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Violence and the MAGA/Trump Movement: A Reassessment

Trump’s rhetoric inspires fascists like the paramilitaries that showed up in Charlottesville eager to commit mayhem, but his strategic ineptitude has rendered the violence spasmodic and useless.

One of the things I and many other observers have feared most about the rise of Trump and his so-called MAGA movement is their exaltation of political violence. This would soon lead to blood in the streets, we have repeatedly warned. But the 2020 and 2022 elections in America passed without any notable violent incidents, even as Trump and MAGA militants were dealt serious defeats both times. In between, of course, came Trump’s poo-poo putsch, which did result in five deaths. That the scale of the bloodshed was relatively limited has made possible a claim that could only be made straight-faced by total historical illiterates, who are never in short supply in America: not only was this a largely peaceful “Stop the Steal” peaceful demonstration, but the rioting in various cities the summer before was a much greater danger to the country. In reality, of course, had Trump and the poop-putschists got the regime change they wanted, there would indeed have been blood running in the streets across the nation. America dodged a bullet on January 6, 2021, thanks to the grim determination of the policemen protecting the Capitol and our lawmakers, but the refusal to deal with the putschists and especially Trump himself with a firm hand virtually guarantees a repeat performance in the near future.

Aside from the critical events of that day, and the significant harbinger of the assault on the Michigan state capitol the previous May, the MAGA-inspired violence of the whole period since Trump set foot on that gilded escalator to the paid cheers of hired actors in 2015 has so far been scattered and ineffectual, almost negligible when compared with the paths taken by its historical forerunners of the 1920s and 30s. This is not to make light of the murder of Heather Heyer during the infamous Charlottesville, Virginia Nazi rally of August 2017, the vigilante killing of two left-wing protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020, the violent unrest in Portland, Oregon, the kidnap and murder plot against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and most recently, the attempted assassination of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. But there have been far more death threats and intimidation of MAGA opponents than actual organized violence. Why is this so, and does it mean that people like me have been jumping at shadows?

The first point is that MAGA is much more diffuse and less organized than, say, Mussolini’s original Fascist Party. Take the paramilitary fascist groups known misleadingly as “militias” in American parlance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 92 such groups were active across the United States in 2021. When push came to shove at the beginning of that year, the highest profile groups, the ones that took active part in the January 6 putsch such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, tried to collaborate with the assistance of Trump hangers on such as Rudy Giuliani, but were unable to bring sufficient military organization and firepower to bear. On the “civilian” side, the so-called Q-Anon movement that substantially overlaps with MAGA is by definition uncontrollable thanks to its reliance on quasi-paranoid schizophrenic hallucinations that are generated organically through online folklore, much as Trump has tried to take advantage of it. MAGA proper often escapes his control and devotes much of its energy to infighting and trying to destroy the “Republican establishment,” a phantom entity these days that largely consists of hapless figures like Kevin McCarthy who only want to do MAGA’s bidding so that they can ride it to power.

The second point is that Trump himself is only half of a classic fascist “führer” figure. He has achieved the demagogy and “charismatic” sway over his followers, while being hopeless at political organizing and strategizing. His rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is close to the reverse, a professional politician who is diligently striving to make himself over into a charismatic demagogue, but is doing so in paint-by-numbers fashion compared to Trump’s Picasso. If these two figures could combine themselves like a pantomime horse, they would be nearly unstoppable, but of course it doesn’t work that way. So far at least, a true führer figure has yet to emerge.

That doesn’t mean we were wrong to warn of the threat of fascist political violence. As already mentioned, it has already occurred, and we haven’t even discussed the “stochastic” or “lone wolf” style terrorism it has inspired, which has already claimed dozens of victims in attacks on synagogues, nightclubs and retail centers where despised Jews, Blacks, Latinos, and LGBTQ people gather. The latest development that might possibly be added to this list was the December 3 attack on the electrical power grid in Moore County, North Carolina. Police have made no arrests and have not identified a motive, but speculation is rife that it had something to do with a drag show in the area that night, and/or was inspired by far-right online urgings to attack the electrical grid. In general, the point of such terrorist attacks or “street violence” would be for the fascists to demonstrate that “law and order” is breaking down, and the state can no longer protect the public, which should instead turn to the fascists. But, again, the phenomenon has so far been too diffuse and badly organized to accomplish such a goal.

At this stage, MAGA awaits the rise of a charismatic and strategically competent leader, at a moment when the state (the federal government) seems to have lost control of the country. But beware: the hankering for power and the urge to commit violence is powerful in the movement, diffuse as it is, and it still controls the Republican Party. Moreover, President Biden remains unpopular, and many people, not just fascists, are weary of the prolonged sense of national crisis and constant warnings of civil war emanating from many quarters. If the right sort of blows land at the wrong moment, we will be in trouble.


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