The Society of Cultural Anthropology’s Campaign to Present American Populism as Fascism
Jacob Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli and the QAnon Shaman, speaks to passersby during the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

The Society of Cultural Anthropology’s Campaign to Present American Populism as Fascism

Matthew Porter
Matthew Porter
8 min read

Earlier this year, the Society of Cultural Anthropology (SCA)—a subdivision of the American Anthropological Association (AAA)—published a series of essays exploring the topic of American Fascism. The project was run under the SCA’s “Hot Spots” category, which editors at the SCA’s journal, Cultural Anthropology, dedicate to writing that “goes beyond the headlines to consider current events and pressing global issues from the perspective of anthropologists and others on the scene.”

The 18 essays, published on April 15th, explored the concept of fascism in relation to the January 6th United States Capitol attack, in which a mob of Donald Trump supporters violently disrupted the session of Congress assembled to formalize Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Given these events, and the broader political developments leading up to them, the series seemed timely and necessary. But the actual contents were intellectually disingenuous, with most authors watering down the definition of fascism in order to fit an identifiably partisan narrative.

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As regular Quillette readers will know, the field of anthropology has lost its way in recent years, with scholars now being encouraged to prioritize social-justice imperatives over traditionally rigorous forms of scholarship. Defenders of this radical reform euphemistically sometimes refer to it as “decolonizing” the field. A 2020 American Anthropologist article by Ryan Cecil Jobson of the University of Chicago more bluntly speaks of “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn,” which entails “a call to abandon [the field’s] liberal suppositions” in the service of “confront[ing] the existential threats of climate catastrophe and authoritarian retrenchment.” While this ostensibly well-intentioned critique promises more inclusion and intellectual breadth, it instead had delivered overzealous sponsorship of specific political ideologies.

In the American Fascism call for papers—originally published on January 13th, a week after the Capitol riot—a trio of commissioning editors introduced the linkage between fascism and the events of January 6th as an asserted premise, rather than a subject for open discussion. They then segued to the issue of the Capitol Hill rioters themselves, whom they describe as irredeemable villains:

If the January 6 attack on the Capitol represents the return of fascism, was it here before? Where has it been? What forms does it take? Should we speak of fascism when we are describing an uprising, or a movement driven by white supremacists, Confederate apologists, economic populists, religious zealots, activist industrialists and financiers, and political demagogues? Is fascism an appropriate category to understand this moment, or does it speak of a past that has been worked through, a past we have moved beyond? What insights into American fascism are available through comparative study? At this critical time, we believe that anthropologists have much to contribute to this discussion.

Of course, many of the rioters really were bigots and demagogues. But what is alarming here is the softening of the definition of fascism in order to drive a particular narrative. As unabashedly left-wing historian David Renton has warned, it is dangerous to water down the word’s meaning by focusing on fascism’s secondary or tertiary characteristics, lest we lose sight of the genocidal and totalitarian nature of actual fascist regimes:

There are countless examples of journalists and contemporary historians taking a strong and understandable dislike to political figures in the present day, reinterpreting the concept of fascism so that it refers to whatever processes they reject in the present, and then hunting for echoes of them in the past. But the contemporary right is in many ways unlike fascism. The temptation is to define fascism in terms of some secondary characteristic: emphasizing not so much Mussolini’s actual killing of his opponents, but his willingness to taunt them and threaten them with violence; or Hitler’s support for tariffs and economic protection, as opposed to global institutions of free trade. There is a risk of chasing after some passing feature that we dislike in the present, thereby softening our shared understanding of fascism, making the past fuzzier and less exact. Once you have a definition of fascism, then the extent of the analogy between different generations of reactionary mass politics legitimately arises. But the analogy must be considered in relation to some kind of fixed and definite meaning, which has been drawn up in order to be as accurate as possible in relation to what happened eighty years ago, rather than to keep up with the changing demands of the present.

The Cultural Anthropology editors use a quote from Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi to frame the series. But the use of that quote, taken from a 1974 essay, is instructive, as the Cultural Anthropology editors related it in truncated form: “Every age has its own fascism. And we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will.” These words certainly do lend themselves toward describing a populist mob trying to prevent legislators from counting votes. But in the original text, Levi also added that “There are many ways of reaching [fascism], not just through terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information . paralysing systems of education…and the forced silence of the many.” It is these latter characteristics of fascism that right-wing critics of progressives single out when they make their own (admittedly dubious) claims of fascism lurking in Joe Biden’s Washington.

The January 6th riot does make for a visually dramatic backdrop to an exploration of the fascistic strain in modern populist politics. But in substance, the approach reflects an incomplete understanding of fascism. In his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini (who coined the term fascism more than a century ago) emphasized the subsumption of a nation’s economic, corporate, and educational institutions to a centralizing authority. With this framing in mind, it becomes equally arguable to locate secondary and tertiary characteristics of fascism in progressive bastions—notably Silicon Valley and its suppression of, say, stories about Hunter Biden or COVID vaccine misinformation. Of course, American Fascism doesn’t concern itself with these themes.

Of the 18 essays in the series, four contain a philosophical treatment of fascism and three mostly pertain to subjects outside the United States context. The remaining 11 dwell on the idea of American fascism through very similar narrative frames. In these essays, fascism is defined as “recognizable partly through its rhetorical modes of acquiring and retaining power,” “exalting ‘nation’ or ‘race’ above the individual,” “an ideology of us-versus-them that unifies adherents against those seen as other,” and “involving nationalistic fervor, rejection of weakness, and radical collective action.” If these definitions strike you as being broad enough to swallow up vast swathes of completely mainstream political and cultural movements, your impression isn’t wrong: If applied wholesale, in fact, the idea of “us-versus-them” could characterize everything from Antifa, to Critical Race Theory, to the incendiary rhetoric often featured in Democratic and Republic political jousting. But in these essays, such generalizations are applied specifically to whites (often conflated with white supremacists in these texts), men, and the “oppressive politics of conservatism.”

In a few cases, the authors go on to the next step, by explicitly describing Trump and his supporters as outright fascists. Columbia University anthropology professor Marilyn Ivy even (ludicrously) describes Trump as an “American führer.” But the other authors who advanced this idea found ways to link Trump supporters with Nazi ideology more surreptitiously. In their essay “We’re So F*cked”: Notes on American Fascism, for instance, Joyce Dalsheim and Gregory Starrett juxtapose religious-themed quotes from rioters (“You have strengthened our resolve to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, domestic as well as foreign”) with Hannah Arendt’s description of Nazism’s (in their words) “invocation of a broad sense of promise.”

“Then, it was the battle for the destiny of the German people,” Dalsheim and Starrett write. “Now, it is the battle for the destiny of the American people.” If evoking “a broad sense of promise” is an identifying symptom of Nazi tendencies, then one might equally impugn literally every American politician, Democrat or Republican, stirring up voters with a vision of a brighter national future.

Perhaps the most ambitious logical stretch is provided by Hugh Gusterson of the University of British Columbia in Canada. In his essay, American Fascism and the Storming of the Capitol, Gusterson notes that most of the known riot participants (as of the time of writing) were “small business owners or white collar workers” such as “lawyers, realtors, nurses, software engineers, sales reps, and owners of small businesses such as gyms, hair salons, restaurants, bakeries, and construction companies.” Their status as “petty bourgeois” is damning, Gusterson suggests, because “historically in the West, the petty bourgeoisie has been suspicious of intellectuals, intensely nationalistic, quietly resentful of the privileged, and fearful of falling into the working class. It is the class that produced Margaret Thatcher. And it provided the core support for Hitler’s Nazi Party in Europe.”

It is true that status-threat concerns animated Trump’s political base. But again, this is generally true of many political movements. In fact, it is a cliché of political campaigns that challengers rouse their supporters with claims that they have fallen in wealth or stature under the incumbent regime. (As Ronald Reagan famously put it in a 1980 debate against Jimmy Carter, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”) Moreover, it is possible to denounce the violence of January 6th while also considering the forces that have conspired to impoverish or dispossess many of the Americans who supported Trump. Yet the essay authors treat this issue in a way that can only be described as willfully myopic. Writing mostly from their armchairs, the American Fascism contributors present the rioters in moralizing, two-dimensional terms, as anti-intellectual conspiracy mongers, “evil” racists, and outright fascists—a somewhat shocking abdication of their scholarly anthropological mission to understand the human condition. And it is notable that progressive academics have been rightfully aggrieved when similarly crude moral generalizations were made about those convicted of violent crimes while operating in a radicalized capacity under the banner of Antifa and Black Lives Matter. (It should be noted that this is not the first time the Capitol has been the site of violence. Yet it is notable that the essay series excludes any mention of the 1983 Capitol bombing, a criminal plot enacted by a far-left, female-led, communist sect.)

The Internet is bursting with pundits who are all too happy to frame great swathes of people as “good” or “bad”—us versus them. One might think that scholarly anthropologists would be wary of this tendency. But as American Fascism shows, many academics in this field aren’t interested in providing a check on hot-headed, self-indulgent political punditry, so much as they seek to confer academic legitimacy on the underlying impulses animating one side of the culture war.

Indeed, Knox College anthropology professor Jonah Rubin, one of the contributors to American Fascism, is explicit about his desire to reimagine the scholar’s role as that of an activist:

Codifying detailed definitions of key theoretical terms is a noble academic pursuit. For those actively working to combat fascism, though, such efforts are not only misguided but actively harmful. Instead of insisting activists adhere to the taxonomic conventions of academics, we would do better to listen to how organizers use the term to highlight and dismantle authoritarian formations of power that, too often, evade journalistic and academic attention.

In another age, Rubin’s suggestion might be challenged by his peers as antithetical to honest, scholarly inquiry. But as the SCA itself tweeted (to much acclaim) in 2018: “All research is political.” At the time, mainstream followers of the SCA might have imagined this to be a tongue in cheek theoretical flourish. Seen in retrospect, it seems like a de facto mission statement. And the content of American Fascism shows us how that mission unfolds.

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Matthew Porter

Matthew Porter is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Irvine.