As an institution, the United States Congress was born of a Constitution written by large landowners (and slaveowners), thus it’s far from embodying a genuinely democratic ideal. But we can certainly agree that a far-right mob that storms the Senate and House of Representatives to overturn an election––at the insistence of a racist strongman––is a giant leap away from anything that would get us any closer to that ideal. Given the nature of the crowd and its demands, we can see it as an assault on democratic space that egalitarian movements have managed to carve out from below. The sight of Confederate flags and militiamen within the Capitol poignantly confirms the cultural and political damage that the first modern authoritarian president has done, and it may also be a sign that we’ve entered a new phase in U.S. political history where all manner of anti-democratic horizons are possible.
Since we’re acutely aware that democracies across the world have perennially reverted to authoritarianism, such a moment invites international comparisons and a search for historical precedents. Is this how fascism started? Is this how democracies are overthrown in Latin America? What do the events of January 6 tell us about the chances that authoritarianism can really happen here? Such questions were the stuff of dystopian fantasy a mere five years ago, but now they are considerations we actually need to think about.
Democracies are Overthrown from the Right, Not the Left
First, it’s important to keep in mind that wherever you have a functioning representative democracy (even a corrupt one), the authoritarian danger is almost always going to come from the right. Communist revolutions never overturned democratic governments––they toppled rightist dictatorships, monarchies, and European colonial administrations, but they never took hold where a multi-party electoral system was in place. More to the point, and despite the bourgeois origin of liberal democracy, parliaments with universal suffrage often exist because of political pressure from the margins––from women, peasants, working classes, the racially excluded––thus the left, far more often than the right, sees democracy as its own historical creation and political vehicle.
On the other hand, global history gives us plenty of examples where such multi-party systems were overthrown from the right, whether we’re thinking about the fascisms of Europe or the dictatorships of Latin America. This is mainly because the elite classes that often back such reactionary coups can rely on long anti-democratic traditions and institutional legacies that predated democracy (e.g., monarchy, colonial rule, slavery) and supported their rule before it. Also, dominant groups often tolerate democracy only so long as it doesn’t threaten their privileges.
Mussolini’s March on Rome
If we’re going to turn to the history of fascism to interpret the mayhem at the Capitol, the so-called “March on Rome” is the most relevant point of comparison. That said, the contrasts to Mussolini’s coup d’etat are even more revealing.
When it comes to fascism, the Nazi regime occupies most of our attention, and for good reason. But it’s important to remember that the Hitler regime (1933-1945) was not the first of its kind: Benito Mussolini formed the world’s first fascist government a decade earlier, starting in 1922, and he did so through an event with uncanny similarities to the debacle on January 6.
At that time, Italy was a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The National Fascist Party (PNF) was founded in 1921, and it boasted a vast paramilitary wing filled with military veterans called the Voluntary Militia for National Security, colloquially known as the Blackshirts. The PNF’s fiery leader Mussolini, who was philosophically opposed to democracy, persistently blasted the parliament as a do-nothing body filled with bickering politicians. In October 1922, he led a march of 25,000 Blackshirts, armed with clubs, through the capitol, in a deliberate show of force designed to intimidate parliament. He called for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Luigi Facta, and demanded the dissolution of the democratically elected government.
Though a coup d’etat was not their intent, it turned out to be the result. The police and the army units stationed in the city outnumbered the Blackshirts and were far more heavily armed, yet King Victor Emmanuel refused to declare martial law. The government promptly resigned, and on October 29 the king invited Mussolini to lead a parliamentary coalition. What came to be known in party mythology as “the March on Rome” was a complete success. Within three years Mussolini managed to consolidate his power, rendering political parties obsolete and vesting all political authority in himself.
It was incredible, in retrospect. Imagine if Trump’s hooligans rampaged through the legislative chambers (which even the Blackshirts didn’t do, incidentally), and then, in the immediate aftermath, Congress promptly gave in to their demands, annulled the election results, apologized for the inconvenience, and re-declared Trump president as a result. This scenario is more or less how fascism was born.
To be sure, there is no comparable individual in U.S. politics like a constitutional monarch who can simply override Congress and the Executive Branch. But before we pat ourselves on the backs for the unflappable wisdom of American institutions, it’s important to remember the context. Italian elites like King Victor Emmanuel felt mortally threatened by strong socialist and communist parties as well as by militant trade unions. They had been shaken to their core by the Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years), a revolutionary upsurge by industrial and agricultural workers in the chaotic aftermath of World War I. In the face of a formidable left, conservatives were willing to listen to tough upstarts on the right with new ideas and harsher medicine. This pattern was repeated in Germany a decade later, as historian Robert Paxton reminds us.
The United States does in fact have an insurgent left and a radical antiracist movement, but it has not threatened profits and economic control in the way that the Italian left of 1919-1920 had done. Would the National Association of Manufacturers be calling for Trump’s impeachment if militant workers had been occupying their factories for the past two years?
Latin American Parallels
Looking at Latin American politics gives us closer parallels to the right-wing putsch attempt on January 6. The Bolivarian and other revolutions of the 19th century arguably bestowed the region with an even longer tradition of liberalism than in much of Europe. Yet the ostensibly liberal governments that emerged from Latin American independence were undermined from the beginning by the deeply undemocratic legacy of Spanish colonial rule.
Though it’s not a recent publication, Leigh Payne’s Uncivil Moments is worth revisiting because it offers a helpful concept for unpacking the present moment. She looked at right-wing violence in Argentina, Brazil, and Nicaragua in the late twentieth century and concluded that much of it was fueled not by open authoritarians but by “uncivil movements.” That is, democracy in Latin America is not simply undermined by right-wing groups that philosophically reject democracy nor by those that wish to create an authoritarian state. Rather, it’s undermined by “uncivil movements” that use violence as a pressure tactic within a democracy, and with particular strategic goals in mind (forcing the Argentine government to stop prosecuting military officers for murdering leftists during the Dirty War, for example).
To this end, right-wing paramilitaries in Latin America often ally themselves with a political party that operates within the law. Paramilitary and party work together, one within the system and one outside the system, to change policy in their favor. But such movements often ally with outright authoritarians, and they can blossom into a full-blown, military-backed dictatorship if they don’t get their way. These unholy party/paramilitary couplings are almost invariably backed by the upper classes and work to preserve elite rule.
Payne sees these “uncivil movements” as corrosive of democracy, and I’d go further if we were to apply the term to the United States.
Like the uncivil movements that Payne describes, it appears that the right wing mob that stomped through the U.S. Capitol Building was not trying to create a permanent, authoritarian regime, nor did they seem to be rejecting democracy in principle. Rather, they were trying to use force with a particular end in mind (restoring Trump to power, with the dramatic preservation of whiteness that comes with him).
We could fairly ask, though: does it really matter if you reject democracy in principle if your actions are authoritarian? In other words, does it really matter if you’re an open fascist if your actions, in reality, lead toward authoritarianism? I’d answer that such distinctions mainly matter because they help us to identify the kind of political reaction we’re facing and allow us to think about how de facto anti-democratic politics present themselves in the contemporary United States.
There’s one important and final thing that the European and Latin American contrasts bring into focus. That is, what we were not facing on January 6 was a unified militia movement tied to a specific political party. What converged on the Capitol Building was a hodge-podge of right-wing individuals and groups that included, to be sure, some openly fascist morons like Baked Alaska. But as I’ve argued recently in Jacobin, what we haven’t yet seen is something like the S.A. (Brownshirts) of Weimar Germany, the Blackshirts of Italy, or many of the right-wing armed groups of Latin America. That is, we’ve seen motley assortments of aggrieved gun-nuts, but we haven’t faced mass, centrally coordinated militias that operate as the violent arm of a specific political party (in the U.S. case, it would be the Republicans). That said, the Proud Boys have gotten closer to that model after Trump’s “Stand By and Stand Down” comment, and the key word is vigilance.
What we witnessed on January 6 in the United States is a mere hint of something that others around the world know intimately from their own histories. That is, fascists and other right-wing authoritarians come to power, by force, after their side loses elections, not after it wins them.
By the same token, we should not give the riot an air of inevitability, as if the storming of the Capitol is certainly the first step toward a dystopian future. They did in fact lose an election, and it may indeed be a death tantrum of Trumpism. Much more depends on the left and genuinely democratic forces: namely, how they’re able to effectively speak to people’s needs and get organized in the uncertain years to come.
Chris Vials is an Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. He is the co-editor of The US Antifascism Reader, the author of Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (2014) as well as numerous pieces on fascism and antifascism in the United States. He has appeared on CBC radio, PBS, and NPR to discuss the history of American fascist and antifascist movements. He is also co-founder of the Neighbor Fund, a non-profit devoted to legal defense for undocumented immigrants in Connecticut.