Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddy Grey, and now Sandra Bland, I’ve seen this movie over and over gain. The screenplay rarely changes. A young black man, or woman, gets into a confrontation with the police. He dies under suspicious circumstances. For the first few days, local newspaper reporters, who usually depend on the cops for leads to stories, just publish the police department’s press release. But it rarely stops there. Political activists investigate the incident. They publish what they learn in online journals and on social media and this in turn sparks protests, not only against the police, but against the local media, which all too often act like a stenographer for the local police.
The newspapers, no longer able to ignore the discontent, respond in two ways: They send their reporter back to write a more detailed report on the police killing. But they also “investigate” the victim, who we invariably learn was “no angel”, had a criminal record, marijuana in his system, or an all around “bad attitude.” Far right-wing media like Fox, Breitbart, and New York Post amplify the smears, and, along with the more mainstream, “liberal” newspapers, turn what should have been the trial of a police officer into a trial of a victim far too dead to defend himself. Sometimes a local district attorney will convene a grand jury. There’s almost never indictment. Liberals will call for a federal investigation. It almost never happens.
Surely this has to end?
But what if it doesn’t?
The growth of grassroots political organizations like Black Lives Matter, and the spotlight shown on both the police and the corporate media, are encouraging. But they are by no means guaranteed to succeed. History points to darker possibilities. The growth of revolutionary socialism after the First World War led to the birth of its mirror image: fascism. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s provoked a ferocious backlash. George Wallace, the Republican “southern strategy,” the Boston bussing riots and the Tea Party. We’re still living with it today.
Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism treats fascism, not as a stable political system, but as a historical process. While the only perfectly realized fascist states in history have been Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, all “fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity directed against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.” A fascist movement unfolds in a cycle of five stages: (1) the creation of movements; (2) their rooting in the political system; (3) their seizure of power; (4) the exercise of power; (5) and, finally, the long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy. A fascist leader trying to build a fascist nation will play on the nation’s “fears of decadence and decline; assertion of national and cultural identity; a threat by unassimilable foreigners to national identity and good social order; and the need for greater authority to deal with these problems.”
So let’s take three examples of fascist and potentially fascist leaders: Donald Trump, Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler. Donald Trump is clearly a would-be fascist leader of a movement still in stage one. While he’s a long-time racist who plays on white fears of national decline and resentment against blacks, and while he does have wide name recognition in the elite media, it’s unlikely that he will win the Republican nomination. What makes him appealing to the elites in the media — he’s a demagogue with no history as a traditional politician –- also makes him unappealing to the elites in the Republican Party, who would rather use him the way they used Sarah Palin. He will move the “Overton Window” to the right, but will be pushed aside for Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio.
Francisco Franco, by contrast, made it all the way through stage 3 almost to stage 4. But after he built a mass movement and took power with the support of the Spanish ruling class and the Catholic Church, he made no attempts to create a new revolutionary society on the model of Germany or Italy. On the contrary, he deftly evaded Hitler’s attempts to recruit him as an ally for the war against the Soviet Union, and would eventually rule as a traditional authoritarian, not a fascist. He made no attempts to replace the Catholic Church or to get rid of the king. Eventually, he demobilized the mass movement that he built in response to the Spanish republic and the Spanish Civil War.
Only Mussolini and Hitler went through all five stages, building a revolutionary “prerogative state” alongside the traditional “normative state,” plunging their countries into total war that would lead either to the conquest of Europe or to their own destruction. We all know what happened. Mussolini ended up dangling on a meat hook. Hitler shot himself inside the bunker. Franco and his Portuguese counterpart Salazar on the other hand ruled for decades, eventually becoming part of the “free world,” the coalition of capitalist governments the United States built up against the Soviet Union.
Even though Donald Trump has not yet successfully built up a fascist mass movement, he has something Hitler and Franco didn’t, a mass media based on 24/7 cable news and the Internet. Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1930s had well-developed civil societies, educated populations, and conservative family structures, a traditional culture in touch with history the United States in 2015 doesn’t. An Italian or German in 1930 could turn off the radio. Americans in 2015 always have their smart phones, or their computers. Few Americans have any space at all outside of the corporations and the mainstream media. Ironically, however, it also makes the charismatic fascist demagogue unnecessary.
The American ruling class can mobilize white fear and resentment without having to resort to a George Wallace or a Donald Trump, let alone a Hitler or a Mussolini. Let’s call it “distributed fascism.” While the traditional charismatic fascist demagogue needed storm troopers, mass spectacles, and a centralized “prerogative state” that would eventually displace the traditional “normative state” — The SS, for example, a militarized police force answerable only to the Nazi Party, would eventually replace the traditional German army and Prussian officer corps. — “distributed fascism” works in reverse. The prerogative state doesn’t replace the normative state. The normative state evolves into the prerogative state. Most of us don’t notice since the prerogative state retains the outward appearance of the normative state. But the more movements from the left like Black Lives Matter protest police brutality and the remnants of Jim Crow and segregation, the more the mass media mobilizes right wing, racist fear and resentment behind “city police forces,” which are, in fact, no longer traditional police forces subject to the rule of law, but paramilitary class armies similar to Hitler’s brown shirts and Mussolini’s black shirts.
We probably won’t ever find out what really happened to Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old university administrator who was violently arrested this past July on a trumped up traffic offense then later found dead in her cell. Did she kill herself the way the police and mass media say she did? Did the arresting officer slam her head against her car and induce a concussion, which, left untreated, led to her death by traumatic brain injury? Was there really “marijuana in her system” at the time of the arrest? Or did the medical examiner plant it on her after the botched autopsy? We will probably never know. There is no institution in American society, not the local district attorney, not the media, not the federal government that will investigate and release the truth if the truth leads to the arresting officer going to jail. The mystery around Sandra Bland’s death isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There is no process of accountability that will allows a “bad officer” to be brought to justice for murdering a black man or woman, not for Sandra Bland, not for Freddie Grey, not for Michael Brown, not for the clearly innocent Eric Garner, who was strangled on video in front of the entire country.
While the American ruling class may not be consciously fascist, they still seem to fear a revolutionary upsurge by the American people, and by black Americans in particular. Hitler had his Ernst Rohm and Heinrich Himmler, but the American ruling class doesn’t need storm troops with a centralized leadership, let alone a single fascist grandee. All they have to do is mobilize conservative, white resentment and fear of national decline behind the highly militarized, but decentralized network of big city police forces, the class armies they built up in the wake of 9/11. A more centralized command structure, in fact, is not only unnecessary. It’s not desired. The banks were able to crush Occupy Wall Street with a highly coordinated attack, even while arguing they had nothing to do with it, that it was just about city cops dealing with a public nuisance. The intermittent murders of black men and women by the police, in turn, don’t have to be planned, just allowed to happen. The police become, in effect, a distributed Gestapo, a rallying point behind which conservative whites, already heavily armed, can reaffirm their loyalty to the capitalist state, even while denying it. They hate the federal government. They support their local sheriff.
In his classic book The Age of Reform, the great historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out that it was decentralization that prevented the United States from going fascist like Italy or Germany. Sadly it seems the decentralized nature of the 24/7 mass media may bring us fascism after all. Whether or not we notice it will depend on our ability to think critically. I doubt Sandra Bland died with any illusions about what the United States has become.