Warnings of the Nightmare and Coup to Come
Thanks in no small part to the investigation being carried out by the US House January 6 Commission, we will continue to learn new details about the specifics of the Capitol Riot that Donald Trump and his cronies instigated in a last-ditch effort to prevent the Congressional certification and inauguration of Joe Biden as the United States’ 46th president. Still, no serious political observer should have been surprised by the Attack on the Capitol. In May of 2016, the liberal New Yorker commentator Adam Gopnik issued what turned out to be a prophetic warning seven months before Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton:
There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word “fascist” …his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government…is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end other than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’… The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history (emphasis added).
Two months before Gopnik’s eloquent reflection, I published a Counterpunch commentary titled “The Donald Can Happen Here: The Trumpenstein’s Neo-Weimar Creators”– a commentary that did not use the F-word (fascism) but didn’t really have to given the literary and historical references embedded in its title. Around the same time, my fellow former Truthdig commentator and the former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was less bashful. He published a blog post on Trump titled “The American Fascist,” arguing that Trump had already reached a point where “parallels between his presidential campaign and the fascists of the first half of the 20th century – lurid figures such as Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Oswald Mosley, and Francisco Franco – are too evident to overlook.” Reich was especially distressed by Trump’s evident determination to direct the anger of white Americans against Mexican immigrants and Muslims, Trump’s embrace of violence, Trump’s apparent readiness to violate international law against torture, Trump’s treatment of the media as an enemy, Trump’s effort to connect with mass followings directly, without political parties or other intermediaries standing between him and his supporters, and Trump’s effort to create a cult of personality taking on “the trappings of strength, confidence, and invulnerability –around himself.” To make matters worse, Reich noted that Trump had recently quoted Mussolini and began “inviting followers at his rallies to raise their right hands in a manner chillingly like the Nazi ‘Heil’ salute.” As Reich elaborated:
‘Trump’s tweets and rallies,” Reich noted, “circumvent all filters. The Republican Party is irrelevant to his campaign, and he considers the media an enemy. (Reporters covering his rallies are kept behind a steel barrier.) Viewing Donald Trump in light of the fascists of the first half of the twentieth century – who used economic stresses to scapegoat others, created cults of personality, intimidated opponents, incited violence, glorified their nations and disregarded international law, and connected directly with the masses – helps explain what Trump is doing and how he is succeeding. It also suggests why Donald Trump presents such a profound danger to the future of America and the world.’
Also prescient before Trump’s ascendancy was Henry A. Giroux, who wrote the following in his 2016 book America at War With Itself:
‘Trump is not an aberration. Rather, he is the successor of a long line of fascists who shut down public debate, attempt to humiliate their opponents, endorse violence as a response to dissent, and criticize any public display of democratic principles. The United States has reached the endpoint with Trump, and his presence should be viewed as a stern warning of the possible nightmare to come.’
“When people show you who they are,” the famed novelist Maya Angelou once wrote, “believe them the first time.” Riding the neofascistic and alt-right white nationalist wave that existed before his candidacy, Trump went on to be precisely the fascist pig president he warned the world he would be. Readers interested in just how true this statement is are invited to order my new book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America.
Cable news talking heads and newspaper pundits were stunned and horrified by the events of January 6, 2021. They had no business being surprised or feigning surprise, however. In a book titled A Warning and published under the pseudonym “Anonymous” in 2019, the senior White House official Miles Taylor predicted that Trump would violently resist an election loss. The conservative American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein agreed, “Members of Congress, governors and state legislators, leaders in civil society, lawyers, law enforcement figures and the military need,” Ornstein wrote in December of 2019, says, “to be thinking about how they might respond” when Trump refused to honor an election he lost. “Trump will do anything to stay” in power, Ornstein opined: “Suspension of the election, negation of the results, declaration of martial law.” Nine months earlier, in February 2019, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen told Congress that Trump would not leave office without violence. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump,” Cohen remarked, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
A year and a half later, as the 2020 election was just five weeks away, the liberal Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank issued a dire warning that made direct reference to fascism and to Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial power in 1933:
‘America, this is not a drill. The Reichstag is burning. For five years, my colleagues and I have taken pains to avoid Nazi comparisons. It is usually hyperbolic, and counterproductive, to label the right “fascists” in the way those on the right reflexively label the left “socialists.” But this is no longer a matter of name-calling. With his repeated refusals this week to accept the peaceful transfer of power — the bedrock principle that has sustained American democracy for 228 years — President Trump has put the United States, in some ways, where Germany was in 1933, when Adolf Hitler used the suspicious burning of the German parliament to turn a democracy into a totalitarian state….Asked on Sept. 23 if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, President Trump said, “We’re going to have to see what happens.”…Trump, as he has done before, has made the villain a minority group. He has sought, once again, to fabricate emergencies to justify greater powers for himself. He has proposed postponing elections. He has refused to commit to honoring the results of the election. And now, he proposes to embrace violence if he doesn’t win.’
On the same day Milbank issued his strident alarm, Huffington Post commentator Paul Blumenthal reflected on “The Nightmare Scenario That Could Hand Trump a Second Term”:
‘Trump has the backing of a broad network of heavily-armed militia groups, far-right street-fighting gangs, white supremacists and a pseudo-religious cult that believes Trump is a demigod operating in secret to prevent the apocalypse. Trump has primed these supporters to potentially reject the election results with his false statements about voter fraud and absentee voting. He also routinely celebrates violence against his opponents, casting them as subversive, alien threats to the American way of life. The Republican National Convention featured a married [white right-wing] couple [the loathsome McCloskeys of St. Louis – P.S.] as primetime speakers solely because they pointed guns at a peaceful protest that they imagined threatened their property. The calls for violence coming from some Trump supporters, such as Stone and disgraced Health and Human Services official Michael Caputo, likely will only increase as the election draws closer.’
Rare Clairvoyance: Timothy Snyder in the Spring of 2017
Cohen, Ornstein, Blumenthal, and Taylor were born out, to say the least. So, even more hauntingly and clairvoyantly, was Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who made a remarkably accurate and brilliant reflection during the following exchange with Salon’s Chauncy de Vega in April of 2017:
‘De Vega: you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?
Snyder: I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like. This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.
Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future. My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.’
Consistent with Snyder’s prophetically specific analysis, Trump in the summer of 2020 seemed to have abandoned any serious effort to win the election in “conventional” ways, that is, by trying to develop and run on a popular policy record. He was openly flouting public opinion on the pandemic, civil rights, police-statism, and the rule of law, helping keep his approval rate in the low 40s and Joe Biden well ahead of him in national polls. This was nothing for his critics and opponents to celebrate however, for, when combined with his clear desire to stay in power, it suggested strongly that he was going to try to keep the presidency in undemocratic, anti-constitutional, and violent (“Reichstag”) ways – just like Snyder said three years before.
Also consistent with Snyder’s April 2017 take (and especially with de Vega’s early understanding of Trump and Trumpism), the terrible events of January 6, 2021 were just the last in a long line of proofs that there was a fascist (however clumsy and foolish) atop the US government for four years (it was amusing to behold the leading “fascism expert” and European historian Robert “Better Late Than Never” Paxton wait for the Attack on the Capitol to finally agree that Trump was a fascist).
The Passive Resistance
The Democratic Party’s House January 6th Commission will undoubtedly enrich our understanding of the specific events and personalities surrounding the Capitol Riot and coup attempt, which was an effort to cancel “normal” bourgeois democracy and rule of law and install Trump as an authoritarian ruler over and against not just the popular vote but also and even the right-leaning and undemocratic Electoral College. By all indications, it will amount to little more than mild “checks and balances” window dressing for the neoliberal Hollow Resistance of the dithering Democratic Party during a Sleepy Weimer interregnum between Biden’s election and the Republifascist Party’s retaking of the House of Representatives (in November of 2022), the Senate (in 2022 or 2024) and the White House, quite possibly with Trump himself returning to inflict vengeance in 2024-25. For specifics on the ongoing Democratic surrender, please see my last two Counterpunch essays here and here.
And this, too, should be thoroughly unsurprisingly for those who have seriously followed US politics in the current century. Under Weimar Joe Biden-Pelosi-Schumer as under Obama-Pelosi-Reid, we have occasion to glean the wisdom of political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s prophetic remarks in the early spring of 2008. “Should Democrats somehow be elected,” Wolin wrote in his chilling volume Democracy, Incorporated, they would do nothing to “alter significantly the direction of society” or “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. …The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts,” Wolin wrote, “points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists [and environmentalists – P.S.] there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” Wolin’s imagined “in-power” corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.” Today we could edit Wolin’s prophecy by changing “drift rightwards” to “lurch rightwards” and switch “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans” to “marginalize any possible popular threat to the now fascist Republican Party.”
“The Legal Phase of Fascism”
The future looks grim – and I’m not even talking (here at least) about capitalogenic pandemics and ecocide. Being convicted of tax fraud in New York isn’t going to slow down the orange fascist shark currently smelling Democratic blood (Biden’s approval rating is stuck in the low 40s) in Mara-a-Lago. Being more completely exposed as the maniac behind January 6th is hardly going to cost him the dedicated support of his Amerikaner white-nationalist base when 75% of Republicans insanely believe his Big Fascist Stolen Election Lie. Roughly one in three Republicans now believe that violence is justified to counter the power of the Democrats.
“According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law,” the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley writes, “and 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with the threat of violent leftist and Black rebellion being used to justify them. That this is happening at the same time that multiple electoral bills enabling a Republican state legislature majority to overturn their state’s election have been enacted suggests that the true aim of bills criminalizing protest is to have a response in place to expected protests against the stealing of a future election (as a reminder of fascism’s historical connection to big business, some of these laws criminalize protest near gas and oil lines).”
Oh, indeed. Stanley, author of the widely read liberal text How Fascism Works, says that “America is now in fascism’s legal phase.”
“Millions of Angry, Armed Americans Stand Ready to Seize Power”
But the extra-legal aspects of the fascist pathology should not be discounted. According to Newsweek earlier this week:
‘Many rank-and-file Republicans …own guns and in recent months have talked openly of the need to take down—by force if necessary—a federal government they see as illegitimate, overreaching and corrosive to American freedom. The phenomenon goes well beyond the growth of militias, which have been a feature of American life at least since the Ku Klux Klan rose to power after the Civil War. Groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, which took part in the January 6th riot at the Capitol and may have played organizational roles, have grown in membership. Law enforcement has long tracked and often infiltrated these groups. [There is]… a large..and…diffuse movement of more-or-less ordinary people, stoked by misinformation, knitted together by social media and well-armed. In 2020, 17 million Americans bought 40 million guns and in 2021 were on track to add another 20 million. If historical trends hold, the buyers will be overwhelmingly white, Republican and southern or rural…America’s massive and mostly Republican gun-rights movement dovetails with a growing belief among many Republicans that the federal government is an illegitimate tyranny that must be overthrown by any means necessary. That combustible formula raises the threat of armed, large-scale attacks around the 2024 presidential election—attacks that could make the January 6 insurrection look like a toothless stunt by comparison. “The idea that people would take up arms against an American election has gone from completely farfetched to something we have to start planning for and preparing for,” says University of California, Los Angeles law professor Adam Winkler, an expert on gun policy and constitutional law.’
The title of the essay in which this and other chilling reflections can be found doesn’t mince words: “Millions of Angry, Armed Americans Stand Ready to Seize Power if Trump Loses in 2024.” One of the terrible scenarios it realistically imagines is Trump’s “constitutional” theft of the next presidential contest eliciting mass protests that “bring out armed Republican counter-protesters bent on protecting Trump’s nominal win and, in their minds, defending democracy against left-wing mobs.”
“It’s a fair concern that If Trump called on them to come out and suppress the mobs, they might respond,” Lindsay Cohn, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told Newsweek. No shit.
With all due respect for fascism’s “legal phase,” Jason Stanley certainly knows that the Amerikaner right recently hosted a big and loud, soul-numbing celebration for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Trumpist white teenager who owes his newfound celebrityhood on the right to the following “accomplishment”: shooting three Black Lives Matter protesters, killing two of them, with a military assault weapon on the evening of August 25, 2021.
Adding an exclamation point to the murderous undercurrent sweeping Red Amerika as Omicron sweeps the nation with the help of fascist science denial, the orange demon himself will be holding a press conference to “commemorate the Jan 6th protests,” when military veterans and people wearing CAMP AUSCHWITZ sweatshirts and others waving Confederate (Slave Power) flags looked to take Congresspersons hostage and screamed “Hang Mike Pence” while gallows were constructed on the Capitol steps. Expect the Big Liar-in-Chief to laud the glorious memory of the “murdered” fascist military veteran Ashli Babbitt, who is contemporary Amerikaner fascism’s version of the Nazi’s beloved martyr Horst Wessel.
Trump in 2020 and early 2021 was in fact ultimately and for a time “restrained by normal constitutional limits” (Gopnik’s language in 2016). But it is not at all clear that he and especially the fascist movement he both leads (however clumsily) and reflects will be constrained by those limits in coming years.
We Should “Do Something About It”
Two days before Christmas 2021 (on the morning of Thursday, December 23rd, 2021), the heralded Yale historian Timothy Snyder could be heard on N“P”R saying that “the Big [stolen election] Lie is not just in people’s minds now, it’s in the law books.” He says the likeliest outcome of the 2024 election is cancellation of the popular and Electoral College vote and the installation of Trump. He says that the Big Lie is “sadly” a match for the politics of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
NPR also put on the brilliant American historian Carol Anderson, who said that the Big Lie is fundamentally about racism and white supremacism – a very important point – and added that “it works.” “It’s so vile,” she added. Then it was back to Snyder, who said that we are basically witnessing the collapse of American democracy. That assumes that the US has any kind of functioning democracy to overthrow in the first place, an assumption I call into detailed question for the 500th time in my next Counterpunch + (to be titled “It Goes Back to the Days of the Founders”) essay.
Snyder added that people need to “do something about it.”.
That’s something to reflected upon as the failing Omicronned Superpower limps closer to the first anniversary of the nation’s first fascist coup attempt.
1. Here, again, I ask readers to consider purchasing and even reading my new book This Happened Here. The third chapter of this volume (a study quite unlike anything I ever imagined writing in my wildest and most dystopian dreams) is titled “A Fascist in the White House, 2017-21.” The following chapter, titled “The Anatomy of Fascism-Denial” – a play on the title of Robert Paxton’s classic text on 20th Century European fascism – addresses the often remarkably stubborn, ignorant, cowardly, and head-in-the-sand refusal of all but a minority of intellectuals, reporters, and activists to see the fascist menace staring them in the face int eh world’s most powerful country.
2. It is odd and depressing that Snyder seems to think that Trump’s Big Lie’s parallel with Hitler’s politics and writing is just a “sad” coincidence. Trump, a real if clumsy and more-instinctive-than-doctrinal fascist, used to keep by his bedside a book of speeches Hitler gave in the 1930s. Trump and the more doctrinally and intellectually astute fascists he has kept around him (Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and others) are certainly quite familiar with the Nazi Big Lie technique.
3. Snyder naturally makes no reference to the radical Left and allied activists and leaders who properly identified Trump and Trumpism as fascist and organized as antifascists for his removal from day one. Such people and movements are largely invisible in the upper reaches of the ivory tower and mass media, though not to Jason Stanley, who has engaged respectfully and substantively with these activists from early on, much to his credit.