Maryam Pashali analyses the historic trends behind the storming of the US Capitol and argues that labels of ‘fascism’ provide an easy scapegoat for the leading capitalist ‘democracy’ and its centuries of fostering white supremacy.
Fascism is back! Is it? “The threat of fascism persists”, “This is what fascism looks like”, “Fascism has made a comeback”. These easy, emotional mottos we have been hearing daily since the 2016 US presidential campaign, and the voices have been amplified by the recent riots at the Capitol.
The trauma of the Second World War has ensured that there is no word scarier to us than “fascism”. But the US is not a fascist country – it is a capitalist liberal democracy with a strong history of white supremacy. The events at the Capitol represent a culmination of the divisions inherent in this concoction of bourgeois ideologies, rather than full-scale fascism.
Fascism is an easy snarl word, but applied to the Capitol riots, it becomes a scapegoating term. It transforms from a genuine political ideology into an easily identifiable enemy, which is also implied to be foreign, alien, unnatural to the society wherein it has managed to flourish. It becomes someone else’s individual problem and a choice.
To quote Nancy Pelosi, “The protesters chose their whiteness over democracy”. As if one’s race is inevitably tied to their ideology and political actions, as if the white observer is individually responsible for continuously choosing one constructed, ephemeral identity over another.
It is an obvious truth that when political and social issues pile up, unsolved, and produce an anxious crisis, people find themselves drawn to political extremism of varying colours. The right wing in the USA has successfully tapped into the current anxieties to produce a quasi-religious and apocalyptic vision of a new Manifest Destiny. It has promised its adherents a meaningful life and place in history, a new idea and memory of an ‘American’ nation, and it has invented a millenarian lore best observable in such cultish movements as QAnon.
White nationalists – which the right-wing in the US tends to be – view themselves as the messiahs of this new Manifest Destiny who can protect and assert what they articulate as their inalienable right to hold the government accountable. And that is precisely what they did, fed by the white supremacist tradition and bolstered by their energetic political leadership.
To dismiss the Capitol rioters as indefinable, fanatical fascists is to erase their uncontested place in the history of America’s capitalist, liberal democratic racism. This racism has expressed itself historically through the displacement and murder of native peoples and the Manifest Destiny, through Jim Crow, through the collective Confederate memory, through the corporate funding of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (‘ICE’), amongst other examples of the racist legacy.
However, isolated groups of white nationalists could not have caused all this. Instead, they have successfully exploited the inequities and crises already at the very heart of the US political and social systems and offered easy solutions to complex issues.
Fascism was not the driving rhetoric or ideology for the Capitol riots and the protesters surely did not do what they did simply because they were white and “hated democracy”. Rather the action had spun from a longing for a new frame of reference, which the Trump leadership readily offered, from a sense of excitation and effectiveness of finally having a chance to hold the hated federal government “accountable”.
This tradition at the heart of US democracy since the Civil War cannot be dismissed as ephemeral fascism. The sense of rapture at the call for protest gave the rioters a psychological respite from the increasing feelings of division, isolation, and chaos. These are endemic issues of bourgeois democracies with which US citizens must reckon, instead of the easy solution of “rooting out fascism”.