The latest New York Times-Siena poll provides a window into the bizarre combination of national delusion and anxiety that permeates the United States in an era of rising neofascist politics. It’s becoming more and more difficult for Americans to ignore the intensifying assault on electoral democracy, with the biggest threat being the mainstreaming of Big Lie propaganda that baselessly claims Democrats stole the 2020 election.
Looking at the Times-Siena poll, an incredible 71 percent of Americans recognize that U.S. democracy is “currently under threat.” It’s difficult by looking at this number alone to know what Americans are afraid of. Still, there are serious reasons to be concerned. However flawed this “democracy” is, there are disturbing developments unfolding as we lurch toward the 2024 election.
I talk in my book, Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here, about the defining traits of classical twentieth century fascism. Most all of them now apply to contemporary U.S. politics to varying degrees. These include: 1. the rise of white nationalism and white supremacy; 2. an intensifying commitment to mass hysteria and the cult of patriarchal personality via Trumpism; 3. intensifying paramilitarism and the celebration of violence, particularly in relation to vigilantes; 4. growing support for eliminationist efforts to undermine and even destroy multi-party electoral politics by depicting the Democratic Party as beyond the pale and as an existential threat to democracy and the republic; and 5. a commitment to militarism and empire, emphasizing white nationalist efforts to recapture a fabled and lost historical greatness.
The U.S. is not a consolidated fascist republic by any means. But it’s also naïve and dangerous to ignore the overlaps between what’s happening today and under classical fascist regimes from the past.
There’s clear evidence that rising extremism on the American right represents a serious threat to democracy. And yet, there are radically different understandings of what it means to talk about U.S. democracy as under threat, looking at the Times-Siena poll. Americans are angry about very different things, depending on who one talks to. Of those who say democracy is under threat, partisanship dominates in shaping perceptions of the threat. While the Times-Siena poll finds that 57 percent of Democrats say the Republican Party is a major threat, just 5 percent of Republicans feel the same. Conversely, 66 percent of Republicans say the Democratic Party is a major threat, compared to just 5 percent of Democrats. And 84 percent of Democrats say Trump is a major threat, while just 7 percent of Republicans agree.
Looking more closely at the poll, 55 percent of Republicans think “voting by mail” is a major threat to democracy, compared to just 12 percent of Democrats. That’s to be expected when Trump and his Republican acolytes in Congress and in rightwing media have spent years trying to depict mail-in voting as rife with fraud, despite a complete lack of documented evidence.
On the election more generally, we see polarization as well. On the one hand, 63 percent of Americans (and 95 percent of Democrats) believe Biden won the 2020 election, while 29 percent believe it was Trump. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of Republicans (62 percent) believe the Big Lie that Trump was the legitimate winner.
Looking at the neofascist conspiracy theory movement QAnon, the Times-Siena poll finds that, while just 4 percent of independents, Republicans, and Democrats say it is “believable,” the number who express potential sympathy for the movement is heavily broken down along partisan lines, with 42 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Republicans saying they “don’t know enough to say” if the movement is believable or not. These results are deeply concerning considering that QAnon has received massive media attention for the last few years. The polling suggests that Republicans remain susceptible to the conspiracy, more so than Democrats and independents at least, even if they don’t fully embrace it.
It’s deeply depressing to think that such large numbers of Americans cannot recognize the absurdity of a conspiracy claiming that the Democratic Party, journalists, and Hollywood are secret satanist members of the “deep state,” engaged in human trafficking and drinking the blood of children, and who will one day (soon) be overthrown by Trump, who will impose himself as de facto dictator of America. The time for playing dumb regarding the dangers of QAnon should be long past, as the January 6 insurrection demonstrated.
The Times-Siena poll is disturbing on multiple levels. For one, reading between the lines, it suggests that most Americans are not taking seriously the threat of rising neofascist politics. The poll finds that nearly three-quarters of American voters say that there are serious threats to democracy. Yet when asked about their priorities and about what they believe is “the most important problem facing the country today,” only 7 percent cite the “state of democracy.” In contrast, 19 percent cite “inflation” and 26 percent cite “the economy,” including “jobs” and the “stock market.” In total, Americans are more than 6 times as likely to voice economic concerns (jobs, inflation, the stock market) than they are to spotlight democratic ones.
We should expect that most Americans would recognize inflation as quite damaging to their purchasing power. And concerns with jobs and the stock market are hardly surprising. But to say that they should take precedence over the potential destruction of democracy reveals the extreme neoliberal myopia of American voters – including most Democrats. This is a nation of consumers who are immediately focused on satisfying their own economic wants and needs, and who would rather focus on short-term economic challenges that burden their pocketbooks, than on a looming existential threat to the republic. This is also to be expected in a country notorious for fascism denial of the “It Can’t Happen Here” variety.
On the Republican side, the party’s voters are embracing priorities that reveal a contempt for democracy and speak to a neofascist assault on the rule of law in American elections. “Democracy” is being appropriated rhetorically as a political weapon to undermine democracy via the party’s (and Trump’s) obsession with imagined mass voter fraud. Based on the Times-Siena poll, 71 percent of Republicans, and 37 percent of independents say they’re “comfortable” voting for a candidate who “think[s] the 2020 election was stolen.”
For whatever reason – either because they’ve embraced neofascist politics or because they’re in denial over the extent of the threat – the vast majority of Americans are not particularly concerned with rising rightwing extremism. Some wrongly think that Trump and Trumpism are a thing of the past. These people should look at the Times-Siena poll, which finds Trump polling at 45 percent support from voters compared to Biden’s 44 percent in a hypothetical match-up in 2024. For those of us who looked at polling data throughout Trump’s term, this isn’t surprising. He’s consistently maintained the support of 40 to 45 percent of Americans for the last 6 years. Trump’s continued electoral viability is most distressing when we consider that Big Lie political officials may be in key positions of power in battleground states in 2024, and in a position to certify a “win” for Trump and nullify popular majority votes if they cut in favor of a Democratic presidential candidate. This sort of outcome becomes more likely in the case of a very close election. If this were to happen, it would likely provoke a full-on Constitutional crisis that could result in the implosion of the electoral system, as states are incapable of agreeing on basic facts such as who won the election.
Short of Trump dying or going to prison for stoking the January 6 insurrection, trying to steal votes in Georgia, or violating the law on the theft of national security documents, it looks like it’s going to take an election crisis in 2024 before much of the public wakes up to the extent of the threat before them. Sadly, people are often horrible when it comes to risk assessment, as we fail to recognize threats until they’re in front of our faces. One can only hope that there will be enough outrage to stoke a mass movement against rising fascism as the rising neofascist 0threat fully materializes.