THE BLOG
11/05/2016 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Battle For The Public Sphere: Trump, Fascism, Democracy, And Civil Society

There is a tipping point. A moment when the possibility of fascism in the United States becomes real.

I don't know when we'll reach that point or what it will look like if we do. And I'm not entirely sure we haven't already tumbled over the edge. In the midst of that uncertainty it's clear that there's enough evidence to warrant a somber reflection regarding how we came to this point.

I've been stressing for a while now that the rise of Donald Trump--and what it's really exposed about the dark underbelly of the United States--cannot be defeated with a Hillary win this November. While Democrats and much of the so-called Left are consumed with the horse race of the election year and getting their business-friendly moderate conservative candidate into office, the actual Left--you know, those silly radicals Hillary Clinton says need to "get a life"--continues to focus on the structural conditions that need to be transformed to get to the roots of Trump's rise, and organizing and agitating to force those changes.

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Photo by Jesse Benn: An effigy of Trump hangs by a noose at an anti-Trump rally on July 1, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.

There isn't an easy answer to society's ailments. It all needs an overhaul. And by "it all" I mean the entirety of how we conceive of the world, no less the ways we've structured it. Without revolutionary change across our institutions, combined with (or perhaps driving) revolutionary cultural changes that reshape how we understand the world and ourselves within it, our future is bleak.

Trump is a dangerous sideshow. But what his success represents is much darker and more serious than his cartoonish, made-for-TV personality lets on.

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Photo by Jesse Benn: The Trump effigy burns across from the convention center where Trump spoke on July 1, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.

Mother Jones recently published an in-depth investigation into Trump's ties with neo-Nazis and the resulting mobilization of neo-Nazis he's helped fuel, and reading it through is frightening.

If you're on the Right and planning to vote for Trump, or you've supported him until now, or you haven't loudly denounced him, know that you're helping legitimize the views of these neo-Nazis and various white supremacists who support him. These are not just some disgruntled misguided populists. These are not just garden variety assholes or racists. These are people who are organizing around the same ideas as Hitler. No shit.

We tend to think of Nazism as far-removed from our modern lives in the "greatest democracy on earth." We see Nazism in purely historic terms, conjuring images in black and white, and consequently removing it from any fathomable context. As a result, we end up solely thinking of Nazism in its most extreme forms; as though it only manifested in Death Camps. This is ahistorical. And, importantly, it creates a collective amnesia regarding how Nazism came to power, leaving us less equipped to recognize rising fascist tides in the United States in 2016. It's worth remembering that Nazism rose (in part) in Munich's beer halls. Put differently, Nazism's rise was (in part) predicated on its entry into the German public sphere. Don't think that can't happen here. And don't think that nonchalantly allowing fascist ideas into the mainstream public sphere in the US can't open other, currently unimaginable doors in the near future.

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Image via Wikipedia Commons: A Nazi assembly in a beer hall in Munich - circa 1923.

This is an existential threat to some of us, not some election year vanity bullshit.

Today, neo-Nazis are doing their best to gain a foothold in US discourse in order to spread their odious ideology. The "alt-right" in particular is mainstreaming its Nazi-themed internet memes--full of vile imagery--from the dark corners of 4Chan and White Reddit to the Twitter feeds of presidential candidates.

And while Democrats are happy to use the genuine threat posed by Trump's fascist supporters to propel their own tremendously unpopular candidate to electoral victory, I haven't seen them offer or even discuss any strategy to fight back the growing tendencies toward fascism in the United States more generally. Indeed, the Democrats' fecklessness and embrace of neoliberal ideology has only accelerated our degradation to this point.

And every one who plans to vote for Hillary and then wipe their hands of this fight is as guilty as Trump voters for carving out a space that's allowed fascism to creep onto the US political scene. Treating political conflicts solely as electoral battles while ignoring and aiding the exponential growth of harmful neoliberal ideology hasn't just helped to break down civil society, it's destined us to reliving the same worsening nightmare every couple years before promptly going back to sleep. Democracy does not and should not only consist of casting ballots. Democracy lives in the streets, in referendums, initiatives, call-in campaigns, and petitions. Democracy lives on social and traditional media. Democracy lives in PTA and city council meetings.

And as societal institutions crumble and fail vast portions of the population, the importance of engaging not just in democracy beyond the ballot box, but in civil society, becomes clear. And civil society lives nearly everywhere we go.

Contributing to civil society means being there for those around you. It means helping your neighbor, your family, your friends, and strangers whenever the opportunity arises. It means pulling over for the person pushing their car that ran out of gas. It means treating people working in the service industry like human beings when you interact with them. It means challenging your friends, family, and anyone around you who harbors or exhibits the various manifestations of bigotry that helps fascism thrive.

So by all means, go ahead and vote. Or don't. But whatever you do after November 8th, if you really give a shit about curbing the ascent of the fascist tides buoying Trump's presidential campaign, find ways to engage politically outside of the ballot box, and contribute to civil society whenever you have a chance. That's where this struggle will be won or lost. There is no political savior coming to rescue us, we have nothing to rely on but ourselves.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.