Against Essence, or, Does Fascism Have a Nationality?

From the Series: American Fascism

A view of the crowd northeast of the Washington Monument, shortly before President Trump's speech, January 6, 2021. Photo by Gregory Starrett.

Journalist Jochen Bittner (2020) recently compared Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign and ensuing social movement to the so-called Dolchstosslegende, the myth that began to circulate after World War I purporting that Germany had, in fact, won. As Bittner points out, in this fomenting myth on which Nazism grew in a dire social environment, not just anti-Semitism but national belonging and pride were key, as they are in contemporary American right-wing activism. Anthropologists have of course had much to say on these topics, from Bruce Kapferer’s (1988) comparison of violent nationalisms to Brackette Williams’s (1995, 231) theory of U.S. nationalism as whiteness predicated on race and produced through “the amalgamation of previous subdivisions,” to Joseph Grim Feinberg’s (2012) take on the maddening emptiness of the ubiquitous mantra in the United States that America is, simply, the greatest nation on earth. In 2017, Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla (2017) made the strong case that surprise at Trump’s election was grounded in many white Americans’ experiences of actually living in a democracy, from whence his election appeared exceptional rather than endemic. They also framed white supremacy as a structure, not a quality inherent in people. Exceptionalist views are again being mobilized now, around a purported singularity of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, but also around the idea that what was attacked that day was America’s essence, namely democracy itself, in a kind of reverse essentialism that says: this cannot happen here; this is not who we are. Feinberg (2012) argues that “[t]he discourse of exceptionalism is directly connected to the deterioration of American life, because it is a tool used to push forward the deterioration.”

With the growing public reflections on January 6, I was reminded of the mid-2000s in Berlin, when a chasm opened within the Left around whether the movement should be fighting against state imperialism or German anti-Semitism. “Anti-Germans” were at the time a recognizable movement, warning that the Germans, essentially, were the problem. Many activists adopted Daniel Goldhagen’s exceptionalist thesis about “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” as supporting evidence that the Holocaust was particularly rooted in the German “nature,” or national character. The conflict extended across the German-speaking world. Separating the “anti-imps” and “anti-Germans” was a difference of perspective that then seemed irreconcilable over what had caused the rise of German fascism in the form of the Nazis, and whether the Holocaust could have happened elsewhere, in other circumstances.

What lessons might Germany’s debate over cultural essence and the politics of comparison offer to contemporary considerations of (an) American fascism? Trump’s presidency culminated in the show of force of a fomenting political movement willing to fight for its leader. Nonetheless, this group constituted but a tiny contingent of the roughly seventy-four million Americans who voted for Trump’s reelection. How many of these millions have the potential to become willing executioners of a new fascism, through action and inaction alike, as active participants or as bystanders who let it happen? Does (an) American fascism need anything else—beyond circumstance, context, opportunity—to come to fruition? And, if speaking of American fascism has begun to make sense (again, if we consider that the Nazis took inspiration from Jim Crow and the American eugenics movement), should anthropologists be asking if there is something specific about this mob and its more passive supporters?

Public reflections on how to interpret January 6’s mob brought these stale German debates, ones that arguably stymied the Left during that time, back to me. In that context, I was skeptical of placing Germans’ rotten essence at the center of Nazism (no matter how often individuals confirm this view!). In the United States in 2021, the evidence was before the public’s eyes—again—that many Americans are ready to take persecution and killing into their own hands, while countless others enjoyed the riot porn from home on their devices as they were being schooled in how to participate in tomorrow’s domestic terrorism event. Here was evidence that fascism could happen anywhere, any time. There is nothing about America that makes it immune. But at the same time, in the difficult interpretive thicket following January 6, white supremacy has also been increasingly mobilized not as a structure but an American essence, as a kind of diagnosis that ultimately remains unexamined, and, I worry, might work to contain the complexity of what’s unfolding. At stake, then and now, is a larger politics of comparison, of how analyses derive strength from comparatively mobilizing essences and essentialisms — questions that have long preoccupied anthropologists (Gingrich and Fox 2002).

My questions now center on what practices and interventions could yet change the course of things for such (an) American fascism in formation—to redirect the violent mob as much as to pacify fascism’s potential executioners, who have long accepted violence for whatever power they feel themselves entitled to gain. Few Trump supporters used the attack on the Capitol to break with him, indicating nothing but potential for the realization of an organized fascist movement, propelled by an internet technocracy, whose contours have been shaped by exploding inequality and the slow hollowing out of public education. Back in the first decade of the 2000s, the debate in the German Left eventually died down, but not before deflecting the movement’s momentum into dueling positions over what drove the opposition. In this moment, accordingly, how can we, as scholars and/or activists, analyze specificity of form in this fascism—but without looking for the essentially American, or becoming distracted by internecine interpretive disagreements—so that we might successfully intervene in these forms? Rather than getting stuck on decoding the mob’s subject, I suggest we approach the events of January 6 as also emergent in the mass experience and thus as yet contingently energetic, such that all possible futures remain on the horizon.


Thank you to Malavika Reddy, Adam Sargent, and Jay Sosa for thinking through this argument with me.


Bittner, Jochen. 2020. “1918 Germany Has a Warning for America.” New York Times, November 30.

Gingrich, Andre, and Richard Fox, eds. 2002. Anthropology, By Comparison. New York: Routledge.

Feinberg, Joseph Grim. 2012. “Why I Emigrated from America.” Montréal Review, December.

Kapferer, Bruce. 2012. Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence, Intolerance and Political Culture in Sri Lanka. New York: Berghahn Books. Originally published in 1988.

Rosa, Jonathan, and Yarimar Bonilla. 2017. “Deprovincializing Trump, Decolonizing Diversity, and Unsettling Anthropology.” American Ethnologist 44, no. 2: 201–8.

Williams, Brackette. 1995. “Classification Systems Revisited: Kinship, Caste, Race, and Nationality as the Flow of Blood and the Spread of Rights.” In Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis, edited by Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney, 201–36. New York: Routledge.