On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, a masked antifascist punched Richard Spencer. Two weeks later, the University of California Berkeley was forced to cancel an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos when protests caused over $100,000 of property damage. Both men are fascists, although they prefer to use the term “Alt-Right” to cover their hides.
by Robert Davis
American fascists revelled in the campaign to elect Donald Trump. After the election Spencer was the public face of pro-Trump fascism when he broke out in a shout of “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” in his speech to a conference held by his white nationalist think tank, which goes by the innocuous name of the National Policy Institute.
Incredibly, these men and the movement they represent have taken the debate over how to fight fascism into the mainstream of American political discourse. “Is it right to punch a Nazi?” was a question posed by the pundits who until recently wrote their empty-headed commentary mainly on the folds of mainstream neoliberal politics where punching was not even a question.
There is no mass fascist movement in the United States. Attempts to rally Trump supporters for fascism, as the “Third Position” fascists of the Traditionalist Workers Party made in Kentucky, have met with resounding rejection. Yet at the same time, Trump’s close advisor Steve Bannon has frequently been described as holding white nationalist views, making it all the more important to understand what these movements represent.
What are White Nationalism and the Alt-Right?
Fascist movements in the United States are nothing new. Indeed, the early Italian and German fascists took much of their cue from the Ku Klux Klan, who had used political terrorism to roll back the gains of Reconstruction in the United States after the Republican capitulation of 1876. While the American “Silver Shirts” movement was a ridiculous failure, the Klan and other explicit racist organizations left a long legacy.
Fascism in the United States takes the form of white nationalism. This is the idea that “whites” – an arbitrary amalgamation of people with non-Jewish European ancestry – have a national identity that must be safeguarded against some combination of Jews, Black people, immigrants, and their supporters. In an intensely racist society such as the US, it is inevitable that fascism will take a racist white form.
While some white nationalists have played at being Nazis over the years, dressing up in brown shirts and swastikas or shaving their heads and getting tattooed, several attempts have been made at bringing their poisonous ideas into the mainstream. One high profile example was the long life of Willis Carto, who founded the Liberty Lobby that tried to dress fascism in a mix of “Jeffersonian” political ideas, populism, conspiracy theories, and nativism. He was a major factor in the Institute for Historical Review, an organization that focused on denying the Holocaust. He is one of the two focuses of Leonard Zeskind’s magisterial history of white nationalism, Blood & Politics. No matter the mask, though, Carto’s politics were hardcore fascism once scratched.
If Carto has a modern heir, Richard Spencer may fit the bill. He coined the “Alt-RIght” term as an attempt to rebrand fascism after previous euphemisms such as “Third Position” had failed. Spencer’s wave of white nationalism tries to couch fascist ideas inside the language of identity and the detritus of Internet right-wing pseudo-intellectualism instead of the John Birch and KKK undertones of Carto’s Liberty Lobby, but the intent is the same: to mainstream fascism.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a rara avis: a gay immigrant fascist. He is homophobic but embraces fascism almost as a form of toxic masculinity. (This is nothing new: Ernst Röhm, head of the Nazi paramilitary SA, was flagrantly gay; he was executed soon after Hitler came to power.) In his public appearances, Yiannopoulos is infamous for targeting specific individuals, such as trans* people or immigrants, for harassment by his followers. He is best known for being banned from Twitter for his toxic use of the social networking website.
Steve Bannon is a stranger character. He has a pronounced like for anti-democratic fascist thinkers such as the Italian author Julius Evola. He helped turn the right-wing website Breitbart into a “platform for the Alt-Right” and has also cited anti-democratic modern authors such as “Mencius Moldbug” (Curtis Yarvin) with a vision of open reaction and stark opposition to modernism. Bannon’s position as the President’s closest advisor is the most worrying part of the modern ascent of fascism.
These new efforts sit alongside older efforts at “mainstreaming” white nationalism. One of the longest-standing racialist websites is VDARE, named for Virginia Dare, the first white child recorded to have been born in North America. Paul Craig Roberts, a “paleoconservative” who served in Ronald Reagan’s administration, has been a prominent author from this trend. Unfortunately some elements of the political left have been fooled by Roberts, who is frequently reprinted in Counterpunch. We have also seen conservative columnist Ann Coulter make disturbing statements that echo white nationalism. All of this is a flirtation with fascism from broader circles that has not quite fit into the political mainstream but remains dangerous.
The targets of white nationalism have traditionally been Black and Jewish people. However, recent years have expanded a prejudice against a growing list of minorities. Fascists have been heavily anti-immigrant and used sentiment both against Hispanic immigrants (legal and undocumented) and Muslims to expand their basis within the nativist right. Trump’s ICE crackdowns and his Muslim ban both play directly into this sentiment. Islamophobia has particularly been a link between American and European far-right movements, as proved when professional Islamophobe Pamela Gellers brought Dutch fascist Geert Wilders to the US.
These ideas are not simply political organizing. White nationalist notions of “black on white crime” were key in radicalizing Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina during a prayer service. Going back to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, white nationalists have been disproportionately represented as terrorists in the United States.
White nationalism does not have the mass base expected in classical fascist movements. It is overwhelmingly the fascination of privileged white men who see their social position imperiled by a diverse society that does not look like or favor them. Like all forms of fascism, it is marked by eclectic pseudo-intellectual ideas, all of which justify the same “white” identity. Some hide the idea that they find whites superior to non-whites, but this is simply a cover for harder racialist politics. The implication of American fascism is always the same: a white supremacist state with oppression, expulsion, and elimination for non-whites.
How to Fight Fascism
The only way to fight a mass fascist movement is in the streets. The best example of this was given by British workers in 1936. When Oswald Mosley planned a march by the British Union of Fascists through a Jewish neighborhood in London’s East End. 20,000 anti-fascist workers came out to oppose the 2-3,000 blackshirts. In the ensuing Battle of Cable Street, police protected the fascists but they were beaten and unable to march. The humiliation took the wind out of the sails of the BUF, which ceased to be a mass force in politics.
Leon Trotsky described in his pamphlet Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It the need for organized working class militias as a means to confront a fascist threat. Should the white nationalist movement in the US continue to grow, this will become an immediate necessity. But Trotsky’s vision of an antifascist militia is quite different from the “Antifa” groups led by anarchists that often engage in gratuitous property destruction, as in the Berkeley demonstration. Trotsky wrote:
“The militia, as the strong organization of the vanguard, is in fact the surest defense against adventures, against individual terrorism, against bloody spontaneous explosions.” Leon Trotsky, Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It
This is a picture of a disciplined and responsible organization, rooted deeply in the working class, that can engage in self-defense struggle, as the great Black revolutionary Malcolm X put it, by any means necessary.
Property damage is not a political sin to be avoided at all costs, but in the context of a mass demonstration it can be the excuse the authorities need for a crackdown. This is particularly dangerous in the current climate where Trump’s government is enabling attacks on those arrested in protests. Felony charges for “resisting arrest” and “assaulting an officer” and other arbitrary crimes are a real risk, as is extra-legal retribution by the police.
Revolutionary socialists do not object to punching Nazis in the face, but we also don’t make a fetish out of individual assaults. It is mass, coordinated action, not fragmentary individual attacks, that are needed to prevent such a movement from growing and gaining further influence. Sometimes this will be violent, and we cannot stand back and wring our hands when self-defense is necessary. But there was a great deal of street-fighting in the late Weimar Republic, and none of this prevented the rise to power of the Nazis. This would have required united-front work between the Social Democratic and Communist parties, both of which had militias and could have fought against Hitler’s rise, but failed.
In the Trump years, there is a real danger that fascists will continue to use the President’s political base to organize themselves. As this happens, we need to build mass anti-fascist organizations that are capable of fighting back on a broad scale. This task is too important to leave to a handful of self-appointed anarchists. Instead we need disciplined, militant workers’ self-defense organizations that will fight when it is needed.