During the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, prominent Greek journalist Petros Papaconstantinou quipped on Twitter that it’s “unlikely” for a coup d’état to happen in the United States “because there is no American embassy in Washington.” The ironic comment made perfect sense in Greece, where it is common knowledge that the 1967–74 junta served US interests in the context of the Cold War. It was an anti-communist junta—and as in earlier “troubling” moments in Greek politics, its objective was to halt the left’s ascent to power.
Nineteen sixties Greece was marked by such efforts. On July 5, 1964, a bunch of far-right thugs, led by the right-wing “intellectual” Renos Apostolidis, marched through Athens and entered the Greek parliament in violent protest against the elected centrist government. Thirty-two people were arrested, but only some of them were charged. Among those acquitted was an 18-year-old boy, reportedly the brother of a man you may have heard of: Nikolaos Michaloliakos, leader of the far-right Golden Dawn party. Golden Dawn did not yet exist in 1964. And it no longer does: In October 2020, Greek courts declared it a criminal organization in a historic verdict—indeed, a historic victory for the country’s antifascist movement. The point, however, is that the history of the neo-Nazi party’s emergence is imbricated with the anti-communism of the 20th century—that is, the broad shape of US politics beyond US borders.
US imperialism, with its aggressively interventionist foreign policy, is a complex operation of power. It has never been just about the transfer of value from the South to the North. It has also sought to ensure that regional or national political scenes would not be allowed to oppose capitalism—that there would be no left turn. This existential, long-term objective has an ideological dimension; curbing an electorate’s move to the left by any means necessary has long been a US foreign-policy axiom.
Papaconstantinou’s crack about the role of US embassies in realizing and perpetuating this politics would have been understood in many parts of the world. Back in 2003, the best seller Why Do People Hate America? provided a long list of US “interventions” that contrasted sharply with America’s self-image as the country that stands for democracy. It certainly has not stood for other people’s democracy. And in January 2021, the world saw that democracy could be precarious even in America, beyond Nancy McLean’s revelations in Democracy in Chains, a highly controversial 2018 exposé of the US far right’s long game.
What made democracy precarious in America was, in essence, the same line of politics that made it precarious elsewhere: the opposition of right-wing forces to the transfer of power to a political party that somehow accommodated leftist tendencies. This needs to be understood by anyone who opposes Trumpism. For Trumpism took shape in an America where McCarthyism was no longer legitimized. What, in the absence of McCarthyism, would express the core of US politics on US ground? A sign held by a pro-Trump protester—“The real invisible enemy is communism”—is the answer. As is another sign: “No Lockdown, No Marxism, No Masks, No Vaxx.”
If the far right’s attack on democracy in a domestic context was a shocking novelty for some Americans, these Americans need to understand what people elsewhere have had plenty of chances to learn: that America has been a symbol of capitalism, not democracy; and the symbol corresponds with realpolitik. For the reproduction of capitalism has required, and still requires, the mobilization of counterrevolutionary forces even in the absence of a concrete revolutionary prospect. Whether one calls them fascists or not, the pro-Trump protesters—and more broadly, Trumpism as a movement—play the role of a prefigurative politics against a turn to the left.
What counts as “the left”? It’s become an umbrella term for anything that seems to depart from the ideological core of the far right. This core includes nationalism, white supremacy, men’s rights groups, Christian fundamentalism, messianic conspiracies—to just mention a few of the items on the list. The appearance of a viable left tendency in the United States, marked by the rise of political figures such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and social movements such as Black Lives Matter, sounded the alarm for a sizable portion of Americans programmed to do what the deep status quo has always wanted them to do: defend the ideological core of the system rather than the country’s image (apparently, billionaires also saw a threat, but the status quo must ultimately be legitimized by popular forces).
The Greek colonels of the junta did not care about the image of Greece either. Greece was ridiculed internationally. What they cared about was essence: the propagation of the extant socioeconomic system. In the late Periklis Korovesis’s harrowing autobiographical novel The Method (1970), he recounts how the junta police that tortured him as a socialist told him exactly that: to not take it personally. That’s good advice for the Democrats, too, and the country’s liberals overall: Capitalism and its edifice exceed you; don’t take the attack personally; think carefully about what is at stake globally at present; the system will defend itself by any means necessary; US hegemony and what it actually stands for (capitalism) is in crisis (think climate, energy, and China, to begin with); and what happened at the Capitol but also Trump’s Führerism are symptomatic of all this.
The violent assault on standard democratic procedures at the Capitol by an assortment of Trump supporters rendered visible the extent to which fascism as a mass movement is gaining ground in the United States. Fascism is, as many have said, an accelerated and intensified politics in support of the status quo in its barest form. Fascism claims back the public when progressive political programs might appeal to them (and, just to help make this point, Biden announced a huge economic stimulus and made Sanders the chair of the Senate Budget Committee). Fascism is not merely a disruption to a system that operates by consensus. Example: A mob enters an institution to disrupt the counting of votes when the consensus is that the political party that gets most of the votes wins. This view is flawed. The mob entered the institution to stop the counting of the votes because the mob knew that counting the votes would lead to a win by a political party that has accommodated social democratic tendencies.
The mob looked like a circus of the deranged, but it was no circus at all—and it wasn’t a mob either: It had values and ideas it needed to defend at all costs. What’s more, its values and ideas currently represent a substantial ultra-reactionary force across many parts of the globe: Global capitalism, as the post–Cold War reality, did not take long to generate a transnational fascist movement peppered with “charismatic,” unaccountable, authoritarian, anti-left leaders. America got its share. Its share invaded the Capitol. It did so when democracy could not guarantee that power would remain in the right hands. It’s at moments like this that Washington has typically intervened in other peoples’ democracies.
If the Capitol attack signaled yet another end to America’s exceptionalism, it remains to be seen—it’s not clear if, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. Hopefully they can’t—the left outside America would not see America experiencing what it has inflicted elsewhere as a solution. What is certain is that a Trump supporter and longtime white-nationalist organizer named Matthew Heimbach was aware of Golden Dawn tactics, and that Golden Dawn loved Heimbach and supported Trump (as did all Greek far-right organizations, including those with elected members of parliament). Notably, the system rejected Golden Dawn only when its values found expression in the formal politics and policies of the mainstream right. But white-supremacist movements are far from exhausted in the United States.
In 2009, Mark Fisher repopularized the term “capitalist realism,” meaning an acknowledgement that capitalism is so pervasive and naturalized that an alternative cannot even be imagined. In 2021, the momentous event of democracy being subverted by the assorted far right on US ground signals the need for an updated capitalist realism, one that grasps Trumpism as a symptom of the fact that the ruling class can no longer rule with confidence—and QAnon as a symptom of the fact that while the people crave to know what is happening to them, they’ve been deprived of access to knowledge and training in critical thinking. This enhanced capitalist realism should remind us that capitalism relies on far more than economic rule: It relies on a value system that may or may not incorporate commitment to democracy. America taught the world that already in the 20th century. To point out the obvious, fascism did too—in the very same century.