The Center Cannot Hold

Image of fire on the street.

Image by Pawel Janiak.

My friends in Refuse Fascism, an important group on whose editorial board I sit, are fond of a poignant passage in a 1919 poem written by WB Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Think about that last line: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” One of my concerns about the current and future felony indictments of the world’s most dangerous fascist leader Donald “Take Down the Metal Detectors” Trump is that they might seem to intensify this Yeats problem. The indictments hold great potential to simultaneously deepen both the passionate and lethally armed intensity of the worst, the fascists, and the pathetic passivity of the best, the more decent, inclusive, caring, and nonfascist folks.

On one hand the indictments are being used by Trump and the right to fuel the revanchist paranoia of the very disproportionately white and fundamentalist quarter or more of the country that has bought into the wild-eyed Amerikaner narrative that the United States is under the control of a globalist and totalitarian, “radical left” Deep State working to “replace” and demean supposedly virtuous and hard-working, God-fearing white folks and their purported noble patriarchy with supposedly criminal and lazy (and otherwise inferior and demonized) people of color and an alleged degenerate culture of Godless gender transgression. This narrative may be a fairy tale, but it is a fairy tale loaded with potential for mass slaughter and civil war.

On the other hand, the indictments reinforce the demobilization of liberals, moderate and progressives by seeming to show that the elite-managed bourgeois constitutional system is working after all – that no serious popular intervention in the streets and public squares is required to stop the ongoing lurch towards fascism. Here the impact is much the same as the cargo cult of candidate-centered time staggered electoral politics. The message is that we don’t really need to get up off our couches, turn off MSNBC and “P”BS, and organize to fight for a decent and liberated society because American’s so-called democracy – actually a class dictatorship of capital – is taking care of itself. All we really have to do is vote once every four or two years and maybe send an occasional check to the ACLU and/or the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Nature Conservancy, and perhaps The unstated faith is this “The elites have this. Let the politicians, pundits, the talking heads, the lobbyists and the nonprofits take care of things. It’s all good.”

But the problem here isn’t quite that “the best lack all conviction.” It’s that many of “the best” – perhaps we should say the better – believe in the bourgeois democratic system. They don’t lack belief and confidence. They believe incorrectly in the power of the established institutions to keep fascism at bay. They lack conviction in mass mobilization and popular action of the kind that says, “you’ll have to go through us first if you want to build a fascist Amerika” and that challenges the de facto capitalist class dictatorship that gives rise to fascism in the first place.

At the same time, the “worst” – the Amerikaner Right – people (“deplorable” fits) have considerably more than just “passionate intensity” on their side. They’ve got half the nation’s state governments. They’ve got much of the federal judiciary, including the all-powerful and now Christian Fascist Supreme Court. They’ve got a potent Hitlerarian “stabbed in the back” lie about a supposedly stolen election. They’ve got a heavily armed palingenetic white nationalist base, much of which buys the preposterous, paranoid-style narratives of Donald “I am Your Retribution” Trump – and believes in the use of political violence to “save America.” They’ve got an army of election workers determined to mess with the vote count in 2024. They’ve got an archaic Electoral College system that requires the Democratic presidential candidate to best their Republi-fascist adversary by 4 to 5 points in the popular vote to take or keep the White House. They’ve been gifted a highly unpopular Democratic incumbent/opponent – the dismal and decrepit neoliberal imperialist Joe “Nothing Would Fundamentally Change” Biden – who is highly unlikely to meet that requirement. They’ve got an absurdly malapportioned and powerful US Senate that drastically overrepresents the nation’s most revanchist states and regions and a 2024 election lineup that puts more Democratic than Republi-fascist Senators up for challenge.

And now Trump has a vast army of policy strategists with a comprehensive blueprint for the consolidated fascisation of the federal government. Liberals and progressives I know are plagued by the persistent belief even now that Donald “Take Down the Metal Detectors” Trump isn’t really all that serious about politics and policy, that’s he’s just a comical buffoon who is only running to slake his ego and to stay out of jail. This is dangerously naïve. It is clear from an abundance of recent reporting (including this among many other reports) and from Trump’s own Website – look at his dystopian “Agenda 47” – and speeches that the Trump tide this time includes a concerted, heavily-funded, and sophisticated and detailed policy agenda committed to the full authoritarian collapse of what’s left of democracy in the United States. The plan involves a drastic expansion of executive branch authority under abject fealty to the demented fascist maniac that Noam Chomsky properly identified in January 2020 as “the most dangerous criminal in human history.”

This is different from 2015-16, when Trump didn’t think he could win and relied largely on the fascist bloviator Steve Bannon for a handful of policy notions. This time, building on four years in actual power and two-plus years in bitter opposition to the supposedly “radical Left” (militantly capitalist-imperialist) Biden administration, Trump has a vast “conservative” (radical right) political and policy network replete with hundreds of staffers from the Heritage Foundation, the Claremont Institute, the America First Policy Institute, and the Conservative Political Action Coalition. These white nationalist apparatchiks are working up comprehensive schemes for neofascist consolidation.

Their plans aren’t really about the destruction of “the deep state” and the “administrative state” to put “We the People “in charge. That’s the faux-populist and faux-libertarian rhetoric they use to suck in gullible supporters, including a significant number of “left”-identified folks with whom I am acquainted. Beneath their deceptive discourse, they are planning the fascist reconfiguration of the whole state and society itself. They are determined to gravely deepen the ruthless oppression of the people under a more fully and openly authoritarian system that puts a brazenly racist, sexist, and ecocidal jackboot on our collective neck. Their claim to be against Big Government is another one of their many lies.

This fascist project will live on if Trump’s multiple legal problems somehow knock him off the Republi-fascist presidential ticket. If that highly unlikely event occurs, “Agenda 47” and the vast neofascist policy network cooking it up will simply be grafted on to the more explicit and disciplined Christian white nationalist/fascist Ron DeSantis.

Lack of conviction among more decent folks is a real problem, to be sure: lack of conviction in the power of the masses to fight back, defeat fascism, and change the terms of American politics on the path to making a socialist revolution. Paralyzing and privileged, do-nothing pessimism, depression, cynicism, and fatalism are rife among many on “the left” who understand the fascist menace stalking the land. For an example of what I mean, look at the final paragraphs of a recent New Republic article (aptly titled “People Aren’t Facing up to the Horrors a New Trump Term Would Bring”) in which the transgendered Naval Academy graduate, author and former US defense analyst Brynn Tannehill details some key aspects of the Trump policy agenda and notes the distinct likelihood of Trump defeating Joe Biden under the US electoral college system next year:

“Because of the Electoral College, in order to have a 50–50 chance of winning the election, Biden needs to win the popular vote by about 4 percent. He barely won a handful of swing states last time with a 4.5 percent national advantage. Most polls show his lead to be something closer to 2 to 3 percent this time around…The United States is probably about to have a ‘fuck around and find out’ moment that’s lethal to our form of government as we know it. The rapidity of the collapse is going to be terrifying. It will rival the end of the Weimar Republic in terms of its swiftness, and how far it swings away from democracy and human rights. It will come like a tidal wave. So much so fast that civil rights organizations won’t have the resources to fight more than a fraction of it, and the result will be like sandcastle walls trying to hold back a tsunami.”

So, mass suicide? To be sure, Tannehill’s prediction seems dead-on under the current trajectory, shaped by the better/decent folks’ excessive belief in the established bourgeois institutions and the related passivity of masses of Americans. And Tannehill is quite right to suggest that faith in those institutions will not save us from the fate of the Weimar Republic, which gave way to the Third Reich. (When you say Weimar Republic, you don’t really have to actually say “the F-word” – fascism.)

Tannehill gets it that the frayed liberal system and establishment are not up to the task of preventing such a horrific outcome. That’s a very important thing to grasp. “The centre,” as Yeats wrote, “cannot hold.” But where then is the call to not merely understand the drift of history but to change it? As is too often the case with many Left-identified people I know, we see here (if I might reference Antonio Gramsci’s tiresome, over-quoted maxim) “the pessimism of the mind” canceling “the optimism of the will.” If the center cannot hold, and it cannot, then where is the urgent call shaped by a conviction in the power of masses to make the coming radical resolution one of revolutionary socialist liberation rather the revanchist fascist reaction?

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” So said Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., who warned before the end of life that the United States would either move towards what he called “the real issue to be faced – the radical reconstruction of society itself” or head down the path of a fascist police state.

Actually, though, one can be passive without being silent. There are words and then there are deeds. Rhetoric and language matter a great deal, of course. But one can proclaim their understanding of evil afoot but do little or nothing to avert it and to build a better world where it will not recur. Understanding history is essential but the point remains to change it when one lives under the reign of oppression. And the duty to act is not about the crystal ball: both pessimism and optimism are beside the point. The center cannot hold; which way things fall is up to us.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).