Mar 18, 2019

The Alt-Creeps: A review of Against the Fascist Creep and Ctrl-Alt-Delete

Review by rowan

This review was written in October 2017 and originally published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, no. 30 (2018/2019). It is republished here with permission of the author.

Books reviewed:
Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017. 400 pp. $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-849352-44-4.
Matthew N. Lyons, It’s Going Down, K. Kersplebedeb, and Bromma, Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Anti-Fascist Report on the Alternative Right. Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2017. 108 pp. $10.00, ISBN: 978-1-894946-85-8.

A few years ago a dear friend expressed his concern about what he perceived as a dangerous political and cultural turn to the right. “The Alternative Right, the men’s rights activists, the Dark Enlightenment. All of these fascists are organizing and trying to build power. It scares me.” In some arrogant attempt to posture as very serious, I scoffed at these reactionaries as “wingnuts confined to the internet,” with no significance in “the real world.” I was wrong.

We are experiencing a frightening and drastic rightward shift in the overall political climate, not only in the United States, but also throughout Europe and Asia as well. The 2016 presidential election and the events surrounding it have empowered and emboldened all of these tendencies and more. Formerly marginal sectors of the Far Right have stepped into the light of mainstream US politics. They have helped to build neo-fascist movements and elect a bullying right-wing populist to one of the most powerful positions in the world. From Trump, to Brexit, to LePen, to the Islamic State, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Far Right is on the move. They are attempting to organize for and to brutally impose their hierarchical and inegalitarian visions on society. I have since apologized to my friend.

I don’t, however, think that my opinion was especially unique. Rather, I expressed a common view among folks on the radical Left. I argued for years that while fascists and the Far Right should certainly be opposed, they represented a far smaller threat to the lives and well-being of people of color than did the police, the prison system, and other institutions of official society. I am by no means the only one who held this position. Nor was I completely wrong. However, my complacency was sorely misplaced. It was, consciously or not, rooted in a view that saw social relations as stable and which failed to comprehend the total social, political, economic, and ecological crisis that we inhabit.

In this moment, those of us who seek to build a free and just world would do well to study our enemies and understand their politics, strategies, and history. Two recent books attempt to examine the history and politics of the insurgent Far Right: Alexander Reid Ross’s Against the Fascist Creep and the anthology Ctrl-Alt Delete published by Kersplebedeb.

Book covers of Against the Fascist Creep and Ctrl-Alt-Delete
Clocking in at almost 400 pages Reid Ross’s tome is by far the more ambitious project. Against the Fascist Creep is an attempt to tell the history of insurgent fascist politics and their complicated relationship with the Far Left.

Throughout his book Reid Ross focuses more on the ideology of fascism as a revolutionary movement than on the operations and policies of fascism in power. Reid Ross starts by looking at populist tendencies of North American “Manifest Destiny" and the emergence of anti-elitist ideologies that remain deeply racist and authoritarian. From these roots, he looks at the explosion of radical and militant right-wing politics following the First World War. In the wake of that catastrophe, Europeans developed ideologies and built movements to make sense of a chaotic and unjust world and to change it. Anarchists and Marxists led revolutions and rebellions across the continent. In opposition to, but also sometimes influenced and inspired by these left-wing ideologies, more authoritarian and nationalist politics emerged; from “national syndicalism” to Italian Fascism, to German National Socialism. Amidst the chaos of power structures crumbling, radical movements splitting, and struggles over power and principles, fascism emerged in opposition to both the exploitation of capitalist modernity and the universalism of Marxist communism.

Following a lengthy engagement with the life and thought of fascist occultist Julius Evola, Reid Ross discusses the emergence of the European New Right (ENR) in the 1960s. Fueled by resentment in the face of decolonization, the ENR attempted to rebuild insurgent right-wing politics to fit the postwar reality. Drawing on the work of Italian communist (and anti-fascist) Antonio Gramsci, these activists and intellectuals prioritized cultural transformation in the place of an immediate struggle for political power. They also tended to minimize explicit biological racism, in favor of a less alienating stress on cultural integrity and self-determination. Finally, while initially reacting against decolonization, they appropriated the revolutionary politics of their time, positioning themselves as radicals fighting for the liberation and self-determination of European people against the imperialism of US capitalism and Soviet state socialism. Reid Ross goes on to discuss various other Far-Right and fascist movements: Nazi skinheads from London, England to Portland, Oregon; National Bolshevism and radical nationalisms in Russia and the Ukraine; and now, the Alt-Right which helped sweep Donald Trump into power.

Reid Ross’s book is important in that it touches on some significant yet often under-examined aspects of fascism. Instead of seeing Right and Left as simplistic opposites, he is willing to think about them inhabiting a more complex relationship. While Marxist and anarchist leftists have generally understood fascism to be the most authoritarian and violent form of capitalist rule, Reid Ross takes seriously fascism’s radical, even revolutionary, opposition to capitalist modernity. From “national syndicalists” active following the First World War to “Nazi Maoists” in the 1960s, the author conveys how complicated and confusing this political terrain is.

The line between Left and Right, between communist and fascist, is often far from clear, leaving us with the difficult work of clarifying our own values and politics. The distinction between Right and Left is not always obvious. Throughout history the record has been complicated. From Bakunin to Mussolini and from Stalin to Metzger, insurgent anti-imperialism has intermingled with vitriolic anti-Semitism and racism on both the “Right” and “Left.” The Far Right is both our competitor in this period of social crisis and a danger that can destroy the liberatory potential of our own movements from within if we fail to clearly draw political lines that distinguish our radicalism from theirs.

Unfortunately, Against the Fascist Creep, while hinting at important insights and essential questions, often fails to live up to its promise.

Reid Ross’s attempt to understand fascism as a process is useful in helping us avoid dogmatic attachment to fixed definitions. However, he does tend to define every social, political, cultural, or spiritual trend he doesn’t like as being fascist, or at least tainted by it. In a denunciatory tour of the impurities of the political spectrum, Reid Ross attacks everyone from Deep Ecologists to class struggle anarchists, accusing them of enabling the right, sometimes citing evidence and sometimes not. In identifying a “fascist creep,” he is too quick to resort to a casual guilt-by-association in a constant search for enemies, mistaking a moralist purity for the kind of political clarity we need to fight and win.

The danger of a “fascist creep” influencing and poisoning both society as a whole and our left-wing movements is very real. From casual anti-Semitism to macho fetishization of violence, the Left too often shares values and politics with the radical Right. This must be resisted and opposed, but doing so requires real humility, self-criticism, and a commitment to political clarity that cheap self-righteousness cannot provide. A real examination of the “fascist creep” would involve something more than a hunt for enemy infiltrators in our otherwise good movements; it would require confrontation and struggle with our own limitations and weaknesses.

Too often throughout the text, Reid Ross fails to engage fascist politics as deeply as he could, opting rather to denounce and ridicule them. If we could defeat fascism by proclaiming our own superiority, this practice would serve us well. But real politics is not just about being right; it’s about winning. We need to develop the resources and forces to defeat fascists in the streets. Books should help us understand our enemies, what they think, and how, and why. Moralistic posturing, while it may feel good for both author and reader, doesn’t really help. The purpose of political analysis is not to distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” like a ten-year-old watching Star Wars. Instead, we need the nuance and sophistication to actually understand the complexities of our world, our movements and our enemies in order to be able to successfully fight and win.

Finally, the writing itself is poor and confusing. Sometimes this is a result of needlessly academic big words. At other points it’s just sloppily crafted paragraphs, which change the subject without transitions. At its worst Against the Fascist Creep feels like 400 pages of name-dropping, the author simply referencing all of the obscure thinkers and projects he knows of, strung together with convoluted prose.

In contrast to Reid Ross’s meandering volume, the collection Ctrl-Alt-Delete, published by Kersplebedeb, is quick, clear, and to the point. At fewer than 125 pages, this book pulls together some useful and timely documents, which reflect on the political moment of Trumpism and the insurgent movements he rode to power.

The collection begins with the title essay by longtime anti-fascist researcher and writer Matthew Lyons. “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” is a fifty-page report in which he seeks to familiarize the reader with the history and ideology of the “Alt-Right.” Beginning with its roots in both old school “paleoconservatism” and the European New Right, Lyons explains how intellectuals like Richard Spencer built a political milieu by synthesizing different strains of right-wing nationalism and internet culture. He then goes on to examine some of the different tendencies within the Alt-Right.

White nationalism and racism have been core to this political project with its hip rebranding of neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. Lyons, however also discusses the gender politics of the Alt-Right, pointing to its roots in and connections with the online culture of anti-feminist backlash, from “Gamergate” to “pick-up artists.” Also, significant in this regard is the “male tribalism” of Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland, who seek to establish male supremacist resilient communities autonomous from multicultural capitalist modernity. Other forces include right-wing anarchists who seek to resist state authority in favor of decentralized “tribalism,” and “neoreaction,” an ideology spawned from tech CEOs seeking philosophical justifications for their fantasies of corporate feudalism.

Finally, Lyons examines the relationship between the Alt-Right and Donald Trump. Many sought to use the Trump campaign as an opportunity to push their politics within a broader arena, and their interventions injected new levels of violence and cruelty into American electoral politics. Lyons’ report is concise, clear, and extremely useful in giving a rundown of who the Alt-Right are, where they come from, what they believe, and what their role is in this historical moment. I suspect that this report will stand as the go-to on the subject for some time, and Lyons' forthcoming book Insurgent Supremacists will likewise be necessary reading.

“The Rich Kids of Fascism” by It’s Going Down is another attempt to analyze the Alt-Right. The focus here is on the class character of the movement. They argue that unlike other forms of fascist and right-wing politics, the Alt-Right is a class-elitist movement. They also point to the weaknesses of the Alt-Right as being an internet phenomenon without any demonstrated ability to fight for its politics in the streets. While this may well have been true at the time the piece was written, that certainly seems to be changing, and the fact that anti-fascist forces have been losing street fights over the last couple years should humble us. Overall, while the piece has some useful and interesting points, there is a definite tendency toward triumphalism, and self-righteous posturing. The macho chest-thumping of “we ain’t afraid of no memes” may feel good and may psych us up as we get ready to hit the streets, but it doesn’t actually help us make sense of the world or the enemies by whom we have too often been defeated.

K. Kersplebedeb’s “Black Genocide and the Alt-Right” looks at the racial politics of the Alt-Right and argues that, though it has been less addressed than its sexism or anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness is at the core of the movement’s politics. That's a good point, but the article is too short. In a historical moment when we are witnessing the emergence both of militant fascist and Black Liberation movements, the relationship of these phenomena is of the utmost importance for radicals. Kersplebedeb is right to point out the antagonism, but unfortunately does little more.

Finally, Bromma’s “Notes on Trump” is an attempt to understand the 2016 election in the broader historical context, viewing Trump's victory as a response to capitalist crisis and a rejection of neoliberal globalization and neocolonial multiculturalism in favor of right-wing nationalism. Following real victories by anti-racist and anti-colonial liberation moments, capitalism shifted and made space for figures and forces from the African National Congress in South Africa to Barack Obama in the United States to step forward and administer global exploitation. Bromma suggests that we are currently seeing the repudiation of such “progressive” rainbow imperialism. Instead we are now faced with more open white supremacy and a chaotic and violent world situation.

We are in a period of crisis and upsurge where political categories are being rapidly undone and remade. The labels and genealogies that folks claim may matter much less than the content of their politics and what their practice looks like. Distinctions between anarchism and Marxism may matter far less than one’s concrete commitment to building antiauthoritarian political culture or rooting one’s politics in working class life. At this juncture of fear, confusion, crisis, and opportunity, it is unclear where new political forces will emerge. But if the history Reid Ross presents teaches us anything, it is that we must be on our guard and take great care in seeking political clarity. In this chaotic “marketplace of ideas” (particularly in the internet age), where every tendency from Democratic Confederalism to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to Pan-Secessionism to National Bolshevism is on offer, the next fascist threat, the next praxis of terror and extermination, can appear from anywhere, from our enemies’ midst or from our own.

The Trump administration and the Alt-Right are shifting and shattering official politics with its lies of progress, multiculturalism, and civility. Stability and peace are not on the table, but transformation is certainly on the horizon. Both Reid Ross’s and Lyons’ interventions are important reminders that the Left are not the only ones who can benefit from instability, and that the transformations ahead are as likely to be full of horror as they are to lead us to freedom.

rowan lives in Portland, Oregon. They are the parent of a three-year-old who thinks that “singing protests” are “a little bit fun” but “fire protests” are “too scary.”

Mar 10, 2019

Meditations on a dead fascist

LaRouchePAC magazine cover shows images of Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and LaRouche with headline, "The Last Chance for Civilization?"
Laying claim to the mantle of Lincoln and FDR.
Lyndon LaRouche’s recent death at age 96 brought him more attention than he had gotten in decades. Many of the obituaries and retrospectives I’ve seen treat him as little more than a political curiosity, a deranged cult leader whose main achievement was to help inure us to bizarre conspiracy theories, and who lost most of the little influence he had over thirty years ago. But there’s a lot more to him than that.

LaRouche carved out a place on the U.S. far right unlike any other. Few U.S.-based fascist groups maintain strength for more than a few years, but LaRouche kept hundreds of followers in multiple countries tightly organized for over four decades. In the 1980s, his network’s achievements in grassroots electioneering, fundraising, propaganda, and dirty tricks were completely unparalleled on the far right, as Dennis King chronicled in his invaluable 1989 book Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism (available online here). In the late 1980s, the LaRouchites’ practice of systematically defrauding elderly Republicans of millions of dollars destroyed the network’s extensive Reagan administration connections and sent LaRouche to prison for five years. But what’s remarkable is that they were able to rebound from this defeat, remake themselves politically, recruit a new cohort of younger activists, and forge new ties with political elites—this time elites outside the United States. And throughout all of this, LaRouche was able to fly largely below the radar of both the mainstream media and the left, because most people thought he was just a crackpot who claimed the Queen of England pushes drugs.

I was first confronted with the LaRouchites in 1990, during the lead-up to the first U.S.-Iraq war, when one of the founders of my local anti-war group admitted to being a LaRouche supporter. The group voted to expel her (the LaRouchites’ history of spying on and physically attacking leftists overrode people’s desire to be open and inclusive), but then we discovered this wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of a coordinated effort by LaRouche activists around the country to infiltrate the antiwar movement. Trying to make sense of this, of why a fascist organization would be opposing U.S. military expansionism, turning out for leftist-led demonstrations, and accusing George Bush of genocide, was one of the conundrums that led me to start researching far right politics systematically. Since then I have kept tabs regularly on LaRouchite propaganda, partly for its sheer baroque extravagance and partly to mark one of the outer parameters of far right thought in the United States and beyond.

Several commentators have described Lyndon LaRouche as a pioneering conspiracy theorist who helped pave the way for Alex Jones and even Donald Trump. Not so many have delved into the sophisticated utility of LaRouche’s bizarre ideology. His periodic warnings of plots to kill him weren’t just paranoid fantasies but part of the cult psychology he used to control his followers—and extract millions of hours of free labor from them. His seemingly random mix of conspiracist targets—from the Communist Party to the International Monetary Fund, from environmentalists to the Christian right—enabled the LaRouche network to present itself as “conservative” in one situation and “progressive” in another, and to attack or defend people anywhere on the political spectrum with equal facility.

Whether tilting right or left, LaRouche promoted the same basic ideology from the mid 1970s onward. He saw all human history as a massive Manichean struggle between good “humanists” and evil “oligarchs,” a struggle carried out largely behind the scenes. He warned over and over that the world was on the brink of imminent economic collapse, full-scale dictatorship, or nuclear war, and proclaimed himself one of the few people with the insight and will needed to lead humanity out of the crisis. He argued that people could be divided into three levels of “moral development,” and that those at the lowest level were dangerous to society and should not have the same rights as their superiors. Under his 1981 “draft constitution” for Canada, which detailed his vision for how to organize a state, people who espoused “irrationalist hedonism”—basically, any beliefs or practices he considered dangerous, such as homosexuality, laissez faire economics, or rock music—would have no political voice. Yet LaRouche’s drive to reshape society went far beyond political exclusion. Evil oligarchic influence, he declared, must be rooted out of every sphere of society and culture, from economics to mathematical formulas, from technological development to the pitch used to set musical scales.

Two magazine covers: “Defeat Britain’s Terror War Against the U.S.A!” and “How the Conservative Revolution Crowd Plans To Destroy America”
1990s: LaRouche publications criticize conservatives and
blame House of Windsor for Oklahoma City bombing
Unlike most U.S far rightists, LaRouche was familiar with leftist theory and political culture, having spent over twenty years in the Trotskyist movement and the student left, and he was more effective than most far rightists at delivering his message to people across the political spectrum. He appeared several times on The Alex Jones Show, a right-wing conspiracist radio program with millions of listeners, but his propaganda also repeatedly reached left-leaning audiences, largely with the help of intermediaries such as the Christic Institute, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research, and former LaRouche network members William Engdahl and Webster Tarpley, all of whom have given a leftish gloss to LaRouche-originated anti-elite conspiracy theories. As recently as 2016, Helga Zepp-LaRouche (wife of Lyndon and founder of the network's Schiller Institute) was listed on the program of the Left Forum in New York City. Dennis Speed of LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review spoke at the 2015 Left Forum.

LaRouche was also better than most U.S. far rightists at forging ties with people in power. In the late 1970s and early 80s, as Dennis King noted, LaRouche recognized that the post-Watergate crackdown on government abuses made his outfit useful to intelligence agencies interested in outsourcing some of their spying and dirty tricks operations, and that positioning himself as a hawkish Democrat made him interesting to Reagan officials. (In this respect, he may not have looked that different at first glance from the early neoconservatives—some of whom also had a Trotskyist past.)

In the 1990s, LaRouche saw a new opportunity in Russia, where his hatred of international bankers, praise for Vladimir Putin, and advocacy of protectionist, strong-state economic development won him a hearing with many political leaders, including close Putin aide Sergey Glazyev. By the time he died, LaRouche had also made significant inroads in China, where state-run media now quotes LaRouchite journalists extensively and invites them regularly to news conferences. (The LaRouche network’s praise for President Xi Jinping may be opportunistic but it’s also sincere, as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative represents the kind of large-scale infrastructure project that LaRouche has been advocating for decades.) It’s hard to think of another U.S.-based fascist who has achieved this kind of government access.

Along with shifting the focus of his overtures from U.S. political elites to Russian and Chinese ones, LaRouche shifted his movement’s public stance leftward. In the 1980s the LaRouchites championed Reagan’s Star Wars program and spearheaded ballot initiatives to forcibly quarantine people with AIDS, but in the 1990s and 2000s they were active in campaigns against the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia and in the Occupy Wall Street movement, glorified Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and denounced Christian right leaders such as Pat Robertson. The LaRouchites continued to present themselves as New Deal progressives even after embracing Donald Trump’s America First populism.

New Federalist (newspaper) headline: "LaRouche, Farrakhan, Chavis Mobilize Against Nazi Economics"
Presenting LaRouche as ally of African American leaders
LaRouche’s trajectory set him apart from white nationalists, who put race firmly at the center of their politics. In the 1970s, the LaRouchites vilified black and indigenous people in overtly racist terms, and allied themselves with white supremacists such as Ku Klux Klan leaders Roy Frankhauser and Robert Miles. By the 1990s, however, LaRouche organizations welcomed people of color as members and celebrated civil rights movement veterans—and LaRouche supporters—James Bevel and Amelia Boynton Robinson as heroes. LaRouchites declared African American spiritual music to be “the basis for an American Classical culture”—a worthy counterpart to the European classical culture they constantly celebrated. Sometimes LaRouche reverted to open racism—for example referring to Barack Obama repeatedly as a “monkey”—but the overall effect anticipated the Proud Boys’ racially inclusive “Western chauvinism” much more than the white exclusivism of Richard Spencer or The Daily Stormer.

LaRouche’s antisemitism followed a similar pattern. He began scapegoating Jews in the 1970s at the suggestion of the Liberty Lobby’s Willis Carto, and his conspiracism was deeply rooted in anti-Jewish themes—such as the false dichotomy between “evil” finance capital and “good” industrial capital, and the emphasis on Anglophobia (derived from 19th-century claims that that the Rothschild banking family controlled Britain). But in stark contrast to neonazis, LaRouche included Jews among his supporters and top lieutenants. And over time he became increasingly careful and sophisticated in deflecting the charge of antisemitism, for example by denouncing opponents as “Nazis” and by portraying Jews as tools or dupes rather than as the top wire-pullers.

“From the time of his emergence as a public figure over fifty years ago,” declares his obituary on the LaRouchePAC website, “the only tragedy that characterized Lyndon LaRouche’s life, is that he was never permitted to carry out, either as President or as an adviser to the serving President, the economic reforms that would have improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions around the world.” LaRouche never got the power he craved. Despite all his efforts to piggy-back on popular movements, only a limited number of people were willing to submit themselves to his self-proclaimed greatness. Despite his efforts to make himself useful to political elites, his mix of conspiracy thinking, strong-state nationalism, and cultural totalitarianism was ultimately a deal-breaker, at least in his home country. He was profoundly at odds with the neoliberal precepts of privatization, deregulation, free trade, and individualism that have dominated U.S. capitalism for decades.

Still, LaRouche’s impact was real. He not only helped make conspiracism a major part of our political culture, he field-tested a variety of tactics that other rightists could learn from. He was a pioneer of red-brown alliance-building and Russophile “anti-imperialism,” and showed that fascism could be reworked in ways that went far beyond exchanging a brown shirt for a suit and tie. The expectation that his organization will now collapse may or may not prove true. Cults don’t always die with their founders, and his widow Helga Zepp-LaRouche, comparatively young at 70, is a seasoned organizer and speaker who has played an increasingly prominent role in recent years. LaRouche is dead, but unfortunately his politics are not.

Photos by author. Portions of this essay are adapted from Matthew N. Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2018). See Chapter 5 of that book for additional citations.

Feb 17, 2019

Trump’s shaky capitalist support: Business conflict and the 2016 election

A detailed study of 2016 campaign contributions confirms that a majority of the ruling class opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy and that he was backed by an unstable coalition of competing capitalist interests.

What kind of support does Donald Trump have within the U.S. ruling class? He is the first billionaire president of the United States, and his administration (despite the rhetoric about being an advocate for working-class Americans) has massively favored big business and the rich. Yet on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues he has gone against dominant neoliberal thought and has made many people in established elites deeply uncomfortable. And among big capitalists, it’s not just centrist or liberal figures such as Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg who have opposed Trump, but also the Koch brothers, who just a few years ago were the most notorious funders of hardline conservative politics, but are now organizing against the president on immigration and trade policy.

As a starting point to help make sense of Trump’s relationship with U.S. capitalists, I recommend the report “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election,” by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen. Drawing on an intensively researched database of political contributions, the report (which I’ll refer to as “Hunger Games” for short) analyzes the relative support the various 2016 candidates received from small and large contributors and, equally important, from specific industrial sectors within the business community.

The investment theory of party competition
“Hunger Games” is based on Ferguson’s investment theory of party competition, which argues that business interests hold most political power in capitalist societies, that electoral contests within and between political parties generally reflect conflicts between distinct blocs within the business community, and that these blocs tend to follow distinctions between specific industries (such as finance, mining, pharmaceuticals, etc.) and related economic characteristics (for example, labor-intensive versus non-labor-intensive industries, export-oriented firms versus firms oriented toward domestic markets, etc.). Ferguson, both alone and with various collaborators, has been using this approach for over thirty-five years to analyze political developments across much of modern U.S. political history. For example, his book Golden Rule detailed the formation of a historical bloc of capitalists behind FDR’s New Deal in the mid-1930s, while Right Turn, which Ferguson co-authored with Joel Rogers, traced the large-scale rightward shift of business interests in the 1970s, a development that pushed Jimmy Carter to the right, helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House, and contributed to the rise of what we now think of as neoliberalism.

Photo shows President Trump, surrounded by aides and holding a pair of scissors, about to cut red ribbon in front of two piles of papers: a small pile labeled "1960" and a large pile labeled "today."
President Donald J. Trump prepares to cut "red tape"
representing regulations today compared with 1960.
Before collaborating on the “Hunger Games” report, Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen previously analyzed the 2012 presidential race, in which Barack Obama won re-election over Mitt Romney. In many ways, 2012 was fairly typical of modern presidential elections: overall spending was similar for both big party nominees, but the Republican candidate enjoyed broader capitalist support overall, while the Democrat captured the greater share of small contributions (from non-rich voters). Broken down by sector, Romney received greater support than Obama from most industries, both in dollars and number of firms, with particularly strong support for Romney coming from “industries that have been heavily engaged in battles over climate change, alternative energy, and regulatory policy, including oil..., mining..., chemicals, paper, and utilities.” But Obama received substantial backing from many of the other industries. Defense and aircraft manufacturers were evenly split between the two candidates, and Obama received the bulk of support from health insurance, telecommunications, computers, and software and Web companies.

Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen saw a key connection between the pattern of Obama’s business support and the fact that his administration largely continued and in some respects expanded the national security policies initiated by Bush and Cheney. “Our study shows that national Democratic leaders are politically allied with many of the industries closely linked with the new national surveillance state”—i. e., “a system dominated by firms that want to sell all your data working with a government that seems to want to collect nearly all of it.”

2016: small contributors versus the establishment
We don’t need political scientists to tell us that the 2016 contest was different from 2012, and arguably from every other presidential race in U.S. history. But “Hunger Games” helps us pinpoint and quantify some of what made it different. Two broad issues stand out. First, the report documents, in dollar terms, the revolt of ordinary voters against the established leadership in both major parties. In the Democratic primaries, the Bernie Sanders campaign represented “something we are confident is without precedent... across virtually the whole of American history”: “a major presidential candidate waging a strong, highly competitive campaign whose support from big business is essentially zero” (25). Aside from a few largish donations from labor unions, basically all of Sanders’ funding came from small donors. But Donald Trump attracted a lot of small donations as well—a higher percentage of them, in fact, than Barack Obama did in 2012. Hillary Clinton, conversely, drew a smaller share of small donations than Mitt Romney did four years earlier. To Ferguson and his co-authors, for a Republican to attract more small money than the Democratic nominee is “the equivalent of forcing water suddenly to flow up hill” (25). Based on the groundswells for both Trump and Sanders, they suggest that “the major parties appear to be breaking down as mass organizing vehicles” (3).

The “Hunger Games” authors trace popular support for both Sanders and Trump to the rise of what they call a “dual economy” in the U.S.: the “extreme polarization of income and wealth over the last generation in the U.S. and many other developed countries, even while real earnings for most workers stagnated” (25-26). They devote several pages to detailing the dynamics, scope, and depth of this development. By 2016, they argue, the pressures of the dual economy had reached a tipping point—“a point where, quite literally, daily existence for many had become close to unlivable.” “When two politicians broke through the big money cartels that dominate both major parties, popular enthusiasm surged almost overnight to seismic levels, shocking elites in both parties and flummoxing the entire American establishment” (28). I agree that the dual economy fueled the populist upsurge in both major parties, although on its own it doesn’t tell us why some anti-establishment voters saw the main problem as concentrated wealth while others saw the main problem as Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

Capitalists rally to Clinton
The other broad issue that set 2016 apart from most modern presidential elections is that capitalists sided heavily with the Democrats. Unlike 2012, the Democratic nominee received much more campaign spending overall than the Republican: $1.4 billion for Clinton compared with $861 million for Trump. The chronology of Trump’s fundraising is significant. During the primaries, his campaign relied mainly on small contributions and his own money. As Ferguson et al. comment, “His money gave him both the means and the confidence to break the donors’ cartel that until then had eliminated all GOP candidates who didn’t begin by saluting the Bush family for starting the Iraq War, incessantly demanding cuts in Social Security and Medicare, and managing the economy into total collapse via financial deregulation.... He could say whatever he wanted” (38). Only in the summer, as the convention approached, did the Trump campaign begin to bring in significant money from major donors, ranging from coal mining companies to big banks to Silicon Valley firms such as Facebook. And capitalist donations to Trump didn’t kick into high gear until after billionaire Rebekah Mercer persuaded Trump to put Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway in charge of the campaign, with a strategy to target white working-class voters in key swing states.

The industrial pattern of political contributions was also dramatically different than it had been in 2012, when the Republican nominee received a majority of business contributions in most industries. In 2016, Clinton retained majority support from those industries that had sided with Obama (high tech and health insurance), but she also gained the bulk of contributions from defense and aerospace firms, which had split evenly between the two major parties in 2012, and she gained majority support from many industries that had backed Romney, including chemicals, electronics, pharmaceuticals, health care, utilities, general insurance, and both commercial and investment banking. Clinton enjoyed the broadest and deepest capitalist backing of any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson defeated the “extremist” Barry Goldwater in a landslide. Clinton won this support, the “Hunger Games” authors argue, by reaching out to moderate Republicans and neoconservatives. She defended Wall Street in the face of Trump’s populist rhetoric, moved to Obama’s right on major foreign policy issues such as Syria, and (distancing herself firmly from Sanders) emphasized personal qualifications over policies. Clinton’s strategy to reassure elites rather than speak to popular anger was, as the authors conclude, “a miscalculation of historic proportions” (47).

Man in suit standing at podium in crowded auditorium, speaking.
Peter Thiel, who contributed over $1 million to Trump's
election bid, speaking at 2016 Republican National Convention
Despite Clinton’s stronger business support overall, Trump did get majority backing from several industries, including mining (especially coal mining), casinos, agribusiness, rubber, steel, and gun and ammunition manufacturers. He also received a large proportion of support from food, chemicals, oil (especially big oil companies), transportation, and certain financial services sectors, especially private equity firms (“the part of Wall Street which had long championed hostile takeovers as a way of disciplining what they mocked as bloated and inefficient ‘big business’” [45]). As the “Hunger Games” authors argue, Trump’s call for deregulation and climate change denial appealed to firms in many of these industries, while a few industries, notably steel and rubber, liked his economic protectionism. The gun industry was predictably hostile to Democrats.

Trump’s unstable coalition
In their conclusion, Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen emphasize the deep ongoing tensions between President Trump and his party’s establishment. They argue, moreover, that Trump’s capitalist support base was not only much smaller than the Republican norm, but also “extremely unstable”:
It is made up of several layers of investor blocs with little in common other than their intense dislike of existing forms of American government. The world of private equity, intent on gaining access to the gigantic, rapidly growing securities markets of China and the rest of Asia or casinos dependent on licenses for their lucrative businesses in Macau are likely to coexist only fitfully with American industries struggling to cope with world overcapacity in steel and other products or facing twenty-first century mercantilist state targeting (48).
Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen’s analysis—particularly including this point about Trump’s “extremely unstable” business support—bolsters and sheds light on points I made about the Trump administration in Insurgent Supremacists. I noted that Trump’s candidacy alienated not only many Republican officials but also many business leaders. “Yet because he lacked an organizational base of his own, Trump was immediately forced not only to work with establishment figures in the Republican Party but also to bring them into his own administration. As a result, from the beginning Trump’s presidency rested on an unstable coalition of right-wing factions both opposed to and aligned with conventional conservatism” (200).

This shaky coalition, I argued, brought together both supporters and opponents of neoliberalism, the ideology of deregulation, privatization, relatively open borders, and free trade that has dominated both major parties for about four decades. During the campaign, Trump advocated a form of nationalist populism embodied in the slogan “America First,” which challenged neoliberal orthodoxy on trade and immigration and also called into question the establishment’s related consensus around military interventionism and traditional alliances overseas. Trump brought some America Firsters into his administration, such as Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Peter Navarro, and Stephen Miller, but they were never the dominant force there.
From the beginning, the majority of Trump’s high-level appointees were not nationalist-populists, but conventional conservatives of various stripes. Some were Christian rightists or Tea Partiers, some were veterans of the Republican political establishment, and some were known mainly for their experience in the military or in business. From early on, America Firsters clashed with neoliberals and establishment figures in the administration and in Congress on issues such as trade policy, which contributed to an unusual degree of chaos and lack of clear direction. The issues on which the different factions agreed, and on which the Trump administration moved forward most effectively, basically represented a hard-line version of neoliberalism’s domestic agenda: dismantle environmental regulations and consumer protection rules, open up public lands to corporate exploitation, “reform” the tax system to further redistribute wealth from low- and middle-income people to the rich, make the judicial system more punitive, and speed up militarization of the police. To a large extent, the result seemed to be policies that benefited narrow capitalist interests, such as military contractors, private prison operators, and energy companies, as well as the Trump family’s own businesses, more than a coherent unified program (204).
I think this image of an unstable coalition remains a useful framework. Since I wrote the passage above (in September 2017), the Trump administration’s America First faction has lost ground, several of its leading members are gone, and some critics have concluded that the president is just continuing neoliberal policies while overlaying them with xenophobic rhetoric to appease his popular base. But this doesn’t adequately get at the administration’s inconsistent, conflicted character, as when Trump announced a troop withdrawal from Syria that most of his own advisors opposed, or forced a government shutdown only after his right-wing base demanded no compromise on the border wall. It doesn’t explain why neoliberal measures have been interspersed with echoes of paleoconservative Pat Buchanan (who declared “we will put America First” over 25 years ago), as when Trump imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on Europe and Canada, launched a trade war with China, or railed against NATO allies. Buchanan’s 1992 campaign in the GOP presidential primaries was one of the first major right-wing challenges to neoliberalism, and it drew support from some of the same business sectors that later backed Trump’s candidacy.

I don’t have detailed information on how capitalists’ views of Trump may have shifted since the 2016 election, but in broad terms, the dominant business voices have supported his administration on taxes and deregulation of industry, while opposing it on immigration and trade. For example, the Business Roundtable (BR), which includes the CEOs of most big U.S. corporations, praised the 2017 tax “reform” law and testified that the Trump administration was “taking major steps” to achieve “smart regulation." But in September 2018, BR reported that two-thirds of CEOs feared recent tariffs and expected trade tensions would negatively affect their capital investment decisions, and in August 2018, sixty BR members, including some of the country’s most prominent CEOs, signed a letter expressing “serious concern” over the administration’s immigration policy changes.

To sum up: Neoliberalism (and the related internationalist/interventionist foreign policy stance) still enjoys majority support within the U.S. ruling class and among political elites in both major parties, but its ability to rally popular support is in crisis (as it also is, for example, in many European countries). Rightwing nationalist populism has a large popular constituency, but it lacks a coherent, independent organizational infrastructure and its capitalist support is relatively weak. These factors enabled Donald Trump in 2016 to defeat establishment candidates in both the Republican primaries and the general election, but he attracted a relatively small and internally divided array of business supporters. As president, despite his strong personal inclinations toward nationalist populism, Trump has been forced to bring many establishment figures into his administration, and to implement elements of both neoliberalism and nationalist populism, or at least oscillate between them.

This is a volatile situation, which Trump’s authoritarian impulses won’t fix, and it’s hard to know how it will be resolved in the long run. Maybe transnationally oriented capitalists will find a way to reconnect with popular support, as Don Hamerquist has suggested. Maybe (if the United States’ global economic position weakens further) nationalist populists will gain greater and more organized ruling class backing, thus expanding their ability to govern without neoliberal partners. In the meantime, the situation seems likely to feed, not a calculated march toward dictatorship, but a sharpening mix of repression and instability. As the political collective Research & Destroy forecast shortly after Trump’s inauguration, “In many of the futures we can see from here, the state will be both turbocharged and weak; its oppressive mechanisms will churn in higher gears without being highly functional, as jurisdictional and factional disputes proliferate.” There are openings here for the left—but also for the far right.

1. December 14, 2017 in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. Official White House photo (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Voice of America (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Dec 20, 2018

Ammon Bundy, the refugee caravan, and Patriot movement race politics

When Patriot leader Ammon Bundy defended the recent Central American refugee caravan and criticized Donald Trump, a lot of liberals and leftists were confused, and a lot of Patriot activists were mad. But Bundy’s comments point to longstanding tensions around race within the Patriot movement – and within the U.S. far right as a whole.

Ammon Bundy has been one of the most prominent figures in the Patriot movement over the past several years. He led the January 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, and participated in the 2014 armed standoff between Patriot movement activists and federal officers at the Nevada ranch of his father, Cliven Bundy.

But in late November, Bundy posted a Facebook video that put him squarely at odds with the majority of Patriot activists. He defended the recent efforts by Central American refugees to enter the U.S., and criticized President Trump for calling them criminals. “What about individuals, those who have come for reasons of need for their families, you know, the fathers and mothers and children that come here and were willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?” He pointed out that the refugees were fleeing terrible violence in Central America, and rejected conspiracist claims that George Soros had orchestrated their trek northward.

Many Patriot activists denounced Bundy for the video. Rightists called him a kook or an opportunist or claimed he had been bought off by “globalists.” As a result, Bundy took down the video, shut down his social media accounts, and distanced himself from Patriot groups, although he later denied he was quitting a movement. He said that other Patriot leaders were expressing private support but feared a backlash if they spoke out publicly.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, Bundy said he supported Trump on many issues but not his approach to governing. “He's a nationalist, and a nationalist in my view makes the decision that best benefits the nation, not the individual... That is not freedom, and that is not what America was built upon." He compared the adulation of Trump to 1930s Germany. “I don't want to say there is that extreme similarity, but it very well could go that way, and people just give up their thinking, their rights, and they give up their government because they were so willing to follow him.”

Photograph of Cliven and Ammon Bundy seated on a stage
Cliven and Ammon Bundy
Political complexities in the far right
Bundy’s comments are unusual, but they don’t mean he has moved to the left. Rather, they point to political complexities within the U.S. far right that critics often ignore. For example, Bundy isn’t the first far rightist to warn against Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Joel McDurmon wrote after Trump’s 2016 election victory that he feared “a tremendous ramp-up in the police state,” and a few months later described Trump as “at least very close to a fascist, if not one.” McDurmon is a leading proponent of Christian Reconstructionism, one of the Christian right’s harshest and most theocratic branches.

Bundy’s defense of Central American refugees evokes the racial inclusiveness of another hardline theocratic current, the New Apostolic Reformation movement, which includes many Central Americans, as well as African and Asian people. More obliquely, it evokes the fact that Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer include significant sprinklings of people of color among their members, despite Proud Boys’ self-proclaimed “western chauvinism” and both groups’ extensive ties with white nationalists.

It’s helpful to look at Ammon Bundy’s comments in relation to those of his father, Cliven Bundy, who has recently criticized Trump’s border policy in terms similar to his son’s. Going back to 2014, after the standoff with federal officers at his ranch, Cliven Bundy was widely quoted as making racist comments about “the Negro,” such as claiming that African Americans are all on government subsidy and have less freedom now than they did under slavery. Much less attention was given to comments he made in the same interview about “Spanish people” (i.e., Mexicans):
Now I understand that they come over here against our Constitution and cross our borders. But they're here, and they're people. And I've worked beside a lot of them. Don't tell me they don't work, and don't tell me they don't pay taxes. And don't tell me they don't have better family structures than most of us white people. When you see those Mexican families, they're together, they picnic together, they're spending their time together. And I'll tell you, in my way of thinking, they're awful nice people. And we need to have those people going to be with us.
Refugees assembly discussing actions
Cliven Bundy’s comments about both blacks and Mexicans reflect an ideology of producerism, which endorses those groups that are seen as productive contributors to society (such as farmers, workers, and industrialists) while denouncing those seen as unproductive (such as welfare recipients below and bankers above). Producerism has been a prominent theme in many forms of right-wing populism in the U.S. since the nineteenth century. Cliven Bundy gave producerist ideology a Mormon inflection. The LDS Church barred blacks from the priesthood until 1978, but until recently most Mormons were taught that Mexicans and other Latin Americans were descendants of one the lost tribes of Israel and thus a special target for religious conversion and recruitment.

Related to producerism, some of Ammon Bundy’s comments raise the issue of the Patriot movement’s class politics:
“This country is in a labor crisis. Our labor workforce is so minimal that every employer will tell you that they cannot find the employees needed to fill the positions in their businesses.… And yet now we have thousands of people willing to come in here, and it appears…that they’re willing to work.… My family would love to sponsor a couple of their families.”
As a number of critics have noted, although Patriot groups project a working-class ethos they tend to represent the interests of ranchers and others who own property in the rural West, rather than landless workers. Both the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff and the 2016 Malheur refuge occupation were largely about turning over publicly controlled lands and other resources to be freely used by ranchers, mining companies, and logging companies. These interests sometimes clash with the neoliberal push for unrestricted movement of capital and workers across international boundaries – but sometimes they don’t.

Cross-fertilizing white nationalism and color-blind ideology
Ever since the Patriot movement first exploded in the mid 1990s with the widespread formation of “citizen militias,” many critics have treated it as essentially a toned-down version of white nationalism. It’s always been more accurate to say that the Patriot movement is a political hybrid, where white nationalism has interacted and cross-fertilized with a number of other right-wing ideological forces. It has always encompassed a range of positions on race. That’s part of why it’s attracted a much bigger following and may ultimately be more dangerous than the white nationalist movement itself.

Many accounts of the Patriot movement’s origins emphasize its roots in Posse Comitatus, a white supremacist, antisemitic network that was strong in the 1970s and 80s. Posse was hostile to government entities about the county level and advocated formation of local militias to oppose federal government tyranny – positions that resonate with Patriot groups today. But the Patriot movement was also strongly influenced by a number of other rightist forces, including Christian Reconstructionists, John Birch Society-type conspiracists, gun rights organizations, anti-abortion activists, the Wise Use anti-environmental movement, and others.

As a result of these varied influences, the Patriot movement from the beginning has featured an internal tension between explicitly white supremacist politics and what Robert Churchill has called “color-blind racism.” Color-blind racists claim to “not see color” and to treat everyone as individuals. This means that they support formal equality and inclusiveness while denying (and thus protecting) the continue reality of systemic racial oppression. Compared with explicit white supremacism, color-blind ideology is much more widespread, and much more widely accepted, in U.S. society. The Patriot movement even included a few people of color, such as J.J. Johnson, a black man who cofounded the Ohio Unorganized Militia and described militias as “The Civil Rights Movement of the ’90s.”

The Bundys are heirs to a Mormon current that has been influential in the Patriot movement from the beginning. Patriot movement conspiracy theories were influenced by the ideas of W. Cleon Skousen, a right-wing Mormon who worked closely with the John Birch Society in the 1960s and 70s. One of the first Patriot networks was the Idaho-based United States Militia Association, founded by Samuel Sherwood, who (Churchill writes) publicized it through a Mormon homeschooling network. Sherwood was a leading proponent of color-blind ideology within the Patriot movement.

The Patriot movement collapsed in the late 1990s and was largely dormant during George W. Bush’s presidency, then had a resurgence after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. During this “second wave,” Patriot groups have distanced themselves more energetically from white supremacist ideology, but have also embraced anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes more actively than their predecessors did in the 90s. As the authors of Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement argue, open racism is now rare among the Patriot movement’s leadership but still common at the grassroots. But it would be misleading to portray this as simply a movement trying to hide its true, white supremacist character.

Oath Keepers and the politics of race
The Patriot movement’s conflicted racial politics have been vividly embodied in the group Oath Keepers, which has been a leading force in the movement’s second wave. I discussed this in a 2015 blog post about Oath Keepers’ responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s a condensed version from my book Insurgent Supremacists (pages 50-51):
Oath Keepers declares that its opposition to government tyranny is “not about race” but is meant to protect all Americans regardless of color. The group’s website features videos in which people of color are prominently featured as Oath Keepers members. Yet Oath Keepers has also called for a crackdown against “illegal aliens,” who it warns are being brought in as part of a large-scale “invasion” of the United States, and some individual Oath Keepers have made racist statements, such as one who referred to President Obama as a “mulatto” and suggested he was a Muslim born in Kenya—right-wing code-speak for “a black man has no business being in the White House.” Oath Keepers has co-sponsored two “Racial Reconciliation of the Races” events with African American pastor James David Manning, whose vision of white-black unity centers on intense homophobia.

In 2014 and 2015, during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown, Oath Keepers sent heavily armed men (apparently all white) into Ferguson. The group said the men were there to guard businesses and homes against arsonists and looters, and to protect reporters with, Alex Jones’s right-wing conspiracist website. Many people interpreted the move as a white supremacist show of force to intimidate Black Lives Matter protesters. Support for this interpretation could be found in a statement by the New York state chapter of Oath Keepers, which dismissed Black Lives Matter as a pawn of Communist, anti-American “race-baiters.”

Yet before sending the armed men to Ferguson, Oath Keepers had harshly condemned the Ferguson police force for violating people’s right to protest and offered detailed criticisms of its “spectacularly un- safe weapons discipline and methodology,” such as pointing automatic weapons at unarmed protesters. The group also wrote an open letter to the people of Ferguson, which declared that “you have an absolute, God given, and constitutionally protected right to protest and speak your mind” and that “the police have no right, no authority, and no power to violate those rights....” The letter specifically urged black military veterans to form armed patrols and neighborhood watches to keep Ferguson safe, and cited the Deacons for Defense and Justice (whose armed members protected 1960s civil rights marchers in the Deep South and helped to inspire the Black Panther Party) as a “proud and noble” example to follow. By urging African Americans to arm themselves, Oath Keepers repudiated one of the traditional core principles of U.S. white supremacy, that black people must never practice—or be able to practice—self-defense.

But Oath Keepers would only take this so far. When St. Louis County Oath Keepers leader Sam Andrews announced plans to hold a march through downtown Ferguson in which Oath Keepers members would accompany fifty African Americans armed with long barrel rifles, the group’s national leadership withdrew support. Andrews and his “tactical team,” as well as a group of Oath Keepers in Florida, resigned from Oath Keepers in protest, and Andrews commented, “I can’t have my name associated with an organization that doesn’t believe black people can exercise their First and Second Amendment rights at the same time.”
*                    *                    *

Sam Andrews’s split with the Oath Keepers national leadership foreshadowed Ammon Bundy’s conflict with his former Patriot movement supporters. Both reflect the contradictions of color-blind racism on the right: in a movement that disavows white supremacist ideology, some people will take inclusiveness too far for the majority. Such challenges are seen as threatening and disloyal, although they don’t really call national or racial oppression into question. These challenges are not aberrations but a logical part of the movement’s dynamics, and they point to tensions and fissures in the U.S. far right that antifascists need to understand. Lumping all far rightists together as “white nationalists” or “Nazis” makes it harder for us to do this.

Photo credits:
1. Cliven and Ammon Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education in Mesa, Arizona, 22 July 2014. Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Refugees assembly discussing actions, Ciudad Deportiva Magdalena Mixhuca temporary camp, Mexico City, 9 November 2018. Photo by ProtoplasmaKid (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Nov 15, 2018

Principal enemy: demystifying far right antisemitism

I can think of at least four reasons why leftists and antifascists need a good analysis of antisemitism:
  1. Antisemitism kills Jews. There should be no question about this after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. In the United States, Gentiles are not killing Jews on anywhere near the scale of cops killing Black people, or husbands and boyfriends killing women, or cisgender folks killing trans people, but anti-Jewish violence is real. And if the current political climate means anything, it is likely to get worse.
  2. Antisemitism drives far right politics. From the neonazis who call Jews the main enemy of the white race, to Patriot groups that stockpile weapons to confront “globalist elites,” to Christian theocrats who look forward to mass killings of Jews and mass conversion of the survivors, U.S. far rightists put antisemitic themes at the center of their belief systems. These forces have been closely bound up with Donald Trump’s political rise, and over the past two years they have helped blast away the taboo against antisemitism in U.S. political discourse.
  3. Antisemitism is a problem within the left. Conservatives have long portrayed the left—falsely—as the main source of Jew-hatred, but that doesn’t mean leftists have done a good job of combating it. Antisemites such as Gilad Atzmon and Kevin Barrett have been welcomed into respected radical venues such as CounterPunch and Left Forum, and efforts to correct this have had mixed success, often meeting fierce opposition and denial. Many radical Jews have encountered antisemitic attitudes in leftist circles, such as “Jews control the media” or “the Zionist lobby controls Congress.” Excusing antisemitism, let alone promoting it, hurts the left’s credibility and integrity and weakens all our efforts.
  4. The charge of antisemitism has been widely misused. Zionist groups often label criticisms of Israel or calls for Palestinian self-determination as inherently “antisemitic.” Such claims falsely equate Jews’ safety with Israel’s repressive and murderous policies, discredit principled efforts to combat antisemitism (whether by opponents or supporters of the Israeli state), and mask Zionism’s own long history of collusion with Jews’ oppression. Misuse of the antisemitism charge doesn’t cause or excuse anti-Jewish scapegoating, but it highlights the need for clear radical analysis. 
My aim here is to help strengthen radical antifascist analysis of antisemitism by pulling together some of the best insights I’ve found in other people’s writings. I’m primarily concerned with far right antisemitism, because far rightists are spearheading the resurgence of scapegoating and violence against Jews in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, it’s important to look at how far right antisemitism is rooted in U.S. political culture as a whole, and in the structural dynamics of Jews’ roles in U.S. society. In addition, it’s important to recognize that far right antisemitism can take sharply different ideological forms, resulting in different policies and with different implications for antifascist strategy.

There are a lot of good writings about antisemitism. In this post I will highlight four works that explore the topic in different ways and, in combination, address many of the key issues involved. All four are freely available online. Three of them were published in 2017, against the backdrop of Trump’s election and the far right upsurge that contributed to it, while the fourth was published in 2009, abut a year after Barack Obama took office, a time when U.S. far rightists of various kinds were mustering their forces. Here are the four:
“The driving force of white dispossession”

I want to start with Eric K. Ward’s “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” because it lays out a case for why understanding and combating antisemitism should be a strategic priority. As Ward argues, the modern white nationalist movement sees Jews not just as one of its enemies, but as the main enemy—the group that’s chiefly responsible for most of what’s wrong with U.S. society today:
“The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology. White supremacism—inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South—had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could a race of inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone? For that matter, how could feminists and LGBTQ people have upended traditional gender relations, leftists mounted a challenge to global capitalism, Muslims won billions of converts to Islam? How do you explain the boundary-crossing allure of hip hop? The election of a Black president? Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious.
*          *          *
“White supremacism through the collapse of Jim Crow was a conservative movement centered on a state-sanctioned anti-Blackness that sought to maintain a racist status quo. The White nationalist movement that evolved from it in the 1970s was a revolutionary movement that saw itself as the vanguard of a new, Whites-only state. This latter movement, then and now, positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of White dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism.”
The Dearborn Independent newspaper: "The International Jew: The World's Problem" (headline)
Henry Ford's antisemitic propaganda campaign, 1920s
The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre offers an example of how antisemitism is bound up with other white nationalist themes. Shortly before taking his guns to Tree of Life, neonazi Robert Bowers denounced the Jewish refugee aid organization HIAS for bringing “invaders in that kill our people.” Here and elsewhere, white nationalists see Jews as the wirepullers directing other groups that threaten the white race.

Ward notes that white nationalism is a “fractious” movement that “does not take a single unified position on the Jewish question.” To elaborate on Ward’s point, some white nationalists think all Jews should be killed, while others think we wouldn’t be a threat if we all moved to Israel. And a few, such as Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, have even reached out to a few right-wing Jews to join them. Nevertheless, scapegoating Jews and Jewish power has been a “throughline” from David Duke’s remake of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s to the alt-right of today.

Much of “Skin in the Game” traces Ward’s political development as a “Black male punk” who grew up in southern California and moved to Oregon, and who “began to fight White nationalism because my world, my scene, my friends, and my music were under neonazi attack.” It was in this context that he came to identify antisemitism as “a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.” Yet he also encountered resistance to addressing antisemitism from “the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country.” These groups were committed to a simple model of racial oppression, in which Jews (or at least Ashkenazi Jews) were white and therefore talking about antisemitism would “deny the workings of White privilege.”

Ward’s solution to this dilemma is to call European American Jews’ white privilege into question. The argument here is ambiguous: at some points he refers to this privilege as a “myth” or a “fantasy,” which I think is at best oversimplified (because clearly we European American Jews do have access to white privilege at least most of the time), but elsewhere he refers to it as “provisional,” which hints at a more complex analysis.

The most accessible targets for popular anger

Some of that analysis can be found in my second recommended work: the pamphlet Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering to Our Movement, produced by Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. JFREJ argues that Jews
“suffer from ‘definitional instability’ when it comes to race.... Like the Irish and Italians, light-skinned Jews of European descent once faced pervasive, racialized bigotry. Today they primarily identify as white and are read as white, benefit from white privilege, and participate in upholding the system of white supremacy. However, this whiteness is contextual and conditional. ...antisemitic beliefs predate modern white supremacy ideology. But white supremacy has since been incorporated into antisemitism, creating a shifting, slippery mixture of religious intolerance, mythology and racism. This means that Jews can sometimes be racialized as white, but antisemitism persists, and white Jews can still be considered ‘other’ because of religious difference and cultural stereotypes” (9).
I’ve argued elsewhere that American Jews’ racial “instability” falls into distinct historical periods: through most of U.S. history, Jews of European descent have been defined as white, but this was not the case from the 1880s to the 1940s, when millions of southern and eastern Europeans (including most Jews) “temporarily formed an intermediate group in the racial hierarchy, above people of color but below native-born whites. During this time, and none other, Jews in the U.S. faced a wave of systematic discrimination in jobs, schools, and housing, and anti-Jewish propaganda, organizing, and violence reached record levels.” During other periods, white privilege has mitigated the impact of antisemitism, but has never offered Jews full protection from scapegoating and violence.

JFRJ’s Understanding Antisemitism is notable in particular because it presents a structural model of antisemitism, in which Jews (a) become concentrated in highly visible positions of relative privilege, (b) are used as scapegoats to divert popular anger away from the real centers of power and oppression, and (c) experience alternating periods of relative acceptance and intense, violent persecution:
“Many oppressions, such as anti-Black racism in the United States, could be said to require a fixed hierarchy or binary values system.... By contrast, antisemitism is often described as ‘cyclical.’ The Jewish experience in Europe has been characterized as cycling between periods of Jewish stability and even success, only to be followed by periods of intense anti-Jewish sentiment and violence.... In order for [myths of Jewish power] to be plausible and gain purchase, Jews must accumulate at least some wealth and standing in society.... When the workers in these countries got angry about their exploitation, the most accessible targets were often Jews, rather than the elite political and economic actors who actually had power over the system and were almost exclusively Christian” (15).
This same dynamic, JFREJ argues, has been replicated in the modern United States, in a context of “racialized capitalist exploitation”:
“As they became classified as white, a large sector of assimilable Jews in the United States acquired real privileges such as a path into professional roles like teachers, social workers, doctors, or lawyers. They took on roles as intermediaries—middle agents—between large institutions and the people that they service. In big cities, these professionals are often the face of systemic racism and class oppression, delivered through schools, hospitals, government agencies, and financial institutions and service provision non-profits. Neither the professionals in middle-agent roles, or their poor, working class and POC clients are actually empowered to change the system. However, the professionals do have more positional power relative to their clients. For those clients, these doctors, lawyers, social workers and teachers—often Jewish—are the most immediately accessible face of those systems. They are the ‘middlemen’ between the oppressed and the systems oppressing them. This focuses anger about racism on Jews, and because of antisemitic stereotypes about Jews, that anger spreads and persists even in places where there are few, or no, Jews” (26, 28).
This structural model of antisemitism has been around for decades and is partly based on Belgian Trotskyist Abram Leon’s theory of Jews as a “people-class,” yet it is widely ignored by today’s U.S. left. Understanding Antisemitism presents it effectively while wisely cautioning against treating the cyclical dynamic as universal or permanent. As JFREJ notes, it doesn’t necessarily describe the history of Jewish-Gentile relations in North Africa or the Middle East, for example. I would extend the caveats further. In particular, I disagree with JFREJ’s claim that the Nazi genocide was a “clear example” of scapegoating Jews to redirect working-class rage away from the ruling class. If, as JFREJ quotes Aurora Levins Morales, “the goal [of antisemitism] is not to crush us, it’s to have us available for crushing” (17) then Nazism went completely off script, by making the systematic extermination of Jews an overriding goal that overrode all other political and military priorities. However, as a first approximation for understanding what generates and sustains antisemitism today, JFREJ’s approach is miles ahead of the conventional—and tautological—claim that antisemitism is simply an expression of “hate.”

Understanding Antisemitism has a lot more to offer, such as a good overview of Jews’ ethnic and economic diversity in the United States, a thoughtful discussion of how anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim oppressions are related, and a good argument for the strategic value of supporting the leadership of Jews of Color. The pamphlet also offers a useful starting discussion of Israel and Zionism, arguing on the one hand that it is legitimate to criticize Israel and Zionism as oppressive to Palestinians, and on the other hand that Israel’s oppressive policies are comparable to what many states practice around the world, and thus singling out Israel for special condemnation tends to play into antisemitism.

But the pamphlet has other shortcomings as well. Understanding Antisemitism includes no discussion of gender or the ways that antisemitism and male supremacy have interacted and reinforced each other. The pamphlet says nothing about Zionism’s long history of promoting antisemitic stereotypes and allying with antisemites in the name of building the Jewish state. And aside from a brief note in the Glossary, there is no discussion of the Christian right, although the United States has far more Christian rightists than white nationalists. This is consistent with the silence about Zionism’s support for antisemitism, since most Christian rightists are both pro-Zionist and antisemitic.

“Embedding themselves like a virus”

To begin to address these limitations, I turn to my third recommended work on the topic: Ben Lorber’s essay, “Understanding Alt-Right Antisemitism.” Lorber’s aim here is to examine “the ideology of antisemitism on the alt-right, and its intersection with alt-right Zionism, in comparison with anti-Jewish ideologies of the 20th century.” In the process, he elucidates some themes whose significance goes far beyond Richard Spencer and his comrades.

Person at antifascist rally wearing helmet with Star of David painted on it
Antifascist rally in Boston, 11/18/2017
Lorber’s analysis of alt-right antisemitism focuses largely on the work of Kevin MacDonald, a retired academic and one of white nationalism’s most influential theoreticians. MacDonald edits The Occidental Quarterly and its online counterpart, The Occidental Observer, and has published a series of books on Jews and Judaism. The basic premises found here and in the works of other alt-rightists are standard antisemitic fare going back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and earlier. As summarized by Lorber, “a tight-knit Jewish ‘ingroup’ embeds itself, like a virus, within the pores of [western societies], siphoning off resources, rising to the elite and disarming all defenses against their invasion.” This ingroup has worked stealthily to gain control of all the major power centers from Hollywood to the IMF, and has promoted civil rights, multiculturalism, feminism, and open immigration policies within the United States—while using neoliberal austerity policies to subjugate nation-states in Europe and elsewhere. In all these spheres, Jews function as the master puppeteers. “While other hated ethnic and religious groups, such as blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims, represent external threats, Jews, [alt-rightists] claim, destabilize White European-American society from within, through the gradual, imperceptible institutionalization of creeping white genocide.”

In drawing parallels between the antisemitism of today’s alt-right and 20th-century fascist movements, Lorber draws on Moishe Postone’s brilliant essay “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,” which elucidated modern antisemitism’s concept of Jewish power:
“‘What characterizes the power imputed to the Jews in modern anti-Semitism,’ writes Postone, ‘is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. It is considered to be a form of power that does not manifest itself directly, but must find another mode of expression. It seeks a concrete carrier, whether political, social, or cultural, through which it can work… It is considered to stand behind phenomena, but not to be identical with them. Its source is therefore deemed hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy.’”
Modern antisemitism, Postone explained further, set up a phony dichotomy between the “abstract” (rootless, cosmopolitan) power of “unproductive” finance capital and the “concrete” (rooted, patriotic) power of “productive” industrial capital (ignoring the reality that industrial and financial capital are integrally connected). Thus anger at capitalism could be channeled into hatred of Jews—the socialism of fools. At the same time, Jews’ abstract power was identified not only with the ruthless financier but also the dangerous leftist—two faces of the modern world, both of which threatened the traditional social order. Both Nazism in the 1930s and the alt-right today follow this same basic schema.

Along with these parallels, Lorber’s essay also points to certain distinctive features of alt-right antisemitism. One, which Lorber mentions only in passing, is the emphasis on evolutionary psychology. Although earlier generations of antisemites made use of social Darwinism and the image of a ruthless struggle between races, alt-rightists have updated this approach for the 21st century. MacDonald, an evolutionary psychologist by profession, has labeled Judaism a “group evolutionary strategy,” providing scapegoating and demonization with a modern-sounding, pseudo-scientific veneer. Looking beyond the scope of Lorber’s essay, evolutionary psychology has also strongly influenced alt-right gender theory, via the writings of various manosphere figures and male tribalist Jack Donovan (who was active in the alt-right for years before repudiating its white nationalism in the wake of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally).

Lorber devotes more attention to another distinctive feature of the alt-right: its admiration for Zionism. As he notes, “old-school” white nationalists such as David Duke have tended to demonize Israel and treat “Zionism” as a code-word for the international Jewish conspiracy. In contrast, many alt-right figures have endorsed the Zionist project as a positive step toward racial separation. “I do not oppose the existence of Israel,” Lorber quotes Counter-Currents editor Greg Johnson: “I oppose the Jewish diaspora in the United States and other white societies. I would like to see the white peoples of the world break the power of the Jewish diaspora and send the Jews to Israel, where they will have to learn how to be a normal nation.” Other alt-rightists, such as Richard Spencer, have written admiringly about Zionism as an example of ethnonationalism that white Americans and Europeans should emulate.

Lorber points out that there is a long history of antisemites supporting Zionism—such as Henry Ford in the 1920s—and that political Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl proposed that his movement work with “respectable anti-Semites” who would support the removal of Jews from western societies. In the process, Herzl believed, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” (The state of Israel later implemented Herzl’s vision when it cultivated friendly relations, for example, with antisemitic governments in South Africa and Argentina.)

By highlighting the compatibility of antisemitism and Zionism, Lorber’s essay fills one of the important gaps in JFREJ’s Understanding Antisemitism pamphlet. It also helps us understand the politics of Donald Trump, who offers aggressive support for Israel’s apartheid and settler-colonialism while also echoing and amplifying antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Fish to be caught

My fourth recommended text follows a related thread. Rachel Tabachnick’s essay “The New Christian Zionism and the Jews: A Love/Hate Relationship,” first published in late 2009, examines a form of right-wing antisemitism that often gets left out of the discussion. The Christian right, a mass movement that aims to impose a repressive, reactionary version of Christianity on U.S. society, is anti-Jewish by definition, but it’s rarely viewed that way because most Christian rightists are staunchly pro-Zionist.

Billboard that reads, "Global warning: Jesus will return. Are you ready."
Christian right: In the End Times, all Jews will die or convert
Tabachnick’s essay identifies both similarities and differences between Christian right antisemitism and its white nationalist counterpart. Christian rightists, and specifically Christian Zionists, promote standard antisemitic tropes, such as portraying Jews as preoccupied with money and claiming that Jewish bankers engage in sinister plots to weaken the U.S. economy. Christian Zionists also look forward to future mass killings of Jews as a key part of a divine plan. On a more basic level, Christian Zionists, like white nationalists, see Jews as exercising an influence over human affairs that is vastly out of proportion to our numbers or actual roles in society.

But there are also important contrasts between the Christian right’s religious antisemitism and white nationalists’ racial antisemitism. White nationalists believe that Jews are a race apart, intrinsically threaten whites, and must be either physically separated from whites or exterminated. But most Christian rightists claim, insidiously, to love Jews. They believe that Jewishness is a redeemable flaw, which can be overcome by accepting Jesus as humanity’s divine savior. Most of them believe, further, that as God’s original chosen people Jews have an important role to play in the End Times, and that Israel’s founding and growth are important steps toward Jesus’s return. “Christian Zionists,” Tabachnick notes, “talk about themselves as ‘fishers’ who entice Jews to move to Israel, while ‘hunters’ are those who violently force the Jews who are unresponsive to the fishers.” John Hagee, a prominent Christian Zionist leader, notoriously referred to Hitler as a hunter who was sent by God.

Tabachnick also describes a trend within Christian Zionism that is intensifying its anti-Jewish momentum:
“The traditional fundamentalist leaders of the movement preach that Jews returning to the Holy Land are a necessary part of the end times in which born-again Christians will escape death as they are raptured into heaven. Jews and other nonbelievers will remain on earth to suffer under the seven-year reign of the anti-Christ. Then, as the story goes, Jesus will come back with his armies, be accepted by the surviving Jews, and reign for a thousand years. This belief motivates adherents to send funds for West Bank settlements, to lobby for preemptive wars seen as precursors to the end times, and support Jews in the diaspora to make ‘aliyah’ and move to Israel.

“Now Christian Zionism – along with much of evangelicalism – is being swept by a charismatic movement which has rewritten the role of Jews in their end times narrative.... In their increasingly popular narrative, it is not unconverted but only converted or so-called Messianic Jews who will serve as the trigger for the return of Jesus and the advent of the millennial (thousand year) kingdom on earth.  This growing belief is driving the movement to aggressively proselytize Jews and to support ‘Messianic’ ministries in both Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.  One splinter group has even taken this story to an extreme, saying they themselves are the ‘true Israelites’ who will play the prophetic role of establishing heaven on earth by moving to Israel.”
This Christian right focus on “Messianic” Jews (those who have converted to Christianity but still retain Jewish identity and elements of Jewish ritual) is part of the context in which Mike Pence invited a “Messianic rabbi” to offer a public prayer for those killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

The charismatic movement that Tabachnick refers to is called New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Founded in 1996, NAR has over three million followers in the United States and many more worldwide, as well as an extensive network of ministries and media organs. It is one of the leading forces on the far right end of the Christian right spectrum, calling on Christians not just to ban abortion and same-sex marriage, but to “take dominion” over all spheres of society. As I wrote in Insurgent Supremacists,
“NAR combines a theocratic vision with an organizational structure that is far more centralized and authoritarian than most on the Christian right.... NAR leaders use ‘strategic-level’ spiritual warfare to cast out evil spirits that are supposedly ruling over whole cities, regions, or countries—or over whole groups of people, such as homosexuals or Muslims.... NAR leaders teach that their adherents will develop vast supernatural powers, such as defying gravity or healing every person inside a hospital just by laying hands on the building. Eventually, these people will become ‘manifest sons of God,’ who essentially have God-like powers over life and death. In the End Times, too, some one or two billion people will convert to Christianity, and God will transfer control of all wealth to the NAR apostles” (38-39).
NAR’s leaders have also enthusiastically supported Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and administration.

Because of their political support for Israel, Christian Zionists have been warmly received by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of his Likud Party, as well as leading American Jewish figures such as Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Yet as Tabachnick writes,
“Christian Zionists openly teach narratives that parallel the story lines of overt anti-Semitism in which Jews are portrayed not as ordinary people, but as superhuman or subhuman. With almost no challenge (and often endorsement) from Jewish leadership, Christian Zionists are stripping away the hard-won humanity of Jews with a broadcast capacity and international reach that overtly antisemitic organizations could never match.”

*          *          *

Each of the four essays I’ve profiled here offers important insights about far right antisemitism, and in combination they enable us to begin piecing together a fuller and more powerful analysis. Some of the themes I would emphasize in summary are:
  • Antisemitism centers on a myth of Jewish power – a power that is superhuman, hidden, and dangerous. This mythical power often stands in for actual systems of oppression and exploitation. 
  • Antisemitism demonizes Jews and often seeks to expel or annihilate us, but it can also involve twisted forms of respect or admiration. 
  • Antisemitism plays a strategically pivotal role in the politics of multiple far right movements. White nationalists regard Jews as their principal enemy, while Christian Zionists regard Jews as a special community whose elimination is essential to God’s plan for the world. 
  • Far right antisemitism takes dramatically different forms, as embodied in the contrast between racial and religious ideologies, and in varying positions with regard to Zionism. 
  • Antisemitic scapegoating is historically rooted in structural dynamics that tend to concentrate Jews in prominent positions of relative privilege. 
  • Antisemitism in the United States is interwoven in complex ways with the system of white supremacy, and Jews are targeted in ways that differ from but are interconnected with the targeting of people of color. 
The texts discussed here are just a few of many useful writings about antisemitism and its relationship with far right politics. Strengthening our understanding of these issues is a vital part of building a strong antifascist movement.

Photo credits:
1. Front page of The Dearborn Independent, Henry Ford's newspaper, 22 May 1920 (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Photo by Mark Nozell (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
3. Photo by Julian Osley, Poster on the notice-board of Campsbourne Baptist Church and Centre, Hornsey High Street, London, N8, February 2010 (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.