Until recently, I took our country’s liberal democracy and constitutional government for granted. I assumed that they were inextricably and permanently embedded in our way of life. Even if I allowed that things could get bad, I never thought so bad that my children and grandchildren might live in a country that didn’t resemble in broad strokes the one in which I grew up.
Now, I wasn’t so naive as to believe that democratic and constitutional government wouldn’t face challenges in a society in which power and profit were so instrumental to its functioning. Nor was I unmindful that racism, unless resisted by a multi-racial movement, could throw the country on a deep downward trajectory. I was also aware of the anti-democratic politics of an ascendant right wing, now a half century in the making. But on some level I believed that, whatever the challenges to democratic rule, come day’s end, democratic guardrails would hold, a democratic majority would assert itself, and democracy would prevail. Meanwhile, fascist retrogression wouldn’t even be a point on the continuum of struggle.
That was, I now know, a dangerous illusion. Shattering it was the combination of a right-wing movement that morphed into a surging neo-fascist bloc, a far-flung right-wing media, shamelessly promoting lies and conspiracy theories, a party in the grip of white nationalist ideology and politics, and, above all, a narcissistic, racist, fascistic minded president who upon losing his re-election bid did what no other president has ever done – organize a mob to storm the nation’s capital.
If I believed that “it – fascism – could never happen here,” Trump and Trumpian rule over the past four years, culminating in his attempted power grab, unceremoniously smashed that illusion to smithereens.
But I have to ask, why did it take the election of an authoritarian president, the presence of an anti-democratic, anti-socialist mass constituency, a systematic campaign against truth, the embrace of vile ideologies of hate and division by millions, and a violent attempt to steal an election shatter my illusion of the durability and constancy of democratic rule? Why didn’t I dispense with that illusion years, if not decades, ago? Were there not telltale signs in the distant and not so distant past that should have warned me about the fascist threat to our democracy?
The simple answer is: there were. Fascist-like terror against Black and Brown people was as American as apple pie. Slavery was defined by brutal violence, super-exploitation, and fierce repression as was Jim Crow that followed and endured until the landmark victories of the civil rights movement six decades into the 20th century. Native peoples were stripped of their land, subjected to forced marches, sometimes over long distances, devastated by contagious pathogens carried by European colonizers, and relocated on narrowly circumscribed reservations, sometimes far from their ancestral homelands. If you entered the country across the Southwest border (which was constantly expanding southward and westward) or crossed the Pacific in search of opportunity, you were met, not by an open hand, but by a club. If you were a wage worker in the 19th and early 20th century, your demands for wages, safety, and unionization were likely to be met with bloody violence. If you were a woman, you couldn’t cast a vote until the second decade of the 20th century. If you were an immigrant, you were victimized. If you were Jewish, you were subject to quotas and discrimination. If you were a communist or socialist, you faced persecution. And if you were gay, trans, or bisexual, you hid in the shadows in the face of violence and exclusion.
In short, the formation and development of U.S. democracy included at its core a violent, racialized, and anti-democratic underbelly, super-charged by super-exploitation, land dispossession, territorial expansion, and fear of the other. In this social arrangement, the expansion of rights for some combined with the suppression of rights and, in many instances, outright terror for others – people of color, women, immigrants, Jews, LBGT people, radicals, and workers.
I was aware of these dynamics, but until the rise of Trump I didn’t draw the proper conclusions. I was perhaps handicapped by the fog of white, male, privilege and thus thought on some level that mainly white, male, straight ruling elites, even under severe stress, wouldn’t suspend democracy and rain hell and fury across society as a whole, including millions of people who shared their skin color, but not their politics, and instead, were of a democratic state of mind. Maybe I underestimated the anti-democratic nature of capitalism, especially in periods when the dominant section of the capitalist class finds it difficult to accumulate capital and govern in the old way. I was surely a captive to some degree of American exceptionalism, that is, the belief that U.S. democracy, while flawed, incomplete, and subject to reversals, would make corrections over time and resume its long march to a “more perfect union.” Finally, I didn’t fully reckon with the special role of racism and white supremacy in particular in disfiguring, limiting, and, in some instances, erasing democratic rights and governance altogether.
Luckily (and I choose the word carefully), as a country, we dodged a bullet, and not only metaphorically speaking, on election day last year and then on January 6. But this momentous victory in the battle for democracy is no reason for complacency. After all, our democracy is more fragile than we thought, the power of racism and other backward ideologies to mobilize millions more alluring and intractable than we believed, the resilience of Trump and his mass base more durable than we expected, and the fascist threat far more immediate than we ever imagined. I wish this were not the case, but nothing is to be gained by minimizing the fascist danger either now or in the future.
Indeed at this turn in our country’s life, it should be understood as a clear and present danger. But while formidable, it isn’t, as the election demonstrated, invincible. Moreover, it is in a weaker position now than it was only a few months ago when Trump had at his fingertips the enormous power of the presidency, including the bully pulpit.
Thanks to the election, the wind is at the back of the Biden administration, the Democratic Party, and the larger democratic coalition. It isn’t at gale force, but it is strong enough to enable the administration to quickly move to enact the president’s bold political and legislative agenda, not least the protection and expansion of voting rights, in the first 100 days. The resistance, no doubt, will be fierce. Trump, McConnell, and others of like mind in Congress and elsewhere understand that if Biden and the Democrats successfully address and materially mitigate, if not fully resolve, the interlocking crises gripping the country, it would be a heavy blow to their political ambitions and the fascist threat.
Small circle politics, obviously, have no place in these circumstances and deserve to be immediately retired. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.
Carpe diem! Seize the day!