In 2016, a fascist-leaning candidate won the U.S. election. Had it not been for an epic uprising of Black people in spring and summer of 2020, the electorate might have voted him in for another four years. In the end, the riots that engulfed Minneapolis days after the police lynching of George Floyd inspired a national political awakening of people of all races and classes that tipped the scales in the presidential contest. The atmosphere of indignation had been primed in the preceding weeks, as Americans witnessed the state’s failure to adequately respond to the biggest national health crisis in a hundred years, the novel coronavirus outbreak. Only when unfathomable images of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin surfaced did close to forty million people take to the streets. And when government deployed repressive action against protesters and unsubstantiated media narratives surfaced deprecating Black Lives Matter, public discourse shifted to the imperiled state of American democracy. Together, these events galvanized one of the largest voter turnouts in the country’s history during the 2020 presidential election.
The presence and influence of fascist ideologues in the nation’s highest office from 2017 through 2021 posed a clear threat to the country. Yet journalists, pundits, academics, and others often dismissed, as hyperbole, such assessments of Donald Trump and his cabinet. But, as the world witnessed, during the January 6, 2021 storming of Congress, avoidance of critiques of an unhinged reality has dangerous consequences. Important to note, however, is that this avoidance was baked into the national culture by an uninterrupted history of government-led purges, political repression, and anticommunist fearmongering, which long ago groomed Americans to restrain their speech and deny reality.
What Is Fascism Exactly?
Many scholars agree with Marxists’ interpretations of fascism as a historical phenomenon, a government of last resort erected by a wing of the capitalist class in response to three emerging dynamics: deep economic collapse, widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and threats to capitalism posed by organized sections of society, especially a radicalized working class and its proposals for a socialist alternative. Fascism asserts control amid crisis by conferring absolute power to captains of one of the most autocratic and unyielding institutions in society—the corporation—through “the merger of state and corporate power,” total control of labor and production, suspension of civil society and claims to any and all individual rights.1
As seen in 1930s Germany, following the stock market crash of 1929, captains of capital relied on a charismatic fascist leader to win the consent and cooperation of German citizens to their project of “restoring order” to the nation. Unlike authoritarian rule or dictatorship, fascism depends on a large swath of the population to carry out the interests of the state. The fascist leader achieves this by articulating the anger of those deeply dissatisfied with the way things are, legitimizing that dissatisfaction before national audiences. Disproportionately found among the struggling and disgruntled middle classes, especially shopkeepers and middling professionals, the fascist constituency laments its lost standing in a changing world. Through manipulation of fears, the fascist leader channels social anxieties of this sector, whose members feel that their place, livelihood, and social standing have been usurped. Blame is cast on immigrants, outsiders, and undeserving Others perceived to be destroying the social fabric of the nation and enjoying its fruits without effort or sacrifice. Acting independently of the state yet also in concert with it, the citizen foot soldiers of fascism come to see it as their duty to contain and repress those who are then depicted as “enemies of the country.”
The Economic Underpinnings of Global Political Crisis
On the eve of the coronavirus outbreak in the fall of 2019, a wave of protests swept through every corner of the globe. Protests against a subway fare hike in Santiago, Chile, snowballed into large-scale national protests and occupations calling for sweeping change. Uprisings also erupted in France, Lebanon, Egypt, Bolivia, Ecuador, the United States, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Poland, Georgia, Iran, Sudan, and beyond as masses of people took to the streets to protest austerity, including, for example, the price of onions in India, the cost of oil in Iran, and an unpopular tax on WhatsApp usage in Lebanon.
As if on cue, the word neoliberalism was on people’s lips around the world, and everyone seemed to have had enough of it. Introduced to rescue capitalism from its precipitous fall after the oil crisis and recession of 1973, neoliberalism’s logic has enshrined market interests—above all else—in culture and law. Since then, governments have served business interests through corporate tax cuts and bailouts, deregulation of industry and financial markets, the dismantling of labor protections, privatization of public-sector services, and cuts to social welfare spending that have eliminated subsidies for electricity, gasoline, propane, and food.2 This war on the commons has deepened inequality across the globe. In 2018, the wealthiest 1 percent controlled more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth, and the bottom 80 percent owned merely 4.5 percent.3
The global uprisings we’ve seen identify the unequal distribution of resources as the source of social problems. But on the opposite end of the political spectrum, growing fascist currents interpret the social malaise of this moment as a loss of national greatness and blame it on the alleged advances in society of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Marxists, and feminists. Across the globe, neofascist movements have either won elections or entered the political mainstream in Denmark, Italy, England, France, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, and beyond. In the United States, these political currents are mostly made up of angry white men and their elected officials. These groups posit that their culture and very existence as Euro-Americans face grave threats from those outside their white supremacist conception of the nation. To that end, they’re committed to forced deportations, heavy and often militarized policing of urban areas disproportionately populated by Black Americans, Latinos, and other people of color, and patriarchal order in which men work and women stick to childrearing and the home.
The political polarization seen in global protests against austerity and state violence on the one hand and those calling for the closing of national borders and a return to tradition on the other is the product of a global economy that has been trapped in a long-standing, unresolved economic crisis—with no relief in sight. At the end of 2019, even before the pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe, the world economy had been unable to fully recover from the Great Recession of 2008. In the United States, the picture was mixed. In 2019, the American economy registered its longest period of expansion, but the expansion was anemic. The country’s economy also hit a record thirteen straight years with less than 3 percent growth of real GDP. And while the U.S. economy created twenty million jobs, they were mostly low-wage and part-time jobs in a world of workers looking for full-time employment.4
At its core, twenty-first-century capitalism suffers from what economists call a deep crisis of overaccumulation—an overconcentration of capital that cannot find outlets for reinvestment. In a system dependent on expansion to overcome cyclical crises of overproduction, the absence of new investment frontiers is one of the major sources of global economic stagnation. To circumvent crisis in the short term, capitalists invested heavily in consumption markets with guaranteed short-run returns. Writing during the pandemic, David Harvey observed that contemporary capitalism’s demand for “instantaneous consumerism required massive infrastructural investments in airports and airlines, hotels and restaurants, theme parks and cultural events, etc. This site of capital accumulation is now dead in the water.”5
As the ratio of capital investment to profit has declined over the last fifty years, corporations have increased their profits, in part, by relying on an army of low-paid, part-time workers and by slashing benefits like health care. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, U.S. workers are more exploited, more debt ridden, and making less money than they were in the 1970s. And while Black American workers and other workers of color, like Puerto Ricans, have always faced low wages and Depression-era conditions, white workers have seen their livelihoods decline significantly as well. The wages of white males with only a high school diploma declined by 9 percent during the eighteen-year period between 1996 and 2014—a far cry from the experience of white workers with a high school diploma between 1945 and the early 1970s.6
Over the course of this fifty-year period of economic decline, white Americans have contended with another “social injury”—a perceived fall from the top of the country’s racial hierarchy. For them, the advent of economic hardship coincided with the growing presence of people of color, gays and lesbians, and women in the country’s public, economic, and political life—a consequence of the gains of the civil rights, women’s, and 1960s movements. The perceived rising fortunes of these Others flouted their sense of white superiority. This reality, which shattered the American Dream, produced a profound existential meltdown, an identity crisis with macabre consequences. White men in America are disproportionately dying of drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, and suicide, what Princeton researchers call “deaths of despair,” which also includes “a slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age.”7
In the United States, the media have masterfully channeled the extraordinary social alienation and tensions produced by this level of inequality through spectacle TV—morning show “poverty porn” stereotyping the poor in the 1980s and 1990s and, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, reality TV (Trump’s The Apprentice and The Housewives franchise). Politicians of both parties and the nation’s parroting corporate media deflected social tensions by erecting straw-man policy debates in the 1980s and 1990s against drugs, welfare, and crime that demonized and blamed Black Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Latin America for America’s social problems. They also channeled protestant work ethic propaganda—the notion that, unlike hardworking white Americans, Black people are lazy and undeserving of the franchise and their advances in the polity—a recycled Reconstruction-era trope. Late twentieth-century Democrats added to the conversation with the “superpredator” assignation in criminology.
The psychoanalyst and social psychologist Erich Fromm offered perspective on the social infrastructure that fuels the white-supremacist perspective. He wrote, “A society that lacks the means to provide adequately for the majority of its members, or a large proportion of them, must provide these members with a narcissistic satisfaction of the malignant type if it wants to prevent dissatisfaction among them. For those who are economically and culturally poor, narcissistic pride in belonging to the group is the only and often a very effective source of satisfaction.”8
History that Should Frighten Us
Many American journalists, pundits, and academics have recoiled from interpretations that linked the Trump phenomenon to a creeping fascism because they lack familiarity with the period of American history that most closely resembles the dynamics of fascism that we see now—namely, the period in which former slaveholders and their allies reacted against the social gains made by Black people after the Civil War during Reconstruction.9
What exactly was at stake? To understand this, we must grasp the magnitude of slavery as an economic system. First and foremost, American slavery was an economic system concerned with production—of cotton, tobacco, rice, and indigo—valuable as a means of exchange in the world market.10 Life was brutal in the U.S. South for the four million enslaved Africans who produced its wealth. And by the mid-nineteenth century, their labor produced the second-wealthiest society humanity had seen, second only to the British Empire.
When the full participation of enslaved Africans in the theater of war finally defeated the South in the Civil War, the old slave-owning class, which had earlier seceded from the union, seemed finished—trapped in an irreversible political and economic crisis. Its system was ostensibly overturned. But, because presidential Reconstruction set lenient terms for rejoining the union, the old planter class kept its foothold in society.11 Ironically, the class that lost the war was invited back to help remake the new society.
This leniency had consequences that continue to the current day. The old planters immediately launched a bloodthirsty counterrevolution, with the object of regaining political power and control of Black labor to return the southern economy to as close a replica as possible to slavery. Even though their plantations suffered destruction, they still owned most of the land. In the face of economic collapse, the old slavocracy achieved dominance through the consolidation and concentration of its plantation holdings: in Marengo County, Alabama, 10 percent of landowners came to control 63 percent of real estate.12 To legislate in their interest, they joined both the Republican and the Democratic Parties, eventually dominating both by disenfranchising the freedmen.
Still, the old slavocracy faced an increasingly confident and organized challenge from formerly enslaved people, whose consciousness had been transformed by their participation in the Civil War. And while most of them were forced to work for the old planter class in an economy that continued to be tied to cotton production, they fought fiercely for what they believed they deserved. They refused to work daylight to dusk as they had under slavery. They demanded wages, not provisions, and went on strike for better terms of hire.13 The fierce strike of Atlanta laundresses in 1881 best captures what the old planters were up against. Influenced by the revolutionary consciousness of an era wherein enslaved Africans struggled for liberation in the context of the Civil War, the washerwomen struck not only for higher wages but to gain control of production—namely, to be allowed to work from their home. They sought to avoid employer supervision, to be able to tend to family and children during work hours, and to collectivize their labor alongside other washerwomen. They won.14
To consolidate political power and regain control of the land and Black labor, the South’s old ruling class would have to snuff out epic examples of autonomy by Black people like these, which modeled alternative modes of organizing production. In the face of the freedmen’s confidence and growing power, the old planters crafted a multipronged campaign of white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan became the terrorist wing of this campaign, recruiting white people of all classes as its foot soldiers. For the next century, white southerners carried out pogroms against Black people as a matter of communal ritual. These campaigns of terror were animated by the logic that white people were victims of Black aggression, threatened by the possible takeover of a mongrel race. Their real purpose, however, was to control Black labor by keeping the freedmen in their place tied to cotton production on rented land, away from potential alliances with poor white farmers.15
The KKK was the most extreme form of white supremacist repression. Control was also wielded in the courts, through the Black Codes, a series of laws passed during reconstruction whose purpose was to contain Black life and subdue Black labor. The laws denied Black people the right to vote, serve on state militias, testify against whites, and serve on juries. They also criminalized and imprisoned the freedmen for loitering, failure to pay their debts, and for failing to hold to work contracts with the old planter class. To save the state the expense of imprisonment, the labor of the imprisoned was auctioned and the first bid given to the prisoner’s former master.
As ideology, white supremacy won over poor whites to a cross-class alliance. It offered them a psychological wage, conferring onto them the sense of superiority over Black people.16 It erected a patriarchal society where the defense and protection of white womanhood—ever threatened by the alleged predatory sexuality of Black men—became the charge of white men.17 And with the help of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the old planter class rewrote the history of the Civil War.
In America, the past is prologue. And in the era of Donald Trump, we hear the echo of the slavocracy’s counterrevolution. His propaganda fits well with the ideology that the keepers of the old South have fed generations of schoolchildren: that the Confederacy fought a valiant fight for the dignity of a glorious South, that Southerners were victims of Northern tyranny, abuse, and corruption, and that the North forsook those of their own “glorious” race to give the crown jewels to an allegedly criminally minded, inept, undeserving race—whose men pose a threat to white women.
The mass recruitment of citizens in the execution of southern race terror and the legal character of U.S. race-based citizenship and immigration policy inspired Nazi travels to the United States in the 1930s, on official business, to study the country’s race law and culture.18
If active buy-in from and participation of large self-deputized sectors of the civilian population is a lynchpin of fascism, the entire history of the United States has well prepared it for the advent of the protofascist currents of today. In the face of Native American resistance and rebellions by enslaved Africans, the colonial governments of what later became the United States made gun ownership compulsory among white men and women of all classes. Seventeenth-century Virginia, for example, advanced loans to those who could not afford to buy personal weapons and required that men carry arms with them to work and church or be fined. White citizens were also compelled by law to serve in self-organized militias and later slave patrols. In essence, the colonial governments deputized Euro-American residents to secure the borders and integrity of the nascent American state. Before long, war with the Indians gave way to “savage war”—the targeting and killing of Native American men, women, and children by self-organized militias—a practice that continued until the last of the western territories were settled in the late nineteenth century.19
The country also has a profoundly conservative citizenry that’s been raised on anticommunism and subjected to Americanization campaigns throughout the twentieth century. Many live in remote rural settings, and after the 1950s, most were suburbanized, atomized in private homes, living in fear of Black people and Black crime, raised on a strong diet of middle-class individualism, living with high levels of indebtedness.20
We recognize the 1960s for the many ways the decade’s struggles civilized the country, expanded the meaning of freedom for historically oppressed people, and popularized critiques of U.S. government and foreign policy. But the 1960s also brought dramatic government-sponsored violence in the theater of war and against dissidents at home, which set the country along the dangerous path we are on today.
Under Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense, the military mandated “kill ratios” in Vietnam that pressed American soldiers to kill any Vietnamese in sight. The United States dropped napalm and more bombs in Vietnam than were dropped by all sides combined during World War II. War policy skirted genocide. Unlike the founding days of the nation that witnessed the genesis of savage war, acts of resistance from different sectors of society, including the military, exposed these war crimes and challenged standards of acceptable conduct.21
At home, the police murders of dozens of Black Panthers rivaled the rampages of Latin American dictators. And the FBI recruited citizen-agents on a mass scale to disrupt organizations fighting to expand the meaning and experience of democracy for women, racialized people, and the poor. In spring 1969, the Black Panther Party sounded the alarm. They held an antifascism conference in Oakland; in part, it was a response to the ruthless and homicidal character of state-sponsored violence. Features of this repression have been normalized since then in other less obvious ways, through prison and police expansion and the mass employment of Americans in the carceral industry, the third-largest employer in the nation.22
A confluence of American exceptionalism and the suppression and rewriting of history has left the nation clueless about the extent of its barbarism. This leaves it ill equipped to fend off the rise of a fascist leader, especially in the context of economic and social crisis. The only thing that can save us is a political movement that identifies the root cause of social antagonisms and, on that basis, radically transforms society.
Johanna Fernández is associate professor of History at Baruch College (CUNY) and author of The Young Lords: A Radical History, recipient of the New York Society Library’s New York City Book award and three Organization of American Historians (OAH) awards: the prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book in history, the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award for best book on civil rights, and the Merle Curti Award for best Social History. Dr. Fernández’s 2014 Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) lawsuit against the NYPD led to the recovery of the “lost” Handschu files, the largest repository of police surveillance records in the country—namely, over one million surveillance files of New Yorkers compiled by the NYPD between 1954–1972, including those of Malcolm X. She is editor of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal and writer and producer of the film, Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Her awards include the Fulbright Scholars grant to the Middle East and North Africa, which took her to Jordan; and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in the Scholars-in-Residence program at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. She directed and cocurated ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York, an exhibition in three NYC museums. She’s the host of A New Day, WBAI’s morning show, from 7:00–8:00 a.m., M–F, at 99.5 FM in New York.
See Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944).
See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Verso, 2007); Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2017).
Oxfam (London), Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More, Oxfam (website), January 9, 2015, http://
policy -practice .oxfam .org .uk /publications /wealth -having -it -all -and -wanting -more -338125. Cited in William I. Robinson, “A Disease Deadlier than COVID-19: Global Capitalism in Crisis,” in When China Sneezes: From the Wuhan Lockdown to the Global Politico-Economic Implications, ed. Cynthia McKinney (Atlanta: Clarity, 2020), 145–160.
Pat Evans, “11 Mind Blowing Facts about the US Economy,” Business Insider, April 10, 2019, https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-economy-facts-2019-4-1028101291.
David Harvey, “Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19,” Jacobin Magazine, March 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/david-harvey-coronavirus-political-economy-disruptions.
John Coder and Gordon Green, “Working Class Males Falling Behind,” Household Trends Statistical Brief, Sentier Research press release, 2016. See also, “Comparing Earnings of White Males by Education for Selected Age Cohorts: High School vs. College Graduates,” Sentier Research, October 2016.
Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activities, Spring 2017, https://
www .brookings .edu /bpea -articles /mortality -and -morbidity -in -the -21st -century /. Synopsis of Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, November 2, 2015.
Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (Brooklyn: American Mental Health Foundation, 2010).
The United States did not lack its own manifestations of 1930s fascism; see Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920–1940 (New York: Monthly Review, 2018). The later rise of McCarthyism drew on similar forces; see Cedric Belfrage, The American Inquisition, 1945–1960 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973). What I contend is that the underlying drive was set in motion much earlier. See also Jonathan Scott, ed., “US Fascism Comes to the Surface,” special issue, Socialism and Democracy 22, no. 2 (July 2008).
Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the USA,” New Left Review 181 (1990): 95–118.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014).
Jack Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement: The Changing Political Economy of Southern Racism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), chap. 1.
Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movements, 24.
Tera Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labor after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935).
Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2018).
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
On military resistance, see Christian G. Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Jonathan Neale, The American War: Vietnam, 1960–1975 (London: Bookmarks, 2001); Terry Wallace, Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War; An Oral History (New York: Ballantine Books,1985); and David Zeiger’s documentary, Sir! No Sir! (Displaced Films, 2005).
See Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernández, eds., “The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor,” special issue, Socialism and Democracy 28, no. 3 (November 2014).