On Protesting in an Era of Modern American Fascism

Throughout the nation and across the globe, for a truly remarkable moment, chants of protest rang out loudly and fiercely yesterday. Signs waved but demonstrators did not waver. Women stood up en masse as never before, in a way which we should never forget.

Yet to stay true to yesterday, to remain faithful to such an event (as Badiou might claim), means not pointing to the past of what we have already done, but seeing yesterday as an opening toward tomorrow, to continued (and continual) change. We need remember that an objection is just a beginning and a protest is as much a test of our resolve as it is of the other side. We have demonstrated our outrage, but now must demonstrate another sort of courage. We must transform our demand for recognition into a desire for revolution, not allowing our rallying to become (as Zizek has warned so often) little more than a release of political energy, a release from political obligation. Such caution and hope is, of course, nothing new—but that’s precisely because we have failed so often in the past to transform an Event into something in fact new.

What I worry and wonder about, however, and what I think we might forget in the excitement and communion of our rallies, is what else is new in the context of these marches; that is to say, what it is that we march against. For while fascism and patriarchy and exploitation and bigotry are as primordial as our truth, they are not nearly as adamant—and that means both that the oppressor is breakable, but likewise that he is flexible. Hence what I am afraid of is that traditional forms of protestation will have little effect on late capitalism and Trumpism, especially as the latter divorces itself more and more from whatever durability reality and truth have left.

There is something new to be found in modern fascism as much as reinstates something ancient and long-thought dead. Trump is not Hitler—he has the hair but lacks the grandeur; Trump is not Mussolini—if his business are any indicator, the trains won’t run on time; Trump is not Stalin or Mao or Fidel—born of wealth, he will only serve the wealthy; Trump is not even Berlusconi—both are clowns, but only one might really be John Wayne Gacy. And so what I fear is that our protests do not acknowledge and do not meet these differences, that public demonstration of outrage does not take into account the particularity of Trump’s repulsiveness.

What we can say with certainty about the character of modern American fascism is this: It is brutally narcissistic and incredibly media savvy. Both those things—the ego’s imperviousness to criticism and technology’s digital mirror—feed off each other in a cruel short-circuit; but what is more, they are modern instruments of alchemy, transforming reality into fascist fantasy and righteous protest into riotous puling. Already, within hours of the first feet striking the ground and signs scrapping the sky, this machinery was at work, as Trump’s team spun the fact to fit their alternative account. You know the story: The dishonest media lies while Real Americans™ know the truth—his crowd was bigger than yours and his hands are not so tiny. For a Trump voter, oppressed but misrecognizing their oppressor, caught up in the Imaginary register of the screen and of representation and identity politics, convinced of a world with well-defined (or wall-defined) colors, as for Trump himself (and I think we often ignore that Trump has always been his first and most vocal supporter), there are no civil dissidents, only unpatriotic enemies, there are no protestors, only rabble. Hence opposition becomes confirmation of their reality: If we weren’t right, the streets would be empty and their voices silent (as they have been for us for so long).

Not, of course, that Trump truly speaks for his voters; he is simply commander-in-chief among the deplorables. Fascism is always a false populism—”behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution,” said Benjamin—wherein the leader does not represent the interests of the masses, but the masses represent the interests of their leader, willing servants of the state apparatus. Divorced from consensus reality, Trump supporters are likewise severed from their own leadership, lacking any ability or desire to influence those in power, while nonetheless backing it blindly: Trump’s vision of America, his (in)version of the facts, will be theirs, regardless of what their own eyes tell them.

The trick here, however, is in recognizing that this fascist power structure is not unique to Trump—though he realizes it in unholy new ways—but cuts through the core of modern American politics. Only by stretching the truth, combing it over a la Trump, can we call such structural inequality democracy. The American polity, both those in the streets yesterday and those lining the streets of the inauguration the day before, has next to no say in actual American politics. Our representatives do not represent our interests—and it is beholden to us to not represent theirs—but those of large corporations, of late capitalism, of limitless consumerism. American politics are structured like and by the coin: On one side, Trump and his nationalist jingoism, while on the other, the 1% and their economic domination.

Ay, there’s the rub: If our protests fall both on the blind eyes of Trump’s followers as well as the deaf ears of Democratic leadership, then our voices might as well be mute. Thus we must reimagine how we resist in our cowardly new world of anti-democratic spectacle. It does not take much, moreover, to realize what needs be done: If the wealthy have the power, than we must strike where it hurts them most—and strike we must. Yesterday marked the largest political demonstration in US history, but yesterday was a Saturday. Imagine if we had taken to the streets the day before, rather than take to our desks, watching the inauguration on our screens. Imagine if, en masse, we refused to listen to the narcissist harangue or the capitalist hustle, if we refused to comply with the ideological injunction of reproduce and multiply, whether that be the stooge’s image or the stockholder’s profit. Just for a day, but not on the weekend—for that will only ever mark a a weak start for a true and necessary revolution.




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