September 28, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Do not appease the super-whites
American-style fascism must be forced back underground.
I have read a lot over the last four years about the history of fascism. I understand more clearly America’s influence on its leading European practitioners. I understand more clearly its roots in the blood-soaked earth of the United States. However, I don’t understand why we keep talking about chattel slavery, the three-fifths compromise, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow apartheid, “separate but equal” and others tyrannical aspects of anti-Black racism, but don’t talk about the obvious. Such sadism was socially acceptable more or less due to the appeasements of homegrown fascists.
The other thing I don’t understand is why we continue talking about Donald Trump—and American-style fascism’s current heyday—as if they were a deviation from the “conservative” regime established by Ronald Reagan. To anyone paying attention over the past 40 years, especially anyone on the receiving end of anti-Black violence, the truth was clear. “In America, Negroes do not have to be told what fascism is in action,” Langston Hughes said in the 1930s. “We know.” Barry Goldwater is, moreover, held up conventionally as a conservative icon who embodied a mid-20th century break from the explicit fascism of the Old Right. But, according to Sarah Churchwell, that story is probably revisionist history. He “was described more than once during his presidential run in 1964, by both his supporters and his critics, as an ‘America First’ politician.”
Will we be a liberal democracy of, by and for a diverse people or a illiberal democracy of, by and for the super-whites?
We usually think of fascism as an inconceivable evil that has happened, or is happening, to foreign peoples. (It can’t happen here, because America is the exception to the rule of nations in world history that end up eating themselves.) It’s probably more accurate, and more honest, to say, however, that it has happened here, indeed, has been happening here (this is Churchwell’s original and illuminating thesis). The question should not be whether. It should be to what degree it cyclically claims purchase on our national politics and on the minds of decision-makers. During the 1920s and 1930s, it was above-ground. During the postwar years (1950 and 1960s), it went underground, because it had to. We had stomped the Nazis, then faced a new menace. Now, after the Soviet collapse, and in the shadow of China’s rise, native fascism is visible again, and once more it seeks to reverse history, to create two separate and unequal Americas in which democracy is the exclusive preserve of a privileged few.
It’s by now conventional wisdom, at least among radicalized members of the anti-Trump majority that seems to be amassing in the days and weeks before the election, that the decision before voters is between democracy and authoritarianism. That’s not quite right. If the president wins, democracy will still exist in the United States, just as it exists now in nations around the world that have elected authoritarian leaders. It might exist, moreover, as it did in the beginning when popular sovereignty wasn’t popular in America, and custom and law constrained the people’s will for the benefit of not just a white minority of men, but a super-white minority (poor white men were barred from voting). The question isn’t whether America will be a democracy after November. The question is to what degree. Will it be a liberal democracy of, by and for a diverse people or once again a illiberal democracy of, by and for the super-whites?
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The Republicans understand this quite well, I think, as they break faith with the majority to install a zealot to the US Supreme Court who will reliably rule in the party’s favor. I think Joe Biden and the Democrats understand this quite well, too, but don’t talk about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s inevitable confirmation as such. They are instead pursuing a more immediate, and more immediately understood, line of attack in which a sharp right turn on the high court endangers, first and second, a health care law protecting 20 million Americans and a legal precedent (Roe) protecting the rights of half the populace. The rest of us, however, should understand what’s going on. The GOP is rushing to larder the judiciary with partisans. Long after American-style fascism has gone back underground, whenever that might happen, it will have been institutionalized. Separate but unequal may end up being constitutional again as it characterizes a society divided between, to paraphrase political scientist Frank Wilhoit, those who are protected by the law but not bound by it, and those who are not protected by the law but bound by it. In other words, between the rulers and the ruled.
The super-whites sound invulnerable, but they’re not. As Vice President Henry Wallace wrote in 1944, “American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists [corporate monopolies], the deliberate poisoners of public information [Facebook], and those who stand for the KKK type of demagoguery [Fox]” (all quotes in this essay come from Churchwell’s essay in The New York Review). The super-whites, in other words, are only as strong as their enablers and collaborators. Moreover, their power is proportional to liberal willingness to appease them. In the past, white liberals sacrificed Black bodies to reach peace. It was in their political interest to do so. Black bodies now animate the center of a major political party. There is little if any incentive this time around to appease the super-whites.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.