It Just Happened Here

For thirty years, I’ve heard conservatives lecture everyone else about the supposed “lessons” of Munich, Neville Chamberlain, and appeasement, all in order to rationalize endless warfare against “threats” abroad. Every time they want to start a war, they roll out their canned lectures on Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, the one-size-fits-all analogy that justifies any brutality from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Persian Gulf. In fact, all they’ve managed to accomplish is perpetual war abroad, and fascist sedition at home. (Paul Krugman’s columns on this topic have been both prescient and explanatory.)

Wednesday’s events are what all that arrant, hypocritical, virtue-signaling bullshit really amounts to. A white fascist mob incited by a Republican president announced for weeks its intention to overturn the results of the 2020 election by armed violence. True to their word, they invaded the Capitol in broad daylight. The police–despite all their “blue line” valor and all their “real time intelligence”–were taken by surprise by a bunch of half-assed thugs, running away as a mob took over and occupied the heart of the United States government.*

Law enforcement then mounted a decidedly rearguard action to take back what they had previously surrendered. Had the attack been better organized and its participants more strategically competent, we’d have had a hostage situation mimicking Waco and rivaling 9/11. Indeed, Trump’s followers came in order to complete what Al Qaeda had hoped to bring about on 9/11–the destruction, by armed force, of American democracy. Twenty years into a “War on Terror,” and retreat is the best we can do when an actual invasion reaches the doorsteps of the country’s center of gravity: after bombing the shit out of everyone all around the globe in the name of “national security,” and “taking the fight to the enemy,” the “troops” trained to keep democracy safe ran away, and surrendered it directly to the enemy.**

Let’s not sugarcoat it. It’s long, long past time to face the fact that Trump and his supporters are fascists, no matter now nice and neighborly some of them can be in person, that fascism can happen here—that it has happened, and that a Biden presidency doesn’t immunize us against a further descent into fascism, any more than the Weimar Republic saved Germany from that fate. It’s time to stop being afraid to use this supposedly “incendiary” word, time to start fearing the thing it names, and time to start resisting it for the danger it represents.

* Afterthought, added January 10, 2021: In retrospect, my blanket assertion that the police fled strikes me as unfair. Some did flee, ignominiously, in my view. Some allowed the protesters into the Capitol. But some fought hard. What’s indisputable is that the insurrectionists’ success at gaining entry to the Capitol was an abject, embarrassing failure on the part of law enforcement.

**The best indirect response I can offer is the blurb to Macalester Bell’s 2013 book, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt:

At a time when respect is widely touted as an attitude of central moral importance, contempt is often derided as a thoroughly nasty emotion inimical to the respect we owe all persons. But while contempt is regularly dismissed as completely disvaluable, ethicists have had very little to say about what contempt is or whether it deserves its ugly reputation. Macalester Bell argues that we must reconsider contempt’s role in our moral lives. While contempt can be experienced in inapt and disvaluable ways, it may also be a perfectly appropriate response that provides the best way of answering a range of neglected faults.

11 thoughts on “It Just Happened Here

  1. Well said. I never supported Trump, but I seriously underestimated how troubling things could get. We are all lucky that the president is as incompetent as he is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. I actually think that Trump’s fascist tendencies were apparent all along, and underscore the legitimacy of character-based voting. Jason Brennan has argued that we should vote primarily on the basis of “policy” rather than character, but even apart from the unclarity of the policy/character distinction, it’s impossible to vote on policy when the candidate has no policy-based track record. In that case, we’re forced to assess the candidate based on considerations of character–what he’s said in various contexts, and how he’s acted in various contexts. If you put those things together, I thought it clear as early as 2015 that Trump was a moral monster capable of almost anything.

      But instead of tooting my own horn, here’s a blog post written back in 2017 by PoT blogger David Riesbeck. It strikes me as both profound and prescient. Too many of Trump’s “critics” wasted too much time making fun of him, or railing at him, and too little figuring out concrete ways to resist him. This post is a good analysis of that tendency.

      You’re right that we’re lucky that Trump was as incompetent as he turned out to be. We may not be so lucky next time. Which is a pretty sobering thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you that voting on character is important – even if you have a policy track record. To clarify I didn’t underestimate Trump’s character. I agree that he was despicable and fascist from the start. What I underestimated is all that might happen in his first term.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Addressing David’s post and echoing some of Ray’s sentiments, I both somewhat underestimated Trump’s bad character (oh shit, he believes his bullshit at some level and laps up conspiracy theories, it is not just a show) and these particular awful effects (the particular circumstance of disputing an election and stirring up a sizable portion of Americans into believing his conspiracies about grievous injustice being perpetrated on him and their acting accordingly). In some respects, we did get a largely-harmless show, but not in this respect (I worried more about his having bad judgment in foreign policy and getting us into wars and was dead wrong about that). This speaks, perhaps, to our moralistic intuitions and tendencies being more on-target than I’d like to think (the bad consequences of bad character being perhaps more significant than one might, with philosophical skepticism, be able to easily enumerate; hats off to your attempts at enumerating these consequences and constructing good theory around this regarding character-based voting). However, as you might guess, I’m not crazy about your condemnation of Trump and Trump supporters as “fascists” (though maybe this depends on the meaning you attach to this pejorative term and who and how many are in the target group). Though holding Trump and the mob responsible for what has happened — and for the vices that spawned it — is important, it is equally or more important to achieve consensus on what good political ends we can (with the people and factions that we have, not in some ideal world that we do not occupy). The actions of the mob, and Trump’s role in instigating them, have been appropriately and roundly condemned by national politicians across the political spectrum. Perhaps that’s not all we should do condemnation-wise (or identifying-root-causes-wise), but it is a good start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t understand your reluctance to use the term “fascism” for Trump and his supporters. Trump incited an armed, angry mob of known white supremacists to invade the Capitol in order to disrupt the certification of a free and fair election. On the white supremacist/nationalist connection:

      It just isn’t credible to think that Trump didn’t know that his crowd was full of such people. It was public knowledge for weeks ahead of the event that white nationalists were organizing, alongside more conventional Trump fanatics, to create a disturbance of some sort at the Capitol. The mob “only” managed to kill one person, but if better organized, could literally have overturned the results of the election and taken over the government–the insurrectionists’ explicit aim. They very likely created a superspreader event in the bargain.

      Trump might as well have encouraged his supporters to go out and engage in biological warfare. If anyone dies from COVID as a result of the insurrection, surely Trump bears moral responsibility for their deaths.

      What more would Trump have to do to merit the description of “fascism”? How different, in principle, is the Capitol Insurrection from the Beer Hall Putsch that landed Hitler in jail? If you add the COVID factor, I’d say it’s worse. Both happened to end in failure due to the incompetence of their leaders, but both could have gone the other way.


      • In popular usage, I take ‘fascist’ to be something of a moving target in its descriptive content. Though there is perhaps a core descriptive meaning that is adequate enough for some contexts, in many contexts the term is inadequate and downright cognitively destructive (similarly for ‘racist’ and ‘white supremicist’ and many other terms of “cultural warfare”). This is why I wondered about a more specific definition. We know from online chatter (and other sources) that some, perhaps many, of the people who did the planning for the 500 or so who initiated the violence were white nationalists. These folks believed Trump’s conspiracy theory about a stolen election and aimed to violently disrupt and prevent the vote certification process (not just, say, show symbolic support for Ted Cruz challenging this or that slate of electors). If you want to say that the complex of beliefs and attitudes behind what these folks did check enough of the boxes to fit the rough descriptive content of ‘fascism’ in its popular use, this seems close enough to right for me (though still not my cup of tea). Also, with regard to these folks, I have no trouble with the severely pejorative function of the term (successfully attaching the ‘assholes’ tag to them would work well, too). But the bulk of the 1/4 million folks who showed up to the rally are another thing (as is the average Trump supporter or voter). I don’t think these folks by and large check enough of the boxes to count as fascist in the rough-and-ready, popular use of the term (and the severely pejorative nature of the term is likely to cause unnecessary conflict). However, in this general ballpark, there is some insufficient understanding of and respect for democracy going around and causing real (and now also symbolically important) damage. There is some specific confronting and condemning that needs to be done on these counts, but with understanding, subtlety and (in most cases) personal respect.


        • That argument just seems to me to be a logical non-starter–a non-sequitur leading directly to a reductio. It’s one thing to dispute competing definitions of “fascism,” and/or to dispute whether Trump satisfies your preferred one. But your principle is: if term F is misused in popular usage, it lacks descriptive content altogether.

          That entails that if “racism” is misused, there is no racism; if “fascism” is misused, there is no fascism; if “communism” is misused, there are no communists; if “totalitarianism” is misused, there is no totalitarianism. And so on. Isn’t that a reductio?

          Your principle also bypasses what seems an obvious semantic fact: a term can have determinate descriptive content, and yet be widely misused anyway. “Insanity” is often misused, but there’s still a difference between sanity and insanity. The same could be said of “asshole,” or any number of terms. The misuse of F doesn’t entail that F can’t properly be used. (In general, semantics aside, the misuse of a thing doesn’t entail that it can’t properly be used.) So there’s the non sequitur.

          Your view holds semantics hostage to popular usage, and renders us unable to call things what they are simply because others call things what they’re not. But what if we’re actually dealing with fascists? Your view entails that we can’t say so, on the grounds that other people have attributed fascism to people who weren’t fascists. But that doesn’t respond to the realities that confront us right now. Maybe people have misused the term “fascism” in the past, but that doesn’t change the fact that we might currently be using it correctly right now.

          The claims you’re making about the people at the Trump rally could all have been made of the Germans at the Nuremberg rallies. It is indisputable (I assume) that the Third Reich was a fascist regime, and that it enjoyed a fair bit of popular support. The support in question ranged from full-fledged, self-conscious support for fascism under that description to the confused, aggrieved emotionalism of the people who consistently voted for the Nazis or nationalist right without quite grasping the implications of what they were doing. I would say that all such people were fascists to varying degrees. Consistent, counterfactually stable support for a fascist regime is sufficient to make you a fascist. Were (are) some of these fascists nice guys, fun to hang out with, less culpable than others, more confused than evil? Yes. Does that change the fact that were/are fascists? Not in my book.

          The Trump movement consists of its fair share of nice guys. But nice guys can be fascists. The inability or refusal to see that is, in my view, the main obstacle to figuring out how to deal with Donald Trump. But we’re getting to the point of “now or never.”


          • I was speaking to a common, public meaning of the term (not to the term as a literal description of a political movement or doctrine). What you say about proper and improper use is of course true, but consistent use in a population comes to constitute a distinct public meaning. I take it that this is what happened with ‘fascism’ in its original meaning. I gestured toward plausible elements in this common, public (descriptive or cognitive) meaning in popular use in what I said. What do you take it to be? (I’m not at all meaning to address who is or who is not a nice person.)


            • I really don’t understand your position here. In your first comment, you wrote:

              In popular usage, I take ‘fascist’ to be something of a moving target in its descriptive content. Though there is perhaps a core descriptive meaning that is adequate enough for some contexts, in many contexts the term is inadequate and downright cognitively destructive (similarly for ‘racist’ and ‘white supremicist’ and many other terms of “cultural warfare”).

              In your second comment, you write:

              I was speaking to a common, public meaning of the term (not to the term as a literal description of a political movement or doctrine).

              The first comment implies that the popular use of the term has no determinate meaning, but the second implies that it does.

              Anyway, the original issue was my ascription to Trump and his supporters of fascism “as a literal description of a political movement or doctrine,” so I don’t see the relevance of invoking a popular “moving target” conception. I still don’t see what’s problematic about my use of “fascism.”

              As for my own conception of fascism, I’d need to sit down to construct a crisp definition, but if I did, it would integrate the elements common to the accounts of fascism below by Rand, Passmore, and Paxton:


              Passmore, Paxton:

              Not meant as a definition but descriptive enough: Fascism is a specifically right-wing, nationalist form of authoritarianism, typically built around a cult of personality, hostile to liberty, hostile to democratic norms, ideologically eclectic, but intended as a counter-weight to the power, or imagined power, of the Left. Trump and his supporters exemplify all of those things. The number of similarities between the Trump movement and German nationalism of the 1920s and 30s strikes me as too obvious to deny.

              Timothy Snyder’s account, like Krugman’s, strikes me as essentially on target:


              • I suspect the popular usage of ‘fascism’ has a determinate descriptive meaning at a quite general level that is often not very useful (something like “right-winger who is too willing or eager to advocate or resort to violence or repression of expression for political ideals or ends,” though often the ‘right-winger’ part is left out so that descriptions like ‘liberal fascism’ or ‘corporate fascism’ or the like make sense). One danger in using the term is that it will be interpreted in this way. Another (more concerning to me) is that the term functions as something of an epithet. And so it can start very personal fights. It can also feed the tendency to use the term to refer to just about anything that the speaker does not like: after all, if you can successfully apply the term, the argument is automatically won and your opponent is likely to be lowered in social status (similarly, but perhaps to an even greater degree, for ‘racism’).

                I do think there is something real and bad here to get at and fight against. But I don’t think it is what you take yourself to be referring to. Specifically, I don’t think the interesting and important thing here is a literal political ideology or movement. There is nothing around right now that is specific enough for that (there is no specifically “authoritarian” right-wing political program, more like a bunch of resentments and complaints). However, I think that there are more than disparate elements of such political programs (or the belief and value roots of such) and that this needs to be identified and fought against in some strategically smart way. There are somewhat unified sets of beliefs and values, right and left, that are dangerous in that they undermine individual rights, democracy and the rule of law. Borrowing Synder’s term, I kind of like the tag ‘proto-fascism’ to refer to the dangerous mindset on the right. However, I think that, for public moral and political discourse, something like ‘proto-authoritarian mindset ‘ (‘right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset’, ‘left-wing proto-authoritarian mindset’) is better because it pretty much eliminates the cultural/tribal warfare epithet elements.

                Here is my shooting-from-the-hip characterization of the proto-fascist or right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset: it is a mindset characterized by (i) a kind of intuitive, symbols-really-matter patriotism or nationalism, (ii) reaction to broadly tradition-challenging morally aspirational changes in social values, (iii) being drawn toward framings of political conflict in terms of simple problems and simple solutions that require decisive action, (iv) being drawn toward a charismatic leader who promises such decisive action and is viewed as some kind of savior, (v) lack of adequate understanding or appreciation of democratic values and norms. If lots of people on the right have this mindset (or have it to a certain dangerous degree), we might get an anti-liberal, anti-democratic political program –or we might just get lots of the anti-liberal results without much in the way of an explicit political program. This is concerning! (But notice that if you replace my [i] and [ii] with naive sorts of anti-nationalism or internationalism and “progressive values,” you have the proto-authoritarian mindset of many Bernie Sanders supporters. Though this poses somewhat different dangers, likely not as serious as the right-wing version of the proto-authoritarian mindset, this too is plenty dangerous to some core liberal values and institutions.)

                However, having said this, I still think identifying (and condemning as appropriate) particular elements in such “wicked brews” is often better. The right-wing version of the proto-authoritarian mindset is a messy natrual-kinds-like phenomenon and there is much potential for misunderstanding and acrimony in the blanket identifying and accusing. Generally speaking, I’d start with identifying and condemning anti-liberal actions, but then go on to identify and condemn particular elements in the mindset that are most salient in the context. Perhaps highest on my list is recognizing that the alternative to democracy is violence (or repression). Quite dramatically illustrated last week! Hey, amped-up right-wing uncle or neighbor, do you get that now? What the fuck?

                One of the next things I’d focus on is lack of understanding or appreciation of the specific, non-merely-instrumentally-held values that underpin liberalism, democracy and the rule of law. Centrally: to get democracy, as against violence or repression, we need to do the somewhat unnatural or wrong-feeling thing of prioritizing adherence to legal procedure even when doing so countenances real or perceived miscarriages of substantive injustice. Legally, OJ is innocent. Legally, Biden won (all the legal avenues for challenge were exhausted). That should matter to you. A lot. In a democracy, you address shortcomings in substantive justice in the legal rules by changing them for next time. And there is no guarantee that such efforts will succeed. So go fight for a bipartisan electoral fraud commission (though, guess what, you won’t get it because the Democrats will put partisanship over the public interest — and sorry that’s more of what you need to “eat” if you want democracy).

                Though it does not directly speak to the items on my list because it is more general, also of great importance in combating these proto-authoritarian mindsets is identifying (and condemning as necessary or appropriate) people hating and demonizing opponents (or people who are different from them in other, non-ideological non-disputed-value ways). This is as humanly natural as picking your nose, but there has to be at least firm social guardrails on these attitudes and behaviors of we are to have a liberal democracy and a tolerant society. And the salient alternative, again, is what you just saw! Get it, amped-up right-wingers? Get it, hypocritical, over-the-top wokesters who just got through endorsing “good” riots? I think this kind of thing often comes disguised as justified moral condemnation. I think social media makes these tendencies much, much worse. And I think that labeling those with (some degree of) right-wing proto-authoritarian mindset as fascists generally fans these flames and does more harm than any good that comes from publicly identifying and condemning in broad strokes the bad mindset as a whole.

                While we are at it, let’s semi-retire the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ in public political discourse for the same fundamental reasons of diminished cognitive value and promotion of mutual-hatred-stoking craziness. In the case of these terms as well, we need to be specific and strategic (identification-wise and condemnation-wise) for both reasons of clear communication and reasons of not making the moral and political factions in our country want to kill each other.


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