Inside the Strange, Dangerous Mind of an American Fascist
After the insurrection on January 6th, 2021, it’s clear the United States has a fascism problem. This is how they think.
The word “fascist” gets thrown around a lot these days by both liberals and conservatives, though few use it correctly. Fascist movements, though, have been studied for decades, and this word has specific meaning.
Robert O. Paxton, a professor at Colombia University and prolific author, spent most of his life studying the rise of fascism. In his 2004 book “The Anatomy of Fascism,” he identified 7 characteristics of budding fascist movements. While he focused on the followers of Mussolini and Hitler, every single characteristic describes the mentality of the far-right insurrectionists (and their supporters) that stormed the Capitol in an attempt to dismantle American democracy.
1. Perpetual State of Victimhood
Spend some time in conservative circles and it won’t be long before you here about how they’re under attack. According to them, liberals are waging “a war on Christianity” or “a war on traditional values.” You’ll hear about how the mainstream media is out to get them, how the scientific community is involved in a conspiracy to control the world, or how the government is controlled by a secret group of pedophiles that run out of the basements of pizzerias, a conspiracy known as Pizzagate.
US Congressional representative Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a mask during Trump’s 2nd impeachment hearing that read “censored” because she feels being forced to wear it takes away her right to free speech. Lauren Boebert, another Congressional representative, refused to have her bag searched when it set off a newly installed metal detector. Her Republican colleagues said they are being “treated like criminals” and that this is “Pelosi’s communist America.” Both Greene and Boebert are followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, followers of which believe a high-level member of the government has been feeding them information and prophecies through cryptic online messages.
After losing the election, Trump tapped into this victimhood mentality by saying the election was stolen. Even though not one shred of credible evidence was produced in over 60 court cases, Trump supporters believe they are the victims of a giant liberal conspiracy to rig the election. After giving a fiery speech, his mob of supporters marched about a mile and half to the Capitol, broke in, vandalized it, attacked police officers, and did all they could to disrupt Vice President Mike Pence from counting the electoral votes.
Paxton notes that Hitler riled up his followers by convincing them they were victims of a Judeo-Communist plot to destroy them. Both Mussolini and Hitler created a liberal plot to scare their followers: “Fascist regimes functioned like an epoxy: an amalgam of two very different agents, fascist dynamism and conservative order, bonded by shared enmity toward liberalism and the Left, and a shared willingness to stop at nothing to destroy their common enemies” (page 147).
If you can convince people they’re constantly being attacked by a conspiracy, they’re capable of anything, such as genocide or beating to death a police officer.
2. Natural Authority of Male Leaders
Fascist movements inevitably have male leaders that are prized for their strength, singular vision, and lack of concern for others. These leaders are seen as the only people that can save them from the conspiracy to destroy them and to save them from their perpetual state of victimhood.
Hitler was seen as the only one strong enough to go after the communists and Jews. Mussolini went after the “socialists, trade unionists, homosexuals, and racial and religious minorities” because they were all working together to bring down the country. His people thought he was powerful enough to take the country back.
The underlying belief for all of this is the discredited idea of social Darwinism, in which society naturally organizes itself into a hierarchy with the strongest at the top. The male leader is seen as an alpha-male occupying his natural role at the top of the hierarchy.
Hitler said “The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker, which would signify the sacrifice of its own higher nature.” This demonstrates his belief in social Darwinism.
Because of this mentality, the leader’s power is never called into question. The mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6th had undying faith that Trump not only deserved to be at the top of the hierarchy but that they were part of a plan to help him do it. Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman” that walked through the halls of Congress wearing a horned-hat and without a shirt, said he “came as part of a group effort, with other ‘patriots’ from Arizona, at the request of the President.”
In the speech Trump gave to his supporters before the insurrection, he said “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” Giuliani called for a “trial by combat.”
Like other fascists before them, the insurrectionists were motivated by a glorification of male strength and using it to dominate those seen as weaker. Umberto Eco said the fascist “tends to play with weapons — doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”
3. Beauty of Violence
Fascists movements don’t just condone violence, they encourage it when it’s in pursuit of their cause. These movements might begin peacefully and have peaceful members, but they inevitably become violent towards their enemies. In their minds, these enemies are outside forces trying to invade or control their country, citizens of the country with values that are destroying it, or members of their own group that threaten solidarity. Because the cause is paramount, violence is justified.
Hitler justified violence against the Jews by blaming them for Germany’s poor economy.
The mob on January 6th erected a gallows to hang Mike Pence if he didn’t oppose the election results. They used the now defunct social media app Parler to plan assassinations, murder, rape, and virtually all possible acts of violence against liberals and other conservatives that didn’t support them. Amazon responded to Parler’s lawsuit for removing them from their hosting service by claiming they did not remove “content that threatens the public safety, such as by inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens.”
The mob also brought zip ties, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktails. They beat Officer Brian Sicknick to death. Months earlier, other far-right members stormed Michigan’s Capitol building with body armor and AR-15s. Shortly after, 13 were arrested in a plot to kidnap, put on trial, and execute Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Fascists love violence because they’ve been convinced they’re soldiers in a war for the soul of the country. Normal people can easily become radicalized into violence if they’re convinced everything they love is about to be destroyed. A good example of this is when QAnon Congresswoman Lauren Boebert tweeted “Today is 1776” moments before the mob broke into the Capitol. This was an attempt to draw a parallel between the Revolutionary War and the conspiracy theory that the election was being stolen from them. In her mind and the minds of the insurrectionists that read this tweet, they were at war for their freedom so violence was not only justified but will one day be celebrated.
4. Fear of Outside Influence
Fascists hate different ideas. The group’s ideology is the only one permitted. Dissenting thought is forbidden, ridiculed, and punished. In particular, fascists fear being corrupted by modern, liberal ideas like racial and gender equality. Rather, they favor a warped version of traditional values. Umberto Eco: “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.”
Mussolini went after intellectuals because of their liberalism, as he thought they were destroying traditional values. Paxton said Mussolini’s movement “boiled with the readiness for violent action, anti-intellectualism, rejection of compromise, and contempt for established society” (page 6). Hitler gassed homosexuals, leftists, Jehovah Witnesses, among many others for their beliefs. His Gestapo targeted anyone that dissented, including intellectuals, students, trade unions, other religions, etc.
The far-right uses similar rhetoric. Eugene Goodman, an African American police officer, protected Congressional representatives by holding off and misdirecting the insurrectionists, who screamed the n-word and other racial slurs at him. Anti-feminist language can easily be found across far-right websites. From the Atlantic: “Anti-feminist rhetoric is a powerful gateway to violent white nationalism, and it is calculated to appeal to the demographic overwhelmingly responsible for mass shootings: young white men.” Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA and one of the organizers for the rally outside the Capitol on 1/6, tweeted “There are only two genders,” demonstrating his intolerance of nontraditional sexual orientation.
5. Group Above All
For fascists, the group and its goal are the only things that matters. The individual rights of the members or their opponents are irrelevant. Even if they may have some remorse for hurting or killing someone, it can easily be dismissed as a causality of war. This also means members are expected to willingly give their lives for the group.
With Hitler and Mussolini, the examples are endless. Millions of their followers walked into enemy fire because they thought they were sacrificing themselves for the good of the group. The suffering of their victims did nothing to stop them.
The insurrectionists were willing to sacrifice themselves as well. Ashli Babbitt (another QAnon believer) wore a Trump flag and tried to break through a window guarded by several police officers with guns drawn. She heard them tell her to stop, but she refused because she was willing to give her life for her group. One witness said “a number of police and Secret Service were saying, ‘get down, get back, get out of the way.’ She didn’t heed the call.”
So they shot her. In fact, everyone that sieged the Capitol was willing to risk their lives. They knew the police were armed, and they knew they could be shot. They went anyway for the good the cause. Likewise, when they beat Officer Sicknick to death, they might’ve felt bad, but this was washed away by a singular, rapid focus on taking the Capitol. At the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of his opponents, injuring 19 and killing 1. Why? Because he sacrificed himself and those that stood in way for the good of the group.
6. Purity of the Group
Fascists are obsessed with their members and the rest of their country belonging to the same religion, being from the same country, being from the same race, etc. Even if a person supports their cause, he or she might be removed if they don’t meet all of the arbitrary criteria to ensure homogeneity.
Hitler promoted the idea of an Aryan super race. His slogan was Blut und Boden, or “Blood and Earth,” meaning he wanted his people to have a common heritage and nationality. Anyone else was considered impure and removed.
“Blood and Earth” was actually chanted by demonstrators in Charlottesville, many of whom carried Nazi symbols. During a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally, Trump supporters screamed “white power” and “f**k black lives.” At the rally outside the Capitol on 1/6, Nazi symbols were scattered throughout the crowd. One man wore a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. Two family members of Lieutenant Colonel Larry Rendall Brock, Jr., who was arrested for breaching the Senate, said “Brock had made racist remarks in their presence and that they believed white-supremacist views may have contributed to his motivations.”
Fascism inevitably involves “the chosen group” cleansing themselves and the rest of the country of “lesser people.”
7. Pride of Membership
Fascists are proud to belong to the group. They advertise it. The brag about it. They believe they’re engaged in a war of good vs. evil, and of course, in their minds, they’re on the good side.
Nazis proudly wore their uniforms, posed for pictures, and walked the streets in them.
The insurrectionists wore their fanciest QAnon shirts. They flew Trump flags. They also inexplicably live-streamed their crimes without wearing masks. They bragged on social media. They threw parties afterwards to congratulate each other. Storming the Capitol, they believed, would become a war story to tell their friends and family years later.
The insurrection on January 6th, 2021, is one the darkest days in US history, but it’s exposed the far-right for what they are: wannabe fascists. They may not think they’re fascists and they certainly don’t like being called fascists, but they meet all the criteria of a fascist movement.
They tried to disrupt the penultimate stage of the presidential election. They tried to take hostages. They were coordinated. They were well-funded. Had they been a bit quicker or had they not been led away by Officer Goodman, they may have succeeded. If they did succeed, who knows what their plans were. Maybe they were going to execute Nancy Pelosi. Maybe they really would’ve hanged Pence. Maybe they were going to demand Trump remain president or they were going to start shooting Democrats. Considering the gear they brought and their rhetoric, all of these are plausible.
Let’s be clear, this is the closest the US has every come to being ruled by fascists.
“We are not required to believe that fascist movements can only come to power in an exact replay of the scenario of Mussolini and Hitler. All that is required to fit our model is polarization, deadlock, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, and complicity by existing elites.” — Robert O. Paxton (page 116)