For decades after World War II, the threat of communism was a major, obsessive meme in American politics. Mainstream opinion generally saw the threat as mainly external, in the form of an aggressive Soviet Union and Red China, but there was a substantial body of opinion that saw threats from within American society. The great fear was that given the opportunity, American communists would somehow subvert our government and end our way of life. Even after Joseph McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues in 1954, congressional committees continued to work at rooting out alleged communist influence in government, in academia, and in the civil rights, labor and anti-war movements of the 50s and 60s. A panoply of mostly right-wing groups devoted themselves to combating the enemy within, generally assumed to be working in cahoots with America’s enemies abroad.
In actual fact, the American Communist Party, persecuted and ostracized, was never a major force in our national life once the Cold War got under way. There were no armed communist militia. American communists were never responsible for significant acts of violence, much less insurrection. The enemy within was a fantasy, though a fantasy right-wingers often used successfully to smear the left more broadly.
I can’t help thinking ironically of this history when I contemplate our current situation, in which there really is a significant extremist force within our society that would use violence to overturn our political system. Right-wing militia have plotted kidnappings of governors and members of Congress. Washington has become an armed camp in preparation for the Jan. 20th inauguration. State governments across the country are similarly steeling themselves for violence on that day. American communists could only have dreamed of posing the insurrectionist threat to existing institutions that today is wielded by the far right. The right-wing fantasy of American communism during the Cold War has morphed into the reality of American fascism today.
Political extremism can usefully be viewed in terms of concentric circles. There is a very broad mass of sympathizers—people who share many of the beliefs and sentiments of the extremists, but perhaps less intensely–in the outermost circle. A smaller number of true believing fanatics occupy an inner circle, and within that is a still smaller number of zealots willing to act violently on their beliefs. Though its roots long precede Trump, American fascism can be viewed as a subset, an extreme expression, of Trumpism. Most Trump supporters (the broad mass of sympathizers) are not fascists, but a significant portion of them are. The polls vary and can be interpreted in different ways, but fewer than half of Trump voters can reasonably be considered fascists, that is, true-believing fanatics supportive of the use of violence to achieve political goals associated with Trumpism. That would amount to around 20% of American adults, among whom a much smaller number of people have actually engaged or prepared to engage in acts of violence. That’s a very small percentage of the population, but enough to cause a great deal of damage and to exert a noxious influence on their favored political party.
How do we combat the fascist threat? Of course, those who commit acts of violence need to be found and prosecuted, but it would be better if there weren’t many of them in the first place. So, think again of the concentric circles. The broad mass of sympathizers, just by existing, provide a supportive environment, as well as potential converts, for the true-believing fanatics. The true believers, in turn, provide a supportive environment, as well as potential recruits, for the aspiring insurrectionists. If we can reduce the number of sympathizers in the outer circle, the numbers in the inner circles will also diminish. The insurrectionists thus can ultimately be reduced to insignificant numbers. How do we do that? That is the same as asking how we can best combat Trumpism.
In an earlier post, I identified two main sources of Trump support as cultural grievance and political alienation. Cultural grievance consists of anger and resentment at the perceived decline of an America in which the modal family is authoritatively headed by a straight white male earning decent wages even without a college degree. (See Thomas Edsall’s latest piece for an excellent survey of relevant social scientific findings.) Political alienation comes out of the well-founded belief that the political system is not responsive to the needs of ordinary people, that politics disproportionately rewards the special interests of the wealthy.
There is little or nothing to be done about cultural grievance in the short run; it reflects long-running changes in our society that clash with attitudes and beliefs that are widely and deeply held. Political alienation, on the other hand, can be addressed. A government that demonstrates that it actually does work effectively in the interests of the vast majority of Americans can realistically aim to reduce the appeal of Trump’s bogus populism. Therein lies the great challenge and opportunity confronting Joe Biden. If he can implement most of his agenda, he can demonstrate a stark contrast to Trump, who has delivered remarkably little to his base outside of culturally reactionary judges. I think Biden has made a good start, and I’m fairly optimistic about his chances for success, but I’ll leave discussion of Biden’s plans and prospects to future posts.