On Monday, President Joe Biden hosted three Tennessee lawmakers who joined a protest calling for gun control legislation on the floor of the statehouse earlier this month and were punished with votes to expel them from office by the Republican supermajority in Nashville.
"What the Republican legislature did was shocking, it was undemocratic and it was without any precedent," Biden said during the Oval Office meeting. "Nothing is guaranteed about democracy. Every generation has to fight for it."
Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, both of whom are Black, were voted out of the chamber, while Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was allowed to stay by a one vote margin despite her participation in the protest after a mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school left six dead, including three nine-year-olds.
While all three lawmakers blasted their expulsions as assaults on democracy, Johnson told reporters after she was spared on the day of the votes: "we need to make sure we stomp out this march to fascism."
As the expulsion votes were underway, supporters of the lawmakers had a simple message for the Republicans who voted to temporarily leave largely Black communities in Nashville and Memphis without representation in the state House of Representatives.
"F*** you, fascists," the activists and students chanted outside the doors of the House floor.
Johnson and the activists were not alone in using that term, "fascist," which has grown in use in U.S. politics in recent years.
"Fascism places the importance of the nation above all else. The unity of the national community is prioritized above the rights of individuals," according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s definition. "This leads to an intense interest in defining which groups belong or do not belong to the national body."
After the expulsions, prominent members of Congress quickly echoed the activists’ call.
Tennessee Republicans’ "fascism is only further radicalizing and awakening an earthquake of young people, both in the South and across the nation," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted the day of the expulsions.
Her fellow New York lawmaker, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, urged his supporters to "focus on protecting our democracy from fascism."
The New York Democrats were far from the only lawmakers to use that term.
"This is fascism," wrote Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., while California Rep. Pete Aguilar described the move as "MAGA Fascism." Florida’s Rep. Maxwell Frost called the lawmakers "anti-democratic fascists'' and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said Tennessee’s GOP was sending "a blatant and public message: white supremacy & fascism over our kids’ lives." Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern wrote "this is fascism, full stop."
Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., wrote "what we’re seeing in TN tonight is fascism [in] its ugliest, most racist form."
In an interview with Spectrum News, Lee warned "the pace is quickening" as fascism, in her view, spreads across the country via the Republican party.
"Fascism and authoritarianism are creeping up on us," Lee said. "As a nation, I don’t believe that we are taking this serious enough and that we can get to this point really shows that democracy… has truly, truly been stretched."
"This is a trend and every time they do this, they’re testing the waters," the freshman Democrat charged. "They’re getting deeper and deeper. The more they will be able to get away with, the more that they will try."
Tennessee was the latest example of the "outright show of force and show of this ideology of fascism that’s been taking over the Republican Party over the last several years and I think people have been hesitant to call it out for what it is," Frost told Spectrum News.
"This isn’t like a tit for tat thing right? It’s not like ‘oh, they call us socialists and communists, I’m going to call them this,’" Frost continued. "I’m simply defining what’s going on. If you look at someone like Gov. Ron DeSantis and all the actions that he’s done and then you read the definition of what the ideology of fascism is, it’s a direct connect to what he’s doing, who he is, and the fear that he has instilled over the entire state."
Bowman shared similar views, telling Spectrum News that the Tennessee expulsions fit into a larger pattern of the "degradation of democracy," including the rise in book bannings, the watering down of education on race in America, the politicization of college professors and curriculum, and the recent decision by a federal judge in Texas to reverse the Food and Drug Administration’s more than two decade-old approval of an abortion medication that has ended up at the Supreme Court.
"These are fascist behaviors," Bowman said. "We’ll have a democracy if we can keep it. And hopefully, we’ll fight to keep it."
In particular, the targeting of educators and colleges is a common tactic used by fascist movements, Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University, wrote in his book "How Fascism Works."
"Within universities, fascist politicians target professors they deem too political—typically, too Marxist—and denounce entire areas of study," he wrote. "Gender studies, for instance, comes under fire from far-right nationalist movements across the world. The professors and teachers in these fields are accused of disrespect to the traditions of the nation."
Eliminating the opposition
European fascism in the earliest 20th century was inspired by Jim Crow laws in the United States, Stanley told Spectrum News.
"Fascism is just a foreign word for Jim Crow," said Stanley, paraphrasing a 1937 Langston Hughes speech. "Hitler is extremely influenced by Jim Crow. The Nuremberg Laws are based on the Jim Crow laws. Nazi lawyers studied them carefully. So what you’re seeing in Tennessee is a reversion to America’s history of racial fascism. It’s not imported."
Fascism, Stanley explained, is "openly anti-democratic and racist," adding "it’s no accident" that the expelled lawmakers, Jones and Pearson, were Black.
The race of the lawmakers — expelled while a white colleague who joined them in their protest, was spared — could not be separated from the partisan power play, Lee, Bowman and Frost told Spectrum News. All three members of Congress are Black.
"Two young Black men were expelled because of racism, because of bigotry, because of a governing majority in Tennessee that doesn’t want to do anything about kids being shot up in schools and at home and on the street," Frost said. "I think this has solidified what a lot of us have been saying for years."
Frost and Lee both called the expulsions an escalation in rhetoric and tactics utilized by Republicans in recent years to stifle opposition, remove perceived enemies from government, and restrict the power of minority groups.
"We are dealing with a party that is committed to eroding our democracy, so that they can win," Lee charged. "They're committed to victory at all costs. They will bend or break or change any rule to get there."
Joanne Freeman, a Yale professor of history who focuses on the politics of the early United States and authored the book "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War," told Spectrum News the undemocratic trend on the United States’ right is a product of fear of losing the electorate.
"What we're seeing a lot around the country right now is people on the extreme right who understand in one way or another that demographics in the United States are against them. And they are at this moment, many of them, resorting to undemocratic and anti-democratic means to keep a grip on power," Freeman said. "And the question of our time is: how are we going to respond to that? Are we going to recognize it for what it is?"
Guns, race and insurrections
The push to remove the opposition in Tennessee began with a disagreement about gun control. While Lee, Bowman, and Frost all said part of the motivation for Republicans was financial, influenced by gun industry lobbyists and interest groups like the National Rifle Association, Lee also argued the right’s commitment to preserving and expanding gun rights is "because of our original sin in American history, and that is racism."
The United States "is a country whose foundation was on, right, the genocide of the indigenous people, and the exploitation and the enslavement of Black folks," Lee said. "So many of our laws are geared towards controlling those populations. And recognizing the ways in which, as the right wing inflames that hate… this fear that they are instilling in their populations and their base."
Another aspect to consider, Bowman said, is the idea on the right that if things don’t go their way democratically, at least they will be armed.
"What would have happened if the insurrectionists had automatic weapons and just started firing on people?" Bowman said, referring to the rioters on Jan. 6, 2021 who stormed the U.S. Capitol in support of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. "Those are the things I think about in terms of how close we came to completely losing it and being in complete chaos."
"From my Republican colleagues in Congress, I hear rhetoric around the Second Amendment, around guns, that speak to this idea that if the government doesn't do what they want it to do, then they may take over the government with arms." Bowman continued.
At least some of the rioters on Jan. 6 were armed with guns, federal prosecutors have alleged. A member of the far right militia group the Oath Keepers testified at a trial of his former comrades that they built a cache of weapons
"I had not seen that many weapons in one location since I was in the military," Terry Cummings testified, according to the Associated Press.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, R-Ga., a key ally of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy who has spread antisemitic conspiracy theories and rubbed shoulders with white nationalists, told an audience of Trump allies and young Republicans in New York last year "if Steve Bannon had organized [Jan. 6], we would have won. Not to mention it would have been armed."
It was her biggest applause line of the night. Greene later characterized her comments as “sarcasm.”
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton drew on the Jan. 6 insurrection in a radio interview prior to Jones and Pearson’s expulsions.
"What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the capitol," Sexton said. "They were trying to incite people."
Jones, Pearson and Johnson broke a House rule by speaking out of turn and joining in with protestors, who chanted from the galleries. Jones and Pearson spoke through a bullhorn as they called for gun control legislation.
There were no arrests or injuries that day, USA Today reported. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 1,000 people have been arrested for property destruction, trespassing on restricted grounds and assaulting police officers during the Jan. 6 attacks that aimed to stop the counting of electoral votes for a presidential election.
The department said around 140 police officers were assaulted that day. As of April 5, 107 defendants have been charged with "using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer" and 61 pleaded guilty to federal charges of assaulting law enforcement officers.
"An insurrection is an attempt to overturn the government. And when you have people, as we did on Jan. 6, attempt to stop an election from proceeding, that's an insurrection," said Freeman, the historian. "What was happening here was protest, was dissent."
Sexton did not return a request for comment on his remarks or the Democrats’ allegations.
‘We are at war for our republic’
In Umberto Eco’s seminal 1995 essay "Ur-Fascism" he revisits his youth in fascist Italy and outlines 14 features of fascism shared by the early 20th century governments that rose in Europe.
The ninth feature in prolific writer’s list describes the phenomenon in fascist systems that "life is permanent warfare" and "pacifism is trafficking with the enemy."
"Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world," Eco wrote. "But such a ‘final solution’ implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war."
In leaked audio obtained by progressive media outlet The Tennessee Holler, several members of the state House Republican caucus discuss their votes to expel Jones and Pearson, arguing specifically over the decision of Republican state Rep. Jody Barrett’s last-minute decision to vote no on the expulsion of Johnson.
The lawmakers were concerned the appearance of voting to expel two Black men and allowing a white woman to stay would tarnish their reputations. But ultimately there were greater concerns.
"If you don’t believe we’re at war for our republic, with all love and respect to you, you need a different job. The left wants Tennessee so bad because if they get us, the Southeast falls, and it’s game over for the republic," said Rep. Scott Cepicky, who represents parts of a county an hour’s drive south of Nashville. "This is not a neighborhood social gathering. We are fighting for the republic of our country right now. And the world is staring at us — are we gonna stand our ground?"
Cepicky did not respond to a request for comment.
"You gotta do what’s right, even if you think it might be wrong. You gotta do what’s right. And you gotta protect this freaking republic here in Tennessee," Cepicky continued in the leaked audio.
In Eco’s essay, he outlines "the obsession with a plot" against a nation’s people who fascists swear to protect and the contradiction that "enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak."
In Tennessee, Democrats are too weak to break a Republican supermajority at the statehouse, yet in Cepicky’s view, they are strong enough to orchestrate a plot against the state, the southeast United States, and the republic as a whole.