When I first became a socialist, I thought the blunt choice between a “transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” often invoked in leftist circles was a breathless exaggeration. Perhaps this contrast was fitting in the face of imperialist expansion and growing interwar European fascism, but certainly not for our own time. Even in the wake of Trump, the choice seemed overwrought. He is cruel, racist, corrupt, and has undeniably emerged from and empowered a dangerous set of actors. But is he creating an opening for the ultimate barbarism, fascism?
There are competing definitions of what fascism is. Is fascism the decay of capitalism? Is it colonial violence turned inward? Is it a middle-class movement animated by nationalist xenophobia, “fantasies of racial purity,” and a desire to crush a rising left? Or is it a blood and soil cult of tradition, built on authoritarian leaders and fictive populism?
Claims about the threat of fascism are “subject to inflation,” but as the story is typically told, fascism emerged within European racial capitalism. In the aftermath of World War I, fascism developed in those countries “excluded from the imperialist game.” Fascist parties engaged in violent nationalist projects of renewal through racialized, internal “cleansing” and external conquest. In his seminal anti-colonial work, Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire narrates the dynamic of fascism within the colonial powers of Europe:
“And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prison fills up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.”
Césaire’s arresting narration of European fascism pushes back against the standard story of liberal thinkers like Hannah Arendt, for whom fascism means the illiberal, totalitarian masses suppressing minorities. Instead, in concert with the work of historian Ishay Landa, Césaire argues that fascism is not extraneous to the classical liberal political tradition. Especially in interwar Europe, fascism was a response to the growing tension between economic and political liberalism, as the extension of political rights to the masses introduced the threat of economic democracy. Arendt’s account is not entirely accurate: fascist rhetoric and policy worked to prevent the masses from entering the political arena. With national bourgeois and centrist parties hoping to protect wealth and capital from taxation and redistribution, elites empowered fascist parties to bring colonial violence home in order to protect capitalism from democracy.
As Césaire and Landa show, the growth of fascism was not rooted in a total repudiation of liberalism or its embrace of the masses, but in its willingness to take over liberalism’s fear of mass society, intensifying capitalism’s destructive dynamic and eradicating its “civilizing” aspects. As a radicalization of economic liberalism’s most barbaric features, fascism worked to ensure capitalism’s racial hierarchy, inequality and violent competitiveness remained, even while it inveighed against capitalism and socialism. However, while this alternative framing of fascism’s history provides a sense of the conditions that produce and sustain fascistic movements, it doesn’t tell us much about Trump himself.
As the violence of American imperialism boomerangs back home, much ink has been spilt in trying to discern if Trump is a Hitlerian figure. It’s undeniable that anti-democratic legislators, religious nationalists and explicitly white supremacist movements are consolidating power under Trump: witness the concentration camps at the border, Trump’s stripping of the administrative state to enable corporate looting, right-wing militias occupying state capitals, the packing of the courts, rising incidents of racist violence, fascistic violence at Charlottesville, wanton repression by increasingly reactionary police departments and the DHS, the criminalization of protest and journalism, attempts to rig the November election, and the horrors of Kenosha. And yet, while Trump openly relies on fascistic rhetoric and fuels racist violence, some scholars question the validity of calling Trump either Hitler or a fascist. They worry that such a designation might obscure the conditions that created Trump and misdirect those who hope to respond.
There is no ex nihilo fascism. The political, social and economic conditions that delivered Trump are just as important as Trump himself (a point often lost on both liberals and Never Trump conservatives). American history is full of its own fascistic movements and right-wing coups, from the rise of the KKK during Reconstruction, to the Christian Front, to the Jim Crow South, to white power militias. America’s own frontier mythologies and white supremacist race science influenced Hitler and those who crafted Nazi race laws. Clearly, Trump is not an imported crisis. He is a distinctly American creation, emerging from a long, homegrown history of fascistic American movements and white supremacy that has been energized by the War on Terror’s stoking of nativist energies, the failed reformism of the Obama presidency, the abandonment of the working class by the Democratic Party, the racist resentment at the heart of the GOP, an anemic left, and the deepening anti-democratic effects of neoliberalism. Now an already anti-democratic, racialized and ecologically unstable order is helping give birth to even more dangerous political possibilities.
While Trump’s re-election seems increasingly unlikely, amid mass death, economic collapse, and historic multiracial protests, the fascistic currents that have grown up inside Trumpism will not require Trump himself. Even with a decisive electoral defeat this November (presuming he doesn’t outrightly steal the election), the single-term presidency of Trump could simply be the beginning of a more organized fascistic movement. While it seems implausible that America could become a full-blown fascistic theocracy, we should not forget that the roots of American fascism are both racial and economic. Our own fascistic moments have sought to “deliver the nation from mass politics” (the KKK response to Black Reconstruction is especially instructive) that sought to expand both economic and political democracy, and a more consolidated American fascism would certainly combine elements both old and new. Even without Trump, it is not hard to envision both vigilante and state violence giving support to a kind of eco-apartheid state—with the climate crisis allowing for continued violence at the border and deeper exploitation of black and brown communities. Signs of a collaboration between the state, police and vigilantes are already on display in Portland and Kenosha, while Republicans have built a durable anti-immigration apparatus primed for eco-fascism.
Another Trump presidency would surely be disastrous, but the now prevalent notion that removing Trump will magically avert a deeper fascistic crisis misunderstands where fascism comes from. A Biden presidency would only restore rule by centrists, who operate as elite custodians of the neoliberal status quo, ensuring that “the people” do not attempt to expand democracy into the realm of the economy. The non-specific cipher of “populism” as an explanation for Trump reveals just how much the liberal center blames mass democracy for this moment. This liberal vilification of an undifferentiated rabble highlights the repeated failures of “third way” centrists and the Democratic Party to effectively counter the rightward drift of American politics. As the right openly gives up on the pretense of political democracy, there is neither the vision nor desire to respond to the racial history, economic conditions, or ecological timebombs that belch out crises like Trump and contribute to the rise of fascist politics. Like the liberals of 20th century Europe, our centrists have no will to fight the incursions of fascism, because they are too invested in the very inequalities that have brought us to this point.
What does this mean for the church? And where does the church fit in the history of fascism? Typically, when fascism is discussed, white Christians often rush to invoke the Confessing Church and the moral courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Those who resisted and the specifics of their personal faith are brought to the fore. Less discussed is the many Christians who were Nazis, the tacit support of Nazism by most German Christians, or that European Christianity provided an animating ideology for the possibility of fascism itself. Across interwar Europe, from Spain to Italy to Germany, much of the church allied with and assented to fascist states. Césaire, again, can deepen our understanding of fascism’s relation to Western Christianity:
“Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “c******” of India, and the “n******” of Africa.”
Césaire’s point cannot be reduced to a comment on the communal psychology of wealthy Christians and their understanding of Hitler. Christendom was itself the midwife of the colonial project and the ideology of racialization. As an enterprise of exploitation, extraction, and conquest, colonialism’s ideological infrastructure was intricately woven with Christianity. And fascism, with its tropes of victimhood, race, and mythic nationalism, is a fire kindled by Western Christianity’s colonialism. It is natural to love your children, and unsurprisingly, Western Christianity befriends the fascism it helps birth.
Indeed, since at least the 1920’s, much of the white church in America has functioned as a proto-fascistic current, aligning neatly with what would constitute the base of any fascistic U.S. state: white communities from the “old middle class,” those who have experienced economic stagnation and a loss of cultural power. The rage, despair, fear, and hopes of this demographic have both influenced violent streams of American racial capitalism and reacted with waves of racist backlash over the last hundred and fifty years. White Christians’ overwhelming and unswerving support of Trump is simply a new chapter in this history.
Since Trump’s election, conservative Christians’ have shown themselves largely incapable of resisting or preventing the impulses of fascism. Even after accounting for their political and demographic differences, they are still fundamentally related to the country’s “history of white racial identification and settler-colonial militarism.” From the insurgent Christian nationalists to common good evangelicals and conservative Catholics, Christians either actively support fascistic politics, or fail to recognize fascism — often tripping over themselves to avoid being identified with “the left”. Liberal Christians, like liberal politicians, are incapable of doing what is necessary: the ballot box, fact-checking, alternative exegesis, hand-wringing over norms, and generic appeals to Jesus-inflected concepts of justice are all insufficient to deal with the material and ideological conditions that empower fascism. So how does the church unite to defeat a growing fascistic movement before it is too late? What does an anti-fascist church look like? How do we become a church that fascists fear?
Rosa Luxemburg was right. The choice is socialism or barbarism and an anti-fascist church is a socialist church. Fascistic movements are defeated by out-organizing them. Only by doing what centrists are incapable of and fascists fear—organizing a mass movement to build economic democracy, crush white supremacy and stave off climate change—can this fascistic moment be defused. Against its colonial history, Christians must be “good comrades” in the struggle to reduce corporate power, expand democracy, work for prison and police abolition, give workers power over their workplaces, help workers win power over their own unions, tax the wealthy, support massive investments in public goods, demilitarize the border, and fight for racial justice. This isn’t a debate over political abstractions, but a struggle to develop tactics and moral narratives to achieve material goals: strikes, preventing deportations, increased unionization, providing sanctuary, voting to push politicians left, engaging in eviction defense, and mutual aid.
All of this organizing work aims to engage in mass disruption, develop class consciousness, and, ultimately, obtain democratic power to build a new political economy and destroy the potential for fascism. To become a participant in this future, the church must learn how to build and exercise political power with the masses, rather than hoping to change the hearts and minds of the powerful few. The refusal to be “on the left” at this moment is, in fact, an acquiescence to the possibility of fascism.
America is not the Weimar Republic and Trump isn’t Hitler. Rather, we must look to America’s settler-colonial past to understand the persistent appeal of American-style fascism and for insight on how to win the struggle against the carceral neoliberal state, climate catastrophe, corporate exploitation, and “law and order” vigilante violence. For precedent, Christians should draw guidance for faithful action from the revolutionary response to America’s most concerted effort to build a white ethno-state: slavery. The end of slavery and the dawn of the Reconstruction era was not a gift from Abraham Lincoln, but a “democratic revolution” accomplished through the power of mass politics with the enslaved themselves as its core drivers. Just as the defeat of the slaveocracy and the beginning of Reconstruction required such a movement, so too the defeat of this fascistic moment requires Christians to participate in building an anti-racist, anti-imperial, and anti-capitalist mass movement. We have no other choice. The aim of this movement is not to spark a civil war but rather hopes to prevent one. With James Cone, the church must say: “Liberation is more than the recognition that iron shackles are inhuman; it is also the willingness to do what is necessary to break the chains.”
Adam Joyce is the assistant director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management. He has written for a range of publications, including Sojourners, Christian Century, The Other Journal, and Religious Socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.