They Sure Act Like Fascists

Polls suggest roughly half of Republican voters are big fans of the former president. (The misguided other half vote for him anyway.) Is it fair to call his deplorable true believers fascists?

From Noah Berlatsky for Public Notice (a newsletter that covers US politics and media):

On Tuesday, Dxxxx Txxxx was found liable for sexually assaulting writer E. Jean Carroll and defaming her. The $5 million dollar fine didn’t deter Txxxx for even a day, though.
At his CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, Txxxx again smeared Carroll, mocking her claims about how he assaulted her in the Bergdorf Goodman department store….

Txxxx’s cruel monologue was repulsive. But what was even more disgusting was the audience reaction. CNN had shamelessly filled the room with Txxxx supporters. And as the former president mocked Carroll, those supporters laughed like he was a witty comedian delivering a punchline.

Txxxx is Txxxx; he was a horrible person long before he was president, and he will go to his grave a liar, a bully, and a bigot. When CNN put Txxxx on the air for ratings and clout, they knew he would spread election lies. They knew he would demean E. Jean Carroll. They knew he would direct abuse at moderator Kaitlin Collins (he called her “nasty,” his standard epithet for women who challenge him).

But commentators like to think that most Americans are better than Txxxx. The college students, the small businesspeople, and even the Republican activists who vote for Txxxx do so, pundits hope, despite his manifest cruelty, rather than because those good Americans enjoy laughing at sexual assault victims.

But CNN’s town hall was a reminder that Txxxx supporters are in fact bad people — in the sense that to support Txxxx, and defend Txxxx, requires them to become their absolute worst selves. Probably most of Txxxx’s supporters did not tell themselves before the town hall started that they were there to cheer on sexual assault. But by the end they were doing just that. That’s how fascism works.

Pundits and experts have long scoffed at the idea that Txxxx’s supporters are actually implicated in his evil — or at least, they’ve insisted that saying they are is verboten. How can 74 million Txxxx supporters be fascists?

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was widely excoriated when she said in 2016 that half of Txxxx’s voters were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic” — a “basket of deplorables,” as she memorably put it.

In 2022, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute worried that “to say that tens of millions of supporters of the other party … are fascists, fascistic, or semi-fascistic is to use the language of national emergency.” That transforms the other party from “adversaries to enemies,” he argues, which makes it too easy “to justify taking extraordinary action to suppress the threat.”

Hamid is afraid of the effects of polarization. But the way he keeps incredulously insisting that tens of millions of Txxxx supporters can’t be fascists also suggests that he is just loath to believe that so many Americans — our fellow countrymen, our neighbors, our relatives — can be bad people. Fascism is evil. Americans aren’t evil. So how can Americans be fascists? Let us count the ways.

The CNN town hall was a 70 minute demonstration in the grim mechanics of how. Robert O. Paxton argues that a core characteristic of fascism is “an obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood” paired with “compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity.” Fascists claim that they, the pure bearers of the nation’s pride, are being assaulted, smeared, and debased (generally by marginalized people). They then use that as an excuse for extremes of violence in the name of revenge and purity.

You could see Txxxx enact this formula over and over again in the town hall as his fans cheered. In defending his violent coup attempt on January 6, for example, Txxxx quickly brought up Ashli Babbitt, who was killed while storming the Capitol. The former president’s voice got positively misty as he said her name, and then harsh as he called the Black police officer who shot her a “thug.”

“Cold blank range they shot her,” he stormed — as if she was deliberately executed, rather than killed in a violent melee as she and her cohort attempted to get their hands on members of Congress who were trying to count the electoral votes that would finalize Txxxx’s loss to Joe Biden. Babbitt becomes a martyr for the cause, retroactively erasing or justifying everyone else who took part in the insurrection.

Again, when Txxxx was asked about his policy of separating families at the border, leaving children alone in cages, he explained it was necessary to deter immigration. “We have to save our country,” he insisted. America is in danger from immigrants that Txxxx claims are spreading disease and terror. Any excess of cruelty is justifiable to save it.

Txxxx’s ugly discussion of E. Jean Carroll was even more illustrative, [suggesting] that Carroll was mentally ill, out of control, and determined to persecute him. Txxxx is again the innocent persecuted figure, and his innocence justifies his crude smears of Carroll, even after a jury of his peers found him liable for assaulting and defaming her.

In each case here — and in many more throughout the town hall — Txxxx gives the audiences little winks or asides to remind them that he’s on their side. At one point he bizarrely suggested he would give one questioner a job in his administration. At another he gave the audience a sincere look and told them rich people “do pretty well in a lot of ways” as they laughed. He’s a comedian. He tells it like it is. He’s their guy.

Txxxx’s voters empathize with Txxxx, and he in turn empathizes with them, assuring them that they are persecuted and under assault. And then, empathizing together in an organic community of amity, he tells them that the solution to their ills is atrocity. And they enthusiastically agree.

MAGA partisans don’t see themselves as evil, because they know they’re on the side of the noble victims. Txxxx gets people to feel like they’re backed into a corner with him, and that only through him can they break free and scourge their enemies. It’s a potent cocktail of fear and rage and righteousness. It’s addictive. It’s exciting. And, as all that laughter shows, it’s fun.

Fascism is a mass movement. That doesn’t mean that people are tricked or hypnotized by a charismatic leader. It means that people encourage each other to form a community based in cruelty, bigotry, lies, and violence. The community feels good and right, not despite the fact that it gives people license to be their worst selves, but because it does. And, yes, millions of neighbors, relatives, and good, pure people can participate in the rituals of victimization, bigotry, and blood. Who is fascism for, after all, if not the good, pure people?

The Right Had a Plan and It Worked

Here’s an eight-minute video that explains the origin of today’s reliably extreme right-wing Supreme Court. (The same method is now being applied in other parts of the culture, like business and education).

Warning: The sound on the video comes on at full blast. Why do they do that?

Biden Needs To Be Ready To Act

“extort”: to obtain from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or illegal power.

In other words, if you don’t give me what I want, something very bad will happen to you. This is not the same as negotiation.

 “negotiate”: to confer with another so as to arrive at the settlement of some matter.

You’ll get something you want, I’ll get something I want, and neither of us will be too worse off.

Which brings us to the debt limit or debt ceiling:

Management of the United States public debt is an important part of the macroeconomics of the United States economy and finance system, and the debt ceiling is a limitation on the federal government’s ability to manage the economy and finance system. The debt ceiling is also a limitation on the federal government’s ability to finance government operations, and the failure of Congress to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling has resulted in crises, especially in recent years.

Prior to 1917, the United States did not have a debt ceiling, with Congress either authorizing specific loans or allowing the Treasury to issue certain debt instruments and individual debt issues for specific purposes. Sometimes Congress gave the Treasury discretion over what type of debt instrument would be issued.

Between 1788 and 1917, Congress would authorize each bond issue by the United States Treasury by passing a legislative act that approved the issue and the amount.

In 1917, during World War I, Congress created the debt ceiling with the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917, which allowed the Treasury to issue bonds and take on other debt without specific Congressional approval, as long as the total debt fell under the statutory debt ceiling. [Wikipedia]

The story of the debt limit “crises, especially in recent years” begins in 2011. From Brian Beutler of Crooked Media:

Just as clear-eyed political analysts knew well before President Obama that Republicans would abuse the filibuster rule in an unprecedented way to stymie his agenda, they also recognized before the Democratic leadership that, after crushing Democrats in the 2010 midterms, Republicans would take the further unprecedented step of extorting Obama under threat of default. That’s why reporters asked then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid why Democrats, with their huge 2009-2010 majorities, wouldn’t neutralize the threat before Republicans took power. 

“Let the Republicans have some buy-in on the debt,” Reid said

This was the beginning of a fateful error that culminated in a significant shock to the economy, still hobbling out of the great recession, followed by years of indiscriminate, across-the-board discretionary-spending cuts, which Obama paid the Republicans in ransom.

This was supposed to be Obama-era Democrats’ biggest regret, one that they were committed never to relive. For the rest of Obama’s presidency he rightly refused to make unreciprocated concessions for further debt limit increases, and each time Republicans eventually caved. 

But it isn’t foreordained that Republicans will always cave, every time a Democratic president refuses to be extorted, from now through eternity. Republicans never forswore weaponizing the debt limit. Neither was their lurch further into extremism a piece of forbidden knowledge. Right out in the open, through the Obama and Txxxx years, Republicans have become significantly more aggrieved and vandalous, and because of that, permanently disarming the debt limit has become a matter of greater and greater urgency….

If Democrats were like Republicans, they would’ve treated turnabout as fair play, and held the debt limit hostage for ideological policy concessions after Txxxx took office. Of course, the parties aren’t similar, and Democrats never considered this, nor should they have: Extortion is extortion, and every bit as anti-democratic as stealing court seats, or elected offices. 

But I did think that when Republicans came to Democrats for help increasing the debt limit, Democrats should have made one demand: that in exchange for their votes, Republicans would have to relinquish the debt limit as a tool of extortion forever. This could have taken many forms: Outright debt-limit abolition, indefinite debt-limit suspension, a debt-limit increase of effectively infinite size, or the permanent delegation of authority to increase the debt limit to the executive branch. Either way, the idea was that Democrats should have had enough dignity to insist the parties be bound by a single set of rules, and make it the price of bailing Republicans out of a jam. 

Democrats instead gave their votes away for free….

By the end of the last Congress, with Republicans poised once again to control the House under a Democratic president, the idea that Democrats should use their narrow, lame-duck majorities to moot the debt limit grew into something like a clamor…. Democrats thus had to respond to it, and their response was: sorry, no. This time, they seemingly just didn’t have the votes. But Democratic leaders expended almost no public effort trying to whip them up. Instead they and their loyalists treated supporters to excuses ranging from ‘we don’t have enough time’ to ‘we are leaving the doomsday device armed and ticking on purpose!’ How better to force Republicans to produce a budget, which will contain unpopular policies, the better to run against?

So House Republicans have produced a budget. It’s filled with unpopular proposals they could never get implemented through the normal budget negotiations with the president and Senate that take place every year.

Their position is: give us all or much of what we want or we’ll create a financial crisis as bad or worse than the one in 2008. The government won’t have enough money to function and all hell will break loose. Extortion.

Biden’s position is: raise the debt limit, as Congress has always done before, and then we’ll negotiate the budget like we always do. Negotiation.

You might think it’s fine for Republicans to finally force Democrats to cut the spending Republicans want to cut and leave alone the spending Republicans want to leave alone. Do you think it would be fine for Democrats to do the same thing when there’s a Republican president? Regardless, letting a minority compel the government to meet its demands is not how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Democrats gave in to extortion before and they shouldn’t do it again.

Back to Mr, Beutler:

Democrats find themselves at a choosing moment once again, only this time, they lack the means to disarm the debt limit with new law. Their choice is between caving to Republicans and maneuvering aggressively to disempower them….

Biden should be prepared to leave Tuesday’s meeting with Congressional leaders and announce that if Republicans attempt to default on the national debt, his administration will protect the country.

… He can instruct the Treasury to continue auctioning bonds, and if Republicans then choose to sue the country into default, and the Republican-controlled courts choose to order the country into default, it will be on them. Biden could further justify this decision by referencing the 14th amendment, which holds the sovereign debt inviolable. [Other options have been proposed and are supposedly being considered.]

… We need Democrats who will stop treating the Republicans’ serial default threat as a prompt to outmaneuver them, and instead simply overturn the game board… Republicans are the minority, trying to impose their will on the whole country by threat of mass harm, and that isn’t compatible with freedom or self-government. It isn’t hard bargaining, it’s terrorism.

Anything less than continued, complete refusal to negotiate would, in a profound and troubling sense, represent a violation of the oath of office. In a more partisan sense, it would breach the trust of millions of voters who view the Democratic Party as the last line of defense against extremist depredations. It’s hard to imagine a clearer way to signal that, when push comes to shove, they’ll appease bullies, instead of standing up for us—and they’ll do it by handing over our lunch money.  

The country can’t survive in the long run if one shameless faction wields power in a consequence-free realm, while the other quietly acclimates itself to the mounting extremism. Eventually the trespasses will be incompatible with self-rule, and it will bring the whole republic down. 

Note: In a TV interview, when asked if he might cite the 14th Amendment in order to bypass the debt limit (the amendment says the nation’s debt should not be “questioned”), Biden said he’s “not there yet”.

Israel’s Basic Conflict

Marbury vs. Madison is probably the most important ruling the Supreme Court ever made. It was the first time the court exercised “judicial review”, the ability of a federal court to declare a law unconstitutional. It’s odd in a way, since the court’s 1802 decision amounted to one branch of government unilaterally deciding it had control over the actions of another branch, i.e. Congress, even though there’s nothing in the Constitution that gives the judiciary that power.

Israel’s Supreme Court decided its own version of Marbury vs. Madison in 1995. The country has never had a written constitution, but it does have what are called “Basic Laws”. One of these laws declares that every Israeli citizen (whether Jewish or Arab) has certain fundamental rights. After the passage of the Basic Laws, the Supreme Court ruled that it could annul laws or parts of laws that violated those rights. In other words, the court gave itself the power of judicial review. Not everybody in Israel agrees with that decision.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed legislation that would give Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, control over the appointment of judges, limit the Supreme Court’s ability to void legislation through judicial review, and override the court’s decisions. Opposition to this legislation led to massive protests all around the country.

This is from an interesting article in The New York Review of Books by Joshua Leifer:

Together, the … Basic Laws defined Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” This phrase appears nowhere in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence…. The adoption of the “Jewish and democratic” formulation was part of an effort by Israeli leaders to shore up the ethnically exclusive character of the state as Israel entered the negotiation process that would culminate in the signing of the Oslo Accords. But for [the president of the Supreme Court], these Basic Laws also inaugurated the process of trying to harmonize Israel’s Jewish character and its putatively liberal-democratic commitments…. 

The 1995 Supreme Court decision in United Mizrahi Bank v. Migdal Cooperative Village …  created a legal means by which human rights could trump prerogatives of Jewish supremacy and state security. While this decision did not spark widespread outrage right away, with each ruling that struck down government policies in the name of democracy or human rights, right-wing hostility to the court increased….

For instance, the court provoked objections from the right when it ruled that Israel’s security services could not use physical torture—a decision that was substantively reversed in two cases in 2017 and 2018—or when it required that the Israeli military governor in the occupied territories change the location of the West Bank separation barrier to protect Palestinian private property rights. For Palestinian and human rights advocates, such interventions by the court have themselves been inadequate, because they left the infrastructure of the occupation intact and preserved laws that privileged Jews over non-Jews. In the right-wing imagination, however, the court … now appeared as a threat both to Israel’s security and to its Jewish character.

… The right insists that [the court’s] actions were their own judicial “coup”—a usurpation of the sovereign will of the people as expressed in legislation passed by the Knesset—and rejects the notion that the values of human dignity and democracy should ever win out over Jewish supremacy and state security. In fact, for much of the Israeli right, it has become anathema to suggest that the power and position of the Jewish majority have any limits at all….

Yair Lapid [a more centrist Israeli leader] has declared that it would not be sufficient simply to stop the right-wing coalition’s judicial takeover. “We don’t need to put a bandage on the wounds but rather properly treat them,” he said in an address after Netanyahu announced that he would pause the judicial overhaul legislation to allow for negotiations. “We must sit together and write a constitution based on the values of the Declaration of Independence.”

In the days since the legislative pause went into effect, a large segment of protesters has continued to return to the streets weekly, many chanting, “No constitution, no compromise.” Their argument is that without a constitution that formally establishes the relationship between the judicial and legislative branches and explicitly guarantees the civil liberties they fear the right aims to extinguish, Israel will remain vulnerable to future efforts to consolidate power over the political system and transform it into something like Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary.

But because the renewed calls for a constitution contain no reference to the occupation and barely acknowledge discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, they have taken on an absurd cast. Lapid himself has insisted that he rejects a “state of all its citizens”—in other words, one that would guarantee equality to its inhabitants. He [and others] have consistently refused to treat Palestinian citizens as political partners…

Were a constitution along Lapidian lines to be written, it would need to be explicitly undemocratic and inegalitarian; it would enshrine as a constitutional value the discrimination against non-Jews that, according to the NGO Adalah, already appears in more than sixty-five Israeli laws—as well as in the now-infamous Nation-State Law, which was passed with the status of a Basic Law in 2018. The potential constitution might well begin [with the preamble to a proposed constitution in 1948] “WE, THE JEWISH PEOPLE.

Writing any kind of constitution will, in other words, be no easier now than it was in 1948. The divisions between secular liberals and Orthodox traditionalists on matters of synagogue and state are perhaps felt even more intensely today than during the early years of Israel’s history. Then, secular Jews constituted an overwhelming majority, but rapidly shifting demographics mean that traditionalist and Orthodox Jews are now set to supplant them.

The protests draw some of their sense of desperation from the fear that the secular Israel of old is disappearing. More significantly, though, writing a constitution that does more than simply consecrate the current situation will still mean making the choice that confronted the state’s founding generation: between a genuinely democratic state and one that constitutionally upholds Jewish supremacy.

To start, any serious constitution must ask what the borders of the State of Israel are. Defining its territorial boundaries would require either formally annexing the West Bank or officially designating the settlements as outside Israeli sovereignty. A constitution would also need to define the status of all the Palestinians living under Israeli control. Either the constitution would grant them full equality—and therefore set in motion the dismantling of a vast apparatus of discrimination and unequal land distribution laws—or it would make Israel a de jure apartheid state, not just a de facto one.

Today no centrist or center-left Israeli Jewish leader is prepared to entertain such choices. Yet the right has its own vision for making them. After dismantling the judiciary and eliminating any checks on Jewish majority rule, it aims to annex the West Bank, legally formalize the apartheid regime over the Palestinians living there, and expel those who resist their permanent subjugation.

Some American observers have compared the situation in Israel to the ongoing debate among left-liberal legal scholars in the United States about the drawbacks of judicial politics, especially after the Dobbs decision: Has relying on the Supreme Court instead of the democratic process hampered the implementation of progressive policies? But if there is any parallel it is not to contemporary America but to the US in the years preceding the Civil War. Then in the United States as in Israel now, the country was divided over who was entitled to fundamental rights and what its founding documents meant—or in Israel’s case, what it means to lack them.

There the parallel stops. While the settler right seeks (as the proslavery camp sought) to solidify a constitutional order premised on the supremacy of the ethno-racial majority, the prodemocracy camp has embraced no call for equality comparable to that made by the American abolitionists. The protesters are largely content with Jewish supremacy as long as it protects liberal freedoms for Jews. What they seem to want is to maintain both the material benefits of that inequality and the self-comforting illusion of democracy.

Of Course, We’re Polarized. We Should Be!

Do a search for “America polarized” and you’ll see that serious observers are very concerned:

The Pew Charitable Trusts: “America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide”

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?”

The New Yorker: “How Politics Got So Polarized”

The New York Times: “America Has Split, and It’s Now In Very Dangerous Territory”

The Atlantic: “The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization”

And so on. But polarization is a symptom, not the disease.

The following is from “Political Polarization Isn’t the Real Problem in America”, an interview with two University of North Carolina political scientists at Salon:

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the idea that American political life was dangerously polarized was controversial, and often vehemently denied…. Today things look quite different…. Polarization research has exploded, exploring many different dimensions — social, ideological, affective — all resting on the premise that polarization is a big problem, if not the central problem, in American politics today. But this research too often tacitly yearns for a lost golden age of greater consensus, an age that was never golden for those effectively excluded….

Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, both at the University of North Carolina, … argue that the focus on polarization as such, while ignoring the actual content of politics that produces polarization, is fundamentally mistaken….

I was reading the Axios newsletter this morning and they used the language of polarization to talk about how college students are making choices on the basis of state laws around reproductive rights. Basically they bemoaned the polarization that means people aren’t going to go to school in red states if they value abortion access. But the problem there is not polarization, it’s that 18- to 24-year-olds, very logically, are like, “We want to be make sure that we have reproductive freedoms and can make autonomous choices for our own bodies when we go to school.” Polarization is beside the point….

It’s not to say that polarization is not something to be concerned about. There are all sorts of ways that citizens have skewed understandings of the other side, when it comes to the beliefs that citizens of different parties hold, and those things are all potentially concerning. But when you have an assault on our nation’s capital, as we did on Jan. 6, that was designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a safe and a secure election, the problem is not polarization, it’s anti-democratic extremism. It’s unfair and illegitimate power grabs by a set of dominant groups in a white-dominant political party. It’s not the fact that we’re so divided. I just think a lot of scholars have been drawing the wrong conclusions and focusing on the wrong questions when it comes to what we should be concerned about….

One way to think about [this] is to ask: “Why is the contemporary right obsessed with trans issues right now?” I think this is a clear example of constructing identitarian appeals that work with white men in particular. That also came right on the heels of all the “critical race theory” bills that swept across the country, all with similar language about protecting, in essence, whites from feeling guilty from learning about racial history, from being accountable for racial histories….

If you’re considering the democratic consequences of polarization, you also have to consider what the poles you’re comparing really are. Polarization only says what’s of concern is that distance between two groups, whereas we’re arguing that one group is anti-democratic extremists and the other group is a multiracial democratic movement. The concern is not that they’re so far apart….

The polarization frame is the easy one. It’s politically neutral. It’s easy to be like, “Oh, we’re all so polarized!” Consider that Axios newsletter I mentioned: A more careful analysis is to say, “Maybe 18 to 24-year-olds are concerned about the fact that they’re going to have access to reproductive care while they’re in college.” Or to cite another issue, the problem isn’t that we’re polarized around guns, the problem is we have mass shootings once a week in this country. I think it requires having a much clearer diagnosis of what’s at issue. 

But that also means taking a stance. And I think a lot of journalists and a lot of social scientists, a lot of people in public life feel very uncomfortable with that. We can’t call out guns, but we can call out polarization. But from my point of view, the problem is guns. The problem is anti-trans laws. The problem is white supremacy. Those are the issues that I think we should focus on, and be clear-eyed about.

Polarization becomes a way to talk about politics without talking about politics at all, without actually getting at the underlying issues. We all just need to be much sharper in our analysis and much clearer in our commitments when we talk about these issues, without the lazy way out of relying on polarization speak.

The basic problem isn’t polarization. As the Salon article says, the basic problem is that one pole is a lot worse than the other. From Vox:

A 2019 survey of nearly 2,000 experts on political parties from around the world asked respondents to rate political parties on two axes: the extent to which they are committed to basic democratic principles and their commitment to protecting rights for ethnic minorities. The higher the number, the more anti-democratic and intolerant the party is.

The following chart shows the results of the survey for all political parties [among] wealthy democratic states, with the two major American parties highlighted in red. The Republican Party is an extreme outlier compared to mainstream conservative parties in other wealthy democracies….

Its closest peers are, almost uniformly, radical right and anti-democratic parties. This includes Turkey’s AKP (a regime that is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists), and Poland’s PiS (which has threatened dissenting judges with criminal punishment). Experts rate the GOP as substantially more hostile to minority rights than Hungary’s Fidesz, an authoritarian party that has made demonization of Muslim immigrants into a pillar of its official ideology.

In short, there is a consensus among comparative politics scholars that the Republican Party is one of the most anti-democratic political parties in the developed world. It is one of a handful of once-centrist parties that has, in recent years, taken a turn toward the extreme….

Over the past decade and a half, Republicans have shown disdain for procedural fairness and a willingness to put the pursuit of power over democratic principles. They have implemented measures that make it harder for racial minorities to vote, render votes from Democratic-leaning constituencies irrelevant, and relentlessly blocked Democratic efforts to conduct normal functions of government.

And consider that this survey was conducted before the “Stop the Steal” bullshit, the attack on Congress, the Supreme Court’s forced birth decision, Republican extortion on the debt limit, etc. You’re damn right we’re polarized.