By the time Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in November 2016, Michael Roberto’s work on his book The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 was well underway.
Roberto tells me he was the last person who would have predicted Trump’s election, and his students at NC A&T University rubbed it in the next day. He retired as a tenured professor that year. At the time, Roberto was active with a group of Bernie Sanders supporters that would evolve into Democracy Greensboro and leverage their losses in the 2016 election into a force intent on setting a progressive agenda for Greensboro city government.
During a meeting at the Beloved Community Center attended by several Democracy Greensboro members around the time of Trump’s inauguration, I recall Roberto marveling that “fascism” in the United States would have a white nationalist rather than a multicultural face.
Trump’s election spawned a cottage industry of books preoccupied with the president’s departure from democratic norms, mainly by liberal and center-right thinkers, perhaps most notably Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. Most of these books eschew the charged term “fascism,” instead warning against the dangers of “autocracy,” “authoritarianism,” “nationalism” and “populism.”
Meanwhile, many Americans got their first exposure to the antifascist movement when activists disrupted the inauguration in January 2017 and soon after shut down an appearance by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Though widely reviled, the antifascist movement’s principles and aims have been explained in books like Antifa: The Antifascism Handbook by Mark Bray and Fascism Today: What It is and How to End It by Shane Burley. More importantly, the antifascist movement has exposed white supremacist groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party and League of the South and prevented them from building a mass movement.
Roberto tells me that in no way does he want to minimize the work that antifascists do, but he dismisses extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and their more contemporary alt-right successors as “small-fry fascisti,” a term coined by journalist George Seldes in the early 1940s. Chatting with a friend at Spring Garden Bakery and Coffeehouse on a recent Thursday morning, Roberto laments that there are so many definitions of fascism floating around, many of them incorrect in his view.
Roberto’s scholarship is explicitly grounded in Marxist analysis, and he views fascism as being inextricably tied to capitalism.
“We cannot organize ourselves in the fight against fascism unless we understand how capitalist relations in our community are essential to all the other deep divisions that make up the totality,” Roberto says during a conversation in the nook at the back of the coffeehouse. “When we begin to do this, we begin to build a united front against all the forces and processes that can be called ‘fascist’ because they extend the power of capital over our lives. When the power of capital is extended in such a way, so too is the power of those who personify that capital. On that basis, what we need to do is look around and see for ourselves who those personifications are. When we do that, I believe we then discover the structure and spirit of fascism in our community.”
I mention that there are other definitions of fascism that emphasize social and cultural aspects over economic processes. For example, Burley writes about fascism as a so-called “third way” that attempts to co-opt and displace the left as an energizing force for change. The revolutionary antifascist blog Three Way Fight, maintained by Matthew N. Lyons, in fact is explicitly premised on the assertion that “leftists need to confront both the established capitalist order and an insurgent or even revolutionary right, while recognizing that these opponents are also in conflict with each other.”
Far from merely being a symptom of capitalism, Burley asserts that fascism is a cultural movement based on “inequality through mythological and essentialized identity.” I’ve slightly adapted his definition for my own purposes as “the exaltation of inequality and the essentialization of identity.”
Roberto respectfully but firmly pushes back against any analysis of fascism that is divorced from a critique of capitalism.
The major contribution of his heavily footnoted, 463-page book, Roberto says, is resurfacing the scholarship of an eclectic collection of writers and thinkers in the 1930 and ’40s, including AB Magil, Henry Stevens, Lewis Corey, Carmen Haider and Robert Brady. Magil and Stevens wrote in 1938 that “the germ of fascism was inherent within American monopoly capitalism, but it was not until the economic crisis of 1929 that it developed into a definite political force of ominous proportions.”
Roberto argues that these thinkers correctly predicted the United States’ current political situation. There isn’t room here to do justice to his analysis of the New Deal and World War II, but he essentially argues that FDR saved capitalism and positioned the United States as the military victor to accelerate capitalism in its most ferocious form from 1945 onward.
Class consciousness is the medicine Roberto prescribes. If you accept his thesis, the prognosis is daunting. Capitalism was a formidable force in the 1930s, and a frontal challenge would have almost certainly prompted a sharp backlash, Haider observes.
“This was the revolutionary challenge when the American Behemoth was rising in the 1920s and 1930,” Roberto concludes 413 pages in. “And so today it is greater, now that the beast is at full strength.”
Michael Roberto speaks in the Alexander Room of Elliott University Center on the campus of UNCG on March 28 at 7 p.m.