Photo: Chris Vena

Antifascism in the era of Trump

  • November 5, 2016

Fascism & Far Right

The threat of fascism is real. To turn the tide, the left needs a strategy to transform popular outrage into a potent challenge to the neoliberal elite.

It is long past time to open a serious discussion on the nature of antifascist organizing in the United States. The recent Molotov action against a Republican Party office in North Carolina has already provoked a wide range of responses, which prominently feature the tepid liberal condemnation of “political violence.” Donald Trump’s campaign is the most polarizing, contested, and violent in decades, featuring frequent clashes between supporters and protesters and the revitalization of far-right and white supremacist groups.

Much as has been the case with similar political movements in Europe, Trump’s rise poses a new threat and challenge to the American left. We need to organize an anti-fascist response to combat the rise of the far-right in the United States before too much ground is lost.

Fertile Ground

The conditions fueling the rise of right-wing populism are not a mystery. Decades of wage stagnation, growing economic inequality, and recent crises have battered the American middle and working classes. The American political elite is transparently corrupt, self-serving, and incapable of addressing the concerns of ordinary people. In this kind of environment, people naturally look for alternatives to the present system. Because we are raised in a structurally racist society, Americans are primed to accept theories that blame minorities and immigrants for economic problems that are actually produced by capitalism.

Fascism is an ideology that founds a vision of national rebirth on the restoration of a ‘natural’ hierarchy supported by race mythology. Fascism redirects fear and anxiety about socioeconomic dislocation onto ethnic, religious, and ideological Others — Jews, Mexicans, Blacks, communists, etc. — who must be degraded and eliminated.

Economically, fascism promises to restore full employment for racially pure workers through a combination of Keynesian stimulus programs and protectionism. Strategically, fascism positions itself against the liberal status quo by promising to put an end to evils like corruption and tolerance and restore the nation to mythological greatness.

Fascism is not a revolutionary ideology. Fascism simply seizes on reactionary elements that are already present in so-called liberal society. The notorious Nazi watchwords “Blood and Soil” are simply the legal conditions that allow one to acquire citizenship by birth in a modern nation-state. Fascism takes implicit principles of ‘liberal’ capitalist society — racial hierarchy, militarism, and authoritarianism — and elevates them to guiding principles. In doing so, fascist movements aim to put an end to the consequences of capitalist crises without putting an end to the fundamental social relations that produce those crises in the first place.

By now, it seems to be commonly accepted on the American left that Trump’s campaign is essentially proto-fascist. Lest any objections remain, let me briefly restate the case: Trump has campaigned on the promise of national rebirth, “Making America Great Again,” premised on the exclusion and expulsion of “threatening” elements like Muslims and immigrants.

Trump’s campaign has received widespread enthusiastic support from white supremacists, including endorsements from prominent Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party. And, as multiple analyses suggest, Trump’s support seems to be drawn from the social classes historically associated with the rise of fascist movements: the downwardly mobile middle classes alongside reactionary elements of the upper classes.

Trump’s rise has emboldened white nationalists and fascists, who are now using his campaign as an opportunity to mobilize support for their ideas. Fractured, once-irrelevant organizations are forming new alliances and calling conferences to discuss the future of the far right. Even when Trump loses the election, these forces will continue to benefit from the momentum of his campaign. Indeed, Trump’s electoral defeat will likely channel the efforts of the far right into non-electoral campaigns and street politics, which may pose a greater danger to the American left in the long run.

These observations are not meant to downplay the fascistic nature of the US state as it already exists. After all, the “liberal” Obama administration has carried out record-breaking numbers of deportations. The “liberal” Clinton administration presided over the largest drive to imprison poor people and people of color in US history. Trumpism is not a radical departure from business as usual. It is the logical outcome of centuries of racist oppression being expressed in the language of a capitalist society in crisis.

Getting Organized

The American left needs to understand that the level of political violence that has characterized this election campaign is not going to subside. As the far right continues to organize and spread its tendrils throughout American society, street clashes and other forms of physical contention will become more frequent. We need to take the threat posed by the far right seriously and organize ourselves to meet this threat.

There should be no debate on the left about the merits of so-called “militant” antifascism. Far-right groups organize with the explicit purpose of harming ethnic and religious minorities, foreigners, LGBTQ people, and leftists. They often operate with the tacit or material support of the government through the police and intelligence services. We have the right and obligation to defend ourselves, our loved ones, and our comrades from their violence, and to prevent them from gaining power. By driving far-right groups off the streets and disrupting their ability to build a movement, anti-fascists can smother fascist movements before they pose an existential threat.

At the very least, leftists need to prepare to defend our spaces and communities from fascist attacks. It is an absolute necessity that we organize regular self-defense trainings for ourselves and for our wider communities. At the same time, we must create enduring self-defense organizations so that we are ready to react when necessary, regardless of whether these organizations bear the “antifascist” label. Some US radicals are already starting to conduct trainings and organize themselves in this fashion, but much more work is sorely needed, particularly outside of traditional radical strongholds.

Due to the relative underdevelopment of antifascist networks in the United States, many recent antifascist actions have been quite disorganized, leading to unnecessary injuries and arrests. At least seven antifascists were stabbed during clashes with the far right Traditionalist Workers Party earlier this year in what devolved into a chaotic melee. We have to laud the heroism of the comrades who put their lives on the line to drive the fascists off the streets, but we can also observe that a better organized, well-trained force would likely have been able to avoid some of the serious injuries that occurred during the battle. These events underline the need for a material force capable of effectively countering fascist mobilization.

Treating the Disease

Fascism is a disease. Like any serious disease, we have to treat its symptoms if we want to keep ourselves alive and healthy. At the same time, however, we cannot hope to cure our society of this disease if we fail to treat its root causes. Psychologically, fascism preys upon the fear produced by living in a capitalist society in crisis. Anxieties about the loss of socioeconomic status and security are projected onto vulnerable targets. The hatred and violence perpetrated by bigots and fascists is, in a very real sense, a material way of saying: “I am confused and afraid, and I have no other idea how to stop losing ground.”

In and of itself, militant antifascism is a reactive strategy that cannot alleviate the fundamental pressures that push people toward fascist movements. Fascism simply cannot be punched out of existence, no matter how much we might wish this were the case. Organizing for self-defense should not reduce our toolkit purely to reactive counter-demonstrations and street clashes. Antifascism has to be conceived as one part of a broader strategic push to mitigate these fears and anxieties by providing social support and services where the welfare state has retreated.

Leftists should help our communities organize grassroots responses to the dislocations of contemporary capitalism. We can create gardens and food distribution networks to combat hunger, organize solidarity networks and tenants’ unions to respond to the housing crisis, and operate free clinics and liberation schools to provide healthcare and education to the oppressed. All of the above are just examples, as every community will have its own particular constellation of needs and available resources. In general, we need to help our communities develop the means to sustain and protect themselves.

If we combine these survival strategies with a compelling narrative about seizing the power to control our own lives, we may be able to network these local forms of organization into a larger radical movement. Instead of feeling like the victims of forces beyond our control, we can inspire our communities to see themselves as participants in a broader struggle to meaningfully change politics as we know it. In doing so, we will both alleviate the fear and anxiety that fascist movements prey upon and expose our friends and neighbors to the empowerment that comes with putting radical ideas into practice.

This broad strategy has to be implemented not just in working class communities of color, but also among poor white communities. As suggested above, the idea that Trump’s support is being derived from poor “white trash” is an absolute myth. (This narrative misleadingly suggests that poor white people, rather than the wealthy elites who control institutions and write laws, are responsible for enduring structural racism in American society.) Most people earning under $30,000 a year simply do not vote, and levels of party identification among working class whites have been declining continuously for years.

Indeed, poor whites in the United States are one of the only social groups that have yet to definitively shift either leftward or rightward. The first political factions to organize effectively in working class white communities will likely determine whether the left or the right ultimately prevails in the US as political polarization deepens. A quick survey of voter turnout suggests that organizing efforts in Appalachia — centered on West Virginia and eastern Tennessee — may be particularly fruitful. Indeed, these were some of the very areas where radical unionism found stalwart support in the early 20th century.

This strategy is oriented toward building a base of power in American working class communities, along with denying the far right the ability to coopt the white working class. However, as members of the middle classes, the main body of Trump supporters will not necessarily be coopted by these efforts. This means that we will also need to conceive of a broader strategy to undermine support for the far right within the declining middle class. Given the nature of class politics in America, this strategy will have to be different from the one we employ in working class communities.

Although an antifascist strategy should first and foremost be rooted in the working class, we also need to consider possibilities for weakening the base of our adversary. I do not have a conclusive answer to this dilemma. Without being overly reductive, it seems that middle income Americans are leaning towards either the right-wing populism of Donald Trump or the social democratic tendency that emerged with the Sanders campaign. If it is shown that social democratic organizing can undermine middle class support for the reactionary right, then we should consider a pragmatic alliance between our radical grassroots movement and electoralist social democrats.

We Can Win

The rise of the far right across Europe and the United States is deeply linked to the failure of the left to provide realistic and convincing alternatives to the present system. With nowhere else to turn, members of declining or stagnant classes are easy prey for fascist movements that prey on prevalent feelings of resentment and fear. Unless we build real alternatives to the present system, we will continue to lose ground to the far right.

Our problem is not that we lack manpower, conviction, or a narrative with the potential to capture the imagination of the working class. Our problem is that we lack a strategy capable of transforming popular outrage into a potent challenge to the capitalist system. At the moment, the far right is ascendant in large part because excluding immigrants from the workforce is in some ways a “rational” response if one accepts capitalism as the limit of the possible. The left doesn’t need to compete on the basis that it can be a better manager of the capitalist state. It needs to show that another world is possible, not just fifty years hence, but now.

So, simply, let’s stop accepting capitalist logic and start putting our ideas into practice. There is no need to wait for an electoral victory or the next riot to start changing the balance of power between the oppressed and the oppressors. By employing this two-pronged strategy, we can both counter fascist mobilization and start building the means to pose a revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system. In short: get organized and start building power block by block. If we succeed in organizing our communities for self-defense, and if we forge key alliances with appropriate allies, we may just be able to drive the fascists back into the holes they crawled out of.

Ben Reynolds

Ben Reynolds is the author of The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century, out from Zero Books. He is a US-based writer and activist whose work has appeared in ROAR Magazine, The Diplomat and other forums.

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