Sliding toward “semi-fascism”

President Biden’s September 1 speech on the political threats posed to our democracy by the language and actions of far-right GOP leaders and elected officials was entirely on the mark. As scholars of the history of fascism have noted, many of the characteristics of fascism are indeed currently present in GOP language and goals. The cries of outrage demanding apology from these very same politicians are entirely mendacious.

New School historian Federico Finchelstein has written extensively on the history and social reality of fascism. Especially interesting in our contemporary context is his Brief History of Fascist Lies. Here is how Finchelstein formulated the concept of fascism in the Washington Post following Biden’s speech:

What is fascism? In historical terms, it was an ultranationalist, anti-liberal and anti-Marxist politics. Its primary aim was to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above. The state silenced the basic tenets of civil society, while eliminating the distinctions between the public and the private — or between the state and its citizens. Fascist regimes shut down the independent press and destroyed the rule of law.

Fascists defended a divine, messianic and charismatic form of leadership supported by big lies and propaganda. They had an extreme, xenophobic conception of what they deemed the enemy, regarding it as an existential threat to the nation and to its people that had to be first persecuted and then deported or eliminated. Fascism aimed to create a new and epochal world order through the militarization of politics.(link)

The similarities between these descriptions and the behavior and language of the MAGA crowd are unmistakeable. The charge of “semi-fascism” is not based on the fact that the right-wing GOP believes there is a hidden liberal elite that runs the country. Rather, it is that they are threatening mass violence against the state, elected officials, other citizens, and the groups they don’t like. Like Mussolini, they will use whatever rhetorical dodges come to hand to gain support. But violent anti-democratic change is their program. That’s what makes Biden’s statements that the GOP is becoming a party of what he called “semi-fascism” so accurate.

The far right has manufactured faceless and fictional enemies to wage war against — government officials in particular — which is really a rejection of the idea that government has an entirely appropriate function in regulating industry and securing the common good. And under cover of that set of fictions, they are actually working aggressively to intimidate voters, librarians, teachers, health-care workers, election officials, public health administrators, and advocates for anti-racism and police reform.

Here is how Finchelstein encapsulates the Trumpian version of fascist aspiration:

Indeed, well before Jan. 6, 2021, Trump had already established key pillars of fascism: militarization of politics, xenophobia, totalitarian propaganda techniques and demonstrable falsehoods, and the demonization of his antagonists. Trumpism was only missing dictatorship. And then the insurrection happened, as Trump supporters attempted to overturn the 2020 election results because he lost. (link)

Critics of the American system from the left are certainly correct in saying that wealthy individuals and corporations wield vast power in our system — witness the entirely one-sided tax policy changes that have occurred in the past decades, the weakening of regulatory regimes (FAA, NRC, OSHA, EPA), and the impunity with which billionaires move their wealth (and their yachts) to island enclaves beyond scrutiny of US taxes.

It’s pretty laughable to assert that “socialists” and the radical-liberal left have created all kinds of new laws and policies oppressing other people; the left has been defeated on almost every issue (reduction of inequalities, gun safety legislation, strong and effective industrial regulation, taxes on the rich, reproductive rights, …).

There are indeed dark forces pulling a lot of strings in our democracy: the NRA, the extremist anti-abortion movement, the effective power of corporations to secure their financial interests over the public good, the role of big money in elections (e.g. Barry Seide and the Marble Freedom Trust), and the increasingly strident voices of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-muslim bigotry among GOP politicians. Progressive critics refer primarily to the third and fourth items on this list; and these factors remain potent today. But the “populist” extremists have gained an enormous amount of power that they are wielding against the clear majority of the US population.

It’s a gloomy picture!

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