You can't fight fascism without a little partisanship
In Europe during World War II, small bands of civilians and unincorporated soldiers waged a war of resistance against the Nazi invaders. They blew up rail lines, fomented uprisings, and attacked Nazi and other Axis units. Some were nationalists, others Communists; others had no fixed ideology at all other than a hatred of the fascists occupying their homes. In Italy, this was called la guerra di liberazione nazionale. In France it was La Résistance. In the ghettos, it was the Jewish underground. But all ultimately shared one name. They were known as partisans.
OK, I’m playing a bit of a word game here (maybe even a presentist one). There are two senses of partisan, both derived from the Italian partigiano: one who defends a political party, and “a member of a party of light or irregular troops engaged in harassing an enemy,” better known by Americans these days as guerrillas or, more often than not, insurgents.
But both kinds of partisanship share a common characteristic: an awareness of which faction you are part of, and an intent to defend that faction’s interests against the forces that oppose it. In the case of both the European partisans and Americans interested in keeping a democracy today, that means mounting a defense against fascism.
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Last week in Philadelphia, Joe Biden did just that, in a forceful speech on behalf of an American faction. Clothing himself in nationalist rhetoric, standing in front of Independence Hall lit in red, white, and blue, he asked his countrymen to “come together, unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy regardless of your ideology.” He made the identity of his opposing faction clear: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans” — whose penchant for authoritarianism, political violence, and fundamental disrespect for elections and the rule of law threatens “the very foundations of our republic.”
An American president praising democracy and denouncing authoritarianism did not use to be controversial stuff. But that is because, until recently, nearly all Americans reflexively identified themselves as small-d democrats. Because Biden was denouncing a category of Americans who have come to feel differently — specifically a group of mostly white, middle-to-upper class, Christian Americans — it set off alarm bells among members of the media who identify with, or think it is their job to reflexively defend, some part of that group.
The editorial headlines say it all: “Biden tarnished his democracy speech with partisan rhetoric” (The Hill); “The president makes partisan use of basic American principles” (Wall Street Journal); “Democracy is in danger. Biden should invoke patriotism, not partisanship, to make that point.” (Washington Post).
The core of the critique is that Biden either weakened or invalidated his jeremiad against authoritarianism with references to his party’s recent accomplishments (vis-à-vis climate change, infrastructure, veterans’ health care) and electoral priorities (restoring abortion rights, safeguarding same-sex marriage, etc.). Carl Bernstein voiced that critique on CNN, saying that while he agreed with the thrust of Biden’s denunciation of “a radical tradition at odds with democracy,” the president “missed a great opportunity” by going into “a deeply partisan tone” and “patting his own administration on the back.”
On ABC, Martha Raddatz blasted White House adviser Keisha Lance Bottoms for what she saw as her boss’ failure to convey a “unifying message.” In an incredible follow-up, Raddatz cited a hate-speech tracker, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which she said found that, on the accounts and websites it follows, Biden’s speech was “interpreted as a declaration of war against conservatives and all the Trump voters.” Then she pushed Biden’s advisor, with all sincerity, to answer charges levied by — and I can’t emphasize this enough — people who had been previously identified as sources of online hate speech.
Not to be outdone, Bret Stephens weighed in today by criticizing Biden for, as he saw it, lumping “violent Oath Keepers and Proud Boys” and “the antisemites who marched at Charlottesville” with “those who oppose abortion rights and gay marriage.” In other words, Stephens was angry that Biden implied that the anti-democratic tendency on the right might in some way implicate people like him.
In fact, Biden went so far out of his way to do the opposite it was sometimes painful. He explicitly contrasted the villain of his speech, “MAGA Republicans,” with “mainstream Republicans”; emphasized that “not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans”; and bolstered his case by citing “respected conservatives, like Federal Circuit Court Judge Michael Luttig.” He bowed before the god of bipartisanship, disclaiming that he has been “able to work with these mainstream Republicans,” before declaring (correctly, obviously) “that there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump.” And throughout Biden’s rhetoric was subsumed in hoary jingoistic, quasi-religious cliché: “… the most extraordinary experiment of self-government the world has ever known”; “The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God …” He heaped praise on the police and the FBI. He used the phrase “who we are” in reference to democracy four times.
If, after all that, Bret Stephens felt implicated in accusations of complicity with authoritarianism because of a passing reference to a nightmarish yet eminently plausible vision of “an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love” — then first of all, good, and second, that’s on you, Bret.
Stephens claims that it is just “one man” — Trump — who poses a threat to democracy. Were that it were so. The reality is that the core of the Republican Party has been demonstrably captured by a combination of (semi-, proto-, and in some cases full-on) fascists, as well as conservative elites who have shown an endless appetite for making common cause with them so long as it advances their personal power. We can save for another time the debate on how long these fascist and fascist-sympathetic tendencies have nested just under the surface of American conservativism; the point is that they have now erupted. Eight of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the anti-parliamentary riot that proved the climax of his attempted coup have been defeated in their midterm primaries. Steve Bannon, the freshly convicted architect of Trump’s 2016 victory, was recorded saying Trump should declare and try to seize victory immediately after the 2020 election, regardless of the results — which Trump, of course, promptly did.
What is the functional difference between tech-baron-turned-GOP-superdonor Peter Thiel writing in a 2009 essay, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” and Sen. Mike Lee tweeting during a 2020 debate: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity (sic) are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Thiel is a committed fan of Curtis Yarvin, a squishily white supremacist blogger who has praised the Third Reich and calls himself a “monarchist.” Another Yarvin fan is the Thiel-backed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Arizona, Blake Masters, whose ads show him in the Sonoran Desert, cradling a rifle that he says was “designed to kill people,” and who denounced that “miserably peculiar American diety [sic] called Democracy” in a recently unearthed 2005 email.
That Biden insists on pretending that there are lines within the GOP that one could exploit to preserve democracy is a tactic that I’m not going to second guess. The fact that his most optimistic vision of America — which he contrasted with “MAGA Republicans” who “look at America and see carnage and darkness and despair” — was effectively a laundry list of realized and hoped-for bureaucratic accomplishments speaks to his core philosophy as a true believer in the power of the administrative state. That’s his party, the Democratic Party, and he’s true to it.
Stephens castigated Biden for failing, again as he saw it, to live up to Abraham Lincoln’s admonition in his second inaugural address to treat the Confederacy “with malice toward none, [and] with charity for all.” He notes that, in Lincoln’s first inaugural, he tried to extend “an olive branch to the South.” Stephens misses what happened in between, facts that made up the bulk of Lincoln’s second speech. The window for talking closed. The authoritarians of the South rose up with violence to defend the ultimate authoritarianism — slavery — and the result was a civil war. As Lincoln said in his address:
Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.
That’s how things work in fundamental contests over political systems. Lines are drawn, sides get chosen, and the contesting parties fight for their interests and their ideals. Fortunately, we are not at the point where political violence has to be met with more political violence; I think Biden is right that there is still time to let democracy protect democracy through elections. But anyone being honest with themselves knows that means those elections have to keep the Republican Party away from power until its Trumpist/Thielist/Bannonite core — the faction that wants to seize the reins and then end all democratic elections forever — has been thoroughly discredited and excised. That does not mean that millions of ordinary Americans will be persecuted, or rounded up, or whatever self-absolving fantasies the right has been pushing in the days since Biden’s speech. But it does mean that the days of two equal parties with equally valid arguments for governing the republic are over for now. Everyone has to adapt. That’s the cost of having an anti-fascist coalition.
Edited by Tommy Craggs