Fascism in the USA: Could It Happen and How Can We Avoid It?

NOTE: This is an excerpted and edited version of the transcript of a session held at the Bioneers Conference in May 2022, in which Bioneers Senior Producer J.P. Harpignies interviewed Professor Lawrence Rosenthal.

Lawrence Rosenthal, Ph.D., is Chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, which he founded in 2009. His work has appeared in numerous publications including the Nation, the International New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy, and many others. He co-edited Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party and The New Nationalism and the First World War; and is the author of Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism.

J.P. Harpignies

J.P. HARPIGNIES: A very influential text in my life has been The Art of War, the oldest known manual of military strategy, attributed to a 6th Century BCE Chinese general, Sun Tzu. One of the main overarching themes of that work is that if you want to be successful in a conflict, you need to: know yourself, know the opponent as well as yourself, and know the terrain. Knowing yourself means having a really good sense of your own strengths, weaknesses and capacities. Knowing the opponent as well as yourself means having the same deep understanding as regards to your adversary, and knowing the terrain in a military sense means knowing the actual physical terrain, but in a political rather than a military context, it means understanding deeply the ideological, cultural, economic and historical features of the nation or region in which a political struggle is being waged.

And I feel that the progressive left in this country has in general done an extremely bad job of understanding the right, of understanding the ideological opposition. And that may be one reason that we seem to find ourselves on what currently appears to be a sort of slow conveyor belt to authoritarianism.

One of the most important organizations attempting to remedy that lack of understanding is the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies led by Professor Lawrence Rosenthal. It’s the only such center anywhere in any major American university. Professor Rosenthal founded it in 2009, and unfortunately, his area of expertise is in great demand at the moment.

Obviously, the risk of a right-wing takeover is on so many people’s minds, and it’s being widely discussed in progressive and centrist media, but one problem is that even though so many historians and pundits are talking about it, I’m not seeing very many genuinely realistic approaches to preventing it.

But Lawrence, what drew you to devoting so much of your intellectual life to the study of the right?

Lawrence Rosenthal

LAWRENCE ROSENTHAL: Troy Duster, a brilliant thinker who has had a great influence on me, says: “Scratch a body of work and you’ll find autobiography.” To some extent that’s true in this case. I spent some time living in Italy as a young man, and I was really interested in the place. I became struck by the fact that this country I loved, an immensely humane place where I really enjoyed life and felt at home, had invented fascism (it’s an Italian word).

Back in the 1920s, they had dressed in black, gotten in the back of pickup trucks and gone into the countryside, lynched socialist mayors, poured castor oil down the throats of union members and destroyed whatever socialist infrastructure existed. I wanted to try to understand the point of view of the people who had done this, and I continue to be motivated by wanting to understand what’s going on in these sorts of movements.

JP: Can you talk a little bit more about Italy, including what’s happening there today and what it might tell us about our own politics, since that Italian experience was so formative for your work.

LAWRENCE: In Italy, from the end of World War II to the early ‘90s, there were  mostly two dominant parties, the Christian Democrats on the center-right and the Communists (which was somewhat similar to post-war France), but that somewhat stable decades-old dynamic started to break down in the 80s, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Silvio Berlusconi, a charismatic if vulgar, hustling businessman who was the richest man in Italy and owned nearly all the private TV in the country, emerged in the early ‘90s, putting together a populist political party, Forza Italia, that filled the political void. There are many ways in which he foreshadowed Trump: blatant lying, womanizing, the love of wealth, shameless corruption, etc.

But Berlusconi’s brand of populism, starting in roughly 2010 with the rise of immigration as a major issue in Italy and Europe in general, mutated into a more intense nationalist populism, and new actors with closer historical ties to fringe fascist parties emerged, including Matteo Salvini, who was rabidly anti-immigration and prevented ships with desperate migrants from landing at ports when he was Interior Minister. (Editor’s note: and now, since this discussion was held, another political figure with ties to historically fascist parties, Giorgia Meloni, has become Italy’s first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini)

That transition in the thrust of populism was mirrored in this country, so that the populism that had this huge burst during the Obama years, as manifested in the Tea Party, had a definite racist aspect but was above all defined by a sort of anti-government regulation, Koch brothers-style of libertarian capitalism, similar to Berlusconi’s free-wheeling, free market, anything goes to get rich ideology. That mutated into a much more “America First” strain of nationalism far more focused on rabid opposition to immigrants that Trump capitalized on and rode into the White House.

That transition of contemporary populism to a far more intensely nationalistic form has, in fact, been happening all over the world: in Turkey, India, Hungary, Brazil, Russia, etc. The triumph of Brexit in Britain was part of the same international zeitgeist, and it has had the wind in its sails for the last 10 years or so.

JP: Why do you think that transition occurred? Why did so many working-class people who used to vote for the left in Europe or Democrats in the U.S. or the Congress Party in India become rabid nationalist populists?

LAWRENCE: There are basically two points of view on this rise. One is economic and the other is what you could call cultural. A huge study of the 2016 election run by the Gallup organization that spoke to 80,000 people discovered that the likelihood of being a Trump voter in 2016 was directly proportional to the absence of immigrants in your life or anywhere around you. I call it the imagined or “imaginary other.”

On the economics side of things, yes, there has been an increasing immiseration of the American working class and increasingly the middle class as well, since about 1973, and that wave crested and broke in 2008 with the financial crisis, which really boosted that populism around the world. The right wing very effectively uses social media to take advantage of the vulnerability of alienated people who feel dispossessed. And their worldview seems on the surface to offer a powerful alternative to the failures of the “neo-liberal” economic system because, while one would think the economic crisis of global capitalism would boost the left, this populist worldview had an element the left lacked: intense resentment.

That is why I called my book Empire of Resentment. The motivation of this rising movement, which Trump understood, is above all resentment, which is anger, but anger with a direction. It’s anger that’s directed at those you perceive as being above you, those you perceive as an elite. It’s in contrast to contempt, which is anger that’s directed down to the people you see as lesser than yourself. And in the history of this country, resentment has been the prime mover of populist politics.

There is also a history of left populism in America, and there is some resentment toward elites on the left as well, but the resentment on the left has historically been aimed at financial elites, whereas on the right the rage is directed at cultural elites whom they perceive as people who think know better than us and are trying to tell us how we should live, and that anger seems to be sharper, more emotionally intense and easier to mobilize than anger aimed solely at economic inequality.

The fact is that the center left did not successfully mount an alternative to neo-liberalism. Bill Clinton and Obama didn’t do it, and it’s not clear to me that there was a program out there that could do it because capitalism is so deeply entrenched, but it’s extraordinary that when neo-liberalism finally confronted a truly powerful adversary, it came from the nationalist right, because there is a considerable movement on the populist right which doesn’t conform to the kind of classic Koch brothers’ populism that corporations can do no wrong, especially if those corporations are viewed as “politically correct” and parts of the snobby cultural elites.

Another element that’s really important to understand about the MAGA movement and this quality of anger is that they feel that they had the presidency, they were finally going to be able to retake control, the control that should rightfully be theirs, but they lost it, and they can only come to terms with that by believing that it was taken away from them for the benefit of immigrants and people of color. They feel that they are the ones who are victims of discrimination and are disrespected.

The sense of dispossession is fundamental, and this is where it hooks back up with economic factors. You hear them say: “I was supposed to have a job and work my whole life for decent pay, you know, and I could afford to send my kids to decent schools.” That was the implicit deal the white working class assumed was normal in this country post World War II, but the breakdown of unions, of good-paying manufacturing jobs, the evolution of global financial capitalism, all contributed to dissolving that status quo, so that sense of dispossession is really strong.

And they have a strong “zero-sum” mindset: they oppose even government programs that could help them if they perceive that they are helping “others” (people of color, immigrants, etc.) too much. Expanding those people’s rights can only be understood from the point of view of taking them away from “us,” hence the very different definitions of “freedom” on the right and left. For most of us, it’s wrong for businesses to discriminate against/refuse to serve minorities, as was the case with blacks until the 1960s and now with some businesses refusing to work on, say, gay weddings. For the right, it’s the “freedom” of business owners that is being impinged upon if they are forced to serve one and all.  

And that combination of resentment against cultural elites, immigrants and “others;” economic insecurity; and that deep sense of dispossession creates a potent motivator for the most militant of responses. And one of the main triggers of their rage is their hatred of what they call “political correctness,” especially the embrace of multiculturalism and of feminism. The thought that the USA is on the way to becoming a majority-minority country (as California already is) terrifies them. That’s something that Trump has shown an extraordinary capacity to understand and to use.

JP: That raises an interesting issue: Trump got 70 million votes in the 2020 election, and it wasn’t just white working-class men. The majority of white women and roughly 30% of the Hispanic electorate also voted for Trump. This seems a little broader than just the dispossessed working class. Where is this larger base of support coming from?

LAWRENCE: It does seem improbable that so many women voted for the thrice-divorced pussy grabber. It’s even more extraordinary that he has become the darling of American evangelicals. There is a widespread belief in things that seem, from an outside point of view, deeply irrational, but a lot of the resentment around feminism and multiculturalism is rooted in (mostly white) evangelical Christianity. Obviously, Trump’s commitment to putting anti-abortionists on the Supreme Court was often sufficient to garner their support, but there is a deeper, weirder aspect to it.

They’ve kind of read Trump back into the Bible, comparing him to a couple of biblical figures—David, who was deeply flawed but saved the Jews, and King Cyrus the Babylonian non-Jew who also saved the Jews. Trump seen in this light is a bringer of deliverance in spite of his peccadillos and immorality. As with these earlier figures, God, in his mysterious ways, sometimes sends someone like that to save us.

Another important factor in all this is how groups coalesce around certain identities. Identity can be formed when we feel we are part of a specific group with shared characteristics, and that identity can be intensified when we feel that our group has been oppressed or kept down. What people call the identity politics of the left generally involves movements in which women, minority populations, gay people, etc., groups that have historically been disenfranchised, demand a seat at the table. The identity formation in the populist right is the opposite: they feel that their seat at the table is being taken away, that they are being dispossessed. That second identity formation mechanism is more likely to lead you to define yourself in intense opposition to an enemy, i.e., the ones who are taking your power away. The most significant political philosopher (and he was brilliant) of Naziism was Carl Schmitt, and he argued that the first act in politics is to define the enemy, and this has proven to be a key factor in right-wing politics.

JP: There’s been a long history of right-wing movements in America. We had Rush Limbaugh-equivalents with such figures as Father Coughlin, and Lindbergh and the America First folks in the 1930s and ‘40s were Nazi sympathizers, and we had the John Birch Society in the ‘50s. And going further back there were populist movements in the 19th Century that were often racist. What makes this particular period different? What makes this particular iteration of right-wing populism particularly pernicious in your view?

LAWRENCE: I think the answer to your question is magnitude, how big it is. The political worldview that the Trumpian right stands for these days in America has been with us in its current form at least since the 1970s, including the militia right and the Christian right, which was very powerful in the ‘90s. They had consistently been at the fringes of the Republican party, but they always had power because they were the largest coherent block in Republican primaries. The Tea Party really raised primarying to an art and they began to drive the more “moderate” (or less insanely right-wing) Republicans out of office. The MAGA movement has intensified that and pushed nearly the entire party to the far-right.

The far-right of the party was always ultimately disappointed by their leaders, by Reagan, by Bush senior, even by George W. Bush (who actually, at the time, led the most conservative administration since Calvin Coolidge). They voted for the Republican party, but they never really felt that it delivered what they wanted. For the first time, with Trump, they got the sense that they were finally getting what they wanted: unbridled rage against the “politically correct” elites and feminists and immigrants, assaults against abortion rights, etc.

And Trumpism has been uniquely successful in forging alliances between Christian nationalism, white nationalism and the anti-government right (in the Timothy McVeigh/militia movement vein) and cohering these formerly mostly fringe elements into a single movement that has taken over much of the Republican Party, especially at the state level.

JP: In a number of other countries, we’ve seen a more successful complete takeover of power by the far right, in: Hungary, Turkey, Egypt, India, China, Russia, Poland to some degree, and sadly, many other countries. And here we seem to have dodged the first bullet, but the impression I get is that we’re on this slow conveyer belt heading into more authoritarian territory. Do you think that there are sufficient antibodies in our current body politic to repel this virus?

LAWRENCE: In the largest picture, if you take, say Hungary or Russia or Weimar Germany, each of those enjoyed a brief period of liberal democracy, and each of them got dispossessed by authoritarian takeovers in about 10 to 12 years’ time, but the United States has had democratic institutions (with all their failings) for about 250 years. There’s a lot more momentum and civic infrastructure to bring down here than there had been in Hungary, Poland, or Russia. I recognize that people may be surprised to hear a note of optimism from me, but I am attempting to show some versatility.

We have in our country not only the institutions of government but the institutions of what sociologists call civil society that are very powerful. There’s some irony here in that people on the left have railed for my entire lifetime, often justifiably, about the excessive power of large corporations, but some leading American corporations under pressure from their employees and much of the public have come out against the repeal of Roe vs Wade, the murder of George Floyd, etc. Major league baseball even took the all-star game out of Atlanta last year.

I think a complete authoritarian seizure of power in this country requires a much steeper climb than elsewhere. They are certainly trying. Ron DeSantis is attempting to make Florida into a mini-Hungary. He has even gone after Disney, the largest entertainment corporation in America, and he’s gone about it in a really extraordinary way, which is that he has managed to put a bill into law in the Florida legislature which takes away the privileges of a single entity. This is very much the Viktor Orbán playbook in Hungary.

We will have to see if sufficient corporate power, calculating that its interests lie in maintaining the relative stability of liberal democracy, will resist attempts at authoritarian takeovers, but one way or another they are a major force that has to be reckoned with. Add in our still existing free press/media and the whole landscape of strong civil society organizations, and it will be tough for the far right to make all the opposition go away. It will be much tougher to take over all the levers of power than it was in, say, Poland, which had liberal institutions for only a dozen years before Kaczynski and the Law and Justice Party came to power. But there is no doubt that the game is on, and there is a really fundamental difference between blue America and the current version of red America. Samuel Alito stated in the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe that the right to abortion cannot be protected because such a right is not “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” People in blue America have taken for granted that there is a creed, an ethic of equality at the heart of what American democracy is about, as manifested in the (obviously aspirational) language in the great documents of the 18th Century. But for Alito and the current right, it’s not the words of the Declaration of Independence that define our traditions, it’s the values and power of those who wrote it: white male Christians. That is an assertion of a fundamentally different view of what the American experiment is about.

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