The Hybridity of Rural Fascism
From the Series: American Fascism
“In terms of politics, how would you describe yourself?” I asked Gwen, a young woman living in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. “I’m a fascist,” she replied. “I’m trad [traditional].” Gwen was one of very few cradle-born Orthodox Christians living in a community of over one hundred American converts to Russian Orthodoxy. From 2017 to 2018, I lived with this group, located in a town of around one thousand. Gwen was a fascist, self-proclaimed, and she worshiped with people who aligned with a variety of political affiliations that might fall under the umbrella of the alt-right: paleoconservative, monarchist, tsarist, far-right, nationalist. While political self-identification varied, believers’ moral rubrics did not. The community praised patriarchy as God-ordained, employing apocalyptic language to decry what they saw as the Marxist LGBTQ+ agenda disrupting traditional Christian family values in America. In their concern for social salvation, they often looked to Vladimir Putin’s illiberal, perhaps even fascist, new Russia as a theo-political guide.
Gwen’s response brought into focus how fascism as a worldmaking project that exudes nostalgia for nationalistic, often Christian, traditionalism (Pinto 2010) has been on the rise in the United States since 2016. The parish Gwen attended was part of a socially insular group founded in the early 2000s by converts. It was attached to a men’s monastery that moved to the region because of an irresistible land offer. Along the way, locals and converts from the South and Midwest arrived to join either the monastery or the parish. While most non-monastic parishioners held jobs, raised families, and contributed to their local economies, they were nevertheless caught up in the cycles of liturgical time and the remapping of Russian values onto America in hopes of making it traditional again. For Gwen, being trad meant marrying young, focusing on family life and domesticity, preserving the patriarchy, and following a monarchic-style political leader who would actively promote a Christian social agenda nationally. In essence, Gwen and her Orthodox compatriots were seeking a sovereign for the end of the world. In her community, traditionalism was often a gloss for moral purity, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-immigration sentiment that sustained their worldviews in opposition to secularism. Appalachian converts, and others like them throughout the rural American South and Midwest, employ worldbuilding language that is often fascist in nature. Heterodox versus Orthodox. Marxist versus Christian. Gay versus straight. Corrupt versus holy. Fascism needs a language. Propaganda. Conspiracy theories. Theology. Through such discourses, fascism and its political affiliates give shape to social realities, to new ideological worlds.
Fascism is an ideology of us versus them that unifies adherents against those seen as other, outside their own bounded reality of social, ethical, moral, and religious norms (Stanley 2020 ). It is not the same as populism. Broadly, populism suggests that elites should be removed from power and that politics should follow the will of the masses (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017). Rural communities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and those without college degrees are quick to be labeled as populist (Hochschild 2016). Often populism serves as an easy label for journalists and academics to homogenize the ways rural voters act and think, without attending to the complex internal logics and diverse sociality of these communities. Populism does a disservice to understanding the fascist formations on the rise in the United States, particularly those bent on increasing regimented structures of power rather than destabilizing them. The rural communities with whom I have worked were not interested in amplifying the will or voice of the masses. They were interested in promoting the will of God by amplifying His voice through authoritarian political leadership that might unify Church and State. I contend that fascism—particularly “hybrid fascism,” a melding of religion and rightism (Payne 1999)—offers us a better way to think about this community and many groups like it emerging throughout the rural United States. Hybrid fascist groups—Proud Boys, white (Christian) nationalists, QAnon adherents, and even radicalized converts to Russian Orthodoxy—have leveraged conservative and social media in recent years to become more public and more influential. The insidiousness of fascism lies in its ideological malleability and its ability to hybridize into formations using media-driven, conspiratorial narratives to build a new reality.
In the summer of 2018, I sat in an office at the monastery with a young monk, a former Protestant and convert to Russian Orthodoxy. As he told me about his conversion, his life before monasticism, and why he was devoted to the Russian Church, he insisted that, “only Russia can save the world.” He gave ideological rationales for his comment, including fears of LGBTQ+ acceptance and what he saw as the corrosive culture of individualism corrupting godly America. He believed Putin was the last true statesman and an echo of the last tsar. While many scholars still struggle to understand why Trump’s nationalistic and seemingly fascist plan to make America great again resonated so deeply with social conservatives, I am interested in what motivates other Americans to find political truth in ideologies of authoritarian leadership outside the United States. How might we understand this turn as a new form of American fascism?
The Appalachian community is a small yet globally connected node in a network of right-wing extremism that has been spreading across the United States, Europe, and the global South. In a state and county that went red for Trump in both elections, Orthodox converts were outliers who believed American democracy was too weak to offer them a future free from the tyranny of liberal secularism. Yet they seemingly traded one authoritarian leader for another. Putin and Trump share political tactics and popular appeal among conservatives. Both play to their religious bases, consistently negate fundamental human rights, and express a soft totalitarianism that generates its power from a cult of personality. For Orthodox converts, however, Putin offered something Trump could not—a vision of the future unfettered from democracy, with true Christianity guiding public life.
What does it mean when an American like Gwen calls themselves a fascist or a monarchist, or when a monk in Appalachia supports a foreign power’s political ideologies? It suggests we need to rethink assumptions about rural populism, reassess how religious belief affects political support, and understand how fascism—which has long been connected to racism, Christian nationalism, and the oppressive politics of conservatism in the United States (Bialecki 2017; Pine 2019; Whitehead and Perry 2020)—still threatens American democracy today. American fascism is not back; it never left. Trump made fascism publicly allowable, even fashionable. Fascism is fashionable as a pejorative in political discourses on both the left and the right, and as an ontological framework for some far-right ideologues to understand their place as persecuted believers within a narrative of religious freedom and political sovereignty.
This project has received support from the Luce-funded “Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era project” at Arizona State University, New York University, the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, the Louisville Institute, a Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Luce and Leadership 100 “Orthodoxy and Human Rights Scholars Project” through the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, and a Religion, Spirituality, and Democratic Renewal fellowship from the Social Science Research Council in partnership with the Fetzer Institute.
Bialecki, Jon. 2017. “Eschatology, Ethics, and Ēthnos: Ressentiment and Christian Nationalism in the Anthropology of Christianity.” Religion and Society 8, no. 1: 42–61.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.
Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Payne, Stanley G. 1999. Fascism in Spain, 1923–1977. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Pine, Adrienne. 2019. “Forging an Anthropology of Neoliberal Fascism.” Public Anthropologist 1, no. 1: 20-40.
Pinto, António Costa, ed. 2010. Rethinking the Nature of Fascism: Comparative Perspectives. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stanley, Jason. 2020. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Penguin Random House. Originally published in 2018.
Whitehead, Andrew L., and Samuel Perry. 2020. Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.