January 12, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Is polite white society scared enough?
The fascist threat is clear and present.
Last week, after the mutiny on Capitol Hill, I asked: “Is polite white society scared enough?” If so, we might expect a categorical backlash against the rise of native-born fascism. If not, we can expect more of the same amoral indifference among respectable white people that we saw under an autocratic president and his Republican enablers. While the former would be very good for democracy and the republic, the latter would not. Hard as it is to accept, our fates are linked to the feelings of polite white society.
Is it scared enough? I don’t know, but the evidence over the last few days alone seems suggestive of an answer. Indeed, at some future point, we might look back at the 2020s the way we look back at the 1980s to see two eras reacting politically to previous respective eras, setting the tone for a generation each. The 1980s, under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, were a reaction to Black freedom and power. The 2020s, under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris might be, in the end, a reaction to radical right-wing collectivism. For now, we can only hope that’s the case. More certain is that each period was and will be, alas, determined by the opinions of respectable white people.
Last week’s mutiny should prove to respectable white people that fascist politics never ends on its own. It must consume everything—even itself and even respectable white people.
They should be scared. It’s no longer possible to maintain the belief that native-born fascism will be satiated by eating the politically weak, vulnerable or helpless. It’s no longer possible to believe the Republican Party can balance protecting the interests of respectable white people with beating down on women of color, Muslims, immigrants, Black people and LGBTQ people. It’s no longer possible to believe the president’s confederates only stand against “the undeserving.” If nothing else, last week’s mutiny should prove to respectable white people that fascist politics never ends on its own. It must consume everything around it—even itself and even respectable white people.
I said yesterday that the Republicans fear Donald Trump being impeached by this Congress, and convicted by the next Congress, because it would mean the Democrats have neutralized their best negotiating tool: extortion. For at least a decade, the Republicans have gotten most of what they wanted by holding democracy hostage.
But there’s another reason they fear, or should fear, impeachment and conviction. The process will make clear to everyone how deeply fascism is rooted among so-called conservatives. The process will make clear to respectable white people that the problem isn’t just “lone wolves” blowing things up. The problem is the Republican Party. Respectable white people, as represented by suburban voters, are already, thanks to Trump’s unvarnished sadism, giving the Democrats and their ideas the benefit of the doubt. Impeachment and conviction may cement that dynamic for a few decades.
The idea that the Republicans will get what they want, even if they have to kill people, is already being galvanized by recent reports that last week’s insurgency was partly organized by three House Republicans: Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks. Not only did they vote to overturn a lawful election; they created the means by which the president incited an insurrection during which seditionaries brought zip ties, guns and homemade napalm into the Capitol, during which five people died, including a Capitol cop who was beaten to death. The danger is so clear and present that some Democrats are demanding that metal detectors be installed at next week’s inauguration. They fear gun-carrying GOP members of the Congress might try their hand at assassination.
(The danger isn’t confined to Washington. The FBI released a report Monday saying “violent protests” are expected in all 50 states. “Multiple reports indicate various threats to harm President-elect Biden ahead of the presidential inauguration,” it said. “Additional reports indicate threats against VP-Elect Harris and Speaker Pelosi.” Law enforcement institutions aren’t taking the danger seriously enough either. After the siege, the FBI said it was caught by surprise. A memo obtained by the Post reveals, however, that the bureau knew the day before that “extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and ‘war.’” The report said organizers were explicit: “Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood … being spilled,” one said. “Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”)
Then, of course, there’s Trump. He denied today having incited a coup attempt. That’s going to make life hard for the Republicans. They’ll have to defend sedition. But that might succeed if polite white society allows it. After leaving the White House, Jelani Cobb said recently, Trump will lead “a revanchist movement seeking to topple the government.” Impeaching and convicting him isn’t just moral, he said. It’s tactical. That, I think, is how you move respectable white people away from fascism. That, I think, is how you end a four-decade-old political regime rooted in white supremacy.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.