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The return of American fascism

How a legacy of violent nationalism haunts the republic in the age of Trump.

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In 1933 Mussolini Speaks, a “cine-biography of Il Duce,” received its Broadway premiere on 10 March, only five days after the Nazi Party seized control of the Reichstag, and six days after the inauguration of Franklin D Roosevelt as  US president. “Who is this modern ­Caesar?” asked a national advertising campaign for the film; “What is his secret  of success?” Mussolini Speaks promised  to sell fascism as just another version of the American Dream: “The past does not exist,” said Il Duce, and Americans were ready to listen.

Produced in Hollywood, the film was made with Mussolini’s full cooperation and met with rave reviews. To be sure, it showed “only a glorified Mussolini”, ­admitted the Boston Globe in representative terms, but, “Mussolini rises above personality. He is a great figure, perhaps one of the greatest in the world today.”

The US greeted Mussolini with widespread enthusiasm in the interwar years; as early as 1926, the nation’s favourite magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, was offering paeans to his “masterfulness” and the “impressive commercial renaissance” fascism had enabled. The cover of the issue offering this panegyric featured a Norman Rockwell painting of Benjamin Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence, but no one seems to have minded that the magazine swerved from celebrating ­democratic republicanism to applauding ­fascistic dictatorship with the turn of a page.

The role that patriotic symbolism, mass entertainment and a corporate state might play in an incipient American fascism was clear to astute observers at the time. In Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here (1935), an American fascist dictatorship is brought about by the “Corporatist” party, led by the reactionary populist Buzz Windrip. Windrip takes power by forging alliances with media giants, including Father Prang, a character based on Father Charles Coughlin, whose weekly radio show was listened to by millions of Americans at its height in the mid-1930s. Coughlin was virulently, and conspiratorially, anti-Semitic, disseminating the (fraudulent) Protocols of the Elders of Zion and confirming Nazi accusations of a Jewish-Communist plot for world domination led by a cabal of “international bankers”. Windrip whips his crowds to a frenzy with patriotic music and populist jingles about clearing the “rot” in Washington, taking power thanks to the carnival he’s created. “Great ­showmanship,” the reporter who serves as Lewis’s resistant voice of liberal democracy observes of Windrip’s performance. “PT Barnum or Flo Ziegfeld never put on a better.”

Or, he might have added, Leni ­Riefenstahl, whose tour de force of cinematic propaganda, Triumph of the Will, had been released earlier that same year. Decades before reality television, Riefenstahl invented a type of reality cinema for Hitler, admitting that the famed Nuremberg Rally itself was designed to work as a film spectacle: “The preparations for the party congress were made hand in hand with the preparations for the camera work.” Fascist reality was shaped by, and for, the entertainments of mass spectacle.

Whatever one’s opinion of Donald Trump, there is no denying that his political success to date represents its own kind of triumph of the will, one built on a political carnivalesque. Trump’s manifest need for the adoration of his crowd, his desire to exhibit to the world the cheering hordes of his political rallies, may seem like an ersatz copy of the authentic rallies of fascist leaders of yore. The fact that show business is at the heart of Trump’s unstable political ­project sometimes leads to the argument that Trump isn’t fascist, but merely an ­entertainer. Fascism was always about entertainment, however: the deep root of its poison was that it made hatred entertaining.

Trump may lack the discipline and ­grandeur to which the original fascist spectacles aspired, but he doesn’t lack the grandiosity. What makes Trump so clownish is the delusional gap between the claims he makes and the figure he presents. Without discipline, the attempts at impressive bombast collapse into bathetic farce. The first fascists emphasised individual heroism and physical perfection: Trump emphasises it, too, but only in regards to himself. He is his own fascist sublime.


The right bear arms: the West Ohio Minutemen at the Republican National Convention, Ohio, 2016. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/getty images

Anyone doubting this needs only to consider the iconography he and his family routinely share, such as the photo of Trump’s face superimposed on to the sculpted body of Rocky Balboa, which Trump himself trumpeted on social media. As historians have pointed out, this is fascist imagery, in its glorification of the physical perfection of a mythologised leader. Meanwhile, on 4 July, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, shared a meme of his father’s head Photoshopped on to George Washington’s body, standing in front of the American flag and holding a Minigun and an eagle. Both memes rework images from the entertainment industry, whether it’s Rocky or an image made by the Call of Duty video-game franchise, into neo-fascist propaganda.

The absurdity of this bizarrely entertaining spectacle does not make it less dangerous, but more so. The clownish aspect of both Hitler and Mussolini were often noted at the time – not for nothing did Charlie Chaplin lampoon Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940). The Ku Klux Klan was clownish, too, with its pointy hats, its puerile rituals, its risible attempts at occultism. As a historian observed in 1931, the Klan’s “preposterous vocabulary” and “infantile love of hocus-pocus” offered a “chance to dress up the village bigot and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire”. That didn’t make the Klan any less murderous.

Public lynchings in the United States, at which thousands sometimes gathered in the early 20th century, functioned as a spectacular display of white power that terrorised the black population and exhilarated white audiences with a sense of their own racial superiority. But they were sold as amusement. Lynchings were often advertised ahead of time in the local press and on neighbourhood flyers, just as a funfair or circus might have been. Sometimes street vendors sold popcorn and other snacks.

Lynchings were the violent obverse of folk traditions such as minstrelsy that had long unified white crowds over the degradation of black people. Whether through ostensibly comic mockery or overtly sadistic violence, both were performed for the pleasure of a crowd enjoying its political dominance by dehumanising other people. The forms that lynching took included not only hangings, but public torture, dismemberment, castration and burning alive, sometimes for hours. Spectators took photographs that circulated openly in the mail as postcards, and collected body parts as souvenirs. It was all just another carnival.

That lynching was a barbaric form of mass entertainment was perfectly clear at the time. The influential journalist HL ­Mencken observed as early as 1917 that lynchings were a local “sport” that took “the place of the merry-go-round, the ­theatre, the symphony orchestra and other diversions” in larger communities.

Within a few years, movie theatres were advertising Westerns with a “special added attraction” of exciting footage showing the “Klu Klux Klan in Action” during a “midnight initiation”. In 1934 the New Yorker published a cartoon that showed a grandmotherly white woman holding up a small girl in a large crowd in front of a burning house while excitedly telling her neighbour: “This is her first lynching.”

Then, as now, groups like the Klan were motivated not purely by racial hostility, but by a sense of economic grievance they had been encouraged to understand in terms of race. In a 1926 pamphlet called “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism”, the Klan’s imperial wizard argued that the organisation’s members were the “average citizen of the old stock” motivated by “economic distress” who found themselves “increasingly uncomfortable and finally deeply ­distressed” as “the assurance for the ­future of our children dwindled. We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us.” But the Klan was also itself a money-making venture, a pyramid scheme populated by grifters and hucksters, literally setting up stalls at state fairs so that racial violence and economic ­resentment could make a buck.

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Whether the nativist groups that incited racial violence during the interwar years in the US – with the aim of keeping the nation “one hundred per cent American”, in their words – are properly, or usefully, understood as “fascist” is a question that has exercised historians for decades. More than 100 such groups were identified in the early 1930s by the American Civil Liberties ­Union, most of which either imitated the European coloured shirt movements (so that by 1934 the US had the Silver Shirts, the White Shirts and Gentile League, the Khaki Shirts, the Gray Shirts, and many others) or formed militant Christian groups, such as “Defenders of the Christian Faith” or the “Christian Front”. Together they declared their hatred of “alien” elements and ideas, including not only other religions (primarily Judaism) and races, but also liberalism, socialism and communism, all of which they lumped together in the name of jingoist nationalism: such groups always ­declared themselves “pro-American”.

As such groups could originate in economic populism, evangelical Christian nationalism (which could be anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, or both), or in historical white supremacy, some historians have concluded that they represent uniquely American disorders: aberrations created by the nation’s fraught history of the tension between its ideals of liberal democracy for (white male) citizens and the authoritarian systems under which it subjugated everyone else.



Raising the flag: a youth camp of the pro-Nazi US organisation the German American Bund, in Griggstown, New Jersey, in the 1930s. Credit: Bettmann

The argument that American nativist, xenophobic, conspiratorially anti-Semitic and white supremacist paramilitary groups were categorically different from their counterparts in Europe was much less likely to be made during the interwar years, however – not least because almost ­everyone could see the way they both leveraged ­existing bigotries on behalf of reactionary populism.

Historians of fascism have also demonstrated that all fascism is indigenous by definition. As Robert O Paxton explained in his seminal 1998 essay “The Five Stages of Fascism”, “authentic fascism is not for export” because all fascisms draw “their slogans and their symbols from the patriotic repertory of one particular community”. Paxton also noted that “religion, for example, would certainly play a much greater role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms”.

American fascism will be ultra-American. It will reject the atheism and statism of European models; it will be self-righteous, certain of its own innocence, and understand itself as libertarian. Nativist agrarianism goes to the heart of these American populist mythologies, as it did to the rhetoric of both Mussolini and Hitler, promising to regenerate the nation – to make it great again. It elevates an authentic, preferably rural, national folk and defines them as “real Americans”, while denying first the loyalty, then the citizenship, then the humanity of everyone else. That authoritarian, nativist solutions to political problems did not find traction in the US in the 1930s does not prove that they never could; American exceptionalism did not immunise it against fascism, and it had its own organically ­fascistic movements that enjoyed popular support and sought entrenched power ­during the interwar years.

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The authoritarian, charismatic leader is crucial to fascism. It requires spectacle, a performance of power. Fascist leaders are never women in patriarchal societies, because power is not troped as feminine. The rallies are the point. The military parades and theatrical displays of reactionary ideas of power are the point. The performative nostalgia is the point. The cults of martial tradition are the point – even (or perhaps ­especially) when they’re spurious.

Fascism is not a principled or ­ideological stand; it is the politics of grievance, an ­instrumentalist response to a ­political ­situation it perceives as unacceptable. ­Fascism is the counter-revolutionary politics of force, justified by ultra-nationalism, glorified by myths of ­regeneration and purification, performed by masculine cults of personality and sold as the will of the people.

This is why contemporary observers in the US viewed the Klan as a fascist organisation; indeed, the comparison was widespread across the country in the early 1920s as Mussolini consolidated power in Italy. “Has it occurred to you that our American Fascisti are the gentlemen of the Ku Klux Klan?” the Washington Times asked its readers at the end of 1922. A decade later, a Jewish American columnist was writing of his travels in Hitler’s Germany:

The uniforms, the red emblems, the flaming torches – what did they recall to my mind? The Ku Klux Klan!… The appeal to the emotions, the Jew-baiting, the cry of Nordic supremacy and 100 per cent Germanism – what are these but  the tom-toms of the Klan beating out revised versions of old tunes? The  Klan hoods and nightshirts have become the brown shirts; the flaming cross has become the sign of the swastika; the torches and dramatic conclaves remain unchanged.

The second iteration of the Klan had emerged in 1915, propelled by the combined force of the anti-Semitic lynching that summer of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent accused (probably wrongfully) of the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, and the release of The Birth of a Nation, a film that glorified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South after the end of the Civil War. The first Klan spread rapidly from its origins in Tennessee in 1865, but never consolidated into organised political power, and was eradicated by federal forces in the early 1870s.

The Klan was far from the only white supremacist group to emerge during Reconstruction, merely the most famous; there was also the more aristocratic Knights of the White Camellia, as well as violent paramilitary groups including the Red Shirts of Mississippi and the Carolinas, and the White League of Louisiana.

The White League helped overthrow a racially integrated government in Louisiana, as the disputed election of 1872 led to the Colfax massacre of 1873, when as many as 150 black Americans were murdered by a white militia, in what has been described as the worst incident of racial violence in the Reconstruction South. It was followed by the Battle of Liberty Place, when the White League fought police and state militia to unseat the Republican governor; almost 20 years later, veterans of that battle publicly lynched 11 Sicilian men in order to raise money to build a monument to their white supremacist coup. That monument was not removed until 2017, along with statues of General Robert E Lee and General GT Beauregard, both of whom also had military forts named in their honour.

In June 2020, as millions of Americans protested against systemic racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd – a killing described by many as a modern lynching – the proposal that some military bases be renamed after someone other than white supremacists prompted a tirade from Trump. He tweeted that they were “Monumental and very Powerful Bases”, “Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations” that “have become part of a Great American Heritage”, a “history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom” – in brazen denial of the fact that they had started a war over slavery and lost. Thus for “Winning, Victory, and Freedom”, we must read “losing, defeat, and slavery”, while remembering the importance of the big lie to the Nazi propaganda machine.

The Klan became mythologised while many of its fellow paramilitary travellers were forgotten, thanks in large part to the so-called “Plantation School” of American literature, devoted to glorifying the Lost Cause of the noble South, especially Thomas Dixon’s enormously popular The Clansman (1905), the novel that inspired The Birth of a Nation. Dixon was drawing on the tradition established by Thomas Nelson Page, in whose fiction grateful, deferential black slaves loyally serve benevolent, ­paternalistic white masters on idyllic Southern plantations until the perfidious and ­corrupt Yankees start the “War of Northern Aggression” – as some Americans below the Mason-Dixon line call the Civil War to this day. This includes the statement of the great-grandson of the Louisiana governor who took power after the Colfax massacre, in which he objected to the removal of his ancestor’s memorial while insisting that the white supremacist confederate generals who had led a treasonous war against the US were “good people”.

As such contemporary examples demonstrate, these old depictions of chattel slavery in the American South went well beyond cultural mythology into dangerous propaganda that continues to undermine the American social contract. Page’s final novel, The Red Riders, published posthumously in 1924, glamorised the fictional paramilitary Red Riders, based on the Red Shirts, as “men who had achieved military honours and were impelled by the love of home, the pride of ancestry and the desire to save the civilisation they had inherited”.

Even as the novel was published, political movements in Germany, Italy and Spain were forming around men who had achieved military honours and were motivated by love of home, pride of ancestry and desire to “save” their civilisation; they would end in genocide. Page was appointed by fellow Virginian Woodrow Wilson as his ambassador to Italy from 1913-19. His nephew, George Nelson Page, who renounced his American citizenship under Mussolini and headed the radio division of the Fascist Ministry of Popular Culture – its propaganda bureau – was described as “the most fascist of fascists” by an American journalist in Rome at the time.

In other words, it was not much of a step from the Red Shirts who dominated North Carolina politics between 1875 and 1900 to the Silver Shirts established in North Carolina by William Dudley Pelley in 1933. There was a reason why Sinclair Lewis decided that his fictional dictator Buzz Windrip would admire the writings of Pelley, who said he modelled his Silver Shirts on Hitler’s Brown Shirts.

In 1940 a writer named Ward Greene published a forgotten novel called King Cobra under the pseudonym Frank Dudley, which is also the name Greene gives to the reporter who narrates his story. Set in the 1920s, King Cobra tells of the rise and fall of a white supremacist group called the “Red Riders”, “a national secret society with more than a million members” that “made you wonder, ‘Can this be America?’”

Greene appears to have borrowed the group’s name from Thomas Nelson Page, and its attributes from the second Klan. Although some in the novel fear the Red Riders are plotting to “overthrow ­democratic government and establish an empire of Anglo-Saxon white Protestant supremacy which they would rule like lords”, ­Dudley himself thinks “the simple itch for money was the motive of them all”. One of their leaders, a “messiah, a drunkard, a ­demagogue and a clown”, was driven only by “greed for money… There was so much money!” Like the Klan, the Red Riders charge for membership, and soon in-fighting breaks out among the leadership over the ­millions said to be flowing into their bank accounts. Their “Supreme Palace” is “like a ­Hollywood movie set”, “grotesque”, ­“gimcrack and ridiculous, as though it had been dropped there by mistake on the way to a world’s fair”. Before long middle ­Americans are reading about the Red ­Riders in the newspapers, with “details of ­floggings and brandings, of hooded horsemen and fiery serpents, of Dread Scorpions and Terrible Tarantulas, of an invisible power creeping by night into their neighbourhoods and their homes”, led by “those implacable ‘one hundred per cent Americans’”. Their motto is: “First for America and for ­Americans first.”

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The menace behind such apparently clownish and gaudy facades is also the subject of Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Buzz  Windrip is encouraged by his special adviser – known as the “brain  behind” – to keep up “all of the clownishness” that had so “endeared him to his simple-hearted constituents”. So Windrip attends beauty contests, tells shaggy dog stories in his speeches “with detailed accounts” of his down-to-earth experiences, and challenges the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to “a duel with sling-shots”.

In 1936 Hollywood acquired the film rights to It Can’t Happen Here, already adapted into an enormously successful play. Newspapers belonging to William Randolph Hearst, which had ­periodically flown the slogan “America First” above their masthead since the First World War, denounced it as “PROPAGANDA – naked and unconcealed”, demanding: “Since when has Uncle Sam become the ­financial angel for the delirious ­propaganda of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American League Against War and Fascism?”

Undeterred, the MGM studio announced a cast that included Lionel Barrymore and Basil Rathbone, but then suddenly pulled the project. Executives offered ­different excuses, but it was reported that the studio feared “international complications”. Nazi and Italian officials proclaimed their governments “pleased” that the production had been “banned”. “It is very friendly of America to halt such a film,” said a Nazi spokesman. An Italian official was likewise “glad the film industry has seen fit to halt the spread of such propaganda”.

Most of the American press was outraged. “It Did Happen in Hollywood,” one angry column responded in 1936, arguing Americans should not worry about “offending fascist governments” given that “those governments have not been so tender-hearted over the feelings of democracies”. The German government’s meddling in Hollywood was often chronicled in the American press at the time: “Long Arm of Hitler Extends to Hollywood Studio,” read a 1937 Newsweek headline. Many planned films were altered or prevented by German officials, and Jewish characters began to disappear from Hollywood movies, as studio heads – several of whom were themselves Jewish – sought to safeguard European markets for their films.

As late as June 1939, MGM was giving Nazi newspaper editors a “good-will tour” of its Hollywood studio. That year a producer was reported to have “dusted off the script” of It Can’t Happen Here, rewriting it to “show a dictatorship in Washington and showing it being kicked out by disgruntled Americans as soon as they realised what had happened”. As the situation in Europe deteriorated, the market there “was shot anyway”, so the studios were said to have decided they had much less to lose. But then war came, and the film was never made. (There is a postscript to the story: in 1982, producer-director Kenneth Johnson wrote a television adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here called “Storm Warnings”. But NBC executives during the Reagan years weren’t “sure Americans would get fascism”, Johnson recalled, and suggested the US should be invaded by aliens instead – which is how a miniseries called V came to be made.)

One film that Hollywood did make which envisioned an incipient American fascism, largely forgotten today, was Keeper of the Flame (1943), the least well-known screen partnership of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in which a successful businessman turned popular demagogue leads a conspiratorial group planning a fascist coup. After his death, his widow reveals the plot to a journalist: “I saw the face of fascism in my own home: hatred, arrogance, cruelty. I saw what German women were facing. Of course, they didn’t call it fascism. They painted it red, white and blue, and called it Americanism. In here are the funds to see it through. Fantastic amounts subscribed by a few private individuals to whom money didn’t mean anything any more but who wanted political power. Knew they could never get it by democratic means.” Keeper of the Flame does not depict mob violence, but it does recognise the dangers of the incipient mob: “The crowds loved him. The crowds always loved him.” But as the conspiracy is revealed, the film ends with a montage of the people restored to decency through the heroic power of journalism.

Hollywood tended to prefer stories that exorcised the spirit of American fascism by showing Americans naturally recommitting to the principles of liberal democracy, such as Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), in which a businessman tycoon tries to harness a populist movement for his own purposes, but the people turn on him in the name of democracy: “I get mad not just for myself but for a guy named Washington, and Jefferson, and Lincoln,” declares an editor (the voices of American liberal democracy in these interwar stories warning against domestic fascism are almost always plucky journalists). Fascism is again defeated by a handful of decent Americans, leading to the valedictory line: “There you are,  Norton, the people! Try and lick that!”

The question, however, has always been whether the American crowd flirting with fascism was a spontaneous republic waiting to assert its nobility – or a lynch mob waiting to form. Less consoling engagements with this question drew darker conclusions. It is easy to forget that Citizen Kane (1941), regularly named the greatest film ever made, was Orson Welles’s vision of an American fascism that rose to power by controlling the media. Charles Foster Kane was modelled on William Randolph Hearst, who had used his “America First” newspapers to lobby against the US joining the Great War and then the League of Nations in 1918, before lending his support in 1940 to the “America First Committee”, the leading isolationist pressure group in the country at the time. Hearst had visited Hitler in 1934 and spoke approvingly of him in terms Welles echoes in his opening scene, as Kane declares there will be no war and then appears on a balcony with Hitler. An early draft of Kane made the character’s links with fascism more explicit, having his son grow up to become a Nazi.

The novelist Nathanael West imagined an American fascism in similar terms in his final two novels, a fascism powered by corporate interests and triggered by mobs who feel betrayed by the broken promises of the American dream. In his 1934 novel A Cool Million, West burlesques the American success story, especially the novels of Horatio Alger and Capra’s sentimental portraits of the common man. A hapless American Candide is destroyed by his gullible optimism, eventually murdered by a fascist demagogue (said to have been modelled on William Dudley Pelley) in order to transform him into a martyr for the “Leather Shirt” movement. The novel ends with fascist youth parading up Fifth Avenue in front of the dictator who has liberated the US from “sophistication, Marxism, and International Capitalism”, so that “America became again American”.

In The Day of the Locust (1939), West’s characters orbit around Hollywood while fantasising about violence and fame and power. A Hollywood set designer who aspires to be a great artist toils away at a painting he calls “The Burning of Los Angeles”, a modern-day bonfire of the vanities, in which “the people who come to California to die”, lured by false promises and real delusions, turn into a “crusading mob”, carrying baseball bats and torches. Hollywood is filled with “savage and bitter” people who “realise they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war… Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”

And so they await the spectacular violence that will amuse them by avenging their grievances. West’s original title for his novel was The Cheated, a brief, terrible story of Americans whose resentment at broken promises burns as brightly as the torches they are lighting. “All those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence” came together, “marching behind [a] banner in the great unified front”, an assemblage of crackpots and cranks determined “to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.” Only one conclusion to the story of the modern US was possible: “There would be civil war.”

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And so we come to the summer of 2020, as escalating violence in American streets makes all too literal the metaphor of “battleground states”. Even as Trump and his attorney general sent unidentified “police” and heavily armoured federal troops into cities dominated by their ­political opponents, armed vigilantes have responded to the president’s reckless incitement of violence with murderous effect.

Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Trump supporter, travelled from Illinois to protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed with a rifle, and is suspected to have shot three people, killing two. The conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted that he should be president. In Portland, Oregon, clashes between residents and Black Lives Matter protesters and “caravans” of armed Trump supporters – who drove into the city from rural areas waving Trump flags after promising “retribution” on social media – left another dead.

It was Trump’s adviser Kellyanne  Conway who made the administration’s strategy clear, amid ongoing violence in Portland. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, law and order,” she told Fox News on 27 August. It is yet another lesson learned from interwar fascism: deliberately instigating disorder to manufacture the ersatz “need” for a strongman to performatively restore the order he has destroyed.

On the face of it, Conway’s statement makes no sense, but its implicit meaning is clear: the more chaos and violence, the better for Trump. His campaign as a “law and order” candidate – despite his brazen disregard of the law and his well-publicised love of chaos – represents a coded approval for mob violence, as his supporters make clear. The Fox host Tucker Carlson purported to be “shocked” that “17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would”. It’s no coincidence that this was precisely the rationale offered for lynching, which its supporters often referred to as “extralegal justice”. But in the end extralegal is just another word for illegal. Trump offers no law, only orders – his orders.

All this happened against the backdrop of a Republican National Convention that was broadcast, for the first time in history, and in violation of federal laws, from the grounds of the White House – using the symbols of the American state to conflate the nation itself with Trump’s cult of personality. This, too, is straight out of the fascist playbook.

In the 2020 presidential election the cult of the leader has also, for the first time in American history, been codified in the official ­platform of the Republican Party, which promises only to “continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda” regardless of what that agenda might be. The Republicans’ current stated allegiance is not to the United States of America, but only to their own “modern Caesar”: in Trump they trust.

Now Trump is closing what is a very vicious circle, and tightening it into a noose. Soon it won’t only be black Americans who can’t breathe, but by then the white Americans turning a blind eye and deaf ear to what is happening may have found that they, too, are in a chokehold, and there is no one with enough breath left to speak for them.

Sarah Churchwell recently joined the New Statesman's Jeremy Cliffe and Emily Tamkin, to talk about this piece on the World Review podcast. You can listen here

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working