Proto-Fascism in the United States: Campaign Reflections

Recently a radio talk-show host asked me if the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign is being racist.


To some extent it is, sure. But we should be careful how we use the R (racism) word. A lot of liberals tend to identify racism under every rock of opposition to Barack Obama. Sometimes they’re right to see it; sometimes not. 


At the same time, I think that the Palin and McCain phenomenon and expressing something that is bigger than just a presidential campaign and bigger than racism.


Some ugly racial sentiments have plainly emerged in connection with the epically nasty operation being conducted by the Republicans.


When Palin tells a 95-percent white rally in the Deep South that Barack Obama “does not see America like you and I do,” it’s hard not detect a not-so subtle current of white nationalism. 


When people at a McCain rally say that Obama is an “Arab” and crowd members at a Palin rally in Florida shout racial epithets at a black television camera man, the racial prejudice is clear as day. 


And then there’s the guy who took an Obama sock monkey to one of Palin’s Weimar-like rallies. 


Did considerable numbers of people scream and chant “Kill him!” or “Off with his head!” in regard to Al Gore or John Kerry at George W. Bush rallies in 2000 and 2004? The fact that this has happened in regard to Obama in 2008 is certainly related to the fact that he is black. How could it not be in a majority Caucasian nation that is still plagued by white-supremacist beliefs, structures, and values? [1]


Not good.  


Still, five contextual comments are in order.





First, Obama supporters have exhibited an over-the-top eagerness to see racism in almost every criticism of their candidate.  I’m sure that many white voters who say Obama is “arrogant,” “elitist,” and “know-it-all” really mean that they think he’s an “uppity nigger.”


Fine, but there are plenty of non- and anti-racist white voters and even some black voters who find Obama elitist. With good reason: the Harvard-educated Obama is very close to concentrated wealth and power.  He’s “a ruling class candidate” (as an antiwar activist noted in Denver prior to being arrested at the Democratic National Convention last August) supported by powerful elites who appreciate his distinctly non-populist corporate-imperial commitments and politics.


Without denying racism in the Republican Party, let’s always be clear about what is plainly racist and what is not. (Having spent some time with white middle-class Obama activists in recent weeks, I am disturbed at their classist tendency to automatically interpret any working- or lower-class’s person’s reluctance to support Obama as proof of underlying racism.) 


Second, the Republican side has no monopoly on racism. Some Obama supporters seem to be sadly tinged with their own significant degree of anti-black prejudice.


Listen to the following exchange, recently recounted in the New York Times, between white voter Veronica Mendive and white Obama volunteer Cathy Vance:


Ms. Mendive: “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before.  I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.”


Ms. Vance: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother.  So his views are really more white than black really.” 


So “black views” are bad but they can be avoided overcome if a black person is raised by good whites, according to an Obama volunteer.




According to Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer, Vance “went on to assure Ms. Mendive that she was so enamored with Mr. Obama the person, that she failed to notice the color of his skin anymore” [2].


White supremacist attitudes and language live on in the hearts of a volunteer canvassing for Obama.


Then there are the lovely sentiments of Kimi Oaks, a “prominent community volunteer” and apparent Obama supporter in Mobile, Alabama.  According to Times reporter Adam Nossiter, Oaks is “pleased by Mr. Obama’s lack of connection to African-American politics.” 


Oaks spoke to fellow whites at a local church and with approval of how Obama “doesn’t come the African-American perspective – he’s not of that tradition.”  For good measure, Ms. Oaks added that “He’s not a product of any ghetto” [3]. How’s that for high, racially tolerant praise?!






Third, a lot of what the Republicans are saying about Obama is precisely what they’d be saying about their Democratic opponent if he or she was white.


“She is a leftist.” “He’s too liberal.” “She’s weak on national security.”  “He’s a traitor.”  “She’s insufficiently American.” “He’s an ally of terrorists.”  “She’s an egregious bleeding-heart tax-and-spender whose coddling of the poor will bankrupt the country.”  “He’s too European.”  “She’s a latte- and/or wine-sipping elitist.”  And so on.


These are the sorts of things (along with the implicit sense that their opponent is too close to blacks) Republicans have been saying about Democratic presidential (and other) candidates for as long as I’ve followed U.S. politics. We’d be hearing all of this from the GOP if the Democrats were running Hillary Clinton and/or John Edwards.





Fourth, I would include right-wing talk radio, FOX NEWS and the rest of the “Republican noise [hate] machine” in the definition of the McCain-Palin campaign. A lot of the ugliest election sentiments and angles are showing up first in places like Sean Hannity’s radio and television shows, Rush Limbaugh’s radio rants, the O’Reilly Show, and in the pages of hard-right hit-man Jerome Corsi’s toxic book “The Obama Nation.”


Corsi’s “bestselling” volume is a study in neo-McCarthyite smearing and racist innuendo. It demonizes Obama as a “bitter,” dangerously “militant” black man – a potential “radical left” threat to white America – for having (as a teenager and college student) consulted such widely read black authors as Malcom X and Franz Fanon.  Corsi pushes racist buttons by saying that an Obama presidency would mean the ascendancy of “a Luo tribesman” to the White House and by associating Obama’s blackness with Islamic terrorism [4].





Fifth, the McCain-Palin campaign and the broader GOP assault structure are about more than racism.  Their racism is part of a larger ideological position that I will clumsily call pseudo-populist messianic-militarist white-nationalist neo-McCarthyite hyper-masculinist proto-fascism. Let’s just label it proto-fascism for short. 


This proto-fascism is evident in the following terrible tendencies and characteristics:


* Regular false conflation of centrist business and imperial liberalism with “extreme leftism.” This seen in the repeated absurd charge that the corporate- and military-friendly Obama is some kind of “hard left” “radical.” The same “charge” (I use quote marks because I like hard left radicals and happen to be one myself) has also long been leveled at Hillary Clinton and other center-neoliberal Democrats by proto-fascist Republicans).


* A militarized hyper-nationalism that glorifies imperial war and insists on martial victory and unquestioning loyalty to “Country First.” According to McCain, the Iraq “war” (really a one-sided imperial occupation perpetrated by the most powerful military state ever on a poor and defenseless nation) must be “won,” meaning that all meaningful resistance to the illegal invasion (understandably hated by the great majority of Iraqis for many years) must be crushed once and for all.


* The preposterous inflation of supposed threats to the Virtuous Nation and established order posed by purported left radicals (absurdly conflated with liberals and centrists) in the “God-blessed” “homeland.” The Republican machine’s obsession with Obama’s connection (quite mild) to William Ayers – a youthful ultra-leftist turned middle-aged education professor and charter-school advocate – is an almost laughable case in point. 


* Dissemination of the classic fascist narrative claiming that the Noble Nation of Exceptional Greatness has seen its intrinsically righteous military crusades “stabbed in the back” by dastardly, “defeatist,” “cowardly,” and insufficiently “patriotic” liberals, radicals, and minorities. This was young Hitler’s lovely narrative on Glorious Germany’s defeat in World War I (see Mein Kampf).  It is also the supposed “war hero” [5] McCain’s narrative on what went wrong in (the U.S. Empire’s vicious assault on) Vietnam (1961-1975) and on what could go wrong in (the same Empire’s current vicious assault on) Iraq if Americans let supposed “leftists” like Obama into the White House.


* A dangerous disrespect for civilized norms and international law reflecting a determination to rule the world by sheer force, including torture, colonial occupation, and repeated assaults on nameless foreign civilians. (Proto-fascists call dissent from such practices “anti-Americanism”).


* An exaggerated and self-fulfilling sense of the world as “a dangerous place,” with evil, typically non-white others waiting behind every corner to senselessly attack inherently good and benevolent America, whose homeland subjects are strongly encouraged to cower under the umbrella of the Big Brother National Security State.


* A toxic anti-intellectualism that proclaims peoples’ right to be deeply ignorant and obtuse and identifies as a sneering “elitist” anyone who dares to mention numerous basic troubling facts about U.S. society, history, and policy.


* The preposterous blaming of racial and ethnic minorities for problems created by wealthy elites at the top of the power structure.  The early Nazis ridiculously claimed that “dastardly” Jews (along with dishonorable liberals and leftists) were the reasons for “Germany’s humiliation” in World War One, when the rulers of that nation came up against the limits of their grandiose imperial ambitions [6]. Jews also received special blame from Nazis for the Great Depression, which actually resulted from the underlying contradictions of interwar capitalism and bad decisions made by predominantly non-Jewish corporate financial elites in places like New York and London.





This tendency to viciously scapegoat defenseless minorities is exhibited in Republicans’ recent sickening charge that American racial minorities and their supposed liberal and left allies caused the current financial crisis.  The accusation is that people like Obama and his alleged “terrorist pal” Ayers worked with purported “radicals” to pass the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (the CRA) to force banks to make irresponsible housing loans to poor, undeserving and irresponsible black and Latino people. The claim has been repeated again and again by right-wing media since late September despite the following facts [7]:


* The CRA applies to depository banks – to regulated banks subject to the rules of the FDIC.  The leaders of the sub-prime lending explosion were not regulated by the Federal Reserve or other agencies monitoring compliance with the CRA.


* Nothing in CRA compelled or encouraged leading U.S. banks to: offer loans for no money down; throw underwriting standards out the window; aggressively seek out new impoverished markets; bundle thousands of bad loans into complex securitized packages for sale on the global market.


* Nothing in CRA compelled credit rating agencies to stick A+ ratings on big packages of subprime debt.


* Nothing in the CRA forced Lehman Bros to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars of short-term debt in capital markets to buy up mass quantities of risky commercial real estate.


* Nothing in the CRA made Bear Stearns run with outlandish leverage ratios or drove AIG to go over the top with “credit default swaps.”


* Plenty of the big real estate flameouts in recent months and over the last two years have had nothing to do with subprime loans and involved big condo developments in highly affluent white areas.





I could continue with a list of factors the produced the current financial collapse – things that have nothing do with poor blacks or Latinos or radicals and everything to do with the bad decisions and greed of predominantly white financial and political elites, including the (bipartisan) agents of financial liberalization and deregulation over the last thirty-plus years. More fundamentally, the financial crisis is a symptom of deep contradictions in U.S. and global capitalism: chronic underlying over-production, under-consumption, excess capacity and excess capital leading to endemic speculative mania and the related hyper-financialization of capital [8].


Of course, American-style proto-fascism sees it as “treasonous” “anti-Americanism” to write or speak in reasonably honest, intelligent, and informed ways about these critical political-economic problems. Even as the nation’s bipartisan state-capitalist masters move to protect elite fortunes with a new level of corporate-socialist state intervention, the proto-fascistic right and even many in the “liberal” center will shame you as a dangerous “anti-American” for daring to suggest that the current crisis is a result of the deeper disease that is deceptively called “free market capitalism.”




Veteran radical ex-historian, author, speaker, jouranlist and activist Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality (2004), Segregated Schools (2005), and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007). His latest book (just released) is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, September 2008:






1.  See Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000; Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003); Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). 


2. Jennifer Steinhauser, “Door to Door: Volunteers for Obama Face a Complex Issue,” New York Times, October 15, 2008, A21.


3.  Adam Nossiter, “The South: For Some, Uncertainty Starts at Racial Identity,” New York Times, October 15, 2008, A21.


4. For an (I hope) useful review, see Paul Street, “The Madness of Jerome Corsi,” ZNet (August 25, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/18540


5. For some interesting critical reflections on McCain’s “war hero” claims, see Tim Dickinson, “Make-Believe Maverick,” Rolling Stone (October 16, 2008), pp.56-65.  See especially the section titled “Violating the Code” (pp. 62-63), detailing McCain’s decision to offer military information to his North Vietnamese captors.


6.  See Fritz Fischer, German’s Aims in the First World War (New York: WW. Norton, 1961)


7. See the excellent critique of the Republicans’ ridiculous CRA claims in Daniel Gross, “Subprime Suspects,” ZNet (from Slate), October 11, 2008, read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/19088.


8. See Robert Brenner, The Boom and the Bubble: the US in the World Economy (New York: Verso, 2002); Walden Bello, “Primer on Wall Street Meltdown,” Foreign Policy in Focus (September 26, 2008), read at http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/5560.


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