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I've been trying to imagine the rise of American fascism for nearly twenty years. That's one thing that jumps out at me when I look at the stories in my upcoming collection, Even Greater Mistakes. The longest piece in the collection is a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke, which is still also available as a limited-edition book from Subterranean Press. (Featured above: the gorgeous cover art for Rock Manning by artist Carolyn Nowak.)
Warning: this article discusses some pretty extreme violence as well as scary political shit.
As I've explained before, Rock Manning started out as a novel, and I eventually cut it down to a short novella. I began writing it in 2002 or 2003, during the start of the War on Terror and our jingoistic frenzy that led to two disastrous wars. I was convinced at the time that the United States perched on the edge of full-blown fascism, because we had all the major ingredients: a narrative of victimization, a convenient "other" to scapegoat, and leaders who said things like "you're either with us or against us." Liberal media commentators emphasized that irony was dead and that we could not question, much less lampoon, our heroic leaders. Civil liberties were being shredded, and an oppressive new surveillance state was being built, and we were condemning people to years of brutal imprisonment without due process. I was really terrified for all of the Muslims and other Brown people I knew, but also for what would become of the United States as I knew it.
It's become increasingly obvious that the slide toward fascism was never really arrested, and we took another lurch in that direction during the Trump presidency. The past several months have made it clear that we are increasingly on a path away from rule of law and toward the rule of strongmen — states have been passing extreme laws that not only make it harder for Black people to vote, but also make it easier for right-wing "poll-watchers" and state politicians to disrupt and undermine election results that they don't like. State-level zealots have gone after trans rights and reproductive rights, leading to Texas' extreme "open carry" law and that notorious abortion bounties law. You already know all of this, I'm sure.
So in Rock Manning Goes For Broke, Rock Manning is a slapstick film-maker who's inspired by folks like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Jackie Chan and others. He and his friend Sally Hamster make movies in which Rock does foolhardy stunts and the "plots" are somewhat nonsensical and goofy, with a lot of cartoony fluff added in post-production using some advanced software called Zap!Mation. Their films become a huge sensation, because they're escapist fun at a time when the United States is going down the tubes, but they also kind of capture the feeling of living through a time of chaos and upheaval. One of the things I was interested in exploring was the slippery distinction between physical comedy and actual violence. Anyone who's watched a Three Stooges movie knows they get pretty violent at times.
The main fascist group in Rock Manning is called the Red Bandanas, after their chosen neckwear. They're essentially a militia, made up of disaffected young white men who say things like, "They’ve lied to us, you know. It’s all fucked, and we’re taking it down." They blame various Asian countries for a new wave of highly additive opioids that have swept through the United States, and also see certain types of people as contributing to the decay of American society. They start out small, with random acts of violence, and then show up as provocateurs to turn an anti-war rally into a bloodbath.
Our first hint of the true threat of the Red Bandanas comes when they bring non-metallic weapons to school and beat Rock Manning's geography teacher, Mr. MacLennan to a pulp in front of the whole school. Every student (including Rock) chants "Break! Break! Break!" Until they shatter Mr. MacLennan's jaw with their blunt instruments. Nobody is able to lift a finger to save this teacher, who I pictured having raised some doubts about the Red Bandana worldview in some fashion. I felt this was an important mile-marker in the descent into fascism, because it had all of the hallmarks: distrust of authority and expertise, hatred of education, and violent rejection of any information that challenges the dominant paradigm.
(And here's a good moment to reassure you that Rock Manning doesn't wallow in awfulness, I don't think. It's actually one of the funnier things I've written, with a lot of goofy cuteness offsetting the scary stuff. At least, I hope it's not a purely bleak dystopia, though it's certainly dark and scary in parts.)
In the novel-length version of Rock Manning, things get even weirder. At a certain point, the police and the army merge into one entity, which Rock refers to as "the plarmy." Basically, a highly militarized force that can operate both domestically and overseas, with advanced exoskeletons that plug directly into the wearer's brainstem, allowing someone to control soldiers remotely in extreme situations. I think the plarmy was my take on the ever-increasing militarization of the cops, but also our increasing tendency to turn our soldiers into an occupying force in overseas cities. The distinction between these two entities seemed to be more and more blurry, and I was scared to see what might come next.
But the main driver of fascism in Rock Manning was always the Red Bandanas. At a certain point in the story, the Bandanas march into every major city, to "restore order" after a wave of protests. At first, the local authorities try to stop them, but then the President goes on television and orders everyone to cooperate with the Bandanas, because they are a "well-regulated militia" as stipulated by the Second Amendment. Soon, the Bandanas are everywhere, committing unspeakable violence and herding undesirables into prison camps. And meanwhile, the army (who aren't the "plarmy" in the final version) cordon off the cities to prevent anyone from leaving.
One thing Rock Manning doesn't have is a political strongman, or charismatic leader, who pushes everybody closer to authoritarianism. I think if I was writing it now, I'd include someone along those lines. But I still think that a heavily armed mob, operating with the tacit approval of the authorities and in loose cooperation with a highly militarized police force, would be a key factor in the rise of American fascism. We've always loved our mob justice here, and we've always been keen on finding convenient scapegoats instead of facing up to intractable problems.
I realized sometime in 2017 that Rock Manning was seeming more relevant than it had in several years, and its salience hasn't decreased at all since then, I'm afraid. I'm increasingly sure that historians will see the War on Terror and the Trump era as two parts of a single process, the end of which we haven't seen yet. I think the work of trying to imagine a fascist United States remains vitally important (as part of a larger project to fight against American fascism) and I hope I was able to make a small contribution to it. Even Greater Mistakes comes out November 16.
Texas shows us what post-democracy America would look like (Washington Post)
On Friday at 6 PM, I'm taking part in Friday Forty, a "sketch comedy news quiz show" hosted by Dave Holmes and Scott M. Gimple. This a fundraiser for ZYZZYVA, one of my favorite literary magazines and a local institution. I'll be joined by Vanessa Hua, Michael Jaime-Becerra and musical guest Wesley Stace. Please come hang out!