The attempt to overturn the results of the elections reached a crescendo in Washington, DC as supporters of President Trump stormed Capitol Hill, briefly occupying it and triggering a city wide lockdown.
Many will see this coup attempt as the final attempt of a flailing President and his supporters to secure power by any means. This interpretation, while technically correct, fails to account for the development of the far-right as a significant political force in the United States along with its attendant culture of fascism.
The past four years have seen a vigorous debate among scholars over whether President Trump qualifies as a fascist. Those who argue against such a designation point out that for much of his presidency, Trump has functioned within democratic institutions and repeatedly found himself rebuffed when faced with their limits. His public statements, the argument continues, while not adhering to democratic norms, do not adequately reflect the far more mundane reality of a legislatively constricted President. Missing from this argument, however, is any account of Trump’s relationship with a mobilized far-right.
Trump’s support for far-right street violence throughout his one-term presidency and the “dialectic of mutual radicalisation between leadership and base” constitutes what Richard Seymour terms the “inchoate fascism” of President Trump. One of the defining features of faciscm, after all, is extra-parliamentary violence encouraged or condoned by the state. President Trump, on every possible occasion, has “appeared to use the state to complement, rather than control” far-right violence.
It is too easy to dismiss the events in DC as a failed coup attempt, likely to fizzle out and demobilize the motley groups clinging to the dying fantasy of a second Trump term. The storming of Capitol Hill, however, will likely turn out to be a remarkable recruiting success for far-right groups. These groups are here to stay and the attempted coup only underscores the continuing and expedited development of an increasingly more coherent and dangerous fascism.
The rally in Charlottesville in 2017 was the first significant sign of its arrival. According to the New York Times, the rally was “perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the evolution of the American far right, a coalition of old and new white supremacist groups connected by social media and emboldened by the election of Donald J. Trump.” A day after the rally, Foreign Policy reported that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security had warned months earlier that “white supremacist groups had already carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years.”
The trend was confirmed by a report from The Soufan Center. “Between 2009 and 2018,” according to the report, “73.3% of all domestic extremist-related killings have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists.” More recently, hate crimes in the United States are reported to be at the highest level in a decade while hate-motivated killings have never been higher since the FBI began keeping records in the early 1990s.
Also concerning is the fact that the anti-elitism and nativist, ethnonationalism which animates many of these far-right groups are increasingly appealing to racial and ethnic minorities who feel abandoned by the political system. It is critical to understand the root causes of this disillusionment which feeds the growth of the far-right.
By now it has become standard practice to dismiss Trump supporters as racists but such a dismissal is no substitute for an explanation. It remains true that there are a significant number of individuals in the United States who profess fealty to a white supremacist ideology predicated on anti-immigrant, anti-elitist sentiments. To understand this appeal, one must consider the material conditions of those who subscribe to this ideology.
According to anthropologist Scott Atran, the global rise of “narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms” represents “a collapse of communities” and the unraveling of “traditional cultures.” The advent of neoliberalism in the early 1970s and the economic policies of the past five decades have contributed to this unraveling. The steady decline in average incomes, the decimation of industrial manufacturing and the concomitant rise in unemployment and contingent work, the slashing of local and state budgets and accompanying cuts to social services have all cultivated a sense of political abandonment.
These policies have created fertile ground for the rise of the far-right who are well placed to exploit the anxiety, alienation, and feeling of political impotence faced by many affected communities. They do so with a narrative of cultural decline which purports to explain their loss of status with reference to the machinations of political elites and scapegoating of immigrants and people of color. These narratives, as Arun Kundnani points out, “do their political work by moving discussion away from questions of what we need to questions of who we are.” Consequently, their proposed project of cultural regeneration is predicated on attacking racial and ethnic minorities and fighting against a mythologized political elite.
The appeal of these narratives is well documented. According to a survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in 2017, fears regarding cultural displacement among the white working class strongly correlated with support for Donald Trump. A subsequent study showed that fears that “their status was at risk” motivated many white voters to support Donald Trump..
The Democratic Party has been complicit in the policies which created the conditions for the development of fascism. While there is much jubilation over the Democrats securing a Senate majority after the runoff elections in Georgia, there are no indications that a Biden administration has any plans to address the increasing growth of the far-right.
An anti-facsist movement in the United States must not only invest in community organizing and defense but also, in the words of Clara Zetkin, “to address the social layers that are now lapsing into fascism.” This means organizing within communities where the appeal of the far-right is at its strongest. The widespread belief that Trump supporters are irredeemable, as if racism is somehow deeply embedded in their DNA, is mere narcissism meant to virtue signal our own purity. There is, after all, a long history of successful organizing in deeply racist communities in the United States.
The appeal of far-right ideologies is not confined to the exhortations of President Trump but has a strong social basis which will endure the end of the Trump presidency. The blundering coup attempt is a harbinger of what is to come.