Digital Fascism

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.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd descended on the U.S. Capitol. It represented not one but many extremist movements—pro-Trump MAGA supporters, white supremacists like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, antigovernment militias like the Three Percenters, anticommunist militants, QAnon conspiracy theorists—alongside an assortment of petit-bourgeois fellow travelers. United by a surging hatred of globalism, federalism, feminism, the Left, the Democratic Party, and even certain conservative figures like Vice President Mike Pence, they pressed their way into the Capitol building, screamed at police officers (and worse), wandered around, vandalized congressional offices, and took selfies and trophies before eventually being forced to retreat.

Although in some ways a culmination of four years of Trumpism, a wave of shock radiated across the world. A friend in the German news media wrote to me, “I never thought I would have seen the US Capitol under attack.” Even after the initial stupor receded, media pundits had obvious trouble interpreting the event. What single concept captured something wholly unprecedented, incredibly dangerous, and yet somehow also completely ridiculous at the same time? Some analysts decided it was a coup attempt, others only a riot.

The failure of mainstream media to grasp the event shouldn’t deter us from recognizing that mediation was surely one of its most distinctive features. Not only was the march and occupation largely organized on social media platforms, but many of its participants relentlessly livestreamed and otherwise documented the occupation while it was unfolding, leading other analysts to later characterize it as a kind of live action role-playing (LARP) experience.

It’s doubtful that many in the January 6th crowd would agree with the LARP characterization. But as Tom Boellstorff has long argued, the “real world” implications of online virtual activity should never be discounted. It’s true that January 6th was an awkward blend of virtualism and realism in the moment. Awkward in the sense that the fantasies of aggrieved empowerment nurtured for years in American neofascist and conspiracy networks seemed, against all odds, to be coming true. It was a moment for which the “digital soldiers” and “patriots” of social media seemed both ready and yet unprepared. Their shield of online anonymity fell away as they materialized as a collective presence IRL with the strength and numbers to make history.

And, truth be told, they did make history even if they didn’t succeed in their alleged aspirations. It will be a success that will doubtless live long in the memory of American neofascists of “how close they came” to getting the job done. January 6th was the moment when the virtual fascism of violent ideas, surging anger, and fierce talk on online and social media platforms became violence actualized in the world we all share with an unprecedented scale and intensity. January 6th wasn’t the birth date of digital fascism, but it was the day on which the rest of world discovered that it could no longer be ignored.

Several years ago I published a book which describes how neo/liberal political ideology and digital interfaces have reinforced and intensified one another, a phenomenon I termed “digital liberalism.” The gist of the argument is that contemporary mobile media devices both inherit centuries of liberal ideology and have become the crucial force for reproducing and intensifying that ideology in online culture. The smartphone did not invent social estrangement, of course. What it invented is an interface that allows us to experience active, productive individuality—messaging, scrolling, liking—while minimizing direct social connectedness and accountability, even when we are crowded among strangers. In other eras those strangers might have found greater occasion and opportunity in their co-presence to become neighborly with one another. Instead today we have an autological (self-realizing) individuality reinforced by the proliferation and intensification of individualizing screens.

What is clear now is that the apparatus of digital mediation can serve the cause of fascism just as ably. The ubiquitous smartphone is reminiscent of the cheap bakelite radio receivers—the Volksempfänger—that Goebbels wanted to get into every German home so that the word of the Führer could establish a direct epistemic channel with his subjects untouched by the Lügenpresse (lying press). The parallel to Trump’s use of Twitter to broadcast beyond the reach of “fake news media” is obvious. Indeed, the Trump White House has seemed to be using Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as a playbook for mass deception, mobilization, and radicalization since day one.

I would suggest further that the autological individuality of digital liberalism has contributed to the depth of alienation felt by those attracted to the violent and xenophobic sentiments of fascism. The classic liberal subject lives a fantasy of strong, rational, self-realizing action and achievement. The fascist subject is like the fallen angel of liberalism: he, usually he, is the perpetually wounded, isolated and self-loathing loser of liberalism’s games of competition and self-improvement. Fascism’s anger is the existential scream—how dare I fail? How dare I be left behind? How dare this other be given unfair advantage? In the era of social media, those prone to fascist sympathies can now easily hear each other’s screams, echo them and organize.

A recent New York Times article for example explains that what attracts new converts “to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering ‘intel’ for a righteous revolution.”

The digital liberalism of Silicon Valley has been playing this game for decades. It intensifies monetizable individuality by isolating and algorithmically feeding its users increasingly monologous information diets that help nurture separate and incommensurable worldviews. It doesn’t see the harm because digital liberalism routinely underestimates fascism (and socialism for that matter) by assuming these are just domains of opinion—part of the great liberal “conversation”—rather than expressions of fundamentally different social ontologies.

The social media deplatforming of both Trump and his allied extremist networks neutralized them—at least temporarily—with remarkable speed. But maybe not for long. New conspiratorial permutations and revolutionary fantasies are already surging forth. The latest to gain traction is the sovereign citizen conspiracy that the United States secretly became a corporation in 1871 and that Donald Trump will rise again some day to restore the true United States of America as its nineteenth president.

Fascist sympathies have never not been a part of an American political landscape that was born in a cradle of white supremacy. Racist, sexist, violent sentiments fill the souls of those who are sincerely alienated yet unable or unwilling to comprehend the true sources of their alienation. Should we be worried about the future of digital fascism? Absolutely and we must stay vigilant. Fascism is always virtual until it isn’t.