5. Not This Time!

Page 8

Raising the Stakes

We may not always be able to change someone’s oppressive beliefs, but we sure as hell can make it socially costly to articulate them in public.

Everyday Anti-Fascism in the Era of Trump

Illustration by David Istvan. Photo by Eugenio Marongiu / Shutterstock.com.

From Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan and Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds to Indiana Jones, nothing seems to delight American movie-goers more than killing Nazis.

As the epitome of historical evil, seemingly any form of punishment unleashed upon the fascist body — whether baseball bats to the head from Tarantino’s “Bear Jew” or airplane propellers slicing up a German mechanic in the Raiders of the Lost Ark — elicits a cathartic delight at the unleashing of vengeful justice at a very safe chronological and spatial distance. Since World War II is the least controversial war in American history, few dispute the legitimacy of fighting Nazis in the late 1930s and 1940s.

But here is a question movie-goers are rarely, if ever, asked: was it also heroic to fight Nazis before the outbreak of war, while Hitler’s regime was building camps and ghettos? Or before Hitler even took power in 1933? How would Americans respond to a cinematic depiction of Communist and Social Democratic paramilitary organizations, such as the Red Front Fighters’ League, the Iron Front for Resistance Against Fascism, and Antifaschistische Aktion when they were organized to fight the Nazi Sturmabteilung in the 1920s and 1930s? Still, most Americans would probably sympathize with these militant formations because they know that the story ultimately ends in the gas chambers.

So why then are so many Americans allergic to not only the prospect of physically confronting fascists and white supremacists, but even non-violently disrupting their speeches in favor of a Fourth Reich? There appear to be two main reasons.

The Bankruptcy of “Liberal Anti-Fascism”

First, American liberalism has long promoted the notion that the key to combatting “extremism” is to trust in the allegedly meritocratic essence of the public sphere. If all are allowed their say, then the good ideas will float to the top while the bad will sink to the bottom, like live-action Reddit. “Extremism” (a seemingly innocuous term that centrists use to conflate Nazis with anarchists, Jihadists with communists) arises when this “natural” process of discursive exchange is impeded.

The conclusion is that the one who disrupts a fascist speaker brings us closer to “fascism” than the aggrieved orator who is actually advocating for fascism. Liberal opposition to fascists amounts to faith in reasoned debate to counteract their ideas, in the police to counteract their violent deeds, and in the institutions of the republic to counteract their potential attempts to seize power.

Yet these three facets failed the Weimar Republic in the 1930s. Like Trumpism, both fascism and Nazism emerged as emotional, anti-rational appeals grounded in masculine promises of renewed national vigor. No matter how many think-pieces liberals pen about the need to combat fascism through reasoned debate, no argument can win over one whose belief system is predicated on eschewing rationality.

This is not to say that there is no value in political argumentation at all. The attraction of far-right ideology often glistens the brightest when the left fails to win the victories necessary to address popular needs and promote its own ideological perspectives. Resisting fascism requires not only anti-fascist organizing, but organizing on all fronts. Yet anti-fascist argumentation is only useful for those who might be sympathetic toward fascism — its potential popular base — rather than ideologues who have nothing but disdain for the very terms of debate. They require a different kind of convincing.

Moreover, we can count on the fact that, as fascistic and far-right politics gain prominence, they will win over more than their fair share of police. In recent elections in Greece and France, for instance, very high percentages of police voted for Golden Dawn and the Front National. In the United States, it is clear that many police welcomed Trump as a “Blue Lives Matter” candidate who would allow law enforcement to continue its harassment and murder of communities of color unimpeded.

Recently it was revealed that the FBI has been investigating alarmingly (though not surprisingly) high levels of white supremacist infiltration into law enforcement for decades. Moreover, regardless of the composition of the American police force, the fact that it developed out of southern slave patrols and opposition to the labor movement gives us insight into its role in orchestrating the white supremacist prison system. This is supposed to be the societal bulwark against racist violence?

That finally brings us to the republic: the supposedly impartial referee in a game that all political tendencies are invited to play. Certainly, the referee would never allow any of the players to cheat! Yet, if we look at the history of fascism, we see that there is no need for cheating. There has never been a successful fascist “revolution”: all fascists have come to power through playing by the rules. Is it any longer hard to imagine a situation where Trump and his supporters used the full range of entirely legal options at their disposal to centralize power under emergency edicts in response to some sort of “crisis”?

“All or Nothing” Fascism

The second reason why American liberals are opposed to disrupting and confronting fascism is that, despite all of the hand-wringing about “Trump the fascist” from center-left commentators and enraged Clinton supporters, very few really believe that there is any serious chance of a fascistic regime ever materializing in America. Since most people tacitly conceive of fascism exclusively in terms of entire “totalitarian” regimes, the prospect of fascism becomes an “all or nothing” proposition. In the absence of impending fear, this often becomes “nothing.”

While this skepticism toward the imminent potential of an explicitly fascist government in the United States is probably justified, we should first of all always remember that few took seriously the small bands of followers around Mussolini and Hitler when they started their fascist ascent, and therefore remain vigilant against any and every manifestation of fascistic politics. Secondly, we should not forget that the probability of a full-fledged fascist government is actually beside the point in terms of everyday organizing. Fascist violence is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even in relatively small doses it deserves to be taken seriously.

Mark Bray’s new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, will be published by Melville on August 29.

In discussing the question of anti-fascist violence, we must not allow the conversation to devolve into a purely analytical, ahistorical reflection on the nature of free speech. We must remember that when anti-fascism first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, and then established itself in its current form in the 1980s, its main raison d’être was everyday self-defense and survival. For example, in Germany between 1990 and 1994, neo-Nazis committed more than eighty murders, and in 1993 alone more than 23,000 right-wing hate crimes were reported. In this context, anti-fascists allied with Turkish youth to defend themselves and put a brake on a neo-Nazi revival. In other words, in different times and places fascism has given many no choice but militant anti-fascism.

Therefore, regardless of the exact form that the Trump regime will take, we already have to resist widespread white supremacist, Islamophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, ableist and other forms of violence that have been exacerbated by Trump’s victory. More than 867 “cases of hateful harassment or intimidation” were reported within the first ten days after the election. Trump has pledged to lock up and then deport millions of people simply because they lack the proper papers. That is more than enough reason to ring the alarm bells now, regardless of what may or may not come, and organize militant anti-fascist resistance.

Anti-fascists realize that far-right violence develops directly out of fascist or “alt-right” speeches, arguments, media and social media. White men who terrorize Muslim families and Latino immigrants develop their ideas and the resolve to carry through on them from these and other sources. 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.”

In this context, the alt-right have made Trump their figurehead in the movement to push back waves of progress (albeit incomplete) 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.”

If left unchecked, the mainstreaming of alt-right views will have immediate, tangible effects on those that they target. To resist this growing reality, we need a comprehensive anti-fascist strategy that includes explicitly anti-fascist organizing and a recognition of how ultimately the bases of support for both fascism and anti-fascism are formed by the societal norms of political and ethical behavior that develop over generations of struggle. With that in mind, we can orient our resistance against both capital-F Fascists and the “everyday fascists” that empower them, feed off of their hateful energy, and all too often carry out the violent deeds that ideologues advocate.

Anti-Fascist Action

The anti-fascist movement stretches back to the very start of fascism itself, but can be dated in its modern incarnation largely to the 1980s, with the creation of Anti-Fascist Action groups in Britain, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and Anti-Racist Action groups in the USA, developed in opposition to liberal proposals for combatting the far right.

Antifa is a network of groups of revolutionary socialists of all stripes who view the police and the capitalist republic as enemies who often enable fascists. Their politics revolve around 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, and so on. At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook 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.

Some carry out the work of depriving Nazis of a platform for promoting genocide without resorting to violence. Despite the liberal proclivity to characterize disrupting speech as a form of violence, it is quite possible to shut down a speaker non-violently. In order to develop a broad, powerful anti-fascist movement we must allow space for a diversity of tactics and avoid the kind of macho culture that potentially threatens any political milieu that promotes violence. Anyone can be an anti-fascist, whether they feel comfortable physically confronting a Klansman or not.

Yet, although many will refrain from physical confrontation, a good number will risk their personal well-being and liberty to increase the physical cost of publicly disseminating white supremacy and authoritarianism. This plank of the anti-fascist struggle has become essential in decades of organizing across a variety of regional contexts. Considering the importance that masculinity and the fetishism of violence play in the fascist ethos, successfully beating up Nazis plays an important part in humiliating them and undermining their core tenets of power.

Thoughtful pacifists — those who are consistent in their opposition to violence by rejecting not only revolutionary violence but also that of the police and the state — have legitimate contributions to make to such debates, though the argument, which some make, that the self-defense of death camp inmates was immoral is unconscionably repulsive and inhumane. This argument, however, is addressed to those who cheer the “Bear Jew” when he goes “Ted Williams” on a Nazi’s head, and Indiana Jones when he hurls a Nazi off a cliff, but object when anti-fascists fight living, breathing white supremacists who have devoted their entire existences to terrorizing people of color, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people and others that do not fit into their dystopian nightmare of an ideology.

Do we need to wait until the swastikas are unfurled from government buildings before we defend ourselves? How bad does it have to get before we fight back? Whose lives hang in the balance if we wait? Militant anti-fascism is not a light switch that can be flicked on in a moment of crisis. It must be developed over the course of generations to become powerful enough to actually make good on the promise of the 1948 Genocide Convention: “Never Again.”

Everyday Anti-Fascism

The exceptional spectacle of anti-fascist organizers confronting Nazis is not enough to stem the tide of Trumpism. Moreover, even the success of such physical militancy relies on its public reception. Therefore, we must pair our focus on the flashiness of organized anti-fascism with an understanding of a deeper, more profound everyday anti-fascism that dictates the terrain upon which such struggles occur.

In order to understand everyday anti-fascism, 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.

After Trump’s victory, we have a dangerous mix of mainstream conservatives who do not 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 are 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 movements 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.

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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. 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. There is certainly a significant difference between “because of” and “despite” in this context, and sensitivity to the difference should attune us to the importance of mass organizing that can divert potential fascist-sympathizers away from the far right. It is always important to distinguish between ideologues and their capricious followers, yet we cannot overlook how these popular bases of support create the foundations for fascism to manifest itself.

Everyday anti-fascism applies an anti-fascist outlook to any kind of interaction with fascists, everyday or otherwise. 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 is not tactics; it is politics.

Raising the Costs of Oppressive Behavior

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.

To clarify, changing hearts and minds is ideal and 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. 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 white supremacist views carried, thereby paving the way for someone like Derek Black 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.

Mark Bray

Mark Bray is a political organizer, historian and the author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House, 2017), 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, 2018). He is a currently a Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College.

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