During my freshman year in college, my professor for “Political Ideologies” class made a pretty bold claim: “In the next fifty years,” he intoned, “we will see the rise of a major fascist movement in the United States.” It’s not as outlandish as it sounds.
Usually, I am opposed to the use of the word fascism, because, as George Orwell notes, the term has such a nebulous meaning. Fascism is used synonymously with “big government,” “repression,” etc. I was chagrined to no end when the right compared Obama to Hitler in 2008 and onward. But what fascism means in this context is a virulently racist, pro-corporate, and violent right-wing extremism. And I believe that the recent right-wing violence against perceived national enemies is a prelude to this kind of ideology.
Ideology is a result of crisis, political scientists Terence Ball and Richard Dagger tell us. In Germany and Italy, this crisis came in the form of a loss, and tepid victory, respectively, in the First World War. The loss of national fortunes called for a rebirth and revitalization. This regeneration first took the form of lashing out against those the far-right in Germany and Italy considered responsible for republican decadence: socialists, communists, pacifists, Jews, democrats of all stripes. In Germany, during the failed communist revolution of 1918, far-right militias called freikorps “roamed the countryside, killing with impunity”.
What is our crisis? Certainly the crisis of 2008 qualifies. And who are our freikorps, our street-fighters? We are seeing their rise as a reaction to social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. In the past several days alone, we’ve seen five people shot by white supremacists at a Minneapolis BLM protest, and a black man beaten up at a Donald Trump rally, with Trump saying maybe he “should have been roughed up.” The recent Planned Parenthood shooting also embodies this violent response to “national enemies.” If this isn’t freikorps-esque street fighting, I don’t know what is.
I do not know if American imperial fortunes are in decline, but this truism is held by a large chunk of the population. Our fears are manifold: ISIS and Islamic extremism; the fact that white people will be a minority in the USA by 2042; the challenges to “traditional” or “Judeo-Christian” inherent in issues like Planned Parenthood support and homosexual marriage. With this fear, and sense of decline, we may face a reactionary ruling class ready to “circle the wagons” by curbing republican freedoms. We can counter this tendency by standing for free speech, pluralism, law and order, and social justice, along with other classical liberal ideas. If conservatives actually believe in these things, if their bluster on “freedom” isn’t just lip service, then they will stand with us.