Coco Das is member of RefuseFascism.org Editorial Board. On May 13, she interviewed Amanda Marcotte, Politics Writer for Salon.com & author of “Oops, they did it again: Trump’s refusal to wear a mask as a signal to fascism,” on Inside with #OUTNOW, a project of volunteers with RefuseFascism.org.The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Coco Das: Welcome to Inside with #OutNOW. I’m really excited to talk to Amanda Marcotte. She is a politics writer for Salon and covers American politics, feminism and culture. She has a book out, which I’ve read. It’s excellent. It’s called Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself. We can say the whole title here because we’re on Facebook, not on the airwaves.
I wanted to talk to you first about this very important article you wrote, Oops, They Did it Again; Trump’s Refusal to Wear a Mask is a Signal to Fascism. Hard to believe, as a lot of things are hard to believe that are coming down right now, but at a time during a pandemic where humanity is facing a novel coronavirus that we do not have immunity to, mask-wearing has actually become a culture-war flash point. At the Mayo Clinic, Pence refused to wear a mask, or said he didn’t know he was supposed to; Trump refusing to wear a mask at the Honeywell factory. A lot of the media has treated this as just being careless, or stupid, ignorant, unknowledgeable about the need to wear a mask. But in your article you make a very important point about what this means culturally. There’s some deliberation to this, that it’s a fascist signal. So can you break down for us what is going on with this, what is it about, what message is it sending?
Amanda Marcotte: It was interesting to me because scholars of fascism say that core to the idea of fascist ideology – I define it more as a fascist impulse on Trump’s part, I don’t think he’s a studied ideologue or anything of that nature, but I think he thinks this way. He’s sort of instinctually fascist, as it were. Core to the ideology is this notion that the race should be strong, that modern civilization has made people weak, especially men, weak and urbane and feminine, and other synonyms for weak. And that the only way to make your civilization strong again is to functionally cull people that are classified as weak. In Nazism, they targeted Jews mainly, describing them as parasitical and weak. But they also targeted disabled people, gay people, certain women that were seen as patriarchal traitors. You see that kind of mentality nowadays in the refusal to take the coronavirus seriously, in the refusal to take basic health care measures to protest. In this fascist ideology anyone who would die is a weak person who probably is just a leech or a parasite on the herd. The only way they can prove their nobility or worth as a human being is to die for the greater good, to basically peace out because they are a parasite on our culture.
When somebody doesn’t wear a mask, I think it’s important to understand that the mask is not there to protect you. The mask is there to protest other people, because the whole point of the CDC recommendations and public health recommendations in other countries is that we know that a lot of these viruses are asymptomatic, especially at first, so you can be walking around spreading it to other people. And the mask is there to keep you from doing that. I was out at the grocery store the other day. I had a mask on. I had a cough. I didn’t mean to, and I’m not sick but it’s seasonal allergy season. I felt a lot better because I had the mask and it stopped particles from leaving my face. In case I have the coronavirus, I probably prevented someone else from getting it, right? But when Trump won’t wear it, when Pence won’t wear it, there’s a subtle implication, especially to their more fascist followers that in a sense, if people get the coronavirus and die of it, it’s for the best because they were just dragging the rest of us down anyway. You see this in a lot of the rhetoric about this, like calling on Americans to be warriors by risking getting the coronavirus, saying things like the people that are dying were on their last legs anyway. There’s very much a thread that if it kills you, you probably were a drag on society anyway, and it’s for the best.
CD: And we know from their policy that there are people they feel are worthy. Make America Great Again is very much about making American white again. And then there are people that are constantly demonized and targeted, and actually targeted by policy, like these migrant kids that are being sent back to their deaths. There are certain populations that are subhuman, and while they maybe don’t always come out and say that, they will say that torch-bearing Nazis in Charlottesville are “fine people,” or these Michigan militias are fine people. In your article, you quoted Natascha Strobl, an Austrian political scientist, that “weakness is never worthy of protection and has to be cast out.” This is fascism. She continues, “a fascist believes those viewed as weak have an obligation to die without protest for the greater good, and that if they don’t do it, the weak drag everyone else down, and therefore must be done away with.”
By normal logic, the death toll of over 80,000 in a matter of months would be unthinkable, people would be questioning what gave rise to that situation. It’s hard for me to imagine, if this had happened under Obama, what the reaction would have been, among the entire Tea Party population and this fascist movement that was being cultivated then, and the media as well as the normal people. Yet, Trump’s approval ratings have not plummeted. They fluctuated a little bit, but they haven’t gone down significantly. In fact, it seems like there is a base of people even more solidly behind him and the regime. Could you talk about what you make of this? Is there a way you can help us understand this?
AM: There’s this narrative in the mainstream media now that Americans have become more polarized than ever before. That’s a really misleading narrative because it implies that there are sort of two groups of people that are moving away from each other at equal speed. Whereas what we’re actually seeing happen is that Republican voters, who in the past were loyal Republicans but it was a party identification and it didn’t go a whole lot deeper than that, have really developed into a tribe. These identity politics now run a lot deeper. It’s tough to name them, it’s so recent. A lot of these folks are older, most of them, even like 10-15 years ago wouldn’t have thought of themselves as members of a tribe, and may balk at that now, but they are more than a subculture, they are formed into functionally, at least in their self-perception, into something of an ethnic group, right? It’s this white, Christian, nationalist, group of people. That creates an unwillingness to accept evidence, to listen to countervailing arguments. Part of the reason is when people disagree with you, that is no longer felt as disagreement, it’s felt as an attack on your identity. For Trump voters, it’s just become impossible for them to listen, it’s become impossible for them to take in new evidence that contradicts their point of you because all they hear is, “the fake news media is out to get me.”
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of mentality rising up around the globe, in all sorts of different countries. For whatever reasons, there seems to be right-wing authoritarianism, fascism, whatever name you want to call it, developing in India, in China, in the United States, in some parts of Europe, Turkey. It’s all kind of the same thing, these people that have decided that they’re under threat, and they’ve decided that evidence, argument and facts don’t matter anymore, that all that matters is this kind of tribal identity, this nationalism.
CD: That’s really important. We talk about that in our Statement of Conscience, which is a really important document. It’s the main way we are organizing, at the moment, through raising this consciousness and need to actually see what we’re facing, face the reality of that, and figure out how we get to a point where millions of people who hate this, who do not want to live in this kind of future, will step outside of normal channels and work to drive out this regime, which is a fascist regime that has its finger on the nuclear trigger, which has the ability to kill 80,000 people in weeks with its negligence, its policy, its anti-science rhetoric. The very first step in stopping a fascist America is getting this regime out of power. This is what we’re organizing for now.
In our statement of conscience that I encourage everybody to read, sign and share, it says “We must say out loud what has been too often spoken in whispers and riddles. An American fascism is here and advancing, wrapped in the flag and Mike Pence’s Bible taken literally—spreading its poison of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and oppressive, fundamentalist “traditional” values.”
In another part of the statement: “It’s long past time we cast aside illusions and self-delusion. For years people have waited—for the Blue Wave, for Mueller, for impeachment. But the normal channels turn into dead ends as the regime shreds norms and changes the rules.”
I want to talk to you a little bit about that in the context of your book Troll Nation. I really appreciated that you mentioned Gamergate. Maybe you can tell us about that. I live in Austin, and when that happened, I was reading about it and thinking, this is horrifying that this woman is getting death threats. They had to cancel one of the panels that these women were on because they could not guarantee their safety at South x Southwest. I remember thinking this is horrifying, but I didn’t see it as a harbinger of things to come. You talk about it as a sign of what was to come, and Trump becoming the president of this troll nation.
There’s a quote in your book where you say, “When social progress cannot be argued against, its opponents instead turn to trolling. And Trump; ignorant, thoughtless, mean, barely literate would be their leader.”
So in that context, I’d like to pose a question to you that was also posed to Lucian Truscott who writes for Salon, who said that it took him awhile to see this regime as fascist, but now he sees it in technicolor. Sam had asked him, “Was there a moment when you saw that?” So I was wondering if there was a moment, or has there been an evolution in the way that you look at what the regime does, and was there a point where you said, I have to use the “f” word, I have to talk about how mask-wearing is actually a signal to fascism rather than just use all the other names people use: alt-right, authoritarian, populism. Why was it important to use the word “fascism?”
AM: That’s a good question. I don’t think I was ever in any doubt that a movement like Gamergate or the alt-right was fascist. They are the online equivalent of Nazi beerhalls. They’ve never not been that.
I think for me the realization that Trump was not even going to hesitate to align himself with that kind of ideology was when I was at the Republican National Convention. He was doing his best Mussolini impression. It was so obvious, it was impossible to deny it. But it wasn’t just that he was up there doing the Mussolini thing, yelling “I alone can fix it!” But it was the audience’s reaction. It was absolutely terrifying. I had spent days talking to these people. I’ve been covering the right for my whole career and I’ve been increasingly concerned about how radical they’re getting. But even then it was still shocking to see people that I had been talking to, who I had been hanging out with, and just being around for four days, getting on their feet. This was not like the usual enthusiasm you see at a political rally. It was next level. They were out of their minds.
The realization that hit me, and why it was so traumatic is that I looked at this huge crowd, thousands and thousands of people, and I realized that they were all experiencing the realization, all together at once, that they don’t have to care anymore about arguments, about facts, about anything. All they have to do is care about power. At that point, you have abandoned any investment in liberal democracy. At that point you have basically converted to fascism.
CD: You make some points about how they use the mantle of free speech to avoid talking about the content of what they’re saying because the content is hard to argue in favor of. They’re basically white supremacists and misogynists but when you say you’re just fighting for free speech, then you can avoid talking about the content.
We have a few questions from viewers. Can you talk about the intersection of conspiracy theories and the fascist justifications for not wearing a mask? Another related question: “From what I’ve read I can understand why these fascists refuse to wear a mask, but why do they attack people who do? What is so offensive to them that they object to other people wearing a mask?” You started to get at that with the question of who’s dying from this disease and your point about superiority and weakness and weak people being parasites that need to die off. Can you comment more on these questions?
AM: It’s really important to understand how much, and this is what my book Troll Nation is really about, is how much the modern conservative movement as it’s turned toward authoritarianism really embraced the idea of manufacturing reality. Steve Bannon has famously said that what you do is flood the zone with shit. So a right-wing conspiracy theory has two simultaneous purposes. One is it creates a justification for embracing inhumane policies and views. “I’m the victim of a conspiracy, therefore whatever action I take next was self-defense and so it’s justified.” We see this right now with Trump yelling about “Obamagate.” No one even knows what that is. He’s trying to create this conspiracy where Obama did some vague criminal action against him, and therefore he’s justified in literally anything else he does; whoever he pardons, whatever laws he breaks, however he uses the Department of Justice to persecute his political enemies because they did it first, to him.
The second, and possibly more important thing that a conspiracy theory does, is it dismantles the idea of reality as a legitimate basis for making decisions or settling arguments. That’s what Steve Bannon was talking about when he said “flood the zone with shit.” A lot of conspiracy theorists don’t even believe their own theories. Alex Jones will ping-pong back and forth. He’ll have contradictory ones. The second he gets in trouble, like with the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, he’ll drop them and admit he understands reality. You see this all the time. They know they’re lying. A lot of times they don’t believe this stuff, but that’s the point. There’s a radical agenda at foot of trying to deny that reality matters, that objective truth matters, that all that matters is tribal loyalty and power. Conspiracy theories, the sort of “choose your own adventure reality” is about establishing that, as is phrases like “fake news,” which Trump calls legitimate news. There’s a strong echo of what the Nazis called the press, which is the luden presse, which meant “lying press.” I know that people get tense around these comparisons, but unfortunately, they’re just sitting right there.
CD: I want to read our answer to the question, “What is fascism?” because a lot of people think it’s just an insult. But this is an actual program that has direction and momentum. Our website [from prior statement/call to action] says, “Fascism has direction and momentum. Dissent is piece by piece criminalized. The truth is bludgeoned. Group after group is demonized and targeted along a trajectory that leads to real horrors. All of this has taken dramatic leaps under the Trump Regime. History has shown that fascism must be stopped before it becomes too late.
… Fascism is not just a gross combination of horrific reactionary policies. It is a qualitative change in how society is governed. Fascism foments and relies on xenophobic nationalism, racism, misogyny, and the aggressive re-institution of oppressive “traditional values.” Fascist mobs and threats of violence are unleashed to build the movement and consolidate power. What is crucial to understand is that once in power fascism essentially eliminates traditional democratic rights.”
Can you talk a little about what you see as our responsibility in the face of this. Something that struck me in Troll Nation was where you said it seems less cyclical, what’s happening, and more simultaneous. This is something we say – that this is not the worst of a pendulum swing. It is a qualitative change in how society is governed. You see these norms being constantly shredded. People say “he can’t do that!” but then the regime does it and gets away with it. We saw that through the whole impeachment process. Someone is commenting that recently [Jared] Kushner threatened – and this is not the first time the question has come up of whether there’s even going to be an election – to somehow cancel the election. He wouldn’t commit to whether there would be an election. This is related to the passage I read. Another part in the Statement of Conscience is “Let us not hope against facts that the election alone can resolve this crisis.” This is the election that Trump was on trial for sabotaging. As a journalist, what do you see as your responsibility in the face of this, and what are you hoping that people will do after they read your pieces?
AM: That’s a tough one. Obviously, if Trump could cancel the election he would. And I think everybody should just know that in their heart of hearts. It’s frustrating to me to see people still depend on the idea of norms and laws when you’re dealing with people that don’t accept facts or reality. We have Tucker Carlson on Fox News questioning the germ theory of transmission. If they can question that, they can question anything, and they will.
That said, I don’t know that Trump has the power, or the will to get the election canceled. My greater concern is that he will just reject the results of any election and refuse to leave. I think we should not be Pollyanna-ish about what would happen then because what has happened in other countries when leaders do that is people start siding up, making arguments, and often it’s the person with more power that wins, not the person with the better argument.
I think the best that we can do is continue to tell the truth, continue to speak out, continue to talk to people that we know, especially people we know that are “that’s politics…I don’t like to be political.” If you can get people like that involved, it will help a lot because literally the only chance we have is such a show of popular will that even some of the tactics like voter suppression, Russian interference, Trump’s inevitable claims that the election was stolen from him … He’s already done it. He rejected the 2016 election, and he won that. …So the only hope we have is such a show of popular will and popular force that even he can’t deny it.
CD: What we are working towards, and what people can read more about on RefuseFascism.org, is mass, sustained, non-violent protest, which is not a possibility at this moment, it’s not what we are calling for at this moment [of COVID-19], but we do feel that it is the only realistic way to create a political crisis to get this regime out of power. This is what was done in South Korea, in Puerto Rico when they drove out their governor.
We urge people to read our Statement of Conscience/Call to Act and spread this demand: In the Name of Humanity, We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America. This nightmare Must End. The Trump/Pence Regime #OutNOW. We invite anybody, from any perspective: If you feel that this regime poses a catastrophic danger to humanity and the planet, join us. This is a regime that leads a whole fascist movement and a whole united front of different strains of fascists. The norms have been shredded and the normal channels have turned into dead ends.
I really appreciate that Amanda has been here to get into some of this with us. I want to end with you on this question. You used the term “fascist impulse.” A lot of people will say that Trump is not a fascist because he has no ideology. But I think what you’ve brought out is the importance of seeing that this has become a pole in society. This way of thinking, this shattering of even the idea of objective truth, the whole idea that “whatever we say is true,” and “might makes right.” That’s a pole in society that people are gravitating towards with very dangerous consequences, whether they’re fully ideologues or not.
I thought maybe you can end with this question: what does this mean for you? For women, for people of color, for immigrants, and why does it have to be understood and opposed?
AM: The main thing to understand is that if you read a lot of historians of fascism they would tell you that fascism as a fleshed out ideology was never ever really truly a thing like an ideology of liberal democracy, or socialism, or something of that nature was. It really is a kind of taped together set of ugly impulses, of bigotry, contempt for the supposed weak, for exultation of patriarchy. Above all things, it’s a belief that power matters above anything else. It’s the will to power. It becomes really clear, then, what that means for most of us.
It means that all the levers that we have to pull to be sure we’re treated as full human beings, like appeals to law, appeals to rationality, appeals to humanity, appeals to very much enlightenment values, don’t matter. They just will step all over you. They will often classify those things as weak and stupid. We see the way they talk about scientists as weak and stupid a lot of the time as if even giving a crap about what scientists say is silly. That gives you a real hint as to what is going on here.
So I think it’s very frustrating for a lot of liberals. I have to imagine the folks in the audience are frustrated by this because you want to argue it down. I want to emphasize more than anything, we’re up against a mentality that does not accept argument as a legitimate form of discourse. They only believe in power, which is why they lie shamelessly because it doesn’t matter as long as it gets them power. Once you understand that, it’s terrifying, but at least you can set aside the notion that you’re going to argue your way out of this. There’s only organizing your way out of this.