In a speech Thursday in Philadelphia, President Joe Biden at last came around to the central political issue facing the U.S. Americans must make the decision — in polling booths, no less — about whether to remain on a path toward a multiracial democracy.
The president did not shy away from the truth: The Republican Party, one of our two major parties, has been taken over by an explicitly antidemocratic social and political movement collectively known as MAGA Republicans. Biden’s comments built on remarks at a fundraiser a few days ago in Maryland, where he said extreme MAGA philosophy was “semi-fascism.” Not surprisingly, reactionary conservatives like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy immediately began braying for an apology.
But does Biden have anything to apologize for?
Americans can freely vote for MAGA Republicans in the upcoming 2022 (and 2024) elections. But placing and keeping these people in power in the short term would likely result in long-term one-party rule, as well as massive restrictions on the liberties of racial, religious and sexual minorities, as well as women. This is a hard truth that every American must face.
It is the job of the president to speak frankly to the nation, even about uncomfortable truths. In his speech, Biden did not shirk from this duty. However, in painting MAGA Republicans as essentially intruders into American politics, the president did misrepresent our history.
Biden is correct that equality and liberty are fundamental values of democracy; no nation that denies these benefits can be a democracy. But so, too, is transparency. To realize democracy’s ideals, a nation must be transparent about where it has fallen short in the past. And if we are to defeat the existential threat America faces from MAGA Republicanism, we must understand that MAGA Republicanism, too, is part of our national legacy.
Biden warned his audience in Maryland that MAGA Republicans had made a dangerous antidemocratic turn. A fascist social and political movement revolves around a cultish leader who employs lies and propaganda to foment humiliation and fear of the “other” — liberals, Marxists, feminists, immigrants and minorities. At the core of fascist propaganda is the threat of replacement — that the dominant group will be replaced, culturally or physically, by minorities (and their values). The fascist leader represents democratic procedures themselves as the source of this replacement and urges political violence both as threat and solution.
What, then, is a semi-fascist movement?
We can think of a semi-fascist regime as one that approaches fascism while retaining some trappings of democracy — an essentially fascist regime that keeps a powerless opposition party around for the sake of show, for example, or a one-party state that falls short of a full dictatorship. As hard as it is for Americans to hear, it is essential for our self-understanding to know that the U.S. has already harbored a semi-fascist regime over its history, which had a substantial impact on the development of Europe’s most famous explicitly fascist movements, including German Nazism. That regime was called Jim Crow, and it lasted from the end of Reconstruction in the mid-1870s until the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s.
Jim Crow was a legal and extralegal regime that enforced white supremacy by denying Black Americans in the South access to the polls, as well as educational and vocational opportunities. In his 2017 book, “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law,” the legal theorist James Q. Whitman documents in detail how Nazi legal theorists used Jim Crow as a model for their own paradigmatic citizenship laws, which restricted full citizenship to those of “Aryan blood.” And Nazi laws banning marriage between Aryans and Jews mirrored Jim Crow’s anti-miscegenation laws. In the chapter in his book “Mein Kampf” titled “Nation and Race,” Adolf Hitler writes, “The Germanic inhabitant of the American continent, who has remained racially pure and unmixed, rose to be master of his continent; he will remain the master as long as he does not fall a victim to the defilement of his blood.”
The Jim Crow regime was a one-party state that used political violence, both state-sanctioned and extralegal (the Klan), to suppress movements for Black equality. In the states where it ruled, it brokered no opposition. When national leaders of the Democratic Party embraced the civil rights movement, the supporters of Jim Crow moved to the Republican Party, and these same states remained mostly one-party states. Mississippi’s population is 38% Black, but power is wildly and disproportionately weighted against Black citizens.
Thus, MAGA Republicanism is not alien to the U.S. It is a descendant of Jim Crow. And its leaders are bringing back the same tactics of voter suppression, attacks on history and education and calls for political violence, using the specter of Black political protest as an existential threat to white America. As with fascist movements in the past, it is harshly anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist, presenting LGBTQ Americans and abortion rights as threats to “traditional” values.
Perhaps Biden presented MAGA Republicanism, that is, a kind of fascism, as an external threat because he is worried that asking Americans to fully face our past is depressing. I find the opposite to be true.
What is so inspiring about our history is not that fascism is foreign to it. Thus, arguing over the precise definition of semi-fascism is wasting time. Instead, we need to focus on the fact that although fascism is native to our history, we have defeated it without external help multiple times. From the Civil War through to the labor movement, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, America has faced down its fascist demons before. And we can do it again.