There are key flashpoints that define the Trump years. The escalator speech. The “total and complete shutdown.” Charlottesville. But these were not qualitatively dissimilar from the bulk of his Presidential term, during which racism and violence became ubiquitous. These forces were the water we swam in—which was already the case for BIPOC and marginalized communities. But the Trump era saw these social dynamics doused in accelerant.
The aggressive war on the border, the pathological cruelty of social service cuts, or the police siege against social movements are not the only defining facets of the Trump presidency. His term was also marked by the direct communication by party leadership, through unofficial channels, with reactionary groups that had coalesced around loose ideological and social affinities. Trump has an army of sorts, one he didn’t directly commission, but that follows his orders nonetheless. As they breached the Capitol on January 6th, it was clear we had entered another flashpoint, one that in hindsight seems inevitable.
Famed fascism scholar Robert Paxton had declined to call Trump a fascist for years. The Paxton analysis hinges on processes moreso than ideology. (For the latter, I would look towards Roger Griffin and New Consensus authors.) Paxton’s “five stages of fascism” elucidate a mechanism wherein radicals bond with moderates, move into a place of power and then, inevitably, decline. Paxton wouldn’t say Trump was a classic fascist because historical conditions were different: there wasn’t 30% unemployment, he did not have a formal paramilitary force, and the violence had not reached a comparable scale. Others objected that Trump’s reign lacked the militarism and war posturing of past fascist regimes. Trump was a charlatan; a grifter, not an idea man.
But, as Paxton wrote in Newsweek on January 11th: “Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2020 removes my objection to the fascist label […] The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary. It is made even more plausible by comparison with a milestone on Europe’s road to fascism—an openly fascist demonstration in Paris during the night of February 6, 1934.” Joining Paxton, fascism scholar Timothy Snyder went ahead and called the fascism of the moment what it was, using a term that he had not fully committed to previously.
So there was a change in perception after the violent attack in Washington D.C. on January 6th. But what does the shift mean? There were two refrains that could be heard after that day: “Trump has crossed the line into fascist insurrection” and “we fucking told you so.” Antifascists and organizers knew what was happening, as did journalists and researchers closely chronicling the far right. Whether or not the specific word ‘fascism’ is applicable is an argument for the academics, which can seem pedantic when we’re facing impending violence.
What many are picking up on is the paramilitary dimension of the movement, which is both revolutionary and reactionary and will strike out at state power, even when that state is already a bastion of their favored types of oppression. A fascist movement opposes the status quo of states and international commerce for very different reasons than the left does; the left sees them as impediments to equality, whereas the far right finds them impediments to true hierarchy and tribalism. So the attack on the Capitol, a seemingly sacred and impenetrable physical space, signifies this turn.
The mythology of the Capitol is crucial here: it holds the organs of the “American experiment” in our ostensible democracy. But there are innumerable holes in the liberal logic that stresses the sanctity of these institutions and agonizes at its violation. Trump and Trumpism are presented as an aberration of the state and its intentions, not a logical conclusion of its mechanisms. Liberal and centrist handwringing over the armed assailants treats them as a greater threat to democracy than Citizens United, gerrymandering, Black disenfranchisement, corporate political meddling, felony voter expungement, and hundreds of other pieces of the American mesh.
Among the more left-leaning, part of the choice to discuss the insurrection as, well, an insurrection, is rhetorical. The left, particularly BIPOC organizers and antifascists, have long been branded with hyperbolic characterizations of nefarious terrorism, as if trash fires in Portland, Oregon are equivalent to the shootings and car attacks committed by armed militia members. So there is a certain joy felt in pointing out that the right was actually doing what the left has so often been accused of. But this can also miss the point: it is not the Capitol building that matters, it’s the people that the right has been harming for years, and that they will continue to harm. What people have been warning about has already happened. As far back as the late 1970s, a vast extreme-right movement took power and remade parts of America. Trumpism rode a wave that started with the Tea Party and has pushed the Overton Window far enough to again make white nationalism a viable political position, as it was for most of American history. The Capitol was stormed long ago.
Still, in recent times, the violence has been increasing at alarming rates. 2020 was a deadly year, and not just because of the virus. Far-right white vigilantes aided police in attacking antiracist protesters with a shocking level of brutality, including shootings, beatings, and even bombings all around the country. Between May and September there were 104 car attacks on protesters. When James Alex Fields murdered Heather Heyer with a car on August 12th, 2017, the world shook. Now similar attacks barely make headlines. The far right staged violent rallies where guns were drawn, protesters shot, sprayed with mace, beaten with batons. The violence of January 6th wasn’t an outlier, it was part of a continuum.
Trump’s call to bring his supporters out in Washington D.C. represented more of the same—but after losing the election, they’d been galvanized, churned up into a frenzy. A mass radicalization event has taken place as Trump has destabilized the consensus reality of his followers. Following his conspiratorial lead, they have concocted a netherworld of shadowy cabals and vicious pedophile captors. Every step of the way, he nursed this baptismal entry into a revolutionary mindset, one where the very humanity of his opponents was called into question. The only logical response, for them, is violence.
To characterize the insurrection as a serious attempt to overthrow the government assumes a level of coordination and capacity on the right that does not now exist. But the fact that the Capitol riot was mostly farcical should provide no solace. The seeming absurd spontaneity of the scene belies the fact that this was to no small extent organized and coordinated. Journalist Robert Evans revealed internal chat logs that showed violent intent from the masses heading to the Capitol. Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio was arrested with illegal firearms, and there was clear organizational involvement in pulling off the push into the Capitol. There are even some worrisome indications that the mob may have had inside help. In the wake of this event, there remains ongoing potential for bomb attacks, mass shootings, kidnapping plots, and other violent fantasies that the right often revels in and sometimes lives out. Their failure today is not a guarantee of more failures tomorrow.
What the insurrection has in common with Charlottesville is that it was followed by mass deplatforming—most notably the final silencing of Donald Trump on every major social media platform. Twitter banned legions of QAnon followers and militia members, Parler was taken down, and Gab may be on its last legs. This type of move had catastrophic consequences for the alt-right after 2017, and these bans might help do the same to Trump’s base. But that doesn’t mean they’re gone. It means they are regrouping.
There is a predictable pattern of violence for the far right. They undergo a period of growth, usually by hitching their wagon to a slightly more moderate faction. The alliance breaks down and they begin to lose—maybe they lose an election, maybe their Twitter accounts—and the desperate worldview they have cultivated now has no outlet for aboveground action. Then, pressure builds for an explosion. Serious revolutionary attempts are unlikely, but a cathartic blast of nihilism is probable. A lot of people have been watching them, and fighting back. All the evidence is there.
While the storming of the Capitol should be seen in context, it does point to a shift inside the camp that researcher Spencer Sunshine calls “Independent Trumpism”: the broad base of radicalized Trump supporters that do not necessarily have institutional backing. Instead of simply positioning themselves as ideologically pure “patriots” in defense of the system, particularly police, they are reconceiving of themselves as revolutionaries. A similar shift took place in the 1970s and 1980s as white nationalists emerged post-Civil Rights movement into a world where they now believed the state was unsalvageable and captured by alien interests like “the Zionist Occupation Government.” This is what militarized the “white power” movement (as well as the trauma of many Vietnam veterans, as Kathleen Belew has chronicled), leading to an ideologically grounding for violent attacks. The militia movement of the 1990s presents another model of this process, which most people associate with the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. The shifts here were partially internal—shifts in how they saw the state and their relationship to it. So what is instructive here is to understand how they see themselves moreso than what they claim in their internal narratives that they will be capable of doing.
To further understand the contemporary fascist movement, we should look to what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt call “Multitudes”: masses of people organizing themselves through social connections moreso than organizations, and with a complicated mess of common interests and experiences. The Trumpian mass is not directed by the KKK or by formal militia organizations or street gangs like the Proud Boys. Most are unaffiliated. They are brought together by a very tenuous set of ideas and organized on digital platforms. They move quickly and adapt even faster. Their sense of what is possible is based more on impulse than on practical organizing. Paxton used the phrase “mobilizing passions” for the energy that drove people into fascist movements. This energy goes a lot of places, but ideology (and, even worse, conspiracy theories) channel and direct it. Now we have millions who have been mobilized. Trump gave them a direction for their anger, and without him in a position of power, there is no accepted avenue for them.
So what do we have to fear from this mass of people? On January 20th, as Joe Biden completes the transfer of power amid Trump’s claims of conspiracy, there are rallies planned in all fifty states where violence is a clear possibility. But this is not the violence of coups, which are often orchestrated in deep coordination with elements of the state. It is the violence of desperate anger, the impulsive, spastic violence of release, now happening on a scale unprecedented, if not in American history, then in recent memory.
There is nothing comforting about seeing arrests come down for the would-be insurrectionaries. They are being arrested not for the real threat they pose—the victimization of communities of color or the attacks on social movements—but for trashing a government building. Until we reframe what the threat of Trumpism is, apart from Trump’s own flouting of procedural norms, we will not be able to develop any comprehensive strategy to fight back. We are witnessing the frantic action of one of the largest radicalized far-right factions in the world. As the conspiracy-mongering continues and they realize their further disconnection from the official aegis of state power, they will lash out again. This is only the beginning. ♦
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in places such as NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Full Stop.