Let’s Drop The “Proto” Already

American fascism is on parade, right now.

It’s time to drop the hesitation in recognizing fascism for what it is, especially when it parades in front of us. The Current Occupant certainly is acting from the fascist playbook, and some of his followers are definitely welcoming a fascist seizure of power, too.

Whatever your preferred definition of fascism — and I have mine — both the inner core and the outer forms of fascism are here, in the United States, right now. As Anne Applebaum argues in her recent book, authoritarians do not view any form of pluralism as legitimate. They are right. You are wrong. They are patriots. You are traitors. That mindset justifies lots of anti-democratic wrong-doing, such as…

And that’s a set of bullets from a couple of days in “Trump’s America,” or more accurately, “American held hostage by Trump and his supporters.” Many of the links are from the last 24 hours.

What makes this moment particularly fascist, not merely (!) authoritarian, is the continued mobilization around a vision of a mythical past, when things were supposedly greater than they are now, when Those People (defined in racial, ethnic, sectarian, and political terms) didn’t mess up the national canvas by standing in the foreground, demanding equal treatment. It’s the politics of cultural despair, reactionary modernism, the kitschy appeal to a “real America” rooted in a past that never existed, the elevation of this unreality over reality, that makes this movement, and both leaders and followers in it, fascist. The appetite for consuming and regurgitating conspiracy theories is another clue to the fascist ideal that animates what they say and what they do.

We can continue to debate where Trump falls on the scale of authoritarian and fascist leadership. (I like Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes’ description of him as a “lazy authoritarian.”) We can assess how deep the fascist strain runs among his supporters, and how wide. However, it is dangerous to pretend that the situation is better than it is, that a flimsy fence of proto-fascism separates Trump and Trumpism from the full-blown version of those political forms. If there were ever a fence, they have already crossed it. We need to act accordingly.

By that, I mean the following:

  • Stop acting as though the typical rules of politics still apply. Discussions, for example, of the effectiveness of Trump’s messaging to undecided voters, or Biden’s ability to speak to core Trump voters, are meaningless. The statements of Trump and his notable supporters, enablers, and cronies are designed to mobilize the true believers in their campaign to tear down not just norms, but institutions.
  • Mobilize against the zealots and the enablers. As many have said, it’s not enough to defeat a single person in the next election, however important the office. Not only must Trump lose, but Trumpism must lose as well. When he is gone, a Kushner or Junior or someone else could easily step into the space he once occupied, and be more successful than he was. The only way to avoid that scenario is to make sure that there is no cadre of fearful or sympathetic politicos, especially in the US Senate, who are willing to let this catastrophe continue unchecked.
  • Do more than give money. While money is important in politics, so too are other modes of political participation. Money feeds the machinery set up for normal politics. Other forms of participation, such as voter registration, demonstrations (without violence and property damage), and honest conversations with fellow citizens become even more important in abnormal times.
  • Stop being shocked. The Trump train has been moving slowly, compared to other anti-democratic movements, but we’ve all seen the direction in which it was headed. Further cycles of pearl-clutching are not only silly, but also a poor substitute for real action. Sterile excitation (Can you believe this guy?) may be momentarily gratifying, but ultimately, it’s also onanistic.

Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It may be hard to believe, or really accept in our bones, that the situation is as bad as it is. However, we need to move from, “Could it happen here?” and, “How close are we?” to, “What are we going to do about it?”

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About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    “Proto” only as they have not fully pulled it off yet. Barr, LeJoy, and others seem to be operating on the assumption they’re going to have a “none dare call it treason” defense after a Trump reelection. I’d like to know why they’re so confident.

    Now how do we get the supposedly liberal MSM to recognize reality?

  2. Monala says:

    @gVOR08: I think part of the problem is they don’t really believe it could happen. They hear him call them “the enemy of the people” but don’t think that translates into the reality that he could, if given a second term, start arresting or disappearing journalists. It’s worse now than ever, with police at the various protests around the country shooting rubber bullets at and arresting journalists of color. But they just don’t think it could happen to them.

  3. Teve says:

    When we started the year and friends said they were worried that Trump would cancel the election just take power do what he wants, I thought it was uninformed. To have a successful coup you need the support of the military.

    Now I’ve seen Tucker Carlson and the president defend Kyle Rittenhouse as acting in self-defense. Some conservative commentator on Twitter said they wanted him for president. They’re whipping up people about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. White supremacists have infiltrated hundreds of police departments. Cops let white militia participate. I’ve personally seen several people this year wearing 3%er gear. Trump and their media are pushing the idea that the election will be invalid.

    I’m a little worried.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Bravo, Kingdaddy.

  5. Scott F. says:

    That bulleted set of links from the last 24 hours of news should be absolutely chilling to anyone who still believes in democracy.

    And you didn’t even include Bill Barr’s petulant appearance on CNN with Wolf Blitzer. I fear Barr more than any of them.

  6. Scott O says:

    Thank you Kingdaddy.

    When I was younger I believed “it could never happen here”. Sometime in the late 90’s I started to think that it could happen here, or anywhere, but still thought the possibility extremely remote. Now a version of “it” is happening here.

  7. Gustopher says:

    Is this the first time America as a whole has lurched away from democracy? For most of our history we have been expanding the franchise and making our institutions more democratic.

    The only counter example I can think of is the failure of the reconstruction.

    It’s also not going to be Kushner taking up the mantle. Too jewish. Too quiet. It will be Don Jr.

  8. Gustopher says:

    Also, I loved V., but thought the TV miniseries and shows took a lot of liberties with Pynchon’s novel in the adaptation. Barely recognizable.

  9. Scott says:

    Trump could do none of this without the willing support of thousands of accomplices that have slithered into our governmental machinery. It is not just in the White House but in every major government department. If we get through this, there will be difficulty in getting them out and rebuilding a functioning government again.

    If there is any surprise to me, it is how Trump has shown how weak many of our elected and appointed officials are in their basic principles and character. How few of them are willing to stand up and say no, I will not do that. It is quite shocking to me.

  10. @Gustopher:

    Is this the first time America as a whole has lurched away from democracy? For most of our history we have been expanding the franchise and making our institutions more democratic.

    I would not say that “America as a whole” is lurching away from democracy.

    And while the story of America is one of endless progress forward, that isn’t really the case. Even if we say the trendline has been in the right direction, we look at it as smoothed out, but the reality is that is not only progress.

    Slavery was anti-democratic

    Jim Crow was anti-democratic

    More generally, attempts at denying women, blacks, LBGTQ persons, equal access to right (which is ongoing) is anti-democratic.

    Populists past like Storm Thurmond, Huey Long, George Wallace, were anti-democratic.


  11. Kingdaddy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: While the United States’ history of racism has been a driving force behind many anti-democratic sentiments and actions, it’s not the only one. Certainly the corruption in American cities — machine politics, the spoils system, etc. — is another dimension. There are other examples. It was a long road to get to where we are today, when we have the expectation of elections as banal, reliable, meaningful, and representative expressions of public needs and desires, where we worry more about voter turn-out than the franchise.

    The rule of law is also something we take for granted now, but took a lot of effort to reach the degree of lawfulness we have now. There is a long list of abuses of authority preceding the current rage for purging voter rolls and closing down polling places. (For one interesting example, see this recent re-telling of the story of the Texas Rangers.) If you want to look at particular people who had no problem undermining the laws, you can look at our history of opportunists and rogues like Aaron Burr, who attempted to mount a paramilitary expedition against American territories in the West, and possibly Mexico. Or Captain John C. Frémont, who helped organize, with discontented American settlers, the “Bear Flag Republic” in the Mexican territory of Alta California. Imagine how far we have come, in an era when we take the military’s political neutrality and obedience to civilian authority for granted, from when a US Army officer could lead a secessionist revolt against a foreign power. Or Frémont’s later career, when he became the Republican Party’s first candidate for president, and then one of the Union’s most feckless and corrupt “political generals.” Rather than his military and public career ending after his Mexican expedition, Frémont’s name now appears in the geography of the American West, and a bear adorns the California flag. That’s how far we’ve come.

  12. Jay L Gischer says:

    Just a note on “confidence”. There is a simple reason that people doing this appear so confident. If they don’t appear confident, it won’t work. It may or may not work if they do, but if they don’t, the game is up. It’s called a “confidence game” for a reason.

    That confidence is meant to sow doubt in opponents. It’s a quality that, for instance, is trained in martial arts. I don’t think it’s good to hold opponents in contempt, it leads to mistakes. But one should also not take their “confidence” all that seriously.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would not say that “America as a whole” is lurching away from democracy.

    I guess that depends on who wins the next elections, and how free and fair those elections are. The current signs are not encouraging.

    All your other examples (with the exception of Jim Crow) are things that were a problem since the founding of the country which have been (partly) fixed. Even Jim Crow is a significant move towards freedom, if you set the baseline as slavery and view the Reconstruction as an oddity — the failure of the Reconstruction still left most blacks in the South better off (less worse off) than they were before.

    Other examples I would add are the direct election of senators, the modern primary system, and the decline of political machines.

  14. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think that many of those post-Reconstruction elections were conducted in a manner that is outright shocking, and well beyond what we are seeing now.

    “Armed guerrilla warfare killed thousands of Negroes; political riots were staged; their causes or occasions were always obscure, their results always certain: ten to one hundred times as many Negroes were killed as whites.” Masked men shot into houses and burned them, sometimes with the occupants still inside. They drove successful black farmers off their land. “Generally, it can be reported that in North and South Carolina, in 18 months ending in June 1867, there were 197 murders and 548 cases of aggravated assault.”[72]


    We need to push back against this, but we have before. Remember that, for instance, the 14th Amendment was ratified easily, most Americans, even many of those who did not think a black was “equal” to them, thought they deserved “equal protection under the law”.

    I guess my message is, “Don’t give up on democracy”

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Ohhhhkaaaayyy. Still in all, I’d be interested in reading THAT critical analysis if you ever get around to writing it. 😉

  16. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Huey Long, when asked if the U.S. would turn to fascism in the Thirties, reportedly said, “Sure, but here it will be called anti-fascism.” My consolation is that he, and George Wallace, were shrewd demagogues. Joe McCarthy was, and Donald Trump is, a gut-level demagogue, who fails any time he encounters a problem that requires thought or depth of knowledge.

  17. Gavin says:

    In 1995, Umberto Eco posted an article to NYRB which has become a classic. It’s important because Eco grew up in fascist Italy.

    In this article, he lays out 14 points which help provide a framework for understanding fascism. [“Typical Features”] Of course, any “definition” will have to be fluid – the game can be played in many forms, but the name of the game does not change.

    1. The cult of tradition.
    2. The rejection of modernism.
    3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
    4. Disagreement is treason.
    5. Fear of difference. “Appeal against the intruders? Check!”
    6. Appeal to social frustration.
    7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged.”
    8. The enemy is both strong and weak.
    9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “life is lived for struggle.”
    10. Contempt for the weak.
    11. Everybody is educated to become a hero.
    12. Machismo and weaponry.
    13. Selective populism.
    14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

  18. Not the IT Dept. says:

    It’s a mistake to only focus on Trump. We should be thinking about the politician who’s out there making notes and who’s smart enough not to make Trump’s self-indulgent mistakes. And who knows that the GOP has shown it’s willing to back a strong man if it gets what it wants – which at this point I’m not even sure what that might be. Never assume that when Trump is defeated that the whole nightmare is over. It’s only beginning. We can never again drop our guard and be auto-pilot citizens.