Trump announced a 'surge' of federal agents to cities led by Democrats. The author of 'How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them' says Trump is 'performing fascism.'

Federal officers deploy huge quantities of CS tear gas in Portland, Oregon on July 21, 2020. Over a thousand people, including a large march of mothers, demonstrated for racial justice and against Donald Trump's insertion of federal officers in Portland, Oregon.John Rudoff/Getty Images
  • Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, is the author of 2018's "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them."
  • Stanley spoke with Business Insider about the deployment of ICE in US cities; what "fascism" would look like if it came to America; what happens if the president is reelected; and why he is more worried about the Republican Party than he is about Donald Trump.
  • "I'm not saying that Trump is a fascist," he said. "Trump is certainly performing fascism — it's performative fascism that we're seeing. It's the tropes of fascism, and I think that's worrisome enough."

President Donald Trump is doubling down on a "law and order" message ahead of November's election. Campaign ads paint his centrist opponent, Joe Biden, as a friend of the radical left determined to abolish the police (and the white suburbs), while federal agents in unmarked vans appear to arbitrarily detain — and beat — people on the streets of Portland, Oregon. Trump announced a "surge" of federal agents being sent to other cities led by Democrats.

It's a "busy time for fascism scholars," Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University, told Business Insider. The author of 2018's "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them," Stanley has been sounding the alarm that regardless of whether one thinks Trump merits the word "fascist," the US president has undoubtedly embraced fascist politics, trading in fear of the foreign other and the enemy within.

Stanley spoke with Business Insider about the deployment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in US cities, pivoting from the arrest of unauthorized immigrants to the detention of US citizens; what "fascism" would look like if it came to America; what happens if the president is reelected; and why he is more afraid of the Republican Party than he is of Donald Trump.Advertisement

Charles Davis: If fascism were to come to America, what do you think it would look like?

Jason Stanley: Fascism is based on ultranationalism, so it's always going to take the form of the country. There's a famous story from, perhaps apocryphal, where a Spanish fascist was asked to speak at an international fascism conference in the early '30s. And he said, "I'm not a fascist — I'm Spanish." Fascism, because it's based on nationalism, is always going to take the most sort of crude and tense form of the nation's traditional tropes. So German fascism, you know, you would have, you know, people with the most Baroque, traditional German name. They'd be dressed in very traditional, kitschy German outfits — traditional Bavarian outfit. So fascism in the United States would look like that: It would be wrapped in a Confederate flag; it would be wrapped in the vestiges of American ultranationalism, which is white nationalism.

Davis: It's interesting that you mention the Confederate flag. Is that a unique wrinkle for America, in the sense that the people on the far right, who we would probably call Nazis, they wave the flag of a treasonous ideology. They are saying that they are the most American, but they're also waving the flag of an enemy force to America, as a country.
Advertisement

Stanley: When you look at the United States, and the Confederacy is not itself fascist because fascism needs communism to contrast it with. The fascist ideologue is someone who is always painting his opponents, no matter how centrist they are, as a "commie." So fascism targets labor unions, and the Confederacy preceded that. But what we have in the United States is sort of a kind of ur-fascism, a pre-fascism in our history. It's a history that Hitler admired. Hitler admired the antebellum South. It was what he wanted to transform Ukraine into. He admired our immigration laws. He admired the murder — the genocide — of the Indigenous people. But he certainly looked to antebellum slavery as a model he sought to do in Eastern Europe.

Just as democracy is going to look different in different countries, it's going to have different causes — when you ask, "Why does Sweden become democratic?" People will have a different answer than, "Why did Switzerland become democratic?" Similarly, there's going to be different histories behind fascist social-political movements in different countries. And we have this very particular history of white nationalism, of a civil war fought to preserve slavery. And that history, because fascism is, in most cases, based on racism is going to be based on white nationalism and white supremacy in the United States. Davis: You argue that Trump draws on fascist ideology, particularly with respect to his demonization of immigrants. In 2019, you singled out Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a particularly troublesome agency, arguing that "its goal is not to make communities safer but to reinforce a distinction between us and them." I wanted you to expand on that and also see how your thinking has been affected by the fact that DHS officers are now being deployed in Portland to arrest not just immigrants but US citizens.Advertisement

Stanley: When you have an organization like ICE, which is new — it's part of the war on terror, part of the reaction to 9/11, an organization devoted to protecting us from foreign terrorists, to keeping them out of the country as part of homeland security — when you have an organization like that, it's sort of based around an "us-them" ideology.

The concern is are they going to turn domestically? Are they going to turn to domestic political opponents of the president? I mean, we know this Martin Niemöller poem: "First, they came for the communists, but I was not a communist, so I said nothing. Then they came to the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Jews, and I was not a Jew, so I said nothing. So then finally they came for me, with no one left to speak for me."

When you have an organization that's devoted to cleaving the citizens from the noncitizens, it's going to be all too tempting to use that organization to target the supporters who are loyal to you versus your opponent. ICE is now being used to target cities led by the political opposition. The president always talks about "Democrat-led cities." So ICE is being used in this political manner. The concern is when you start to have those organizations that are like the police, but not the police, this sort of middle organization, they're not military, they're not the police.Advertisement

They're just there to get the noncitizens. They're already infused with a hypernationalist ethnic ideology that can spill into white supremacy. Of course not all members of [US Customs & Border Protection] are like that, or not all members of ICE, but they're there to split the citizens from the noncitizens.

The concern is always that they're going to be used to target political opponents as well. When you set up a system of prisons, of camps — when you have a secret police, essentially, that the administration can deploy, that's independent of local control there's going to be a temptation to use it also against domestic political opponents. And when that organization has been trained to treat people inhumanely, to treat people as gang members and terrorists, well then they're going to treat American citizens that way.

What seems to be going on is that the president is using this organization, this militia, to explicitly target Democratic cities. And as we see in Portland, it seems that when they're brought in, it increases the protests rather than decreasing them, thereby provoking greater unrest. So it looks like he might potentially provoking conflict between him and him and his political opponents for political-campaign purposes, to create a sense that there's lawlessness in Democratic-led cities and therefore you need a strong leader to protect you.Advertisement

Davis: I've seen some critics of the deployment in Portland and potentially elsewhere, liken what is happening to, for example, Argentina, when the military junta was arresting and disappearing opponents. But we're also talking about a handful of federal agents. And I guess this comes back to one of the critiques of the argument that "Trump is a fascist" that I'm sure you've been presented with before: that he talks bad, and this is really bad on its face — unmarked vans and agents without insignia — but he's not exactly competent. He's good at the political theater, but like, come on, we're not a military dictatorship. He doesn't have the follow-through for that.

Stanley: I'm not saying that Trump is a fascist. Trump is certainly performing fascism — it's performative fascism that we're seeing. It's the tropes of fascism, and I think that's worrisome enough. What's to stop him from escalating? What's to stop a future person, a future president from escalating, whether Democrat or Republican? ICE is an already existing institution. These are already existing structures. Our prison system is an already existing structure that's sort of ravenous for prisoners, for bodies. Trump is showing how you can use existing structures in fascist ways, if you so desire. He might be doing it merely performatively — we don't know. But you want to stop it early, so you don't allow this performative fascism to be something that could be turned non-performative and degrade our democratic norms.

Davis: What about the argument that, yeah, Trump's "performative fascism" is bad, but so is competent right-wing conservatism and competent liberalism, examples being: Who wiped out the Indigenous peoples? It was the mainstream politicians of the time. Who put Japanese people in internment groups? It was a mainstream liberal who's lionized today. Is there not an argument that the more competent politician is a greater danger than the fly-off-the-handle proto-fascism of Donald Trump?Advertisement

Stanley: I prefer to think of things in terms of fascist forces than fascist people. As Toni Morrison, in her 1995 Howard University address about racism and fascism, said: We in the United States have a tendency to give fascist solutions to political questions. Out of our Black population, that the Black Lives Matter protest is about, is a reaction to a fascist force that is as much on Bill Clinton and Joe Biden as it is the fault of any Republican. Black Lives Matter, the last time emerged, it was under Barack Obama. We have a reaction to a long-standing fascist force.

So, no, it's not all about Trump. I think many Americans see these forces of racism fester through Democrats and Republicans. Then you're going to get a leader who will exploit them for demagoguery. What Trump is doing is he's returning us to familiar American tropes: lawless cities with minorities, run by Democrats, leftists, and Black protesters. He's trying to create 1968 over again. And when the United States leaves its social problems, unsolved and unaddressed, then we will always have protests against police brutality, and then we will always have a demagogic politician, be it Nixon or Trump, who then tries to run on a law-and-order platform, where the "law and order" is in fact lawlessness. That's, what's going on. We have these fascist forces, and it's because we have these fascist forces, and we have our prison system; we have these enormous budgets for our police; we have an enormous military budget; we have all these returning Iraq War veterans; we had a war on terror that gave us the Department of Homeland Security. They are tools that someone can pick up and push further.Advertisement

And what Trump is doing is he's pushing already existing fascist forces further. Does that mean that he himself is a fascist? It's not really helpful to talk that way; it's an emphasis on the wrong locus. What we need to do is remove the fascist forces. We need to address our prison system, address our over-policing problem, address our inequality, cut down the insider dealing between corporate elites and the government. And then we won't get people who can do this kind of thing.

Davis: You mentioned 1968 and Trump, or at least people around him. Does he seem to be consciously copying the law-and-order tactic of that campaign? And in fact, they did that in 2016 and it's evident in his inaugural address.

Stanley: Right. And if you look at my, if you look at my law-and-order chapter book, I talk about 1968 a lot.Advertisement

Davis: But it doesn't look like we're headed to 1972, though, in terms of an electoral blowout for a triumphant Donald Trump. As much as the fascist tendencies that Trump is seeming to campaign on, it does seem like progressive forces are ascendant, with the approval of Black Lives Matter and the fact that Trump is behind in the polls at this point. So why is it not 1972?

Stanley: Well, maybe American recognize that we will always get protest against police brutality — that we have this long history that has not been dealt with. And until we deal with it, we're going to get people engaging in racial demagoguery in order to distract us from the problems, such as COVID-19, huge inequality, unemployment, and Americans might be sick of it, white and black.

Davis: Is that because American society has become more progressive since the Nixon era? Why did this work, at least in terms of the Electoral College victory in 2016, and it seems to be failing now?Advertisement

Stanley: During the Clinton era, we had a harsh demagoguing spurt for eight straight years under a Democratic president. The 1990s were a horror show on racial demagoguery. And mass incarceration is a problem that emerged — Nixon started it, but it blew up in the decades after. So I don't think you can talk about a progressive force that gradually arises. I remember when Barack Obama was against gay marriage. Now my evangelical Christian conservative, 19-year-old students are pro gay marriage. Social movements change attitudes quickly. We don't know if this is going to work.

What the president is trying to do is make sure it doesn't work. He's trying to use force to create dissension and amp up conflict. He's manufacturing dissent because dissent is what he thrives off of. And that's where his politics becomes very fascist. He's not about unifying — he's about dividing and saying, "I'm the champion of one side." And so that's what he's doing, and it's not obvious that it's working, but if it doesn't work, we also have to worry about the security of the election.

Davis: What about the security of the election?Advertisement

Stanley: Well, everything has been very transparent. That's one nice thing about Trump: He's transparent. When he talks about mail-in votes, it's clear that he doesn't want to leave a paper trail. There doesn't seem to be any sanction in place, if foreign governments interfere in our elections. It seems like there's going to be a lot of effort, and one thing we need to worry about is CBP and ICE being used to intimidate people at the polls. I'm not predicting it will happen. I'm not saying it will happen. I'm saying that we have to worry about it.

Davis: Right, ostensibly there to catch, fraudulent undocumented immigrants, and that depresses turnout, because people don't want to be around law enforcement. Stanley: Exactly. Because as Amy Lerman has shown in her 2018 book, when you have had any encounter with law enforcement, it's the biggest predictor of not voting. So that's one thing we have to think about, too. Flooding these cities with federal agents, flooding these cities with law enforcement — when people encounter law enforcement, they're much less likely to vote; to participate civically.Advertisement

Davis: What do you think this country would look like if Trump were to win a second term, by whatever means?

Stanley: My worry is less with Trump and more with the Republican Party that enables all kinds of behavior. My concern is with members of the Republican Party that care more about the Republican Party than they care about a multiparty democracy. And that started with Newt Gingrich. Democracy is made up of conservatives and libertarians and socialists, and center-left people, and boring centrists, and all sorts of types. But no one should be more beholden to their political party than the system itself. And this fascist politics of representing all opposition as illegitimate is what is most concerning to me — one of the things that's most concerning about the future.

Davis: Are there any individuals that you kind of keep you up at night? Meaning, when we talk about Trump as a bumbling fascist, are you worried about a more competent Tucker Carlson?Advertisement

Stanley: President Tucker Carlson — he's very smart, very able. Tom Cotton has shown himself to be somewhat ruthless, though less charismatic. We're getting the complete destruction of our epistemic sphere. That's another thing to worry. There's all these Republican [candidates] who are QAnon supporters. That's "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"-level of conspiracy theorizing that is just so unhinged. We've seen the cost of totally incompetent government. That's just going to get much worse.

Davis: You mentioned QAnon — even the deployment of federal agents in Portland is sort of conspiratorial in its basis: the idea that there's an antifa organization that's going to be marching to the suburbs.

Stanley: Yeah. What we have as this fascist politics — of the crazed leftists who are going destroy our civilization and destroying things, and they're this secret force. Absolutely. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" had Jews at its base; the idea was Jews were behind communism. And what we have now is the idea that, you know, there are these leftists everywhere, in our universities and the press, and they're fomenting rebellion.Advertisement

Davis: A lot of the people that embrace these conspiracy theories think that they are fighting the establishment, the true power — that these are antiauthoritarian conspiracy theories that they believe, but it's in the service of an authoritarian politics. Why does this type of politics embrace superficially antiestablishment conspiracy theories?

Stanley: Well, always does. The idea is there are these elites who are seeking to destroy this country from within, and they need to be hunted and rooted out. They're hidden and embedded in the elite institutions, and a strong leader is going to represent the people and track them down and get rid of them. The establishment has to go, and that's why it's so dangerous when you have failures of the establishment, like the Iraq War and the financial crisis.

Davis: I guess my last question would be: What's one thing that you wish reporters like me would ask you that's been kind of been neglected in your recent interviews?Advertisement

Stanley: That's a great question. We need to take the focus off Trump specifically and think about the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the long-term chain we need to make in order to make sure that this kind of demagoguery doesn't work anymore — and not place everything on Trump. What are the long-term things that made this possible?

{{}}