The “Alt-Right”: Violent Fascism?
The election of Donald Trump, with his open appeal to bigotry and his association with the white-supremacist “alt right” via top advisor Steve Bannon, opened a new period for U.S. politics. Opponents of Trump have discussed whether the president is a fascist, whether the regime is fascist, and how to confront the ultra-right groups encouraged by Trump.
Ultra-right groups have become bolder, sometimes posing physical threats to nonwhite people and leftists. Natasha Lennard wrote in the Nation:
We can deploy the ‘fascism’ moniker to Trump’s ascendance by recognizing features like selective populism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism, the deployment of Newspeak and disregard for reasoned debate. The reason we should use the term is because, taken together, these aspects of Trumpism are not well combated or contained by standard liberal appeals to reason. It is constitutive of its fascism that it demands a different sort of opposition.
The historical pattern of fascist regimes was set in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. In each case, the new fascist government came to power under the established legal system, but only after fascist parties committed massive deadly violence against opponents; chiefly the unions and left parties. The regimes almost immediately destroyed all organized opposition, imprisoning thousands of people. Fascist movements under this pattern grow by using illegal and violent methods to crush all dissent once they come to power.
Despite Trump’s calls to “lock up” his opponents and his denunciation of the opposition media, this has not been the pattern with Trump. Nevertheless, Trump’s rhetoric and demagogy are ominously authoritarian and recommend the identification of effective ways to oppose them.
Stopping Ultra-Right Violence
Rallies by white-supremacist groups like Proud Boys, as well as events featuring speakers with more mainstream reputations, such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, pose an urgent issue. One question concerns how to protect against threats of physical violence by neo-Nazis and others. Another asks after the risks and benefits of banning alt-right speakers from campus and other venues.
Historically, fascist groups recruit members for violence by gang methods. Once organized, they hold rallies to physically intimidate people and provoke physical clashes. A successful fascist rally might be followed by a march in which fascist gang members might attack Black people or others. Such rallies are a danger to public safety and are not instances of free speech.
If police forces fail to break up gatherings of an alt-right committed to launching violent attacks, antifascist groups may need to provide physical defense against them. It is legal to defend communities physically. Nevertheless, self-defense needs to be under democratic community control, and not vigilantism. A socialist strategy for defense against fascist gangs, like a socialist strategy for overturning capitalism, relies on democratically decided action by massive numbers of people.
The purpose of such defense is to disrupt armed groups and not to prevent the expression of ideas. Fascist ideas have many channels for expression and are difficult to suppress. However, fascist violence can be stopped.
Protesting Right-Wing Speakers
When right-wing and white-supremacist groups or individuals organize speaking events, as on campuses for example, they might or might not be planning violent attacks. How to oppose such events effectively depends on their specific character. Disrupting a nonviolent speaking engagement is ineffective and is sure to bring public condemnation on groups that organize the disruption. Consider the following three examples of recent confrontations and their aftermaths.
Natasha Lennard reports,
When neo-Nazi Richard Spencer at his National Policy Institute held their annual conference in DC last November, anti-fascist activists exposed the event, its attendees, and where its members were dining, and attempted to not only protest but disrupt and shut down the conference, as well as Spencer’s dinner plans (succeeding, at least, in dousing the white nationalist in ‘a foul smelling liquid’).
Wes Enzinna wrote, in Mother Jones:
On Inauguration Day, Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” was punched in the face on a Washington, DC, street corner. The blow was caught on video, spawning countless remixes and a debate over the ethics and efficacy of “Nazi punching.” That same night, a Trump supporter shot and wounded an anti-fascist, or “antifa,” who was protesting a speech by Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of Washington in Seattle. Less than two weeks later, “black bloc” protesters in Berkeley, California, helped force the cancellation of another Yiannopoulos speech, setting fires, smashing windows, and punching a Milo fan.
And finally, Berkeley, California, has been the location of a number of physical confrontations. In one case, the University of California canceled an event featuring the far-right author Ann Coulter, citing threats by “anarchist groups” against the event. A University spokesman later noted that Coulter supporters, “as individuals or part of a militia … intend to come to the campus.”
Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Socialists, pubic officials, and others concerned about protecting free speech against the far right will need to determine how to best respond to developing threats of violence. They need to know how to push back against the intimidation of white-supremacist and ultra-right groups, and how to confront the policies of the current administration. Anti-right activists should ensure that they realistically understand the actual risks at hand. Is it a threat that widely-held racist biases will be expressed dog-whistle style? Will the event present a physical hazard to public safety? Does official sponsorship of a speaker create a hostile campus environment for women, for nonwhite people, or for LGBTQ people? Based on careful a risk assessment, activists may decide to organize peaceful counter-events, give reasons for an event to be canceled, or prepare for physical self-defense if no other safe options exist. In each case, activists can decide democratically upon a course of action at open meetings.