Q&A: A Colorado history professor who studies fascism talks about the Capitol insurrection — and what could come next

UNC’s Michael Ortiz says of fascism in America, ‘We’re basically there. It’s very chilling.’

A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Michael Ortiz, an assistant professor of world history at the University of Northern Colorado, studies how fascism and imperialism have historically intersected. (Photo provided by Michael Ortiz)

When the Capitol insurrection was in full swing on Jan. 6, Michael Ortiz, an assistant professor of world history at the University of Northern Colorado, was trying — somewhat unsuccessfully — to finish writing the conclusion of his book exploring the history of fascism.

Ortiz, who studies how fascism and imperialism intersect, was glued to the livestreams and only stepped away to periodically check on his 3-week old daughter who was sound asleep in the adjacent room. His phone kept pinging with questions from family and friends. “Are we there yet?” one text message said. “Is this American fascism?” another read.

Newsline reporter Moe Clark spoke to Professor Ortiz on Jan. 12 about the recent insurrection, how history informs the political moment and what he thinks might come next. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

What are your main takeaways from what you saw happen in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6?

I see this as just what America has always been. I see too many, in my opinion, politicians and people saying, “This isn’t us.” But when I see America, I see the horrible brutalization, the exploitation, the violent repression of indigenous populations, African Americans, Latinos, all these individuals that have been striving for equality.

I see a lot of American imperialism in what is happening. And that’s not to say it’s not fascist either. It could be two things and I think it’s important to interrogate the intersections between American imperialism and what would be American fascism. But when we want to call (President Donald) Trump fascist, it’s this idea that we’re importing this external alien, this sort of phenomenon that is now appearing. When really in my mind, this has always been there, but it’s ebbed and flowed and we’re just in a particularly virulent manifestation of it.

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I think a lot of what we’re seeing right now on the far right is them just sort of ruling things out. And the longer it takes for the state apparatus, for the political left, to prosecute and make it so it’s not OK and to properly hold these people accountable, I think it’s going to get worse, even after Trump leaves. So that’s just a prediction I have.

How do you define fascism? 

After Trump got elected in 2016, there was this big question, this cardinal debate in our field, about what is fascism. When do we know, when do we see it, what can we do. In recent years, a lot of historians have pushed back against what is called the “fascist minimum.” Though this debate has been around for more than 30 years.

I don’t necessarily think we should waste too much time debating whether this is fascism or not. There’s certainly fascist elements. One of the hallmarks of fascism is apparent militarism. This idea that you have these zealots that are willing to commit to the military aesthetic and go out and march and display the power of the leader and the party. And that was of course on full display last week, as was the violence, which is sort of an animating factor with fascism.

We’re basically there. It’s very chilling, a lot of what we’re seeing the last few weeks and really what we’ve watched for years.

What are the elements that define a fascist movement?

I actually kind of push back on this idea that there needs to be a fascist minimum. When pushed, I always use Michael Mann’s definition — he’s the author that wrote, “Fascists” … He has four qualifications if you want me to go through them.

The first is organic nationalism. And it’s this idea that the nation is a living organism, and so it is healthy or it is diseased. So, for example, the Nazis saw the German nation as corrupted by what they called parasites, or vermin. 

The second factor, and they are all intertwined, is that they’re big supporters of authoritarianism. And what I mean by that is they like to use the state to cleanse or fix or sanitize the nation. An authoritarian state is used to purify the organic nation, it’s a way to make things better. And it doesn’t always have to be about race. 

The third pillar, I guess we’ll call it, is the transcendence of class conflict. And this is sort of manifesting right now, but in the interwar era — between the two world wars — the main things we saw was class conflict. We saw all of these strikes of these working class individuals struggling for more money, less hours, safer working conditions. And so what fascists said is they claim to be able to transcend the material deprivation of the time. So there’s this massive wealth inequality and fascists say, “Transcend class conflict, we’ll make this not a problem.” Of course, in practice, they simply repressed it.

The last last pillar that Mann talks about is paramilitarism. And this is sort of the litmus test I call it for distinguishing fascism from let’s say your regular old bargain-bin militarism. It’s this idea that your movement is bottom up, it’s not seizing control of the government and then imposing a militarist or authoritarian or dictatorship upon the people. It’s more of a groundswell movement where ordinarily people are marching on the streets under banners because it’s such an evocative and sort of powerful movement that people just want to be a part of. 

What historical events are you looking back at to better understand the current political moment we are in?

I think the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 and the March on Rome in Italy in 1922 — those are the semi-successful ones that come to mind. So those are the movements, the two fascist movements, that are most commonly talked about. 

Beer Hall Putsch is ultimately put down due in large part because of its chaotic and unplanned and incoherent strategic vision. But Hitler was ultimately able to capitalize on it during his trial to spread his message. Nazis go from being more of a regional power to getting a little bit more national exposure. 

With the March on Rome, I think too often we see it as this very powerful blackshirted, paramilitary descent on the capital and the king, in sort of panic, decides to name Mussolini prime minister. But really, it was actually kind of a mess. It was raining. I think 20,000 blackshirts were scheduled to appear. I think only 9,000 actually make it and they’re mostly just milling about. But for a variety of reasons, the king ultimately decides to make Mussolini prime minister. 

But there also have been like, so in England, for example, we have the Battle for Cable Street where the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley decide to put on this massive parade in the East End of London where they have quite a bit of considerable support, and ultimately anti-fascists, liberals, socialists all come together under this big tent and basically prevent the parade from happening. And it kind of invalidated fascism in Britain. 

Any thoughts on activists showing up to oppose right-wing groups planning armed protests on Inauguration Day?

It’s a tough question, because they’re marching, in a way, to incite violence and attract attention. Because then they get media coverage and get on the narrative cycle and it amplifies their movement, in a way. But at the same time you also don’t want to not contest them. Because then they’re able to go out and appear coherent and powerful or whatever their goals are. So it’s a Catch-22. It’s a difficult discussion.

In this situation that we’re seeing right now, it seems more as an instance of attracting attention. I don’t think any of them really believe that they’re going to be able to overturn the election at this point. I think it’s more just a sort of a paroxysms of frustration and violence and racism and all these things. So I wish I had a good answer. 

Do you have any takeaways from the summer protests we saw across the country against police brutality?

Anyone who I think would deny the existence of systemic racism need only be shown the photos of the BLM marches that happened over the summer with the military police presence that was put on display. 

America was founded as a white supremacist nation. African Americans were codified in the Constitution as property through slavery. And I think you’re seeing the structural and institutional ramifications of this right now, where there’s peaceful protests of Black Americans who are simply demanding equality are met with violence. Whereas with the Capitol insurrection that happened last week, we knew it was coming. It was not surprising for anybody that had been paying attention and yet a lot of these insurrectionists were able to walk out unharmed, were able to waltz into the Capitol building, break windows, steal things, all these types of things. 

So, I think what we are seeing is the manifestation of this legacy of American imperialism, of the American apartheid state – the racism, the misogyny and all these other structural inequalities that have been baked into the American society, the American Constitution, the American government. These things are simply manifesting in crystal clear fashion in front of us right now.

The interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity.

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