Feb 28, 2024

Three Way Fight book announcement and excerpt

We are publishing a book! Three Way Fight: Revolutionary Politics and Antifascism is forthcoming from PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing in May 2024. The book is edited by Xtn Alexander and Matthew N. Lyons, with a foreword by Janeen Porter and an afterword by Michael Staudenmaier. Here’s the description from the publishers’ websites:

What’s the relationship between combating the far right and working for systemic change? What does it mean when fascists intensify racial oppression and patriarchy but also call for the downfall of economic elites or even take up arms against the state?

Three way fight politics confront these urgent questions squarely, arguing that the far right grows out of an oppressive capitalist order but is also in conflict with it in real ways, and that radicals need to combat both. The three way fight approach says we need sharper analysis of far-right movements so we can fight them more effectively, and we also need to track ongoing developments within the ruling class, including liberal or centrist efforts to co-opt antifascism as a tool of state repression and system legitimation.

This book offers an introduction to three way fight politics, with more than thirty essays, position statements, and interviews from the Three Way Fight website and elsewhere, spanning from the antifascist struggles of the 1980s and 1990s to the political upheavals of the twenty-first century. Over fifteen authors explore a range of topics, such as fascist politics’ relationship with patriarchy and settler colonialism, Tom Metzger’s “Third Position” (anticapitalist) fascism, conflict within the business community over the 2016 presidential election, and the Trump administration’s shifting relationship with the organized far right. Many of the writings address issues of political strategy, such as tensions between radicals and liberals within the reproductive rights movement and the George Floyd rebellion, video gaming as an arena of political struggle, and the importance (and challenges) of approaching antifascist organizing in ways that are militant, community based, and nonsectarian.

Like the Three Way Fight website, this book is intended to promote discussion and debate to strengthen radical antifascist analysis and strategy. To help do this, in the coming months we’ll be putting together a series of events with the book as focal point.

The origins of three way fight politics (book excerpt)

The following excerpt from the introduction to Three Way Fight: Revolutionary Politics and Antifascism outlines the major political developments in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that helped bring three way fight politics into being.

As a concept and a political project, three way fight (3WF) was shaped by earlier developments in the U.S. left, in large part by two organizations: Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and, even earlier, the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). Anti-Racist Action was a large, decentralized network of local groups focused on a physical, direct action approach to combating fascist and far-right organizing. ARA, which was founded around 1987 and reached its greatest extent and level of activity in the 1990s, emerged from skinhead and punk subcultures but grew beyond these scenes to become a broader, more diverse youth-led movement. While most ARA members were nonaligned ideologically and joined the movement simply to organize and fight the fascists and far right, a significant number of members were anarchist or antiauthoritarian in orientation. However, Marxist, feminist, and other perspectives were also represented and showed ARA’s organizational nonsectarianism. Unlike liberal “anti-hate” organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, ARA explicitly rejected relying on the police or the courts, and some of its chapters organized against racist police violence and state repression as well as the far right. While ARA did not take a position on capitalism or the overall political system, it included a number of currents that advocated a more radical and at times comprehensive revolutionary anticapitalist and antisystem analysis and approach to struggle.

Unlike ARA, STO was a relatively small Marxist organization, and it was active from 1969 to about 1985. It was an offshoot of the New Left based primarily in the Chicago area. STO developed a distinctive form of independent Marxism—influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois, Antonio Gramsci, and C.L.R. James, among others—that emphasized working-class agency and targeted racial oppression as a key contradiction within the US working class. STO practiced a rare combination of revolutionary politics and public openness about internal debates and disagreements. STO also developed a concept of fascism that sharply challenged both Stalinist and Trotskyist assumptions, arguing that while fascism has “intimate connections with the needs of the capitalist class,” it also “contains an anti-capitalist ‘revolutionary’ side that is not reducible to simple demagogy.” Although it was always a small organization, STO influenced a number of later leftist organizations, and former STO members have been active in a variety of campaigns and projects.

Other currents have also contributed to the development of three way fight politics. A notable example was the loose network of independent revolutionaries that included J. Sakai (best known as the author of Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat), Butch Lee (contributor to Bottomfish Blues and co-author of Night-Vision: Illuminating War & Class on the Neo-colonial Terrain) and Bromma (author of Exodus and Reconstruction: Working-Class Women at the Heart of Globalization). Influenced by Maoism but applying it in unorthodox ways that even many anarchists engaged with, these writers have, since the 1980s, put forward sharp and original critiques of modern capitalism’s changing landscape with a strong emphasis on white supremacy and male supremacy both in the structure of society and within political movements.

Another early influence on three way fight politics was the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), which was active from about 1972 to 1989. The RSL’s politics evolved from Trotskyism to anarchism, and several of its former members helped found the Love and Rage anarchist organization in 1989. In parallel to STO, the RSL identified far-right and fascist forces as an organizing—and terrorizing—force within working-class communities, and it sought to build a diverse multi-racial, militant and working-class opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. The RSL promoted an early “them, them and us” approach that saw antiracist forces as being in a struggle against the KKK and nazis on one side and the police and the state on the other. While the RSL’s positions on fascism have received little attention in recent decades, and its writings on the issue are difficult to locate, its approach to antifascist organizing has had a lasting impact.

During this same period, some investigative journalists began to study the emerging rightist movements in ways that would directly inform three way fight analysis. Of particular note were Sara Diamond, who broke new ground in studying the Christian right as a well-organized, politically autonomous mass movement, and Chip Berlet, whose work included both anti-nazi organizing and investigation of police and FBI repression, and who helped found the antirightist think tank Political Research Associates in 1981. Berlet’s 1994 report Right Woos Left warned against far-right infiltration of the antiwar movement and the spread of conspiracist ideology in sections of the left. Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons coauthored Right-Wing Populism in America (published in 2000), which traced the long history of US movements that have combined antielitism with efforts to intensify social oppression.

The growth of ARA in the 1980s and 90s was part of a broader upsurge of confrontational “antifa” organizing across much of Europe and North America. In 1997, Minneapolis ARA and the Toronto-based Anti-Fascist Forum helped found the International Militant Anti-Fascist Network. The new network was weakened by deep political disagreements at its founding conference and lasted only a few years, but its launch statement declared, in terms that helped further revolutionary currents within ARA,

We stand for the physical and ideological confrontation of fascism, and we are not fighting to maintain the status quo. We see the challenges facing us as a three cornered fight, between the militants, the fascists and the state. We recognize that the ultimate guarantee against the far right penetrating the mainstream, is a strong politically independent working class movement.

Around this same time, increased focus on clinic defense and an ongoing internal debate led ARA in 1998 to add a commitment to “abortion rights and unrestricted reproductive freedom for all” to its Points of Unity. The new language reflected a struggle against sexism within ARA, but also many militant antifascists’ developing understanding that the far right encompassed Christian rightists as well as neo-nazis and that the fight against patriarchy must be at the forefront together with the fight against white supremacy.

Two events around the turn of the millennium—the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001—highlighted the need for fresh thinking on the relationships between far-right politics, the capitalist state, and the left. The Battle of Seattle was a series of militant mass protests against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in November and December 1999, and it marked the rise of the “antiglobalization” movement as a broad-based challenge to transnational corporate power. Politically, antiglobalization was all over the map, from the anarchist-oriented “black bloc” forces who targeted capitalist property and any symbols of power, through reformist NGOs and labor unions at the center, to hard-line nationalists and far rightists. Many ARA activists and other antifascists rallied to the movement’s militant, anticapitalist wing, where they found themselves confronting not only global corporations and intergovernmental bodies but also both procapitalist liberals and fascists—as well as the wider spread of fascistic ideas such as antisemitic conspiracism—within the movement’s own ranks. Part of this struggle is documented in the 2000 book My Enemy’s Enemy: Essays on Globalization, Fascism and the Struggle against Capitalism, which was compiled by the Anti-Fascist Forum and included an essay by Sakai.

Less than two years after Seattle, the September 11 attacks showed even more dramatically that global capitalism’s enemies could be found not only on the radical left but also on the far right. In destroying the Twin Towers and damaging the Pentagon, al-Qaeda struck at prominent symbols of Western imperialism and capitalism. But these attacks, which killed some three thousand people, were carried out in the service of a political vision that was profoundly authoritarian and reactionary. The United States responded with the decades-long “War on Terror,” increased repression both at home and abroad, and a wave of racist attacks against people of color, particularly Arabs and Middle Easterners. US fascist groups both fueled these fears and looked for ways to take advantage of them. Radical antifascists found themselves forced back on the defensive, yet they began to analyze the attacks, the responses to them, and their wider implications.

Jan 11, 2024

Trump’s Gospel: A Review of Jeff Sharlet’s The Undertow

Book cover of The Undertow, showing a jackknife and a church
Jeff Sharlet, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War
New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2023
363 pages; ISBN: 978-1-324-07451-9

Review by Jarrod Shanahan

So much has been already said about Donald J. Trump, Trumpism, and the amorphous mass known as his “base” that it hardly seems worth revisiting the topic almost eight years after his fateful descent down Trump Tower’s golden excavator. Just as the 2016 election seemed to confirm everything that virtually everyone had already been saying about US politics for years, so too does Donald Trump today seem self-explanatory. A living Rorschach test, Trump has made a career out of appearing exactly as people want him to be. The billionaire champion of the everyman; the hedonist defender of traditional values; the criminal warrior for law and order; the antichrist and the messiah rolled into one. Trump is all these things, but more fundamentally, Trump just is. What’s the point of even talking about it anymore?

Journalist Jeff Sharlet has been on the Trump beat since 2015, crisscrossing the country to attend Trump rallies, MAGA churches, men's rights convergences, memorials for January 6th martyr Ashli Babbitt, and other symptoms of what he calls “a season of coming apart.” Sharlet’s new essay collection The Undertow (Norton, 2023) attempts to sketch in broad strokes, inlaid with baroque detail, the unstable social terrain he traversed, a society careening toward catastrophe, an apocalypse already underway, “the gravity drawing men with guns to the center.” The result is a poetic and deeply pessimistic assessment of the American present and near future, which manages the difficult feat of saying a few original things about Trump, Trumpism, and the zeitgeist in which this madness makes any sense to anyone.

A primary setting of The Undertow is the grotesque jubilee of the Trump rally. Shoulder to shoulder in the thronging crowds of 2015, Sharlet beheld a perverse kind of community in utero, rooted in Trump’s unique blend of “not just anger but rage; love and yes, hate; fear, a political commonplace, and also vengeance,” fused with a scarcely concealed erotic glee in communal transgression. “Liberals giggle over the innuendos of Trump,” writes Sharlet, “but the believers are more sophisticated, they embrace not just the manufactured hope of a political rally but also the lust, the envy, the anger of our bluntest selves,” transformed by Trump into “something greater.” Even in the painful ritual of waiting up to eight hours before the man appears, Sharlet found “deep pleasure… derived not just from the speech to come but from a budding sensation of togetherness, rolling vibrations of solidarity and giddiness and anticipation.”

The Trump rally has been the most prominent manifestation of Trumpism and a key site of investigation for those of us trying to figure out, as Trump would say, what the hell is going on. “For the most part, the crowd isn’t all that interested in what Trump thinks,” wrote John Garvey in 2019, “they’re more interested in what he represents—a rejection of all the ‘norms’ that the liberal media never tire of passionately embracing. He says things that you’re not supposed to say and they get to share in the excitement that goes along with getting away with something.” Sharlet provides much evidence of this communal sense of transgression, which Garvey deftly compares to the medieval carnival, a ritual through which hierarchies are jovially upended, albeit temporarily, in the name of preserving power relations in the long term. “We all want to punch somebody in the face,” one rally goer told Sharlet, “and he says it for us.” Beneath the pure negation of Trumpism, and beyond the spectacle of his rallies, however, run an important thread of continuity to the more orthodox politics of days past.

Sharlet’s most valuable contributions to understanding the long history of Trumpism traces its relationship to Christianity, through the mediation of “Trump’s gospel.” Here The Undertow benefits immensely from Sharlet’s experience chronicling religious fundamentalism in America, dating back to his work in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper Collins, 2008). Whereas this earlier work chronicled the shady work of religious fundamentalists in the halls of power, The Undertow traces the diffusion of this theology throughout Anytown, USA, with an emphasis on its remarkable syncretism. After encountering Sharlet’s colorful litany of “MAGA pastors,” QAnon sermons, and Christian faithful discarding the cross (a symbol of weakness and defeat) for the sword (strength and victory), it seems absurd to call anything “fundamentalism” which adapts so readily to political and cultural expediency as does evangelical Christianity.

Where many secular commentators, myself included, were stumped by the seeming contradiction of the profane Trump’s sacred status among so many Christians, Sharlet invites us to look closer. “What Trump is describing” in his unhinged rants about his many enemies in the Deep State and throughout the social fabric, argues Sharlet, ”is no more nor less exotic than the evangelical concept of spiritual war, the conflict thought to be raging always, around us and within, between believers and ‘principalities’ and ‘powers,’ according to Ephesians; or demons, in the contemporary vernacular.” In short, Trump “fused his penchant for self-pity with the paranoia that runs like a third rail through Christian conservatism, the thrilling promise of ‘spiritual war’ with dark and hidden powers,” forces both real and plucked from the highly-imaginative demonology of QAnon. Trump, who grew up studying pioneering televangelist Billy Graham, might not be such an unlikely religious leader after all. 

“Trump’s gospel revolves around the worship of power, the denial of responsibility to others, the denial of history, and above all, the denial of any objective standard of truth.”

It is certainly a role he has stepped into with great aptitude since 2015. In the process, Sharlet argues, what began as a kind of modern day Crusades, the quest to return American “greatness” in 2016, shifted in 2020 to a much darker battle with shadowy Deep State, and stands today as nothing short of a looming Armageddon, secularized in the phrase, recurring throughout the book, of a coming “civil war.” How did a man so famously averse to watching a film start to finish, much less reading a book, pull this off? It is tempting to recall C.L.R. James’s description of the Marcus Garvey movement: “It was pitiable rubbish,” James writes, “but the Negroes wanted a leader and they took the first that was offered them… desperate men often hear, not the actual words of an orator but their own thoughts.” But just as there was likely more to Garvey than James would concede, so too, Sharlet illustrates, can we sell Trump short.

Here Sharlet makes considerable use of a little-known fact about Donald J. Trump: his veneration of the “applied Christianity” of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking (Prentice Hall, 1952) and friend of the Trump family. Peale’s theology inverted the relationship between humanity and God found in most faiths: the point of Christianity, he argued, is to serve the believer. And how can this be measured? Through material success. Transmitted orally to the young Trump, who is famously averse to reading, Peale’s philosophy has gained popularity around the “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen and other megachurch pastors who flaunt the wealth they accrue from their flocks as both a testament to their own righteousness and a portent of the affluence coming to those who give. At the same time, applied Christianity sanctifies the world as it presently exists, beatifying the wealth and power of capitalist society in the eyes of the Lord.

In the present, Sharlet argues, the “prosperity gospel, secularized” that Trump offers presents a double incentive to his flock. First, they are free to pursue their own deep desires: the lust for power, status, conquests, sexual and otherwise, flaunted by Trump, who liberates them by allowing them to let go of their shame in the name of “greatness.” At the same time, he also frees them from the guilt of inhabiting a world divided by class and race. In the world of Trump’s gospel, anyone can be saved, through their own initiative; the small group of non-white MAGA influencers who ride Trump’s coattails are case in point. Trump’s gospel is bootstraps ideology sacralized and then re-secularized. It enables the kind of deniability found at Trump rallies: when Trump speaks of bad Mexicans, he of course does not mean the Latinos who migrated “legally,” started businesses, and today support Trump — any more than his remarks about “black crime” refer to law-abiding African Americans who seek law and order. In fact, anyone who tells you any differently is the real racist!

A far cry from the socialist hippiedom of the New Testament, Trump’s gospel revolves around the worship of power (winners are holy, losers are profane), the denial of responsibility to others, the denial of history, and above all, the denial of any objective standard of truth. Here again, in Trump’s oft-mocked penchant for outrageous hyperbole and outright fabrication, Sharlet finds a more profound continuity that eludes secular observers. Trump, he argues, speaks “spiritual truths,” a modern heir to Gnosticism, “a form of exclusive knowledge reserved for the faithful, a ‘truth’ you must have the eyes to see.” This way of knowing is at odds with the vulgar earthly methodology of experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, so reviled by the Trump faithful. It is an epistemology in which “doing your own research” means watching homemade YouTube videos full of wild, unsubstantiated assertions, and finding them to reflect reality satisfactorily enough to risk one’s life in their name. As philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, the Trumper is “in the truth” by virtue of their social being, and has no need for empirical standards beyond this.

Gnosis, Sharlet argues, thrives on paradox, which adherents believe contains deeper truths than formal language can convey. The gnostic devotee gains access to a world beneath the one seen, and to debate the world of appearances on its own merit denotes a shallow spiritual understanding. Considered gnostically, then, Trump’s immorality on display alongside his professed righteousness is no cause for alarm; reconciling the two, however artificially, is a sign of enlightenment and denotes status above those who cannot move beyond the obvious fact that this foul-mouthed, philandering huckster seems to claim to be the voice of God. This is equally true of the forces of darkness. “Secret murders everywhere,” one of the book’s many enterprising MAGA pastors tells Sharlet, speaking in ominous shorthand. “Pedophiles, and evil.” One need not prove these claims empirically, and attempts to do so, such as the popular conflation of the amount of children who are reported missing each year (often for a very short time) with the number who vanish permanently at the hands of a stranger (a puny fraction of the former) cannot be fact-checked. It is true on the spiritual level, even if some egghead wants to tell you that Comet Ping Pong, the Washington D.C. pizza parlor widely believed to harbor a Democrat-run child sex dungeon in its basement, does not, in fact, have a basement. Such is the theology of QAnon.

After the failure of QAnon’s main prophecies — including the arrest of Trump’s enemies in a day of judgment called the “Storm” — and the apparent removal of Trump from office, most nonbelievers would be happy to consign this crowd-sourced demonology to the historical dustbin. But while the so-called "Q drops" on 4chan and other seedy corners of the Internet have since gone silent, Sharlet demonstrates that much of the movement’s paranoid cosmology remains alive and well in a stunning fusion of QAnon, Trumpism, and evangelical Christianity. This goes for core beliefs of the Q movement—wildly exaggerated figures of child abduction and trafficking, Satanic pedophile rings run by Democrats, and a subterranean battle between light and darkness at the center of the American state. More importantly, however, the paranoid “research” practices, free-associational construction of complex narratives, and breathless fabrication out of whole cloth that constitute the methodology of QAnon, which most closely resembles a collective descent into schizophrenia, have instead been almost completely normalized in rightist politics.

For example, at one rally Sharlet notices a smattering of t-shirts bearing the phrase “Trump’s Tweets Matter,” and speaks to the ringleader. He learns they are not simply an effort to own the libs—in fact, this slogan’s overlap with Black Lives Matter seems to be the only coincidence conceded by any of Sharlet’s Q-addled informants. The deeper meaning, the shirt’s maker insists, points to the obsessive hermeneutic popularized by QAnon, the notion that Trump is a “a five-dimensional chess player,” and that his every malapropism, typographical error, and errant capitalization (especially this) is in fact a profound expression of hidden truth knowable by the elect. In the distinctly occult practice of numerology, these followers cull Trump’s tweets, counting capital letters, searching for patterns.

Even known facts can be turned into cryptic questions. “Who killed Ashli Babbit?” runs a popular Trumpist meme. Never mind that the answer, Lieutenant Michael Byrd of the Capitol Police Department, has long been known. The question itself, suggesting the intrigue of a deep state coverup, persists, even posed by Trump himself. Sharlet argues it is a mistake to dismiss such practices. Reflecting on one such believer, he writes: “Diane was not fringe. She might have been closer to the new center of American life than you are.”

“The liberal democracy that Sharlet mourns is inseparable from the white supremacy and settler colonialism he rightfully decries.... But the present crisis is, as Sharlet correctly diagnoses, a time of great danger, when an alternative must be posed to the fascist barbarism represented by Trumpism and its ilk.”

While Sharlet chronicles a wide variety of conspiracy theories in the so-called Trumpocene, the people he speaks to are unified by a sense that “civil war” is either imminent, or already underway. The subtitle of The Undertow is “Scenes from a Slow Civil War,” the case for which is not made directly but impressionistically, through a series of grim narratives punctuated with the testimony of others. In more explicit moments, Sharlet cites vigilante killer Kyle Rittenhouse’s first lawyer, who claimed the young gunman would go down in history as having fired the first shot in “A Second American Revolution.” Some people he speaks to believe that the shuttering of churches in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic was an effective declaration of civil war, which has, again, already begun. But most of his informants believe the civil war is coming, just around the corner, and they will be forced to draw upon their ample supply of guns to defeat the forces of darkness.

Many of those who desire “another 1776,” of course, recently had their chance, and it didn’t go so well. Sharlet captures the sense of demoralization among those who were flummoxed by January 6th. “All the good, the patriots, the people who really care,” another MAGA pastor tells him, “they made a huge surge to do the right thing. And then we were told to all go home. It’s over.” In response, Sharlet finds, some have created a world in which it is not over, in a double sense. The first is the creation of a fantasy world where Hillary Clinton has already been executed, Trump is in fact still president, and all will be revealed in an orgy of violence not unlike the “Day of the Rope” in the white revolutionary call to arms The Turner Diaries (National Vanguard Books, 1978). The second, and more widespread, is the amassing of material force sufficient to make this day happen, regardless of whether the rest of it proves to be true.

From one vantage, we can say Sharlet chronicles the fusion of Christianity with a psychotic culture of white settler violence, armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry and the Biblical verses sufficient to justify its indiscriminate use against the forces of darkness, literal and figurative. On the other hand, we can say that he simply shows that American Christianity always was this. The same goes for white supremacy; the presence of armed white racists all across the US is not new, nor would this be news to most people who suffer their oppressive presence in public space. But Sharlet has proven the unmistakable novelty of ideological and organizational forms around the increasing hybridization of rightist subcultures, and their redoubled presence in the American mainstream.

In either case, in the words of revolutionary scholar Dave Ranney, who recommended The Undertow, Sharlet “focuses on people who could well become a mass base for a real fascist movement.” Sharlet largely abstains from judgment on whether his subjects are “fascist,” opting instead to let them speak for themselves. What emerges from his account, nonetheless, is a distinctly American brand of rightism that is purportedly anti-establishment but not anti-capitalist, opposes liberal democracy not for its exclusion but its inclusion, and craves “autonomy,” understood as the freedom from responsibilities to others and the freedom to perpetuate existing dynamics of race, class, and gender with force. Add a strongman leader and a whole lot of guns, and it is difficult to not reach Ranney’s conclusion.

But as Ranney would insist, we cannot simply slap the label “fascist” on these people and act as if we already know everything we need to about them, as many social media pundits argued against the need to theorize the “alt-right” as a new historical emergence. Instead, for those who can stomach it, attention is due to the peculiar blend of ideologies and practices which constitute Trump’s base, with an eye to both understanding the enemy, and crafting a leftist praxis that can spare as many people as possible from joining their ranks. This is especially important for the left as so much of Trumpism hinges on the appearance of being anti-system. This terrain cannot be ceded to the right. For serious leftists, the rise and continuing appeal of Trumpism calls not for defense of liberal democracy but the articulation of a coherent anti-system leftism, that speaks to the widespread disgust people feel with their society and offers solutions that point toward actual human liberation. Surely many Trumpers will die on the hill of white supremacy and settler colonialism, unable or unwilling to move beyond it. But just as QAnon sometimes appears as a kind of vulgar Marxism on LSD, so too must leftists imagine that many anti-system rightists can be won over to liberatory anti-state politics, and a vision of inclusive autonomy, for all.

Sharlet’s fidelity to the stories his informants tell about themselves is the book’s strength as well as its weakness. He offers the book as a promising reflection on “grief and its distortions, how loss sometimes curdles into fury and hate, or denial, or delusion.” But, amid conspiracy theories and sermons of bloody deliverance, the actual object of grief, a central motif of The Undertow, remains woefully undefined. “Just as White people took the land from Indigenous people and then named themselves their victims,” writes Sharlet, “so, too, has Whiteness always been a means of claiming the suffering it inflicts on others as its own.” Sharlet heaps scorn on such “White grievance,” but is careful to spend little time enumerating any grievances that aren’t easily laughed off by his readers. It is a dangerous wager, and one that has not worked well for liberals of recent decades, who have virtually forfeited the terrain outside major cities. Leftists, for their part, who offer no anti-system alternative to these grievances, have done the same.

Meanwhile, a coherent anti-system rightism is coming into focus. Trumpers, Sharlet writes, are “drawn together not by Whiteness but by that of which it is made. By their belief in a strongman and their desire for an iron-fisted God and their love of the way guns make them feel inside and their grief over Covid-19 and their denial of Covid-19 and their loathing of ‘systemic’ as a descriptive of that which they can’t see, can’t hold in their hands and weigh, and their certainty that countless children are being taken, stolen and raped, or if not in body then in spirit, ‘indoctrinated’ to ‘hate themselves.’” This is a poignant observation. But why, at this moment in time, are these people compelled to act this way? And what is the alternative being offered to them?

“This is a deeply honest book, but this comes at the expense of emphasizing promising developments in the present that countervail the rise of the radical right of which Sharlet is correctly afraid.... Roughly 1.4 million people attended Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign, but upwards of 26 million people took to the streets in George Floyd’s name four years later.”

One very conspicuous absence in Sharlet’s view of Trumper grievances is America’s economic decline, the notorious “economic insecurity” thesis so successfully attacked in 2016 by partisans of the Clintonite view that “America is Already Great.” The denial that anything is wrong with American capitalism that cannot be fixed by diversity initiatives, applied to the advancement of a small set of select individuals, has subsequently become an important plank of Bidenism’s prophets of a new Gilded Age. While Sharlet (perhaps wisely) stays away from this hornet’s nest, a notable exception comes when a white man drinking at a bar near a Trump rally expresses his ambivalence about Trump’s racist views, before a few more drinks give him the courage to shout: “I don’t care if you’re racist! If you’ll just bring back one fucking steel mill!”

Sharlet might be correct to wager that the world does not need another printed sentence about how deindustrialization or the downward slope of wages, benefits, and quality of life for most Americans contributed to Trumpism. But the absence of this material dimension relegates the malaise he documents to a spiritual plane, where it risks getting lost in the haze of ideological abstractions, or worse yet, winds up bespeaking something like the innate characteristics of the people who Sharlet meets.

When Sharlet does attempt to engage with the materiality of the movement he chronicles so deftly, he succumbs to the very eschatology he has ridiculed for hundreds of pages, albeit in secular form. “We say we are in crisis,” Sharlet drones ominously. “The crisis of democracy—the gun—the crisis of climate—the fire, the water, the rain—the crises of our own little lives—debt and Twitter and rage, and most of all the ordinary losses of love and loved ones that feel too vast. But that word, crisis, supposes we can act. It supposes the outcome to be determined. The binary yet to be toggled, a happy ending or a sad one, victory or defeat. As if we have not already entered the aftermath.”

Similarly, The Undertow decries the violent and suicidal project of whiteness, and adorns its travel narrative with indigenous tribe names land acknowledgments in a good faith gesture toward reckoning with settler colonialism, though neither is neatly integrated into the book’s analysis. In fairness, they really can’t be. It is impossible to take white supremacy and settler colonialism seriously, as enduring historical phenomena as well as important contours of the present, while still defending the sanctity of American liberal democracy. And this is what The Undertow is really up to, even if Sharlet can only muster a eulogy.

All the while, Sharlet risks succumbing to the very notion he critiques with such fervor: nostalgia for a return to the underlying oneness that is America—the thing Sharlet believes is “coming apart,” rather than a myth that never really existed at all. Plumbing the quasi-supernatural metaphor that gives the book its title, Sharlet ponders: “And if we make it to the shore?” But who are we? When has there ever been a unified America? And what is the shore? The politics of the early twenty-first century? And while Sharlet is correct that the apocalypse might be upon the US, this doesn’t change the fact that for many people in the US and the nations it plunders, it never hasn’t been.

The hopelessness that emerges from The Undertow is an honest testament to an author grappling with the terrifying terrain of American politics, while watching his own political paradigm become a thing of the past. It is to Sharlet’s great credit that he has embraced this vulnerability, rather than staging a hollow performance of hope or determination. This is a deeply honest book, and ought to be taken seriously as such. But this also comes at the expense of emphasizing promising developments in the present that countervail the rise of the radical right of which Sharlet is correctly afraid. Just as one can read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book-length meditation on the death of Michael Brown, Between the World and Me (Spiegel and Grau, 2015), without learning that Brown became a household name due to the courageous rebellion waged in his name, which forever transformed the political landscape in the United States, so too does the death of George Floyd, which catalyzed the largest multi-racial movement in US history, characterized by countless acts of heroism and solidarity across the lines of so-called races, only emerge as a reflection of white ignorance and black victimization in Sharlet’s pages.

The unfortunate chasm between Sharlet’s incisive political observations and The Undertow’s prophecies of doom serve as yet another reminder that grief and mourning are not the basis for a positive political vision. They can only tell us what we already know, distorted through a lens of pain and helplessness, and keep us trapped in an unending loop of what we have already suffered. This is an inherently reactionary political orientation, which must be overcome. Consider an alternative narrative: roughly 1.4 million people attended Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign—a staggering figure for sure. But this figure pales in comparison to the upwards of 26 million people who took to the streets in George Floyd’s name four years later. 

“The rise of Trumpism calls not for defense of liberal democracy but the articulation of a coherent anti-system leftism, that speaks to the widespread disgust people feel with their society and offers solutions that point toward actual human liberation.”

Toward the end of his travels, Sharlet winds up keeping company with a quartet of high school age girls who organize an ad hoc demonstration against the overturning of Roe in their small Wisconsin town. Protests like this, in red counties where everybody knows everybody, abounded in 2020, and were actually more remarkable—and one might argue, courageous—than the familiar sight of looting and black blocs in large blue cities. But having already denied the honorific to Ashli Babbit, Sharlet struggles with whether these young women deserve to be called “heroes,” noting their lack of “unalloyed virtue.” Sharlet is never forthcoming about his strange unease with the zoomers. Perhaps the reasons are political. Note the following exchange between three white teenagers in suburban Wisconsin:

“Personally,” said Theta, “I am for some kind of revolution. I think people should be prepared to arm themselves, because it’s been shown to women that we can’t trust our government to protect us.”

“Not at all,” said Karsen.

“Sometimes I take a Malcolm X approach to it,” said Theta.

“I heart Malcolm X,” agreed Karsen.

“Like,” said Theta, “if they’re showing violence to us, or not caring about violence that’s happening to us, why not reciprocate that?”

“My take,” said Karsen, who was Navy-bound, “is I plan on using the government to my full advantage. If we do get into a civil war.” …

Katie, Theta’s mother, clarified that, to her, ‘arming’ meant with knowledge. Peyton clarified that to her it meant guns. Her family had them and she’d known how to shoot since she was a girl…

“‘It’s not that I’m I’m like ‘Oooh, yeah, war,’ said Theta. “It’s like, we need a different system. As soon as possible. Because the planet is literally dying.”

At this, Sharlet reminds the girls of the armed men who stalk the pages of his book, sweaty palms pawing justificatory Bible passages, ready for just this moment, their excuse to at last visit sadistic wrath on the forces of darkness. Their response?

“The kids said they weren’t scared of them,” he reports. “Climate? That’s scary. Trump is scary. The Supreme Court, they agreed, is very scary.” As for the soldiers of Christ? “‘You know,’” said Theta, ‘it’s either we fight against them, we possibly get killed in a civil war—or we suffer like this, our rights stripped away from us by the minute. And I don’t know if that’s a life worth living.’”

I have as little interest in the kind of macho posturing that downplays the threats posed by Sharlet’s “men with guns who said they might ‘have no choice’ but to draw them soon,” as I do arguing with people who are afraid of them. I was standing in the direct line of fire of Kenosha vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse and witnessed firsthand the horrors these people are capable of. Throughout my reading of The Undertow, I often reflected on this traumatic memory, and couldn’t help but wonder if some of Sharlet’s informants, or thousands just like them, were the future executioners of myself or my loved ones. I refuse to believe, however, that all is lost, just because American society seems to be “coming apart.”

American flag with Trump's face and "Make America Great Again! Donald Trump" superimposed
Built on slavery and genocide, sustained by ruthless imperialism, and riven by intrinsic antagonism that constantly erupts into seemingly senseless violence, American society was always going to come apart; the wondrous thing is how long it has lasted. The liberal democracy that Sharlet mourns is inseparable from the white supremacy and settler colonialism he rightfully decries. The end of America is nothing to be sad about; the indefinite perpetuation of the American state as it has existed for two and a half centuries would simply be a continuing humanitarian and ecological disaster, on a global scale. This is not a hot take, it is an indelible fact from which politics must proceed. But the present crisis is, as Sharlet correctly diagnoses, a time of great danger, when an alternative must be posed to the fascist barbarism represented by Trumpism and its ilk. But despair is not a serious option. In fact, Trumpism thrives on its opponents’ sense of hopelessness, while salving that of its devotees. “Despair,” argues Werner Herzog “must be kept private and brief.” Politics imagines victory in the future or it concedes defeat in advance.

Ultimately, Sharlet’s tale of terror is not simply an American story; liberal democracies around the world are buckling under the irreconcilable contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, class society, and the violent hierarchies they require. In response, the weird ideologies and clumsy political experiments seen in recent decades represent a grappling toward articulation of a new politics adequate to the future. In response, the present conjuncture calls for people who can imagine it not as the end, but as the prehistory of a new society. Anybody who smugly pretends to have all the answers is probably best ignored. But those who claim that all is lost risk being even more dangerous—they offer what might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Jarrod Shanahan is the author of Captives (Verso, 2022), co-author of States of Incarceration (Reaktion/Field Notes, 2022), an editor of Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity (Verso, 2022) and an editor of the publication Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life.

Photo credit

Flag at rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix, Arizona, 18 June 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed), via Wikimedia Commons.

Jan 4, 2024

SHUT IT DOWN! Mass mobilization for Palestine cancels the first day of the 2024 California State Legislature

By Xtn Alexander  


For Palestine, hundreds of people took over the California State Capitol on January 3, 2024. The first day of the state’s legislature for the new year, or should we say, the attempted first day. The takeover forced the cancellation of the legislature’s session.


A coalition, organized in large part by Jewish folks saying #NotInOurName and #ShutItDown4Palestine brought together a determined and diverse mass of people to escalate the efforts to stop the attacks and genocide on Palestinians.


The takeover was a display of direct action. It is part of the wave of walkouts, strikes, blockades and street mobilizations. These actions vary in tactics – some peaceful, some more militant. This flexibility in approach must be supported.

Folks associated with Three Way Fight had the ability to network and join in with this takeover and to help shut it down!

@jvpbayarea @ifnotnowbayarea @bayarea4palestine 

Photos by 3WF

Dec 18, 2023

Genocide Joe and the Second Nakba

By Xtn Alexander  

First, it’s gotta be said that the masses taking to the streets against the war on Gaza and the Palestinians is righteous. It is an angry and determined righteousness. Lockdowns and street blockades. Walkouts and strikes. All are happening on a global level. New layers of folks, largely youth from a wide and varied background, have made it a priority to disrupt and resist this war and to challenge the narratives of the U.S and Israeli ruling classes. Supporting this new movement, being a part of it, and helping it develop confidence and capacity to become a broader resistance is what’s needed. Highlighting this as we move forward will be crucial.

But, for now this article is not that and instead it’s a focus on a main source of contempt and disgust: Genocide Joe.

  • Total number of Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip since 7 October at more than 18,000 including 8,697 children and 4,410 women (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs 12/6/23)
  • 50,594 Gazans injured with 7,780 Gazans missing/unaccounted for (Aljazeera 12/14/23)
  • 63 Journalists and media workers, mostly Palestinian, killed (Committee to Protect Journalists 12/14/23)
  • 1.7 million (81%) of Gaza’s population displaced; Israel intelligence drafted initial plans to have the entire 2.1 million Gazans pushed into the Egyptian Sinai (Rand Corp 12/4/23)
  • 305, 000 residential units destroyed (over half of Gazan’s homes); 339 educational facilities damaged (Aljazeera 12/14/23)
  • Functioning hospitals have dropped from 36 to 18; 203 attacks on hospitals, ambulances, medical supplies, and the detention of health-care workers; bed occupancy rate at operational hospitals stands at 171%, while in the intensive care units the occupancy rate is up to 221% (World Health Organization 12/4/23)
  • $130 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel since its founding; 80% of Israel’s weapons imports have come from the U.S. (Axios 10/4/23)
  • The Biden administration using emergency authorization to sell 14,000 tank shells to Israel without congressional oversight via the U.S. State Department’s Arms Control Act to an amount of $106.5 million (Guardian 12/10/23)
  • Israel’s assault, named the Swords of Iron, has shown an unprecedented level of killing of Gazans through aerial bombardment (Haaretz 12/9/23)

We are seeing what Palestinians are calling, A Second Nakba (Catastrophe).

Don’t believe the U.S. state and Democratic Party propagandists that Biden and his administration are somehow the moderates or taking some kind of productive approach. While the Israeli state is acting on its own initiative, Biden and company have at every moment supported this assault.

When it emerged publicly (NYT 11/14/23), that hundreds of political appointees and staff members of the U.S. government - including the State Department – had made criticisms of U.S. policy supporting Israel’s war on Gaza and the Palestinians, within a day, pro-Biden forces including top advisors, longtime policy makers and leading Democratic Party officials signed a counter letter in support of Biden and the U.S. policy of supporting the war against Gaza and the Palestinian people. The letter opens with, “As former Biden and Obama administration officials and campaign staff, we are writing to express our deep appreciation for your moral clarity, courageous leadership, and staunch support of Israel” and “We support your request for an unprecedented $14.3 billion in U.S. security assistance to Israel”. It further reads, “we agree with you that a ceasefire is not possible at this time” (CNN 11/14/23). Even by this time thousands of Palestinians in Gaza had been murdered and IDF forces backing Israeli settlers were carrying out attacks and ethnic cleansing in the occupied West Bank. In regards to the scale and brutality of the attacks against Palestinians there was no ambiguity.

Reality makes clear that these signatories aren’t just engaging in Democratic Party apologetics in support of Biden. These are members of the political class, architects of modern U.S. policy, strategy and intervention. Biden may be the head but these people are the rotten body and brain. They should be treated as criminals and enemies of humanity.

In 2022, Biden gave his Independence Hall speech, the basis of which was his and the Democratic Party's continuing "battle" to save “the soul” of America and democracy stating that “violence… can’t be normalized in this country”. That was Biden and the Dems in 2022. Coming after several years of government by Scumbag POTUS 45 and the rise of militant, popular and often murderous insurgent far-right and fascist forces, Biden used opposition to the threat of fascism as his administrations primary political plank. Biden and the Democratic Party were developing what we should see as a ruling class antifascist approach – mobilizing support and crafting a broad coalition to oppose Scumbag 45, MAGA and the assorted far-right (both its legal and extra-legal forms). The Democratic Party approach would be a defense of the system in the face of Rightist threats.

Now in 2024, Biden and company show exactly what the soul of America is. They’ve helped unleash a general barbarism against the Palestinians, they’ve made common cause on strategic and tactical grounds with the far-right and even self-proclaimed fascists of Israel’s government. While here on the home front supporters of Biden and U.S. policy rally with known anti-Jewish Christian Nationalist forces building politically contradictory coalitions whose primary point of agreement is to wage war on Gaza and the Palestinians.

Genocide Joe and his accomplices have shown exactly what their system is and what it does to people.

Almost two and half months of war on Gaza and Palestinians as a whole, and with a death toll likely to exceed twenty thousand, Biden and the United States government is still supporting this assault. The language may be shifting. There is a developing public critique of Israeli war policy, even an attempt at creating some kind of distance from aspects of the Israeli war. But Genocide Joe and the United States will remain the primary backers of this war against Gaza and the Palestinian people.

We can’t forget this.

No matter what developments arise, we must remember that Biden, the Democratic Party and the entirety of the U.S. political class in all its hues, categories, party affiliations or pretensions share in the horrible responsibility for this Second Nakba.

Nov 29, 2023

Contending with the Present and Building a Future for Antifascism in the Pacific Northwest

By Shane Burley

This essay is adapted from a talk delivered at the Territories of White Supremacy: Opposing the Far Right in the Pacific Northwest and Beyond conference in Eugene, Oregon on October 13th, 2023.

Before I talk about major updates that are happening for antifascists in the Pacific Northwest, I want to introduce three questions to help guide not only that discussion but all broad discussions of the future of antifascist organizing. The first question is what actually stops the far right, presuming that is our goal. There are a lot of tactics and strategies whose proponents say that they are capable in the fight against fascism, but this is always a matter of debate. What is provable, however, is that the tactics that work are ones that disrupt the functionality of far-right organization. This means tactics that break down the ability of a far-right group or movement to meet its goals, to reproduce itself, and to make gains. This can come in a number of forms, from canceled events, protests that disrupt meetings, or deplatforming. No matter which one we are talking about, the fulcrum of the tactic is the disruption since the presumption is that a far-right movement needs some continuity to have any degree of growth or victory. So the question of how we beat the far right is a question of how they are disrupted.

The second question is why we are fighting the far right. What are the values or vision for the world that leads us to want to see the far right fail? If we have a vision of a liberated world it necessitates fascists losing. But what is that world? What other features does that world have?

The third question, the more complicated one, is how question two relates to question one: how do our tactics to disrupt the far right help us to win a more liberated world? There are many ways to push back on the far right, many methods of disruption, but when activists pick tactics and strategy they are deciding more than just what works. Instead, they are trying to create a tactical set that is ethically and strategically sound for the larger questions of which antifascism is just one piece.

So, for example, it's quite likely that a police raid or FBI investigation and string prosecution can disrupt the far right. We saw this across the 1980s and 1990s as the FBI and ATF went after far-right compounds and groups, and even saw it more recently in the very severe sentencing handed down to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. But does increasing police funding, doubling up on FBI investigations, initiating severe penalties or terrorism sentencing enhancements get us to a more liberated world? The ways that antifascists take on the far right must be put in line with the why of the work: how do the decisions they make now lead to the world they hope to win? This should guide everything, from how and when tactics like “no platform” are applied to how their organizations function, how they build coalitions with other groups, and whether or not they prioritize care and mutual aid in the work. 

“The ways that antifascists take on the far right must be put in line with the why of the work: how do the decisions they make now lead to the world they hope to win?”

When it comes to updates, there has been a lot of discussion of an alleged lull in far-right organizing and, subsequently, a delay in antifascist organizing. There have been fewer of the large, antagonistic rallies than we used to see frequently in cities like Portland, Oregon, but this does not indicate a decline on the far right’s side. Instead, this is a period of regrouping, rebranding, and reformation. This is similar to what was happening in many sectors of the white nationalist movement in the early 2010s where there were fewer incursions with antifascists, but this was also the time period in which people like Richard Spencer were building the alt-right. It was only in 2015 and 2016 that the increase really became visible, but this was after several years of base building. Those years of the alleged “lull” were where they made the peak of 2015-2017 possible.

A similar situation is happening now. The alt-right is largely dead, but certain organizations from that earlier generation have remained prominent. Patriot Front is the most important remaining one, which includes a heavy presence in Oregon. Because Patriot Front largely does flashmob style events or puts stickers up anonymously there has been less direct confrontation with antifascists, but there have been high profile releases of information when various Patriot Front chapters have been infiltrated by antifascists.

The groypers are, however, the largest inheritor of the alt-right’s energy, all centered on their leader, Nick Fuentes. Unlike the pseudoscientific and pagan infused alt-right, Fuentes has brought white Christian nationalism back into the hip center of the young far right. This has a tactical advantage for them since they are doing this at the same time as white Christian nationalism openly dominates the GOP. This has drawbacks and benefits: it allows them direct access to a whole new base of folks who are already a part of the larger conservative movement, but it also hinders their ability to differentiate themselves as a radical alternative. But they have done more than any other white nationalist movement in recent memory to win support in the Republican Party, particularly through their America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC).

Fighting the groypers has been a primary focus of antifascists, particularly on campuses in places like Florida, but the group has had somewhat less of a base in the Pacific Northwest. We have seen a sharp decline in the large public events from groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, with them diminishing steadily across events in 2020 and 2021. The last large attempt was in 2021 where a large antifascist coalition pushed them away from holding their rally in a city center and they ended up holding a small gathering in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart at the edge of the city.

Physical confrontation between two groups of men in a park, with one group holding an American flag
Antifascists confront Proud Boys, Oregon City, OR, 18 June 2021

What is increasing, however, is the continued threat of open neo-Nazism and accelerationist violence. Groups like the Goyim Defense League are growing in prominence across the country (but in Florida, in particular), the post-alt-right formation the National Justice Party is filling the gap left by the destruction of the Traditionalist Worker Party, and violent groups like the Rise Above Movement and the Evergreen Active club are offering a novel rebranding of neo-Nazi gang culture. Places like Goyim TV actually are getting more traction than originally thought, and social media sites like Rumble and Telegram are largely insulated from antifascist pressure and are building their brand on refusing to intervene on open racism.

All of these groups have been centered less on public displays of might and more on attempts to interfere with different events built around marginalized identities and institutions they hope to undermine. They have participated in the rapidly increasing protests against LGBTQ and Pride events, particularly any family friendly events or drag shows. This has given them the ability to intermingle with a new generation of activists who are organizing primarily through horizontal social networks on places like Facebook Groups or Telegram as opposed to formal organizations. The organizations that have formed emerged out of these networks and are looser than the top-down structure we saw with many Patriot groups, namely projects like Moms for Liberty and Gays Against Groomers/Trans Against Groomers. While they publicly repudiate white nationalism, their relationships with the far right are extensive and they act as the bridge point where explicit white nationalist and neo-Nazi factions are able to step into the public, participate in larger political expression, and recruit from a potentially friendly right-wing base. This has been the strategy in places like Vancouver, Washington; Oregon City, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; and other places that are not quite as large as Portland or Seattle and have a less developed antifascist culture.

Reflexively, much of the antifascist movement has pivoted to community self-defense, helping to block attacks on queer events, trans healthcare facilities, abortion clinics, and even libraries and schools. These will remain the focal point for far-right attention, so this is driving the reaction from antifascists in the Pacific Northwest. This fundamentally changes the point by which the community is called in and what kind of protest they are called in to do, but it does little to alter the underlying ask: asking supporters to come out and raise the capacity of the actions that use large masses of supporters to defend a particular space. 

“Many antifascists have not sought law enforcement solutions for dealing with fascist threats, because when you increase the presence of police, courts, and district attorneys, you also extend the racial and other hierarchies and disparities that are structurally embedded in those systems.”

The second thing that antifascists in the Pacific Northwest are dealing with is something that is also likewise reverberating across the country. Since Trump’s inauguration there have been excessive police crackdowns on left-wing protesters and, in particular, excessive charges and potential sentences given out to those attending demonstrations. The first high profile instances of this were the nearly 200 people arrested for participating in the January 20th, 2017 Inauguration Day protest in Washington D.C., where the police “kettled” protesters to get a huge sweep of attendees into handcuffs and then charged them for the behavior that other, unaffiliated protesters engaged in. The argument was that the protest was inherently a type of criminal conspiracy and so anyone in attendance (and, by accidental arrest, some people who weren’t even in attendance) was aiding and abetting those who took illegal actions like breaking windows and lighting dumpsters on fire. While these charges were ultimately dropped, the kind of felonies that were being leveled at them and the potential sentences attached were draconian enough that they sent shockwaves through antifascist circles.

This trend continued, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where clashes between antifascists and far-right militants often left the left-wing demonstrators in custody while the right only faced charges for the most egregious acts of violence (and often, not even then). These cases have continued, and there is even one set for the fall in nearby Clackamas County, where an independent journalist was charged with felonies for allegedly defending herself from an attack by a Proud Boy.

These types of charges and sweep arrests defined the 2020 racial justice uprising, where “snatch and grab” arrests were used, as mass charging of serious offenses with little-to-no evidence, and there were frequent attempts to turn those being arrested into informants by offering plea deals weighed against astoundingly long potential sentences.

At the same time, civil litigation may present an even bigger threat. There have been high profile cases of right-wing figures suing antifascist activists, or at least people they believe to be antifascist activists, often with huge sums of right-wing money and countless far-right organizations providing them ample support. The most obvious example of this was this year’s case brought by right-wing media figure Andy Ngo, who was allegedly assaulted while covering an antifascist demonstration in 2019 and who then brought a lawsuit against an assortment of activists, many of whom say they had no role in Ngo’s conflict and were selected seemingly at random. While the case was thrown out for a number of defendants, including all alleged members of Rose city Antifa (which the court said was not an entity that would have legal standing to be sued), several defendants remained when it was time to go to trial. Two ultimately did, John Acker and Elizabeth Richter, who won their trial by showing the claims had no merit. While this was cause for celebration, the reality is that they still owed tens of thousands of dollars in court costs, something that Ngo’s team undoubtedly knew would be the case and was part of their strategy.

Even more shocking, however, is that three defendants were ultimately found civilly liable simply because they did not respond to the charges. Those accused said that they often heard about the accusations very late, had no money or resources to find legal representation (which is not guaranteed in a civil case), and had many other issues that prevented them from actively fighting the charges (such as experiencing homelessness). Now they are on the hook for $100,000 each, showing that the courts will simply award a sufficiently well-funded accuser despite having little evidence of guilt.

These issues only seem to be getting more severe, as a recent case in San Diego shows. In what has been labeled the "San Diego 11," defendants were accused of engaging in conspiracy to riot and other felonies for participating in a protest action at Pacific Beach on January 9th, 2021. The court's claims of conspiracy hinge on the fact that different antifascist demonstrators, who claim they did not know each other or have any coordination, had all engaged with the same social media post. Six of these defendants subsequently took plea deals, which themselves validate the legal repression offered by the district attorney by ensuring that at least some consequences stem from the spurious accusation, but five others remain set on taking this to trial.

There are further developments in the Pacific Northwest that inject additional problems into the mix, and this time it comes largely from progressive politicians. Two “anti-doxxing bills” were introduced in Oregon and Washington, respectively, which criminalize anything deemed as “doxxing,” the release of personal information. Doxxing is a common tactic amongst antifascists, who use it to put pressure on institutions to pull their relationships with white nationalists, thus raising the cost of entry into the white nationalist movement and making it unattractive for new recruits. The far right has tried to do the same thing to antiracist protesters, so liberal legislators brought forward these bills in the name of defending marginalized communities. Despite these intentions, the opposite is likely to be the case. This is part of why many antifascists have not sought law enforcement solutions for dealing with fascist threats, because when you increase the presence of police, courts, and district attorneys, you also extend the racial and other hierarchies and disparities that are structurally embedded in those systems. With the bill close to passage in Washington and now law in Oregon, the ability of antifascists to actually win campaigns will be seriously hindered by this intervention. It looks like groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which is often criticized for supporting conservatives more frequently than the left, seems positioned to try and challenge these laws in court.

All of this has a cumulative chilling effect on demonstrators, particularly those who simply attend protests rather than organizing. Many of these court cases targeted not the key organizers of a particular event, but just an attendee. What this could do is siphon off participation in the large coalitions and protests that make antifascist demonstrations successful. It could also create internal division, whereby some participants are even more concerned about any potential unlawful civil disobedience or direct action taken by other attendees. The answer to this is likely to establish a larger connection with legal institutions like the ACLU, FIRE, or the National Lawyers Guild, and to win a few high profile cases so that the message will be sent that this is not a viable tactic to use against antifascists. Many activists are noting, however, that the courts are not balanced in their favor, so any strategy based on the idea that they can win numerous court cases may be flawed. There are some efforts to increase what is called “security culture,” such as using pseudonyms or encrypted chat apps like Signal, but it is unclear whether these tools will actually stop a real investigation by state authorities.

On the more positive side, it’s important to acknowledge the incredible strides made by antifascists across the country, but especially in the Pacific Northwest. The reality of the various far-right rallies that happened starting in 2016 is that it forced the left in these cities, like Seattle and Portland, to create the coalitions necessary to respond. Trump has helped to make the case that the threat of the far right is directly attached to the attacks on unions, the environment, tenant rights, and so on. This has helped to create relationships between different organizations and social movements, and those relationships don’t just end when a protest is over. So this has helped build up the tacit coalitions in the area that can respond to issues more quickly and more effectively than they once were. While there has been a decline in large-scale antifascist actions, the capacity is higher than it ever was before. 

“Trump has helped to make the case that the threat of the far right is directly attached to the attacks on unions, the environment, tenant rights, and so on. This has helped to create relationships between different organizations and social movements, and those relationships don’t just end when a protest is over.”

Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge the profound changes that we have seen in the tactical self-conception of antifascist organizers. Since the rise of antifascism across the U.S. since 2016, we have seen an astounding amount of violence directed at protesters. For example, in 2020 alone there were well over a hundred car attacks on protesters, which took the form of cars plowing their way into demonstrators. These happened in Portland, as well as shootings, pipe bomb attacks, and extensive violence at protest events. These frightening episodes happened along with a relative indifference (or, in some cases, participation) from police. For example, on August 20th, 2020, a Back the Blue rally was staged in front of the same Justice Center that had seen so many demonstrations against police violence. The police had been heavy-handed with the daily protests for weeks, except on this day they stayed blocks away from the crowd. The far right, including the Proud Boys and people bearing shields, batons, and firearms, attacked the antifascist counter-demonstrators without pause. The police said that protesters should “police themselves,” refusing to intervene on what became a brutal street beating. Later that night, the police returned to their invasive strategy, using batons on protesters themselves. This has sent a clear message to antifascists in the Pacific Northwest: you have to protect yourself. (There was, ultimately, accountability for some of the perpetrators of the August 20th violence, including a prosecution of the lead instigator.)

The effect this has had has been to revive the question of armed community self-defense. At a recent defensive action I attended outside of a drag queen event in Vancouver, Washington, of the 200 demonstrators who attended nearly a third appeared armed. This included semi-automatic weapons staged on the roof of the venue, security teams patrolling with tactical gear, and an open acceptance that firearms would be necessary for (trained) security volunteers to keep the venue safe. All across the country there are armed groups like Yellow Peril Tactical, the John Brown Gun Club, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, Socialist Rifle Association, Trigger Warning, and others who are employing firearms as part of their defensive mission, the same mission that antifascist mass demonstrations often have had. The use of mass tactics has always had a protective element, and in Portland this was explicitly the mission of groups like Pop Mob, which used really mass protests and marches as a way of ensuring the safety of participants while disrupting the far right. Armed community self-defense, while similar in mission, has a different set of tactics and thus a smaller number of active participants. This has taken on a special importance in the Pacific Northwest given the recent string of far-right assaults, police in action in response, and then a climate and legal framework that is largely friendly to firearms (though that may be changing).

This is by no means a new development, but instead a revival of a well-established one. Armed groups have a long American history amongst marginalized communities fighting against attacks from what we would today consider white nationalists, fascists, or the far right. This took the form of the joint NRA/NAACP chapter led by Robert F. Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and Jewish defense squads led by organizations like the Jewish Labor Bund. The goal is the same as what we are seeing from antifascist groups that stage defensive demonstrations at locations and community events targeted by the far right, but the mechanism is different: in these cases it is armed members that deflect the far right’s advances rather than simply overwhelming masses of people.

There are obvious and defensible reasons for this development, and there are complications introduced by it as well. It will create some difficulty in building the coalitions that have been established over the past several years, most of which were built on an ostensible commitment to strategic non-violence. While armed self-defense groups are not involved in offensive violence, their presence still could be concerning for some partners. This simply means that more community conversations will be necessary to address any conflicted responses and to reestablish the trust necessary to maintain the coalition.

This brings us back to our three questions: what stops the far right, why do we want to stop the far right, and how do our methods lead to our larger goals? By having a vision of the world we want to win we can pick a path to more immediate victories that can act as stepping stones to more systemic change. These are the questions that are guiding the more radical wing of the antifascist movement and will help to determine not just their own future, but the future of the left itself. 

Photo credit

Photo by Daniel V. Media. Used with permission.

Nov 14, 2023

Burn the foundation and all that it upholds: an antifascist review of “Tell Me I’m Worthless” by Alison Rumfitt

“The House spreads. Its arteries run throughout the country. Its lifeblood flows into Westminster, into Scotland Yard, into every village and every city. It flows into you, and into your mother. It keeps you alive. It makes you feel safe. Those same arteries tangle you up at night and make it hard for you to breathe. But come morning, you thank it for what it has done for you, and you sip from its golden cup, and kiss its perfect feet, and you know that all will be right in this godforsaken world as long as it is there to watch over you.”

—Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless

Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless
New York: Nightfire, 2023
272 pages; ISBN: 9781250866233

Book cover of Tell Me I'm Worthless
Review by Tucker

The first time I encountered Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and antifascist organizing was as a teenager at punk shows. I remember the small punk girl who talked about beating up nazis and my 13 year old self was amazed that someone small and not a man could do that. It would be more than a decade til I would find myself in my first face-to-face street confrontation with fascists. Since my teens and early 20’s, we have seen an emboldening and surfacing of fascist hate groups and politics in the US, as well as around the world. My friends and I, so used to dealing with cops and the state, had to learn how to engage in the three way fight, defending our towns from the far-right hate groups that came to terrorize marginalized communities while simultaneously resisting the state and its oppressive and repressive tactics. It has been crucial in our fights to understand that the state and the fascists are distinct enemies, both of which require a militant and uncompromising struggle. Unlike the liberals who turn to a violent and racist state to protect, or the unprincipled and dangerous tendencies that side with the far right in the name of “the working man,” it is imperative to understand that we must fight both the state AND fascism to their deaths.

Tell Me I’m Worthless is a deeply queer story about a haunted house, Albion (meaning white land, also a romantic and historical way to refer to Britain), which is the embodiment of colonial and fascist England. The very foundation of this historic haunted house is toxic and seeps into the walls through stains and haunted posters. We learn about the horrific things which have been done throughout time by the various inhabitants of this house, the colonial, imperial and fascistic violence that occurred within these walls, and these atrocities spread out to the present. No matter what is done to the house, the foundation is the same, and infects what is built upon it and those who live within it and breathe inside its walls:

Angles that indicate the building you are in is not even a building, that no human could have possibly thought of this when building it, that this house simply came into being from contact with the pure, violent terror that can only exist in the very worst examples of humanity. And that horror is transmitted through you, a little thing inside the heart of the place. It cuts its way into your body, or uses somebody else to cut its way into your body. I have a scar on my forehead to attest to that, and Ila has a scar on her stomach. And Hannah. Something happened to Hannah. The place, it worms into your brain and your heart. By the time I got out, I was different” (Rumfitt, 14).

Tell Me I’m Worthless is the story of 3 friends: Ila, Hannah and Alice, and their relationship to the house. Upon entering the house their relationships to each other are forever changed.

This book is not developing an analysis of fascism but is rather dealing with affect and ethics; how these ideologies play out on an emotional and ethical level—and what people do in fascism’s wake. 

“Let Tell Me I’m Worthless help us all be very clear: our identities will not protect us from our own choices to turn towards fascism, and we must all be on guard for the ways reactionary hateful ideologies and authoritarianism emerge in the spaces we inhabit.”

Hannah, Alice and Ila have complicated and intimate relationships with one another and the various marginalized as well as oppressive identities they embody. Alice is a white trans woman who is complicit in racism and xenophobia. Ila is a Jewish-Pakistani child of immigrants who becomes a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist). The third friend, Hannah, is a white cis straight woman who ultimately becomes a mutilated swastika stuck on the wall of the house, completely seduced by the fascism of Albion. Inside of the house the three friends turn on each other as the house speaks to them, filling them with racist, transphobic and xenophobic thoughts that they enact upon each other in violent, intimate and political ways. As the house attacks, the novel shows the way the path of least resistance will often be the path that marginalizes another, and is complacent if not outright actively violent toward the other. Here no identity is immune to the creeping tide of the hateful ideology and fascism, and this is an important nuance that Tell Me I’m Worthless breathes through its pages.

Traditional leftist narratives around fascism have often focused on an idealized figure of the fascist imaginary, a white male nazi, locating fascism solely within the scope of specific identities. This portrayal and understanding of fascism is somewhat a-historical as there is a long history of other identities that are neither white nor male flirting with and engaging fascism and advancing its deadly objectives. Certain currents within feminism have historically and continue this horrifying engagement of fascism (see Sophie Lewis and Asa Seresin’s “Fascist Feminism”) as well as various gay subcultures throughout history (see Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure). Currently we see fascism emerging in places outside of the white, straight male sphere (though certainly there as well) again as TERF feminist groups move to cement their alliances with white supremacists to further their bigoted and genocidal anti-trans ideologies; organizations such as “gays against groomers” emerge to further attack trans folks; and Black, Asian and Latino men are active in the Proud Boys and enacting white supremacist violence in the name of Western chauvinism, to name a few examples. 

The essentialist idea of fascism being sequestered to the sole domain of a certain group of white men leaves many surprised and fumbling when these dangerous ideologies turn up in other places. Let Tell Me I’m Worthless help us all be very clear: our identities will not protect us from our own choices to turn towards fascism, and we must all be on guard for the ways reactionary hateful ideologies and authoritarianism emerge in the spaces we inhabit. For the fascists, always, will be happy to have us collaborate in the extermination of our friends and communities.

Alice’s relationship to sex work is another point of great interest to me, and is one of several condemnations this novel makes against liberals and their politics. Through web camming, Alice engages with the transphobic and racist desires of her (presumably cis, white male) clients. She chooses to engage with scenarios that are cringe to read, however anyone who has done sex work will recognize that where one draws the line for the types of scenarios one will play out when negotiating with clients is an uncomfortable process at best. “But if they ask for it, when they send me money for the video, I make sure to include it. I’m not in a position to say no” (Rumfitt, 64).

While I do not take a strong ethical position on what people choose to engage with in the bedroom or the dungeon, I do think what taboos and societal horrors we are willing to engage in the sexual sphere is a complicated affair. Liberal conceptions of sex work posit us, the workers, as either the liberated heroines or the exploited victims, however here yet again the novel complicates and destroys fantasies of the purity of these categories. Fascism creeps into desire, and into the lives of sex workers who are paid to engage these desires. The choices Alice makes to entertain her client’s fantasies are not likable or easy to read. This is her job and how she makes her money. What happens when work and desire merge? The sex industry is a complicated place with no simple narrative. Often an overtly racist and sexist industry, where many workers market ourselves in ways that play off of the fetishization of our identities. Sex workers, as a stigmatized and criminalized work force, face a three way fight of our own, against the violence of Johns and SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists), as well as the violence of the state and incarceration. In the novel, Alice’s clients’ desire to be made to feel worthless and humiliated in their fantasy for a forced feminization or queer encounter later haunts us in a passage when Alice is being fucked by her TERF ex and demands “tell me i’m worthless.” There is no heroine/victim dichotomy here, as within the entire novel. The characters are complex and unlikeable, yet we know them. I have met Alice, Ila. I bet you have, too.

Finally, there is the haunted Morrissey poster, perhaps one of my favorite features of the book. He hangs on the wall of Alice’s room with his eyes blacked out and haunts Alice and the space, as well as the women she brings home. The poster was meant to cover the spot on the wall where a fascist stain always seems to protrude, yet the poster itself is racist, attacking with its nauseating stance of “England for the English.” I can remember the Smiths playing on the tape deck at a punk house I lived at in 2011. How does fascism creeps in if we are not on guard against it and its blood running through the foundation? What happens when we allow it in in small ways? Does it matter what one band member said? Does it cover the stain on the wall? Does it allow it to fester and grow?

Alice is entirely undone, but she tried to lift herself up, her insides sliding out around her. Look at me, she says. This is the most honest I have ever been with anybody. This. My body. My insides. I’m bearing it all. I did this for you, Ila. Not for Hannah. I don’t care about Hannah anymore. She was a victim of this ideology that corrodes our lives. I’m talking about me and you, Ila, you and I, we were best friends, we loved each other, and now we hate each other, and I did this because I do still care about you, because I want you to like me” (Rumfitt, 251).

In the end, the friends must face the house (i.e., Britain, fascism, white supremacy and nativism), and stand together in solidarity against all that the house stands for. They must confront the fascism within its walls and hear the hate that it spews while not allowing it to tear them apart. In the end, solidarity wins.

This visceral and haunting narrative shows us the ways fascism seeps into our relationships, how no identity is immune to its creeping, and how while the foundations of (imperial, colonial) societies are built upon violent and oppressive histories and ideologies nothing built on top will ever heal what lays beneath. The foundation itself must be destroyed. This novel is an antifascist argument against reformist and liberal politics, and reminds us that the only way to win is through solidarity and the destruction of it all. Tell Me I’m Worthless makes the reader feel the pain and horror of fascism in the most extreme and interpersonal as well as societal sense, and reminds us of the small and large ways it can infiltrate our lives and undermine solidarity. While much antifascist and anti-authoritarian writing focuses on the theory and strategy of fighting fascism, this book describes the embodied and emotional horror of life within it. It crawls through one’s skin. It sits uncomfortably below the surface. A true haunting.

Works referenced:

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Lewis, Sophie, and Asa Seresin. “Fascist Feminism: A Dialogue,” Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 9, issue 3 (1 August, 2022): 463-479.

Rumfitt, Alison. Tell Me I’m Worthless. New York: Nightfire (Tor Publishing Group), 2023.