantasies, and malignant realities. This fracture may well decide the future of America.
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For example, even after Trump's coup attempt and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, his supporters still believe they are the true defenders of democracy. Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that a large percentage of Republicans, if not an outright majority, believe that the Capitol attackers were "patriots." From the same NBC poll:
By party, 92% of Democratic voters, 61% of independents but only 21% of Republican voters think the investigations into Trump should continue. [emphasis added]
While all voters who prefer the investigations continue rather than stop lead by 17 points, the margin holding Trump responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is much smaller.
A combined 50% of voters say Trump is solely or mainly responsible for Jan. 6 — up 5 points since the May NBC News poll, before the House committee investigating the attack began holding multiple televised hearings.
That's compared with a combined 49% saying Trump is only somewhat responsible or not responsible at all for Jan. 6, which is down 6 points from May.
Other research has demonstrated that a large proportion of Trump supporters are willing to give up democracy if it means that white people must share power with nonwhites. In practice their vision of new America will entrench white conservative minority rule over an increasingly diverse and pluralistic majority. There is a name for such a society: apartheid.
Trumpists have a racialized understanding of democracy: White power must be maintained at all costs, they are the only "real" citizens, and if they don't win elections the outcome is illegitimate.
The Trumpists and their followers have a racialized understanding of democracy in which white supremacy and white power must be maintained at all costs, where they are the only "real" citizens and voters, and where if they do not win at the ballot box the system must be corrupt and the outcome was "stolen" or otherwise illegitimate. That kind of racial logic is the very definition of white supremacy.
There is nothing new about such arguments, which trace their origins at least as far back as Reconstruction. In a February 2022 essay at the New Republic, Nick Tabor provides historical context, writing that in the post-Confederate South, "reports that Black voters intended to commit fraud served as grist for massive campaigns of voter suppression and intimidation":
Ultimately, at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, this all culminated in a series of new state constitutions that systematically stripped Black men — and in many cases, poor whites as well — of their voting rights.
In speeches last month, Biden compared the January 6 insurrectionists to Confederate soldiers and likened the newest voting restrictions to Jim Crow policies. These comparisons were essentially apt — even if the laws in question are not nearly as extreme as those of the Jim Crow South. But the decades immediately following the Civil War, which are often overlooked in national memory, and which produced the Jim Crow order, may be the most instructive period for the present moment.
Southern fears about phantasmic voter fraud became widespread in the late 1860s, as ballot access was being extended to Black men on a state-by-state basis — and, not coincidentally, as the Ku Klux Klan was also expanding its reach. These voting rights were solidified in 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which said no man could be turned away from the polls because of his "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It's hard to imagine the psychological effect this must have had on white Southerners. Hundreds of thousands of freedmen were now eligible to participate in elections, with each of their ballots carrying the same weight as the vote of a white aristocrat. The region's electoral composition was swiftly and radically transformed.
The idea that no person or leader is above the law and that the law should be applied equally to everyone is a foundational principle of democracy. Today's Republican Party and many of its voters and followers now reject that norm.
Donald Trump is under investigation by the Department of Justice and the FBI for a number of possible crimes, including violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction of justice. But recent public opinion polls make clear that this has not damaged his popularity among Republicans. A Morning Consult poll released after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago showed Trump's support in a potential GOP primary campaign rising to 58%, four points higher than in July.
In an article here last week, I discussed Trump's relationship with his followers and their mutual embrace of criminal behavior and rejection of democratic norms and values:
Trump's followers therefore identify with his lawbreaking and other antisocial behavior, while also being compelled to rationalize it as both necessary and good. Love for Donald Trump and what he represents becomes the means and medium through which his followers resolve that cognitive dissonance.
By email, Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political science and psychology at UC Irvine, wrote that the desire for an "anti-democratic strongman and disregard for rule of law are very strongly associated with: 1) populism, 2) seeing a homogeneous people as desirable or necessary, 3) being anti-Black, antisemitic and anti-immigrant, 4) having a simple dualistic, black/white view of political issues and morality and 5) being anti-elite."
Too many liberals, progressives, Democrats, centrists and others outside the MAGAverse love to accuse Trump and the right-wing movement of being hypocrites or applying a double standard to their own behavior. This is an absurd claim: In reality, the Trumpists and Republican fascists do not hold to any norms or standards beyond winning at all costs. To call them hypocrites assumes that they care and might somehow change their behavior. It is a waste of time and energy.
Fascism involves a violent fantasy of revenge and destruction with the goal of exercising total power and recreating society around the myth of a glorious past in which the in-group holds uncontested power and the out-group is vanquished, oppressed and perhaps destroyed.
Last Monday, NBC News reporter journalist Ben Collins spoke to this truth on Twitter:
I think it's time we start covering Trumpism for what it is now. It's no longer a political movement. It's a violent fairytale of revenge on political enemies…. Feds could've found a body in those Mar a Lago boxes and followers wouldn't care. It's about retribution, not facts.
Collins offered further context in a later appearance on MSBNC:
Yeah, it's just retribution. That's what Trumpism is now…. They want the world to return to the pre-'90s world in general, but they also just want to get revenge on the people who changed the world to make it so they have less power in their view, in their eyes. That's what they thought they were getting with Trumpism 1.0. They didn't think he was serious enough about this culture war. Now they think that he's going to actually exact that revenge if he gets back into office.
No matter how often Trump and the modern Republicans claim to believe in democracy or claim to respect the Constitution and the rule of law, that is obviously untrue. What they really want is a fake or "managed" democracy in which white conservatives (along with their Black and brown sycophants and collaborators) are guaranteed to hold power for all time and where dissent and resistance is suppressed as much as possible.
This is an existential struggle. Pro-democracy Americans — especially Democrats and liberals who still believe in the lasting power of our political system and "democratic institutions" — are running out of time to treat the crisis with the urgency it demands. More Americans are waking up to the danger of the Republican fascists and their movement. It is now a moral, patriotic and personal imperative for the entire nation to wake and face its historical responsibility.