Thoughts on Austin Teach-In, from a writer and Refuse Fascism volunteer in Austin
On Wednesday, March 15, we gathered with the National Tour to Drive Out the Trump/Pence Regime at a public library in Austin for a teach-in and discussion on fascism. Some of the people who came included a local writer, another writer from New York, a woman who just happened to walk into the library to check out a book and saw the call, a member of an Austin Socialist Collective, two teachers on spring break, and a woman who had received an email about the teach-in. I started by giving an introduction, including speaking briefly about why I’m here.
Last summer, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an image that haunted me. It was shortly after a small group of protesters disrupted one of the Trump rallies and shut it down. The image showed a picture of a Trump rally next to a picture of a massive Hitler rally, and the caption was, “Now is the time to stop this, Not November.” I didn’t share it because I thought that if I’m not actively doing something to stop this, it’s just empty rhetoric. The fact is there was no real movement at that time to stop Trump – everything was channeled into voting for Clinton because that seemed like the easiest thing to do. I am a writer and had just finally re-arranged my life for that, and honestly I mostly checked out during the campaign, hoping that we would somehow avert the disaster of a Trump win.
After Election Day, like many of you I was reeling and disoriented. I knew I had to do something, but what? Which organization should I join? Whose rights should I concentrate on? Should I focus on immigrant rights since I’m an immigrant, reproductive rights since I’m a woman, freedom of expression since I’m a writer, Black Lives Matter since the police are going to have even more power to criminalize and kill Black and brown people, and the list goes on, not to mention the attacks on the environment and risk of committing more war crimes and even of nuclear war. We don’t even have to imagine how sweeping the program of repression Trump/Pence have in store for us now, but if we really imagine going to every action and every protest for every cause we care about, for everyone who is going to be affected, it’s untenable, and fascists fully expect to wear the resistance down with the speed and number of attacks. This is their strategy and we can already see the numbers on the streets since the Women’s March dwindling.
More and more people are talking about fascism now. It’s what we’re here to talk about today, but without a movement to stop it, not survive it but really stop it, we’re not going to get anywhere. So we’re going to talk about both today. I want to close the introduction by reading a portion of an essay Adam Gopnik wrote for the New Yorker before the election. What he wrote about Trump and fascism (http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/being-honest-about-trump) was very accurate:
“To call him a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits…It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic…It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners. That it can appeal to those who do not understand its consequences is doubtless true. But the first job of those who do understand is to state what those consequences invariably are. Those who think that the underlying institutions of American government are immunized against it fail to understand history. In every historical situation where a leader of Trump’s kind comes to power, normal safeguards collapse.”
Next, we all introduced ourselves, which was a really important step to find out more both about the people who had come to take part in the discussion and the people who had joined the Tour. A new Volunteer from Austin then shared two pages from the book Anatomy of Fascism. He read through a list of characteristics of the Nazis and spoke about the parallels with Trump. An important point that I got from his presentation was that there was build-up to the point where the Nazis started implementing death camps, but the foundations were established early and gradually normalized.
One question that came up early in the meeting was what we mean by driving the regime out. A Tour Volunteer talked about mass protest and creating a political crisis like we recently witnessed in South Korea. As he was explaining four points of action, he was interrupted with a comment that we don’t have to wait four years because it’s only two years until the midterm elections. The speaker said that with midterm elections, we have a chance of the Democrats getting majorities again and stalling this administration’s plans, and that this was our system and we had to honor it. He also said every revolution has been a bloodbath. A few people in the room reacted to this by nodding and agreeing, and a woman jumped in to say that if more people had voted, we wouldn’t have a fascist president. To that, a few people reacted strongly to say that the Democratic Party didn’t offer a good alternative for various reasons.
I think there were four points in this exchange that ended up needing to be addressed:
- Voting in mid-term elections will be effective in stopping the fascist program.
- Creating a political crisis through mass protests necessarily means revolution, which in turn leads to bloodshed and violence.
- Elections are the only way our political system of democracy works, and that needs to be upheld.
- There was disagreement about the extent to which the Democratic Party was a good alternative and deserved voter loyalty based on that.
One initial response from an attendee was to hold up the call and say NO!, do not conciliate, do not collaborate, and so forth, reading directly from that part of the Call to Action. I think that might have been more effective if we had had time to read the whole Call first, but in this format I don’t think this was an adequate answer. Although the point is valid, I don’t think it would be clear to someone who has always believed voting is an act of civic responsibility that in this case, it isn’t addressing the urgency of the situation or understanding how fascism uses those democratic processes to seize power, but getting them out of power requires a different approach.
A Tour Volunteer gave the historical examples of Nixon and LBJ, whose actions on the Vietnam War differed from their campaign promises because of other factors outside of voting. He also clarified that Refuse Fascism does not view the Democratic Party and the Republican Party as the same, as the Republican Party is now a fascist party, and that driving them out of power is not the same as having a revolution. A few of us gave the example of South Korea again, emphasizing the importance of working together to deal with this massive problem with the singular goal of driving Trump, Pence, and their entire regime from power. All of those thousands of people gathering in Seoul were likely coming from different political viewpoints, but they unified under this single goal of ousting their president from power, creating a political crisis that finally forced the ruling powers to impeach her. This process did not take years but a few months.
I tried to make the point that waiting two years for the mid-term elections didn’t address the fact that there could be a crisis like the Reichstag fire that the fascist regime could use to entirely shut down democratic rights, including the right to elections. There is no guarantee that we have two years. One Volunteer on Tour pointed out how much damage has already been done in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, calling on us to imagine what the regime could accomplish by 2018. It is very important to try to get people to imagine what the landscape will be in 18 months, especially based on the speed at which Trump and Pence are trying to plow through already—not to mention the fact that the Republican party can further manipulate the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to prevent a Democratic majority.
This discussion showed that there is still quite a bit of denial of what a fascist American government could actually do, both domestically and globally, even if people are willing to accept that Trump and Pence are fascists. That this is a fascist government at the head of the biggest imperialist power in the world is not getting through. Some of the fixation on mid-term elections comes from a certain denial about the reality that not everyone benefits from elections. If we ask people to think about the people around the world who are suffering from U.S. policies under both Democrats and Republicans, does that make a difference to their thinking? Does that also give the wrong impression that we think both the Democrats and Republicans are fascist parties?
We could have spent all day just talking about this issue. The perception that voting is the ultimate act of political responsibility needs to be challenged in a way that doesn’t discourage those people from building this movement. I tried to make the point that the Democratic Party needed to come to grips with the fact that they couldn’t mobilize people to vote against such an illegitimate candidate, that that was their responsibility, and blaming non-voters or third party voters didn’t consider all the reasons people feel betrayed by the party. I think maybe the discussion started going in a direction that implied that we are telling people not to vote, which is certainly not the point Refuse Fascism is seeking to make. We are trying to get people to think outside of these conventional and often ineffective channels, including voting, because the danger of a fascist America consolidating its power calls for that. One attendee of the teach in put it very well: Because this is an unprecedented situation, it’s going to require us to put our heads together and come up with an unprecedented solution.
I wonder if one approach in the future might be to start with really laying out the vision of society this fascist regime wants to implement, and then showing how some of these individual attacks are building towards that ultimate vision. I think we tried to do that by talking about Germany because we already know the consequences and outcome, but why could work even more toward actually laying out a Trump/Pence/Bannon vision and clearly showing what they’re moving toward. The Call does that, but a presentation that goes more deeply into that section would be helpful as well. People then may be able to grasp how different the landscape will be in 2018, even if there is enough resistance now to stall some of their programs. There were so many topics we wanted to cover but were unable to do so because of time constraints. In light of that, all of the things Refuse Fascism is saying about why it’s important to cause a political crisis and why it’s important to be ungovernable with the aim of driving them out of power at the soonest possible time might have even more impact. Every month that goes by means they have more and more chances to implement their vision for society and the world. Then we can pose the question – Is that vision acceptable to you? If not, you need to set your sights on driving them from power now, not in 2018.