A (Not-So-New) Profile of the American Right: On the Authoritarian-Fascist Crisis

Photograph Source: David Geitgey Sierralupe – CC BY 2.0

Following the January 6th neofascistic attacks on Capitol Hill, Americans are quickly waking up to the realities of growing extremism on the right. There is now a large share of reactionaries in this country who are drawing false equivalencies between Antifa and Black Lives Matter on the left, and the neofascists on the right. What these desperate comparisons miss are: 1. That antifascism and fascism are polar opposites, ideologically and practically speaking, with one celebrating Nazism and white supremacy and the other attacking those values; 2. The goals of anti-fascist and anti-racist politics, while at times associated with violence, are driven by support for democratic values and equal rights, rather than by a fundamental contempt for democratic principles and the rule of law; 3. Authoritarianism and support for violence are far more common on the American right than on the American left, with those on the right twice as likely to endorse the use of violence against individuals for political, religious, and social purposes than those on the left. [1]

Social scientists have long warned about the problem of “asymmetric polarization” in the United States, with the bulk of growing political extremism happening on the American right, rather than on the left. This one-sided polarization is observed in numerous academic studies, documenting the concentration of authoritarianism on the American right, via rising extremism in Republican Party politics, and related to the growing propensity of the right to use violence. My own research utilizing public opinion surveys reinforces the asymmetric polarization finding, as consumption of right-wing media is far more strongly associated with pulling Americans news consumers to the right than consumption of liberal media content is in pulling Americans to the left.

The large majority of mainstream journalists, public intellectuals, and scholars working in the field of fascism studies, have all been careful over the years to avoid characterizing Trump or U.S. politics as fascistic. Only a handful of scholars and other intellectuals, for example Henry Giroux, Jason Stanley, Carl Boggs, Paul Street, and a few others, have been sounding the fascism alarm bell for the last few years. These people were largely ignored by mainstream public intellectuals and scholars, despite recognizing the dangers of what’s been happening in real time.

The problem with American denialism is that it’s meant the circumvention of an important and necessary discussion about rising fascism that needed to happen following Trump’s rise to power, and in the wake of the terrorist white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, El Paso, and elsewhere. Now that Americans are finally waking up from their slumber regarding the threat of rightwing extremism, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of rushing from fascism denialism, to rapidly mobilizing law enforcement to disrupt, combat, and dismantle that fascist threat. This dramatically shifting reality speaks to the wholesale failure of American political discourse. This discussion should have been taking place in a very open and visible way over the last four years, before we reached a full-on crisis involving American fascistic violence.

Even if most Americans (myself included) would not characterize the U.S. as fully consolidated in terms of a fascist politics, there has been a wholesale resistance in this country to even admitting that U.S. politics contain significant elements or undercurrents of fascism. Collective fascism-denialism is strong in the U.S., especially among white America, who has for a century adopted a militant “It Can’t Happen Here” exceptionalism that envisions the U.S. as immune to fascist-style politics.

That naivete is now coming crashing down in the wake of the DC attacks, amidst reports that the fascist right is planning violent attacks in all 50 states to disrupt Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Those who are familiar with the extremism of the QAnon-right will hardly be surprised by these findings, as these fanatics have been ritualistically and openly promising violence against the Democratic Party and its supporters for months on social media venues like Facebook, Parler, and others.

In the spirit of encouraging a much-needed discussion on the fascism problem, I am revisiting the warning signs of this extremism that have been staring us in the face over the last four years, and which Counterpunch readers can find by reviewing my previous writings.

In “The Shutdown as Fascist Creep: Profiling Rightwing Extremism in America,” a piece published two years ago, and following the 2018-2019 government shutdown, I focused on the emerging evidence of an extremist threat on the right, via rising mass public support for political violence that was documented in national surveys from the Pew Research Center:

“On the authoritarian-fascist front, Pew included survey questions that each captured some aspect of these [authoritarian-fascistic] ideologies in their February 2017 and March 2018 national surveys”:

+ “On the rule of law, freedom of the press, and individual rights: ‘How important is it to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States: that news organizations are free to criticize political leaders’ (‘very, somewhat, not too, or not at all important’) (February 2017).”

+ “On checks and balances and the rule of law: ‘Which comes closer to your view…Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts,’ or ‘It would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems.’ (February 2017; March 2018).”

+ “On violence against ‘others’: ‘Some people think targeting and killing civilians can be justified to further a political, social, or religious cause. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence can never be justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?’ (February 2017).”

+ “On the assault on immigrants: ‘All in all, would you favor or oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico?’ (February 2017).”

+ “On extreme nationalism: ‘We’d like you to compare the United States to other developed nations in a few different areas. What about its political system?’ (‘best in the world’; ‘above average’; ‘average’; ‘below average’) (March 2018).”

“Each of the above traits speaks to one [sub]component of American fascism. When combining these measures to examine how they jointly relate to Trump support, I can better gauge how fascism as a multi-faceted ideology relates to the American right”…

“A simple analysis of the survey items above reveals that the concern with fascism in Trump’s America is warranted. Twenty-one percent of Trump supporters agreed in 2017 that the use of violence against civilians was acceptable in pursuit of political, social, and religious goals – in line with the longstanding embrace of such acts on the Christian reactionary right and among right-wing militia groups in America. Twenty-eight percent of Trump supporters in 2017, and 30 percent in 2018 agreed that the president should be freed from Constitutional checks and balances imposed by Congress and the courts to pursue his political agenda. Eighty-three percent of supporters agreed with the creation of the ‘wall’ between the U.S. and Mexico. Another 32 percent felt that the U.S. political system is the best in the world. Finally, 19 percent of supporters agreed that freedom of the press is not too important or not at all important, contrary to longstanding First Amendment protections for journalists against media censorship. Other measures outside those considered here suggest that Trump supporters’ and Republicans’ authoritarianism is even more severe, with about half of Republicans agreeing that the 2020 election should be postponed due to Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud, that the news media are the ‘enemy of the people’ and that news outlets should be ‘shut down’ if they are perceived to be trafficking in ‘inaccurate’ or fake news. The focus on Republican authoritarianism is obviously relevant to Trumpian authoritarianism, considering the vast majority of Republicans approve of the president when asked in surveys”…

“While about half of Republicans and Trump supporters endorse political authoritarianism in one form or another, the number of openly fascist supporters [defined here as extreme nationalists/white nationalists with contempt for democracy and the rule of law] is not as high, but disturbing, nonetheless. Seventeen percent of Trump supporters in 2018 endorsed both extreme nationalism and contempt for checks and balances between the president and the other branches. Twenty-four percent supported the creation of Trump’s wall, while also holding contempt for Constitutional checks and balances (2018). Between those supporting violence, and those embracing both extreme nationalism and attacks on Constitutional checks and balances, these polls suggest that about one-in-four to one-in-five Trump supporters endorse fascist politics. Many seem content in their contempt for the rule of law, with 15 percent of the president’s supporters (2017) recognizing that Trump doesn’t care about democracy but endorsing him all the same”…

“Authoritarian and fascistic political views are held by large numbers of Trump supporters. But how significant are these attitudes in driving Trump support? Using statistical “regression” analysis, I isolate the predictive power of each of the above attitudes in increasing Trump support, after accounting for (or “controlling” for) other demographic factors, by holding each constant at its average value. These “control” factors include respondents’ political party affiliation, self-declared ideology, gender, age, education, race, and income. My results suggest that authoritarian and fascistic sentiments are significant predictors of support for Trump in all of the analyses undertaken. More specifically, I find that, after controlling for the demographic factors above, fascistic and authoritarian beliefs predict Trump support in the following ways”:

+ “Contempt for checks and balances between the branches of government was accompanied by a 26 percent increased likelihood of supporting Trump in 2018, and 33 percent increased likelihood in 2017.”

+ “Embracing violence against perceived enemies was associated with an 11 percent increased likelihood of supporting Trump.”

+ “Contempt for media freedom was associated with a 33 percent greater likelihood of being a Trump supporter.”

“Respondents’ embrace of fascistic politics, as embodied by their support for numerous authoritarian positions [that emphasized extreme nationalism and contempt for democracy], is even more strongly associated with Trump support, after controlling for other demographic factors. In other words, as fascistic values intensify, so too does support for Trump”:

+ “Being Republican, endorsing extreme nationalism, and holding contempt for checks and balances was associated with being 51 percent more likely to support Trump (2018).”

+ “Those endorsing both the wall and holding contempt for checks and balances were 63 percent more likely to approve of Trump (2018).”

“To get a better sense of the gravity of the threat I’ve addressed, it helps to look at the hard numbers of Americans who embrace authoritarian and fascistic politics. With approximately 250 million adults in the United States, with 25 percent self-identifying as Republican, and with half of those individuals supporting attacks on elections and the press, this means that approximately 30 million Americans endorse the Republican Party and Trump’s brand of authoritarian politics. Approximately 40 percent of American adults approve of Trump in national surveys, and about one-fifth to one-fourth of Trump supporters embrace fascistic politics in some form, amounting to a staggering 20 to 25 million American fascists. With these numbers, it should not be surprising that the United States is experiencing its own crisis of right-wing, paramilitary-based fascism, as seen in the rise of routine mass shootings and domestic terrorist attacks – two-thirds of which are perpetrated by well-armed members of the reactionary right. These ominous statistics suggest that the discussion of “creeping fascism” may be somewhat misplaced, as we appear to be well into the era of full-blown, citizen-driven fascism.”

Of course, the rising fascist threat was apparent well before the 2018-2019 government shutdown. Those paying attention following the 2017 events in Charlottesville knew that the reactionary-fascist right’s coming out party had already occurred early on in Trump’s term. For those who carefully examined the available evidence, the signs of mass support for extremism were apparent. As I wrote at the time in another Counterpunch piece, “Fascist Nation: The Alt-Right Menace Persists, Despite Setbacks”:

“As an ABC-Washington Post poll from August 2017 found, one-in-ten Americans, or 22 million people, said they were supporters of the ‘alt-right’ movement, and claimed it is ‘acceptable’ to hold neo-Nazi, white supremacist views. And these numbers may be an underestimate. In a national survey I designed that was administered in January 2018, I asked Americans across the nation what they thought of the ‘alt-right’ or ‘alternative right movement,’ on a scale from 0 to 100, with a ‘0’ representing strong disagreement, a ‘50’ being undecided, and a ‘100’ signifying strong agreement. One in five Americans – 21 percent – expressed some form of approval for the movement by assigning a score of ‘60’ or higher to the ‘alt-right,’ while 12 percent expressed strong support, assigning the movement a score of ‘75’ or higher”…

“The above findings are disturbing. They suggest that, while few Americans are willing to be publicly shamed and attacked by turning out for white supremacist rallies, the ‘alt-right’ movement benefits from many closet-supporters throughout the nation. These individuals represent a significant threat to democracy, in that their support for authoritarian and fascistic policies could be readily mobilized, particularly behind a charismatic autocratic leader like Donald Trump, who has a history of flirting with fascist and far-right political beliefs” [emphasis added].

As I also wrote at the time, efforts to draw neat lines of distinction between the fascist right and the “conservative” right were dangerous when Donald Trump was increasingly successful in serving as a bridge between the two by “mainstreaming” authoritarian-fascistic political values within the Republican Party’s base:

“A more sophisticated and grounded analysis of American fascism – advocated by scholars and journalists such as David Neiwert and Alexander Reid Ross, describes American politics as succumbing to a ‘creeping fascism,’ where reactionary and white supremacist views are incrementally smuggled into ‘mainstream’ media discourse, at outlets like Fox News, on talk radio, and in other far-right news sources, without acknowledging the fact that such views originated on the white supremacist right. This practice was/is apparent in the Obama ‘birther’ conspiracism of Fox News’ Sean Hannity and talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh, in the stereotypes and blatant attacks against Muslims purveyed by Fox News, in the blatant anti-Semitism incorporated into stories on Alex Jones’s Info Wars, and in the xenophobic conflation of immigrants and terrorism on programs such as Fox News’ ‘Tucker’”…

“There can be no neat distinction made between far-right media figures and the Trump administration on the one hand, and members of the ‘alt-right’ on the other. Trump dedicated his election campaign and now his tenure in office to assaulting people of color, immigrants, women, and religious minorities, while flirting with openly white-supremacist forces. The definitive proof of the cross-pollination between the conservative and fascistic right is apparent in my (January 2018) survey of American attitudes on the ‘alt-right.’ Closely examining that poll, I find that, statistically speaking, the strongest predictor by far of support for the ‘alt-right’ is trust in and reliance on far-right media sources, including Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart News, Sean Hannity, and Info Wars– despite none of these venues openly claiming to be ‘alt-right’ or white supremacist. In contrast, other factors such as respondents’ income, political party, and gender are statistically unrelated to attitudes of the ‘alt-right.’ Education (being more highly educated) and race (being white) have a slightly negative impact on opinions of the movement, while age has a moderately positive impact in driving support, although it is the 30-45 age group, not the 18-29 group, who are disproportionately more likely to support the movement. Still, right-wing media reliance is three times as powerful a predictor of ‘alt-right’ support than is age, speaking to the central role of these ‘news’ outlets in propping up the creeping fascism phenomenon. These findings demolish any notion that the allegedly ‘alt-lite’ media discussed above, or their supporters, including conservative Americans and the Trump administration, can be cleanly separated from the ‘alt-right’ phenomenon.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that America’s intellectuals and media have profoundly failed to raise the necessary and appropriate warning flags over the last four years, as the rising authoritarian-fascistic politics of the American right have intensified. We have now reached the point where only the most militant deniers are still holding out on engaging in a serious discussion of the fascism question.

Much of the problem can be traced to journalists themselves. Outside of outright avoidance of references to fascism in American politics, they have artificially truncated the discussion of fascism when it does occur by restricting those consulted to historians, who have consistently dismissed comparisons between the classic fascist regimes of the twentieth century and the fascistic politics of today. These scholars have not engaged in the large volume of quantitative evidence regarding rising extremism. In large part, that is because of ideological blinders, via the longstanding fascism denialism among members of the intellectual class. Also, it is partly because historians’ specific skillset – constructing narratives and telling stories about American history that involve careful attention to historical facts, details, and primary data sources – is not well-fit to engaging with the contemporary [quantitative] social science-based indicators of the threat of rising fascism.

While historians are exceedingly good at tracing out the details of historical fascism as it existed in Germany and Italy between the years of 1922 and 1945, they are not well equipped to produce the sort of empirical social science scholarship that would add further depth and nuance to discussions of contemporary fascism. Unfortunately, contemporary journalistic and popular media accounts pieces have often failed (see here, here, here, here, and here for examples) to recognize that scholars operating outside of history departments may have something important to say in lending their expertise to the study of fascism. In the cases when non-historian findings have been incorporated into popular discussions alongside those of historians, it is revealing that the fascism debate becomes much more lively, with compelling evidence of the fascism threat readily apparent.

Historians, despite their valuable contributions to this discussion, are not experts on American politics, political communication, rhetoric, or public opinion. So by cutting out the views of people outside of history departments, discussions of fascism have often cut out people with the relevant empirical skill sets to study American political structures, political rhetoric, media content, and public opinion, as they relate to the theme of rising fascism. As a result, our discussion of fascism is dismissive, unnecessarily narrow, and truncated, with a predetermined answer that denies the fascist threat without really engaging in the relevant contemporary evidence. This sort of behavior is how journalists have avoided a nuanced, deeper discussion of the problem of fascism crisis. But now the time’s come to expand our discussion beyond the narrow historical accounts of the specific features of classic fascism that occurred in a 23-year window of time in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. If we refuse to update our discussions of fascism to twenty-first century politics, we will continue to downplay the threat of rising extremism.

End Notes.

[1] My analysis of the February 2017 Pew Research Center national survey reveals that those who self-identify as “strong conservative” are twice as likely to agree that “killing civilians can be justified in order to further a political, social, or religious cause.” Importantly, 20 percent of those who identify as “strong conservative” agree with this authoritarian sentiment, compared to 10 percent who identify as “strong liberal[s].”

 

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019), Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.

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