- Both President Trump and his Vice President have refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if they lose the election. Militia groups emboldened by Trump tried to kidnap a Democratic Governor. A GOP Senator tweeted that America is not a democracy.
- The GOP has embraced American fascism.
- Our country’s unique history with fascism goes back to the Antebellum South, when slaveowners mounted an insurrection against the US government to establish an anti-democratic society, the Confederacy.
- The legacy of the Confederacy has firmly lodged itself into American politics ever since, and its ideology has been violently reinforced by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. We’ve chipped away at it’s power but it will likely never disappear completely.
- Trump’s GOP has taken up that fascist legacy, and if we don’t push back against it, it will ravage our democracy again.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The Republican Party has embraced American fascism, an anti-democratic ideology that is unique to our country, and is engrained deeper in our collective consciousness and our history than most of us have been taught.
Historians often come ever-so-close to calling American fascism what it is, before backing away and concluding that fascism is something from abroad. Robert Paxton, a preeminant historian of the political philosophy, called the Ku Klux Klan (which was founded by high-ranking former Confederate soldiers) “the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism.” Yet somehow we do not own our American fascism.
Building on Paxton in the Washington Post in August, Princeton University historian David Bell acknowledges that Trump and the terrorist groups that support him are nationalists, yes. Anti-democratic, of course. But he says they are not fascists because they have not created a powerful mass movement â€” not like the movements in Europe between World War I and World War II.
This logic reeks of American exceptionalism. The fascist KKK derived its ideology from a mass, explicitly anti-democratic movement to overthrow the government of the United States â€” the Confederacy.
In 1861 the rich plantation owners of the South were able to mobilize the entire region to fight the Civil War. It was a movement so violent, that Union soldiers were forced to stay in Southern states for years after the Confederate Army surrendered in order to uphold democracy.
Some historians call what the Confederate slaveholders did “a counterrevolution.” It was an explicit rejection of a crucial line founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happinessâ€¦.”
The Confederacy’s repudiation of equality is outlined in its founding documents, including ‘The Cornerstone Speech,‘ a seminal speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens just a few weeks before the Civil War broke out. In it he outlined the the new nation’s rejection of equality on the basis of white racial superiority. His country promised wealth and possibility, but only for a few white men.
It is equality that makes a democracy possible. Without it, the strong can crush the weak and impose their will on the rest of society. That is how fascist governments are structured, that is how the Confederacy came to be, and that is what Trump’s Republican party is embracing now.
The Southern slaveholders were fascists
In order to justify the institution of slavery as humane and just, rich Antebellum Southern planters and politicians (they were almost invariably one in the same) started rejecting democracy and equality in the mid-1800s. Instead they decided their society should be built on a strict order, with the plantation owner on top and the slave on the bottom.
“Thanks to Jefferson we have made a mistake… and pushed the love of democracy too far,” Georgia political journal The Southern Watchman declared in 1857.
“Vulgar democracy and licentious ‘freedom’ is rapidly supplanting all the principles of contintutional ‘liberty’! When shall the American people perceive that all our difficulties arise from the absurdities of deciding that the ‘pauper’ and the ‘landholder’ are alike competent to manage the affairs of a Country, or alike entitled to vote for those who shall?”
It was clear to the Southern slaveholders that a sense of equality â€” or any attempts by the state to create equality â€” could disrupt their rule. So in an attempt to keep power with power they took equality out of the equation. They also starved their government coffers, much like the agenda of our modern GOP. The result was a society with crushing inequality not just between black and white, but the planter class and white, small-scale farmers.
An anonymous political pamphlet circulating among Southern farmers in the 1840s signed only with the name “Brutus” described the state of South Carolina outside the planter class like this:
“This state is said to have a republican form of government. It may be the form, but the substance is wanting… the great mass of the people are virtually disenfranchised… He can make nothing to lay up for his family. He cannot get his children educated. He and his family are doomed to poverty… ignorance, and to contempt of the favoured aristocrat.”
There could be no social mobility when all of the resources belonged to the planter class. So instead of seeing liberty as an individual’s ability to pursue happiness, the Southern planters came to think of liberty as one’s ability to perform one’s duty in service of the social order. If you were a slave, you were most free when you were the best slave, if you were a woman you were subservient to your husband or father. The planter class placed its aspirations at the heart of its society’s, and it expected everyone to fall in line. Those who did not were met with violence and derision.
The United States fought the Civil War to end slavery and preserve democracy on this continent. “The Cause” the doomed Confederacy fought for â€” that it raised private militias for â€” was the right to violently preserve an unequal society completely captured by a ruling class imposing its will on everyone else. This is the origin of American fascism.
Make the connection, then break it
Officially, the Civil War ended in 1865, but Union soldiers left the South 11 years later, after the contested presidential election of 1876. Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden refused to concede to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, and would only agree to do so if Republicans agreed to end the US Army’s occupation of the South.
Once they were gone, Southern fascists were able to organise their region’s society in the anti-democratic way they wanted to, creating the Black Codes, Jim Crow, poll taxes and poll tests. This is how fascism â€” a mass movement to enforce the social order of white supremacy â€” has been allowed to grow within a democracy for generations since the Civil War.
Consider what has happened over the last two weeks alone.
President Donald Trump has openly talked about refusing to accept the outcome of the Noveember elections if he doesn’t win. He is not the only one in his party who has suggested they will not respect the will of the people. On Wednesday in his debate against Sen. Kamala Harris, Vice President Mike Pence dodged a question about the peaceful transfer of power, refusing to reject Trump’s stance in favour of democracy. Trump was elated.
That very night, on Twitter, GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah insisted that democracy is not a necessary part of this American experiment (it is). Instead, he argued, our government should strive for peace, prosperity and liberty â€” but for who? Without democracy there is only liberty for the strong, rich and violent. That is what we know from observing undemocratic countries around the world and through history.
Just hours after Lee’s tweet, on Thursday, the FBI arrested 13 men in connection with a domestic terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Whitmer, a Democrat, has agitated armed right-wing groups in her state by enforcing public health regulations during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump counts the violent individuals in these groups among his supporters. In fact, just before these charges were announced Trump called Whitmer, “the lockup queen” on Fox News. This after referring armed protesters in Michigan as “fine people” who were just a little angry.
In a press conference following the news, Governor Whitmer said Trump was complicit in the threat on her life. She drew a direct line between Trump’s refusal to denounce armed white supremacist groups at the first presidential debate. In doing so she was repudiating America’s most virulent form of fascism. That is what white supremacy is. Because of the legacy of the Confederacy, in our country white supremacy and fascism are inextricably linked.
The militia groups threatening to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, and the marchers carrying Confederate flags in Charlottesville back in 2017, are all participants in this history. Their ideology is derived from the mass movement to overthrow the US government in the Antebellum South, just like the ideology of today’s neo-Nazis is derived from Adolf Hitler’s mass movement to take over the world. Both groups are just as fascist today as they were in the past, even if they lack the support they had before.
In part because of our refusal to acknowledge this history, American fascism is lodged so deeply into our system that we are still fighting it on multiple fronts â€” voter suppression, right-wing terrorism and racial injustice. That same denial has permitted men like Donald Trump and Sen. Mike Lee to delude themselves into thinking they have some kind of commitment to freedom when they are, in fact, carrying on that fascist history. It’s time we all acknowledged that.
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