On Contact: Undercurrents of American fascism
On January 6, 2021, a mob, incited by outgoing US President Donald Trump, stormed the US Capitol building, in an attempt to halt the in-session congressional certification of the 2020 election results. Within the mob, as scholar Gabriel Rockhill points out, were many current members of the military and police. Some of the leaders of the organizations involved, such as Proud Boys' Enrique Tarrio and Joseph Biggs, had direct ties to US intelligence agencies, having served as FBI informants. Only one fifth of Capitol Police were on duty that day, both unprepared and underequipped, even though the US national security state had advance knowledge of the plot. Capitol Police were seen opening barricades and fraternizing with the mob.
The assault raises questions about how deeply fascist undercurrents run beneath the ruling elites and organs of state security. How much of the ruling capitalist class backed the organizations behind the assault on the Capitol? To what extent are proto-fascist groups such as the Proud Boys 'astroturfed' by them? (Astroturfed means discretely funded so as to create the illusion of a grassroots-movement.) What was the exact ratio and relationship between state agents and the para-state –i.e. vigilante– actors? Was this solely an organic conflict between the Trump and Biden camps, or was something deeper at play? And what does all this portend for the future, especially given the staggering levels of social inequality, deep financial wounds caused by the pandemic, and the decision by the Biden administration to walk back from its tepid campaign promises, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Is this a moment of rising fascism in American society? And is it prefigured by the attempt by ruling elites in the 1930s to carry out a fascist coup with the breakdown of capitalism? Is this where we are headed?
Gabriel Rockhill is professor of philosophy at Villanova University.
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Chris Hedges: Today, we discuss the undercurrents of American fascism with the scholar Gabriel Rockhill.
Gabriel Rockhill: I’ll just point your listeners to a very important statement made by Mike German, who’s a former FBI agent and now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed out that some of those involved in The Capitol riot had been involved in similar incidents in recent years and were repeatedly caught on tape. And this is a quote from Mike German, “We know their names. We know their criminal histories. They’ve been doing it because the police have been letting them do it. They’ve been doing it because the FBI have been letting them do it.” Right? And this is from a former FBI agent. And so this should raise questions both about the capitalist backers and the state complicity in fascist forces on the ground. And one of the reasons it’s important to see this kind of triangulation between the capitalist backers, the state, and then parastate or, you know, parallel fascist organizations is because historically we know that this is often how fascist organizations have worked.
CH: On January 6th, 2021, a mob, incited by outgoing US President Donald Trump, stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to halt the congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Within the mob, as scholar Gabriel Rockhill points out, were many current members of the military and police. Some of the leaders of the organizations involved, such as Proud Boys’ Enrique Tarrio and Joseph Biggs had direct ties to US intelligence agencies having served as FBI informants. Only one-fifth of Capitol police were on duty that day. And they were unprepared and underequipped, even though the US National Security state had advanced knowledge of the plot. Capitol Police were seen opening barricades and fraternizing with the mob. The assault raises questions about how deeply fascist undercurrents run within the ruling elites and organs of state security? How much of the ruling capitalist class backed the organizations behind the assault on The Capitol? To what extent are proto-fascist groups such as the Proud Boys astroturfed by them, meaning discretely funded to create the illusion of a grassroots movement from below? What was the exact ratio and relationship between state agents and the parastate, i.e. vigilante actors? Was this solely an organic conflict between the Trump and Biden camps or was something more at play? And what does all this pertain for the future, especially given the staggering levels of social inequality, deep financial wounds caused by the pandemic, and the decision by the Biden administration to walk back from its tepid campaign promises, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour? Is this a moment of rising fascism in American society? And is it prefigured by the attempt by the ruling elites in the 1930s to carry out a fascist coup with the breakdown of capitalism? Is this where we are headed? Joining me to discuss the nature and virulence of American fascism is Gabriel Rockhill, Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. So in this very fine article, you look back at this fairly serious attempt by the business elites to fund a fascist coup and draw parallels to the moment that we’re in now. But let’s talk about the undercurrent of fascism in American society, fascist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, as you write the formation of the American Legion after World War I. These have been essentially fascist or proto-fascist movements that have always existed within the power framework. Robert Paxton makes this point in this book, “Anatomy of Fascism.” So it’s not like it’s created anew. It’s something that’s been with us for a long time. Perhaps you can lay that out.
GR: Yeah. Fascist--fascism, when it arrived on the European scene, particularly in Italy and then extended to Germany, was later framed in terms of the kind of dominant history that we get in textbooks and the mass media as being an anomaly, an exception, a kind of break with democratic rule. And, of course, there were certain things that were relatively unprecedented. But one of the extraordinary things when you look at the actual history of fascist movements is that there were fascist movements in every capitalist state in the wake of the Great Depression, and that fascism always took on specific forms in relationship to its inscription within a very unique national context. In fact, one extraordinary analysis in this regard comes straight from the mouth of a fascist, the self-declared fascist, General Francisco Franco in Spain, who said, quote, “Fascism, since that is the word that is used, fascism presents, wherever it manifest itself, characteristics which are varied to the extent that countries and national temperaments vary,” end quote, which of course makes sense because if ultranationalism is one of the key components of fascism then when it manifests itself in different countries, simply taking models from elsewhere and imposing them would create the sense that, “Well, this is a foreign development,” and other such things. Georgi Dimitrov pointed out that when fascism is operative in the United States, it will be under the name of American patriotism and the defense of the constitution. And so specifically within the US context, there were of course a whole series of fascist and semi-fascist organizations that were operative in the ‘30s and even prior to the 1930s. So much so that there were a lot of discussions, even in the mainstream press, of Mussolini’s Blackshirts simply being the Italian version of the Ku Klux Klan. And this makes a lot of sense from the perspective--from a historical perspective because of the dedication on the part of organizations like the Silver Legion, Ku Klux Klan, Friends of Germany, and other such fascist or semi-fascist organizations because they were organizations that were dedicated to many of the same things that the Blackshirts in Italy and the Nazis were dedicated to, the supremacy of so-called Western civilization, a pro-capitalist orientation, a rabid anticommunism, an investment in ultranationalism that leads into imperialism and colonialism. And so in my own research, it’s been very important to break with this ideology of fascist exceptionalism that suggested only occurred maybe once or twice in history in unique places, and instead extend the analysis to look at all of these different fascist movements both in the past, and as you opened, as well in the present.
CH: Well, what’s interesting about these kind of paramilitary vigilante groups is that they were greenlighted by the ruling elites, especially after the civil war, to carry out a reign of terror. And they were the White Leagues, there were all sorts of organizations against African-Americans. They were used--the gun thugs, the militias, the Pinkertons, the American Legion were used to attack militant workers, the Wobblies with great deals of violence. Hundreds of people were killed. So there’s always been built within in the American system an accepted wing of fascism. And that nurturing of that wing in a time of crisis is very dangerous as we saw in the 1930s and as we are seeing now. Perhaps, you can talk about what happens in societal breakdown. You write extensively about the attempt of a--by the business elites to carry out a coup, recruiting the former Marine Corps General Smedley Butler. But draw those parallels between the 1930s and now, and what happens to these--this nucleus. And, well, we have to--we have to also acknowledge that there--these kind of paramilitary organizations have expanded with the creation of mercenary forces run by--many of them by Betsy DeVos’ brother, the former Blackwater. I think it’s called Xe now or something. So let’s talk about that.
GR: Yeah. I think that one of the things that you’re alluding to that’s so important for understanding both the deep history of fascism and its contemporary manifestations in the 21st century is the political economy of fascism, right? And so sometimes it’s assumed that fascism is simply a set of ideas or beliefs, and that in order to struggle against them, we need to wage a kind of ideological war in the name of being more tolerant, you know, fighting against the politics of hate and other such things. And in my own research, one of the things that I’ve kind of tried to bring to the fore, and other researchers have done this as well, is the ways in which so many of these movements gain both prominence and media visibility through the support of certain factions of the capitalist ruling class. And so in the case of the 1930s in the article that you’re alluding to that I published on the planned seizure of state power within the United States to establish an explicit fascist dictatorship. This was the language that was used at the time, right? They weren’t using the kind of whitewashed language in the post-White World War II era in which people would suggest, “Oh, it’s not really fascist. Maybe it’s something else.” They were explicit about this being a fascist dictatorship. And the capitalist ruling class contributed. And this included some of the leading families in the--among the kind of rubber barons of the early 20th century. Morgan of JPMorgan, the bank, du Pont, Rockefeller, Pew, Mellon, all of these elements of the capitalist ruling class recognize that they had an extreme and profound crisis on their hands. That crisis was both economic and ideological. The economic crisis was due to the fact that the Great Depression had really just wreaked havoc over the capitalist countries. And it had not done this to the Soviet--you know, to the Soviet Union which had broken with capitalism, at least to, you know, a very large extent, as a socialist--as a socialist state. And so it was becoming increasingly clear to many people, particularly the working and toiling masses, that capitalism wasn’t working and that socialism was doing a lot better. This was linked to an ideological crisis, and that was the inability of the political elite in the capitalist classes to rule hegemonically, meaning to rule by consent. To get the general population on board with their particular project. The election of FDR was quite important for the consolidation of a particular orientation within the political elite at that point in time, which basically amounted to a slight class compromise with the New Deal, as it was established in the ‘30s, the idea being that FDR was going to shore up the interests of the capitalist ruling class and give small provisions to certain sections of the working class in order to stave off revolution, right? But another faction of the capitalist ruling class as well as the right wing of the Democratic Party broke with FDR over this because they were looking at and examining what was going on in Europe, and they identified fascism as the best passable solution for both the economic and the ideological crisis of capitalism, right? Because fascism would allow them to get a certain sector of the population on board with a rabidly capitalist, anticommunist, anti-worker program that would ultimately allow them to increase their profits and invest in the permanent work comp.
CH: Well, to what extent--one of the things FDR did was recognize unions. United Mine Workers Union had been banned. He brought it back. The United Auto Workers union which carried the big sit-down strikes in Flint and other cities. To what extent did that kind of relationship with unions or willingness to accept unions form--or to what extent was that a driving factor in pushing the business elite to embrace fascism?
GR: Yeah. Definitely FDR’s support of union organizing and--as well other elements of the New Deal that were basically providing both organizing abilities and a social safety net to the working and toiling masses. And although this was only carving into capitalist profits ever so slightly, it was too much for certain sectors of the ruling class. At the same time, of course, as I’m sure you know, FDR didn’t by any means go far enough. You know, one of the stories that I tell in the lead up to this planned fascist seizure of state power was a conflict over the Bonus Army march of 1932. And FDR maintained the line that we shouldn’t pay this bonus. We shouldn’t really support the veterans in various ways. He didn’t push for a bill against lynching, right? So a very important part of the New Deal was what was going on for Black Americans at that point in time. He also kind of lined up on the military establishment in various ways and continued--I mean, in the lead up to World War II, some of the kind of more imperialist elements of the history of the United States. So it’s obviously a mixed record. And from our vantage point today, it’s important to do a kind of variegated analysis, right? Look at the gains for the working masses and then also point out where there are certain limitations.
CH: Great. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the fascist undercurrents in American society with Professor Gabriel Rockhill. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the undercurrents of fascism in American society with Professor Gabriel Rockhill. So let’s just lay out for people who don’t know briefly that attempt to carry out a coup which, as you write in the article, which people can find on--is--liberationschool.org? Is that where they can read--it’s a very smart piece. All of your stuff is. But let’s lay out what happened. And it was the major ruling families. I went to prep school as a scholarship kid with their children and grandchildren. Let’s talk about what--and they are as--you know, up close, as repugnant as they seem. Let’s talk a little bit about what they did, just the mechanics of it.
GR: So the basic plot was the following, and I should preface this by saying sometimes when people identify conspiracies on the part of the capitalist ruling class or the political elite, people will cry foul immediately and say, “This is a conspiracy theory. This has never been proven.” Just so that your listeners know and viewers, this was proven by the US government in the McCormack-Dickstein Committee that investigated it, that there was indeed a conspiracy to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist dictatorship, even though the same committee also--they cut out some of the testimony in the final published report, and so it took, you know, a lot of investigative journalism to get the full story. But what we now know, and in fact we knew as of about 1934, 1935, is that a significant faction of the capitalist ruling class and finance capital in particular created in 1934, the American Liberty League. And this liberty league brought together business elites and high profile political figures, many of whom were on the right wing of the Democratic Party as I mentioned a moment ago. And they both put together the funds necessary, $3 million but they said they had up to $300 million. So an extraordinary amount of money. To hire what they referred to as a man on the white horse. They wanted a kind of military-style leader who they could use as the figurehead for this particular movement. They hired Gerald G. McGuire, who was an employee of a brokerage firm to go into a study tour for four months of European fascist movements in order to identify the best movement--or the best model to be applied in the United States. He came back after going to Germany, Spain, Italy, and France, and did identify some of what he considered to be the strengths of those various movements, like Hitler’s solution to unemployment was forced labor. He thought that would be a great idea within the context of the United States. Or the Blackshirts who used as the backbone for their movement impoverished veterans. He also thought that was a great idea. But the primary model that he latched on to was a fascist organization in France called the Croix-de-Feu or the Cross of Fire. And that was a fascist organization composed of some 500,000 commissioned and noncommissioned officers that later would grow into actually the biggest political party in France in the Third Republic. So it’s a very significant fascist organization. And with this model in mind, then he reached out to General Smedley Butler who is identified as one potential candidate. There were others, including General Douglas MacArthur, James E. Van Zandt, and others. And put to him the following project that if he could raise an army of about 500,000 veterans, march on Washington, and force FDR to accept him as a kind of Secretary of General Affairs, and then take a position as just a figurehead very much like the King of Italy, then the government could be--the elected government could be displaced. He would become the de facto leader, and could then pursue the agenda of his capitalist backers, which was to roll back the New Deal and to allow them to accumulate at the level that they’d like to accumulate. And moreover, by then also throwing the veterans themselves who had been mobilized in this fascist army under the bus, so to speak, because they were going to be paid their pensions for just one year, but after the fascist seizure of power was consolidated, they were going to be let go. That is the plot in a nutshell. But there were also other parallel plots, I should--I should mention just in passing. This was not the only one.
CH: Well--and this is exactly what the Nazis did. They betrayed the working class. They gave them a day off and then they abolished all the unions. The very core of their support, in many ways, came from certainly the rural working class, not so much the industrial working class. And you saw the same thing in Italy. There’s--I want to draw a parallel which you do in the article. So you talk about how during the investigations by the McCormack and Dickstein Committee in the House of Representatives, there was an immediate attempt to kind of cover up what the committee discovered to protect the ruling business elites, and you draw a parallel between what happened then and what’s happening now.
GR: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, we can see very clearly because we have the distance that historically allows us to see more--you know, in a much more straightforward manner what was going on then. It ran a faith in government campaign. And this is often what bourgeois democracies will do when it becomes part of the public record, that there’s been some malfeasance on the part of the political elite or the capitalist ruling class. There’s so much blowback that they have to do something. And so a faith in government campaign consists in recognizing certain facts but then doing everything that they can in order to consolidate the general population’s belief that the government is ruling in their own best interest, right? So in the case of this committee that was investigating the fascist plot, they recognized that there was a fascist plot but they refused to call for--testifying any of the capitalist backers because this was simply based on “hearsay”, right, which is actually testimony on the part of those who were being enrolled in the plot. They also censored their report, as I mentioned earlier. They tried to use Red Scare tactics by saying that, “Well, the communists were backing some strike movements and whatnot.” And they didn’t pursue any prosecutions of the conspirators, even though it was a proven conspiracy, right? And as we know from the contemporary moment, the Republicans have been pushing back on a concrete investigation into what exactly happened on January 6th. We can, of course, relate this to other moments, right? The Warren Commission in the wake of the JFK assassination. We could look at the 9/11 Commission. There are so many other examples of what the political elite in a bourgeois democracy like the United States will do to try to really minimize the blowback from proven conspiracies or from moments in time, like January 6th, where a lot more needs to be known about who exactly was involved in allowing this to happen or participating in it financially from behind the scenes, right? In that regard, we don’t only need governmental investigations because of the limitations that I’ve just pointed out, but we need the work of investigative journalists, of activists, and militants who are really putting the pressure on in order to figure out what’s actually going on behind the kind of political spectacle that’s often created.
CH: Well, in a footnote here, you’re quoting Vanessa Wills. She talks about the DeVos families, Koch brothers, Robert Mercer, the Dorr brothers as key figures in The Capitol attack, drawing primarily from the ranks of small business owners, military, et cetera. They were--they were astroturfing or funding as they did with the Tea Party. Very similar kind of phenomenon.
GR: Absolutely. A hundred percent. And this is, again, why the political economy of fascism is so important. When there are fascist movements on the ground, these are rarely simply, absolutely organic and grassroots themselves because of the way in which they also play into the hands and interests of the capitalist ruling class. They’re pro-capitalist, antisocialist, generally anti-worker, et cetera. And so the capitalist backers of the lockdown protests as they’re called, are a really important part of the lead up to what happened on January 6th. And also the question of the complicity of the state in both allowing and potentially even encouraging what happened on January 6th. I’ll just point your listeners to a very important statement made by Mike German, who’s a former FBI agent and now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed out that some of those involved in The Capitol riot had been involved in similar incidents in recent years and were repeatedly caught on tape. And this is a quote from Mike German. “We know their names. We know their criminal histories. They’ve been doing it because the police have been letting them do it. They’ve been doing it because the FBI have been letting them do it.” Right? And this is from a former FBI agent. And so this should raise questions both about the capitalist backers and the state complicity in fascist forces on the ground. And one of the reasons it’s important to see this kind of triangulation between the capitalist backers, the state, and then parastate or, you know, parallel fascist organizations is because historically we know that this is often how fascist organizations have worked.
CH: And they successfully muted the press or turn the press into a megaphone. You have examples of that, how when Smedley Butler exposed this plot, he was discredited on the front pages of the New York Times and everywhere else. But just in the last minute and a half, I want you to talk about where we are now, how dangerous a moment it is, and to what extent has these--have these historical antecedents informed us about where we’re going?
GR: Yeah. One of the important things is to see that as Biden came into office in the United States, he used the PR campaign of being the savior of democracy and kind of last bulwark against Trumpism as a halo that really permitted him to roll back so many of his campaign promises and to continue the US imperialist expansions abroad, as well as crackdowns internally on dissent. And in that regard, we should not simply be hoodwinked by this kind of “good cop, bad cop” logic that’s often operative in bourgeois democracies where you have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party kind of functioning in this capacity, and instead recognize that there has not been a serious reckoning with what happened on January 6th, and that even the Democratic Party has a vested interest in continuing to function as a kind of tolerant party for fascist elements, because those fascist elements, as we know from history, are the final solution to class struggle. So if capitalism is on its heels, if socialism is advancing, the capitalist ruling class is not going to allow itself to be overthrown peacefully, right? It will mobilize counterrevolutionary forces of the most draconian sort. And so the fact that under democratic leadership with Biden, you have the continuation of fascist organizations in the United States, US imperialism, we have these fascist elements that are really integral to the deep history of capitalism, and therefore, from our perspective, as those who are struggling for a more egalitarian world, we have to recognize that fascism takes different forms and different shapes, and that it’s always an element operative under capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy. As much as it can help us stave off certain fascist elements, will keep some of them in the wings in case there’s ever a real threat to bourgeois democratic and hence capitalist ruling.
CH: Great. That was Gabriel Rockhill, Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University.