Defeating Fascism

Defeating Fascism

The 2023 Berry Street Essay urges UUs to recognize and confront an imminent threat.

Jeff Milchen
Berry Street essayist Rev. Cecilia Kingman

Image: Rev. Cecilia Kingman delivers the Berry Street Essay at Ministry Days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 21, 2023.

© 2023 Nancy Pierce/UUA


Rev. Cecilia Kingman clearly aimed to jolt people out of their comfort zones when presenting her Berry Street Essay at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Ministry Days gathering in Pittsburgh in June.

"It's vital to understand that we are past the point of voting the fascists out." 
–Rev. Cecilia Kingman

“It’s vital to understand that we are past the point of voting the fascists out,” said Kingman, who is currently in a doctoral program studying the church’s response to authoritarianism. “We have entered an era of violent civil conflict,” she observed, emphasizing the need for strategic and collaborative nonviolent organizing.

Her words resonated deeply because recent years have brought us a steady procession of fascists proclaiming their goals aloud, yet many people still decline to take them literally. For at least seven years prior to the attempted overthrow of our republic on January 6, 2021, experts tried to warn us of imminent threats, but they were largely ignored or branded as alarmists. This treatment continued even after Donald Trump launched his presidential candidacy in 2015 with branding straight from the authoritarian playbook.

Invoking a mythic past (e.g. “Make America Great Again”) is number one on the list of tactics (based on the book How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley) that Kingman reviewed in her presentation. I call it weaponized nostalgia; exploiting people’s emotional connections to memories real or imagined to enlist them in a fight to roll back our progress toward justice.

Predictions that Trump’s defeat in 2020 would help reset our political environment clearly were wrong, as some would-be successors not only have adopted Trump’s authoritarian approach but have tried to outflank him with even more extreme racism, transphobia, and other hate-based tactics. Trump himself made clear that if elected in 2024 he would oust any civil servant more loyal to our nation than to him. He openly called for“the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” that kept him from illegally retaining power after losing the 2020 presidential election.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has long worked to defeat racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. We work to dismantle minority rule and violent threats to democracy. Increasingly, we’re compelled to directly confront the F word: fascism. We see little hope of developing an effective plan of action to cure any societal disease until we diagnose the problem accurately, so addressing the threat in plain language is a prerequisite for shrinking it.

Kingman’s emphasis on authoritarian tactics and the need for organizing beyond electoral politics is crucial. We are not battling a coherent political agenda but a reactionary portion of society intent on seizing and holding power for its own sake. The purveyors of fascism overwhelmingly are white, patriarchal, opposed to freedom of gender and sexual orientation, and profess to be people of faith (often invoking Christianity to justify their claim to privilege).

“Those who use fascist political tactics do not themselves have to have a fascist ideology. When it is used by those in power, it enthralls increasing numbers of people into true believers.” 
–Rev. Cecilia Kingman

Kingman pointed out: “Those who use fascist political tactics do not themselves have to have a fascist ideology. When it is used by those in power, it enthralls increasing numbers of people into true believers.” We should try to differentiate those who may employ oppressive tactics without a deliberate strategy and may be open to assessing their behavior from those who purposefully incite marginalization, oppression, or violence.

Kingman noted that fascists choose a vulnerable group in society to scapegoat and attack first and assess how to move forward in grabbing more power based on how society responds. The persistent work by the UUA, Side With Love, and our partners to defend our transgender siblings from attack is rooted first in our core values of respect for their human rights. Additionally, we recognize what Kingman stated so clearly in her Berry Street Essay: “They will not stop with our trans siblings, and the impact falls most heavily on our trans siblings who are also Black, Indigenous, people of color, poor, and/or disabled. Fascists will see what the public allows and will move to control increasingly broader categories: queer people, immigrants, people of color, Indigenous folks, women…”

Ongoing demographic shifts effectively guarantee that enemies of democracy will become more violent unless and until their views have been rendered too shameful to express publicly. Their regressive vision for our nation involves white patriarchal hierarchies across politics, business, civic society, and even family lives—essentially reversing decades of progress toward becoming a more just nation. They realize their vision can’t be achieved by democratic means, so they are rejecting democracy and working to embed minority rule as deeply as possible rather than compromise on their claims to power and privilege.

How to Be an Antifascist!

“Combating Fascisms Without & Within: An Organized UU Response” is a free two-part online program by the UUA’s Side With Love team that builds on Rev. Cecilia Kingman’s Berry Street Essay. Listening to/watching or reading the talk and Session One is a prerequisite for Session Two (August 14). There, we’ll develop concrete organizing responses that congregations can take to counter fascism and build democracy in their own communities and beyond. Register here!

Along with identifying and responding to fascist behavior in society, Kingman challenged us to examine our own lives and our faith to recognize tactics and unthinking attachment to antiquated power structures. “Our faith tradition is rooted in historic hierarchies, the very hierarchies that fascists seek to protect and restore,” said Kingman. She added, “We have a lot of work to do to dig out the roots of this evil.” She noted the debate over adding an eighth, explicitly antiracist UU Principle revealed that our own faith struggles with attitudes that reinforce white supremacy and oppression.

“Follow the leadership of those who have been struggling under historic oppression—those most under attack,” advised Kingman. “No one knows better how to see through the lies, how to resist, how to protect one another,” she said, urging UUs to empower “our queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, poor, and disabled colleagues.

Among Kingman’s calls to action was the warning that “voter organizing is no longer a fully sufficient strategy, and we can’t keep careening from one election cycle to another. We must work in coalitions to shape a multi-year plan for keeping these fascist politics in check.” The UUA Organizing Strategy Team (the folks who organize Side With Love, UPLIFT Action, and other key UU justice initiatives) already is acting on that provocation in key ways. In September, a year-round Democracy Strategist will join the team and help transform UU the Vote from a biennial campaign to a proactive year-round program to advance voting rights and democracy.

We face formidable challenges to stave off threats to our freedom and resume progress toward realizing the unfulfilled promise of genuine multiracial democracy, but together, we are capable. As historian and writer Jared Yates Sexton said, “the antidotes to Trumpism and fascism are knowledge, solidarity, and love. We must undo the toxic brainwashing the powerful have given us, find the truth, and then find each other.