Nov 1, 2020

Paranoia as Aesthetic

By Kristian Williams

Antifa had quite a summer: First, jetting around the country, stoking unrest and attacking police in dozens of cities simultaneously; then, moving by tour bus through the countryside to burn and loot small towns, only to be turned back by the armed and vigilant townsfolk; and finally, resorting to a scorched earth policy, setting forests ablaze and burning more than four million acres across three states.

None of those stories are true, but taken together they represent the history of the year 2020 as it is understood among a certain stratum of right-wing media. Probably these conspiracists would also blame Antifa for the coronavirus if only it weren’t a Chinese bioweapon and/or a Democrat hoax.

Demonstrators hold signs invoking conspiracy theories about QAnon, Bill Gates, globalists, etc.
Conspiracist propaganda at anti-lockdown protest
That there are people who believe such things it is impossible to deny. But it is equally impossible to accept. Such views are not merely mistaken. Even the word “lie” does not do them justice. With startling frequency, these accounts cross over from the untrue to the untenable, and yet they persist. What they are is an elaborate fiction, a kind of fantasy interpretation superimposed on reality, but not governed by the same rules as reality.

I sometimes wonder about the authors of such stories. Portland, the city where I live, had endured a hundred nights of protests—sometimes riots—against police brutality and racism. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people showed up ready to fight with cops, night after night, facing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and old-fashioned beatings. Even more remarkable is the fact that the crowds were largely composed of an entirely new crop of pissed-off people learning street-fighting by trial and error, with little real connection to any established organization or existing movement.

How did this happen? That is a real question. Luckily, an amateur YouTube videographer cracked the case. He posted a video of tents in a parking lot, surrounded by chain link. This, he informed us in serious tones, was where the city of Portland was housing the Antifa insurgents responsible for the riots: “This is a war encampment.”

It is not. It is in fact a joint project of social service agencies providing basic shelter and sanitation for homeless people during the pandemic. Several such “outdoor shelters” had been announced in advance and were well reported in the media when they opened, weeks before the unrest even began.

I was amused by this conspiracy theory, but also perplexed. Does the person who shot that video really think he unearthed an Antifa war camp? Or are these sorts of stories just expressions of political commitment, like MAGA hats and over-sized flags?

All of this led me to reconsider Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”[1] More precisely, it made me notice the third word in the title. “Paranoid” of course gets all the glory, and Hofstadter spends much of the essay explaining exactly what he does and does not mean by paranoia. But “style” does most of the work. For paranoia, in the political sense, is an aesthetic practice. It is more about presentation and display than discovery and belief. Even the use of facts, in conspiratorial thinking, serves as a kind of legitimating ornamentation, like a secret handshake. A swarm of detail signals simply that one is in the know; but the cited facts do not build toward a logical conclusion, except incidentally. The proof of this is that they can be invented or suppressed at will. (Hofstadter considers the use the paranoiac makes of facts on pp. 36-38.)

Hofstadter does not quite say that paranoia is an aesthetic category, but there are places where he comes close. He begins his second paragraph by explaining,

“When I speak of the paranoid style, I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself” (p. 4).

He goes on to say that “Style has to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated rather than with the truth or falsity of their content” (p. 5).

The precise character of the style—which Hofstadter describes as “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression” (p. 4) —is of course related to the paranoia, but it makes little difference what one is paranoid about. One may feel personally persecuted, in private life or in one’s career; one may fear the tyranny of a government kept in power by unscrupulous means; or one may fear a campaign of subversion that threatens the government’s stability. The object of the paranoia is in a sense secondary to the paranoia itself. This is why all conspiracy theories, regardless of the suspected conspirators or their presumed aims, exhibit a kind of family resemblance.

The paranoia suggests its own style; and the paranoid style implies an entire worldview. Hofstadter writes: “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events” (p. 29). The ideal conspiracy theory should be both over-complicated and over-simple, all-encompassing and yet utterly reductive. It posits a world that is highly ordered, in which nothing is a coincidence or an accident, in which everything occurs for a reason and even according to a plan. It should thus be presented with a tone of absolute certainty; it should treat as obvious conclusions which, nevertheless by the very premises of the argument, are assumed to be occult. The conspiracy is total; the theory must be totalizing. The conspiracy is everywhere, all-powerful; the theory must also be all-consuming, and also hermetically sealed. It must account for every occurrence, pull in every detail; facts that cannot be incorporated into the script can be disregarded as false. The logic is circular, but the circularity is part of the aesthetic.

It is possible I think, for people to adopt the paranoid style before, or even without, adopting the paranoid beliefs. That may take the form of utter cynicism, peddling stories that one knows to be nonsense in order to grasp at some perceived political advantage; or it may take the form of an unthinking mimicry, spouting the approved phrases without considering what they mean or whether they mean anything at all. Once one fully adapts oneself to the paranoid style and acquires the corresponding instincts, the distance between these two versions may narrow to the point of vanishing. Absolute indifference to reality tends, over time, to degrade the facility for discerning it.

If this is correct—if it is even close to correct—it may help us take one small step toward understanding such otherwise baffling phenomena as the mainstreaming of QAnon, Trump’s preternaturally stable approval rating, and the widespread resistance to coronavirus precautions. It may also help explain why such phenomena seem so completely immune to masses of evidence or the force of argument. Irrational views can be overcome by rational argument, but arational views cannot be. It may be less that people support Trump because of their erroneous beliefs, than that they espouse absurdities because they support the president. Symbolic expressions of cultish loyalty cannot be contradicted by the rules of logic or of the laws of evidence, any more than a symphony can be contradicted by a quadratic equation.

Myths must be fought in some respect on their own terms. I do not mean—let me be clear—that we should adopt the paranoid style ourselves, battling their lies with lies of our own, accommodating ourselves to nonsense as a kind of test for political loyalty. In fact, we must guard against any temptation in that direction.

What I mean, instead, is that we have to start by recognizing that it is not enough to prevail in the realm of evidence and reason, just as it is not enough to fight in the streets. To defeat a movement with any sizeable following, we must learn to understand its peculiar attractions. We have to recognize that it fills some real need in the lives of its adherents. And that is the terrain on which we must learn to struggle. We must fight not only at the level of fact, but at the level of meaning. Facing an adversary with a paranoid style, it will never be enough to show that they are wrong; that is almost an irrelevancy. We need to work instead to make the paranoid style, and the politics accompanying it, less attractive than the alternative—and we must provide an alternative that fills equivalent needs. To accomplish this, we have to learn to invoke stronger, competing loyalties and to generate more powerful, more admirable aspirations. We need to offer compelling narratives by which people can make sense of their lives, stories that give them meaning.

An ideal—even a stupid, wicked, perverse ideal—can only be overcome by a greater ideal.

1. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965). All parenthetical page references are to this edition.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (all from AK Press). He is presently writing a history of policing in Portland.

COVID-19 Anti-Lockdown Protest in Vancouver, May 3rd 2020. Image has been slightly cropped. Photo by GoToVan from Vancouver, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oct 25, 2020

Between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence

Guest post by Devin Zane Shaw

Editor's note: Devin Zane Shaw argues here that Donald Trump’s attempt to mobilize far right vigilantism might represent a temporary move to shore up neoliberal hegemony—or it might signal an attempt to revive a settler-state hegemony, where white vigilantism becomes a permanent feature of informal social control.

Logo reads, "PB / STAND BACK / STAND BY"
At the first presidential debate, Donald
Trump told the Proud Boys to "stand
back and stand by" when he was asked
to condemn white supremacists.

System-Loyalty and the Far-Right Reaction to the Anti-Police Uprising
In what follows, I will suggest that, in response to the anti-police uprising which followed the death of George Floyd and spread across the United States after protestors torched the 3rd police precinct building in Minneapolis, the Trump administration has made a move to pull far-right movements within a system-loyal ambit of settler-state hegemony. As with any analysis that attempts to interpret events as they unfold and as they have only recently unfolded, some of these impressions will unfortunately be shaped by an oftentimes uncritical media and conflicting social media accounts, which could distort the situation on the ground and shape our critical reflections. To remedy this in part, I have relied as much as possible on antifascist research which has a stronger critical methodology, a clear and explicit ideological orientation, and a shared political commitment toward fighting fascism. Nonetheless, I expect that some of following claims will need to be criticized and revised as the tendencies I describe play out.

In my recent book Philosophy of Antifascism (p. 178), I propose the following thesis (to which I’ve made a minor adjustment in order to bring it into line with the present discussion) to explain the relationship between far-right movements and settler-state hegemony:

“Far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot.”

In my view, settler-state hegemony is stabilized when it can balance—or is perceived to balance—the interests of the bourgeoisie and white petty bourgeois settlers, whose system-loyalty rests on their access to, as W.E.B. Du Bois puts it, the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois provides a paradigmatic example of this process of building hegemony and white settlerism. On his view, during the era of Reconstruction, it was an open question of how American hegemony was to be realigned after being torn asunder in the Civil War. Though some of his phrasing—such as his evocations of the dictatorship of the proletariat during Reconstruction—is hyperbolic, Du Bois describes a series of shifting alliances between the northern bourgeoisie, the southern planter class, the white proletariat and the black proletariat.

In the midst of the crisis, factions of white southerners, such as the Ku Klu Klan, revolted against Reconstruction-era governance and carried out campaigns of terror predominantly against black communities. (Though, as Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa shows, these black communities also fought back.) These class conflicts were resolved, and system-oppositional white supremacist groups were pulled back toward system-loyalty, as hegemony coalesced around the public and psychological wages of whiteness: forms of deference, institutional access (to education, for example), the institutionalization of racial social control (“the police were from their ranks, and courts, dependent upon their voices, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness”), and social mobility (drawing poor whites into the petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy). (See Du Bois, pp. 573-574.) Part of this hegemony was brokered through labor organizing, as Du Bois notes, and, as later critics have noted, part was through the westward expansion of the United States, facilitated by laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862 or the Southern Homestead Act of 1866.

The present conjecture of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-police uprising in the United States has created an unprecedented economic and political crisis. If Ruth Wilson Gilmore is correct that hegemony of neoliberal policy coalesced in part around “the prison fix,” then it is fitting that the greatest challenge to this form of hegemony arrives in the form of a broad social movement against policing (Golden Gulag, pp. 87-127). On its face, the American election appears to be a choice between two forms of stabilizing the neoliberal order through so-called “law and order”: one where police violence will beat social unrest down with the baton of so-called objective right or one that more explicitly relishes brutality and cruelty. However, I believe that if we apply the concept of the three-way fight to the present hegemonic crisis, we can discern another possibility: Trump’s validation of far-right vigilantism could also point toward a recomposition of settler-state hegemony through, in part, pulling far-right system-oppositional currents toward system-loyalty.

In my Philosophy of Antifascism, I apply the concept of the three-way fight to situate militant antifascism against forms of setter-state hegemony in Canada and the United States, which, in my view, are constituted through the state mediation of the interests of capital and white supremacy. These interests tend to manifest in a dialectic that mediates between bourgeois liberalism and popular and/or paramilitary white settler mobilizations. By differentiating between bourgeois liberalism and white supremacy, I do not mean that liberalism excludes racism or that white supremacy refuses the terms of bourgeois liberalism. I differentiate between the two in order to highlight their self-ascribed ideological forms, which represent (at least) two tendencies within setter-state governance and hegemony.

In schematic terms, liberalism manages hegemony through appeals to popular legitimacy (realized through institutions of representative government), formal protections for individual rights and private property (objective right), and repressive force (typically cast as rule of law). It manages challenges from the left by meeting demands for social justice in terms of formal equality, legal protection, and managing patterns of redistribution. It pulls right-wing white settlerism within the system-loyal parameters, at least since the 1960s if not before, by formalizing or ratifying forms of oppression if these can be codified in color-blind terms. I am proposing that Trump’s attempt to pull system-oppositional currents within the far right toward system-loyalty opens the possibility that settler-state hegemony could be recomposed through a more explicit nationalist white settlerism—though this is not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, his open appeals to vigilantism were not necessarily his first strategy. Trump’s early messaging, which called on law enforcement to “dominate the streets,” suggested that he initially thought anti-police demonstrations could be quickly contained.

Nonetheless, Trump paved the way for a far-right reaction when he suggested that his administration would designate antifa as a “terrorist organization.” Open street-level conflict between far-right and antifascist groups has been a persistent feature of the last four years, but this policy direction signaled that the balance of forces on the ground would be more sharply tilted against militant leftwing organizing. The reaction was almost immediate, as various far right groups—parts of the Patriot movement (such as Oath Keepers), Proud Boys, boogaloo bois, and America First/Groyper factions turned up at demonstrations.

Media attention has typically focused on the violent character of the far-right reaction. It also tends to simplify the tensions and contradictions between state power and the far right. By contrast, through a comparison of how some of these far-right groups have fared over the course of the reaction, I will argue that we must distinguish between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence. This requires, at the outset, defining our terms. In Insurgent Supremacists, Matthew N. Lyons defines the far right as “political forces that a) regard human inequality as natural, inevitable, or desirable and b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system” (p. ii). He opts for the category of the far right rather than fascism because the former is broader than the latter. This broader scope allows Lyons to investigate a wider range of rightwing social movements that would not typically be grouped under fascism, and thus he is able to establish points of contact, influence, and conflict between these groups. But more importantly, in Lyons’ view, is that it captures rightwing groups that reject the legitimacy of the American political system. He concludes: “the resulting division between oppositional and system-loyal rightists is more significant than ideological differences about race, religion, economics, or other factors” (p. ii). In my view, on the basis of the discussion of settler-state hegemony, far-right movements are oppositional insofar as they are anti-bourgeois or anti-liberal but they accept or advocate for the “white settlerist” pillar of settler-state hegemony.

For our present purposes, I will define “system-oppositional” as an organizational capacity for armed conflict with state power. Some groups—such as the Patriot movement—pursue a dual strategy, sometimes working within institutional structures of the American political system and sometimes opting for system-oppositional conflict (for example, in 2016 the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, led by Ammon Bundy, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for almost six weeks). Such groups can be pulled toward system-loyal avenues. As Matthew N. Lyons has recently written:

“If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016, physical violence and harassment play that role today. Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them, far right vigilantes dramatize Trump's claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, his fearmongering offers Patriot activists and other paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.”

I would currently classify the actions of the Proud Boys and some factions of the Patriot movement as examples of system-loyal vigilantism. We can expect, with system-loyal vigilantism, relatively close affinities between police and, as one officer put it, “heavily armed friendlies.” The close affinity between policing and system-loyal vigilance is evident in many forms across the United States, from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where officers validated the presence of armed individuals, before Kyle Rittenhouse (a youth police cadet) shot three protesters, killing two, to Portland, Oregon, where cops “stood by while Proud Boys and militiamen, some brandishing guns, attacked anti-fascist protesters; when the Proud Boys retreated, the cops fired tear gas.”

But it is important to note that not all parts of the reaction pursue system-loyal vigilantism. Rightwing accelerationist groups such as the “boogaloo bois” constitute a small niche of reactionary system-opposition organized explicitly around armed paramilitary capacity. The boogaloo bois are “a loose collection of online insurrectionists, some of whom believe a civil war with a tyrannical government is inevitable and in some sense desirable.” They appeared almost immediately on the scene of anti-police demonstrations following the death of George Floyd. While anti-police organizers correctly identified the presence of boogaloo-style groups as antagonistic, these groups have sometimes claimed that they support anti-police demonstrations. For example, a widely circulated meme in boogaloo circles includes Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and Oscar Grant, and far-right militia martyrs such as Vicki and Samuel Weaver in a list of people killed by the police.

From the perspective of the three-way fight, this is a clear attempt at far-right entryism that failed. Furthermore, not all boogaloo movement actions were merely opportunistic in this sense; several attempted to use anti-police protests to sow armed conflict. In the month of June, two boogaloo movement members were charged with killing two law enforcement officers, and seven others were arrested for weapons charges or plotting violent attacks. In addition, according to data collected by Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, incidents between protesters and boogaloo groups spiked early and then quickly trailed off. These two factors would suggest that law enforcement intervention sidelined the boogaloo movement’s street-level protest capacity; however, as recent arrests show, law enforcement pressure has not yet incapacitated the movement’s clandestine organizational capacities.

Tentative Conclusions
How do we assess the difference between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence? And where does this distinction fit in the historical relationships between the militant left, the far right, and the police? Revolutionary and militant leftist movements challenge the social inequalities that law enforcement are tasked to protect, and law enforcement has long attacked leftist movements at both organizational and ideological levels. By contrast, as both David Cunningham and Kristian Williams contend, law enforcement tends to focus on violent actions committed by far-right movements. Cunningham, in his analysis of the FBI’s COINTELPRO–White Hate operation in the 1960s, notes that the FBI focused on Klan groups, such as the United Klans of America, while ignoring Citizens Councils because (1) the latter’s class position ensured system loyalty, and (2) the type of racist activities chosen by the Klan “refused to follow a tightly constrained path of acceptable resistance [which] made it a threat to the good name of the anti-civil rights movement” (p. 122). The FBI and the far-right groups targeted under COINTELPRO-White Hate, Cunningham argues, shared a common cultural ground (manifested in a defense of the segregationist status quo, patriotism, and anti-communism), but the latter became law enforcement targets when they plotted or carried out violent acts that threatened the status quo.

While the Klan in the 1960s was generally system-loyal ideologically, it is a basic premise of the three-way fight that far-right groups are now typically system-oppositional. Despite this shift in far-right organizational characteristics, law enforcement follows general patterns set in the 1960s: Williams notes that in the 1990s, “when the government pursued right-wing terrorists, its efforts tended to focus narrowly on prosecutable crimes, whereas investigations into environmentalists and anarchists during the same period sprawled broadly across the relevant movements and often took on an explicitly ideological tone.” Today, a similar pattern remerges. The Trump administration characterizes antifa as so-called “domestic terrorism.” Though law enforcement curbs far-right movements organized around system-oppositional violence, there is a more general tolerance for system-loyal vigilantism. While Trump’s attempt to pull some far-right groups toward system-loyal tendencies through explicitly validating vigilantism is a marked departure in contemporary American electoral politics, voting him out of office will not necessarily undermine the informal relationships formed through law enforcement and far-right opposition to militant leftist movements forged in the second half of 2020.

To conclude, I will examine a number of possible consequences of this return of vigilantism. Before November, it will remain unclear whether Trump’s attempt to mobilize far-right vigilantism against the anti-police uprising marks the beginning of a recomposition of settler-state hegemony or whether it is an attempt to use vigilantism to shore up the neoliberal hegemony that is currently in crisis. In other words, it is unclear whether what we are witnessing involves the recomposition of hegemony around white settlerism, where white vigilantism remains a permanent feature of informal social control, or whether Trump will attempt to demobilize the far right after the election.

In the event of a Trump victory and demobilization or a Biden victory (where Trump accepts the results), we can expect far-right movements presently mobilized will return to a system-oppositional stance. (For those skeptical of the scenario in which Trump demobilizes his far-right support, it is important to note that Trump did not ascend to political power on the basis of a mass movement, and so a potentially mass movement—with the attendant types of uncertainty and volatility that these movements bring—could play in his favor but could also create the opportunity for a far-right opposition movement beyond his control).

If Trump remains in power through the continued mobilization of far-right vigilantism, these social forces could become de facto features of social control, fortifying repressive state violence while undermining liberal institutions and legal protections for women and minorities. We could also expect administration policies that materially cement such political alliances, e.g, the privatization of federal land holdings in areas where the Patriot movement has local presence. The possibility of constituting settler-state hegemony around a more explicit far-right white settlerism presents a much more dangerous terrain for antifascist and leftist organizing than the previous four years.

Devin Zane Shaw is the author of Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). He discusses many of the book's core ideas in a Revolutionary Left Radio podcast titled "A Philosophy of Antifascism: Existentialism, Decolonization, & The Three-Way Fight."

Image credit: Image disseminated by the Proud Boys following the presidential debate on 29 September 2020, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oct 16, 2020

Nationalism: Left, Right, and Black

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin (Metropolitan Books, 2019)

Review by Kristian Williams

Editor’s note: Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court seems a good occasion to consider the political history of another notorious Supreme Court figure. Clarence Thomas’s story raises larger issues about the roles that members of oppressed groups may play in right-wing politics and how elements of leftist politics can be appropriated by the right.

Two flags decorated Clarence Thomas’s apartment at Yale Law School: The red, black, and green Pan-African flag, and the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag.

Corey Robin mentions this detail in passing in The Enigma of Clarence Thomas—which was just released in a paperback edition—but it almost serves as a microcosm of his argument.

Robin—among the most astute, and certainly the most readable, of the left-liberal scholars of the right—is kind enough to offer us a thesis statement: “The central claim of this book,” he writes, is that “Thomas is a black nationalist whose conservative jurisprudence rotates around an axis of black interests and concerns.” This interpretation will surprise most readers, for good reasons and for bad. The good reason is that, during his almost three decades on the Supreme Court, Thomas has come down repeatedly on the side opposite of anti-racist common sense. He has opposed mandatory racial integration in schools, endorsed racial segregation in prisons, refused to strengthen protections against police bias, and advocated the dismantling of affirmative action. The bad reason is that critics often treat Thomas as a mere puppet who mouths the orthodoxy of the Republican establishment with neither comprehension nor conviction. This latter presumption, Robin demonstrates ably, is so wrong that it can only be understood as a racist refusal to take the justice’s thinking seriously.

Reagan and Thomas standing facing each other in the Oval Office
Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas, 1986
Robin does take it seriously, and he shows that we should as well. We should take it seriously, first, because of the real-world impact of Thomas’s personal philosophy. In his position on the Court, he helps to shape both the law and its interpretation, throughout the entire United States and for generations to come. Second, we should take it seriously because of the real challenge it poses to the liberal orthodoxy. Thomas’s multi-pronged assault on affirmative action in higher education, for example, is radical in its implications and devastating in its effect: Affirmative action, he argues, stigmatizes black people and thus sustains both the institutional and emotional structures of white supremacy: it preserves feelings of superiority (accented by condescension and paternalism) among white students, professors, and administrators, while instilling a sense of inferiority among black students. Its main objective is not the improvement of the conditions among the black community overall, or even the more limited aim of equality of opportunity in education. It does not open elite institutions to black students, but instead grants limited access while preserving the institution’s exclusivity. The appearance of diversity, Thomas insists, is merely a means for the power structure to legitimate itself, and thereby maintain the inequality of the larger society. I have to admit that there just may be something to that argument.

The third reason it is worth taking Thomas’s views seriously—and this is Robin’s main point—is because Thomas’s right-wing black nationalism may sometimes also function as a sort of reductio ad absurdum to some unexamined precepts of left-wing anti-racism. “Thomas’s is a voice that unsettles,” Robin writes in the opening chapter. “His beliefs are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal.” But, Robin explains, if we can let ourselves “see the world through his eyes,” we may realize that “his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”

Robin builds his case largely on the basis of Thomas’s own words, drawn from his scholarly articles, legal opinions, and interviews, supported and to some degree explained with reference to his personal biography. The result is fascinating, horrifying, and, I think, persuasive—though I admit I lack the legal background that would qualify me to evaluate some of the more technical arguments, and I somehow doubt that Thomas would describe his views in just the way that Robin does. (Justice Thomas did not reply to my request for comment, submitted through the Supreme Court’s public information office.)

Clarence Thomas entered adulthood immersed in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. “I was truly on the left,” Thomas recalled in a 1996 interview. “I was a radical.” He admired Malcolm X, listening to recordings of his speeches and memorizing lengthy passages. He wore Black Panther buttons, volunteered with a Panther-inspired free breakfast program, and signed his letters “Power to the People.”

At Holy Cross, he helped found the Black Student Union, and served as its secretary-treasurer. Even at the time, he stood out among its members as ideologically severe and resistant to compromise. The group’s prohibition against interracial relationships, for example, was mainly observed in the breach; but Thomas saw it as a point of pride and even principle. He was known to harass interracial couples that he encountered on campus, and continued to oppose interracial marriage well into the 1980s.

Traditional gender roles, and especially the figure of the black man, were central to the BSU’s politics. “The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man,” the BSU manifesto claimed. This gendered preoccupation continued to orient Thomas’s worldview, his jurisprudence, and (as Anita Hill clearly testified) his personal behavior throughout his career.

Today, Robin argues, Thomas remains a black nationalist, but he is now a nationalist of a particular right-wing variety. “Like most ideological commitments, Thomas’s black nationalism is selective.” He rejects the notions of revolution, a separate territorial state, and Third World solidarity, for instance. “Still, many elements of the program he embraced in the 1960s and 1970s ... remain vital points of his jurisprudence today.” Among these, Robin lists “the celebration of black self-sufficiency, ... the support for racial separatism and black institutions, ... the reverence for black self-defense ..., a suspicion of white liberalism ..., skepticism of the state, pessimism about integration, a focus on the family, an emphasis on traditional morality, an appreciation of black business, and belief in the saving power of black men.”

Underlying these views is a deep pessimism. As Thomas put it: “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin.”

Thomas believes that racism is a permanent fact of American life. The question, then, is not how to eradicate it, but how black people can maintain their dignity regardless. Thomas’s concern with dignity centers on an anxiety over the character of black men in particular. Dignity in his view consists of virtues like industriousness, self-reliance, self-discipline, a stoical manner, and the personal bearing necessary both to exercise authority over one’s family and to defend it from external threats.

To cultivate those virtues, Thomas believes, one must endure coercive discipline and a certain amount of adversity. For black Americans, the state delivers both. Thomas views policing and punishment as necessary to instill the discipline and moral sense necessary for community thriving; liberal conceptions of rights only serve to make the black man weak. Direct oppression, however, can make him virtuous and strong. Thomas believes that policing can promote the virtues that lead to success in a capitalist economy, which he fetishizes partly from a distrust of government and partly from the feeling that the market is the only institution that white people cannot fully control.

Toward the end of the book, Robin steps back to take in the full picture:

“Clarence Thomas is the most extreme justice on the Supreme Court.... His jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism.... It begins with the belief that racism is permanent ... and ends with a dystopia that looks painfully familiar: men armed to the teeth, people locked up in jails, money ruling all, and racial conflict as far as the eye can see.... It rehearses and repeats that experience of defeat, with no sign of exit or end. It returns to scenes of ancient injury and present wrong, not to repair the first or right the second but to tell us that neither righting nor repair can be done.”

Thomas’s version of black nationalism began in opposition to white supremacy, and grew to be congruent with it.

Thomas is not merely a reactionary; or rather, he is a very specific type of reactionary. He is one committed to an ethno-separatism, a material and cultural self-reliance, but also to a project by which a history of racial humiliation is overcome not by dismantling the racist structures of society but precisely by enduring racial hostility with a masculine dignity, signaled by certain cardinal virtues and defended with arms. I will leave it to others to place that worldview precisely within the right-wing taxonomy. But the astonishing thing about Thomas’ later ideas is how much they owe to his earlier ideas:

“Thomas [initially] made his disaffection with civil rights activism with a narrative of black nationalism from the left. Beginning in the mid-1970s, that disaffection realigned for him as a story of black nationalism from the right. What’s remarkable about the transformation is how simple and small it proved to be.”

One way of understanding Thomas’s rightward trajectory is to treat it as a cautionary tale about the failures of the left, and about the future careers of disappointed radicals. By this account, Thomas is a black neocon, but nothing more. Robin however suggests something more disturbing. By his reading, Thomas did not convert so much as he simply changed denominations—left or right, the focus has always been on the nationalism. “Thomas has been able to forgo the left for the right without having to give up the black nationalism that can be found on either side of the spectrum.” In that case, his was not so much a metamorphosis as a change in emphasis.

If so, Thomas’s example may give us reason for worry about even the versions of nationalism with which we may feel some sympathy. “If Thomas begins from premises that are shared yet arrives at conclusions from which we recoil...,” Robin advises in the book’s final paragraph, then “the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.” Among the premises to be surrendered, I would propose the fashionable pessimism about racial reconciliation, the deeply Christian view that oppression makes people virtuous, the moralistic emphasis (common to Protestantism, neoliberalism, and the “woke” left) on personal virtue as the tonic for societal problems, and the faith in violence as the surest safeguard for our rights.

There are also, of course, some premises that are not shared. The consistency of Thomas’ nationalism is only matched by that of his sexism—not merely as a matter of personal bias, but as a programmatic commitment to patriarchal gender norms. That has held true from his time in the Black Student Union to his tenure on the United States Supreme Court. Robin, I think, gives too little attention to this fact, and to its potential significance. How important was his sexism in guiding, and maybe even motivating, Thomas’s turn to the right?

It seems that Thomas’ conception of masculinity, while sounding increasingly anachronistic to the left, has become an animating principle across much of the right. Certainly, sexism remains a problem on the left, and the possibilities for a right-wing feminism cannot be discounted. But, broadly speaking, feminism implies egalitarianism, and right-wing politics imply the opposite. And it does seem that, of the various elements of the left’s program, gender equality is the one that the right has the hardest time claiming, co-opting, or corrupting. The reasons for that are undoubtedly complex and far-reaching, and the implications no less so. It may turn out, for example, that while nationalism can float between left and right, feminism will prove to be our most reliable anchor protecting against a rightward drift.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (all from AK Press).

Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sep 27, 2020

Resisting Trump's coup

People across the political spectrum—from anarchists to social democrats to neoconservatives—have been warning that Trump may try to sabotage the election to stay in office. This is a realistic and serious danger. A Trump coup would have disastrous consequences and mass action is needed to stop it. At the same time, there are a number of pitfalls and potential misconceptions in how we interpret and respond to this threat. Without getting into detailed scenarios, I want to highlight a few key points that I think can help us frame the situation more clearly—and help us organize resistance most effectively.

People at demonstration holding up two hand-lettered signs that read "RESIST"
Chaos as a strategy for seizing power

If Trump makes a bid to steal the election, calling it a coup highlights that it’s an undemocratic power grab. At the same time, the term “coup” can be misleading, because it conjures images of soldiers occupying government offices and TV stations, setting up roadblocks, and arresting political opponents. Trump stealing the election would—by design—be a lot muddier than that. As Barton Gellman argues, Trump’s strategy makes use of traditional voter suppression methods—such as purging voter rolls and (probably) intimidating people at the polls—but the crux of it is not controlling the election but discrediting the electoral process itself.

For example, Trump’s efforts to disrupt mail-in voting (such as gutting the postal service) may help shift the results in his favor, but their main effect—coupled with his team’s relentless lies about the supposed danger of widespread voter fraud—is to call the validity of the results into question. Through this and other tactics, in Gellman’s words, Trump “could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold onto power.” At that point, the outcome could depend on Trump’s control over key federal agencies and support from rightist street forces (Patriot groups, Proud Boys, etc.), but only because the election itself has been discredited.

This approach is well calibrated both to the constraints Trump faces and also to his whole approach to politics. On the one hand, as Gellman points out,
“Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian. He has the mouth but not the muscle to work his will with assurance. Trump denounced Special Counsel Robert Mueller but couldn’t fire him. He accused his foes of treason but couldn’t jail them. He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints.

“A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix the victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.”
But as a strategy, discrediting the election results also makes sense because sowing confusion and chaos is one of the few things Trump does well. Trump doesn’t have the patience or skill to plan and implement a well-organized military-style operation, but he is very good at spreading disinformation. Some people believe his lies and—just as important—others don’t know what to believe. Trump has contributed to a larger shift in the political culture, in which information itself is increasingly treated as partisan, and this in turn makes it easier to leverage power through chaos.

Divided state, divided elites
For years, some liberals and leftists have warned that Trump, the far right, and the ruling class are working hand in hand to establish a dictatorship—or, as Henry Giroux put it, “neoliberal fascism.” This claim not only glosses over the far right’s complicated and sometimes hostile relationship with Trump, it also hides the contradictory nature of the Trump administration as an unstable alliance of pro-corporate neoliberals and America First populists. Trump has won support from some capitalists, but also opposition from many others—including such hardline right-wingers as the Koch brothers. He was definitely not the ruling class’s preferred candidate in 2016, and there’s no reason to think he is now. A centrist neoliberal like Joe Biden is much more in line with what the business community—and much of the Republican Party—wants than an unpredictable demagogue who is more concerned with glorifying and enriching himself than bolstering U.S. capitalism at home or abroad.

Trump also has had limited success in consolidating support within the federal bureaucracy. As It’s Going Down notes, he has used political appointments effectively to control such key agencies as the Justice and Homeland Security departments, but has had much less success extending such control over the military. This has direct implications for a coup scenario. Trump may well be able to deploy U.S. Marshals and Homeland Security agents to “prevent fraud” in Democratic majority areas, but it’s unlikely he could deploy actual troops.

Some leftists conclude, wrongly, that these limitations make a Trump coup implausible. Roger Harris of the Peace and Freedom Party argues that Trump won’t attempt a coup because capitalists don’t want him to:
“In Europe of the 1930s, sections of the ruling class in their respective countries accepted Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dictatorships for fear of working-class Communist and Socialist parties coming to political power. There is no such political contention in contemporary US.... If rule by and for the elites is accepted, why should the bourgeoisie squander this gift and opt for a more costly fascist dictatorship?

“Even if Donald Trump personally would aspire to be the first US führer, he does not have sufficient backing from the ruling class, notably finance capital. Many military generals detest him. The foreign policy establishment does not trust him. At least half of the active-duty service members are unhappy with him. And the so-called deep state security agencies – FBI, CIA, NSA – are among his harshest critics.

“Trump might be able to mobilize some skinheads with gun show souvenirs. But these marginalized discontents would hardly be a match to the coercive apparatus of the world’s superpower.”
Harris exaggerates the ability of elites to determine political outcomes. Yes, in broad terms U.S. capitalists hold state power, and as a bloc they wield political influence far beyond their share of the population. But if they could simply dictate who was president, Trump would never have made it to the White House in the first place. This point is driven home when we revisit what Harris wrote exactly four years ago:
“We don’t have to worry about [Trump] getting elected in 2016. The ruling elites will take care that he will be lucky to win Alaska. Trump’s already fatally shaky presidential prospects will be enormously even less impressive as the corporate media continues to whittle him and his big hands down.”
The reality is that not every president—and not every shift toward or away from authoritarianism—reflects ruling class preferences. To succeed, a Trump coup attempt doesn’t require active support from the economic, political, or military establishment. Their passive acceptance, disunity, or indecision at a critical moment could be enough. At the same time, the limits on Trump’s support will constrain what he can do both before and after the election, limit his capacity to consolidate control, and leave him vulnerable to determined opposition even after a successful coup.

Not fascism versus democracy
The threat of a Trump coup is not about a struggle between fascism and democracy. As I’ve argued since 2015, while Trump promotes important elements of fascist politics, he is not himself a fascist and does not have the capacity to create a fascist state. Fascism, in my view, involves much more than repression or even full dictatorship. Among other things, it involves a systematic effort to transform society to conform to a unified ideological vision (such as Mussolini’s total state or Hitler’s renewal of the Aryan race), as well as an independent, organized mass mobilization to overthrow the old political order and implement the transformative vision across all social spheres. Trump exploits far right political themes, but he doesn’t offer any real vision for transforming society, and he has never tried to build an independent organizational base that would enable him to do so.

This is not to downplay the threat. Any kind of second Trump administration will be even worse than the first, but if Trump steals the election and gets away with it, the erosion of the constitutional, republican system of government will be dramatically greater. The formal political structures probably won’t just disappear, but they’ll become a lot weaker and hollower than they are now. (Think Putin’s Russia, which still has a parliament and even an independent press and political opposition of sorts.) We can expect a sharp increase in repression and brutality by the state and its vigilante allies, which will be disastrous for all of our movements and for the great majority of people in the United States. Yet even this uber-authoritarian version of Trumpism would be less ideologically driven than fascism—more chaotic, more disorganized, more dependent on Trump’s mercurial leadership to hold it together. This too, like the limits on Trump’s support noted above, could create vulnerabilities that we can exploit.

On the flip side, opposing a Trump coup is not about “defending democracy.” As I wrote in 2015,
“The United States is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a mix of pluralistic openness and repression, an oppressive, hierarchical society where most political power is held by representatives of a tiny capitalist elite, but where there is real political space for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. This space has been won through struggle and it’s important and worth defending, but it’s not democracy.”
Political space in the United States has in many ways been shrinking for decades, as the state’s repressive and surveillance apparatus has been steadily expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Yet President Trump has accelerated the process through his contempt for government accountability, demonization of opponents, and blatant manipulation of state organs for personal ends. A Trump coup would sharply ratchet things up even further.

We can recognize that pluralistic space is most at risk from a Trump coup without romanticizing the political system as a whole. Navigating this double-sided reality is, I believe, a central challenge in developing radical responses to Trump. How do we call out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the present political order, while also being clear that the future Trump offers would be dramatically worse?

Anti-Trumpers versus the left
Another challenge for leftists responding to a prospective Trump coup is the fact that many anti-Trumpers would be happy to throw us under the bus. One of many surreal aspects of the Trump era has been watching neoconservatives—who just a few years ago were the top proponents of U.S. expansionism and mass killing—repackaging themselves as voices of moderation and civility. In 2003, neocon David Brooks was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, one of the most brutal and devastating acts of U.S imperialism in decades. Now he calls for mass activism to stop a presidential coup, but his rallying cry is directed almost as much against the left as against Trump.

Brooks declares that “If Trump claims a victory that is not rightly his, a few marches in the streets will not be an adequate response. There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus, to rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy...” This campaign would unite “sober people who are militant about America”—including “a certain sort” of conservatives, moderates, and liberals—against “the myriad foes who talk blithely about tearing down systems, disorder and disruption.” Those foes include “the Trump onslaught” on one side, but also “the fringe of the left” on the other, people who seize “their chance at mayhem...with sometimes violent passion.” It’s classic horseshoe theory, like equating white supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists as dangerous extremists threatening civic order and “sober” discourse.

Neoconservatives aren’t the only anti-Trumpers prone to horseshoe theory centrism. For example, while demonizing antifa might seem like the special province of Trump and his supporters, recent history shows otherwise. In the wake of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist murdered antifascist Heather Heyer, liberals from Nancy Pelosi to Chris Hedges joined a propaganda campaign against militant antifascists that exaggerated and distorted their use of violence. Berkeley’s liberal mayor, Jesse Arreguin, declared that antifa should be classified as a “gang,” while the Anti-Defamation League urged the FBI to infiltrate and spy on antifascist groups. If conflict intensifies around the coming election and its aftermath, we can expect many liberal anti-Trumpers to embrace David Brooks’ “sober” condemnation of leftists.

Mass resistance and non-sectarianism
U.S. presidential elections routinely present leftists with the depressing question of whether to vote for the lesser evil or reject the options presented as a false choice. This year many leftists, but by no means all, are reluctantly supporting Biden, not so much as the lesser evil over the greater, but rather as the abysmal over the catastrophic. Wherever you come down on that question, whether you plan to cast a ballot or not, the threat of a stolen election should make clear as never before that voting in itself will not decide this. Trump needs to be stopped, and organized mass resistance is needed to do it.

Mass resistance can give the lie to propaganda about voter fraud. Mass resistance can denounce and confront poll “watchers,” federal agents, and rightist vigilantes sent to skew the results on Election Day or while mail-in ballots are being counted. Mass resistance can offer a countervailing force to Trump’s supporters and change the context in which lawmakers and judges, police and National Guard members decide how to act. Mass resistance can demand that Trump be brought down.

Mass resistance to a presidential coup has the potential to attract wide and varied support, because Donald Trump is widely hated and despised, and because this is a time of radical mass activism on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. In this context, some anti-Trumpers will present the sectarian demand that any radical impulses be stifled in favor of lowest common denominator moderation. A better and more powerful organizing framework is the antifascist principle of “diversity of tactics.” Whether or not we call Trump a fascist, the following passage from my Foreword to Shane Burley’s Fascism Today applies here:
“The fight against fascism has to be broad and allow space for people to act in different ways and with different politics. As Anti-Racist Action put it in their Points of Unity almost thirty years ago, we need to practice non-sectarian defense of antifascists—set aside our differences to support those who are serious about opposing our common enemy. Some approaches will involve direct physical confrontations with right-wing forces. Some will involve nonviolent protest, writing and speaking, legal or electoral initiatives, community organizing, or even engaging with people who are attracted to fascism to try to win them away from it. Although people often think of militant and non-militant approaches as mutually exclusive and in conflict, they work best when they complement and reinforce each other.”

However, making the mass resistance movement inclusive and dynamic is about more than tactics. It’s about ensuring that alongside the calls to “defend democracy” against Trump, there is also space to denounce the political, social, and economic order that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Voter suppression is real, but there are also millions of people in this country who don’t vote because they don’t see anyone worth voting for. Ultimately, a mass resistance movement needs to offer not just defensive holding actions, but also radical visions that speak to those for whom “Build Back Better” is a cruel joke. 

Photo credit: By James McNellis, Washington, DC, 20 January 2017. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sep 1, 2020

Trump, the far right, and the return of vigilante repression

Trump’s relationship with the far right is just as important in 2020 as it was in 2016, but the character of the relationship has changed dramatically.

I’ve been revisiting the articles I wrote about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, taking stock of what’s the same and what’s different, as a way to get some perspective on what we’re facing now.

One key piece of the picture is Trump’s relationship with the forces of the U.S. far right, by which I mean those rightists who are fundamentally disloyal to the existing political order, because they want to replace it with something even worse. In the 2016 campaign, Trump had a symbiotic relationship with the far right that was unprecedented—unlike anything any major party candidate had ever had in U.S. history as far as I can tell. The relationship was centered particularly on the Alt Right, which played an important role in helping the Trump campaign, particularly in the primaries but also in the general election, through its effective and innovative use of social media to attack Trump’s opponents. In return, the Alt Right got a lot more visibility and recognition and validation by having this connection with a rising and ultimately triumphant political figure.

Looking at the current situation, it’s still true that Trump has an unprecedented symbiotic relationship with far right forces, but the specifics and the character of that relationship have changed.

In 2016 the Alt Right was the far right’s most dynamic sector. After the election, they declared themselves to be the vanguard of the Trump coalition, and in 2017 they made a big push to capitalize on their success and create a broader, militant street-fighting coalition of right-wing forces. The push failed and the Alt Right suffered a dramatic decline. The murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville exposed the brutality at the core of their politics for everyone to see. That setback—followed by a strong counter-mobilization by antifascists, deplatforming by media companies, and a series of internal conflicts—left the Alt Right much weaker and more isolated. Since the end of 2017, the alt-right has had little capacity to mobilize much of anything.

Group of people standing outside; man in front holding a semi-automatic rifle.
Pro-gun rally in Richmond on January 20th showed Patriot
movement's ability to put thousands of people in the streets.
Today, the most dynamic sector of the far right is the Patriot movement—the people who brought you citizen militias, conspiracy theories about globalist elites, and a militarized ideology of individual property rights. Unlike the Alt Right, which is white nationalist (meaning they literally want an all-white nation), the Patriot movement has always encompassed a range of positions on race and a tension between explicit calls for white dominance and what’s been called “color-blind racism”—the ideology that protects racial oppression by denying it exists.

The Patriot movement was probably a lot bigger than the Alt Right in 2016, but it was relatively quiet after the collapse of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation early that year. By contrast, 2020 has seen a series of political mobilizations with politics much closer to Patriot ideology than to Alt Right white nationalism, notably the gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, back in January and the anti-lockdown protests in April in May. So while the Alt Right in 2016 made powerful use of Internet memes and online harassment campaigns, the Patriot movement in 2020 has demonstrated a capacity to put hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people in the streets in cities across the country, which the Alt Right was never able to do.

It’s not just that a different branch of the far right is on the upswing now compared with 2016. It’s also that the Patriot movement has developed a different relationship with Trump and with the established political system than the Alt Right has had.

In 2016, most Alt Rightists supported Trump enthusiastically, but they were always clear that he wasn’t one of them. They said: Trump doesn’t share our politics, but he is useful to us; he’s creating openings for us to promote our message, he’s attacking a lot of our enemies—including the conservative establishment—and he’s buying time for the radical changes we need. The Alt Right saw Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics as slowing down the supposed process of “white genocide,” but they never expected him to dismantle the United States or create a whites-only society. And as his administration went on, many Alt Rightists were deeply disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s betrayal of his America First promises and his capitulation to establishment conservatism. You see this shift most starkly in the Occidental Dissent blog, where Alt Rightist Brad Griffin (“Hunter Wallace”) once supported Trump but now writes about him with loathing and contempt.

The Patriot movement doesn’t call for a white ethnostate, but it has developed its own ways of delegitimizing the existing political system, such as claiming that local governments can veto or ignore federal laws, and even creating new bodies, such as “common law courts,” that claim to have legal authority. In 2014, hundreds of Patriot activists with guns successfully faced down a large contingent of armed federal officers at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in a dispute over Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees on federal lands. It’s hard to think of another instance of armed rightist defiance of the U.S. government on that scale since federal troops went after the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s.

Yet the Patriot movement has, with exceptions, been more staunchly and consistently supportive of President Trump and his efforts to expand federal policing than the Alt Right ever was. Patriot activists engage in ideological gymnastics that dismiss undocumented immigrants, refugees, and leftist protesters as tools of a sinister elite conspiracy to impose world government. This framework enables them to rationalize support for Trump’s repressive measures as defense of a populist upsurge against an elite-sponsored campaign to suppress it.

In December 2015, I suggested that one way to read Trump’s friendly relationship with much of the far right was that “Trump’s campaign is co-opting far rightists into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” That cooptation has had limited effect on Alt Rightists and other white nationalists, but it’s had a strong pull for the Patriot movement.

So it’s not surprising that Patriot activists—associated with Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, militias, and related groups—have played a major role in the wave of vigilante repression that’s crashed over Black Lives Matter protests this year. Bolstering brutal police crackdowns, armed far rightists have dogged BLM demonstrations hundreds of times in 2020. Since George Floyd’s murder in late May, right-wingers have physically attacked protesters over 100 times, and have killed at least three people. Urged on by racist cops and Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, these activists have been functioning implicitly or explicitly as vigilantes helping the police to crack down on radical dissent.

Previous right-wing mass killers such as Dylann Roof (Charleston, 2015) or Patrick Crusius (El Paso, 2019), have generally framed their violence in terms of white nationalist or neonazi ideology. But Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two protesters in Kenosha last week, says he is a member of a local militia protecting local businesses and is almost a caricature in his adoration for the police. Also unlike Roof or Crusius, Rittenhouse has been endorsed by figures such as Tucker Carlson and Trump himself. It’s true that some of the recent vigilantes have been white nationalists, but white nationalists have tended to be ambivalent on whether to support cops or not, while Patriot groups have rallied to them more consistently. Closely aligned with Patriot groups have been the Proud Boys, a misogynistic organization that is “western chauvinist” but multiracial, and that has consistently tried to position itself as vigilante allies of the police, as well as Patriot Prayer, a northwest regional group with politics similar to the Proud Boys.

If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016, physical violence and harassment play that role today. Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them, far right vigilantes dramatize Trump's claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, his fearmongering offers Patriot activists and other paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.

Vigilante repression as an adjunct of state power is nothing new—it’s been integral to the United States from the beginning. For most of U.S. history, the state repressive apparatus was relatively small, and the people in power relied heavily on non-state forces of armed white men to keep subject populations—Indigenous, Black, Mexican, and Asian—terrorized and under control. During the key period of industrialization from the 1870s to the 1930s, capitalists also relied heavily on private armies such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency to intimidate, beat, or kill workers who tried to organize unions or go on strike. As recently as the 1970s, federal security agencies sponsored right-wing vigilante organizations such as the Legion of Justice and the Secret Army Organization to spy on, vandalize, and physically attack leftists. In 1979, an undercover agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped to plan the operation that resulted in the Greensboro massacre, in which a coalition of Klansmen and Nazis murdered five leftists at an anti-Klan rally.

Overall, however, vigilante repression has tended to decline over the past half century or more, as traditional outfits such as the Ku Klux Klan became a liability to the ruling class, large sections of the white supremacist movement abandoned loyalty to the state for white nationalism, and the state’s own repressive apparatus has become much bigger and more powerful. But now we’re seeing a new push to bring back vigilante repression alongside the modern security state.

Today’s resurgence of right-wing vigilantism is unstable and conditional, because it’s driven by a situation of unprecedented volatility. On one side, we have a wave of protests, uprisings, and strikes against police violence and white supremacy beyond anything the U.S. has seen in decades. On the other, we have a president who promotes supremacist politics, routinely subordinates governmental functions to his own personal interests, and both threatens and celebrates violence against his opponents. Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power. Their de facto loyalty to the system could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump* or he leaves office. A coup attempt or a civil war—I’ll discuss these dangers in a follow-up post.

* Highlighting that Patriot movement support for Trump is not a given, Oath Keepers, one of the most prominent Patriot groups, recently tweeted, “We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands. If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.”

By Mobilus in Mobili, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jul 19, 2020

A constellation of threats: far rightists respond to the Black-led uprising

Guest post by Ben Lorber

It’s important to remember that when we talk about the far right, we’re not talking about a single unitary force, but rather a constellation of different actors, organizations and movements with different interests and levers of power in our current moment.

There’s the far right authoritarian state, and state-aligned institutions, intensifying repression, policing and incarceration against our movements and communities.

And there are far right, insurrectionist social movements that often oppose the current state, and seek to destabilize and overthrow the existing order to achieve even more extreme anti-democratic and White supremacist goals.

Using the three-way fight model, we can trace how these various far right forces overlap, converge and diverge in our evolving moment.

Showing Up At Protests
Silhouette of police officer wearing gas mask in front of flames
North Precinct, Portland, OR, 26 June 2020

Since the uprising, far right social movements are stepping up their efforts at recruitment, organizing and mobilizing online and in the streets. A wide variety of actors have been showing up at Black Lives Matter protests around the country to harass and in some cases attack protesters.

We have seen established right-wing armed militias like III%ers and the Oath Keepers, as well as new formations like the New Mexico Civil Guard, show up at protests claiming to “defend property from antifa.” We have also seen the formation of ad-hoc armed patrols, often self-organized across informal networks, regional Facebook groups and community forums in response to unfounded rumors of an impending “antifa invasion.” In one instance, a protester was shot by a militia member in Albuquerque.

We have also seen at protests “Western chauvinist” street fighting gangs like the Proud Boys; neo-Confederate groups; as well as small numbers of explicit White nationalists, from individual neonazis to members of the Ku Klux Klan and newer formations like the Nationalist Social Club and the America First/groyper movement.

Among these varied street actors, some are pro-Trump, pro-police, pro-state. Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen police coordinate with militia and vigilante groups to suppress protests on several occasions. In a few instances, police and military were revealed to be members of these groups themselves.

Others, like the much-discussed “boogaloo boys,” are insurrectionist and accelerationist, hoping to increase tensions and violence at protests to destabilize the political space and overthrow the existing order. A few “boogaloo boys” have claimed to stand with protesters against police violence—though typically lacking a race analysis—and one member of this movement murdered officers in California.

White Nationalists Respond

As the uprising rattles the foundations of White supremacy in the US, explicit White nationalists are increasingly angry and desperate. They view protests on the streets, as well as widespread support for Black Lives Matter across broad sectors of media, corporate and political spheres and the general public, as signs of an escalating “race war” in which White identity is demonized and suffocated by an all-powerful cultural-corporate elite that aims to “replace” the White race. Trump is not the savior they wanted, and they have long seen him as part of the “system” they’re up against.

Most have responded to the uprising by recycling well-worn White nationalist pseudoscientific arguments of racial IQ and “impulse control” differences, amidst other vitriolic anti-Black sentiment. The uprising, to them, offers further proof that multiculturalism in America is a failed experiment, White and Black communities cannot co-exist in a shared society, and the only option remains radical separation. Most are using antisemitism to portray the uprising as a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the White race, repeating long-standing themes, central to the White nationalist movement since its formation in the post-Civil Rights era, that Black-led social movements are covertly controlled by Jews.

While White nationalists are unified in viewing the uprising as an existential threat, their orientation towards the State differs. The accelerationist camp hopes, much like the “boogaloo boys,” that escalating unrest will lead to the collapse of the existing social and political order, giving White nationalists an opportunity to establish an ethnostate on all or part of American soil. Others, across blogs like VDARE and American Renaissance and the “America First” movement, call on Trump to crack down on protesters and restore “law and order,” criticisms of the administration notwithstanding.

White nationalists hope to capitalize off White resentment in this moment to further radicalize and recruit White people. They also hope to take action by direct violence, and by encouraging Black Lives Matter activists, Black communities, the broader left, and other rightists to fight with each other and with the state through propagating online rumors and trolling.

The State Responds

Meanwhile, prominent far-right leaders with state power like President Trump and a bevy of right-wing politicians, and state aligned institutions like Fox News, are terrified at rapid transformation, and doubling down on racist and authoritarian appeals for “law and order”. Amidst signals to his Christian nationalist base, Trump is escalating disturbing levels of repression, moving to designate antifa a terrorist organization and deploying federal troops to brutally suppress protests in tactics reminiscent of military dictatorships.

The far-right state is fueled, in its authoritarian response, by dogwhistle White nationalist conspiracism, with Trump calling the uprising “cultural genocide” by a Left that wants to “replace America” and “erase our heritage.” State actors, movements like QAnon and much of the far right andre using antisemitism to blame protests on “outside agitators” and enemies within like George Soros and antifa who, they claim, plot to undermine Trump and American sovereignty and destroy Western civilization. Escalating repression is justified through these appeals to the need to combat a shadowy, invisible enemy.

Overall, when combined with the massive economic collapse brought on by the COVID crisis, we’re plunged deeper into a moment in which more than ever, the center cannot hold.

In disgruntled reaction to perceived excesses of the “woke Left,” prominent centrists are increasingly signaling their willingness to ally with conservatives and traditionalists in bitter opposition to forces of progressive change. We should anticipate that center-right actors and institutions will drift further rightward, while far right movements will win new recruits, and grow increasingly radical and emboldened in their efforts to shift culture and open political space for their ideas to gain influence.

Moving forward, our strategy needs to account for the various ways these distinct threats can intersect. For example, campaigns to defund local police departments should take into account that, as this powerful and transformative win is enacted, it will likely lead to a growth in legitimacy and recruitment by right-wing militias, who will present themselves as the last line of “law and order” defense. Our movements need to be attuned to these various forces as we craft strategy to shape and respond to the evolving moment.

Ben Lorber (@BenLorber8) works at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank, researching white nationalism and antisemitism.

Photo by Jeff Schwilk. Used with permission.

Jun 23, 2020

Cooptation as ruling class strategy

It’s the biggest threat the U.S. power structure has faced in many years—a Black-led, multiracial wave of protests, uprisings, and strikes against the police and white supremacy in cities across the country. Defenders of the established order have responded with a variety of countermeasures, including direct police repression, vigilante violence, and propaganda campaigns designed to demonize, divide, and weaken the movement.

Another countermeasure that’s received less attention is cooptation—not just immediate, small-scale tactics such as mayors proclaiming Black Lives Matter or cops taking a knee, but large-scale strategic efforts to channel mass rage into limited changes that leave existing systems of power, hierarchy, and oppression fundamentally intact. This kind of cooptation isn’t coming from the White House and may be beyond the capacity of the Democratic Party leadership, but it is a force we need to contend with. Because as popular pressure increasingly exposes weaknesses in the current systems of social and political control, it creates openings for a resurgence of ruling-class liberalism and the cooptation strategies it has promoted for generations.

Members of Congress kneel for Black Lives Matter
The U.S. ruling class has leaned right for so long, it’s easy to forget that this stance isn’t inherent—or permanent. In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, during times of deep social crisis and large-scale radical mobilizations, capitalists sanctioned dramatic changes in the system of rule to preserve their own power. The business community abandoned New Deal liberalism starting in the late 1970s, partly for economic and geostrategic reasons and partly in response to grassroots-based right-wing backlash. But to assume that capitalists are automatically committed to neoliberalism or right-wing authoritarianism is to take a dangerously narrow view of ruling-class politics.

To put this situation in perspective, it’s helpful to look at how the U.S. ruling class responded to the African American urban uprisings of the 1960s. An excellent way to do that is by revisiting the book Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History by journalist-turned-academic Robert L. Allen.

First published in 1969, Black Awakening is important for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a keen exposé of contradictions and tensions within the Black Power and Black nationalist movements of the late 1960s. For another, it’s a pioneering analysis of U.S. racial oppression as a system of domestic colonialism. Anticipating part of Butch Lee and Red Rover’s Night-Vision by over 20 years, Allen argued that “black America is now being transformed from a colonial nation into a neocolonial nation; a nation nonetheless subject to the will and domination of white America.” Under colonialism, state power had been fully in the hands of whites, but with neocolonialism African Americans were granted a significant degree of political power yet remained subordinated through various “indirect and subtle” means (14).

A third reason that Black Awakening is important, and the one I’m most concerned with here, is that it includes an invaluable discussion of ruling-class responses in the face of mass upheaval. In the broadest terms, Allen argued that
“In the United States today a program of domestic neocolonialism is rapidly advancing. It was designed to counter the potentially revolutionary thrust of the recent black rebellions in major cities across the country. This program was formulated by America’s corporate elite—the major owners, managers, and directors of the giant corporations, banks, and foundations which increasingly dominate the economy and society as a whole—because they believe that the urban revolts pose a serious threat to economic and political stability. Led by such organizations as the Ford Foundation, the Urban Coalition, and National Alliance of Businessmen, the corporatists are attempting with considerable success to co-opt the black power movement” (17).
Allen saw this program as emerging in the context of “several interlocked responses” to the rebellions from different sectors of the white power structure:
On the one hand there was the orthodox liberal who prescribed more New Deal welfarism as an antidote to the riots… [Another was] the shrill voices emanating from the embattled metropolises--voices demanding more policemen, more troops, more weapons, heavier armor, and tougher laws…. But between these two camps, there has arisen a third force: the corporate capitalist, the American businessman. He is interested in maintaining law and order, but he knows that there is little or nothing to gain and a great deal to lose in committing genocide against the blacks. His deeper interest is in reorganizing the ghetto ‘infrastructure,’ in creating a ghetto buffer class clearly committed to the dominant American institutions and values on the one hand, and on the other, in rejuvenating the black working class and integrating it into the American economy. Both are necessary if the city is to be salvaged and capitalism preserved” (194).
Two men in business suits seated in conversation in the Oval Offie
McGeorge Bundy with President Lyndon Johnson, 1967
One of the architects of the neocolonialism program, who receives special attention in Allen’s study, was McGeorge Bundy. Child of an elite Boston family, Bundy spent five years as national security advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, then left in 1966 to become president of the Ford Foundation. With this job change, Bundy shifted from a leading role in designing U.S. political-military operations in Vietnam to a leading role in designing establishment responses to the Black Liberation Movement.

Bundy quickly set a new tone as Ford Foundation president. In August 1966 he told the National Urban League’s annual banquet, “We believe that full equality for all American Negroes is now the most urgent domestic concern of this country. We believe that the Ford Foundation must play its full part in this field because it is dedicated by its charter to human welfare.” With Bundy as its head, the foundation broadened its grant-giving from relatively tame civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League to the more militant Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Allen explains that CORE appealed to the Ford Foundation because it talked about revolution but offered an “ambiguous and reformist definition of black power as simply black control of black communities,” fortified by increases in government and private aid. “From the Foundation’s point of view, old-style moderate leaders no longer exercised any real control [in the ghettos], while genuine black radicals were too dangerous” (146-47). In Cleveland, Ford financed a CORE-led voter registration and voter education campaign, which in November 1967 helped Carl Stokes win election as the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city.

Bundy recognized that repression and cooptation work best as two sides of the same coin. In a 1967 Foreign Affairs article titled “The End of Either/Or,” he wrote,
“with John F. Kennedy we enter a new age. Over and over he insisted on the double assertion of policies which stood in surface contradiction with each other: resistance to tyranny and relentless pursuit of accommodation; reinforcement of defense and new leadership for disarmament; counter-insurgency and the Peace Corps;... an Alliance for Progress and unremitting opposition to Castro; in sum, the olive branch and the arrows” (quoted 77).
Bundy’s approach meshed closely with the two-pronged national policy for dealing with urban revolts which, in Allen’s account, “evolved out of a series of studies and meetings held in 1967 at top government levels” (208). One prong was military containment: “make a massive show of force while minimizing the actual use of force” (208) by deploying large numbers of troops and riot police instructed to hold their fire but use tear gas and arrests extensively. The point was to keep things under control
“but not bear down with an iron fist, because this would further alienate an already greatly dissatisfied and volatile group. Furthermore, containment of the riots would buy time for the second prong of the new policy to take effect: an intensive program to convince black people that they as a group have a stake in the American system” (209).
In Allen’s view, the modulated military response did not point to a relaxation of repression. On the contrary, he predicted “a steady, although gradual increase in the level of repression.” Writing two years before activists made public the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), Allen
“expected that one of the favorite tactics of police forces will be more frequently employed--namely, decapitation of militant groups and movements…. More and more militant leaders (white as well as black) are likely to be arrested on charges of conspiring to bomb, assassinate, and otherwise engage in illegal activity, even where there is very little evidence to substantiate these charges” (209 note 6).
The second, cooptive prong of the national policy involved extensive investments in Black-owned businesses by the Ford Foundation and others, collaborative government-business initiatives to train members of the “hardcore unemployed” and help them find jobs, and—above all—programs designed to foster a class of Black capitalists and managers.
“The theory was that such a class would ease ghetto tensions by providing living proof to black dissidents that they can assimilate into the system if only they discipline themselves and work at it tirelessly. A black capitalist class would serve thereby as a means of social control by disseminating the ideology and values of the dominant white society throughout the alienated ghetto masses” (212).
Another leading force in this effort was the National Urban Coalition, which was formed in August 1967 by business, labor, religious, civil rights, and government leaders, among them such major corporate executives as David Rockefeller and Henry Ford II. As an example of its work, the NUC’s New York branch, whose board of directors included Roy Innis of CORE, provided nascent inner-city businesses with both advice and venture capital, in a program that Allen described as “a sophisticated mechanism for selecting and aiding persons in the black community who are to be programmed into the class of black capitalists” (220). The program’s “use of semiautonomous development corporations avoids the stigma of white interference and allows for maximum financial maneuverability” while offering “the attractive promise of community participation” (221).

As Allen noted, this strategy to foster Black capitalism and give African Americans a bigger stake in the established order was “fraught with difficulties and contradictions” (245), not least the fact that it was expensive and thus vulnerable to an economic downturn. Indeed, partly as a result of the mid-1970s recession, by the late 70s business leaders had begun turning to the right and largely abandoned programs to reintegrate poor and working-class African Americans. However, they continued developing a Black capitalist class through other methods. Today’s U.S. ruling class is still white dominated and still upholds a system of racial oppression, but it includes a significantly greater sprinkling of Black and Brown faces than it did fifty years ago, and it has embraced an ideology of multicultural “inclusion” in its leading institutions far beyond what McGeorge Bundy promoted.

This change in complexion and ideology has influenced ruling class responses to more recent Black-led upsurges. Since George Floyd’s murder, U.S. companies have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to civil rights organizations. And while there is wide variation in how capitalists and their representatives talk about race, the liberal wing of the ruling class has gotten much more sophisticated than it was in past generations at incorporating elements of anti-racist discourse, including calls for structural change. For example, Foreign Affairs, journal of the Council on Foreign Relations and the same organ that published Bundy’s “The End of Either/Or” more than half a century ago, recently published an article by Chris Murphy, U.S. senator from Connecticut, expressing the hope that
“maybe the country is at the dawn of a second civil rights movement that will prompt fundamental reforms to its systems of law enforcement, criminal justice, housing, and school finance. Could it also be that Americans’ ability to squarely confront their demons and use the tools of democracy to profoundly alter the status quo will relight the country’s torch in the eyes of the world?”
The Ford Foundation, building on McGeorge Bundy’s legacy of outreach to militant civil right organizations, pledged four years ago to provide “long term support” to the Movement for Black Lives, declaring
“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people. Now is the time to call for an end to state violence directed at communities of color. And now is the time to advocate for investment in public services—including but not limited to police reform—together with education, health, and employment in communities and for people that have historically had less opportunity and access to all those things.”
New America, a liberal elite think tank that has taken a special interest in counterinsurgency strategy, has for several years been promoting calls for police reform, as in a 2017 panel discussion titled “Breaking the Chokehold: A Radical Approach to Disrupting the Policing System.” In response to the recent Black-led uprisings in Minneapolis and other cities following George Floyd’s killing, New America published an article that defended the protesters’ destruction of property as “a direct challenge to a system built on the exploitation and oppression of Black lives.” (The article was written by Malcom Glenn, a New America fellow, who had made national news in 2007 as the first African American president of Harvard’s student newspaper in over half a century.)

How ruling-class anti-racism will be translated into specific policy initiatives in the coming months and years remains to be seen, and depends partly on how the grassroots movement against white supremacy continues to unfold. If the experiences of the late 1960s are a guide, we can expect such cooptive initiatives to have a few characteristics:
  • They will embrace the language of combating oppression in dramatic-sounding terms.
  • They will threaten some (especially local) entrenched white interests and centers of privilege without calling overall systems of power into question.
  • They will tend to divide the movement against white supremacy, by promoting or elevating some sections within communities of color, and by exacerbating tensions between radical and system-loyal forces.
  • They will be promoted in tandem with political repression, both overt and covert.
In sounding these warnings, I’m not arguing that calls for incremental reforms are inherently bad. Reforms of the existing system can be valuable and important, if they substantively improve—or save—people’s lives. In this context it’s helpful to remember Robert Allen’s words on the difference between reforms and reformism: 

“The general attack on reformism in this study is not meant to imply that there is no role for reforms in a revolutionary struggle. In a struggle to transform an oppressive society, it is indeed necessary to fight for certain reforms, but this requires that those who are oppressed are conscious (or made conscious) of how the reforms fit into an over-all strategy for social change. [F]requently reforms serve mainly to salvage and buttress a society which in its totality remains as exploitative as ever” (157 note 12).
All page number citations are from Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969).

1. By Office of Congressman Colin Allred, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
2. By Yoichi Okamoto, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.