I think downplaying January 6 is a dangerous move. However, it is also a problem if we simply hyperbolize January 6 as a monolithic ‘interruption’ of contemporary American politics, as though it were a momentary ripple in the fabric of an erstwhile smoothly functioning democracy.
Anthony Ballas teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Denver. His research explores race, racism, class politics, and internationalism in world literature, architecture, music, and global cinema. He is currently editing two collections: one on cinema and liberation theology, and another on the global rise of the far right.
Below is the ILNA's interview with this authoritative thinker about the anniversay of 2021 United States Capitol attack and the rise of far-right.
ILNA: One year has passed since the January 6 incident and the attack on the US Capitol. During this year, various readings of this attack have been presented. The struggle that led to this incident can perhaps be considered the struggle of contemporary politics in American society. How are we to interpret this interruption? Can this event be seen as the opposition of a part of those who have no part?
There’s an often blasé attitude percolating on the left about Janurary 6, present here in America at least, which alleges that the coup was merely a failed insurrection, a sort of political comedy of errors, suggesting that the events themselves are proof that a fringe group of cultists under the Trump banner are indeed too incompetent to represent a real political danger — this perspective is off base. It is possible that the theatrics of Trump and his supporters over the last half-decade have become so normalized as to appear as a natural part of political life here in America, and so it is not at all wild to claim that the events of January 6 mark less an interruption and more a continuation of the same. The coup on January 6, though replete with right wing pageantry, and a fair share of ineptitude, was no mere spectacle however, but indeed a substantial threat to the already fragile moorings of American democracy. The threat of right wing populist violence of this kind is still very real.
I think downplaying January 6 is a dangerous move. However, it is also a problem if we simply hyperbolize January 6 as a monolithic ‘interruption’ of contemporary American politics, as though it were a momentary ripple in the fabric of an erstwhile smoothly functioning democracy. Even if he is to be considered the catalyst for the rise of the right in America, the struggle, this apparent ‘ripple’ itself, of course, precedes Trump by decades, and will undoubtedly exist long after he is gone as the representative of the Republican far right.
Another misstep is to claim January 6 represents an uprising that has bubbled up from the economically disenfranchised, the left-behind, impoverished and huddled American masses. Certain figures, such as the economist Richard Wolff, seemed to buy into this narrative, at least initially, as though January 6 was the inevitable counter-reaction to the democratic party turning its back on the working class for the last 40 years, or as though the failure of the Democrats to galvanize voters around a socialist candidate like Bernie Sanders were the main causes of January 6 rather than, perhaps, a smaller tributaries of a larger problematic. I’m not sure we can rely on this narrative for a variety of reasons. First of all, the statistics that eventually came out about the social composition of the January 6 insurrectionists demonstrated a bourgeois make-up composed of CEOs, business owners, members of the professional managerial class, doctors, lawyers, accountants — not to mention some celebrities, actors, musicians, etc. — and not some kind of “proletarian” or “lumpen” mass-mobilization of low or working-class interests against the federal government. We must be specific here: this coup was composed of a majority white, business-class demographic, and not some kind of poor or “laborist” sector of working class society.
If by your question you mean that the coup attempt was deployed against “the part of no part,” then, yes, I think this is accurate. As Gerald Horne observed in an interview from a year ago or so, this coup is a tactic of the 1% whose Euro-American, i.e. white supremacist, “foot soldiers,” as he called them last year, marched en masse in Washington, D.C. and tried to seize the Capitol in order to derail the democratic transfer of power. There really is no mystery as to the economic interests behind January 6.
Gerald Horne, it seems to me, is one of the only American voices analyzing this phenomenon on these specific terms: a class-conscious whiteness organizing around the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, an explicitly white supremecist narrative supported and perpetuated by Trump and his propaganda arm, Fox News, Alex Jones, etc. To be sure, this coup not only harbored the familiar “south shall rise again” “lost-cause” supporters — confederate flags, nooses, etc. demonstrate this — but as well a general white, libertarian “don’t tread on me” ethos suffusing the symbolism and rhetoric employed by the insurrectionists. Tracing this ideological front back through the white supremecist political lineage in this country, as Horne does, is absolutely necessary to understand January 6. The events of that day were a continuation of the white supremecist violence we witnessed in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia at the Unite the Right Rally, for instance. It was the continuation of pro-Trump neo-nazi organizing, and white militia groups like the Boogaloo Bois, and the so-called Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers. What happened on January 6 was also a continuation of the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer of Michigan and put her on some sort of public trial — a plot which was designed by the Boogaloo Bois before it was thwarted by the FBI, and which was more or less endorsed by Trump himself.
So, to be clear, the events of January 6 are indeed intimately entangled with the contemporary political struggle here in America, which constantly faces white supremecist violence, from the state, from militia groups, etc., and which is directed against those who are already marginalized by economic and repressive violence.
ILNA: One common reaction to the events of January 6 in the United States (or similar examples around the world) is to emphasize the importance of maintaining unity. The question remains, however: where did Trump and his followers come from? Does his rise not signal a deep crack in that very unity? Cannot this “unity” (the password to today's apolitical world) be an attempt to ignore the importance of the emancipatory forces that can be an alternative to the false duality that politics is plagued with these days?
Unity is, of course, a contentious term in the United States. Unity should always be translated as “unity for who?” in the American context. The democratic party, the typical political “unity front” in this country, absolutely abuses the term from the standpoint of disavowal: unity is a party-line term, it seems to me, designed to consolidate neoliberal economic policy, and to stabilize an overall failed multicultural, “melting-pot” ideology, through which class stratification is inevitably reproduced. I think David Harvey said it a while back, that the 1% are the ones who have achieved a true unification, a true class consciousness. Similarly, we might evoke Gramsci’s famous line penned from a fascist prison in the late 20s or early 30s, that America is controlled by a one-party system, the Democrats and the Republicans as its two economic factions, a political and financial oppositional unity, two Janus-faced sides of the same capitalist coin. So yes, I vehemently agree with you here: the false duality is really a unified front, which ignores emancipatory forces working against a capitalist unity.
Today, however, we are also witnessing a rather strange manifestation of another kind of oppositional unity. I’ve already mentioned the Proud Boys, who, for instance, have recently forged a libertarian alliance with Black Hammer, a black anti-colonial organization. We might expect such seemingly inexplicable unities to proliferate and even metastasize in the wake of the Trumpian moment, confused as the battle lines have now become in the chaos sown by the ideology of authoritarian populism.
“Unity,” whether left or right, can also function as a “move to innocence,” as some scholars (Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang) have termed it; a kind of alibi for American whiteness which has its forgotten roots in settler colonialism. As Horne has already made clear, settler colonialism is too often neglected or perhaps even foreclosed from the lexicon of the white left. We should absolutely take seriously the settler colonial legacy as one of the historical causes of the Trump phenomenon, but also the liberal wing of American politics. We cannot overlook the white supremecist roots of settler colonialism and its contemporary political manifestations in state militia groups, some of which I’ve already mentioned, as well as in militarized police forces, mass incarceration, the continued seizure and ecological devastation of indigenous lands, the fossil fuel industry, “fossil fascism” as Andreas Malm has described, and other phenomenon of modernity too numerous to count. These and other features have not coincidentally become the most predominant factors of modern American capitalism, employed both domestically and internationally, but they also account for much of the white supremacist lineage out of which the policies and rhetorics employed and endorsed by Trump and his supporters came into being. Chad Kautzer, for instance, has recently connected a large part of this lineage through American “tactical gun culture,” which is behind the rise of right wing violence in the United States. The confluence of these currents, and others, can be thought of as the economic, social, and cultural substrate out of which the Trump phenomenon emerged, and this phenomenon has similar features echoing the rise of other right wing figureheads and movements globally.
Indeed, it’s not a stretch to describe a global right wing authoritarian unity, connected from Trump to Bolsonaro, to Orban, and others. Trump’s fingerprints, as Agon Hamza wrote about last year, can even be detected in Kosovo, and the coup to overthrow Albin Kurti’s Movement for Self-Determination in favor of a far-right party. This coup was a kind of Trojan horse on the part of Trump, insofar as he smuggled his own political prospects under the guise of a “peace deal” allegedly attempting to forge a less than cursory “unity” between Serbia and Kosovo (there was even a pitiful attempt to name a lake after Trump between territories). Such unified fronts are being forged on the right globally.
By contrast, Trump’s domestic coup is more like a Trojan horse without the horse; his “stop the steal” campaign is rather ironic in this regard, as he and his Republican supporters are quite openly the ones executing the steal! And they aren’t finished just because January 6 has passed by. They are planning a long coup, with Republican members of Congress and House of Representatives providing ideological support, and right wing judges supplying the legal struts. As Jason Stanley recently observed, America is in its fascist legal phase, which includes packing federal courts, voter suppression laws, the erosion of Roe v. Wade, etc.
If we speak of unity, thus, we should be willing to speak of the unified almost proto-fascist legal and extra-legal forces that support Trump’s long coup: right wing populist militia groups and de facto vigilantes, sitting members of the House of Representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz out of Florida, and Lauren Boebert out of my home state of Colorado, who foment electoral conspiracy, fanaticism over the individual right to bear arms, border panic, and now medical and vaccine hysteria in the wake of pandemic, as well as climate denialism, and so on, and their business class of “foot soldiers” who mobilized in unison and lockstep on January 6. “Unity,” thus, is certainly a distracting and I agree apolitical term unless we direct it toward the real unification campaigns that are emerging globally on the right.
ILNA: As Slavoj Zizek has elaborated, the typical rhetorical trick to the question of the far-right is in two moves. First, you condemn the far-right — “no place in our developed democracy.” But then you add, “But they are addressing the real worries of the people.” How can we break this vicious circle and aim at the true essence of this phenomenon?
Although perhaps there is no “true essence” of the far-right phenomenon, there may indeed be a strictly economic impetus that we can identify, rooted in imperialism, neoliberal policy, foreign investment and divestment strategies, the continued dispossession of the Global South, and so on. We should not only try and diagnose this phenomenon from within our current horizon, but we should also make sure that we don’t forget the lesson of Hegel’s Minerva: we may not know how exactly to diagnose this vicious cycle while we’re still bound up directly within it. In other words, we may only come to know what we’re witnessing after we’ve witnessed it come to an end.
Nevertheless, to me Zizek’s diagnosis is still relevant and I think practical, as it indicts the typical liberal democratic apologist position, which constantly asks how something like the Trump monstrosity could arise in our “great” democratic experiment. What the liberal position generally forgets, of course, is that American liberal democracy, and its own white nationalist and capitalist roots, is the historical progenitor of our current conjuncture, and therefore culpable in the manifestation of the right wing contingent here in America. We should not forget that although George Bush Jr.’s track record in the Middle East was abhorrent, Barack Obama’s drone campaign was far worse; and we are already seeing the (predictable) numbers comparing Trump and Biden’s border detention practices, and it is looking like Biden’s numbers are rising and are comparable to Trump’s, and in fact Biden has adopted and is even expanding some of Trump’s border policy protocols. So yes, misdiagnosing or simply condemning the rise of the right rhetorically does entrap us in a vicious cycle of sorts, as it takes away from the common political and economic grounds between the left and the right.
The liberal apologists and the conservative “make America great again” propagandists offer thus a twin nostalgia of American exceptionalism. Cracking through this nostalgia, this apology to capitalism and maintenance of liberal democracy, to me sounds most of all like the classical problem of class consciousness — we’re cycling, yes, between an easily identifiable monster, Trump, and his milquetoast counterpart Joe Biden, however neither front offers a true, viable working class program; one might give the populist appearance of doing so (Trump), while the other (Biden) appeals to a platitudinous, vague sense of unity, normalcy, or democratic sanguinity. Zizek would most likely remind us that both of these positions are worse.
How do we achieve a class consciousness through which we can diagnose and ultimately break free of the vicious cycle that you describe? This seems to still be the central plight of the American left, plagued as it is with disorganization and identitarian fragmentation.
We might need to ask a similar question that Varoufakis confronted several years ago with the Greek debt crisis: should we try and save, or salvage, the European Union and with it European capitalism (which is what Varoufakis ultimately endorsed), or should we try and opportunistically use the crisis to our advantage, let capitalism fall and build something out of its ashes? The American political struggle falls between similar parameters I think: there has recently been talk of an emergent American civil war — the possibility of which, retired American generals, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois and Canadian journalists all seem to agree upon. If this is the case, and the crisis of democracy is truly reaching a head, then we must accept what the consequences of such a confrontation might look like without any illusions.
ILNA: When it comes to fascism in our time, there are undoubtedly several names on the list of usual suspects: Jair Bolsonaro, Orban in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey and Trump in America among others. But some, such as Zizek, dispute this analysis as “the laziness of many left-liberals”. What do you think is the nature of far-right leaders in our time and the viral growth of far-right movements in the world, and what should it be called (if at all possible)?
Although it is true, and I have to somewhat agree with Zizek here, that the simple deployment of the term “fascist” is too often widely applied to the manifestation of the far-right globally, I nonetheless think that at a certain point where even Zizek’s elaboration demonstrates a laziness in itself. Let me try and be very specific here, because I can already foresee the pro-Zizekian front (which I myself align with) drawing their guns toward me: yes, to say that the far-right contingent has no place in our “great project of western liberal democracy” is not only lazy but should be considered a bad joke, and so too the move where we simply draw parallel after parallel between Hitler and Trump doesn’t seem to get us very far.
We should look more closely at the conspiratorial thinking which has seized the right, here in America and abroad. In America, for instance, we have Qanon, the anonymous internet figure (or figures) spewing conspiracy theories on platforms like 4Chan. There’s the so-called “pizzagate” scandal, the conspiracy that the Soros-backed Democrats partake in child-sacrifice, pedophilia, and alike (a kind of modern day “blood-libel” wrapped in internet culture) — this way of thinking seems front and center today. I’m tempted to speak of something like “Trump’s two bodies,” like we used to speak of the divine right of kings, with Trump as the embodiment of “the people,” that is, the authoritarian populist front, and the digital “body” of internet conspiracies, both converging to elevate his person above the law. Digital conspiracy and far right politics converge almost seamlessly, and are probably inextricable today.
This kind of thinking is of course a shared feature of global right wing movements, contemporary and historical alike. The obsession with the vulnerability of the national border, for instance, being traversed by ethnic or racialized others is certainly a shared conspiratorial tendency which reminds us of something similar to the Jewish plot in Nazi Germany. The Golden Dawn in Greece, although no longer having the political support and parliamentary power it once held. The AfD in Germany, like the Trump phenomenon here in America, maintains not only an ideological influence on the basis of these kinds of othering tactics, but also maintains real legitimate political power. We can point to similar phenomena existing in the Philippines, in India, and of course the usual suspects you already mentioned, from Orban in Hungary to Bolsonaro in Brazil. Orban, for instance, was a recent guest on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, the two agreeing on anti-immigration border politics and other nationalist policies.
Similarities exist between all of these different manifestations of right wing authoritarian populism: Bolsonaro and American Republicans certainly meet on common anti-LGTBQ+ grounds; Erdoğan and Trump, although to different degrees, have attacked the independent press and media, and, of course, have attempted to delegitimize medical experts on Covid-19. The recent attack on the US Postal System by Trump and his Republican allies is relevant also, as this was a central part of the Trump plot to seize control of the election by attempting to nullify or severely weaken the vote-by-mail system. These strategies are out of the fascist playbook.
I think “right wing authoritarian populism” is a term that mostly covers this rise globally. Is it fascist? On the one hand, I think we too quickly employ this term. However, is fascism a possibility? I think we must retain this possibility and preserve it not only for the American context, but for the potential drift toward a renewed fascist logic globally. Badiou’s reflections from a few years ago after Trump was elected are useful to remember in this context: Trump and others do remind of certain fascist tendencies, they arise inside of democracy (some of them) only to eventually come to exist outside of democracy. But let’s not get lost in the “stupidity of fascination” of these such figures either, as Badiou put it.
It would seem that a general conspiratorial excess pervades modern political discourse which demonstrates this kind of “stupidity of fascination.” How else might we adequately begin to unpack not only the right wing conspiracy but the reactionary left as well, like Giorgio Agamben’s reaction to biopolitical measures taken by European states in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis? These fronts are to be taken together on a shared conspiratorial terrain, linked, perhaps, via a Möbius band type of logic, the kind of “semiotic brinkmanship” that Benjamin Bratton critiques in his recent work. Two reactionary poles that are supported by a political horseshoe of conspiratorial thinking. But it is more than conspiracy which has led to this phenomenon. We must ground these political mythologies and conspiracies to widespread anti-immigrant, xenophobic, anti-black, and anti-communist ideologies writ large.
This fascination also demonstrates a curious link to something that Lacan once discussed on the phenomenon of the near-sexual obsession with fascist leaders like Hitler, his moustache a sort of ‘partial object,’ an object of collective fascination. I’m not trying to draw too close a parallel between Hitler and Trump, but there seems to be a curious echo with the widespread fascination over his “tiny hands,” his sexual impotency (recall the scandal with the pornstar Stormy Daniels), and similar such attributes. I don’t know if these ‘partial objects’ are a symptom of a uniquely American obsession or not to be quite honest, or if they are indicative of the kind of sexual fascination that Adorno diagnosed in The Authoritarian Personality. If they are in proximity with the latter, then these such nuances are worth examination I’d say.
I don’t want to get lost on this point, but consider the similar media fascination with figures like Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s one-time right hand man. The media chronicled a series of blunders on the part of Giuliani leading up to January 6; his strange press appearance where his hair-blackening agent was leaking from his scalp under the hot studio lamps; his accidental booking of a press conference at the parking lot of a landscaping business; his flatulence at a Michigan election fraud hearing; and his unwitting and obscene appearance on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat 2 film, wherein he appeared to reach into his pants and grope himself while alone with an actress posing as a journalist. These moments capture the publics’ fascination, to be sure, and they evidence perhaps a deep-seated perversity in the political leadership in America (not confined to the right only, for the democratic leadership is also implicated — recall the Cuomo brothers and the slogan “Cuomo-sexual” which was popular for a while before becoming an obscene irony after both Governor Cuomo and his brother were accused of sexual harrassment by multiple women). I think we need to examine this fascination itself: is there not a curious licentious and perverse logic suffusing the political sphere in recent years? Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, Roy Moore, Biden, Gaetz, the list goes on and on!
This logic can be found globally also — the stupid fascination with the photograph of a shirtless Putin riding a horse, for instance. I think the laziness of labeling the global right wing as fascist indeed collides with this fascination, and perhaps the latter is even a symptom of the former. Remember, western liberals will call anything fascist (think China’s recent Covid-19 protocols). As Chomsky put it perhaps a year or two ago, if one of the major points of agreement between the American right and left is that China and Venezuela are fascist regimes, then we have precedent to be skeptical of such claims.
Interview by: Kamran Baradaran