During the 13 months leading up to the general election, I traveled about 35,000 miles on backroads in 44 states, from Florida to Washington, and Arizona to Maine. All along the way, it was obvious that there was a disconnect between what the polls were predicting and what I was seeing and feeling all through America. There was never a time when it didn’t seem entirely evident that Donald Trump would win. It wasn’t that he was a celebrity. It wasn’t anything he offered as policy. It was because right wing Americans had been primed for a particular type of mean-spirited conservative takeover, and the closer it got, the more a lot of them began to taste blood and want in on the action themselves.
Twelve years ago, I published a story in a Los Angeles weekly about the awakening of fascism in America. I wasn't flinging the word around as an insult, the way it so often was in the Bush era. I was using it in the classical, technical sense, which is what I’m doing now. My argument wasn’t that Bush and Cheney were Fascists. Their administration was many things, but not Fascist. Nonetheless, they and their fellow Republican were, whether they understood it or not, planting the seeds of it in the American soil that may prove a more fertile ground for it than any other.
By “fascism” I mean an authoritarian or totalitarian political system in which absolute power is vested in a right-wing, ultra-nationalist ruling elite with a leader at its pinnacle endowed with absolute authority. They tolerate no opposition, and where any given regime lies on the authoritarian-totalitarian spectrum depends only on how much violence they can incite their followers, who will be the ones administering enforcement at street level, to commit. Fascism has always been a white supremacist movement working in tandem with those Christian churches and congregations who are under no illusions about where their first loyalties lie. While attempts may have been made to apply the working principles of fascism by leaders of other ethnicities in other parts of the world, in its Western form, fascism is a strictly white phenomenon.
The creation of fascist state power depends on citizen gangs and militias to subdue, intimidate or kill any opposition. Small intimidations appear first. The home of someone with the wrong yard sign is soiled. Threatening phone calls are made. Spray-painted swasitkas and warnings to minorities to leave. When beatings start, murder is never far behind.
When a fascist is brought to power by means of a democratic election, as Hitler was in 1933, the gangs are rewarded with free reign to plunder, and as police and military are purified, they can be counted on to turn a blind eye.
There is the mistaken idea that fascism was described by one of its founders, Mussolini, as corporatism, in which the success of corporations is all that counts, but neither did he say it nor is it true. Under fascism, Corporations have to toe the line like anyone else. Generous new streams of revenue are steered to them by freeing them from the restraints of inconvenient laws and regulations, licensing them to function as avariciously as they like—but only in exchange for absolute subservience to the regime. Those corporate leaders who are driven by greed alone tend to honor the arrangement without difficulty. When war follows, as it always follows Fascism, they tend to compliance, because war is good for business.
The roots of fascism in America go back to when it was enunciated as a political concept around 1920. It’s not especially surprising that the inheritors of a country built on slave labor would think that ethnic purity and a strong leader with dictatorial powers was a good idea, especially for those at the top economic rungs—industrialists and bankers. To get the support of the working class, Fascism promises them a restoration of status above whichever scapegoats might be in vogue at the moment. In our history, we have gone through just about all of the possible enemies. The only group on whom the pressure has never been reduced is African-Americans. Everyone else is cycled through: the Chinese, the Muslims, the Jews.
Though fascism faded from view during the war against Nazism and its Japanese relatives, it was just mothballed and closeted. It was never wiped out. It never can be. Plenty of observers at the time understood that and warned of how easily it could return. Sinclair Lewis. H.L. Mencken. George Orwell, who had seen enough of it through rifle sights in in Spain to know. Many. All of them on what we would today call the Left side of the political spectrum.
In other words, the opponents of the fascism of the Nazis and the Republicans in Spain were what conservatives today call libtards.
When it was in the closet, fascism’s true believers never for a moment lost faith, convinced as they were of the moral rightness of their worldview. Plans that have earned the support of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi organizations like Stormfront—vast deportations, hints of ethnic cleansing, imposition of their religious doctrines and the destruction of others, the wiping out of competing political parties, ideas and individuals-sustained them. Their belief in the Second and Third Comings of Fascism never faltered.
There has always been a base of enough Americans inclined toward fascism to make it a possibility. Political scientists say that if Adolf Hitler appeared on a presidential ballot, he would be guaranteed 30 percent of the vote. And that would be before he ever ran his first negative ad claiming that mishandled emails nearly resulted in apocalypse.
And yet, the most dangerous mystery of fascism persists—and not among its supporters. It is the denial that it's even happening, among those who are the intended targets. The people denying its approach are always great enough in number to keep an effective resistance from forming. Some don’t believe it until they find themselves kneeling over a pit filled with bodies and a soldier with a pistol aimed at the back of their heads. It was that way in Germany, and that way in Spain—where a civil war was fought to prevent it and failed. That is the way it could shape up in America.
For example, a few months ago, as Trump was spewing hate at a rally at which he asked his crowd to give him Nazi salutes—which they did—an academic specializing on fascism was on the radio, scoffing at the ignorance of anyone who believed that what Trump was bringing to America could be called fascism. His argument was that it lacked, and could never develop, the defining ingredient: independent militias of street enforcers, loyal not to the country or its laws, but to their leader.
Who could blame Trump for getting a little tipsy on power and wanting to see what it felt like to be heiled by his people? He had been following the Fascist script to the letter. It was only natural for him to test the malleability of the followers he said wouldn't care if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue (he was right; many of them would rather join hm for that than a beer). Trump was just taking a little lick of the spoon he was stirring the pot with.
At the time that professor was on the radio and Trump was basking in the glow of his saluting crowds, I was in the middle of one year and 30,000 miles of travels on American backroads. Everywhere I went, I passed through oceans of Trump signs, billboards, Make America Great Again painted on the sides of barns, on trucks in store windows. I saw less than 100 (a high number; I believe it was fewer) Hillary or Bernie signs, even in areas considered leftish, like Taos, New Mexico or Asheville, North Carolina. Everyone I spoke with about it said the same thing: Anything but a Trump sign would just be shot up or torn down or covered with human shit or get your children threatened at the school bus stop.
Had that professor accompanied me instead of confining his experience of history to the pleasant stacks of the Ivy League university like the one I attended (and that taught nothing of what the rest of America is all about), he might have detected, as I did, the vast army of right wing street enforcers taking shape everywhere.
I’ve been to their towns and on their farms, in their welding shops and feed and supply stores, their irrigation system suppliers and chainsaw sculpture yards. I’ve been in their airplane hangars and stockman's supply barns. I’ve talked to them as they worked on road crews or drank Bud Light outside their homes in trailer parks or campground fires, over the barbed wire around the pastures of their cattle ranches. Among them, there was no more doubt that Trump would win than there was that millions of Americans like them would be willing to appear with their guns in the streets if he didn’t.
They are still ready to come from the country and fill the streets if called upon. The process of dehumanization necessary to turn a person into a target—the Niggers! The Spics! The goddamned Kikes! And, if those weren’t enough, the Syrian refugees! or the illegal immigrant!—has always been with us. For the present political purposes, though, it began with the use of the term libtard. Shooting a few libtards and the subhumans Trump describes as being from “certain areas,” would be, to many Americans, the fulfillment of a duty. Not taking that threat seriously might be the greatest miscalculation in American history. The miscalculation that turns this 240-year-old republic into something else.
I know them and know they are there. They are armed and ready, and not just awaiting their orders, but hoping for them.
The enormous quantity of small arms in the hands of the right wing make for plenty of dry kindling under the bonfire Trump has been building and which is just waiting for a match. Some event—some Reichstag fire, staged by the Nazis and blamed on their enemies to excuse rounding them up and hanging or guillotining them and transforming Hitler, literally overnight, into an absolute dictator—could come at any time. Cheap enforcers like Giuliani and Christie who have fantasized about it for so long would understand how to set it up. Or, ISIL might do them the favor. Either way, history argues that some provocation usually occurs when the time is ripe. And then, the people who have been waiting for the signal, for permission to use the guns they are obsessed with—will be receptive to orders. They won’t need to hear explicit calls for violence. Orders issued in the kind of deniable, veiled language Trump has always cowered behind will be clear enough. Given the chance to serve Jesus and Country by picking off a few libtards—without fear of consequence—will be an honor to many.
In this past year of backroad travel, there was a joke I heard in various forms across the country: Question: What’s the difference between a liberal and a libtard? Answer: A libtard is just a liberal too dumb to have a gun. To which someone would usually add, “Not really—the whole bunch of ‘em’s libtards.”
Consider this, my friends, a letter from the front. This is what's going on out there. It looks like fascism, it tastes like fascism and it walks like fascism. The ground has been laid—voter suppression in almost every red state, the open carry laws that will allow the assembly of the armed, national concealed carry permitting, assault weapons proliferation, blocking a Supreme Court nominee, belittling minorities, putting women in their place—with great effectiveness. Any conflagration with this many cans of gasoline ready to be poured on it can get very hot, very fast. It’s hard to find examples of things getting this out of hand without tipping over the edge into violence and oppression domestically, followed by that greatest of unifiers—war—abroad.
Since the election I've been hearing people say, “Aw, come one. It’s not that bad. We’ve got to give him the benefit of a doubt. Give him a chance. The sun will still come up tomorrow. We’ve been through this before and survived.”
To them I say, no. No, we haven't.
This is different. This time, the sun may coming up on a completely different morning in America.
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