Nothing doing: Why an American fascist government won't be in power for long.
Simply put, they won't do anything about climate change. As a result, their pursuit of power is essentially pointless.
This article is related to my previous one about how our societal institutions’ refusal to address climate change has left only the most radical, violent and unpleasant options on the table. You may want to read that one first.
Fascism is on the rise in America. There’s just no doubt about that anymore, from racist “Proud Boys” provocateurs rioting in the streets to QAnon conspiracy cult acolytes storming the halls of Congress and promoting mass death by pushing vaccine denial and bullshit horse paste “cures” on right-wing media. The effective abolition of Roe v. Wade this past week—not just in Texas, but eventually in the rest of America—goes hand-in-hand with voter suppression, gerrymandering and the decoupling of the Republican Party from any form of accountability to voters or the rule of law. This goes far beyond Trump and the 2022 or 2024 elections; Trump may well be dead of natural causes by the time the election rolls around, but the rise of right-wing authoritarians will continue regardless of what happens to him. Right now the chattering class in America is full of jeremiads about how this is our “last chance” to stop the right-wing authoritarian takeover, and this is why we must [fill in the blank] vote #BlueWave in 2022, or write our Congressional representatives as if they care what we think, or march for abortion rights.
In my opinion these analyses, as well-meaning as they are, fail to engage with a broader understanding of the issues at stake or the longer-term trajectories that our current disturbing political trends indicate. Will fascists, from faceless but craven pencil-pushers like Ron DeSantiis and Greg Abbott to looney-tunes morons like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, succeed in overthrowing American democracy and replacing it with one-party conservative rule? Yes, I think they probably will. The avoidance of this immediate fate by the 2020 election victories of Biden and Democrats probably represents only a temporary reprieve from the authoritarians’ final and successful assault on the Constitution, a sort of “gap year” before the onset of full fascism. But what “the fascists are coming” narratives miss is the imagination of what the authoritarians will do with their power once they get it. Once they seize power, the DeSantiises and Gatezes are far too incompetent to hold onto it for very long, and they will certainly be asleep at the switch on the one single issue that will matter more than any other to the maintenance of their hegemony: climate change.
Before we get to the issue of climate change—I will get there, I assure you—let’s look at previous examples of how right-wing authoritarians have behaved in power throughout relatively recent history. The historical examples of fascist Italy and Germany in the 20th century indicate that right-wing authoritarians, even cartoonish and shallow ones, are relatively good at seizing power, but utterly terrible at exercising it. Mussolini was skilled but not very bright; Hitler was bright but not particularly skilled at anything other than the means of seizing power. Despite being authoritarian, both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s regimes did explicitly depend on the public opinion of at least a sizable minority of their populations. The Fascisti in Italy in the 1920s and Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s were mass movements, as fetishized pretty literally by the endless legions Mussolini and Hitler liked to deploy to march in the streets or line up at torchlight rallies to fête the leader and his party. Even Putin in modern Russia relies on rigged “elections” and a toilet paper “constitution” to maintain a fig leaf of legitimacy. This is what separates modern right-wing authoritarians from the emperors and absolute monarchs of the days before the French Revolution who could simply command without the necessity of having to persuade at least some segment of their populations.
American fascism makes a pretense at mass support. Witness the vast sums of money and inexhaustible energy that right-wingers expend to “Astroturf” various issues and talking points, like panics about Critical Race Theory or antivaxx mythology. The purpose of Fox News and right-wing media is to gin up this kind of support. Probably about a third, but not more than that, of the American public will support right-wing authoritarians when they come to power. That’s enough. The resistance, however, will be far more ferocious than Hitler or Mussolini faced within their own societies. Fascist America, once it comes to power, will have to deal with an insurgency that will be highly energized and can organize very quickly, similar to the insurgency U.S. forces faced after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tamping down this insurgency will be order number one of the new fascist government, but it’s a problem that would, under more or less normal circumstances, take 20 years to complete, if it was even achievable. This is a tall order for a government headed by the likes of Ron DeSantiis or Marjorie Taylor Greene, who can’t spell the word “insurgency.”
Even setting aside insurgency, fascist governments generally have to do something in order to stay in power. Mussolini successfully created the myth that he “made the trains run on time” in Italy. Hitler, a little less of a buffoon, conscripted vast numbers of Germans into military, paramilitary and civilian organizations that tilled fields, built autobahns, manufactured Volkswagens and delivered to the people of Germany real—if short-lived—relief from the crushing Depression. It was only after the political capitalization of these gains was exhausted that Hitler turned, as fascist states inevitably do, to fomenting conflict outside his own borders. Mussolini was by then the junior partner in the fascist alliance and forced to come along on Hitler’s plans of European conquest. But note what we have here. Between 1933 and 1937, Hitler sold “relief from the Depression” as the chief product his regime offered the people of Germany. After 1937, “German global hegemony” was the product, but it was a much harder sell, especially when ordinary Germans had to go to war to achieve it.
What will the American fascists have to offer to the people as the reward for supporting them? White supremacy, sure; control of women and especially their reproductive choices; tax cuts for billionaires and lots of guns. But these are all basically ideological treats that no one except the authoritarians’ natural base supporters like or find at all appealing. As much as right-wingers desire these things (or are led to think they do), you can’t eat guns, white supremacy won’t put food on your table and tax cuts benefit nobody except billionaires. And the American fascists have no plans for, nor even the capacity to imagine the necessity of, delivery of anything to society beyond these narrow designs. Hitler—monstrous as he always was—gave Germans jobs and put food on their tables, and the loyalty of his people was not severely tested at least until Allied bombs started raining down on them.
Imagine this analogy: a household, chaotic but competently run by Mom and Dad, but full of several rowdy, spoiled children who hate and resent their non-white younger siblings. In addition to hating their siblings, the spoiled children are resentful that they aren’t allowed to eat cookies for every meal and watch TV all night. One day the children take over the household, steal the checkbook and the car keys, lock Mom and Dad in the basement and celebrate that they’re now in charge. They make life miserable for the siblings they hate, and they are now also free to eat all the cookies and watch all the TV they want. Quickly the children collapse from lack of sleep or slip into diabetic comas, the house becomes fouled with trash, and the power is cut off because the children don’t understand how utility bills work. This may be how an American fascist state plays out, with white and male supremacy, gun violence and unfettered capitalism being the cookies and TV the children crave.
Now let’s tweak the analogy slightly. The house is on a vulnerable coast, and the rowdy children happen to stage their coup against Mom and Dad as a Category 5 hurricane is predicted to make landfall in their area in the next few days. It’s already raining outside and the wind is coming up. As Mom and Dad pound futilely on the basement door, the children are beating up their siblings and binging on cookies and late-night TV just as the storm surge approaches. Not only are the children not competent to run the house even if the weather was perfect, the crisis approaching far outstrips their capacity to deal with it. What they overthrew Mom and Dad to achieve has nothing to do with the conditions that face them in the real world.
In the latter scenario the hurricane, of course, is climate change. American fascists will not, under any circumstances, take any substantive action to reverse climate change. Most of the billionaires’ fortunes they think they will come to power to enhance were based to some degree on fossil fuel industries, and in any event the Gaetzes and DiSantiises will be too beholden to large business interests to risk annoying them with real-world solutions to the climate emergency. Ideologically, most right-wing authoritarians have deeply internalized denialist narratives and they can never be shaken out of them. But the reality is that for any regime that takes control of the world’s most economically influential nation in the early 21st century, job number one is dealing with climate change—whether they like it or not. Even without the challenge of climate change, the masses would not be mollified with the ideological treats that the authoritarians think will be the basis of their program. The result is likely to be that climate change emergencies will terminate the right-wing authoritarians’ holiday in power, in a much shorter time than they think possible.
Maybe I’m reading the wrong sites, but I have not seen a single piece of mainstream journalistic punditry about the rise of right-wing authoritarianism that deals with this possibility.
So what’s the game after that? Once a right-wing authoritarian government collapses or is overthrown, is American constitutional democracy re-enshrined and it gets to work dealing with the problem of climate change on a reasoned and consensus basis? Unfortunately, I think not.
This was the point of my last article on this subject. The swift exit of a right-wing authoritarian government in America is likely to be followed by the rise of a left-wing authoritarian one. They will deal with climate change, but probably in the most repressive and radical way possible, and it will be, by necessity, the only program they can afford to care about for the next 50 to 100 years. They will have mass support, because by then the effects of climate change will be so dire that their argument, “Everything else has failed, we must do this right now or we all die,” will sell itself.
In our analogy, the right-wing authoritarians’ main contribution to history will not be the institution of their short-lived regime of abusing their siblings, eating cookies and watching TV. It will be locking Mom and Dad in the basement and throwing away the key. The problem is that Mom and Dad don’t know how to handle the impending Category 5 hurricane any better than the children do. The usurper who comes along and takes over the household from the sugar-overdosed, sleep-deprived children won’t waste time looking for the key to go unlock Mom and Dad. What good would they be in dealing with the hurricane anyway? Mom and Dad are precisely who let the situation get bad enough to provide an opening for the bad children to take over in the first place, so they’re part of the problem and are useful mainly as a scapegoat. In fact, the usurper is better off simply shooting Mom and Dad, just as the Bolshevik regime executed Tsar Nicholas II and his family—in a basement, no less—in 1918.
This is again, as a couple of my recent articles have been, a not very cheerful analysis. I’m sorry to depress you. But it seems to me that somebody needs to talk about these issues, and no one else is. I should also make clear that none of the outcomes I’ve conjectured here are things I want or would applaud. History sometimes moves in directions that appall and terrify us. Facing our fears is the only means of finding a sane way to deal with them. Thanks, again, for reading.
The photo of CPAC is by Michael Vadon, used under Creative Commons 4.0 license. The other images are public domain so far as I am aware.
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