And They're Still Doing That Today
In 1922, after avowed fascist, Benito Mussolini led the March on Rome, King Victor Emmanuel III, a conservative monarch, who had been reluctant to support him previously (having referred to him privately as a “clown” and”madman”—, refused to declare a state of emergency, which is what his advisors were urging, and instead appointed Mussolini as prime minister. This decision effectively gave Mussolini the opportunity to consolidate his power without facing any opposition from the monarchy and legitimized his rise to power. Why would a conservative give power to a fascist? The king feared a civil war in his deeply polarized country and felt that Mussolini could be an agent of stability or order. He also thought it was the best way to maintain the monarchy. The decision had a profound and pivotal impact on Italian history, paving the way for the rise of a fascist dictatorship and, obviously Italy’s involvement in World War II.
And Victor Emmanuel wasn’t the only mainstream conservative who legitimized and enabled Mussolini. He received support from conservative elites, including industrialists and landowners, who saw him as a counter to the threat of socialist and communist movements. Because of that support— and Victor Emmanuel’s— Mussolini was able to form a coalition government that included members of traditional conservative parties, helping to legitimize Mussolini's regime in the eyes of many Italians. The year after he was appointed prime minister, parliament passed the Acerbo Law, with the support of the conservative parties, designed to favor the party or coalition with the most votes in elections. The following year it locked in political power for the Fascist Party. Meanwhile two popular conservative former prime ministers, Antonio Salandra and Giovanni Giolitto threw threw in their lots with Mussolini, the former serving as his foreign minister.
Similarly, Alberto de Stefani, the most prominent consevrative economist, became Mussolini’s finance minister. Luigi Federzoni, a prominent conservative politician (the Italian Nationalist Association) supported Mussolini's rise to power and served as Minister of Colonies, then Minister of the Interior and President of the Senate for aa decade. His support was crucial in gaining the backing of conservative military circles for the Fascist regime.
As Mussolini consolidated power with the help of mainstream conservatives, guess who was watching and taking notes. Yes, Trump’s role model. Hitler’s rise to power was greased by the decision of the Weimar conservatives enabling him. Most cited by historians is Franz von Papen, a former chancellor and a traditional conservative who believed that Hitler could be controlled and used to restore order; he played a key role in Hitler's appointment to the chancellorship in 1933. Alfred Hugenberg, leader of the German National People's Party, a staunch anti-communist and mega newspaper publisher, was willing to cooperate with the Nazis in order to achieve his own political goals. Like von Papen, he saw Hitler as a tool (“we’ll box Hitler in”) and joined his first cabinet as “economic dictator.” After using him, Hitler quickly discarded him. Germany didn’t have a Victor Emmanuel; instead there was President Paul von Hindenburg, a conservative military hero and no fan of Hitler’s. But eventually he came around and appointed Hitler chancellor.
The conservative press— the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Völkischer Beobachter— jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. And, of course, so did the wealthy elites, eventually responsible for financing the rise of the Nazi Party, guys (and their families and networks) like steel magnates Fritz von Thyssen and Emil Kirdorf, banker Hjalmar Schacht, weapons manufacturers Gustav and Alfred and Krupp…
Why bring this up today? I saw this article by Greg Bluestein in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which he quoted Georgia’s mainstream conservative governor Brian Kemp, who is often held out— along with Arizona and Virginia governors Doug Ducey and Glenn Youngkin— as conservative opponents of Trump. But just as Trump’s conservative opponents in Congress, like Lindsey Graham (“I think he's a kook. I think he's crazy. I think he's unfit for office… If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed... and we will deserve it.”), Ted Cruz (This man is a pathological liar. He doesn't know the difference between truth and lies…. I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father."), Paul Ryan (“I am not going to defend Donald Trump— not now, not in the future… I think the comments themselves are indefensible and appalling.”), Kevin McCarthy ("The President bears responsibility for [the attack] and he should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding."), Rand Paul (“I ran for president because I thought we needed a more sincere voice, and I thought Trump was sorely lacking... I think he's a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag.”), Marco Rubio (“We’re on the verge of having someone take over the conservative movement who is a con artist… We have a con artist as the frontrunner in the Republican Party.”) came around, so did all the conservative governors who opposed him.
Conservatives may fight fascists for a (very short) while, but in the end, they unite against any kind of working class agenda. Bluestein’s Kemp quote yesterday:
“Despite all of that, despite all of his other trials and tribulations, he would still be a lot better than Biden. And the people serving in the administration would be a lot better than than Joe Biden. And it has nothing to do with being a coward. It has everything to do with winning and reversing the ridiculous, obscene positions of Joe Biden and this administration that literally, in a lot of ways, are destroying our country.”
What "trials and tribulations" did Gov. Kemp have in mind? Well, Kemp said that as Trump is planning to unleash more chaos and more dysfunction on the country, more disunity, more anomie… by forcing his congressional allies— including several from Georgia— to push for a government shutdown Next week. Yesterday Henry Giroux wrote that “In addition to legitimating false claims about a stolen presidential election, Trump’s vitriolic and dehumanizing rhetoric has also contributed to an unprecedented culture of misinformation and truth-denying that has become so widespread since 2016 that it’s now a central feature of politics and a defining condition of the widespread violence, lawlessness and militarization shaping U.S. society… The lies embraced by demagogues such as Trump do more than distort meaning, turn truth to ashes and spread misinformation. As Ariel Dorfman observes, they also ‘exhibit a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity,’ while legitimizing and reproducing a vocabulary and culture that revels in unrestricted power, cruelty, terror and ‘homicidal extremes.’ This is a language through which power is enacted; a language in which agency is made manifest ‘as an act with [often deadly] consequences.’ This is a rhetoric that emerges from living corpses whose mouths are filled with blood. As novelist and civil rights activist Toni Morrison pointed out in her Nobel Prize-winning speech, this is a dead language, ‘though not without effect.’ … Trump’s lies cannot be separated from the language of violence and its ongoing attempts to instill fear, promote threats against alleged opponents and inspire violence from his MAGA followers. His lies are inseparable from the creation of a language that promotes a lethal formative culture that wallows in the blood of those viewed as disposable, and that produces deranged anger and unchecked despair. Trump’s use of an inflammatory violent rhetoric to obtain political power feeds the GOP call for civil war and accelerates the arming of political extremists such as the Proud Boys, the Patriot movement and a heavily militarized police force.”
That’s what “mainstream conservative Brian Kemp urged Georgia Republicans to support, as do Republican governors across the country, including— carefully— Glenn Youngkin. I expect the only GOP governor who might oppose Trump, though I wouldn’t bet on it, is Chris Sununu. And, yeah, I definitely wouldn’t bet on it. Giroux again: “Trump’s embrace of lies and violence have produced an unrelenting series of shocks to the body politic and its democratic ideals. Violence that was once considered inconceivable and relegated to the margins of society now passes for normal. As Trump’s violent rhetoric accelerates, actual acts of violence ‘have become a steady reality of American life, affecting school board officials, election workers, flight attendants, librarians and even members of Congress, often with few headlines and little reaction from politicians.’… Right-wing extremists have escalated their use of death threats against those who either oppose or criticize Trump, with a special bile reserved for threatening immigrants and Black people. The targets of the death threats include politicians, health workers, local election workers, journalists, teachers and members of the justice system engaged in holding Trump accountable for his crimes. In a culture that barely tolerates dissent and increasingly confuses the truth with falsehoods, it’s not surprising that Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies political violence, found that ‘between 15 million and 20 million American adults believe that violence would be justified to return Trump to office.’… In Trump’s worldview, the opposition is not to be debated, it is to be destroyed, eliminated. This friend/enemy distinction reinforces the notion that a pledge of loyalty to Trump is comparable to becoming part of a militarized army engaged in war. In this discourse, violence is equated with power, and brutality becomes a measure of loyalty. Reason is now replaced with loyalty, and loyalty becomes the medium to “deploy sadism by bullying and humiliating others.” How else to explain the increasing use of threats of war coupled with violent language and imagery by Republicans attacking politicians, justice officials and prosecutors who have held Trump accountable for his crimes. According to GOP extremists such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, former political candidate Kari Lake and Trump associate Roger Stone, such actions mean, as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon puts it, that ‘we’re at war.’” Different than Hitler and Mussolini? How?
Racism and violence are the core elements at work in Trump’s endless barrage of lies. As Eli Zaretsky notes, “Trump’s racism is linked to his willingness to deploy violence in order to foster identification.” Trump’s lies became the vehicle for bringing “together large numbers of people who would have liked to lash out but didn’t have the courage. He made them feel that their anger and contempt [especially toward people of color]— whatever its source— was legitimate. And, very importantly, he convinced people viscerally that the norms of civilized society were part of a rigged system.” Trump’s cultivation of mob instincts and his repeated lies and violence now shape and define much of the Republican Party.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that his legal troubles are the fault of Black prosecutors, whom he has called “racists,” “horrible people” and “mentally sick.” Riding the politics of white grievance, Trump has stoked white supremacist claims that people of color are taking power and will exact revenge on white people. To fully understand Trump’s claim “that there were fine people on both sides,” regarding the 2017 neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s crucial to connect Trump’s lies, white nationalist rhetoric and call for violence to an earlier period in fascist history. To adequately address Trump’s lies, it’s crucial to understand how the culture of lying, racism and violence sustain each other. This is both a historical and political issue.
Federico Finchelstein, in his 2020 book A Brief History of Fascist Lies, reminds us that “one of the key lessons of the history of fascism is that racist lies led to extreme political violence.” He argues persuasively that, “If we want to understand our troublesome present, we need to pay attention to the history of fascist ideologues and to how and why their rhetoric led to the Holocaust, war, and destruction.”
In the current historical moment, those in power have normalized lying in a way that closely resembles how previous fascist regimes adopted a racist language that targeted marginalized groups while unsettling the public’s faith in both politics and democracy. Fascist lies, both historically and today, according to Finchelstein, “rest on the affirmation of the devotion to violence.”
Under both previous fascist regimes and the Trump presidency, truth was reduced to what was supported by power, myth replaced history, and reason was relegated to a sneering contempt and degeneracy. In addition, reality collapsed into a form of willful ideological ignorance, and racist lies took direct aim at equality, social justice and dissent. The merging of lying, racism, and violence in U.S. politics cannot be understood outside of a legacy of fascist lies, domination and the destruction of democracy itself. Trump and the modern Republican Party couple their belief in absolute truth and the primacy of violence as crucial to their claim on power. At work is a radical renewal of the legacy of fascism and racial purity with its destruction of human values, critical education, and a collective collapse into the death-driven belief that equality and democracy are synonymous with decadence and must be eliminated. Trump and his allies represent a form of brutalizing education that legitimates lying and violence as part of a broader politics designed to subvert freedom, agency and the formative culture that sustains a meaningful democracy.
The language of fascism, as several scholars have argued, cannot be comprehended outside of the machinery of capitalism and its basic structures of economic and ideological oppression, which reinforce the conditions of exploitation, privatization, violence and inequality. Unable to satisfy the human needs it produces, it eventually adopts a political and ideological position in which it no longer attempts to legitimate itself with promises of social mobility, well-being, equality and social justice. Since neoliberalism can no longer offer the public a better future, and merely claims that “the future is just more of the present,” it increasingly aligns itself with a culture of fear, doom and an appeal to endless threats, activating the potential for a fascist politics. In order to cover its legitimation crisis, it blames the growing destabilization of social institutions, precarity, alienation, misery and collective anxiety on those it labels as the U.S.’s enemies: Black people, foreigners, immigrants, refugees, dissidents, Jews, and other marginalized groups. In doing so, it aligns itself with a fascist politics that creates the formative culture for the likes of Trump and his allies and followers. As Pete Dolack observes:
Violence is now funded by corporate billionaires and what has emerged politically both looks and acts like fascism. He writes, times and conditions can change, and the very fact that a fascist movement exists— one that Trump currently heads but Florida governor Ron DeSantis wishes to assume the leadership of— should be take with utmost seriousness, especially as it is a movement that shows no sign of dispersing.
Understanding how the current politics of lying, racism and violence echoes both the failure of neoliberal capitalism and a fascist history is crucial in order to mount an effective opposition to far right attempts to erase history, impose mass ignorance, destroy democratic institutions and normalize an updated version of fascist politics. Such a political and historical analysis should make clear how Trump and most of the Republican Party embodies a fascist politics that poses both a danger to the future of democracy and the rest of the globe. Like earlier fascist demagogues in Italy and Nazi Germany, Trump’s eruptions and displays of anger and rage against his alleged enemies both sanction violence and encourage his neo-Nazi followers, the police, and others to use violent behavior, as Mussolini once justified it, “for the good of the nation.” The dark side of history is with us once again, and with it comes a warning about the present — a warning captured by Primo Levi in his 2005 book The Reawakening. He writes:
In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt.… A new fascism, with its trail of intolerance, of abuse, and of servitude, can be born outside our country, and be imported into it, walking on tiptoe and calling itself by other names, or it can loose itself from within with such violence that it routs all defences. At that point, wise counsel no longer serves, and one must find the strength to resist.
Central to the current fascist culture of lying, racism and violence is a cult of demagogues, growing inequalities of wealth and power, a tsunami of class, gender and racial injustices, and philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all. All of these forces are choking “the arteries of democracy” as Tony Judt writes in his 2011 book Ill Fares the Land. As the language of democracy is hollowed out by neoliberal fascism, we are witnessing an emerging terror of the unforeseen and the inexorable force of a history ripe with mass anxiety and unimagined catastrophe— produced by a fascist politics governed by lies, myth, and a perpetual fear and crisis machine. If we cannot grasp that such a history is with us once again, the struggle to resist will wither and the seeds of fascism will bury existing democracies with ashes.
Mouths full of blood will usher in a history filled with the smell of genocidal violence, suffering and death. Under such circumstances, it is crucial for the broad left and progressives to release the potential for justice, freedom and equality. That is, it’s crucial to address not only historical remembrance and moral witnessing but also the political and pedagogical necessity to merge memory, civic values, and social responsibility with the power of mass movements and aggressive collective action in the fight against a burgeoning fascism. In the contemporary U.S., we need a new language and politics to fight against the nightmare of fascism. We need a language that rejects an era of foreclosed hope, refuses to address the present as a model for the future, and condemns the rhetoric of fear and violence that contains the present in the nightmarish shadow of a fascist past.
Needless to say, there is more at work in the fight against fascist politics than the need to recast the public conversation about the meaning of democracy; there is also the necessity to reject a politics of normalization in which capitalism and democracy are equated. Fascism and capitalism cannot be separated. Any viable mode of collective resistance must begin by exposing how capitalism is the breeding ground for fascism. Only by developing an anti-capitalist consciousness can the brutalizing forces of neoliberal fascism be made visible and resisted. Only then will it be possible to both redefine the language of power, critical education, direct action and cultural politics to develop the collective forces necessary to think and act differently as part of a wider collective struggle for a socialist democracy.
The legacy of fascism may have shown us what the future and end of humanity would look like. But such a future is not inevitable. As Alain Badiou once noted in his 1998 book Ethics, “the space of the possible is larger than the one assigned,” suggesting that history is open, making the call for building solidarity and social change all the more urgent, and the demand for mass resistance all the more necessary. The times in which we live are too dangerous to be giving up on civic courage, the radical imagination and a vision of a society that is never just enough.