What We Can Learn from Charlottesville about America’s Road to Fascism

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The Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, sputtered out because its attendees were not just racists, but because they were violent racists.  Nevertheless, their cancelled rally, and the reactions to what happened, tells us a great deal about the prospects for fascism in the United States. 

I originally wrote about the trajectory toward U.S. fascism during the 2016 Presidential campaign.  Now, after Charlottesville, I think it is time to take a closer look at these trends.  This is what we know so far.   

WHAT HAPPENDED IN CHARLOTTESVILLE 

  • On Friday night, August 10, the various neo-Nazi, Klan, and other white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville organized a surprise torch light parade on a University of Virginia statue of Thomas Jefferson and a campus church. The church was holding an ecumenical prayer service, and the racists who advanced on the church chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil,” the English translation of the Nazi slogan, Blut und Boden.
  • The next day, on Saturday, thousands of white supremacists and anti-racist counter-protesters gathered at Emancipation Park, where the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Beginning at about 10 AM the racists, armed with clubs, poles, helmets, body armor, mace, and guns, attacked the counter-demonstrators, who fought back.
  • This fighting continued for nearly two hours -- without any police intervention or arrests  -- until noon, when the Governor of Virginia declared the event unlawful.  As a result, the white supremacist rally never took place.
  • The police then finally moved in, pushed the two groups together, not apart, and then cleared them out of the park into the adjacent outdoor shopping mall.
  • At about 1:45 PM one of the white supremacists, who had earlier joined the neo-Nazi Vanguard Movement contingent, drove his car into pedestrians. He wounded 19 people and killed Heather Heyer, a local Charlottesville anti-racist protester.
  • The driver has been charged with second-degree murder, but, so far, local police have not arrested anyone else, even though reporters have provided them with detailed documentation of multiple assaults initiated by the racists. 

While these events have received extensive, but superficial, media coverage, over 700 plus actions across the entire country on Sunday, August 12, including Los Angeles, in memory of Heather Heyer, opposition to white supremacy, and criticizing an indifferent statement from Donald Trump, received much less coverage.  

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE 

Let us now put these events into historical perspective. 

While fascist movements and governments often rely on violent street thugs like those in Charlottesville, fascism is much more than a right-wing putsch by these goons.  Instead, we need to understand that fascism is really a last ditch stand by political elites to maintain their position and system during deep political and economic crises.  It is ultimately direct executive rule that squelches political dissent and preempts the legislative and judicial functions of government. 

Based on the historical record, fascism always features authoritarian rule, extreme nationalism, racist and anti-immigrant scapegoating, pervasive political surveillance and propaganda, suppression or labor, and repression of liberal and left-wing groups.  Other typical traits are widespread collusion between government and corporations, opposition to science, and sexism and homophobia.  Furthermore, fascism always includes aggressive, pre-emptive war as a desperate solution to a deep political and economic crisis. 

Taking this long view of fascism, it is clear that it already has deep roots in American history, and there was at least one period when the United States broached open fascism.  This was during the second administration of President Woodrow Wilson.  

A century later we may remember his 14 principles for a just peace after WW I, including the League of Nations.  But there was another side to this post-war idealist.   In 1915 Wilson hosted a White House premier of D.W. Griffith’s racist film, Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.   

After the screening, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that is all terribly true.”  Apparently many others had the same reaction since the film sparked a major revival of the KKK throughout the entire country, not just the south.  It also lead to vicious attacks on Black communities in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Charleston, Washington, DC, Omaha, and many other cities.  

Another result was new Confederate memorials, like the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The city commissioned this statue in 1917 and installed it in 1924, six decades after the Civil War ended. 

But, Wilson’s fascist legacy is much more extensive than the KKK revival that reached 4,000,00 members by the early 1920s.  To pursue World War I, between 1917-19, Wilson initiated an array of repressive programs and legislation to assure U.S. participation in the “war to end all wars.” These included the quasi-governmental American Protective League and George Creel’s “Committee on Public Information” an enormous pro-war, flag-waving propaganda mill employing 150,000 people.  They were quickly followed by orchestrated anti-German hysteria, the 1917 Espionage Act, the 1917 Immigration Act, and the 1918 Sedition Act, all designed to stomp out any public criticism of the war and of the draft. 

This WWI legacy underscores the power of the government to either promote or repress political movements.   Even though the police stood on the sidelines in Charlottesville during hand-to-hand fighting, and only made one arrest, federal, state, local government agencies, and their contractors act totally different when they intend to suppress a political movement.  

To cite a current example, this is what the Standing Rock protesters opposing the Dakota Pipe Line project came up against.  They were surrounded by the North Dakota National Guard and militarized federal, state, and local police agencies from 10 states.  Together these forces fired rubber bullets, lead-filled beanbags, mace, tear gas, pepper spray, freezing water, and concussion grenades at the pipeline’s opponents.  Unlicensed security contractors, who brought in attack dogs and provocateurs, augmented these police and military units.  This resulted in mass arrests and strip searches of demonstrators.  The police also arrested reporters and confiscated their cameras.  In total the police arrested over 550 protesters, and also shut down the protester’s encampment in a final military assault.    

FASCIST TRENDS IN AMERICAN SOCIETY 

At this point, there is substantial evidence of long-term fascist trends in the United States.  While they certainly existed before the Trump administration, it is over a century since the overt racism of Woodrow Wilson has been matched by the presence of white supremacists (Steven Bannon, Steven Miller, and Sebastian Gorka) at the White House.  In addition to the racism and immigrant scapegoating of the current administration, these trends also include enormous and fully bi-partisan military budgets; 800 foreign bases and 16 years of continuous foreign wars; extensive government surveillance of phone calls, emails, web-searches, and even snail mail; widespread collusion between elected officials and corporations at all levels of government; vast ideological manipulation through print and electronic media; and the planet’s highest rates and numbers of incarceration. 

While these features are well known and supported by both major political parties, they are seldom understood as the basic components of all fascist regimes.  Furthermore, two other totally un-reported trends in the United States assure the perpetual creation of fascist and racist groups that can assist a future fascist regime. 

The first is the world of work.  It is here that about half of US residents spend their lives in an authoritarian environment.  As Google staffer, James Damore, recently discovered when his company fired him for disseminating a 3000-word essay arguing that women were biologically inferior to men, the Bill of Rights stops at the front door or all work places.  Behind that door the boss is totally in charge, what the Nazis called the Fuhrer (Leader) principle. 

The second proto-fascist feature is the extensive US empire, often referenced in discussions of American exceptionalism and militarism.  This is because the US government has a long history of supporting, equipping, and training openly fascist, authoritarian, and racist governments across the planet, especially in Latin American and the Middle East.  As carefully documented by William Blum and other researchers, the U.S. government has a detailed record of overthrowing independent states, bombing over 35 countries, propping up fascist regimes, assassinating foreign officials, intervening in foreign elections, resorting to torture and death squads, and engaging in mass slaughter.  

To cite one of the worst actors, we only need to look at Fort Benning’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, previously called the equally misleading School of the Americans.  This institute has been nothing more than a “school” where the US government trained Latin American military and police officials in torture and extra-judicial executions.  Facing a deep domestic crisis, there is little doubt these trainers and the military, police, and intelligence agencies that employ them are “locked and loaded” for the domestic application of their curriculum. 

Not surprisingly, though, the many anti-white supremacist, anti-KKK, and anti-neo-Nazi statements recently issued by elected officials did not extend to U.S. foreign policy.  Even though the fascist fingerprints of the U.S. government – as documented by Blum and others – are everywhere, they are invisible to our elected officials, regardless of their political party affiliation.  

SIGNIFICANCE OF CHARLOTTESVILLE 

Given this extensive history, how significant was the racist show of force and violence in Charlottesville and other U.S. cities?  My answer is that it is ominous, but peripheral.  The ultimate fascist challenge is control of the U.S. government in a multi-ethnic country.  As explained by such conservative outlets as the Wall Street Journal, white supremacists who brandish the symbols of the Confederacy and Nazi Germany are, to read between the lines, not up to this task.  Their weakness is “The Poison of Identity Politics.”  Their preoccupation with “whiteness” is not capable of uniting a diverse United State behind a “leader” taking the country into expanded foreign wars paired with domestic political repression and sacrifice.   

Even though most of the Charlottesville neo-fascists exchanged their robes, pointed hats, skinhead haircuts, SA and SS uniforms, and jackboots for polo shirts and khaki pants, their affinity to the Confederacy and Nazi Germany, especially their flags and slogans, undermines their political role.  It is not just that their message fails to resonate with most Americans; it often arouses extensive opposition – sometimes violent - across the entire country. 

So, even though more confrontations against the “unite the right” grouplets will stem their rise, just as anti-KKK and anti-neo-Nazi demonstrations did so in the 1970s, this is not enough.  The media also need to probe much deeper.  They need to determine who is funding these organizations.  This is because running sophisticated websites, updating Twitter feeds many times a day, publishing books and pamphlets, maintaining offices, and moving and housing hundreds, and possibly thousands of people to racist rallies in other states requires substantial resources.  This, in fact, is more important that “doxxing” (identifying) the not quite Ubermenschen (superior people) who show up at racist rallies.  The behind-the-scenes financial support will reveal what is really going on and where anti-fascist opposition also needs to take action.   

The real fascist test will come when the Trump Administration or its successor regime faces a deep crisis, such as one combining new mass movements, another Great Recession, and another terrorist attack, similar to 9/11.  After all, the latter quickly lead to the Patriot Act and other restrictions so repressive that some commentators argued they paved the way for marshal law in the United States.   

Considering that so many of the building blocks of a fascist state are already exist, the next steps could come quickly, essentially a high tech update of the authoritarian American governments envisaged by Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here and Phillip Dick, in The Man in the High Castle.  

To be effective, this fascist government cannot, like Trump, rely on white supremacy, and instead must stress national unity, patriotism, military duty, sacrifice, and fear of internal subversion and external threats.  

There is also little chance that there will be more than scattered opposition among our elected officials to these developments.  This is because their bi-partisan response to 9/11 was immediate repressive legislation that few of them had read, soon followed by invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq based on lies that few of them questioned or challenged. 

The opposition will therefore depend on people, like those in Charlottesville and elsewhere, who stand up to fascists of all types.

 

(Victor Rothman lives in Los Angeles. He can be reached at rothmanvic@gmail.com.)

 

-cw

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