In the days leading up to Sept. 18, federal officials warned that violence was a possibility in the area around the United States Capitol. Organizers of a “Justice for J6” rally—referring to the attempted Jan. 6 insurrection that led to the prosecution of more than 600 people—secured a permit for 700 attendees. Some of the Jan. 6 suspects were charged with violent crimes against law enforcement officers, who were plainly underprepared and underresourced that day. You can understand why all these months later, the U.S. Capitol Police wouldn’t want to underestimate the potential for violence, and why 100 unarmed National Guard troops were preemptively deployed to the National Mall to avoid the same mistakes of Jan. 6.
As it turned out, the Justice for J6 rally was a flop, one where there may not have been more than 100 protesters—about as many as the number of reporters of the scene, and possibly fewer.
Jason Stanley is still troubled by the danger ahead. He is the author of How Fascism Works, his 2018 book that interrogates the strategies deployed by fascist regimes throughout history. A professor of philosophy at Yale, he’s worried that the heavily hyped J6 rally illustrates that journalists are focused on the wrong protests. We discussed why he thinks former President Donald Trump didn’t throw his weight behind this latest rally, how a sympathetic narrative toward Jan. 6 took hold in the Republican Party, and what he thinks we should be talking about instead. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: Your book came out in 2018. Do you wish you could have added a chapter about Jan. 6, and what happened on Saturday?
Jason Stanley: Well, I wouldn’t add a chapter. It’s a long-term book. It’s not geared toward any particular event because my view is that fascism is a social and political force that we’ve long contended with in the United States. The Nazis were affected by Jim Crow. The Nuremberg Laws were based on our racist Jim Crow regime. The Ku Klux Klan was the first functionally fascist organization. And we’re always going to have fascist social and political movements, but the problem is, it’s taking over the Republican Party.
Nearly half of Republicans think that the Jan. 6 riot was a “legitimate protest.” Thirty-five percent, when offered a menu of words to describe the participants who took part in Jan. 6, chose patriots. But then the Sept. 18 rally in support for the detained rioters was a flop. One journalist noted that there were more journalists than protesters. Do you think we are overreacting over the polled support for Jan. 6?
No. No, we’re not. The worrisome thing is that it’s the major Republican politicians, people like Josh Hawley, look at Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance running for Senate in Ohio. The entire Republican establishment was taken over by this. It’s not the followers we should focus on, it’s the authoritarian movement growing inside the Republican Party that threatens not just the country, but with climate change, the world. The question is: Why is it not helpful to have mass violent rallies right now? It’s not helpful because the movement, the fascist social and politic movement, is winning. They’re changing the election laws in state after state. You want rallies, look at the anti–critical race theory and anti-mask rallies at school boards all over the country. That’s what we should be looking at.
It still feels inconceivable for someone like me, who spent the last four years watching the Back the Blue movement take hold, that the messaging coming from the Republican leadership now is that the Capitol rioters are the real victims, not the Capitol Police or the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Do you have a theory as to how that’s possible?
I think it makes complete sense. My chapter on law and order is about this in How Fascism Works. Fascist law and order has nothing to do with laws and justice, it has to do with follow the leader. So the leader is, by definition, law and order, and so anything that goes against the leader is a violation of law and order. That’s fascist law and order. So if the police go against the leader, they’re not law and order. The fascist leader needs the police on his side because he needs them to crack heads when he seizes the election and does a coup, but if they’re not going to be for him, then the patriotic law-and-order people are the people who are attacking the police. It was completely clear that they were going to make a big fuss over Ashli Babbitt [one of the Jan. 6 rioters] when it emerged that a Black police officer shot her. Being a Black police officer, that’s not legitimate unless he’s a Trump supporter. “Law and order” just means the people who follow Trump here.
How significant is it that many Republicans sympathize with Ashli Babbitt?
This is another chapter of my book called “Victimhood.” This whole politic works by making your group feel like they’re the victim and that they’re justified. It’s very significant. It’s a clear fascist tactic. Horst Wessel, who was allegedly killed by a communist [in 1930 in Berlin], his song became an SS fable. Ashli Babbitt is explicitly fulfilling the role of Horst Wessel, and my suspicion is that it’s all racial because it only happened, I think, after they knew that the officer who shot her was Black.
Is there a calculated reason why Trump chose not to throw his weight behind the rally?
Well, I think he doesn’t need to do it. State after state is changing their election laws so that they can overthrow elections. They’re mobilizing grassroots people to attack school boards. They’re taking over the precinct-level positions. So they’re winning. Jan. 6 was an attempt to rapidly stay in office; Trump’s playing the long game. That rally wouldn’t have helped him in any way.
What is the long game here?
The long game is the 2022 elections and the 2024 election. That’s what all these election laws are about. When you win the mainstream, you don’t need the rebel. They’re conquering the Republican Party and they’re slowly taking over the election system.
Not every Republican is completely in line with Trump. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney come to mind. Don’t they still have some sway in the party?
These authoritarian movements, they’re always purging people inside the party. The goal of fascism is the cult of the leader, to create this constant sense that the leader is in battles, the leader has been wronged, and so there’s enemies everywhere. So they’re turning on those who are not sufficiently loyal within the Republican Party and purging them. That’s just how it works, because the goal is to create a cult of the leader. And this is about loyalty to Trump or loyalty to whatever authoritarian leader might take his place. The Republicans have openly decided to be an anti-democratic, far-right extremist party, with no loyalty to democracy. They see the writing on the wall that they’re going to be a minority party, and so they’re going to end democracy to seize power, and what you need to do that is this endless paranoia, which we see. Endless paranoia that the woke left are communist authoritarians, endless paranoia that you have enemies within.
What do you say to folks who might think this is alarmist? What are you basing this on?
I’m basing it on history. Let’s remember, democracy is something that is very rare in human history and it’s not stable. Plato says about democracy in book eight of the Republic, “A leader will come, he will spread fear, he will gather supporters by telling them he’s the only one who can protect them from the internal enemy.” This is the way democracy falls. So in political philosophy dating back to Plato, democracy is susceptible to being taken over by a demagogic tyrant who creates blind, total loyalty in his supporters, using fear and a kind of sadism that Trumpists will call “owning the libs.” So Trump sells himself to his supporters by saying, “Look how much they hate me. Don’t you want to make them squirm by electing me?” It’s all about making them squirm. It’s not about having a better country. And here, the history of fascism is helpful. It was about total war against enemy and it doesn’t matter what the consequences to the country are.
I’m thinking back to Egypt, where my parents are from, where there is now a full-blown dictatorship. The way the military justified seizing power after Egypt’s first democratic election was by warning citizens of the terrorists among them. And they promised only they can save the country.
Exactly. Well, I do not need to tell an Egyptian American, familiar with the political situation in Egypt, how this works. Everyone from the Middle East understands this. A Lebanese friend of mine was like, “Yeah, in Lebanon, you can switch the channels and on one channel they’re terrorists and the other channel, the very same group are other freedom fighters.” That’s what you do. If you’re el-Sisi, you say there’s internal enemies of the nation. What I’m saying is, why in God’s name would you think that America is immune from what happened in Egypt?
Checks and balances? Egypt does not have separate judicial and legislative branches in the same style as the U.S.
America has the largest prison system in the world. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have massive police forces. We have a massive military that, by far, dwarfs everyone else’s. We’ve got Homeland Security. We have dedicated harassment forces. We’ve been laying the groundwork for this.
Is this in your view a larger problem than just Trump?
The Republicans now all see you can do an autocratic takeover and they all see they probably will have to do an autocratic takeover because they’re going to be threatened at the polls. They have to seize control of elections, which they’re doing, and they’re passing all the laws to do it. Someone’s going to have to be the leader, so there’s going to be jockeying for that position. But Trump has a unique bond with his audience. Tom Cotton doesn’t have Trump’s wit, his charisma.
Will any particular grain of truth disillusion some of Trump’s supporters?
Sometimes reality intrudes. The problem is, people will, in Jonathan Metzl’s words, “die for whiteness.” They’ll literally die as long as they think that the libs and the minorities are suffering worse. That’s why we have to focus on the Republican Party politicians, because this is mainstream now. This is policy. They don’t need people on the street. We’re talking about the Republican Party, the elite of the elite. Elise Stefanik is a Harvard grad. Ted Cruz was a Princeton/Harvard Law School grad. Josh Hawley is a Stanford/Yale Law School grad. DeSantis is a Yale grad. These are the elite of the elite of the elite. I’m a man of the people compared to these folks. And they’re explicitly rejecting democracy and embracing authoritarianism. They’re passing the laws. They’re having their foot soldiers on the ground focus on more important things than violent rallies. They’re focusing on taking over election boards, being precinct election workers, intimidating voters. State legislatures have the power to overturn elections and send their own slate of electors to D.C. So they’re winning. These super elites that formed the backbone of the Republican Party, the graduates of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, they’re full on in into this anti-democratic movement. So it doesn’t really matter at a certain point. They’re making it so that they don’t need more than 40 percent of the population. And they’ll always have that.