In Portland, the Baby Fascists Have Shown Their Face

Fascism can happen in America. Some of it has already happened, and more will happen as Trump fights to stay in power.

Federal officers stand guard after dispersing protesters in Portland, Oregon, on July 21.
Federal officers stand guard after dispersing protesters in Portland, Oregon, on July 21. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Fascism was never about actual people and their predicaments but about a glorious imaginary collective that had died but would be reborn. In the 1920s and 1930s, the idea was everywhere the same: At some point in the past, the nation or the race had been greater, purer, more beautiful. That ancient perfection could be seen in ruins, poems, monuments. Then, so the story went, another group, some inferior race, some cabal had come along and inexplicably ruined the people’s destiny. If only that group could be removed, then the race could be restored, made great again.

In U.S. President Donald Trump’s adoration of Confederate statues and in his mobilization of state power to protect monuments, it is easy to see a similar style. The specifics of the present, the plights of individual Americans, are irrelevant, beside the point. The death of George Floyd matters only insofar as it can trigger a desire to dominate. It is a prompt to a certain narrative in which, in the end, white Americans are the true victims and the U.S. president is the greatest victim of all. The deaths of tens of thousands of Americans from the coronavirus is neither here nor there. Here too the president is victim-in-chief, with a mandate to lead the people into myth. What matters is Americans’ ability, through the medium of metal and concrete, to see their way back to a past when they were great.

Consider what would have happened had the president expressed as much concern for people in February and March as for statues in June and July. There was no call earlier this year for haste, for sudden action, for interagency cooperation, for an expansion of the role of the federal government to defeat a pandemic. On the contrary: The states were told to deal with the coronavirus themselves, and individuals were left to sort through the confusion and contradictions of statements from the White House. But when statues are threatened, then, it seems, exceptional action is called for. What if all the men (and, yes, they are nearly always men) swinging batons now had been passing out masks a few months ago?
The men in mismatched shoes and ill-fitting uniforms lack identification and insignia recall virtually every authoritarian regime.

Who are the miniature stormtroopers now appearing in Portland and soon in other cities? That the men in mismatched shoes and ill-fitting uniforms lack identification and insignia recalls virtually every authoritarian regime. It is a basic feature of a state under the rule of law that a citizen can recognize legal authority and tell the police from the thugs. It is the nightmare moment of repression to be seized by unknown men. When the government itself elides the distinction between those who protect the law and those who break it, when it makes itself into a paramilitary wearing the wrong kind of camouflage, it invites others to do the same. It is not so hard, after all, to rent a van, play dress up, and start hurting people. When citizens do not know whether they are being intimidated by governmental or nongovernmental forces, the situation is rife for the kind of escalation that fascists liked.

Fascists thrived in crises and indeed sought them out. The unforgettable example is the Reichstag fire, which Adolf Hitler recognized right away as his great opportunity. As the German parliament burned, the Nazis mischaracterized the event, speaking of a vast left-wing conspiracy to destroy the country, the race, and so on. Something not so dissimilar is taking place now, as Attorney General William Barr and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf rationalize the use of force against Americans on the basis of a dark fairy tale about what the protests mean. The Nazis claimed that their main rival, the Social Democrats, were ultimately to be blamed for a terrorist act; Trump’s fundraising messages say the same about his own political rivals. By deliberately provoking protesters, Trump and his allies are working to create their own Reichstag moment. The difference this time, of course, is that everyone knows that this is what is going on.

After the Reichstag fire, the Nazis began to establish concentration camps. Like the U.S. detention centers for migrants, they were based on the premise that a territorial space could be excluded from the rule of law. The very first assignment of the SS was to serve as guards in the new concentration camps. This was the formative experience that made what followed possible. When Americans consider their own detention centers, which hold more people than the Nazi concentration camp system in the 1930s, they should pay special attention to the people these centers employ. It appears that some of the men taking part in the “special response teams” in Portland come from U.S. Border Patrol. It would be interesting to know how many of them already served inside detention centers.

When we use German terms for Nazi history, events and people seem dark and distant. Einsatzgruppen summons a notion of pure evil or perhaps an image of a death pit. But the term just means “deployment groups”; indeed the structure of these units in certain ways recalls that of the special response teams. The Einsatzgruppen were drawn from various units, deployed far from home, and asked to perform special tasks. Like the special response teams, the Einsatzgruppen had an unclear legal status. Their chain of command led through an ideological and party leadership that melded loosely, and only at the top, with the state. It is an awkward similarity that the Department of Homeland Security is directed by a myth-besotted ideologue who was never confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The people beating Americans are unaccountable to them.
Americans have been wrong to think themselves exceptional, and have much to learn about democracy, including from others who have fought harder and longer.

All of this is a dry run for November. Republics do not usually collapse because one day one man declares a revolution. They collapse because men inside the regime look for loopholes in the law—as can be seen very clearly in the formation of these deployment groups—and then seek to expand the loopholes until the law itself has no meaning. A crisis is found and expanded until the leader (which is all the word Führer means) can claim that a state of emergency is necessary. Friendly lawyers and judges find some provision of some law that seems to justify this, making the idea of law itself all the less credible. The men who have already learned by running the camps that exception is now the rule thrive as agents of chaos. Elections are of course held, as they were in Nazi Germany, but with the violent men in the mismatched uniforms standing by. The outcome is known in advance.

It can happen in the United States, and some of it has already happened, but the rest of it need not. Major elements of the state, such as the armed forces, cannot be expected to follow Trump, Barr, and Wolf into their half-grown fascism. Hitler had the armed forces tamed within four years; Trump cannot say the same. Even if some police officers do seem primed for the kind of racial war that the Nazis saw as their task, most find such an idea abhorrent, and the institution is highly decentralized and not under Trump’s control. Unlike Hitler, Trump is personally lazy and careless with institutions. He is at Hitler’s level in the imaginative use of language to create enemies. Yet he has no grand violent project for America; the state is weaker than it was four years ago, both at home and abroad. Everyone around the world knows that the United States is weaker, and some Americans have grasped this as well. This is a profound difference with fascism: Italy and Germany radiated strength and indeed seemed stronger than they were.

Trump cannot take fascism all the way, not because he has any virtues but because he has too many vices. He is highly skilled at creating division, as the fascists were, but less good at supplying an ideal for which risks are to be taken and sacrifices made. His ultimate idea is not racial struggle but personal fulfilment. His administration needs enough fascism to get by, enough to weaken the state and society so that the people Trump admires, be they in the Kremlin or in his circle, can stay out of prison and do well for themselves. Oligarchs are good at destroying democracies but not at imagining or building anything new. There is easily enough malice and neglect in the Trump administration to pervert a republic but not enough energy and purpose to build a fascist empire.

Trump has some true believers, but a true believer in a theatrical performer such as Trump must also be a cynic, and cynics do not go down fighting. Unlike fascists, Trump does not pretend to love his people better than others: He loves foreign dictators and oligarchs more and himself most of all. At the bottom of his own ideology is the baby’s cry for attention. Americans will hear that peal in November, and some will no doubt respond, the official and unofficial paramilitaries among them.
There will likely be a fight in November, of the sort that Americans have never seen before, but it is a winnable fight.

On the other side, though, are the people and their predicaments. Most Americans understand that there was no need for 150,000 of them and counting to die of COVID-19. Most Americans seem to understand that the country’s history of racism should not be a plaything of rich white men.

As it turns out, Americans and their institutions were far more vulnerable to fascist rhetoric and oligarchical rot than many wanted to believe in 2016 and 2017. Yet to learn from the history of fascism is to understand something painful: Americans have been wrong to think themselves exceptional, and have much to learn about democracy, including from others who have fought harder and longer.

When we look evil in the eye, we see a reflection of ourselves, and that is the moment we react and grow. There will likely be a fight in November, of the sort that Americans have never seen before, but it is a winnable fight. It is right to see fascism and call it by its name. It is also right to mock it, resist it, and overcome it.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom. His newest book, Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary, will be published in September. Twitter: @TimothyDSnyder