There’s Nothing “Semi-” About It
The term “semi-fascism” has entered US American political discourse courtesy of Joe Biden two Thursdays ago. “What we’re seeing now,” Biden told Democratic donors in Maryland on the evening of August 25th, “is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.”
Perhaps Biden will roll the term out again (I’m betting not) tonight (I am writing on the morning of Thursday, September 1st) in a much-advertised prime-time Philadelphia speech on the domestic US threats to “democracy” and the supposedly egalitarian “soul of our nation.” This – “soul of our nation” – was language Biden used in the video that launched his 2020 presidential campaign, featuring footage from the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where torch-carrying white men chanted “Jews will not replace us,” channeling what Biden called “the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 1930s.”
Biden should drop the qualification and prefix. He should replace “it’s like semi-fascism” with “it’s fascism.” As I have argued in two books (see this and this) and in many more CounterPunch essays including my most recent one, there’s nothing “semi-” about the fascism of the Amerikaner Party of Trump, Abbot, Alito, and DeSantis (APoTAAD). Biden’s “MAGA Republicans” check all the fascism boxes, including these listed by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik in a May 2016 essay titled “Going There with Donald Trump”:
“ an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government…is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’”
We should add some other fascism-defining ingredients: an obsessive hatred of Marxism, socialism, and communism; an “Orwellian” campaign against truth and intellectuals; savage racism and racial and ethnic Othering; militant patriarchy and sexual anxiety; a deep commitment to strict to social hierarchy; conspiratorialism; a cult of personality built around a maximal male leader; single party rule; the embrace of lawlessness in the name of law and order; the deployment of the military, paramilitaries, and angry mobs to crush dissent and overthrow previously normative electoral bourgeois democracy, civic decency. and constitutional rule of law.
All this captures the pathological essence of the Trump presidency and the 2016 and 2020 Trump campaigns including the long rolling Trump coup effort that ended in a bloody assault on the US Capitol. It also reflects the spirit of the current Republican Party even (if not especially) with Trump out of the White House (see this and this earlier one for key details). Fueled by the doggedly persistent Big Hitlerian Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, the APoTAAD – the Republi-fascist Party – is moving is moving in concrete, deliberate, and “constitutional” ways not merely to viciously suppress and gerrymander minority votes but to: cancel aggregate state-level popular votes in the 2024 election presidential election; staff the executive and legislative branches with vetted Republi-fascist operatives deep into the federal bureaucracy; impose female-enslaving forced motherhood on a national scale (beyond the near half of the nation where this criminal policy is being accomplished over super-majority public opposition in the wake of the Christian fascist Trump Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision); crush liberal and left public assembly and free speech; turn the nation into a Hobbesian shooting gallery; accelerate and amplify ecocide and pandemicide; outlaw the honest teaching of history and current events. They already have the Supreme Court and much of the judiciary beneath that super-powerful prize. Driven in part by demographic fears of coming white minority status and working powerfully from the insufficiently appreciated state level up and out, they are looking to achieve triple-branch consolidation and never let go.
Members of the Republi-fascist/Amerikaner base are now regularly harassing, hounding, targeting, doxing, trolling, and threatening teachers, nurses, doctors, school officials, school board members, elected officials, election officials, public health workers, poll workers, librarians, library officials, judges, district attorneys, rabbis, epidemiologists, immunologists, archivists (archivists!), and other professionals and public workers, including even law enforcement officers. No (imperialist) Rachel Maddow fandom here, to say the least, but her recent reflection on this intimidation is significant:
“It is hard to stay a democracy, just at a practical level, when all forms of public service, large and small, all jobs in the public life of our democracy, some with threats of violence. You can’t long hold free and fair elections when it takes bravery to be a poll worker. It should not take bravery to be a poll worker or a file clerk at the National Archives, or an immunologist. The threat of political violence takes normal people out of public life, which puts you on a very fast track to the end of democracy.”
Speaking of fascist threats of political violence, Trump’s top apologist in the US Senate, the almost comically two-faced viper Lindsey Graham (Rf, SC), recently said that federal prosecution of Trump will lead to “riots in the streets.” The statement was not meant to convey horror at the violence of Trump’s frothing hordes or to warn authorities on the need to prepare for far-right terrorism if Trump is belatedly indicted and prosecuted for criminally absconding with classified and top-secret government documents or for any of the long list of felonies he has committed in connection with his attempts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. No, Graham’s comment was intended to send the following message to the Department of Justice and the Fulton County District Attorney: “Try to impose the rule of law on our Demented Dear Leader and our thugs will act to impose the rule of force on you!” It’s a flat-out fascist threat, reminiscent of southern and northern ethnic whites menacing civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a throwback to proto-fascistic white Redeemer and Jim Crow terrorism – to the long Southern lynching era.
“Semi”-fascist? Try “full-on.”
The Complicit, Enabling Dems
Here’s something else Biden should but won’t do in his Philadelphia speech: admit his and his party’s deeply complicit role in the rise of the not-so “semi” fascist menace in the US. If the Republicans now fascistically menace the supposedly democratic “soul of our nation,” leading Biden to metaphorically ring the Liberty Bell in the “cradle of American democracy” (Philadelphia), then surely the Democrats will save the day with popular politics and policies aligned with majority progressive and non-fascist public opinion, right?
As Noam Chomsky might say, “know any other good jokes”? It’s bad enough that the dismal Dems, once aptly described by Sheldon Wolin as the “inauthentic opposition,” function as the Republi-fascists’ enabling partner in numerous ways (see this, this, this, and this): demobilizing the majority working-class non-Republican electorate though cringing subordination to corporate, financial, and military-industrial authority; legitimizing right-wing agendas and narratives by embracing them; relentlessly seeking bipartisan cooperation with a militantly partisan neofascist party (the post-republican Republicans); refusing to attack archaic minority rule institutions and practices that inflate the Republifascists’ power (including the Electoral College, the preposterously malapportioned, unrepresentative, and powerful nature of the U.S. Senate, the Senate filibuster, the absurd nine-member Supreme Court, judicial review, and states’ rights); smearing, demonizing, and corruptly capsizing Bernie Sanders’ two initially impressive bids to win the Democrats’ presidential nomination with campaigns that ran in significant accord with majority progressive opinion in numerous key issues; failing (so far) to forthrightly and properly punish the putschist Trump for trying to install himself as a dictator[1A]; refusing to properly name the fully fascist domestic menace for what it is; discouraging people from forming the powerful social movements they require to win progressive change by relentlessly channeling popular energies into the killing confines of the nation’s right-tilted electoral politics; playing the bourgeois identitarian card with an irrational “wokeness” that is just the other “left” side of the Republi-fascists’ revanchist, anti-science, identitarian, and truth-canceling coin; ; running deeply conservative centrist candidates who refuse to meaningfully mobilize citizens against right-wing authoritarianism.
Beyond all that, the Democrats are now so revoltingly complicit with the APoTAAD as to be directly supporting some of the most poisonous and dangerous Republi-fascist candidates in this year’s primary elections. In a repeat and expansion of the catastrophic Hillary Clinton campaign’s “Pied Piper” ploy of promoting the supposedly “more beatable” Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, the 2022 Dems are backing reptilian Trumpist election-deniers in the mid-term (intra-party) primaries. In Michigan, to take one example among many, the anti-Trump moderate Republican Peter Meijer lost his US House of Representatives primary to the ridiculous right-winger John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who claimed that Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was “mathematically impossible.” The House Democrats’ official campaign arm spent $425,000 to support Gibbs. It invested more money in one pro-Gibbs television ad than Gibbs raised for his campaign. Hey, what could go wrong?
Joe “No Empathy”/“No Change” Biden
Speaking of “supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.’” (Gopnik, quoted above), how about Joe Biden, who campaigned in 2019 and 2020 as “lunch-bucket” Joe, a great product and friend of ordinary working people despite a fiercely corporatist and pro-Wall Street record that included: voting to rollback bankruptcy protections for college graduates (1978) and vocational school graduates (1984) with federal student loans; work with Republican allies to pass the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which put traditional “clean slate” Chapter 7 bankruptcy out of reach for millions of ordinary Americans and thousands of small businesses (2005); voting against a bill that would have compelled credit card companies to warn customers of the costs of only making minimum payments; joining just one other Congressional Democrat to vote against a Judiciary Committee measure to increase consumers’ rights to sue corporations for price-fixing (1979); strongly supporting the 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, which permitted the re-merging of investment and commercial banking by repealing the Depression-era Glass–Steagall Act (thereby helping create the 2007-8 financial crisis); supporting the harshly regressive corporate-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the globalist investor rights Trans Pacific Partnership.
Adding capitalist insult to capitalist policy injury, candidate Biden in 2019 criticized universal basic income advocates for “undermining the dignity of work.” He opposed calls for free college tuition and Single Payer health insurance, suggesting he would veto Medicare for All if it came to his desk as president. Biden defended Big Business from popular criticism, writing in 2017 that “some want to single out big corporations for all the blame. … But consumers, workers, and leaders have the power to hold every corporation to a higher standard, not simply cast business as the enemy.” (That was to propagate a fantasy – the existence of a democratic US political system in which the working-class majority has the power to hold concentrated wealth accountable.)
In early 2018, Biden said that he had “no empathy” for Millennials struggling to get by in the savagely unequal, “precariat”-producing economy he helped create over his many years of abject service to the Lords of Capital. “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break,” intoned Biden, while speaking to Pat Morrison of the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.” (So what if Millennials faced a significant diminution of opportunity, wealth, income and security compared to the Baby Boomers with whom Biden identified? Who cared if “lunch bucket Joe” helped shrink the American Dream for young people with the neoliberal policies and politics he advanced?)
Yet more graphically bourgeois and elitist was Biden’s June 2019 promise to Manhattan donors in 2019 that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change” when he became president – a noxious thing to be caught saying in a nation where (even before the upwardly distributive Covid-19 recession) the top thousandth had as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
Beneath all the standard ridiculous neo-McCarthyite red-baiting from Republi-fascists (fascists classically conflate liberal and centrist bourgeois politics with supposedly evil socialism), Biden has stayed true to his promise to the rich and powerful. Nothing he has said, done, or signed offers any real or fundamental challenge to capital’s obscene and disastrous, eco-cidal wealth and power – or of course to the underlying and ruinous profits system The Biden-Manchin Dems’ savagely pared-down infrastructure, climate, and drug bills and Joe “No Empathy” Biden’s recent partial student debt relief order (tiny reparation for his leading role in exempting student debt from bankruptcy protections as a Senator) are strictly tailored not to seriously challenge capitalist prerogatives – this while Biden pours billions into the coffers of the high-tech “defense” (empire) firms by conducting a prolonged, lethal, mass-murderous and reckless proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Majority-backed Single Payer health care is down the memory hole, along with seriously progressive taxation, a Green New Deal, the Protect the Right of Workers to Organize bill, not to mention serious political and police reform, real federal protection of women’s reproductive rights, Washington DC statehood, an expanded Supreme Court, and more that makes up the progressive and liberal reform agenda under Smiling Joe, the onetime “Senator from MBNA.”
Think about it: the capitalist-imperialist Biden Dems have so little to offer the masses in the way of a serious positive program for the people that their mid-term election strategy reduces largely to playing up the (very real) evils of a Christian Fascist Supreme Court abortion decision (Dobbs v. Jackson, 6/24/2022) to which they and their “pro-choice” nonprofit allies cynically surrendered in advance and the (very real) “threat to democracy” posed by a Republi-fascist party they have long enabled and whose worst candidates they have actually backed (“Pied Piper”-style) in numerous primary elections this year.
How morally bankrupt and fascism-complicit is that?
Are the Democrats Semi-Fascists?
Are the corporate and imperial Democrats “semi-fascists,” as many of my longtime (some long-lost) “left” associates would argue? It’s a fair question. The answer is no, not really. While they are complicit enablers and even elitist drivers of creeping US fascization, the capitalist and imperialist dollar Dems remain wedded, however weakly, to normative bourgeois electoral democracy and constitutional rule of law. They continue to grip the nation’s standard 240-year-old US legal and parliamentary norms and institutions even as those institutions and norms have decayed and wilted in the face of lethal assault from without and within. The Dems don’t remotely embrace enough of the defining fascist mix (as outlined at the outset of this essay) to qualify as fascists, even “semi-” ones. The Democrats, yes, wage horrific imperialist wars abroad (“F’ng Biden” helped lead the charge for the invasion of Iraq), run cities that participate in racist mass incarceration and police terror, infiltrate and suppress radical and progressive movements, and sent storm troopers to crush anarchist Occupy encampments on both coasts in the fall of 2011. There’s no end to their perfidy. But that’s standard bourgeois class rule systemically wedded to racism and imperialism. Class rule isn’t pretty, as any honest introduction to the United States’ bloody labor history (I highly recommend this) shows.
The Democrats don’t form domestic paramilitaries and embrace political violence against the other bourgeois party in the “homeland.” They won’t send frothing armed mobs to assault the US legislative branch and the Vice President in defense of Biden when the other major party possibly and actually steals a presidential election in 2024-25: they’ll surrender in the name of peace and stability like Al Gore in 2000-01. The Dems don’t possess militias to invade Red State Capitol buildings with military assault rifles in response to policies they hate. They don’t stalk right-wing political gatherings and protests in military gear. They don’t force Republican public officials to resign with endless harassment and threats of violence. They don’t send angry liberal mobs to have Christian fundamentalist books thrown out of schools and libraries. They don’t wear t-shirts saying that “Six Million [Jews killed in the Holocaust] was not enough” and “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong.”
The list of horrific things the Republifascists and their base do that Democrats don’t do goes on and on. The Dems suck on numerous levels. They may be more effective imperialists than the They enable and arguably grease the skids for fascism, but no, sorry, they aren’t themselves fascists.
None of this means that they are champions of democracy. Not at all. They are devotees of merely bourgeois democracy, no small qualifier: a form of pseudo-democracy atop a de facto “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” to use Marx’s term. As the Marxist writer Scott Cooper noted three days after Biden’s inauguration and seventeen days after Trump’s Capitol Riot:
“On January 20, the U.S. government again conducted its ritual of transferring power from one president to another — each successive leader beholden to and serving the interests of capital. Biden has begun his presidency with a promise to restore bourgeois democracy and rebuild faith in its institutions. All manner of people on the left, viewing democracy in the abstract, have already bought into Biden’s electoral victory as a counterbalance to right-wing ‘authoritarianism’ and even incipient fascism. Like the reformists of old, they ignore the fundamental class character of bourgeois democracy, which guides every action of those who run the system…The institutions Biden aims to ‘restore’ constitute a bourgeois state that exists as the governmental branch of an overall system predicated on capital’s exploitation of the majority who must sell their labor power to survive. As Friedrich Engels wrote in 1891, ‘The state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another…in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.’…We saw this just a few days ago, when police beat striking workers at the Hunts Point produce market in New York City…In a bourgeois democracy, the operative principle is protecting the state and the bourgeois order. Everything is subordinated to that objective. … We’ve had an opportunity to watch this principle unfold in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Some Republican members of Congress, representing one wing of the U.S. ruling class, incited and abetted what the other wing has called an insurrection. And yet, on Inauguration Day only two weeks later, we saw a number of the…’seditionists’…being normalized as the traditions of the day were played out. They made speeches, presented gifts, bumped elbows, and generally reveled with Democrats. After all, they are all members of a bourgeois party — and thus worthy of ‘protection,’ as Lenin wrote: ‘The ruling party in a bourgeois democracy extends the protection of the minority only to another bourgeois party, while the proletariat, on all serious, profound and fundamental issues, gets martial law’ [the second it dares to question its subordinate and oppressed status under the de facto underlying class dictatorship of capital – P.S.] (emphasis added).
The problem with the Democrats isn’t that they are fascists, even “semi-” ones. It’s that they are the persistently electoralist and legalist political wing of a capitalist and imperialist ruling class for whom the continuation of even strictly constrained bourgeois democracy and bourgeois rule of law are contingent upon the willingness, determination, and capacity of a reasonably cohesive bourgeois ruling class to sustain these superstructural forms atop capital’s underlying material class dictatorship. When interrelated fractures and rot within the ruling class, the populace, and the political system become great enough to undermine that determination and capacity and to bring about a potentially new, openly authoritarian form of governance, Democratic politicos for the most part will exhibit pusillanimous surrender to the new and more explicitly brutal and “uncivil” order. They’ll mainly make peace with late fascism, even while late fascism threatens not to make peace with them (fascism breaks with the tradition of offering protection to all the other bourgeois parties), helping normalize the new order in the idiotic name of “working across the aisle.”
Painting both the nation’s two major capitalist-imperialist political organizations with “the F-word” (with or without prefixes) is to embrace a false equivalency. I get why many “left” friends and critics want to include Democrats under the fascist or semi-fascist umbrella, but it’s a mistake, one that misunderstands and may underestimate the evil of the fake-democratic Democratic Party. It betrays a lack of understanding of fascism’s specific and distinguishing characteristics and the nature of the differences and divisions within the US-American ruling class, the US population, and the US party system.
+1. Please see the sixth chapter, titled “America Was Never Great: On ‘The Soul of This Nation,’” of my latest book This Happened Here, for a withering historical critique of Biden’s notion that this “soul” is about democracy, equality, and social justice.(See also my 2019 CounterPunch essay “Uncle Sam was Born Lethal.”) An interesting example of Biden’s historical idiocy came fours days after the 2020 presidential election, when the President Elect told US-Americans to chill out over Trump’s election denialism because “Democracy’s sometimes messy. It sometimes requires a little patience,” Biden said. “But that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” (New York Times, November 6, 2020, A1). It was an offensive and idiotic comment – nothing new for Joe Biden, who said earlier in 2020 that Trump was “America’s first racist president.” There’s little real and functioning “democracy” in the United States. And there was never supposed to be as far as the U.S. Founders were concerned “more than 240 years” ago. Popular self-governance, the rule of the people, was the very last thing the new nation’s aristo-republican slave-owners, merchant capitalist, and publicist rulers wanted to see break out in their “infant republic” – and they crafted a national charter brilliantly designed precisely to make sure it didn’t. Imagine how the great Black escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass would have responded to Biden’s claim that Americans’ “patience” with the nation’s propertied masters’ “system of governance” has been “rewarded for 240 years.” Black chattel slavery lived on for nine decades after the American Revolution, which was driven in no small part by North American leaders’ desire to preserve and expand slavery. Slavery was deeply protected in the Founders’ holy charter, which continues to cripple American “democracy” well into the 21st Century. Black slavery came back with another name after another contested election – 1876, which finalized the death of Reconstruction, of the nation’s final retreat from any lingering commitment to freeing and empowering the Black masses of the South. And just exactly how was Black Americans’ supposed “patience” rewarded under the American “system of governance” during the long nightmare of slavery and its horrific Jim Crow aftermath, not to mention up through contemporary mass ghettoization, mass incarceration, and persistent race-class residential and educational apartheid? How is “patience” working in regard to the capitalogenic climate crisis, just the biggest issue of our or any time, slated to cancel hopes for a decent future and organized human existence in the near future? (The officially unchallengeable, growth-addicted profits system, the underlying cause of the COVID-19 crisis, is hard-wired to poison livable ecology beyond repair.) Nothing elicited more sarcastic and venomous, biting ridicule from the great Douglass than the Christian soulfulness claimed by US American slaveowners and their allies. Douglass offered some interesting reflections on “the soul” of the United States on July 5, 1852: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim…To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
+1A. A longtime friend and correspondent writes as follows: “Trump should already be in prison for trying to overthrow the election. He basically got on television and told his fascist goon squad to go to the Capitol and hang Mike Pence. In a functioning democratic society somebody does that shit and they would be arrested immediately, charged with sedition, and be on trial in front of a jury within three months. He should have been getting a 50-year sentence for Christmas last year. I’m serious: if you want to save ‘democracy,’ you have to take the people who want to destroy it seriously. Not like they are just another hot story to get better ratings.” And to help your polling before the mid-term elections.
+2. The dismal Dems run center-right cretins and imperial militarists like the “pro-choice” darling Patrick Ryan, the Third Way Democrat and proud criminal Iraq invasion veteran who just exploited the abortion issue to win a special Congressional election in the Hudson Valley after years of working (in the words of my fellow CounterPuncher Eric Draitser) as “an intelligence spook and snitch whose every professional move is aimed at attacking the Left” (see this 2018 Intercept investigation by Lee Fang for historical background in support of that description).
+3. Pakistan, just to mention one example, had no spring, went straight from Winter to Summer with scorching heat (they hit 127 degrees at one point) and forest fires. Now an epic rainfall and flood has killed en masse there. A vast swath of the country is underwater. Their agriculture is ruined by heat and salinity. All as predicted by Earth Science. All courtesy of capitalogenic climate change, brought to humanity by the soulless and environmentally exterminist profits system that we are supposed to applaud yet again in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s death and as US “defense” contractors cash in on a war that kills hundreds daily in Ukraine.
This content originally appeared on CounterPunch.org and was authored by Paul Street.