A crowd gathered around the stage at Green Lake Park, but it wasn’t quite the group that organizers were hoping for.
The Defend Police rally would ultimately be a bust. More counter protesters, mostly dressed head to toe in black clothing, came to the Oct. 10 event than supporters, prompting a hurt plea posted on the Safe Seattle Facebook page over the police response.
“Antifa effectively won on Saturday by drowning out our peaceful message with their hateful rhetoric, a victory they are now celebrating on their social media,” the writer said. “They attacked us, bullied us, harassed us and pushed us out of our own stage, taking over our microphone to deliver their propaganda.”
Katie Daviscourt, a rightwing social media personality, was chased out of the park by the aforementioned counter protesters as she walked backward toward the road. People chanted “Go home, Katie!” while she filmed the “intolerant left.”
But Real Change wasn’t there to document the “Defend Police” rally. This reporter didn’t turn on her microphone when a random jogger in a bright green shirt approached, unasked and unmasked, to tell her why he didn’t support the ongoing actions against police brutality.
Instead, she was there to ask counter protesters who identified as “antifa” — or anti-fascists — a fundamental question:
What is fascism?
It wasn’t a “gotcha” question. It’s a word that has been used to great effect to define “us” versus “them” and “good” versus “bad.” It’s also one about which anti-fascists would have definite opinions.
After all, if you are against anti-fascists, what does that make you?
“Fascism — honestly, it encompasses a lot of things,” said one counter protester. “Misogyny, white supremacy — I think fascism has become a catch-all term for people that fall into those things. I suppose all of those things are symptoms of fascism. When you see multiples of all of those things coming together, you’re dealing with fascism.”
Another offered to look it up, referencing fasces: the bundle of sticks and an axe from which “fascism” took its name in early 20th century Italy, clarifying that fascists, in this sense, wanted to be successors to the Roman empire.
And then, a history teacher stepped in.
“Political theorist Roger Griffin defines fascism as palingenetic ultranationalism — palingenetic being a reference to palingenesis, a religious rebirth; ultranationalism being, of course, nationalism,” he said. “Fascists believe their nation is the best on earth but has been corrupted by internal forces, and they need to strike first lest their nation be destroyed.”
Griffin is a leading scholar in the study of fascism and debuted a one-line definition close to that proffered by the history teacher. However, when he spoke to Real Change from his home in England, Griffin steered clear of $10 words, instead talking around his own definition to unpack the meaning.
Thirty years ago, Griffin wrote “The Nature of Fascism,” one of the foundational texts in academic fascist studies. In it and subsequent works, he attempted to boil down the concept of fascism to its “ineliminable” parts, seeking out the common thread that ties fascistic movements together by doing the work few people want to do: reading fascist texts.
If you want to understand feminism, ask a feminist; if you want to understand LGBTQ issues, ask someone within that community, he reasoned.
“Nobody was asking fascists what fascism was,” apart from George Mosse, Stanley Payne and Zeev Sternhell, Griffin said.
Many had tried to define it but fallen short because fascist regimes and organizations vary widely.
Fascism, with a capital “F,” was the product of Benito Mussolini’s Italy, forged when Mussolini and his National Fascist Party executed the infamous March on Rome in October 1922, securing power within the Italian state and effectively orchestrating a coup against the sitting king, Victor Emmanuel III, and prime minister, Luigi Facta, ending with Mussolini as head of state.
Italian Fascism came in different stages and flavors. Unlike the Third Reich that would follow in Germany, Mussolini had been a Marxist, and his Fascist party at first embraced people of other religions and ethnicities, using egalitarianism and the power of the Catholic Church to support the “veterans’ movement” he created.
Fascism was then, and evolved to be, a distinct entity from Hitler’s National Socialist — or Nazi — party, which succeeded the German Weimar government and instituted a vicious, genocidal program based quite literally on the purity of blood.
Both entities met the definition of “generic fascist,” in Griffin’s way of thinking, despite their different presentations. Francisco Franco’s Spain did not.
Franco adopted the aesthetic trappings of fascism — rallies, uniforms, close ties to the Axis powers — without the critical element of revolution, Griffin said.
“He just wanted a modernized Spain that would be safe from communism and liberalism,” Griffin said, and Franco was prepared to replace the Falange by the Catholic Church as the main ideological institution of the new Spain.
Franco was not, at heart, a revolutionary, unlike the coinciding Falange movement that envisioned a “new Spain” and rejected the monarchy and clericalism. The Falange, led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, sought a new world order that built on Spain’s past to create a brand-new future. After Rivera’s death in 1936, Franco was quick to stamp out the revolutionary aspects of the party and absorb Falangism into his regime.
In his decades-long rule, Franco would flirt with fascism, but never put a ring on it.
So, does “fascism’s” origin story define it? Fascism is commonly thought of as a political movement with a charismatic leader who rallies the people to a nationalist and ultimately genocidal cause. In the past, scholars would confine “generic fascism” to a period of time spanning the two world wars, born out of the pain of the worldwide Great Depression that laid low liberal democracies and allowed charismatic leaders like Hitler and Mussolini to step in and crush the existing order.
But Griffin saw it differently.
Fascism exists today, he argues, but perhaps not where people think it does.
Right around here
It was hot and muggy in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a scattering of Republicans gathered around the city’s convention center at the end of August.
The Republican nominee, incumbent President Donald J. Trump, would make an appearance over the course of the four days of the Republican National Convention, normally a celebration of the party and its aspirations to hold the executive office and the Senate and perhaps, just maybe, turn the House of Representatives red.
But the onslaught of the coronavirus turned the traditional format of large gatherings and riotous applause on its head. Presenters such as Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida took to the stage to give speeches to a quiet room, using apocalyptic language about what might come if former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris ascended to the highest office in the land.
The pageantry lacked subtlety: videos of Trump pardoning a formerly incarcerated man, of immigrants taking their citizenship oath, of people in a New York City low-income housing project talking about their poor conditions, all on display to gin up support for the president who, in 2016, said he alone could fix America’s problems.
The event even took on an evangelical splendor as Madison Cawthorn, who is a candidate to replace now-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ U.S. congressional seat for North Carolina, lifted himself out of his wheelchair and stood on stage.
Then came Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, in a bright red dress, flanked by American flags.
As she stood at the lectern, looking out where a crowd might once have stood, Guilfoyle delivered an address as though she was shouting across a rowdy Trump rally.
“Ladies and gentlemen, leaders and fighters for freedom and liberty and the American dream,” Guilfoyle intoned, her arms lifting to the heavens as she launched into a sweeping crescendo, “the best. Is yet. To come!”
Jared Yates Sexton, an associate professor, prolific author and documentarian of the American condition, watched remotely.
“It’s a quick study in fascism, for sure,” Sexton later said, speaking of the four-day event that served as Trump’s debutante ball for the 2020 election.
Whereas Griffin conscribes fascism to a tight, academic heuristic, far from applicable to the United States today, Sexton believes that the country is close to, if not already at, a fascistic place.
He doesn’t completely deviate from Griffin’s definition. Sexton’s does not illustrate the concept of fascism with the interwar period in which Mussolini’s party and Hitler’s Nazis found prominence and destruction. Instead, to him a “conscious rejection of liberal democracy or representative democracy” is required to overcome Western society’s embrace of pluralism, democracy and individualism.
“Fascism holds that the only meaning that people can have is derived from the state or ruler,” Sexton said. “It actively seeks to roll back time to a point before liberal democracy took root.”
This is one area where Sexton and Griffin may disagree. If Griffin’s definition holds, general fascism doesn’t want to go backward so much as project forward. Mussolini’s Italy had an imperialist aim, demonstrated by the invasion of Ethiopia. Hitler’s Germany wanted to remake the world in the image of the “new man”: a white, fit, Aryan person who would dominate the “lesser.”
But Sexton sees also the look back — the impulse to go backward to a perceived time when things were relatively comfortable and prosperous, when the trials and tribulations of present socioeconomic realities could fall away, to a time where America was “great.”
This “neo-fascism,” in his parlance, is coming if not already present, he said. “What I would say is that we have started to see some real canaries in the coal mine, here.”
Sexton sees Trump and Trumpism as clear and present dangers to the ideals of America. The president of the United States appears to break laws with impunity and invites outside influences to enrich him by dining and sleeping at his personal businesses. He invokes racism by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals and then enacts border policies that have left 545 migrant children bereft of their parents — still, years later.
Trump dallies with dictators and cozies up to criminals; several members of his campaign and administration have been found guilty of criminal charges.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the November general election.
“I think there are a lot of us who maybe felt this country was more stable than it was, or maybe its foundations were true,” Sexton said. “I think that one of the things that somebody like Trump has done is he’s made it clear how eroded, corroded and perverted this thing has been.”
To Sexton, fascism isn’t a political moment confined to the early 20th century but a threat that exists just beyond the horizon — a shadow on the other side of the liberal, progressive projects.
“It’s actually the darker side of humanity, and we have to be ready for it anywhere at any time,” Sexton said.
To some, that time is now.
Little time left
Is America fascist? Do fascists exist in America? Is there a difference?
“If you were to ask me 15 years ago, ‘are there fascists in America,’ I would have said, ‘Yes, but there’s everything in America,’” Richard Bodek, a professor of history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said. “With 300 million people, you’ll find people who think the Earth is flat.”
What surprised him was not that there were fascists in America, but that there were so many.
Roughly 450 miles north is Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of the 2017 Unite the Right rally where the alt-right and neo-fascists gathered in khakis and tiki torches like a poor man’s Nazi cosplay to announce their presence on the national stage. The next day, a man would drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters and kill Heather Heyer.
And yet those were the visible fascists, crying out white supremacist slogans and committing violent acts.
If they above the surface, there are thousands below: people who gather on Discord channels and populated the Stormfront website before it was banished to the Dark Web. They organize and sometimes train, connected through the invisible veins of the internet, spreading their dark gospel.
These are the fascists, Griffin said in an email follow-up to his interview with Real Change. In the communique was a missive about a “U.S.-based Neo-Nazi Group” that urged supporters to commit terror attacks.
“THIS is US fascism!” Griffin wrote. “NOT TRUMP!”
Bodek sees parallels between the actions of Germans in 1920s and 1930s and disaffected white men in the United States today. Now, they have a leader in the president of the U.S., who very markedly proclaimed there were “very good people on both sides” in the wake of the Charlottesville violence.
“Fascism in power is very different than fascism seeking power,” Bodek said. “Donald Trump, I believe, has a fascist agenda.”
What he does not yet have is the power to subvert democracy — to bend the system to his will and corrupt the intent of the people who are already casting ballots in the millions.
That marks a critical difference for Roger Griffin, although the fact that Trump is not himself a fascist doesn’t make the decline of American democracy much safer. There are still those men in khakis with tiki torches, the militias training in the Northwest, the Proud Boys — newly ascendant after their debut on the presidential debate stage — and the religious followers of former Rep. Matt Shea who wrote “The Biblical Basis for War.”
“[Trump] is too stupid to have an ideology, but he has gut responses, and his gut response to the far right was embracing it because they are part of his support base,” Griffin said.
Fascistic contingencies exist in the United States, but they are small and spread apart, too weak to strike against a vast nation, although deadly effective at terrorizing communities.
The greater threat, in Griffin’s mind, is the decay of U.S. liberal democracy. The two words often go together, but are not fused. Victor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus all lead illiberal democracies, manipulating the fundamentals of the democratic nation without truly subverting them.
Trump belongs in that ignominious company, Griffin said. However, there is a line at which Trump lists toward fascism: if he, like Vladimir Putin, refuses to give up control of the federal government after a second term.
“If Trump tried to get another 20 years as president, then you can talk about the fascistization of the United States, or a constitutional dictatorship,” Griffin said.
Trump has already tried to claim he deserves more time in office to make up for the investigation into his alleged ties with Russia and his impeachment over potentially nefarious conduct in the Ukraine. Perhaps voters, the Electoral College or the Supreme Court will make that wish come true.
If the people do not reelect Trump but he remains in office, the United States will go down an inexorable path toward illiberalism and the death of democracy, Bodek said.
“It is completely possible that if he is elected, democracy dies in the United States,” he said.
Whether or not this counts as “fascism” in the classical sense, it is a bleak outcome for a country that once led the free world.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2020 issue.