america will never be great
This essay contains references to anti-black violence, eugenics, rape, and fascism.
If you were asked whether “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” was a propaganda campaign from Nazi Germany or a Biden 2020 slogan, I wouldn’t blame you for answering incorrectly. This hyper-patriotic catchphrase captures the same sentiment that spurred Joe Biden’s primary victory over some of his relatively-progressive challengers: Donald Trump represents a corruption of the soul of the United States, and only tried-and-true Democratic leadership, rather than a “riskier” candidate like Sanders, can return us to the “correct” path. As this narrative states, Trump is such an exceptional threat that “the Left” would be irresponsible to stake the election on an experimental nominee.
The anxiety-ridden plea proved effective, spurring Biden forward to easily win the nomination. In fact, the campaign strategy has proven almost too effective: According to Newsweek, 56% of Biden voters are casting their ballots not based off of any policy position but simply because Biden is not Donald Trump. That Biden’s “lesser of two evils” message is resonating across such a broad spectrum of Americans demonstrates the extent to which the Democratic Party – and, as I argue, liberal democracy as an ideology – debases itself to begging for a “return to normalcy” when crises of its own making overwhelm its recuperative institutions.
What sort of dangers does Trump uniquely foster among American political discourse? The very first words of Biden’s campaign announcement video should give us some idea: “Charlottesville, Virginia,” the home of an apparent contradiction between the political legacy of rapist-slaveowner Thomas Jefferson and the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, a far-right protest against the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of an anti-fascist counter-protester and the continued increase in mainstream attention to fascist ideas. At the time, Unite the Right was meant to be the optical crown jewel of the “Alt-Right,” a loose network of white nationalists, neo-Confederates, libertarians, and self-identified fascists that emerged in the 2010s amidst a growing far-right online community.
For Biden, the events at Charlottesville proved that the Trump administration has emboldened all sorts of reactionary ideas that run counter to the essence of American identity. In the words of his campaign ad, “America is an idea, an idea that’s stronger than any army and bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on Earth. It guarantees everyone is treated with dignity and gives hate no safe harbor…. That’s what’s at stake in this election.” Biden goes on to critique Trump’s reaction to the rally, in which he declared there to be “good people on both sides.” In response to this, most Democrats, including Biden, defended the anti-fascists and accosted the far-right protesters. In retrospect, this push is contrary to Biden’s current spirit as evidenced by his call to prosecute anti-fascist protesters in the wake of Black Lives Matter rallies.
Biden may be a decaying windbag, but his campaign advisors are not morons. He qualifies his chicanery by preempting the progressive critique: “We haven’t always lived up to these ideals, Jefferson himself didn’t. But we have never before walked away from them.” This claim may silence the social-democratic critique that calls for a “political revolution,” or the re-invigoration of the current liberal-democratic system through election-driven, Scandinavian-style welfare capitalism. But to a thorough Marxist critique, this soft padding only reveals the extent to which our political ideals are mutually-exclusive. He’s right that we have never abandoned the essence of America, but we should.
I do not refute that Trump’s presidency has given fascists ideological cover, but I strongly disagree that their ideas represent anything but the most lucid expression of the “soul of the nation” of our times. There will be no return to normalcy because Trump is normal, and the ideas and ideologues his campaign platforms are nothing new to the Nation. Neither Trump’s nationalism nor Biden’s anti-anti-fascist flip-flopping run counter to the ideological essence of America. Instead, they are immaculate portrayals of the two parties’ different expressions of the same rotten core: racial capitalism. By tracing how liberalism both requires and bolsters fidelity to anti-black capitalism at the core of American identity, I hope to demonstrate how Biden’s surface-level anti-fascist rhetoric not only mystifies the quotidian character of anti-black violence but also strengthens the political purchase of far-right ideas.
The Soul of the Nation
What is the soul of the nation, anyway? Is it the words on the parchment of the Constitution or the feeling of togetherness that the Pledge of Allegiance is supposed to conjure? To speak of the soul of America is to assume that there is something transcendental that stabilizes America as America, irrespective of historical contingency. What sort of ideas, identities, and practices has the collective body known as “America” never walked away from, regardless of the particular political situation that certain Americans have faced?
To answer this question, let’s return to Biden’s juxtaposition of the legacy of the Founding Fathers and the eruption of the far-right. If “America is an Idea,” as the campaign ad’s title claims, then Biden is implicitly suggesting that we find the metaphysical core of the nation within its most basic political document: the Constitution. Thus, the American idea is liberal democracy, the conception that “all men are created equal,” and the aspiration toward a society in which all humans are afforded the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is to say, property.
It is hardly a hot take to claim that the United States has never achieved that goal; Biden basically admits that. But where Biden and many of the liberal-left “anti-fascists” get it wrong is in their assumption that the anti-black violence emblematic of both Unite the Right and the Trump administration is external, rather than intrinsic, to capitalism and liberal democracy. At the time of the Constitution’s writing, the United States was a slave society built upon a genocide of Indigenous people. If the continued murder of Black people by the police and ongoing occupation of Indigenous land is any indication, the soul of America is still indebted to that material history, to say the least. To say the most, America is still a slave society and that genocide is ongoing.
To think about liberal democracy as an ideal in and of itself as Biden does, rather than grounding analysis in the material consequences of the ideal, is to present a backward conclusion. For the same reason that a food critic would never judge the quality of her dinner based on the recipe alone, it is disingenuous to only analyze liberalism in a vacuum of its own egalitarian promises, separated from the actual world that liberalism helped to construct. The Soul of the Nation didn’t start being the Soul of the Nation when America entered its bygone “post-racial” era; it must be held accountable to its entire legacy.
And when it comes to the aiding and abetting of far-right violence, American liberal democracy is far from innocent. From the century-and-a-half long history of the Ku Klux Klan to the well-documented role American eugenics laws played in inspiring Hitler’s racial policies, Americans have long courted racialist political lines to explicitly demarcate the implicit idea of white sovereignty that rests at the core of the nation. Following the twentieth-century British theoretician R. Palme Dutt, this should not come as a surprise: When even the white constituency realizes that liberal democracy is incapable of fulfilling its promises of prosperity to those it enfranchises, it maintains its own legitimacy by dulling class-antagonism with class-collaboration and by reinforcing the racist subjective parameters that inspire faith in liberalism to begin with.1 It is no wonder that Lenin’s proclamation that “Imperialism is capitalism in decay” is so often misquoted as “Fascism is capitalism in decay.” He may as well have said the latter, too.
Without looking to the class structure that liberal democracy enshrines, it is difficult to emerge with a clear idea of who falls in the purview of “all men.” For this, let’s look to a time in which America’s economic and racial structures both began to shift. During the nineteenth century amidst industrialization, white people, especially white laborers, defined themselves as white in contradistinction to Black people in order to give purchase to their political, economic, and social demands. It was on this basis that the “white worker,” the everyman to whom Trump addresses his populist message, was spawned. To be a worker, after all, requires such a paltry degree of “freedom” that could only be defined in a negative relationship to the total captivity of Black slaves. David Roediger, following DuBois, explains, “…by considering a range of comparisons with Blacks in weighing his status as a white worker, the white laboring man could articulate a self-image that, depending on his wont, emphasized either his pride in independence or his fears of growing dependency.“2 The duality of pride and fear, patriotism and anxiety, continue to animate the excesses of far-right violence. These feelings add color to the infamous Unite the Right slogan: “You will not replace us!” When placed in this context, it is obvious to whom the signifiers “you” and “us” refer.
As outlined in the Three-Fifths Compromise as well as the lived reality of slavery and its so-called “abolition,” liberal democracy and racial capitalism operate(d) hand-in-hand to position Black people as the non-subjects against whom white people maintain coherence as workers, as citizens, and as Americans. But this phenomenon is not limited to America; the legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade lives on in the basic structure of the commercial capitalist system in every place where its tendrils have extended.3 It may be useful, then, to dismiss with the idea that there is something exceptionally dangerous about the soul of America in favor of understanding this violence as constitutive of something much greater – following Frank Wilderson, the soul of “The World” that was built in the image of the same anti-blackness constitutive of “America.” In any case, as Biden’s raving demonstrates, there’s something seductive about the call to identify with America that makes it worthy of its own analysis, at least on a provisional basis.
Unite the Right was a spectacular performance of the seductive power of the soul of America. It was an outpouring of white racial anxiety, hoping to defend the decrepit monuments of a “dead” slave society. The subject to whom “live, liberty, and property” was promised at the expense of those excluded in the Constitution is the same subject expressed in the “Us” of “You will not replace us!”: the White man aspiring toward the bourgeois class and the nuclear family.
It is no wonder that, contra Biden, far-right movements and ideas gain rhetorical purchase by marketing themselves as defenders of the Constitution, not its detractors. From QAnon to your local III% militia to the Ku Klux Klan, the broadest bases of far-right activity calcify around the call to defend the Constitution against immigrants, insurgents, and racialized bodies, all marionettes held by the strings of the “globalist elites.” Fascists want to defend America from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and within the imagination conjured by America’s racial anxiety, those enemies are all who fall outside of the purview of liberal democratic citizenship. This has always been the case, as Georgi Dimitrov observed the same phenomenon in 1938: “In contradistinction to German fascism, which acts under anti-constitutional slogans, American fascism tries to portray itself as the custodian of the Constitution and ‘American democracy.‘”4 The Founding Fathers wouldn’t have had it any other way.
In the immediate aftermath of Unite the Right, liberals and (white, revisionist) socialists alike were scandalized. “How could this happen in America?” sounded the siren call of white liberals who apparently forgot that racism exists, yet again. This is to say, Biden is not alone in his attribution of the violence to Trump. There’s a reason why this campaign ad was so successful: It compounded upon anxieties that extend far beyond the 2020 Presidential Election.
For example, then-Charlottesville mayor Michael Singer recently commented that he was dumbfounded by the President’s comments during the aftermath of Unite the Right. However, since then, he has been enlightened, learning that “Trumpism” requires the mobilization of a racist base through populist rhetoric. He claims,
Despite losing the popular vote by 3 million, Trump stoked white-nationalist grievances among enough voters susceptible to those appeals in battleground states. Every time he did something that seemed an unthinkable gaffe against ideals of inclusion, it was a feature, not a bug, of his politics. On a platform built on resentment of “others,” he won the Electoral College and the presidency.
When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with the word “Charlottesville” and said he’d decided to run for President because the “Unite the Right” rally showed how the “soul of the nation” is at stake in the Trump era, I applauded, writing a Washington Post op-ed celebrating Biden’s recognition that Trump’s politicization of extremism was making the country at once less safe and less democratic.Michael Singer, “I Was Charlottesville’s Mayor During the ‘Unite the Right’ Rally. Trump’s Callous Response to a Grieving Nation Is No Surprise”
And while Biden is the man of the hour, his “left-wing” counterpart, Bernie Sanders, had nothing novel to say about the situation. He took to Twitter to critique Trump:
As if racism is an embarrassment to America rather than a feature emulated by its most patriotic supporters. Palme Dutt reminds us that social democracy, the ideology that Sanders and his revisionist supporters conceal under the radical veneer of “democratic socialism,” is no enemy to fascism. In reality, social democrats have historically paved the way for fascist power-grabs in Germany, Austria, and Italy by siphoning the impetus toward class struggle at the core of socialist ideology into class-collaborationist, electoral shams. For example, the social-democratic utopia of Sweden also hosts some of Europe’s most militant neo-Nazis. Thus, we should not be surprised that Sanders, as a ruling-class politician, is drawing from the same rhetorical scraps as Biden.
Whether it’s coming from milquetoast liberals or en-vogue liberals, the exceptionalization of Trump is one of the most commonplace and dangerous misconceptions about the recent “rise” in far-right ideology and activism in the United States. The word “rise” is somewhat inaccurate here because, as our previous analysis has shown, the far-right never went anywhere as a feature of America. However, it is true that fascists have found ways to more effectively circulate their message to their “base,” which is to say, to those that liberal democracy recognizes as its own.
Without a doubt, the figure of Trump was certainly helpful for far-right activists in their facilitation of this ongoing rhetorical shift. He is, unlike most Presidents in recent history, undeniably forthright about his subversion of liberal-democratic administrative norms in favor of emulating his self-fashioned populist image. However, accepting the rhetorical role Trump played in the circulation of far-right ideas must not degenerate into scapegoating Trump at the expense of structural analysis, as it so often does. Public intellectual Henry Giroux offers a refreshingly-nuanced picture, situating the electoral conditions that gave rise to Trump within the neoliberalization of the Democratic Party, the rise to power of finance capital, and the conservative swing in the 1980’s. He, too, notices the hypocrisy at root in the Democratic Party’s self-portrayal as a bastion against fascism:
In the face of Trump’s unapologetic authoritarianism, Democratic Party members and the liberal elite are trying to place themselves in the forefront of organized resistance to such dark times. It is difficult not to see such moral outrage and resistance as hypocritical in light of the role they have played in the last 40 years of subverting democracy and throwing minorities of class and color under the bus.Henry Giroux, “White nationalism, armed culture, and state violence in the age of Donald Trump”
While I am critical of Giroux’s presumption that any form of liberal democracy prior to the 1980s provided meaningful political avenues for anti-racist or anti-capitalist work, he offers a thorough glimpse at the past forty years that ought disprove the absurd notion that Trump was the beginning, or will be the end, of the far-right in the United States. By extension, the Democrats are no anti-fascist vanguard but rather a cowardly scheme of collaborationists.
Moreover, the real danger of exceptionalizing Trump comes less from its reliance on a whitened vision of American history than its implications for anti-fascist tactics and strategy. If we accept the premise that the rise of Trump has uniquely legitimized the far-right, then the floodgates open for myriad band-aid solutions that reinforce racial capitalism’s stranglehold on political possibility. As Biden’s campaign ad elucidates, this brand of anti-fascism will start and end at the ballot box. Like the “anti-fascism” of the German Social Democrats, this anti-fascism renounces the need for struggle against fascism at its political and libidinal roots in favor of betting upon the presumptive stability of liberal institutions. This is a dead-end for anti-fascism; if Hitler’s seizure of power and Trump’s authoritarianism both prove anything, it is that fascist demagogues do not care about the constraints of liberal democracy. In any case, they can still rely upon the white-anxiety vote to secure their power. Therefore, these “solutions” serve as a gilding of gold over the rotting, capitalist core of the Democratic Party and of liberal democracy itself, further strengthening their power as a force of counter-insurgency.
Time and time again, anti-fascist activists have proven that on-the-ground, direct confrontation remains the most effective short-term tactic for mitigating the circulation of far-right ideas. Returning to Unite the Right, not only did anti-fascists prevent a complete takeover of Charlottesville in 2017, but their tactics subverted the planned 2018 “Unite the Right 2” rally. In Washington, D.C., twenty to thirty far-right attendees were hopelessly outnumbered by thousands of counter-protesters, even though the fascists received a sizeable police escort.
While the Left is desperately in need of an anti-fascist strategy of scope and scale, it is evident that the Democrats can offer only lip service to those of us fighting for our lives and the lives of our comrades. However, it would be far too easy if the Democrats were only “unhelpful” – let’s move to analyze how Biden’s anti-fascist rhetoric actually strengthens and precipitates the continued prominence of the far-right in American politics.
Even though direct confrontation has proven effective, Biden’s plead for a twenty-first century return to normalcy criminalizes anti-fascist activism in favor of appealing to anti-black law enforcement. It shouldn’t shock anyone that Biden committed the same rhetorical slip as Trump when confronted about Black Lives Matter protests, particularly about the uprisings in Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle, which had turned particularly violent. In the midst of the righteous rebellions, Biden quickly defended ruling class interests by ensuring that he will prosecute “arsonists and anarchists.” He warrants his proclamation by claiming that the looters, rioters, and “fuck-the-police”ers were detracting from the real message – as if Biden had either the knowledge or the right to determine what the message of any protest ought be. Trump said that there were good people on both sides while Biden ups the ante; there are bad people on both sides!
However, neither Biden nor his centrist fanboys recognize the hypocrisy of this statement because they do not understand the Black Lives Matter rebellions to be anti-fascist fronts of struggle. They do not look at a police officer and see a force of right-wing terror, even when the police protect fascist protesters against the vengeance of a scorned community as they did during Unite the Right 2. This betrays a whitened, bourgeois outlook that sees the police as a natural and inevitable force for keeping the order of liberal democracy and racial capitalism. Biden can only understand the “real message” of Black Lives Matter as Black people begging for their lives rather than a revolutionary rupture from the basic violence at the core of policing. To do otherwise would be to betray the Soul of the Nation!
In reality, from their slave-patrol inception to their contemporary function as the footsoldiers of the prison-industrial complex, the police are not just natural allies of fascism but its everyday enforcers.5 Cops and Klan don’t just go hand-in-hand, they are often the exact same people. Their fundamental purpose is the protection of property, and in so doing, they also protect the racialized social relations that property engenders, or in other words, they defend and maintain a racist class society. Just like how white nationalists convened upon Charlottesville to protect their honored Confederate memory against insurgent forces, the police are summoned to defend the status quo from those brave enough to revolt against it, most of whom make up the same racialized populations against whom the subject of fascism defines itself.
The revolutionary newspaper Tribune of the People puts it well:
“’I think we do need to hold those who violate the law accountable,’ Biden said. ‘We should never let what’s done in a march for equal rights overcome what the reason for the march is. And that’s what these folks are doing. And they should be arrested — found, arrested and tried.‘
Any person participating in the current movement for Black lives should flat out condemn this statement. This is only the liberal version of Trump’s ‘antifa’ boogeyman, an obvious ‘law and order’ strategy to signal to his fellow imperialists he’s still their guy, and hold on to the most right-wing Democrats and independents while drawing in the conservatives who can’t bring themselves fully on board with Trump’s more open appeals to fascism. They prefer the Democrats’ more politely crafted denunciations of rebellion.”David Martinez, “Opinion: Biden’s Own Version of ‘Law and Order’ to Compete with Trump’s”
As I have alluded before, Biden is far from alone in his defense of “law and order.” When this rhetoric seeps into politics, it has disastrous consequences for actual anti-racist, anti-fascist, and revolutionary organizing. For instance, on August 15th, a Pittsburgh protester was swept off the streets by plainclothes officers driving a white van. To many activists on the ground, the scene was reminiscent of the mass disappearances of activists by unmarked Federal officers in Portland. The next day, Democratic mayor Bill Peduto took to Twitter (at 11:41 PM) to defend the Fujimori-style affair:
The situation played out much like any given Trump scandal: Something absolutely horrific happens under his watch, public outcry ensues, and he takes to Twitter off business hours to make a spectacular, irrelevant excuse. Obviously, the ACLU immediately distanced itself from Peduto and from Pittsburgh Public Safety. Even Peduto himself reneged, the next day voicing “serious concerns” about the police action after a press conference wherein police officers ranted about how the protester, by serving as a marshal, was a threat to public safety. Here, the rhetoric of safety functions exactly the same as the more brazen rhetoric of “law and order”: to dismiss criticism of the police, and, more fundamentally, to reinforce the idea that the world must have police and that all who dare proclaim otherwise fundamentally threaten the world that racial capitalism built. To these milquetoast liberals, the idea of an America without the friendly neighborhood boys in blue is unthinkable. They are correct, of course: America would not exist without its friendly neighborhood fascists. Someone needs to keep the lid on the pot.
Biden (and Sanders, and Peduto, and every other Democratic politician) may offer convincing lip-service, defining themselves in contradistinction to Trump in hopes of winning the votes of Americans opposed to fascism. Unfortunately, however, they cannot betray the soul of America that gives their ruling-class positions political, social, and economic purchase. When the shit hits the fan, as it will perpetually do until we build a world uninhibited by racial capitalism, the Democrats will always defend the white bourgeoisie that lines their pockets.
Toward an Anti-Fascism that Actually Opposes Fascism
In How the World Swung to the Right, François Cusset makes the erudite observation that, since the upswing of right-wing ideology in the 1980’s, the rhetoric and tactics of the Left have taken on a conservative angle. The aspirational ideas that characterized twentieth-century socialist, communist, anti-racist, and progressive movements have been replaced with a drive to salvage what’s left of a system under attack. This reactionary rhetoric clearly characterizes Biden’s anti-fascist appeal, a defense of America that both sounds and operates just like the right-wing chauvinism it purports to oppose.
For “anti-fascism” to mean anything at all, it must oppose all agents and institutions that, by virtue of their existence, foment white nationalism. By providing a cover for police terror through his liberalized “law and order” rhetoric, Biden demonstrates that his drive to preserve America’s racist ideological core far exceeds his promised interest in opposing fascism. In fact, liberal democracy is not just ill-equipped to offer an anti-fascist strategy; it requires white supremacy to set the grounds for who can express political agency under a system of racial capitalism. Thus, the proponents of liberal democracy can only provide cover for the incubation of fascist ideas and tactics.
In light of this, the only anti-fascist strategies are those that denounce liberal democracy and the bourgeois class whose vampirism animates the Soul of the Nation with the blood of the dispossessed. Anything less only offers a radical veneer to a decrepit political system. Toward this, those of us invested in the eradication of fascism must reject any positions that dismiss the ongoing prevalence of the far-right as anything but a quotidian symptom of racial capitalism. No President can sign freedom into law; only the people can liberate themselves.
1 – R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution
2 – David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
3 – Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition
4 – Georgi Dimitrov, The United Front: The Struggle against Fascism and War
5 – Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism
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