It can happen here. “Here” being any country in which capitalism rules. When does a bourgeois formal democracy tip over into fascism? That is a question that needs an answer in many places, certainly not excepting the United States, which has already experienced a self-coup attempt with unmistakable fascist overtones.
We’re referencing Donald Trump’s attempt at a self-coup, to use the Latin American phrase, in January 2021. Many people, even on the Left, laugh at that day’s events, pointing out that the would-be putsch had no chance of success. It did have no chance of success. That does not mean it should be cavalierly dismissed; on the contrary, it should be taken with utmost seriousness. Hitler’s beer hall putsch of 1923 had no chance of success, either, and his violent movement remained on the lunatic fringe for several more years. But we know how German history would turn out.
There will be no facile comparison of the contemporary United States with Weimar Germany here. We are not living in Weimar times. There are no organized brown shirts running amuck, a military deeply hostile to democracy and ready to act on that hostility nor a significant number of industrialists bankrolling storm troops. History does not repeat itself, as tragedy or farce, neatly and certainly not precisely. We nonetheless might take a lesson from history before we take stock of contemporary political conditions.
One myth to be dispelled is that Hitler was elected. He wasn’t. He was handed power by the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor. Unfortunately, that was completely legal under the Weimar constitution, and enough for the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats, to hold their powder — they refused to unleash their militia and confined themselves to a legal order that was imminently going to be destroyed. The other major opposition party, the Communists, declared “After Hitler, our turn,” a public sentiment quite a contrast with their membership forced to go into hiding or exile as the newly empowered Nazis began rounding up party members and destroying their offices.
Union leaders meekly rolled over for Hitler after he was handed power, agreeing to participate in what would now be a Nazi-led May Day celebration. Within two days of that May Day, the Nazis began arresting union leaders and banning existing unions; social democrats would soon meet the same fate. It took Hitler only three months to sweep away all opposition and assume dictatorial power. With all political opposition swept away, persecutions of Jews, Roma and LGBT communities began with results the world should never forget or minimize.
Why did von Hindenburg appoint Hitler chancellor? In the last election before the January 1933 appointment, the Nazi vote had actually declined from the previous ballot; the combined Communist and Social Democrat vote was 1.5 million votes higher than the Nazi vote, which totaled 33 percent, although the combined Left vote was a million shy of the combined vote of the Nazis and the National Party, the remaining vehicle of the traditional Right. Most of the 1920s support for Germany’s traditional right-wing parties had been transferred to the Nazis, who made a gigantic leap from 2.6 percent in May 1928 to 18 percent (second among 10 parties) in September 1930. The leaders of those traditional right-wing parties had thought they could control Hitler by having him appointed chancellor (the equivalent of prime minister) but giving the Nazis only two of 10 cabinet positions. Unfortunately, one of those positions was the Interior Ministry that controlled the police, allowing the Nazis to flood the police with their brown shirt thugs. That Interior minister, Wilhelm Frick, was a participant in the beer hall putsch but was given no more punishment than a suspended sentence.
Violence in the service of corporate profits
The stories in Italy and other countries that fell to fascism aren’t much different. Mussolini, too, was handed power. Mussolini was a socialist until he began receiving money from arms manufacturers and other business interests. Although now far to the right, he carefully allowed a variety of propaganda to be put forth and even denied having a program, allowing fascism to appear to be whatever one wished it to be. But his benefactors knew what he and they wanted. Fascists were receiving regular subsidies from shopkeepers’ associations and the Confederation of Industry. Socialists came in first in November 1919 elections but conservatives began buying the support of fascist squads and police allowed them to attack unimpeded and even provided support. Mussolini’s March on Rome could not have happened without Italian business leaders financing the fascist squads. Soon King Vittorio Emmanuel appointed him prime minister. Bans on unions and strikes swiftly followed. In Spain, a fascist-minded military overthrew the Republican government; military coups brought fascist generals to power in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s with the support of fascist squads using violent tactics. Violent suppression of working people and their organizations, and reduced wages and working conditions, followed in each case.
In none of the historical cases was a fascist takeover a sudden burst from nowhere. There was much violence by the Right amply funded by corporate leaders and backed by the military and police. The tipping point came before the takeovers — there was, and is, no easily definable point where the rubicon is crossed. Thus vigilance and pushback is always necessary. If it looks like fascism and acts like fascism, then it should be taken seriously as a fascist movement. The 2024 presidential election season has already begun in the U.S., which does not yet have industrialists and bankers bankrolling street thugs and maneuvering to overthrow formal democracy. Those corporate titans certainly appreciated all that the Trump administration, staffed by some of the most virulent ideologues from among the bourgeoisie and comprador, did for them and would do for them again if they get the chance, but that is different from backing an outright fascist movement. Given how much control industrialists and bankers have over the U.S. political process, it is hardly necessary for them to overthrow a system that works so well for them.
Nonetheless, times and conditions can change, and the very fact that a fascist movement exists — one that Trump currently heads but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wishes to assume the leadership of — should be taken with utmost seriousness, especially as it is a movement that shows no sign of dispersing.
There is not a parliamentary system in the United States but rather a two-party system that is seemingly impregnable, and possesses a military that to all appearances, for all its use as a battering ram overseas for corporate plunder, is nonetheless a strictly constitutional body with no hint of domestic unrest. True, but we should disabuse ourselves of elevating form over function. The classical image of fascism is of storm troopers marauding in the streets, violently suppressing any opposition. But 1970s South America was different than 1920s and 1930s Europe. There were fascist gangs running loose in Chile and Argentina, but fascism was imposed through undisguised military coups.
Fascism in the United States, were it to happen, would come in forms different from all of those, with Christian fundamentalists forming a key portion of any base. But what is crucial is that a significant percentage of a country’s industrialists and financiers — its capitalist ruling class — backs the imposition of a dictatorship with money and other support. This is the crucial commonality overriding the different forms of fascist takeovers.
Empty rhetoric versus class interests
Why is this so crucial? Because fascism is a dictatorship imposed for the benefit of large industrialists and financiers. At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.
Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists and bankers who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them.
It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain. Working people beginning to withdraw their consent — beginning to seriously challenge the economic status quo — is one “crisis” that can bring on fascism. An inability to maintain or expand profits, as can occur during a steep decline in the “business cycle,” or a structural crisis, is another such “crisis.”
No fascist movement can succeed without a sizable base convinced that those on the Left must be stopped at any cost, that the only way the mystical far Right return to the past that is dangled in front of them can be brought about is for it to be forcibly imposed and those in opposition must be suppressed with violence. This portion of the equation, unfortunately, very much exists in the United States as the unshakable following of Trump sadly demonstrates. Trump’s desire to be a fascist dictator is obvious — this should be unmistakable for anyone on the Left, but sadly isn’t as all too many either still don’t take Trump and his base seriously or, worse, are seduced by Trump’s siren songs.
I was once a guest on a respected environmental radio program discussing the Trump administration’s plans for revising the North American Free Trade Agreement when I was quite rudely interrupted and addressed in a most condescending manner by another guest, the prominent head of a Washington non-governmental organization (NGO) who purported to “correct” me by claiming that Trump’s trade advisers say they want to do away with the secret tribunals that corporations use to overturn government laws and regulations. Trump had been in power more than a year at this point, and his administration’s all-out war on working people and its strenuous efforts to allow corporations to plunder and pollute unencumbered by regulations was in full swing. Moreover, the administration’s trade policy paper had been released — this was the topic I was addressing — and there was nothing ambiguous about its intention of dismantling labor, safety, health or environmental standards upheld by other countries.
Trump’s vaguely left-sounding rhetoric was merely for show, a transparently obvious ploy to attract voters who had very good reasons for deploring so-called “free trade” agreements and the many other policies that have screwed over working people while allowing jobs to be moved overseas. Germans in the Weimar Republic had plenty of reasons to be fed up, too, but those obvious Nazi lies became unmistakably lies when Hitler wiped out those storm troops who believed the left-sounding rhetoric in the “Night of the Long Knives.” Mussolini used such tactics as well.
The records of Trump and DeSantis should be unmistakable
Four years of Trump in the White House — four years of all-out assaults on working people and the environment, incompetent bumbling and lying about the Covid-19 pandemic and giving permission to every misanthrope to act out their most obnoxious anti-social fantasies — could not be clearer. Trump remains an embodiment of the threat of fascism. And what of his main rival for the Republican Party presidential nomination? DeSantis — or DeSatan as he has been dubbed — clearly also has aspirations of becoming a fascist dictator. The governor does not have a rabid popular backing like Trump does but he seems more likely to acquire strong backing from industrialists and financiers than Trump, giving his success in reducing the Florida Legislature to his rubber-stamp. DeSantis might as well be ruling by decree considering how legislators hand him whatever he wants.
The record here needs no introduction for those paying attention. But let us “highlight” some of his doings. He’s waging a scorched-earth war against LGBT communities, denying their humanity and banning to the extent possible even discussing those communities’ interests, imposing draconian abortion bans (women always stripped of rights and reduced to baby machines under fascism), unilaterally removing from office elected officials who dare to disagree with him, banning books, whitewashing history, using immigrants as disposable props in the service of nationalism and nativism, and offering bonuses to police officers to relocate to Florida, many of whom have been accused of criminal acts including domestic battery, kidnapping and murder. So vicious is the police state DeSantis is moving to create and so hostile is the attempt to erase slavery and racism from history that the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for African-Americans to avoid the state.
Although it is inarguably true that an independent fascist party is not going to take power in the United States in the foreseeable future, it is not necessary for one to arise. The two leading candidates for one of the two parties that alternate in power, the Republicans, both have aspirations of being fascist dictators and there is a sizable base of Republicans ready for just that. Little help from the other party, the Democrats, is forthcoming as the “center-left” opposition (in actuality the “center-right” opposition to the far right) is steam-rolled time after time, their inability to stand up to the right or mount any effective opposition is not only the product of being beholden to corporate money and “American exceptionalism” ideology but the intellectual dead end of liberalism. (I’m using North American terminology here; readers in the rest of the world can substitute “social democratic” for “liberal.”)
North American liberalism and European social democracy are trapped by a fervent desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system. They are hamstrung by their belief in the capitalist system, which means, today, a belief in austerity for working people and subsidies for corporate and financial plunder, no matter what nice speeches they may make. When Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, François Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Romano Prodi all fall to their knees in front of industrialists and financiers, when each speedily implements neoliberal austerity policies despite leading the supposed “center-left” opposition to the conservative parties that openly stand for corporate domination, there is something other than personal weakness at work. And this sorry record — Bill Clinton was the most effective Republican president the U.S. ever had — provides an opening for far right demagogues to offer left-sounding siren songs that fool too many.
Nonetheless, I can readily understand why so many United Statesians, not only liberals but even those who are on the Left, vote for Democrats as a tactical move, arguing that a Democrat in power, particularly in the White House, provides more space to maneuver. Although I personally don’t have the stomach to vote for Democrats, I certainly understand this tactical voting as a matter of survival, especially as each Republican administration is worse than the last. But it would be helpful if Democratic voters would put some pressure on their office holders to actually try to implement some of what they want rather than giving them a free pass. And a different strategy from the usual Democratic Party cringing and cowering shouldn’t mean cowering first and then cringing.
Voting aside — and voting should be the least of the things we do — fascism can only be stopped by a mass movement, by confronting it directly. And that means taking seriously the danger, rather than laughing at the ignorance of Trump and his blinkered followers. Fascism is never a laughing matter as its body count ought to make clear.