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The GOP’s ‘Pre-Fascist’ DNA

The term “fascist” is too often thrown around carelessly—but it can be helpful in explaining the direction of the Republican party.
January 26, 2021
The GOP’s ‘Pre-Fascist’ DNA
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., attends a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of 2020 presidential election in the House chamber on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The soulless Josh Hawley has placed his bet on 2024: The GOP nominee will be a neo-Trump. Give Hawley this—he knows his party.

The attack on Congress enfeebled Trump through his failure to convert preposterous fictions into a real-world putsch. His subsequent removal from Twitter on January 8 and from the White House on January 20 left him further diminished, a shrunken figure without office and stripped of his preferred tool for dominating his party and driving the news. But the source of his power within the GOP endures—a craving to subdue the demographic “other.”

Its ingredients—racial antagonism, religious absolutism, cultural revanchism, phony populism, and primal nationalism—bind base voters to a party indifferent to their economic interests. Whoever dispenses this witches’ brew most artfully will become the Republican nominee.

The political calculus is nothing new. Long before Trump, white antagonism toward the civil rights revolution metastasized into a seething certainty that a liberal elite had stripped ordinary Americans of their racial, cultural, and economic primacy—fusing racial anxiety with resentment of feminism, gay rights, secularism, immigration, and the genuine ravages of globalism, wage stagnation, and declining opportunity.

Seizing opportunity, Republican candidates and officeholders trafficked in culture wars and code words calculated to arouse these restive voters. Trump’s distinctive gift was to give their anger full-throated voice.

Through Trump’s rhetoric their displacement became a metaphor for national decline; making America great again meant reasserting their dominance in a country degraded by diversity. Racial and political violence increased; firearms proliferated; disorder at Black Lives Matter protests aroused a bigoted vigilantism which Trump’s rhetoric encouraged. The toxins of racial and cultural animus suffused the would-be lynch mob which seized the seat of government in a demented effort to restore Trump—and themselves—to their rightful place.

So did a related phenomenon—a misbegotten fundamentalism which moved some attackers to conflate Trump with Jesus Christ. Their deity is not the God of love, but an Old Testament-like protagonist of punishment and submission.

Witness Hawley, whose “idea of freedom,” Katherine Stewart observes, “is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.” True Christians must “capture the levers of government . . . to rescue society from eternal darkness and reshape it in accord with a divinely approved view of righteousness.”

This Manichean fixity explains the overwhelming support of white evangelicals for Trump—and their visceral abhorrence of secular society. As Stewart observes: “Even a corrupt sociopath was better, in their eyes, than the horrifying freedom that religious moderates and liberals . . . offer the world. That this neo-medieval vision is incompatible with constitutional democracy is clear.”

Nor is reasserting racial and cultural supremacy consonant with free elections among a diverse citizenry. When the stakes are apocalyptic and the chosen outnumbered, democracy must yield to the party of redemption—and the cynical self-interest of its leaders. Hence the GOP’s pervasive efforts to enshrine minority rule through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Their principal means are fictitious claims of voter fraud designed to disenfranchise minorities while undermining faith in our elections. Now we’ve witnessed the apotheosis—a concerted effort to delegitimize the indubitable results of a presidential election to perpetuate the party of white identity in power. The GOP’s true objection was to democracy itself: That Trump lost was, taken alone, sufficient evidence of corruption.

This should not surprise: Social science suggests that a majority of Trump voters are instinctive authoritarians. But one cannot separate Trumpism from the inherent character of the party which spawned him.

The word “fascist” too often precedes anti-historical histrionics. But the term is useful in deconstructing the devolution of Republicanism into the minoritarian-authoritarian saboteur of pluralist democracy.

Robert O. Paxton, in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, provides these hallmarks: “obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity”; involving “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites”; which “abandons democratic liberties”; and “pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing. . . .”

These phrases more readily evoke brownshirts on Kristallnacht than fervent Republicans; writing in Vox, Dylan Matthews draws some useful distinctions.

But consider the predicates of nascent fascism.

Trump relentlessly exploited a sense of decline, humiliation, and victimization among marginalized whites, even as he evoked America’s loss of strength and purity. His supporters’ “redemptive violence” at our capital was preceded in Michigan, as one example, by armed incursion the state legislature and an abortive effort to kidnap and execute the governor. While claiming to protect democracy, the GOP persistently undermines the right of disfavored groups to vote.

Though nothing in America equals the predictive virulence of German anti-Semitism, anger at the racial, societal, and religious other animates a goodly portion of the Republican base. Its loathing of supposedly degenerate liberalism provides another link—as does the desire for authoritarian leadership to restore their chosen hierarchy.

Perhaps most salient is the attack on reality itself. “Post-truth,” writes Timothy Snyder, “is pre-fascism.” Hitler castigated the media as “enemies of the people”; so does Trump and, often, his party. Like the avatars of fascism, Republicans increasingly trumpet mendacious propaganda—including about voter fraud.

Classical fascism conditions its followers to accept “the big lie” which unifies their discontents and justifies their leaders’ actions. So, in 2020, did the GOP.

Granted that the big Republican lie did not equal Hitler’s poisonous assertion that perfidious Jews stabbed Germany in the back. But the GOP’s lie to its base was, nonetheless, breathtakingly ambitious: that an unfathomable conspiracy involving thousands of state and local officials and judges, many Republicans, had stolen the presidency from Donald Trump—from them.

To believe this, one must not only distrust an electoral system dispersed across 50 states and countless localities—and everyone in it—but reject an overwhelming amount of easily available evidence and the dictates of common sense. Yet most Republicans did just that. In their collective mind, the GOP was cheated by perfidious forces, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. The dangerous myth of political dispossession is now embedded in the Republican narrative.

Its implications are grave indeed; if most Republicans disbelieve in democracy, they will support its subversion by electoral chicanery—if not worse. The attack on Congress created a beachhead for anti-democratic violence: Polling shows that a full one-third of Trump supporters feel that the mob represented their grievances. More broadly, half of the party’s electorate believes that GOP lawmakers did not go far enough in attempting to overturn the election.

This spotlights another element in Paxton’s delineation of fascism—“a mass-based party . . . working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites”—and the role of the Republican donor class in undermining democracy.

Their political tribune, Mitch McConnell, empowered them by quashing campaign finance laws and repackaging de facto bribery as “speech.” In turn they have lavishly supported the party’s interests—including groups dedicated to the instrumentalities of voter suppression.

Their indulgence of white identity politics was calculated to avoid the political consequences of income inequality while furthering their economic agenda—tax cuts, deregulation, and pro-business judges. This culminated in supporting Trump as a Trojan horse for quasi-plutocracy— while countenancing his pervasive attacks on constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

In backing Trump, the Republican donor class placed their interests above democracy. That was hardly incidental—it’s the point of their political activity.

The nature of their party is foreordained. The GOP’s big lie is embedded among its grassroots leaders. Most of the 139 House Republicans who voted to overturn Biden’s win—hours after the insurrection—are protected by partisan gerrymandering. Conversely, all ten Republican representatives who supported Trump’s impeachment are likely to face primary challenges. So will numerous Republican representatives who voted to uphold the Electoral College vote, and state and local officials who defended its integrity. That Arizona’s GOP censured Cindy McCain and Governor Doug Ducey for disloyalty augurs further purges.

Thus prodded and emboldened, congressional Republicans are invoking “election integrity” as a rubric for further acts of voter suppression and targeted disenfranchisement. In several states, Republican state legislators are introducing bills to attack LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, and gay adoption. The party’s chosen source of misinformation, Fox News, is being challenged by outlets which are even more hysterical.

Republican officials who don’t share the ire of their sans-culottes are, much like those who believed they could ride the tiger of fascism, temporizing out of fear or calculation. One envisions Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton competing with Donald Trump Jr. for the Republican nomination in 2024, with Nikki Haley straining to put an anodyne non-white veneer on the party’s authoritarian meta-narrative.

It is far too little to say that the GOP has lost its way. Quite deliberately, it has become American democracy’s most dangerous enemy.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.