Rabble-Rousers Without Exception

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.

One of the challenges of identifying a regime as fascist is in how such a reading tends to rely upon the old logic of exceptionalism. Authoritarians like Trump are seen as a deviation from the norm on the basis that decisions are made outside the purview of democratic institutions and public accountability. As several authors have noted, there is danger in yoking fascism to a personality and these to a state of exception, since it suggests that the problem was not there before; that once the “authoritarian personality” is ousted the problem will stop existing. In this regard, focusing on events like the storming of the capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, reinforces the temporal logic of a narrative of exception.

While I agree that one needs to consider the long-term structures that allowed such events and ruler to emerge in the first place, I wish to highlight another aspect. It relates to the need to historicize the concept of exception, and how nations and historical regimes have differently operationalized such a notion. In the contemporary context of the United States, what the progressive critique of exceptionalism fails to internalize is how the political right has long been mobilizing its own critique of the state of exception. Attention to the appropriation by the Right of the conditions of its own critique interrogates the adequacy of the term fascism in the United States, not the least because of how it paralyzes the Left. As Stuart Hall (1979, 20) astutely put it back in 1979, in a text of great significance for our global political moment, “it is always the case that the Right is what it is partly because of what the Left is.”

In his 1951 essay “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” Adorno draws a link between crowds and fascist devices. He writes “the similarities of utterances of the agitators (the ‘rabble rousers’) is so great that it suffices we . . . analyse the statement of one of them in order to know them all” (Adorno 2000 [1951], 119). The fascist not only explores the means of propagandistic massification but incarnates its very principle of reproducibility. To know one fascist is to know them all. The idea that there is a systematicity in fascist approach had already consolidated the term “authoritarian personality” and served as a title to a postwar study published in the United States by Adorno et al. (1982 [1950]). Through a variety of angles, the authors established key criteria for determining the psychic structure of a fascist personality. The f-scale personality, we learn, is likely to be found in individuals with certain characterological tendencies ranging from easy adherence to conventions, obsession with “sexual goings-on,” keen narcissism and, foremost, a drive to self-destruction, of ruler and regime.1 This drive to auto-annihilation typical of fascism contributed to define the temporality of exception as limited. Invariably, fascism rushes its own demise, intoxicated by its own excesses, imploded by its own contradictions. However, this temporal aspect intrinsic to the definition of fascism also narrows its field of applicability: it both enforces the logos of exception and maintains its privileged link to the nation-state. To call on analyzing whether there is fascism in America today entails not only considering its particular national history—including its history of the logic of exception—but also other nations’ histories.

Let me, then, offer an example closer to home for me. There is a stubborn unwillingness to identify Portugal’s long dictatorship (1926–1974) as a fascist regime, a tendency that goes hand-in-hand with the myth of Lusotropicalismo according to which Portugal’s colonization was comparatively “mild.” But what this lingering image fails to account for is how the Portuguese “New State” (Estado Novo) regime was greatly invested in distancing itself from the terms of exceptionalism embraced by Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Portugal’s dictator, Salazar, was an autocrat without crowds. He vehemently condemned all forms of “effervescence” (even prohibited Coca-Cola in the country!) which he saw as nemesis to the longevity of the regime. Adopting the repressive apparatus toward the creation of Portugal’s “New Man,” Salazar directed his intervention as statesman away from the public square into the realm of the private home. Religion, country, and family were the three key pillars of the regime. Far from induced self-annihilation, Salazar aimed at durability. To be able to wake up and say, with each passing day, throughout forty-eight years, “the regime is still here” was its horizon. Do such long-term features disqualify the New State as a fascist regime—a brutally repressive apparatus through torture, killings, censorship, systemic illiteracy, structural poverty, and colonial wars? Or might one call it still fascism, both in its quieting and enduring senses?

A famous propaganda pamphlet of the Salazar regime extols “a state that is so strong that it does not even need to be violent,” implying that “exceptions” are only for weak states. Salazar understood how Hitler’s effervescent decisionism meant ephemerality. The Portuguese dictator would probably say the same thing about Trump. And yet, throughout his mandate Trump—or currently Bolsonaro, his Brazilian counterpart—did not make decisions in the sense Schmitt defined as the distinctive feature of sovereignty, either. If Trump acted in “exceptional” ways, it was precisely so as to have us believe it so. His investment was in displacing sovereignty into rhythmic undecidability, so exception itself got torn within. Rather than old-school exceptional decision, which would imply separation from, Trump enacted sovereignty through incision—as cut through (de Abreu 2019). Such became apparent not only in his ability to whiplash his mind but in his continual injurious speech.

Governance through rhythmic incisions, rather than transformative decisions, is disorienting because it destabilizes classic exceptionalism while drawing sustenance from such destabilization precisely. In sum, Trump’s Right both disavows classic exceptionalism and continues to rely on others’ evocations of classic exceptionalism. The logic goes as follows: Trumpism knows that the shock of incision evokes in critics the outdated denunciation of exception. Trumpism knows too that this failed denunciation feeds into exception’s new form. Consequently, the (new) exception not only accepts but invites critique of the (old) exception. It knows that the proliferation of (misdirected) critique will strengthen its own form. For the Left, the challenge is how to neutralize this Tory-structure. The Right has long emancipated exception from the exceptional.


Thanks to Emily Ng for her remarks.


1. See Peter E. Gordon (2016) for an instructive essay on reading Adorno, and the study “Totalitarian Personality” in particular, in the age of Trump.


Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1982. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Originally published in 1950.

Adorno, Theodor. 2000. “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhart, 118–37. New York: Continuum. Originally published in 1951.

de Abreu, Maria José. 2019. “Above All, Before All: No Decision.” Immanent Frame, April 9.

Gordon, Peter E. 2016. “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump.” b2o, June 15.

Hall, Stuart. 1979. “The Great Moving Right Show.” Marxism Today, January: 14–20.