Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It Happened Here

Trump’s movement is a uniquely American fascism, built on a century of American imperialism.

A pro-Trump rioter yells inside the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
A pro-Trump rioter yells inside the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Stunned by the bloodshed and chaos in the U.S. Capitol Building on Wednesday, Americans were left scrambling for comparisons. Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, compared the siege to his experiences as a combat officer in Baghdad. “I expected this as a US Marine in Iraq. I never imagined it as a US Congressman in America,” he tweeted as the would-be counterrevolutionaries overpowered the guards.

Others reached further back into America’s vocabulary of imperialism. Many, in the media and on both sides of the aisle, echoed former President George W. Bush’s statement that storming the legislature is “how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic.”

What those comparisons have in common is their sense of foreignness, the myth that these are things that rightly happen over there, and are less acceptable here. Even the words we use most for what the mob was trying, explicitly, to do—to stop the government from proceeding with a constitutional, democratic transfer of power away from their chosen leader—are foreign: coup d’état, autogolpe, putsch. Alien names keep them at arm’s length, easier to dismiss as an anomaly.

But it did happen here. And the examples the officials tried to compare it to were extremely American. Moulton was in Iraq because Bush ordered the U.S. military to invade, for financial and political gain. “Banana republic,” meanwhile, was coined in 1901 by William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry, to describe the chaos of living in Honduras under U.S. imperialism and an economy dominated by a single export crop. (Three years after he debuted the word, the U.S. Marines invaded there, to support a coup on behalf of the fruit company now known as Dole.) Americans brought the chaos with them.

Now, the chaos has come back home. This also isn’t new. Ten years after the end of World War II, the Afro-Caribbean writer Aimé Césaire tried to take stock of the rise of fascism in Europe. In his Discourse on Colonialism, he pinned the origins in the Europeans’ experience of their own imperialism—out of the fact that “colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word.”

Every time a European shrugged at rape, murder, and torture in their colonies, he continued:

“… civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all … a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.”

Adolf Hitler’s true crime in the eyes of the white world, Césaire concluded, was “the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.”

In short, fascism is imperialism at home.

The Nazis made this explicit: Their quest for Lebensraum—“living space,” a concept they adapted from a renowned celebrator of America’s westward expansion, Frederick Jackson Turner—was indistinguishable from their colonial ambitions elsewhere. It was in the German genocide of the Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia that a generation of German officers learned how to run lethal concentration camps—a skill they brought back home.

It’s hard for many Americans to contemplate the existence of fascism in our own country. But scholars have argued that fascism is not so much a coherent doctrine as a system of impetuses for action: what the political scientist Robert O. Paxton has called “mobilizing passions.” These include the primacy of one’s group over others’ rights; the belief that one’s group is a victim—and crucially that such victimhood justifies “any action … against its enemies, both internal and external”; dread of “cosmopolitan liberalism”; and the fetishization of the authority of “natural leaders” at every level of society, “culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.”

All of those passions were central to Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and they were all on full display on Wednesday in Washington. Addressing thousands of his supporters—at a rally called “Save America”—Trump called the outcome of the election he lost an “egregious assault on our democracy.” He urged his followers to “walk down to the Capitol,” adding: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

When they got there, the armed mob—which included known white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of Trump’s most loyal street gang, the Proud Boys—forced their way past security and beat police with banners emblazoned with their chieftain’s name. They built a symbolic gallows facing the dome and tied a noose out of a news camera cord. At least two pipe bombs and materials to make Molotov cocktails were found. Among the goofy costumed rioters were quieter, military-seeming men who made their way into the legislative chambers. They wore black paramilitary armor, with sidearms, Molotov cocktails, and at least one semi-automatic rifle. Several carried flex cuffs—the restraints used in mass arrests, popularly known as “zip ties”—likely intending to kidnap the officials trapped inside, a group that included the vice president and the next two people in the line of succession for the presidency.

All the while, their leader egged them on via Twitter, repeating his lies that his “landslide election” victory was stolen from “us”—from “great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.” He erased any distinction between himself and the victimized group, while highlighting the space between them and the out-groups—the cosmopolitan liberals, their enemies, their inferiors, against whom anything is permitted.

Americans were openly intrigued by fascism in the years before World War II. Major businessmen such as Henry Ford and the J.P. Morgan banker Thomas Lamont mutually admired and collaborated with Hitler and Benito Mussolini, respectively. The failed screenwriter William Dudley Pelley quit Hollywood to organize his proto-Proud Boys, the fascist Silver Shirts, who picked street fights with socialists and anti-fascists, and collaborated with police up and down the West Coast. A group of powerful financiers and industrial magnates even tried to organize a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, in hopes of overturning the New Deal; it fell apart when the retired Marine general they picked to organize it, Smedley Butler, blew the whistle on them instead.

In other words, it was not inevitable that fascism did not become a ruling ideology in the United States in the 1930s or 1940s. It came down in part to luck, in part to Roosevelt’s success in ending the Great Depression using forms of democratic socialism, and ultimately to the country being on the winning side in World War II. That victory opened the door to unchecked capital expansion and consolidated the global territorial empire Americans had built to that point. It also thoroughly discredited the fascist brand, especially once the extent of the Holocaust became known. (There’s a reason fascists are so obsessed with pretending the Holocaust did not happen.)

In recent years, though, there has been a change. Americans feel that their empire is shrinking, whether they would put it in those terms or not. The brief euphoria of the end of the Cold War was quickly ended by the trauma of 9/11. That was followed by wars of revenge that spun out into two decades of futility, loss, and national humiliation. It’s no accident that the leaders of the Trumpist fascist movement, like the TV host Tucker Carlson and Trump himself, were proponents of the Iraq War. Now they have to fan the fantasy that a fundamentally right-wing war was some sort of liberal cosmopolitan plot, while continuing to call for the United States to adopt any brutality necessary for victory. For fascists, the in-group must always be the victims.

Trump won power by stoking fears of amorphous foreign invaders. He seized on the anxiety millions felt about shrinking opportunities at home, and the sense, just starting to creep into the broader consciousness, that environmental collapse and a loss of resources loomed on the horizon. He replaced that anxiety with a sense of certainty: that his supporters were the true Americans, and that their most dangerous enemies were others here at home—undocumented immigrants, leeching minorities, elites coordinated by a Hungarian American Jewish financier. He convinced them that “blue states” were invalid places full of invalid citizens, unworthy of his protection or tax money, and thus undeserving of any say in choosing the country’s next leader.

When many Black Americans—a domestically colonized people if there ever was one—took to the streets this summer to demand their right not be killed by police without consequence, Trump’s America chanted “Blue Lives Matter.” But as soon as their hold on the government was threatened, they changed their mind. The night before the “Save America” rally, a self-identified Marine in a boonie hat was caught on video barking at a line of police: “We’re the veterans, we’re the business owners, and we had your back, but we ain’t got your back no more. … You better have our back, or we’re gonna fucking show you.”

The next day, the assaulters on the Capitol attacked and injured at least 50 police officers, one of whom has died.

There were signs of American imperialism and militarism everywhere at the Capitol on Wednesday, from service flags to Punisher skulls, an emblem of vigilantism that proliferated from special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to cops and white supremacists at home. David Weigel, a reporter for the Washington Post, heard a group chanting for “military tribunals”—presumably for members of Congress who planned to certify the election—as putschists climbed the retaining walls. (For years, Trumpers, especially devotees of the QAnon blood libel conspiracy theory, have fantasized about branding their domestic political enemies as terrorists and sending them to the prison at the oldest of all overseas U.S. bases, Guantánamo.)

One of the four insurrectionists who died, Ashli Babbit, was an Air Force veteran who had done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Qatar and Kuwait. She was shot by police as she tried to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, which would have given her access to the House floor.

The attempt to stop the certification of the vote failed; in fact, it backfired, convincing some of the Republican senators who supported Trump’s ongoing coup attempt to abandon their efforts to delay the vote further. But there was nothing inevitable about that.  A better-organized leader and a better-prepared crowd might have succeeded in convincing others on the fence or security forces to join their side.

The threat to America’s fragile democracy won’t just go away when the urine is cleaned out of the carpets and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mail is back in order, nor when President-elect Joe Biden takes office, nor even when Trump is finally and permanently gone. The United States had decades, and five years of Trumpian fascism, to prepare for what happened this week. Yet through their ceaseless wars and the rising tide of right-wing anti-democratic violence in Huntington Beach, California; Charlottesville, Virginia; Pittsburgh; El Paso, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and elsewhere, Americans shut their eyes until, like the Capitol Police, they were caught dumbfounded and unprepared for an assault on the center of their government itself.

That can’t go on. “American domination,” Aimé Césaire warned, is the one domination “from which one never recovers unscarred.” That’s true for those living in America too. But even if the scars won’t go away, Americans can recognize the open wounds their country has left everywhere and stop the bleeding. Until they do, the fascists will be there, among them, waiting for another moment to strike.

Jonathan M. Katz is a journalist and author. His next book will trace the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. His newsletter is The Long Version. Twitter: @KatzOnEarth