Trump and everyday anti-fascism beyond punching Nazis

  • January 23, 2017

Movement & Mobilization

The goal of everyday anti-fascism is to increase the social cost of oppressive behavior to the point where those who promote it see no option but to hide.

Either change their views
Or change your friends
If you have a racist friend
Now is the time, now is the time
For your friendship to end

Racist Friend, The Special A.K.A.

Much attention has been directed toward the anonymous avenger who slugged the white supremacist “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer at the Trump Inauguration protest in Washington D.C., and with good reason. Yet the punch heard round the internet was far from the only anti-fascist action taken in DC this weekend.

In order to develop a broad anti-fascist agenda that aims to rip this weed out by the stem, we mustn’t overlook more seemingly mundane, even trivial, examples of what I argue amount to everyday anti-fascism that rely on developing an anti-fascist outlook that can hopefully stem the tide of bigotry unleashed by “everyday Trumpism.”

Everyday Fascism

If we want to promote everyday anti-fascism, we must first be clear on what everyday fascism can look like (admittedly it can take many forms), and who the everyday fascists are. Although the alt-right makes a lot of noise, those who self-identify with that rather new label are few.

Yet as Trump rose to power, their ideas filtered through the campaign to ignite reactionary passion among many white Americans who felt alienated about the loss of their “place in the sun.” A country that they imagined would remain white, Christian, patriarchal and heteronormative with an eternal manufacturing economy is rapidly disappearing.

In this context, Spencer and the alt-right have made Trump their figurehead in the movement to push back waves of (albeit incomplete) progress that American social movements have made in establishing societal taboos against explicit manifestations of racism, sexism and other oppressive behaviors that have been dismissed as “political correctness.”

This has taken many forms — from Trump and his supporters dismissing his boasts about sexual assault as mere “locker room talk,” to his disdain for the Geneva Conventions and general opposition to torture, to his comfort with labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists, to his outrage at being named the Time Magazine “person of the year” rather than the “man of the year.”

Much of Trump’s popularity stemmed from the relief that many Americans felt in hearing someone in an unquestioned position of authority and prestige say the very things that they had been thinking for years, but that were considered too taboo by society to utter or act upon. Especially after Trump’s election, the strength of that taboo was damaged, as more than 867 “cases of hateful harassment or intimidation” were reported within the first ten days after the election.

When we think about everyday fascists, we must bear in mind that the fascist regimes of the past could not have survived without a broad layer of societal support. Over the years, historical research has demonstrated that the process of demonizing the marginalized required the privileging of the favored, making many the explicit or implicit allies of Mussolini, Hitler, and other leaders.

If fascism required societal support for the destruction of “artificial,” “bourgeois” norms such as the “rights of man” in developing its hyper-nationalism, then today we must be alert to the ongoing campaign to delegitimize the ethical and political standards that we have at our disposal to fight back. This is evident in many of the arguments of the far right, but I found one useful articulation of it in the opening of an article from a crappy, generic far-right blog:

One of the best things about Donald Trump’s glorious, GLORIOUS election win is how it proved that all the main smears that SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] and “journalists” throw at wrongthinkers — Sexist, Racist, Islamophobe etc — have lost most of their power. After all, Trump was hit with these slurs non-stop during his presidential campaign, even by “respectable” media outlets, and still ended up beating Hillary Clinton decisively. It’s about time too, because not only are smears like Racist and Sexist overused, they’ve basically become intellectual poison.

After Trump’s victory, we have a dangerous mix of mainstream conservatives who don’t want to appear racist and alt-right “race realists” who all accuse the “left” of so over-using the term that it is rendered meaningless — in other words, no one is racist anymore (or we’re all racist now?). There is a major difference between the previous paradigm, where the left accused the right of being racist, and then the right accused the left of being the real racists because they focused so much on race, and a developing paradigm where the alt-right and those they have influenced try to drain the power of the accusation.

The everyday fascists are the ardent Trump supporters who “tell it like it is” by actively trying to dismantle the taboos against oppression that the movements for feminism, black liberation, queer liberation and others have given their sweat, tears and all too often blood to establish as admittedly shoddy, and far too easily manipulatable, bulwarks against outright fascism.

These social norms are constantly contested and are unfortunately subject to re-signification in oppressive directions, such as when George W. Bush sold the war in Afghanistan as a crusade for women’s rights. Yet the fact that politicians have felt the need to engage on the plains that popular resistance have established means that they left themselves open to political attacks on grounds that they at least tacitly acknowledged. A major concern with Trump and the alt-right, however, is that they hope to drain these standards of their meaning.

Liberals tend to examine issues of sexism or racism in terms of the question of belief or what is “in one’s heart.” What is often overlooked in such conversations is that what one truly believes is sometimes much less important than what social constraints allow that person to articulate or act upon. This issue is at the center of questions of social progress or regression and its contours are established through the seemingly infinite networks of human interactions that compose our society.

While one should always be wary about painting large groups of people with a broad brush, it is clear that ardent Trump supporters voted for their candidate either because of or despite his misogyny, racism, ableism, Islamophobia and many more hateful traits. When “Americans for a Better Way” mailed letters to five mosques in California calling Muslims “a vile and filthy people” and threatening genocide during the height of the presidential campaign, we can see how the broader foundations of everyday fascism embolden those who attempt to terrorize the marginal.

Everyday Anti-Fascism

When leftists think of anti-fascism they tend to focus on the movements around the many Anti-Fascist Action groups popularly abbreviated as “antifa.” They have undoubtedly play tremendously important roles in resisting the far right around the world and protecting the vulnerable. Here, however, I am interested in the more subtle forms of everyday anti-fascism that deprive the far right of their bases of support in popular opinion. In order to understand what I mean by everyday anti-fascism, let’s first take a look at what I call an anti-fascist outlook that provides their foundation.

At its core, anti-fascist politics are about denying fascists a platform in society to promote their politics. This can be done by physically confronting them when they mass in public, by pressuring venues to cancel their events, by shutting down their websites, stealing their newspapers, etc. At the heart of the anti-fascist ethos is a rejection of the classical liberal notion adopted from Voltaire that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” After Auschwitz and Treblinka, anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death to stomp on the right of Nazis to say anything.

In theory, American liberalism is allergic to the notion of “discriminating” against anyone based on their politics, and sees the role of government as that of referee in a game that all political tendencies are invited to play (despite the empirical inaccuracy of this dream). Unless they break the law, Nazis can be Nazis. That’s just their “opinion,” which is just as legitimate as any other in an imagined free market of thought. In contrast, anti-fascism is avowedly political in its determination to deny the legitimacy of Nazi opinions and take seriously the ramifications that such views can and do have in the world around us.

An anti-fascist outlook applies this logic to any kind of interaction with fascists. It refuses to accept the dangerous notion that homophobia is just someone’s “opinion” to which they are entitled. It refuses to accept opposition to the basic proposal that “Black Lives Matter” as a simple political disagreement. An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for “intolerance.” It will not “agree to disagree.” To those who argue that this would make us no better than Nazis, we must point out that our critique is not against violence, incivility, discrimination or disrupting speeches in the abstract, but against those who do so in the service of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, class oppression and genocide. The point here isn’t tactics, it’s politics.

If the goal of normal anti-fascist politics is to make it so that Nazis cannot appear uncontested in public, then the goal of everyday anti-fascism is to increase the social cost of oppressive behavior to such a point that those who promote it see no option but for their views to recede into hiding. Certainly this goal had not been fully accomplished by a long shot prior to the rise of Trump, but his election and the growth of the alt-right (at least on the web) has made this task all the more pressing.

The anti-fascist outlook was put into action in many ways during the inauguration protest — from the more visible example of socking Richard Spencer to burning the Trump baseball caps of attendees at the alt-right “Deploraball,” to getting in the faces of Trump supporters heckling the Women’s March. Two signs I saw at the Women’s March epitomized this perspective. They read: “Make Racists Afraid Again” and “Make Rapists Afraid Again.” These slogans point to the fact that, while ideally we could convince all racists and rapists to change their ways, the pressing task for the protection of the vulnerable is to make it so that they think twice before acting.

(Photo has been edited for readability.)

To clarify, I certainly agree that changing hearts and minds is ideal and that it can happen. One striking example occurred with the case of Derek Black, the son of the founder of the Nazi Stormfront site, who disavowed white supremacy through conversations with friends at the New College of Florida.

But apart from the rareness of this development, one point should be remembered: that Derek Black’s white supremacist ideas and the anti-racist ideas of the New College students did not meet each other on an equal playing field. Derek Black was embarrassed about being a neo-Nazi and that fact only came out once others publicized it. Why was he embarrassed? Because Nazism has been so thoroughly discredited that he felt like he was in a tiny minority at odds with everyone around him.

In other words, the anti-racist movements of the past constructed the high social cost that Black’s white supremacist views carried, thereby paving the way for him to open himself up to an anti-racist outlook. Hearts and minds are never changed in a vacuum; they are products of the worlds around them and the structures of discourse that give them meaning.

Any time someone takes action against a transphobic, racist bigot — from calling them out to boycotting their business, to shaming them for their oppressive beliefs, to ending a friendship unless someone shapes up — they are putting an anti-fascist outlook into practice to contribute to a broader everyday anti-fascism necessary to push back the tide against the alt-right, Trump and his loyal supporters. Our goal should be that, in twenty years, those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that fact in public.

We may not always be able to change someone’s beliefs, but we sure as hell can make it politically, socially, economically, and sometimes physically costly to articulate them.

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Mark Bray

Mark Bray is a political organizer, historian and the author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House, forthcoming), Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street (Zero, 2013), and the co-editor of Anarchist Education and the Modern School: A Francisco Ferrer Reader (PM Press, forthcoming). He is a currently a Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College.

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