Like grease from an old stove, the Nazis of the US are suddenly getting scoured off social media. Donald Trump’s Twitter account is gone. Parler has been scrubbed from the Amazon servers.
We can be cynical about the motives of the tech giants: they did nothing to restrain either the Trump lie machine, or the fascist movement it inspired, until both looked beaten and discredited after 6 January. But there is a better explanation than opportunism. The tech giants, in common with the US military, knew the threat of a coup was real.
The storming of the Capitol was preceded by months of supportive messaging from Trump for militias and the far-right Proud Boys, and his consistent refusal to respect the election result; and then by weeks of threats by Trump supporters against election officials, the media, government officials and lawmakers.
As we piece together the available evidence, 18 December 2020 looks like the critical day. After the US Supreme Court threw out a Republican attempt to have the election results in four states invalidated, Trump called a meeting of some of his inner circle: Rudy Giuliani, the convicted and pardoned criminal Michael Flynn, and the lawyer Sidney Powell.
Flynn had previously publicly suggested imposing martial law in order to rerun the election, and at the meeting Trump reportedly wanted to appoint Powell “special counsel” to run a White House-based investigation into her own fantasies of voter fraud, but Trump’s advisers are said to have quashed both plans.
So what were they left with? The next day, 19 December, Trump tweeted: “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild.” With the Supreme Court electoral challenges out of the picture, and the chiefs of staff warning against any attempt to drag the military into the picture, Trump had one shot at remaining president: the physical disruption of the certification process of the election. Having spoken at a rally held on the Ellipse, Trump returned to the White House as rioters stormed the Capitol. He was reportedly only troubled by the “low class” appearance of some of the stormtroopers he had inspired.
Trump is not a fascist, and American fascism’s project is not the Trump administration. Trump’s administration was the product of a split in the US corporate elite, with a faction emerging that preferred to pursue the project of privatisation, deregulation and planetary destruction on a national rather than a global scale. As I wrote at the time, Trump’s faction of the GOP were “neoliberal nationalists”. They have overseen a debt-fuelled project to enrich the rich through asset-price inflation and tax cuts.
The long-term project of modern fascism, meanwhile, is a global ethnic civil war, triggered most probably by a climate catastrophe and resultant mass migration events, which halts human progress and reverses society into a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment state, from which progress can never again emerge.
The short-term project of the global far right, however, is to elect right-wing populists, keep them in power using threats of violent unrest, erode democracy and the rule of law, and operate in the space provided. There is, in short, a confluence of interest between an authoritarian right-wing populist, the party he has captured, and the proliferating networked fascism of the kind made manifest in the corridors of the Capitol on 6 January.
The men carrying plastic restraints and Tasers weren’t there to make a performative gesture, even if the QAnon “shaman” in the bear skin was. We can accept that the random wanderers and selfie-takers were sucked into a fantasy whose final outcome would be resolved through magical thinking.
With the available evidence we can infer that the hardcore intended to seize one or more left-wing Congress members, to seize the ballots in which the electoral college votes were stored, to delay and disrupt the process in a way that either forced martial law to be declared in DC, or the creation of two rival legislatures (when the session was continued 147 Republican lawmakers voted against certifying Joe Biden’s win).
An argument has emerged on the left, both in the UK and in the US, that the threat of a coup cannot have been real because: a) most of the action was performative, and b) the American bourgeoisie does not at this moment need fascism (because there is no threat of workers’ revolution). Both of these things can be true, and yet the danger can be real. And it was. I’ve spent the past 18 months immersed in the primary sources of fascist history and the content is incontrovertible. Fascist violence is always symbolic.
For fascists, violence is both an ethical norm and a narrative device. Even if they’ve never read Nietzsche, and his adulation of the Übermensch who “might come away from a revolting succession of murder, arson, rape, torture with a sense of exhilaration and emotional equilibrium, as if it were nothing but a student prank”, they get the picture.
For fascists, violence always tells a story of invincibility and, in turn, creates the myth of a final violent act. And that’s what the Capitol invasion did. Forty five per cent of Republican voters questioned said they supported the attempt to disrupt the confirmation of the election. According to one poll, 52 per cent of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen and that Trump had “rightfully won”. Though the short-term danger, of a possible militia mobilisation against the inauguration ceremony, looks likely to have been contained by National Guard deployments, both in DC and in state capitals, the long-term threat is of larger, armed marches on state capitals.
The civil war rhetoric is everywhere. As a BBC reporter covering the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, as early as 2010 I noticed that Civil War 2.0 was becoming a kind of Sorelian myth – a fantasy that, through constant repetition, its proponents imagined would become real.
More than ten years on, the invasion of the legislature of the world’s most powerful country is a warning: unless there is a concerted effort to prevent it, the US will fall apart under the strain of its unresolved structural racism, the evangelical fanaticism of its culture, and the dysfunctionality of its capitalism. If you were, say, the Chinese Communist Party, and thinking – as Leon Trotsky once memorably put it about the British imperialists – “in terms of centuries and continents”, then the path to a destroyed, diminished and divided US looks very clear.
Seventy four million people voted for a man who flouted his disregard for democracy, for the rule of law, for the independence of judges and for the fourth estate’s role as truth-keeper – 11 million more than voted for him when he had only talked about grabbing women “by the pussy”.
What to do? Mobilise a democratic, progressive coalition and protect the state’s monopoly of armed force. It’s true that there were off-duty cops and ex-service people among the rioters, and individual and structural racism exists within the US police service.
But the answer to this is a purged, retrained police force, subject to the strong legal oversight that exists in democracies that know how to deal with fascism – such as Germany, where the defence ministry shut down an armed forces unit due to allegations of far-right extremism, and where the domestic intelligence agency placed a brand of the Alternative for Germany, the third-largest parliamentary party, under surveillance for extremism.
The US needs the coercive apparatus of the state – which ranges from city police departments to the FBI and the courts – to take on and destroy fascism. That is the lesson of the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s: it was mass mobilisations – breaking down barriers between the left and centre – that stopped fascism where this was achieved. Where fascism won it was where conservatism allowed itself, first, to hollow out democracy and then to find its electoral base stolen by the fantasists of blood and soil.
Over the next four years there will likely be a low-level fascist insurgency against the Biden/Harris presidency. Its flashpoints will be states in which, although election officials have stood firm against the Trumpian mobs, it is unlikely Republican lawmakers and police chiefs will do so. Fascism, contrary to the rote-learned wisdom of leftists stuck in the 1930s, is acting in total autonomy from big capital, and always has done. While you are trying to trace its material roots in a section of capital, it is reshaping the world according to its bizarre fantasies.
Fascism, as the Marxist psychologist Wilhelm Reich said in the 1930s, is “fear of freedom”. It is the desire for order in servitude, triggered by the sudden disruption of all certainties.
The upside, for those of us who champion human freedom, is the visible panic among far-right insurrectionists: they can sense how close at hand a world without racism, misogyny and irrationalism actually is. We should take hope from that.