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The Year of Prophetic Desire
The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
Only our concept of Time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.
The American Right throbs with prophetic desire, from The Late Great Planet Earth, the classic End Times fantasy of Reaganite revanchism, to QAnon’s ‘great awakening’. This is not the prophetic desire of the multitude, of which Hardt and Negri speak. The subcultural apocalyptic anticipations of the United States at the turn of the millennium, with its curious ambivalent opening to the ‘alien’ and the ‘alt’, and its distrust of overpowering elites, had transversal elements that partially flowed into anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements. By plague year, however, these currents had been skilfully canalised by online far-right entrepreneurs into outright authoritarian longing. The reactionaries yearn, not for the immanent power of the multitude, but for a word from their celestial trump card.
If plague year was the year that Trumpism finally came into its own, that is probably because it bore with it this fruitful palingenetic expectancy. Writing of the theological concept of ‘kairos’, Catherine Keller defines it as a temporal shortening, contraction and ingathering of the crisis elements we call ‘apocalyptic’. The high point of Trumpism represented precisely such an ingathering. Enlivened by its street assaults on Black Lives Matter activists, its armed hunts for ‘antifa’ arsonists in Oregon, its red-hunting, and its supernatation in warm baths of sanctimonious victimhood – the sense of being on the cusp of totalitarian dictatorship, far from being a Resistance novelty, had been part of the far right’s political style at least since Massive Resistance – Trumpism finally found the mutually radicalising relationship between leadership and base that it had been wanting since Charlottesville. And, when it did, the movement exploded into a frenzy of counter-subversive activity that drastically expanded Trump’s voter base and culminated in the 6 January ‘insurrection’, or ‘Q-d’état’, a meatspace incursion of the online Vendées in rebellion against the new woke order.
This apocalyptic outburst against constitutional legality persuaded the historian of fascism Robert Paxton to abandon his objections to calling Trump a fascist. That it only resulted in five deaths reflected only the relative inexperience and political indiscipline of the reactionary mob, most of whom were not experienced militia men or fascist activists but members of a recently radicalised layer of the downwardly mobile affluent. In the year of the plague, Trump became what it was always in him to be: a pathfinder, signal-booster and agitator for inchoate fascism.
There is a more comforting story to be told, in 2020 hindsight. Resistance oracles had anticipated that Trump would impose a ‘state of emergency’, suspending the constitutional order at the first opportunity. In Timothy Snyder’s vaticinations about coming ‘authoritarianism’, he repeatedly suggested that a Hitler-style coup was ‘pretty much inevitable’. And yet, given the unprecedented authoritarian opportunity presented by the plague, Trump did nothing of the sort. He instead staked everything on a ‘culture wars’ campaign, stentorophonically blasted from the Republican National Convention in the tones of red-baiting and race-baiting. And, on this basis, lost. Having then waged a somnambulist war in the courts, a dream-like campaign to overturn the election result that provoked universal judicial contempt, that lost again. Having finally bet all on a ‘last stand’, a parodic putsch unconsciously burlesquing the French fascist uprising against the centrist Daladier administration on 6 February 1934, in this case led by the heavily armed and downwardly mobile affluent, it has been promptly marginalised and its militants arrested.
Now, thanks to the auto-implosion of Trumpism, the Biden administration is in charge and has a Congressional majority. And, driven by competition with Chinese state capitalism, liberated from the unavailing Washington Consensus of old, jolted by the popularity of Trumpism and wary of its revival, guided by an advisory caste that has shifted markedly left since 2008, and under some pressure from a greatly expanded organised Left that has twice almost imposed its own presidential candidate, it abandoned ‘bipartisanship’ and embarked on an ambitiously interventionist programme with elements of redistribution and limited decarbonisation. In so doing, it has sucked the afflatus out of the Republicans’ usually ruthless offence, while leaving the GOP establishment beholden to a base that, according to Fabrizio Lee and Associates, remains fervently pro-Trump even as it is reduced to a hardcore. Potentially, it seems, Bidenism could establish a broad, post-neoliberal, imperial centre that, short of massively escalated gerrymandering, will marginalise the Right for a long time.
All of this, surely, is what one should have expected. As Dylan Riley pointed out in a mid-term breviary on Trumpism for the New Left Review, the historical conditions for fascist ascendancy didn’t exist. There was no pressure toward international war, no Freikorps-style paramilitaries shooting leftists, no threat of socialist insurrection, no drive to class civil war and nothing like the catastrophic depression that driven a precarious middle class into the fascist parties. And, despite Hannah Arendt’s claim that modern ‘rootless man’ was the source of mass plebiscitary dictatorship, fascism emerged from and reproduced in its own image a densely structured civic society that is scarcely in evidence today. In all, Trump’s style of rule far more closely resembled Weber’s concept of ‘patrimonialism’ than fascism: bringing the Trump Organisation into the White House, he tried to run the state like a private family business. Further, as Corey Robin wrote in the Guardian, Trump’s online ‘strongman’ performances were at no stage matched by an equivalent effort to consolidate his own power in government (as opposed to the institutional power of the establishment Right). And the ironic effect of the widespread belief that Trump was a fascist was to weaken the Right: inviting court challenges, unifying the corporate media against him, broadly uniting the Democratic opposition, driving up ACLU membership to record levels, and stimulating a ‘Resistance’ that in parts of the country seriously weakened the Republican vote. For Robin, the Trump moment was the last exhalation of a form of rightist revanchism whose real high point was the Nixon era, preceding a large-scale realignment of US politics to the Left.
Yet the forebodings about fascism hardly begin and end with wafer-thin analyses of ‘authoritarianism’, or analogy by listicle or Churchwellian checklist. Nor, by corollary, can they be resolved by determining what Trump was able to do in office. Trump was an inexperienced political outsider propelled into a hostile institutional complex. The condition for his rise was not his own political strength, whatever the guile with which he agitated on the social industry and gamed the media, but the comprehensive alienation of the Republican base from the establishment. As Thomas Ferguson’s work suggests, the corporate funding cartels organising behind both Republicans and Democrats had visibly lost their ability to lead their respective voting blocs by the 2014 mid-terms. In 2016, those cartels lost control of the Republican Party, and scarcely retained their control over the Democrats. This situation of hegemonic decomposition allowed Trump, by conducting the revolt of the radicalised middle class (and a layer of disaffected workers) into a presidential bid, to project influence in advance of building the kind of social base and political networks that would sustain that influence and convert it into effective state power. The question of whether this political breakthrough represented a form of inchoate fascism will therefore not be answered by totting up Trump’s legislative record. Nor is it obviated by the present success of contradictory tendencies. The fact that long-term socio-demographic trends combined with post-credit crunch politicisations have favoured a renewal of the Left in no way answers the question of whether Trump has led a tendency toward incipient fascism on the Right. Nor can the issue be dismissed by establishing the absence of prerequisites derived from a wholly different historical conjuncture. Establishing the historical conditions of fascism’s rise in interwar Europe can be informative, but not definitive. We can’t expect any twenty-first century form of fascism, and its crisis-contexts, to resemble those of the 1920s as though decades of Cold War liberalism and decolonisation, neoliberal globalisation and class recomposition had made no impact on fascism.
To grasp the specificity of Trumpism, we have to see the duck-rabbit illusion for what it is. Those arguing over whether or not Trump was personally ‘a fascist’ or was within range of imposing an ‘authoritarian’ state, are beholden to the same misleading image. They share the wrong predicates. Since historical fascism did not begin with a cohesive, mass fascist movement led by a party of nationalist militants on the brink of installing a popular dictatorship against the Left, we should not expect that today. It may even be an error, informed by our own inherited organisational grammar, to expect fascism to mature, if it does, by means of a sequence similar to that of inter-war Europe, with the mass nationalist party securing a popular dictatorship subtended by constant popular mobilisation. As Rodrigo Nunes has suggested, today’s organising ecologies tend to favour the circulation of ‘distributed leadership’ among diverse ‘organising cores’. ‘Vanguard functions’ pass between them through each political cycle, as each bid on a slogan, tactic or political strategy succeeds or fails. ‘Platforms’, such as those websites and social industry pages that organised the 6 January ruckus, offer activists a set of homogenised but flexible tools for political action for a limited duration. In short, the ‘networked’ nature of neonate fascism, with its ‘spontaneous’ contagions and elements of horizontality, may be a sign of successful adaptation rather than just weakness. This is not to suggest that ‘liquid fascism’ pivoted by a celebrity politician ensconced in an authoritarian state could perform the role that the party-state has in the past. Probably only a mass party could confer the political discipline and ideological cohesion that would enable fascism to seize political power from the bourgeoisie, and then colonise and ‘revolutionise’ the bourgeois state. However, if such an organisation does emerge, it may well more closely resemble the digital-entrepreneurial party organised by online plebiscite than the thickly structured parties of inter-war Italy or Germany.
In a sharp formulation, Enzo Traverso has suggested that Trump was to fascism what Occupy was to communism. This is a fecund, ambiguous comparison. It implies that Trump, a figure inescapably determined by the historical wipe-out of fascism and the traditional social forces sustaining it, is both post-fascist and pre-fascist. The issue, then, is whether there is, as Ugo Palheta argues in Historical Materialism, a sequence of ‘fascisation’ taking place. A sequence in which elements of both state and civil society are radicalised against the Left and in the direction of authoritarian nationalism, come to experience themselves as victimised and submerged in a consuming apocalyptic crisis, and reach the point of pursuing – as Michael Mann puts it – ‘a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism’. Such a process today, punctuated by electoral disruptions from the nationalist Right, might avail itself of campaigns and spells in office but largely through its pedagogic and formative effects on incipiently fascistic tendencies.
This is the question: did Trump use his limited powers to bolster far-right elements, help them discover audiences, open channels of public sympathy, normalise their goals and their violence, and create an environment favourable to their advance? Did the Trump administration leverage an already-existing mass fascist potential into a political project that enabled fascistic elements to coagulate? Did the Trump administration represent an advance, not for the Republican Party, but for the process of fascisation?
Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, as he turned states like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin red, had prompted seismic waves of jubilation from ‘race realists’, Christian Identitarians, Klansmen, alt-right activists, online channers and followers of ‘Kek’, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, American Vanguard, the Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, and their alt-lite celebrity outriders. Trump’s humiliation of his rivals, his sadism toward a disabled journalist, his gleeful derision of Mexican immigrants as rapists, his use of antisemitic code in his campaigning videos, his affiliation with forms of nativism and racism long excluded from the mainstream, and his refusal to disavow support from the neo-Nazi David Duke, gave them plenty to celebrate. These were minuscule minority currents within Trump’s base, but his support would help conduct them into mainstream milieus. And their jubilee was edged with violence: a surge of racist attacks, and sexist assaults by ‘pussy-grabbing’ men, took place in the weeks afterward.
Shortly, members of the Traditionalist Workers’ Party were lunching with Republican operatives, discussing how this Nazi sect could help bind disaffected whites to an overhauled GOP. Richard Spencer celebrated with a fascist salute before a crowd of supporters, shouting: ‘Hail Trump’. At his inauguration, Trump rhetorically affiliated himself with the ‘America First’ tradition, evoking the slogan used by nativists before and during World War I, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and apologists for fascism in the 1930s. In office, Trump launched his presidency with a spectacle of power. He issued a blizzard of executive orders, emphasising his commitment to a Muslim travel ban and a border wall. Sidelining likely opponents on the powerful National Security Council, he appointed his allies, Islamophobic conspiracy theorist General Michael Flynn and the ex-Breitbart editor and white nationalist Steve Bannon. When the Supreme Court challenged Trump’s Muslim ban, his advisor Stephen Miller expostulated: ‘the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.’ This made a performative claim to limitless executive power that would have exceeded that of the Bush administration, had the Trump administration had the ability to make it a reality. As far as the US national media were concerned, from MSNBC to Foreign Policy, Trump was behaving like a ‘dictator’. Many fantasised about a military, CIA or ‘deep state’ coup to ‘save democracy’. Within less than a year, the fractions of the emboldened far right were brought together under the banner of ‘Unite the Right’ in Charlottesville, North Carolina. Their torchlit march through the streets, as they chanted against the ‘replacement’ of whites by immigrants or Jews, culminated the following day in the murder of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer – in response to which Trump carefully signalled his sympathy for the marching Nazis.
And yet, because its violence was hubristic and alienated much of the wider Right which it hoped to radicalise, Charlottesville began a period of mobilising downturn for the alt-right, and confinement for Trump in office. As the street movement receded, he was sandbagged on all sides, wrapped up in battles with the mass media, with legal obstruction of his anti-immigrant policies, with FBI investigators, with Democrats trying to impeach him and stop his Supreme Court appointments, and finally with a Republican leadership that would only permit him to govern if he accepted their agenda. Whatever Trump’s nativist, America First predilections, upon taking office he adopted a version of Obama’s foreign policy because it was recommended by the Pentagon. By April 2017, he had signalled his conventional foreign policy and that he was not beholden to Putin, with a symbolic bombing in Syria: an act that the New York Times insisted showed great sympathy for the Syrian people. Soon, he was forced to lose his advisors, Bannon and Flynn.
Bannon, whose appointment had been a beacon to the alt-right, declared to the world that the ‘Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over’. While Trump’s ‘default position’, illustrated by his sympathy with Nazis marching in Charlottesville, was that of his white-nationalist base, the Republican leadership had caged him. The next two and a half years seemed to prove his point. Trump’s agenda was narrowed to a more aggressive version of conventional US foreign policy, a ramping up of existing anti-migrant policies, deficit-financed stimulus for capital, tax cuts for the rich, a cosmetic renegotiation of NAFTA, and a minor trade war with China. When Senator Lindsey Graham would later defend Trump’s record as a ‘consequential president’, it was really the achievement of the Republican establishment in getting what they wanted out of Trump that he was praising. With his afflatus sapped, and his uniquely Oedipalised Oval Office encircled, Trump faced a bitter electoral backlash in the 2018 mid-terms, and his failed attempt to get accused rapist Roy Moore elected as a senator for Alabama left egg on his face. His approval ratings, never very high, hit their lowest levels – revealing that his hardcore support was around 35 per cent of voters. At this point, the argument that Trump was a potential ‘authoritarian’ in residence at the White House looked weaker than ever.
Nonetheless, there continued to be signs of ferment on the social industry and beyond. The QAnon phenomenon, which persuaded millions of people that Trump was leading an effort to save the world from elite Satanists, paedophiles and communists by imposing a military dictatorship, showed there was a brewing atmosphere of palingenetic expectancy. The militias, which had begun to recover under Obama after a long post-Oklahama City decline, continued to grow: by 2020, the number of active militias had doubled since 2008, to over 200. The number of right-wing attacks and shootings continued to set records, with the ADL recording fifty deaths as a result of such attacks in 2018. The Republican Party continued to morph into a container for every new strain of fascism. The Proud Boys, merging traditional white nationalists with neo-Nazi activists, were running guard duty for Republican Senate candidates. Gavin MacInnes, the Proud Boys leader whose main revision of American fascism is to replace the word ‘white’ with the word ‘western’ in the ‘fourteen words’, was a star speaker at the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York. A slew of white supremacists and Nazis were selected as Republican candidates, in California, North Carolina, Virginia and Illinois.
In relation to this base, Trump resembled the fascist agitator described by Adorno in ‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda’. Not a doctrinaire fascist, but someone who guessed the fascistic ‘wants and needs’ of his audience, met their ‘unconscious dispositions’ by turning ‘his own unconscious outward’, and worked to connect the most violent minoritarian currents with the radicalisation of the mainstream right. Notwithstanding the thinness of the traditional civic basis for fascism, the social industry provided an infrastructure that was ideal for generating fascist contagions. Trump, as a Twitter sovereign, used his gift for communication to radicalise and incite his base.
In July 2019, for example, he engaged in a remarkable campaign of incitement against Representative Ilhan Omar, and other progressive women of colour in Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Presley. They were ‘pro-Al Qaeda’ communists, he claimed. They should ‘go back’ to the ‘totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came’. Omar, he lied, had talked about ‘how wonderful Al Qaida is’. In a particularly noxious line of attack, he posted a video juxtaposing an image of Omar with the twin towers. He could not have more clearly put a bounty on the heads of his targets. To parody Schmittian language, this was the Twitter sovereign deciding the enemy. This foreshadowing of Kulturkampf 2020, lining up the thematics of violent anticommunism, Islamophobia and countersubversive paranoia, did draw some protests from the Republican establishment. Yet, Senator Lindsey Graham’s plea for Trump to ‘aim higher’ by instead denouncing the squad as ‘a buncha communists’ and ‘antisemites’ who ‘hate our own country’, was hardly a principled repudiation of violent incitement. To the contrary, it was a doubling-down on Trump’s essential gambit.
Thus, Trump entered 2020 in a strengthened position. He had waited out the Mueller inquiry, and Democratic efforts to impeach him had failed. On issues where Democrats chose to fight Trump, such as the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, they had fought a half-hearted legalistic campaign and lost. Trump’s personal approval ratings had rebounded, from 35 per cent to a high of 49 per cent (the first time his supporters outnumbered his opponents). A slew of rightist institutions had broadly shifted into the Trump camp, from the West Coast Straussians at the Claremont Review of Books, who later helped draft Trump’s nationalist ‘1776 Report’ as a riposte to Black Lives Matter and anti-racist pedagogy, to the neoconservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference, another classically Reaganite outfit which supported Ted Cruz in 2016. Trump’s support among Republican voters was solid, and he was going to be the uncontested GOP candidate, while the Democrats fought a messy battle between the hard-centre and the insurgent left. In head-to-head polling, most Democrat candidates led Trump, but the margins for the most popular candidates – Biden and Sanders – were far from decisive. Biden was a poor debate performer, had a weak message and was compromised by a history of racism and harassment allegations. Sanders was personally popular, efficacious in debates and had mass funding networks and enthusiastic activists, but he faced the overwhelming hostility of the corporate media, the business class and the Democratic establishment. Most voters, polled, thought that Trump would probably win in a tight battle with whoever the Democratic nominee was.
If the ‘Resistance’ were correct in their assumption that Trump was awaiting any excuse for a despotic grab under the cover of emergency laws, one might argue that the arrival of Covid-19 gave it to him. It may well be that the option was closed to him, given how weak his position as chief executive was. However, there is no evidence that he wanted to play the pandemic in this way. His spontaneous response was to minimise the threat.
The culture of today’s authoritarian right has a distinctly ‘libertarian’, individualist drift. Wendy Brown argues that this would be more accurately characterised as ‘sociophobia’, a terror of the collective that neofascism inherits from neoliberalism’s assault on the concept of ‘society’. The neoliberals did not believe in the traditional bourgeois myth of the autopoietic ‘self’, their subjects being just so many bundles of capital, so many enterprises. However, they leveraged that myth, drenched in the American history of the frontiers, capital accumulation, Cold War anticommunism and petromodernity, for decades. Even as their programme crushed the conditions for such traditional bourgeois individuality, the myth was a powerful legitimating factor, a justification for the rewards of those who succeeded in a brutally Social Darwinist culture, and a source of resistance to welfare, gun control and climate change legislation.
The new far right, from the post-Vietnam white-power movement to the post-Ruby Ridge militia movement, metabolised the sociophobia of neoliberalism and its distrust of what Steve Bannon denounced as ‘the administrative state’. A constellation of forces, from Christian identity to the Ku Klux Klan, gun owners’ associations, sovereign citizens, anti-immigrant Minutemen, the Patriot movement, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and sheriff and police officers associations, formed around a broad understanding that the government had broken with the constitution and ‘the body of the people’. Everything from the fourteenth amendment to Medicare was deemed an illegitimate breach with the revolutionary faith upon which the United States was founded. This minoritarian construction of the constitution was racial-nationalist rather than neoliberal. Yet, just as ‘economic nationalism’ turns out to be entirely congruent with running the state ‘like a great American company’ (Jared Kushner), so the fundamentalist reading of the constitution aligned with broadly neoliberal energies opposed to the expansion of popular sovereignty and favouring the reliance on traditional authoritarian moralities to secure social reproduction. This tacit alliance has, particularly since the Tea Party movement put down roots, been institutionalised and lubricated by Koch brothers cash.
It would, of course, be a mistake to overstate the novelty of any of this. The authoritarian turn of a wing of liberalism in response to the challenge of mass democracy was one of the intellectual tributaries of interwar fascism, from Carl Schmitt to Vilfredo Pareto. A similar anti-democratic backlash infused the early neoliberals, such as Ludwig von Mises (who appreciated the Dollfuss dictatorship) and Friedrich von Hayek (whose apologetics for the ‘liberal’ Pinochet dictatorship are infamous). Likewise, the fear of the individual being destroyed by the masses, especially where they achieved political power, united fascists from Benito Mussolini to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange. The ‘collectivist’ ethos of fascism has always been grossly overstated by those who purport to ‘take fascism seriously’ yet fail to apprehend the significance of its anticommunism. Inter-war fascism, unlike today’s far right, faced a world situation in which communist revolution was plausible. However, the fascist propensity to imagine communist conspiracies everywhere, and to read them as essentially racial plots, is not so far from today’s hallucinatory anticommunism that thus demonises every trend that places added strain on the fantasy of robust, self-creating individuality. From ‘gender ideology’ in Brazil to the most milquetoast versions of ‘social justice’ politics in the United States, from Lula to Biden, from social distancing to vaccination, ‘communism’ has had the most unlikely guises. What, in this context, would Covid-19 signify? As an ecological problem that rendered human dependencies more obvious, and which could only be met by collective action, typically through biopolitical controls at the level of the whole population, it actually rendered traditional individualism politically countercultural.
For Trump, therefore, the most likely way to engage this was as a culture-war issue. There were early signs of how he might play this from both sides when he spoke on the issue in February 2020. While disparaging Covid-19 ‘hysteria’ as the Democrats’ ‘new hoax’, he also characterised the virus as ‘Chinese flu’ and claimed that the Democrats would endanger American lives with ‘open borders’. Yet, for the first two months of the pandemic’s spread, Trump was derailed. The mood music on the US Right as early as March was predictably that older people would rather die for capitalist freedom than undergo a lockdown that would hurt the economy. Thus, Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick, Brit Hume of Fox News, and Glenn Beck. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal offered a class-based ‘culture wars’ heuristic according to which workers of the ‘red states’, long inured to difficult lives, stoical about death and yet alarmed about the economy, were pushing back against a protected, professional ‘overclass’ demanding lockdowns. Patrick Deneen, the counter-democratic Catholic poetaster of ‘working-class conservatism’ agreed: this was the ‘elites’ versus the ‘masses’. For Brett Stephens of the New York Times, social-distancing measures were ‘New York rules’, totally inappropriate to most of the United States. The religious right spiritualised their embrace of Thanatos. National Review columnist Alexandra DeSanctis mourned that secularism had borne ‘an outsized fear of death as the ultimate evil … but life on earth isn’t our ultimate end’. RR Reno, the Catholic intellectual and editor of First Things, agreed that there are ‘things more precious than life’. Social distancing was an ‘ill-conceived crusade against human finitude’, while masks were ‘enforced cow-ardice … a regime dominate by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice.’
Trump attempted to wire into this suicidal impulse passing itself off as anti-totalitarian resistance, insisting that he would not be bullied by the ‘lamestream media’ into keeping the country closed longer than necessary. Nonetheless, unwilling to consistently adopt the hard denialist position of Jair Bolsonaro, unable to orchestrate an authoritarian centralisation of power in the manner of Narendra Modi, and with American businesses plummeting into recession, he was reluctantly obliged to support a brief lockdown and a large stimulus package. These were, to add to the difficulty, broadly popular measures. While complaining all the while that China had deliberately visited the plague upon the United States, he nonetheless kept up his real estate salesman pitch. Covid-19 would be gone by April, thanks to the heat. ‘It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle.’
Since Trump was not at liberty to govern as he wished, he relied on the mobilisation of his base to build power outside of government. Already in March, there was a pattern of resistance to local Covid-19 safety measures. In parts of the United States, supported by a largely white middle-class population who felt more threatened by economic shutdown than Covid-19, sheriffs and public officials were ignoring or declining to cooperate with orders given by public health officials. Right-wing activists and militia members formed a diffuse vanguard protesting those who ordered lockdown. In Santa Cruz, for example, activists stalked and sent death threats to health officials who ordered lockdown, accusing them of harbouring a communist agenda. Armed protests at town halls and public meetings brought together elements of Reaganite revanchism, Evangelicals, white supremacists militias, Proud Boys, the Amer-ican Legislative Exchange Council, Freedomworks and members of the Trump White House. By mid-April, when case numbers were at their highest, Trump was openly declaring for the protests: ‘Liberate Michigan!’, ‘Liberate Minnesota!’, ‘Liberate Virginia!’ Crucially, these were deeply minoritarian movements that Trump was using his office to connect to broader public sentiments. As he had for the Nazis after Charlottesville, and as he would do again for QAnon and the Proud Boys, Trump was mainstreaming the far right.
Just as Trump was hitting upon a new alliance with the most violently fascistic elements of his base, one that connected them to wider radical right currents, he was momentarily derailed by another contagious outbreak. The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May provoked a new Black Lives Matter uprising, beginning with the glorious immolation of Minneapolis third precinct, which became the largest such protest wave in US history. Drawing in its wake the popular animus against Trump, and pulling it sharply to the left, this movement broke through in small white towns as much as large cities, puncturing the spirit of racial pessimism that had settled over the Left.
Though the movement caused Trump to momentarily stumble, between denouncing Floyd’s death as ‘a disgrace’, and calling for the military to attack protesters – ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ – he quickly found the practical locus of an authoritarian response in the revival of his mobilised base. As armed vigilantes, ‘Boogaloo Bois’, Proud Boys, QAnon supporters and militias took to the streets to train their guns on BLM protesters, with a spike in shootings and vehicular assaults on protesters, they formed an informal coalition with local police forces grateful for their presence, and the Trump administration which commended them. Panic at the extraordinary popular reach and militancy of Black Lives Matter led to militias being formed overnight through social media, such as the 15,000-strong Utah Citizens’ Alarm. The authoritarian realignment of the administration and its base would be coordinated by the same hallucinatory anticommunism that anti-lockdown protesters had brought to bear in declaring that ‘social distancing is communism’: only this time with the teeth of the state behind it. Trump repeatedly castigated BLM as a Marxist organisation. A July executive order mandating ten-year prison sentences for protesters who toppled statues of slavers and white-supremacists, described BLM as ‘leftwing extremists’ out to destroy ‘the United States system of government’. A Trump campaign video from the same period claimed that he was the only person ‘standing between capitalism and communism’.
As abrupt as this turn was, the success of violent racial anticommunism as a mobilising theme indicated a degree of mass ideological preparedness for it. In the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s seizure of power, Arthur Rosenberg claimed that fascist ideology ‘was already fairly widespread throughout Europe before the War, and exerted a strong influence on the masses’. Rosenberg was referring to the broad popular base of conservative, anti-republican, antisemitic and in the German case völkish nationalism. In the Usonian context, black radicals have long identified a tradition of ‘racial fascism’ within an exclusionary liberal democracy (see Alberto Toscano’s powerful essay in the Boston Review). This ‘incipient fascism’, as Angela Davis put it, involves the normalisation of racist state terror and the suppression of constitutional rights. Wherever this normalised violence has been challenged, an emergency alliance of popular and state violence has emerged, from the Wilson-era Minute Men to the Massive Resistance-era Ku Klux Klan. And it has invariably been galvanised by a fantasy of diabolical racial conspiracy, from ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ to ‘cultural Marxism’.
In waging this culture war, Trump was careful to cultivate the most apocalyptic and ideologically authoritarian wing of his base. The QAnon conspiracist movement, committed to supporting Trump in what they believed was a programme to dismantle an elite of Satanist and communist child traffickers and usher in a ‘great awakening’ through a military coup, mass arrests, round ups and executions, had been drawing increasing support from the Trump periphery. General Michael Flynn had taken the QAnon oath. Rudy Giuliani had posted using QAnon hashtags. Eric Trump had posted his support for ‘Q’ on Instagram. Congressional Republicans like Rep. Devin Nunes of California publicised QAnon content on the alt-right channel, Parler. Trump’s signal-boosting of QAnon had escalated drastically through the pandemic and, on 4 July, he pointedly retweeted fourteen tweets from QAnon accounts. Characteristically, asked about QAnon, he declined to disavow them. As with David Duke’s support during his election campaign, he feigned ignorance: ‘I’ve heard these are people that love our country.’
A crucial test of Trump’s political instincts came on 25 August, when militia member Kyle Rittenhouse turned up at a BLM protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot three people with an AR-15 style assault rifle. In Kenosha itself, the police had welcomed the presence of white power militia men: ‘We appreciate you being here.’ They allegedly declined to arrest Rittenhouse after he shot his first two victims and was pointed out as the killer by several people. The knee-jerk response of the far-right punditry, from Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter, was to defend Rittenhouse. ‘How shocked are we,’ Carlson wondered, ‘that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?’
Coulter wanted him ‘as my president’. The Christian Right immediately started fund-raising for his legal defence. In no previous circumstance had Trump openly supported rightist murder on the streets. Now, he came to Rittenhouse’s side, claiming that he had been acting in self-defence. It later emerged from internal Department of Homeland Security documents that administration officials had been instructed to publicly support Rittenhouse and back up his claims that he was acting in self-defence. The logic of this alliance between popular and state violence became clearer when the same Department mobilised the artillery of the Federal government against BLM, under a repressive plan using paramilitary units and abductions devised by William Barr. This strategy of complementing vigilante violence was epitomised by the apparent extrajudicial execution of ‘antifa’ activist Michael Reinoehl, described by Trump as ‘retribution’ for Reinoehl’s alleged killing of Patriot Prayer member Aaron Danielson.
With no pushback from Congressional Republican leaders, Trump and his allies turned the Republican National Convention in late August into an incitement rally. Star guests at the convention were the white bourgeois couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey from Missouri, who had been arrested for aiming weapons at unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters. Referring to old rules restricting housing segregation, Patricia McCloskey led off the convention by claiming the Democrats ‘want to abolish the suburbs altogether’. A series of speakers established the chain of equivalents linking this sense of existential threat to communism, by way of the Democrats and Black Lives Matter. The apocalyptic style was not new for Trump. In 2016, he had warned of the ‘total destruction of our country as we know it’ if Hillary Clinton was elected. However, the difference in 2020 was that he enjoyed the overt acquiescence of the Republican establishment, even as he pivoted from the substantially true claim that Clinton was a beltway insider who didn’t care about working-class Americans, to the deranged claim that Joe Biden was a Trojan horse for ‘wild-eyed Marxists’ who would stuff the Supreme Court with ‘far left radicals’, that Kamala Harris was a ‘communist’, and that the Democratic campaign was run by ‘socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists’.
There, embodied in the convention of a mainstream political party, was the spirit of the John Birch Society, the White Citizens’ Councils, the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Minute Men, America First, the Ku Klux Klan and the latter-day militias. To the apocalyptic racial anticommunism of the Convention, Trump would add a new outlet for the vigilante spirit when he asked supporters to turn up at polling stations and watch the count in case the election was stolen by the Left. This was taken, quite reasonably, as a plea to the militias. Though they largely refrained from descending on polling stations on election day, they did respond to Trump’s defeat and his demand to ‘stop the count’. Armed members of the public turned up wherever the count was ongoing to put force behind the demand. The death threats, stalking and harassment that had earlier been reserved for medical bureaucrats were now bestowed on election officials and Republican leaders (ultimately including Mike Pence) deemed too bourgeois and pusillanimous to stop the communist takeover. And with the support of local Republican parties, Koch-funded Tea Party groups, and leading Republican politicians, either too ambitious to get on the wrong side of this mob or commercially savvy enough to get on its right side, they began preparations on alt-right social industry platforms for a ‘last stand’. The most telling detail about which, when it reached its violent crescendo, is that the majority of its armed vanguard were – far from being seasoned militia men or far right cadres – inexperienced and recently radicalised by the social industry’s Trump amen corner.
At no stage until after 6 January 2021, when the mobilisation had crossed a damaging threshold, did the Republican establishment act to impede or break this dynamic toward combat nationalism. Despite the fact that the GOP remained structurally a party of big business, the party’s leaders had been forced by a combination of electoral considerations and the Tea Party-driven capture of its base and middling ranks by a radicalised middle-class, to embrace Trumpism.
Though this came at the cost of sending the bulk of big capital fleeing toward the Democratic Party, and ultimately cost them an election in a system gerrymandered to favour them, they were probably correct to assume that Trump-style politics is the only viable option for the Republicans. It is unlikely that any other Republican candidate would have added ten million votes to the party’s total, while recruiting to it sizeable new constituencies, including from among urban black, Asian and Latino voters. To obtain that result as the US death toll from Covid-19 broke global records, while Mitch McConnell assiduously obstructed a second round of stimulus payments, was an achievement. Those who expected Trump’s manifest racism, sociopathic indifference and incompetence to disqualify him for all but a hardcore had underestimated the attraction of salvific American nationalism linked to hardnosed entrepreneurial subjectivities, its mobilising passions of perceived humiliation, victimhood and apocalyptic crisis, and its compensatory promise of renewal through redemptive violence.
Even after the ‘stop the steal’ riots, Republican leaders were still so entrapped by their dependence on a voting base that was overwhelmingly and enthusiastically pro-Trump that they largely rowed back on their most critical remarks on his role and protected him from impeachment. Subsequently the majority of House Republicans removed Liz Cheney from her role in the party leadership because of her criticisms of Trump. As they might be expected to, given that polling showed that 45 per cent of the Republican voter base actually supported the Capitol invasion, while the majority remained loyal to Trump. The Republicans face a brewing civil war in which they may either undergo a damaging split, or finally be captured at all levels by the Trumproots, and all that the Republican establishment can do is defer the moment of confrontation and pursue culture wars with Coca Cola. If one needed an image of this captive relationship, one need only inspect Lindsey Graham’s stricken face when a mere two days after the riots he was surrounded by Trump supporters calling him a ‘traitor’ who would no longer ‘be able to walk down the streets’.
Here was the dialectic of fascisation, with a mutually radicalising relationship between the Trump leadership and base, benefiting from an enabling relationship with the traditional Right, and drawing in wider sectors from civil society and the repressive apparatuses of the state on a trajectory toward the expanded use of terror against a wildly demonised Left. No accommodation is possible with the ‘communist’ antichrist, not least because it is just the figurative representation in nationalist dreamwork of America’s cumulative crises. This inchoate fascism does not yet draw the majority of its supporters into mobilisation, only into passive approval of those who do mobilise. It does not put open fascists in the leadership of a mass movement, only de-stigmatises them in a major way. Crucially, it has not produced a mass party of nationalist militants comparable with, say, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, only a networked alliance of celebrity politicians, militias and vigilantes, sheriff and peace officers’ associations, and a glut of lobbies, fronts and civil society groups funded by the far right’s channels of ‘dark money’. Yet, even at this early stage of development, inchoate fascism led several thousand hubristic, inexperienced activists, armed with AR-15 style rifles, apocalyptic expectation, and a QAnon-inflected gross misapprehension of the balance of forces, into a premature confrontation with the bourgeois state.
It is unlikely that this overreach, and the sweeping arrests, prosecutions, social industry shutdowns and political isolation that it has provoked, would be sufficient by itself to kill off the pattern of fascisation. The militia movement was isolated for over a decade after the Oklahoma City bombing, but that was in a period of capitalist buoyancy, political stability and post-Cold War triumphalism. Whereas Trump and the configuration of forces he assembled around him was a proximal cause of the right’s radicalisation, and whereas this thrived on the immediate threat of anti-racist insurgency, its more distal causes lie in a multi-levelled crisis of accumulation and the conditions of accumulation. The chronic conditions of US imperial decline, ecological crisis (of which pandemic is the acute form), and democratic stalemate, determine the mass viability of any bourgeois conservative project. This is why it is unlikely that the GOP establishment can save itself, by itself, from capture or split. The spatiotemporal fix offered by Biden’s version of America First is ambitious but unlikely to be equal to the intense pressures on the world system and the US position in it, the threat posed by the ecological crisis to major sectors of US capital, the accumulated scale of social breakdown in the US (epitomised by its contagion of mass shootings, lone wolves, and ‘deaths of despair’), and least of all the dysfunctionality of the state in regard to which the Democrats are both structurally stupid and deeply conservative. Not yet is there any sign of the Left’s gains being matched by the degree of class organisation or militancy that would be capable of contesting the emotional power of palingenetic nationalism.
The era of nationalist reflux is unlikely to be over. And it will in all likelihood discover new infotainment hubs, new pedagogical opportunities, new entrepreneurial backers, new assembly points, new theatres and new battle lines.
Richard Seymour is an author, and a founding editor of Salvage. His most recent book is The Twittering Machine (2019).