Much of what Donald Trump does is drawn from Mussolini’s playbook, and his call for the fascist Proud Boys movement to “stand back and stand by”, in the first US presidential debate, is no exception. It was no random outburst: it was a clear signal that the Republican right intends to win the election by acting in synergy with white-supremacist thugs.
In the spring of 1921, armed squads of fascists terminated socialism in the Italian countryside. They arrived at night, in trucks, torched the peasant social centres and labour exchanges, and beat left-wing councillors and trade union officials, sometimes to death, as the police stood by.
By July the job was done. Mussolini engineered a “peace pact” between his squadristi and the socialists, reserving the right to unleash fascist violence against cities and the state itself, should the political class continue to refuse his demands for power. Violence, in the Mussolini playbook, was a tap to be turned off and on.
Trump is no fascist, but since 2016 his relationship to fascist ideology and violence has changed. In 2016 he stood at the head of a broad, and sometimes uneasy, coalition of the US radical right: the intellectual wing wanted a new cold war with China; the evangelicals wanted curbs on abortion; the white supremacists wanted the right for the police to go on killing black people. Trump wanted to make money for himself and the casino bosses and hedge funders who bankrolled him.
[See also: Sarah Churchwell on The Return of American Fascism]
He won because the US business elite split into a globalist faction and a nationalist faction; because the globalist faction picked a useless candidate; and because Facebook allowed both Trump and the Russian deep state to manipulate its platform for disinformation.
Four years on, Trump’s administration looks less like the project of a major business faction, more like a family dynasty. He hijacked the Republican National Convention and turned it into an undisguised prospectus for nepotism and unconstitutionality. His rallies, in which “Make America Great Again” was once the binding ideology, have become infused now with the ideology of the QAnon conspiracists. The base, not the leadership, is increasingly setting the tone and tempo.
There is near-continuous far-right social unrest: armed militias have begun “patrolling” areas where anti-racist protests are taking place; the “Boogaloo Bois” – armed fantasists preparing for Civil War 2.0 – have entered the scene; gruesome motorcades of Trump supporters threaten to “liberate” cities he has designated “anarchist”.
To mobilise his broader base of elderly white racists in the swing states Trump needs black resistance and anti-racist violence to be on the US’s TV screens every night; he needs the fantasy of white, violent revenge to be ever-present – but also localised and under control: more of a threat than an actuality.
Violence, however, has a logic of its own. When the 17-year old far-right activist Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August, it dramatised the worst-case scenario that may lie ahead.
Rittenhouse wandered around Kenosha with impunity, giving interviews to the media while waving an assault rifle unimpeded by the police. Once identified as the killer he was not only lionised by the online far-right networks: his actions were publicly justified by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who asked: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Finally, the president himself weighed in, implying Rittenhouse had been acting in self-defence.
Most of Trump’s voters have no problem with the police shooting black people, or with federal troops brutalising peaceful protesters in Portland, Oregon. But the idea that a kid can drive across a state line into a justified civil protest and open fire on demonstrators, while Rupert Murdoch’s mouthpiece cheers him on and the president excuses him? For many, this goes beyond their idea of law and order.
Rittenhouse’s actions concretised the fantasy of a second civil war, which has been lurking in the chat rooms of the conservative right for more than a decade. And many didn’t like it. It is one thing to dream of suppressing ethnic minorities, of scrapping the Roe vs Wade judgement, which legalised abortion, and even – as in the QAnon myth – of a presidential coup that puts the liberal establishment into Guantanamo Bay. It is another thing to envision chaos – not least, because the idea that American would be “great again” after an internal conflict is patently absurd.
[See also: Paul Mason on why the QAnon conspiracy theory is absurd but dangerous]
So if the invasion of Portland by federal troops was part of a script that Trump’s movement is enacting – as some Democratic Party insiders believe – the Kenosha shootings were not. That is the meaning of “stand back and stand by”. Trump wants his far-right supporters to restrain their violence for now, but to maintain it as a threat in case he loses. He needs the violence in the pre-election period to be low-level and constant on the news screens, but attributable to the left. But he needs voters to know that after the election, should he lose, far-right violence will be unleashed.
Joe Biggs, one of the Proud Boys’ leaders, boasted that by asking them to stand by: “Trump basically said to go fuck them up.” The question is: when? Though trailing in the polls, Trump’s plan to steal the election is pretty clear. He has eviscerated the postal system in order to sabotage mail-in voting; he has continually delegitimised postal votes as fraudulent; he has refused to confirm he will accept the result, again citing the possibility of fraud.
If, as seems likely, the results of in-person voting look inconclusive, Trump will declare victory on the night and exert pressure on state electoral authorities to discard the postal votes. The pressure will be a mixture of legal and physical.
Then, as the Democrats deploy lawyers to ensure the ballots are counted, and people take to the streets, Trump will try to rig the electoral college by insisting that Republican-controlled state legislatures override the popular vote and appoint their own electors. What he needs at that moment are two things: chaos on the streets and paralysis among the judiciary and the forces of law and order.
There is little doubt that members of the US’s far right will oblige when it comes to chaos. It’s a no-lose situation for them. By invading black and progressive neighbourhoods during the election, or by storming state legislatures after it’s over, they either help Trump win or they begin a four-year insurrectionary movement against Biden.
Though it remains physically a small minority, the ideological influence of the US far right is – thanks to Fox News and Facebook (whose algorithm aids their themes) – broad. The narrative it creates on the night of the election will shape the perceptions of right-wing lawmakers, police chiefs, sheriffs and judges.
Again, the fascist playbook is worth consulting: both Hitler and Mussolini were facilitated in the peaceful assumption of power by generals who told their respective heads of state that the armed forces could not (or would not) contain the far-right militias. If Trump can’t win cleanly, he will attempt to win at the price of destroying democracy – because to the class of kleptocrats that he represents, what use is a functioning democracy and the rule of law?
That we are on the brink of this, yet acting as if the outcome could still be normal, shows the huge dysfunctionality of political journalism and political analysis. Globally, in the space of just five years, a faction has emerged within the business and political elite that wants to destroy globalisation, multilateralism and even the rule of law. The language of othering they now use – not just against politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, but against mainstream social democracy and liberalism – is telling.
For the radicalised conservative right it has become unthinkable that a figure like Biden should run the US, or that Jacinda Ardern should govern New Zealand, or that Pedro Sanchez and Pablo Iglesias should jointly run Spain.
As a result, the notion of radical right-wing populism acting as a firewall against full-blown fascism has, itself, gone up in flames. The conservative right, the populist right and fascism are now acting in synergy. Trump is no fascist – but as the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell once said, speaking of Mussolini’s early years in power – there are worse things than fascism.
So it is American conservatives who face a choice. The man in the orange make-up is fighting for his dynasty alone. It is an all or nothing fight that could destroy democracy. There is no form of Republican administration that leads back to normality until Trump is out of the White House.