As the anniversary of the January 6 attempted coup in the U.S. capital looms, it’s worth taking a look at the ways fascism is encroaching upon the nation. And, as the American philosopher Jason Stanley argues in a long piece for The Guardian published in December, we’re now, as a country, in what he describes as fascism’s legal phase. 

Drawing a parallel with the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, Stanley notes that all the hallmarks of an emerging fascist regime are already apparent here. There’s the autocratic figurehead in Donald Trump. There’s a beholden political party that regularly toes the line of right-wing extremism while trying to mask its most extreme ideas so as to make them more accepted in the mainstream. There are vigilante street groups working in concert with a militarized police force dedicated to “upholding law and order,” or quashing perceived threats from Black, leftist, and student protesters. And there’s a hard right Supreme Court that will likely cling to power for decades that’s started to roll back reproductive rights.

But most worryingly, Stanley notes, “Donald Trump and the party that is now in thrall to him have long been exploiting fascist propaganda. They are now inscribing it into fascist policy.” That is, the states themselves are enshrining fascist principles into law via attacks on voting access, political gerrymandering, and outlawing dissent, paving the way for future elections to be stolen successfully. From the piece:

According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with the threat of violent leftist and Black rebellion being used to justify them. That this is happening at the same time that multiple electoral bills enabling a Republican state legislature majority to overturn their state’s election have been enacted suggests that the true aim of bills criminalizing protest is to have a response in place to expected protests against the stealing of a future election (as a reminder of fascism’s historical connection to big business, some of these laws criminalize protest near gas and oil lines).

The Nazis used Judeo-Bolshevism as their constructed enemy. The fascist movement in the Republican party has turned to critical race theory instead. Fascism feeds off a narrative of supposed national humiliation by internal enemies. Defending a fictional glorious and virtuous national past, and presenting its enemies as deviously maligning the nation to its children, is a classic fascist strategy to stoke fury and resentment. Using the bogeyman of critical race theory, 29 states have introduced bills to restrict teaching about racism and sexism in schools, and 13 states have enacted such bans.

Big business interest is complicit, Stanley writes, as are politicians on both sides of the aisle who have refused to address societal problems such as over-policing and mass incarceration, the availability of guns, and glaring wealth disparities between Black and white Americans. The media, too, is complicit in its silence, in some cases, and in others in its failure to fully inform an electorate that’s already being failed by collapsing institutions of public education:

The key to democracy is an informed electorate. An electorate that knows about persisting racial injustice in the United States along all its dimensions, from the racial wealth gap to the effects of over-policing and over-incarceration, will be unsurprised by mass political rebellion in the face of persistent refusal to face up to these problems. An electorate ignorant of these facts will react not with understanding, but with uncomprehending fear and horror at Black political unrest.

This is all to say while the attempted fascist takeover failed this time last year, there’s precious little stopping it from succeeding the next time around. 

There has been a growing fascist social and political movement in the United States for decades. Like other fascist movements, it is riddled with internal contradictions, but no less of a threat to democracy. Donald Trump is an aspiring autocrat out solely for his own power and material gain. By giving this movement a classically authoritarian leader, Trump shaped and exacerbated it, and his time in politics has normalized it.

Donald Trump has shown others what is possible. But the fascist movement he now leads preceded him, and will outlive him. As Toni Morrison warned, it feeds off ideologies with deep roots in American history. It would be a grave error to think it cannot ultimately win.

Stanley is persuasive; we should all be worried for the state of our democracy. 

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