“The Same Malignant Spirit”: Hidden Histories of American Fascism
From the Series: American Fascism
I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down . . . you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers. That spirit will still remain.
—Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants”
Black radical thinkers have long recognized America’s violent white supremacists as a fascist movement. Yet official histories submerge centuries of organized paramilitaries denying Black citizenship—and the role of the broader white populace in sustaining these groups. Acting as both microscope and telescope, what Zora Neale Hurston (1935) named anthropology’s “spy-glass” enables close views of local practices and broad perspective on structures, processes, and histories. Directing the spy-glass at American fascism reveals continuities with a brutal past and a role for anthropologists in making those continuities visible.
I have conducted fieldwork since 2013 in the Missouri Ozarks with
Black and LGBTQI+ civil rights activists advocating equality. Activists
in Springfield, the region’s largest city, are frequently threatened by precisely the sort of persons
who mounted the Capitol insurrection. The first local warning that
2020’s election would be violent came when activists peacefully
demonstrated in response to George Floyd’s murder.
These Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations were even more widespread
than the 2014 Ferguson protests—so, too, was white backlash. At a
demonstration on May 30, 2020, I witnessed hundreds of BLM supporters
heckled by a convoy of trucks waving Confederate and thin blue line
flags. Releasing pepper spray from a gold SUV, counterdemonstrators
shouted, “The KKK is coming for you.” These counterdemonstrators, like
the Capitol insurrectionists, found immediate “cause” in the relatively
new political career of Donald Trump. But the evil that Trump channels
has a long history.
George Lipsitz (2015, 121) writes that Americans have many tactics “to live with evil but lie about it.” Trump lied to incite and rationalize an insurrection that criminalized Black voters as “illegal.” Previous white supremacists used the same lie to rationalize lynching terrorism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Ozarks region has been home to such terrorism just as long, and domestic terrorists from across the nation still train and hide in its rugged hills and hollows (Harper 2010). The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors twenty-two active hate, patriot, and militia groups in this area, including the National Socialist Movement (Nazis) and the KKK.
This human landscape is the result of two centuries of racial violence. In 1829, white settlers expelled five hundred Kickapoo people from the area and established Springfield. Little is recorded about that first atrocity, but in 1834, a year after the town was incorporated, an enslaved woman named Milly Sawyers won her freedom in the county’s circuit court. Less than two years later, a mob led by the city’s founder dragged Ms. Sawyers from her home and brutally beat her in the street. She was never seen again, likely murdered.
In 1906, a mob that included police officers abducted Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and Will Allen, three African American men, from the Springfield jail and executed them in the central square. They were falsely accused of crimes, including sexually assaulting a white woman. Approximately six thousand spectators watched as a mob tortured and hung the men from an electrical tower topped with a ten-foot replica of the goddess Liberty. The mob then descended upon the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. A vibrant African American community, painstakingly established after freedom, was crushed; the Black population, approximately 20 percent before the lynching, shrank to 2 percent as residents fled for their lives. The atrocity was part of an Ozarkian wave of more than twenty lynchings and mass expulsions at the turn of the century (Harper 2010). These histories were suppressed from public memory, naturalizing the region’s whiteness as a historical fact rather than the creation of white violence.
Fascism originally described movements that emerged during Europe’s fraught twentieth century. Like those German and Italian movements, American far-right movements use redemptive violence to pursue fascist goals, like an autocratic ethnostate and internal “purification,” and they embrace a revanchist, lost cause sentimentality (Paxton 2004, 218).
Both the extremist and mainstream right police a fascistic American liberty rooted in property and social order—and mastery and subjection. Mastery depends upon subjection, its liberties materialized through dominance and cruelty (Hartman 1997). This understanding of liberty is particularly puissant in southern societies built upon chattel slavery. Historically, white, male mastery over property, labor, and kin organized people and their liberties, and this mastery remains central to the ordered, hierarchical liberty invoked by extremists. Violence is defended as necessary because this liberty is fragile, always at risk of negation by subordinates.
At the beginning of my Ozarks fieldwork, I observed that white opposition to both Black and LGBTQI+ equality emerges from this vision of liberty that requires the subordination of “others.” In 2013, Springfield bitterly debated a nondiscrimination ordinance that added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories to the city code. Threats of violence made public meetings anxious events. Both mainstream conservatives and violent groups in the city perceived LGBTQI+ equality as a loss of liberty conceived as authority over sexual norms—an existential threat, inseparable from hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality.
White supremacist violence hovered over the debate. George Zimmerman had just been acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin in Florida. Springfield’s KKK distributed leaflets offering “neighborhood watch” services. On April 13, 2014, a white supremacist named Frazier Glenn Miller traveled north from the Ozarks to murder three people at Jewish centers in Kansas City. A few months later in Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer killed Michael Brown, and the world finally began to notice what is obvious in Missouri: past violence and impunity legitimize and routinize violence in the present.
Responses to Floyd’s murder and to the Capitol insurrection may or may not become major inflection points in the conflict between the United States’ contradictory conceptions of liberty. Many more white Americans now recognize these oppressive histories, their systemic continuities, and, yes, the foot soldiers who proudly preserve horrific, violent legacies. Recognition and accountability are necessary to build freedom rooted in equality, requiring a white epiphany of sorts. Hurston worked in the Boasian tradition that practices fieldwork as epiphany, whereby immersive research transforms perspective on the familiar—to “stand off and look at” the racial subjectivities that fit us “like a tight chemise” (Hurston 1935, 38). United States–based anthropologists have a role in catalyzing white Americans’ long-overdue epiphany, making visible the lies that sustain white supremacy and American fascism. This labor requires teaching white students and communities to turn the ethnographic spyglass upon themselves and their presumptions about liberty for all.
Douglass, Frederick. 2013. “What the Black Man Wants.” In Great Speeches by Frederick Douglass, 51–58. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Thrift Editions.
Harper, Kimberly. 2010. White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894–1909. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press.
Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: J.B. Lipincott.
Lipsitz, George. 2015. “From Plessy to Ferguson.” Cultural Critique 90: 119–39.
Paxton, Robert O. 2004. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.