“Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes,” Umberto Eco wrote in 1995. “It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple.” Eco, the great theorist and novelist, had been an adolescent in northern Italy under Mussolini’s fascist regime, and half a century later, as ultranationalist demagoguery and violence were set aflame by the Cold War’s last European embers, he began to wonder how to recognize, and mobilize against, a nascent fascist regime. “We are here to remember what happened and solemnly say that ‘They’ must not do it again,” he wrote. “But who are They?”
To many Americans—mostly white Americans—Eco’s question has long felt academic. It’s obvious who “They” are, isn’t it? Hitler and the Nazis, of course, and perhaps Islamist terrorists. “They” are totalitarian death cults, but specifically alien ones—to be kept away from our superior shores, and occasionally to be vanquished by our incomparable military.
Eco knew better, and he had America’s number, even in the world wide web’s infancy. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People,” he wrote. He could be describing the rise of online Trumpism, packaged and Taylorized by the Republican Party apparatus, buttressed by the right-wing media ecosphere and its funders, all in the service of an authoritarian gangster state, which reached an important stage of fascist maturity in the streets of dozens of cities last weekend. The country has entered a moment in which the frog notices it is getting boiled.
In Philadelphia on Sunday morning, the first thing the authorities cleaned up was a statue of former police commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo, a race-baiting demagogue who spent his life pitting white residents against everyone else. At a complex in Cincinnati, county sheriff’s deputies replaced the U.S. flag (which they said had been taken by looters) with their own gang colors, a Thin Blue Line banner; the city council chairman blasted that move as insensitive, saying the sheriff “has only made things worse. Again.” Further upstate in Columbus, Ohio, cops pepper-sprayed Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, along with other elected officials. In Cleveland, officials attempted to ban any journalists from traveling downtown to the heart of the protests.
Not that camera crews were much of a deterrent to police brutality. In Atlanta, cops forced open a stopped car—smashing windows, slashing tires, and tasing the two terrified occupants before pulling them out and tying them up. In Los Angeles, a cop in an LAPD SUV ran over a protester’s leg, threw the vehicle into reverse, and fled the scene of the injury. This mirrored the ubiquitous footage of NYPD SUVs used as offensive weapons, plowing forward into crowds of protesters, a chilling law enforcement replay of the tactics deployed in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 by white supremacist James Alex Fields when he used his car to murder street demonstrator Heather Heyer.
Across the country, police donned camouflage uniforms and tactical helmets usually reserved for soldiers; they jumped atop Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, carried M4 rifles, and wielded surplus gear cast off by the U.S. military as the overseas wars that had necessitated its production waned. Police seized leaf blowers that could disperse their tear gas; they used overwhelming numbers to keep protesters at bay while they destroyed the demonstrators’ makeshift relief stations, which dispensed drinking water and milk to treat gassed protesters. They pepper-sprayed kids with their hands up and shoved women and elderly men and anybody else they could, because they could. And then there were the plastic and rubber bullets, so many of which seemed to be fired directly into the faces of not only demonstrators but bystanders and reporters. (At least 100 journalists have been attacked by police during these protests.)
Where is your federal government? Donald Trump, the bigoted septuagenarian country-club magnate and bullshit artist who wheezed to the presidency with a minority of votes cast on promises that he alone could fix the “American carnage,” began his weekend with a trip to Florida to watch a rocket launch while “Macho Man” blared in the background. Feeling sufficiently phallic, he powered through the weekend with a throaty defense of shooting protesters, retweeted Qanon conspiracy theories about a righteous uprising, claimed without warrant that 80 percent of the protesters were out-of-state agitators, and announced he would seek legal dispensation to treat anti-fascist activists in the United States as terrorists.
“You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time,” Trump ranted in a phone call with governors on Monday. “They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.” He said that “throwing a rock” is “like shooting a gun.” “You have to do retribution, in my opinion,” he said. “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, and you’ll never see this stuff again.” He was backed up on the call by none other than Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, who said, “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.”
Attorney General Bill Barr, sufferer of a lifelong tic that makes him mispronounce “supreme dictator” as “unitary executive,” once again hurried to convert Trump’s flatus into a law enforcement crusade. “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda,” Barr said in a statement announcing that the FBI would mobilize its 56 nationwide “Joint Terrorism Task Forces” to combat the protest scourge. “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Nowhere in the memo was there mention of law enforcement’s nationwide melee.
That’s because, to Trump’s junta, it doesn’t exist. “No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism” in American law enforcement, said national security adviser Robert O’Brien, whose main achievements are that he sprang A$AP Rocky from a Swedish prison and that he isn’t Mike Flynn. “I think 99.9 percent of our law enforcement officers are great Americans … 99.9 percent of these guys are heroes,” O’Brien added in his Sunday interview with Jake Tapper. “But these antifa radical militants who are using military tactics to kill and hurt and maim our police officers, they need to be stopped, and I think that is where the passion from the president is coming [from].”
O’Brien offered no evidence for these claims of outside terrorist agitators—much less enough evidence to compare to the universe of documented anti-press, anti-assembly, anti-minority, anti-peace abuses committed by law enforcement last weekend, the surface of which I’ve barely scratched above.
The message of this federal government is unambiguous. It has been conveyed in part by Customs and Border Protection, the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S.—a force shot through with racism and tyranny, now charged with carrying out Trump’s most knee-jerk nativist impulses—which announced Sunday that it was mobilizing officers to augment police forces “confronting the lawless actions of rioters.” It has been conveyed by local authorities in pro-Trump strongholds, who defend police chokeholds of the sort that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. “If you say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing,” a Mississippi mayor said in a tweet so thick it had a drawl and carried a rope. “Most likely that man died of overdose or heart attack.”
It was conveyed again on Monday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a war veteran and folksy violence addict who has evolved into the Republican Party’s preferred delivery vehicle for rolling out new xenophobic or militaristic product. In recent years, he has single-handedly tried to make war with Iran and China, but this week, he wants to parachute into a hot zone in a city near you. “Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight,” he tweeted, grabbing America by its posse comitatus. “If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction.”
When challenged on the abject stupidity of his unconstitutional bloodthirst, the senator clarified his statement to make it more violent and threatening. He’d use not just the 101st, but “if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” Cotton, the former Army officer, could name-check a few of its storied divisions, and his “insurrectionist”-hating must have excited the pulses of more than a few men whose preferred army wore gray, but he seemed to forget that “no quarter” was a violation of his old military code of conduct: This advice to federal law enforcement officers was an overt call to commit war crimes.
Or perhaps that was intentional, just as his use of “insurrectionist” was evidently intentional. Hours after Cotton’s militarist tweeting, four sources told NBC News that Trump was weighing advice from some of his aides to invoke the Insurrection Act, signed into law by Thomas Jefferson in 1807, which provides that “whenever there is an insurrection in any State against its government,” the president may deploy “such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to suppress the insurrection.”
All of this culminated in Trump’s declaration of war against the populace of the U.S., announced just before sundown on Monday, in a Rose Garden speech. “In recent days, our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa, and others,” Trump read dutifully from his teleprompter. “That is why I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America.” This he would do, he said, “to stop the rioting and looting” and “to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including their Second Amendment rights.”
In addition to Second Amendment men, America would have more troops and boots on the ground. “I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” Trump said:
Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.
Just before his speech, police teargassed and fired rubber bullets at protesters across the street around Lafayette Square, even though the crowd had been peaceful and there were 20 minutes until a citywide curfew. Once his speech was done, Trump walked through the cleared area to St. Johns Episcopal Church and allowed the assembled media to take pictures of him, alone, standing at the church’s boarded-up entrance, holding a Bible.
This all sent the same message. That message has been received by men around the country, some uniformed, some not, who seem to believe that Trump, Barr, Cotton, and the border patrol speak to them directly. The message is: Join the fascist party. We’re winning.
Trumpism-Republicanism has long possessed most of Umberto Eco’s 14 loose characteristics of Ur-Fascism, which he outlined in his 1995 New York Review of Books essay: the “cult of tradition,” the machismo, the “cult of heroism,” the conviction that “thinking is a form of emasculation” and “disagreement is treason.” For “the obsession with a plot” and “appeal to xenophobia,” Eco actually cited televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, who is now a Trump supporter. But what was always lacking was a critical step in the advancement of totalitarian fortunes in fascist Italy and Germany: The arch-right U.S. administration hadn’t sufficiently established direct political control over nationwide law enforcement and paramilitary groups to give the Trumpian “Voice of the People” the vigilante justice it demands.
In the years leading up to the George Floyd protests, the Trump administration has been wantonly cruel in its dehumanization, incarceration, and killing of immigrants. It looked the other way as right-wing extremist violence emerged as the chief national security threat in the U.S. It celebrated brutality in law enforcement and in military conduct. It has sought to suppress voters, especially minority and youth voters, everywhere that its party stands for election. There is no doubt that Trump’s fascism has already been bloody and barbaric to many human beings. But, until the past few days, it was not clear whether the White House could mobilize its armed supporters en masse for violence.
This is where the Nazis and fascisti were well ahead of the Trump administration: Before taking power, Sturmabteilungen and Blackshirts were already systematically beating socialists, disrupting assemblies, filling jails, and intimidating voters at polls. Once in power, they claimed that these enemies were only gaining more ground, and they used resistance to violence by police and militiamen as excuses to further erode democratic protections. In Italy, to rig nonexistent support for Mussolini, the Acerbo law was passed; it provided that the party with the most votes in parliamentary elections, even if that was only 25 percent of the ballots, should get two-thirds of the seats. In Germany, Hitler—whose party never earned a majority of the votes in a fair national election—pushed through the Enabling Act to give himself unchecked power after the Reichstag fire. Both edicts replaced their nations’ last vestiges of representative democracy with an unwavering Will of the People, personified in a Man Who Will Stay the Emergency and protected by an iron guard of patriotic, uniformed heroes.
It is time to embrace the parallels, to be unafraid to speak a clear truth: Whether by design or lack of it, Donald Trump and the Republican Party operate an American state that they have increasingly organized on fascist principles. It is also time to consider what else the fascists may yet do, during an unprecedented pandemic, amid unprecedented unemployment, faced with unprecedented resistance ahead of an unprecedented election. The Republican Party wants to make “antifascist” a category of terrorist; whether or not it actually uses active-duty soldiers to round up this new class of undesirables in the “national emergency,” it has at its disposal every police officer who flies a Punisher or Blue Lives Matter flag above the U.S. flag, every armed vigilante and Oathkeeper and Proud Boy who craves the boogaloo.
With federal border patrol and FBI agents involved, there could be neighborhood cordons, warrantless surveillance and raids, mass roundups, tortures, and extrajudicial killings. Of course, the U.S. has already done most of these in recent years, and federal officials have lied about virtually all of it. But these have been explorations and interludes compared to what can follow, in the leadup to the November election and in its aftermath. In Ur-Fascism, Eco says, “pacifism is trafficking with the enemy,” and “since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world.” The nearer we get to a potential ballot-box rejection of Trump, the more intense and final that battle will seem to him and his supporters.