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When it comes to the idea that conservatism has embraced fascism and supremacy, nobody is more persuasive than conservatives themselves. An essay on bullies and the margins of permission in the USA.
In Missouri, a state Senator who’s running for governor and said he intends to burn “woke” books on the lawn of the governor’s mansion, fired up a flamethrower and lit a bunch of boxes on fire.
But let me change the subject.
I had a bully for a week or so in middle school. Maybe you can relate.
My bully was a kid my age who ran with a tougher group of guys in my neighborhood, and by “tougher” I mean they smoked and cussed and wore jean jackets, and moreover they stood in a gap in the chain link fence that allowed me to pass over a field on the way home from the nearby middle school, a shortcut that shaved a half mile or more off my walk. If I saw them today they’d probably seem like babies to me, but it was 1986, and I was a sheltered missionary kid just back in the states1. These dudes may as well have been gang members in The Warriors.
Anyway, let’s change names to protect the innocent and call my bully Jake2. My take on it these days is that Jake wanted to impress the older guys by being a tough guy himself and I looked like an easy mark, which I sure was. So one day Jake met me at the gap and followed me all the way home, and asked me mean and vaguely threatening questions. I had a bit of a temper as a kid, but I had been taught in no uncertain terms that it was very important to never retaliate, so I retaliated mostly by mumbling answers and hoping he would leave me alone, which he did not.
Next day he was waiting at the gap and he used my responses the previous day to ask even meaner and more targeted personalized questions like how long I had been a slur redacted, and how much did I like being a fucking slur redacted. He’d learned that my dad had a physical disability and that was pretty funny to Jake, who made jokes about it, and those enraged me even more. I clenched my hand as Jake made pointed threats about what he thought should happen to me for being a slur redacted, and he also pretended like he was going to hit me and shove me, and laughed when I flinched. I responded by walking as quickly as I could home, so it would end more quickly, which I suppose it did.
Jake spent next day on more of the same; also by trying to trip me by kicking my feet into one another. And I responded with more of the same nothing, and by raging in impotent fury at home, which my parents noticed, which led to them calling Jake’s parents, and Jake’s parents were of the opinion that boys would be boys, which led my parents to believe that Jake’s parents were assholes, but clearly it wasn’t certain what else could be done in that direction, and I added sleeping badly to my overall response.
Next day Jake added actually shoving me into his repertoire. There was a stone retaining wall in one spot, and he really biffed me into that as I recall. And I added crying to my impotent fury back home, and my parents called the school, and the school wondered if this was happening on school property, and it wasn’t. And again this was back in 1986, which is a time I have noticed bullies today consider to be a wonderful permissive time when everyone was much more relaxed about jokes, so I could tell that my parents were both deeply concerned and uncertain what to do about this.
And the next day Jake told me that on Monday after school he’d be waiting and he was going to beat the shit out me. And I told my dad this, and my dad sort of looked at me and asked me, well, do you think you could take him? This confused me, because again, I had been taught pretty clearly that one should never retaliate. But I said, yeah, I think so, and I did think so, too, I really did, because I was bigger than him. And my dad said well maybe you ought to clean his clock one good time, then.
I could tell he wasn’t kidding.
And I slept pretty well that weekend.
Monday at school I saw Jake, and maybe I smiled at him in class or maybe I didn’t. I don’t remember. 1986 was a while ago. I do remember feeling a sense of anticipation different from the growing dread I’d experienced the week before, and it’s possible that there was something anticipatory in my face that Jake didn’t like, something that said if you want to do this, you’re going to have to fight. What I know for sure is that Jake wasn’t at the gap in the fence that day, or any other day, and I didn’t have to deal with him anymore.
Did he get bored? Had he been bluffing? I’ll never know. Bullies don’t tend to tell you what their motivations were afterward, and they tend to lie about their intentions even to themselves during. This is a thing I have noticed about bullies, and maybe if you’ve had a bully you’ve noticed this too.
I’ve noticed some other things about bullies. For example, bullies tend to operate on a sliding scale of permission. They start by pretending to do a thing to see how pretending goes for them before actually doing it, and if they don’t get opposed for issuing threats, then they understand that to be permission, and then they progress to actually doing it, and if that works out for them, then they progress to doing more.
Has any bully every gone too far and realized it far too late, after lasting damage has been done to their victim? Certainly so. Are you sorry for the bully in this scenario? Maybe, and maybe you should be. Are you exclusively sorry for the bully, almost instinctively, in a way that ignores the victim? Many are. That’s something else I’ve learned from observing bullies.
Another thing that occurs to me is that since bullies operate on a sliding scale of permission, they have a pretty finely attuned radar for what is permissible, and how to skirt the margins of permissibility, and when those margins have changed.
Another thing I’ve noticed is, though some bullies are willing to fight, and all bullies like whatever one-sided violence is permissible, bullies don’t actually like fights.
Fights, it seems, or even the promise of threats, are the opposite of permission.
You know what?
I might have grinned at Jake that Monday morning in class. I really might have.
Hey, let’s go back to Missouri, the land of flamethrowers.
I’m told it’s very important to note that the flamethrower-wielders were not burning books—again, burning books is something they are talking about doing. They were merely burning cardboard boxes, as a way of indicating other things.
You can read all about it. I found this passage instructive.
… his flamethrower stunt was meant to show what he would do to the “swamp” in the state capital of Jefferson City, but “let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too -- on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”
This is nothing new these days, really. Republican office-holders and aspiring office-holders have been burning and shooting all sorts of effigies for years now, indicating the types of things and people they would like to see eliminated in one way or another.
A lot of people are alarmed by this, because they understand that burning and shooting things meant to signify certain people is always the precursor to burning and shooting the signified people.
However, I’m told the difference between burning books meant to signify certain types of people and burning cardboard meant to signify books meant to signify people is a very important distinction.
I agree, actually.
It tells us where the permission levels are right now for our national gang of genocidal bullies, by which I mean the Republican Party.
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So the thing about the state senator who is running for governor and his other buddy—who is also a state senator but is not running for governor—is that besides being aficionados of flamethrowers and of fantasizing about burning “woke” books on the lawn of the governor’s mansion, they are also Republicans, which is a political party in the United States of America.
And one interesting thing about the Republican party is, it is entirely captured by fascism; that is to say it is a popular political movement organized around a cult of personality, and mediated through an open and explicit reverence for violence as a redeeming force, and by a nationalist myth of purification.
Another interesting thing about the Republican Party is that it is entirely driven by its country’s dominant founding spirit of supremacy. Supremacy, in case you didn’t know, is the belief that some people matter and others don’t, and that those who don’t matter should be forced to conform to the comfort of those who do matter, and if they won’t conform then they should be punished and terrorized and eliminated, and if they do conform then they should be maintained at minimum possible expense and used for profit for as long as they are profitable, and then abandoned when they are not.
And the United States was founded by people who believed in a very popular and fairly recent invention called “white.” This invention allowed them to believed that Black people were subordinate to people who were “white,” which allowed them to own Black people, and to rape them, and torture them and kill them, too, in case you didn’t know.
When I say things like this, I’m often admonished for being divisive or polarizing. There is often a bit of blowback about how, by framing our current situation as a fight against fascism and supremacy, I’m casting myself as a superior moral authority who refuses to find common ground; or how, by framing my opponents as supremacists, I’m demonizing them, which makes me just as bad as them; or that I’m just preaching to the choir in an echo chamber because I’m not getting to really know them and understand their points and appeal to their better angels; or that I’m casting them as irredeemable, leaving them no exit ramps from resentful radicalization and even driving them toward it; or that by refusing to engage them on their terms and debate them I’m passing up a real opportunity to persuade them, which is what’s necessary to drive real change.
I’ve been working my way, point-by-point, through these critiques—which are all based in a belief that persuasion of supremacists is all-important in dealing with supremacy—and talking about the assumptions and flaws I see in each one. Go search the archives for all that amazing content if you like.
But now it also occurs to me that, for those who think that the most important thing in the world is persuasion, I have good news: persuasion has been happening all along.
Lovers of persuasion: rejoice!
I didn’t used to believe that the conservative spirit was irreducible from supremacy, or that supremacy was the dominant spirit of my country. I would have considered that ridiculous. I believed very firmly in the popular modern supremacist myth that supremacy had been defeated forever, mostly by white people who fixed a handful of significant flaws to the otherwise perfect system they had inherited, and that we were now as a result the Greatest Country In the World.
And I didn’t used to believe that the Republican Party was a fascist party. I really didn’t.
I do believe those things now, though.
I was persuaded.
You might wonder, who persuaded me?
Well, there were a lot of people who have been harmed their whole lives by conservative fascism and the spirit of supremacy that drives our political life, and some years ago I started listening to their voices as a primary source to understand the shape of the country I’d failed to see. These were voices positioned not in some middle ground between me and the conservatives with whom I’d debated my whole life up until that point, but voices previously unconsidered by either of us, further out, with perspectives based on their lived experience that gave me a view of the terrain I could not and still cannot achieve by myself.
This week I realized, these voices aren’t what persuaded me. They’ve taught me, but I came to them because I was already persuaded.
So who persuaded me? You’ll never guess.
The people who persuaded me that Republicans are fascist are Republicans.
The people who persuaded me that the dominant spirit of my country is both conservative and supremacist are conservatives.
All I need to do is look around at what Republicans and those who call themselves “conservative” do wherever they can, as much as they can, as long as they can.
They’ve harassed and bulled and harmed and menaced and demonized queer communities, casting them as pedophiles, a pretext to stripping their medical care, seizing their children, excluding them from public life. There are refugees now from Texas, from Florida, from other fascist states where white supremacists have captured the governments.
Speaking of government capture, they’ve spent decades utilizing the most shameless hypocrisies and dirtiest possible ratfuckery to gerrymander and disenfranchise Black people, up to and including defying court orders ordering them to stop.
They’re removing books from libraries, prosecuting librarians, defunding and closing libraries, outlawing curriculum that delve into racial and sexual awareness and enforcing curricula that teach false narratives of supremacy, like the old popular lie that slavery benefitted the enslaved.
They’ve fully committed to the notion that crimes aren’t crimes if they are the ones doing them, that elections they lose aren’t valid, and that parties other than theirs aren’t fit to serve.
They’ve moved to ensure that bigotry is protected as freedom of religion, provided that the bigot in question identifies as a Christian.
They’ve stripped women of their bodily autonomy, driven up natal and maternal mortality rates, passed laws to control movement of pregnant women between states, proposed laws to track the menstrual cycles of teenagers, forced raped children to give birth, and have now set their sights on birth control, IVF, and no-fault divorce.
They’ve broken our government in order to create a pretext for further breakage, sabotaging programs that make up our increasingly frayed social safety net to ensure that they fail, and then use the failure as an excuse for further sabotage. There’s been a deliberate sustained effort to increase immiseration and decline in the areas of health care, education, and infrastructure, in ways that cause the greatest harm to fall upon disabled people and minority communities.
They’ve utterly broken our constitution with their support of the almost infinitely corrupt Supreme Court justices they installed, in order to walk back any notion that our government is of, by, and for, the people, and to restore it to its originalist glory as a nation of, for, and by slaveholding billionaires.
They’ve ensured that we are a nation full of murder weapons and inciting language, and they maintain this status quo of fear and violence no matter how many massacres happen as a result.
They’ve thrown their almost-unanimous support behind a flagrantly corrupt, utterly criminal former president, a man who literally tried to overthrow the government and murder Congress, a man who is authoritarian in every impulse, fascist in his goals, his methods, and his rhetoric. Even those who vie for the party nomination in 2024 don’t dare criticize him as they work to try to top him in their fascist proposals, as they talk about summary mass murder at the border, raising the voting age, raising the retirement age. There’s full-throated approval of—and desire to increase—police brutality and militarization, to expand mass privatized incarceration. There’s talk of war with Mexico. There’s talk of war with liberals. There’s talk of a second secession.
More and more, they use Nazi slogans and fascist symbols, pursue fascist ends, run fascists for public office—all of it done in ways that maximize deniability, and test the margins of permissibility.
Most of all, they’ve organized around a cult of personality, mediated through an open and explicit reverence for violence as a redeeming force, and by a nationalist myth of purification.
So yes, Republicans have persuaded me that Republicans are fascists. I have to say, they are very persuasive—so persuasive I don’t think anybody could persuade me otherwise. People who are fans of persuasion should study it.
What this tells me is that actions are persuasive in ways words are not. I didn’t think Jake was a bully until he started bullying me; once he did, nothing could persuade me he was not, and I would have mistrusted anyone who tried to persuade me otherwise.
Republican and conservative actions are more persuasive—far more—than whatever it is they say they’re doing instead, whatever rationale they’ve told themselves. It’s far more persuasive than anything that could be learned in debate.
So yes, I’ve been persuaded.
And I have to say, I think that Republicans’ political opponents, The Democrats, who are not fascist and are only partially captured by our dominant spirit of supremacy3, have been very persuasive as well, and so have so many “wise Republicans” and other ostensibly moderate voices who preach a comfortable unity with fascism that brings a false and violent peace, rather than the more difficult and less advantageous peace of justice that comes with solidarity.
I think what the popular institutional reaction to fascist bullies has done is persuade the bullies that the margins of permission will move out as far as the bullies want to move them.
Every “sane Republican” who finds some rationale to continue to support their fascist party persuades fascist bullies that there is no act so shocking that sane conservatives won’t rationalize it.
Every normalizing headline and every equivocating opinion piece, every time that confederate criminals are treated as if they are participants in the system they are actively destroying, persuades the bullies that there is little they can do that will not be normalized.
I think when Ronald Reagan’s war crimes were normalized, it convinced fascist bullies that they could lie us into a war.
I think that when George W. Bush’s fraudulent wars were normalized, it convinced fascist bullies that there was no crime a president couldn’t get away with; anyway I think it certainly persuaded a fascist bully named Donald Trump.
I think fascist bullies have realized that if Trump can be normalized, anything will be; that there is no limit to where the margins of permission can be pushed.
I think fascist bullies have been persuaded that we’ll never stop identifying with them instead of with any victims they select, never stop appealing to better angels or insisting that the better angels are what should be pursued as a first priority.
I think in our desire to persuade, we’ve persuaded fascist bullies that they might face disagreement or disapproval, but they’ll never face a fight.
That’s just how bullies like it, is something I’ve learned about bullies.
Enjoying this essay? I do one like it every week.
I think there is a danger that some will read into this, that what I want is a fight. To this, I’d return to the story I told, and remind you that in it, the fight never came.
If it went down the way I remembered, what happened in the story is that permission changed, and my bully, finally attuned to permission, noticed. Even if it didn’t happen that way, I bet some of you have similar stories, because bullies work the same way everywhere.
I’ll say more.
I think if my dad hadn’t told me to fight back, there would have been violence: not a fight, but a beating, because my bully would have realized a beating was permissible. There might have been many beatings. Or maybe there would have eventually been a fight. Some bullies are willing to fight, after all, particularly if they think they can win. But there would have been more violence before it ended, not less.
Where would it have ended? Who can say? My bully couldn’t, I bet. Bullies lie even to themselves even about what they’re doing. I met Jake at a wedding reception in my early twenties and he suggested we should hang out, him and his wife, me and mine. He was shocked to hear a story from me of bullying. I suspect he truly didn’t remember. Remembering is a cost, after all, and bullies prefer that other people pay the costs.
So huddle in, anti-polarization persuasion aficionados. Listen to me.
There are elected officials holding flamethrowers right now, burning cardboard boxes that are meant to indicate people. There are queer refugees from states in our union, because those states have fascist governments. There is talk of elimination.
It’s getting worse, and it’s getting worse fast.
I can see that your type of persuasion isn’t working at stopping it.
In fact, I think your type of persuasion is making it inevitable, by making the margins of permission as elastic as the most fascist bully wants to make it.
If you want to prevent inevitable violence, and stave off the beating that our national gang of fascist bullies—by which I meant the Republican Party—is intent on delivering to our friends and neighbors, our siblings and cousins and parents, you’re going to have to find the fascists on Monday and grin at them in morning class—or whatever it takes to communicate by posture and position something new, that persuades in more effective ways, that the permission they’ve been enjoying has changed.
I think we need to persuade them that we’re done trying to understand the lies they tell themselves; done looking for their better angels. Instead, I think we ought to be very persuasive that we see the worse demons they’re dancing with, and that we know the truth of their intentions because we see the horrors that they are doing, and we see the worse horrors they are pretending to do.
I think we need to persuade them that we are anti-fascist, the same way they persuaded us they are fascist.
I think we need to persuade them that the margins of permission have snapped back, and let them know if you do this, you are going to have to fight—not because we want a fight, but because we won’t stand by and watch a beating.
If we want to prevent the violence these toxic cowards are making inevitable, I think we ought to be very persuasive indeed.
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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He’s gonna be cold, cold, cold, cold, cold.
Yes, very much like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, right down to the hairstyle.
Even though his actual name was Jeremy.
They don’t think cancer patients should die destitute, for example, but many of them do want to keep in place our current system that makes sure that health care is still a cost to be paid by patients rather than a society’s investment in its own health, and should still be mediated through supremacist questions of whether or not the care has been earned.