Fascism Starts With Paramilitary Ties to Mainstream Parties
Growing links between U.S. politicians and extremists must be severed.
Donald Trump is out, but his style of politics remains. Even before the U.S. president was elected, observers debated whether his style should be called fascism. After the past year, we argue that it unequivocally should be and that the appropriateness of the term lies specifically in the growing union of right-wing party politics and paramilitary street violence.
Sociologist Michael Mann’s definition of fascism is one of the most influential: “the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.” This takes 1930s fascism as its prototype. It is a restrictive definition but one that now describes the U.S. situation well.
This may seem counterintuitive; paramilitary groups in the United States have historically been anti-government. Recently, this has changed, producing intensifying but often informal relationships between the Republican Party and the increasingly organized constellation of armed groups devoted to violently challenging democratic institutions. While the Capitol insurrection marked a bloody peak in the most recent round of violence, it would be a mistake to think things can’t get worse.
The United States is not alone in this trend. Last Friday, news leaked that the German far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party would be placed under government surveillance on suspicion of opposing the basic liberal democratic order. In 2017, AfD became the first post-World War II far-right party to enter the German Bundestag. Over the years, links between AfD politicians and militant groups have been extensive, many documented in a recent report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The AfD has faced persistent accusations of inciting violence. Meanwhile, Germany also grapples with extensive extremist infiltration of its security services.
Becoming the third-largest party in Greece following the 2012 elections, the now-dissolved Golden Dawn was the most extreme party to gain significant support during the far-right revival that has swept Europe. Until recently, it was one of the only contemporary political parties widely considered neofascist by scholars of the far right. Its leaders were directly implicated in murders and deliberately incited violence, especially against minorities. In the 2019 elections, the party lost all of its parliamentary seats. Since then, it has been legally declared a criminal organization, and its leaders have been jailed.
In the case of Brazil, serious observers immediately placed President Jair Bolsonaro in relationship both to historical fascism and Latin America’s varied radical right traditions. Bolsonaro personally committed to Trump in a way unparalleled among other right-wing national leaders. He has engaged in much of the same inflammatory rhetoric as Trump, such as by celebrating torturers and praising the Brazilian military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985.
However, the United States is the only Western democracy where a nationally viable right-wing movement currently exceeds the threshold for clear fascism. While Golden Dawn also passed that threshold, it was short-lived and never won more than 7 percent of the Greek vote—a far cry from the electoral threat the U.S. right-wing movement currently poses. It alone features such clear, repeated linkages between organized, durable paramilitary forces and a mainstream major party with access to institutionalized mechanisms of power and governance.
Brazil, meanwhile, is the next closest. Long-standing vigilante and paramilitary groups, comprising of current and former security apparatus members, routinely assassinate political rivals in ways Bolsonaro has praised in the past, albeit mostly before his election in 2018. However, while lethal, this violence has yet to reach a point of clear organizational coordination with right-wing political parties
Why is the United States the sole exception? Some of the answer lies in the historic persistence of militias and nonstate armed groups, mainly affiliated with the political right, in both the Deep South and the Midwest—think the Ku Klux Klan and the Michigan Militia. Some of the answer also lies with the staggering saturation of small arms: The United States has the highest rate of legal civilian gun ownership, more than twice that of the runner-up, Yemen (which is in the midst of a civil war), and the highest absolute number of civilian-owned guns, legal or illegal, more than five times that of the runner-up, India. This rate of gun ownership also translates into a wildly disproportionate homicide by firearm rate among other “developed countries.” As far-right violence increased 250 percent globally in the last five years, the United States was hit hardest by far, accounting for more incidents and deaths than any other Western state.
But much of the answer comes down to a series of political processes set into motion by Republican Party officials and organizers, and it is propelled by a far-right media ecology that seeks to cultivate and exploit an increasingly radical ultraconservative base. We identify three key mechanisms driving this change.
The first is direct signaling: GOP politicians speak directly to paramilitary groups and give them commands. Although this is currently rare, Trump engaged in direct signaling more than once, with troubling statements like: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully” or his message to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” This shows a willingness to solicit help from armed groups and, if unchecked, will increase over time.
The second is permissive signaling: GOP politicians do not give specific instructions to paramilitary groups but indicate that right-wing paramilitary violence will go unpunished and the GOP will interfere in attempts to stop it from happening. Trump’s infamous reference to “some very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally is the paradigmatic case of permissive signaling. A more recent example is when GOP politicians supported the caravan of nearly 100 trucks that surrounded and harassed a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway. The incident was celebrated by a local Texas GOP official, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Trump, among others.
After the armed occupation of the Michigan State Capitol on April 30, 2020, the Republican speaker of the house said, “There’s nothing more American than people coming together to ensure their voices are being heard.” Permissive signaling also occurs when responsibility for acts of violence are shifted onto left-wing groups, such as when Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz blamed antifa for the Capitol insurrection on the house floor just hours after the attack.
Permissive signaling was also seen after Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse’s actions were met with varying levels of support from conservative pundit Ann Coulter, Fox News Tucker Carlson, and Trump. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson repeatedly declined to condemn Rittenhouse’s actions and praised the role of “citizen soldiers” in combating unrest. GOP donors managed to raise $2 million for Rittenhouse’s bail.
Permissive signaling carries a lower political cost to politicians than direct signaling and offers a degree of distance and plausible deniability in the face of criticism. However, the fact that so many GOP politicians engage in it has serious consequences: It clears the way for a smaller number of more radical acts of support and collaboration, such as normalizing paramilitary violence as a fixture of right-wing politics. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has readily condemned violence associated with antifa and racial justice protests on multiple occasions, while other Democratic Party officials and politicians have never voiced support for violence (despite misleading claims to the contrary). This is notable not just in comparison but also because left-wing political violence is less frequent and much less lethal. Additionally, there are virtually no documented ties between institutional Democrats and violent antifa groups. This is an asymmetrical phenomenon: It is almost entirely confined to the right.
The third is organizational coordination: GOP politicians and government officials work with paramilitary groups, cooperating with them in performances that make it clear they are part of the same movement. In one example, the now co-chair of the Michigan GOP was involved in organizing an attempt to disrupt vote-counting in Detroit and organized 19 buses to Washington for the Jan. 6 insurrection. In another, the Michigan Republican Senate leader appeared at an event alongside organizers of the armed occupation of the Statehouse only weeks after the incident, sharing the stage with a militia member who would later be implicated in the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “We need you now more than ever,” he told the crowd.
Organizational coordination also occurs when paramilitary groups provide security for GOP rallies and officials. In Portland, Oregon during 2017, the Multnomah County Republican Party formally approved a resolution to partner with militia groups to provide security for events, explicitly naming Oregon’s Three Percenters and Oath Keepers in the resolution. These groups also often act as uninvited security, seen at Trump rallies in Minneapolis and Dallas. At a rally for Sen. Kelly Loeffler and now-Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Greene was protected by a Three Percenter group. An attorney for an Oath Keeper indicted in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection claimed in a court document that she had a VIP pass to attend the Trump rally and had met with Secret Service agents.
By approaching the union of paramilitary groups and right-party politics in its current shape as fascism, we are better able to appreciate its trajectory. Violent actors attack partisan rivals or engage in street fights and gain legitimacy from being part of a larger political coalition that includes Republican Party officials. Meanwhile, party actors can facilitate political violence and attack democratic institutions. Together, they provide political goods to a constituency uninterested in democratic institutions and driven by resentment, cultural anxiety, and will to power.
The Biden administration, with support from the Democrats’ likely short-lived control over Congress, must act quickly and decisively to stop the growing union of paramilitary groups and right-wing politicians. This can only be accomplished through an aggressive legislative agenda that makes clear they are capable of positive, popular government while moving to eliminate the procedural instruments that the GOP can use to impede and erode democratic institutions.
Legislatively, the historic stimulus bill is a good start, but a massive infrastructure bill and minimum wage hike will be even more effective. To combat voter suppression, the For the People Act must also pass. It is critical for the survival of democracy that these bills become law, and this will only happen with the abolishment of the filibuster.
Administratively, the Biden administration must also significantly increase support for units of federal police agencies focused on combating right-wing and white supremacist militancy while defunding agencies with evident and deep ties to far-right politics—notably Immigration and Customs Enforcement along with some branches of the Department of Homeland Security.
The only way any of this will happen is through significant investments in political capital and efforts from the Democratic Party and from the small number of remaining Republican figures willing to oppose their own colleagues. Our hope is that by identifying the nature and scale of the threat, this becomes possible.
Lucas Dolan is a doctoral candidate at American University’s School of International Service.