May 9, 2021

Network Contagion Research Institute: helping the state fight political infection left and right

A new “anti-hate” think tank says anarcho-socialists are almost as dangerous as genocidal racists.

In the opening scene of Costa-Gavras’s classic film Z, about the lead-up to the 1967 military coup in Greece, the chief of police (referred to as the General) addresses a gathering of senior government officials on the “ideological disease” he sees threatening their nation. “It is caused by harmful germs and various parasites,” such as socialism, anarchism, beatniks, and pacifist tendencies. “Infection from ideological mildew” must be “fought preventively” by “the spraying of humans with appropriate mixtures”—indoctrination via schooling, military service, and leafleting the peasantry. In addition, the General declares, opponents of the left—who represent “the healthy parts of our society” or “antibodies”—must be used to “combat and eradicate all diseases.” As the film unfolds, we learn that the disease eradication he has in mind consists of physically breaking up leftist gatherings, beating up anti-war protesters, and murdering their leaders.

I’m repeatedly reminded of this scene when reading the work of the Network Contagion Research Institute, whose very name depicts harmful politics as ideological disease. The NCRI aims to “track and expose the epidemic of virtual deception, manipulation, and hate, as it spreads between social media communities and into the real world.” One of the institute’s “Contagion and Ideology Reports” characterizes disinformation and distrust as “a virus that knows no race, that consumes the poor and rich, that infects and kills people of any political persuasion.” Another report warns that “viral ideologies infect mainstream communities” and urges the use of “information vaccines” as protection. Costa-Gavras’s slightly fictionalized police chief would have been right at home with this discourse.

To be sure, the NCRI has given Costa-Gavras’s General a 21st century upgrade: The think tank doesn’t endorse non-state violence, and the “unhealthy” ideas it aims to stamp out emanate from the right as well as the left. But in other ways, the two are strikingly similar. Like the General, the NCRI is a mouthpiece for the state security apparatus and its commitment to defend the established order. Like the General, the NCRI uses the language of epidemiology to strip threatening ideas of both political content and historical context, reduce people who embrace these ideas to passive vessels, and give its own political project a false veneer of scientific objectivity.

NCRI maps the dissemination of
slurs and memes with charts similar
to this social network analysis.

Anti-hate politics meets big data

The Network Contagion Research Institute was founded in 2018 and is based at Rutgers University under the directorship of Princeton psychologist and neuroscientist Joel Finkelstein. The institute studies how so-called political extremism spreads and develops via social media. The NCRI hosts webinars, offers a college-level training program in “cyber social network threat detection and strategy,” and has published a series of reports on topics such as COVID-19 disinformation, anti-Asian and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, the Militia and Boogaloo movements, QAnon, and “militant anarcho-socialist networks.”

The NCRI uses a variety of research techniques, but its special sauce is large-scale quantitative analysis of slurs, memes, and code words. With data sets that consist in some cases of tens of millions of social media posts, institute staff and fellows track the frequency with which specific terms appear on various platforms over time. They correlate these patterns with real-world events, measure the spread of hateful ideas from fringe platforms such as 4chan to mainstream ones such as Twitter, and map associations between different frequently used terms to highlight changes in rhetoric and perhaps ideology. For example, the NCRI’s report on COVID disinformation used such data analysis to argue that in early 2021 conspiracist opposition to vaccines and public health restrictions was being subsumed into a larger, overarching conspiracy theory about a tyrannical New World Order government—and also that anti-vaccine protests tended to occur in counties where intimidation was used against Black Lives Matter protesters.

I’m not a data scientist, and I’m not going to comment on the NCRI’s quantitative methodologies. Yet despite the institute’s seeming technical sophistication, its underlying analytic framework is quite crude and weak. The NCRI uses the “hate” framework that has been promoted by the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and others. Kay Whitlock offers an incisive critique:

“In U.S. progressive politics the hate frame has four main assumptions: First, that hate is rooted purely in irrational, personal prejudice and fear and loathing of difference. In fact, it’s also rooted in ideologies and supremacy, in a historical and cultural context. Second, that hate is hate, and the specificities don’t matter. Third, that the politics of hate is about that crazy irrational feeling, which is caused by personal prejudice gone amok. In this view, hate is not about structures, not about power hierarchies, not about institutional practice. Finally, that hate is perpetrated by extremists, misfits, and loners who are violating agreed-upon standards of fairness, and that hate violence is unacceptable and abhorrent to respectable society.

“In fact, what is called ‘hate violence’—violence directed at vulnerable and marginalized groups—is not abhorrent to respectable society. On the contrary, respectable society has provided the models, policies, and practices that marginalize people of color, queers, disabled people, and in many respects, women. The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists, and that’s who we have to go after.”

Hate frame assumptions are integral to the NCRI approach. NCRI draws a neat division between hateful and non-hateful speech, with no concern for the variety of ideologies underlying such speech or the historical context in which it arises. In NCRI reports, for example, you’ll find lots of references to racist expression, but no discussion of the differences and relationships between genocidal white supremacism, Proud Boys-style “western chauvinism,” and Oath Keepers-style color-blind ideology—and certainly no discussion of how all of these are rooted in a system of racial oppression that has always been central to U.S. society.

As Whitlock argues elsewhere, the hate frame also treats violence against oppressed groups as a problem to be solved with more policing and longer prison terms—without addressing the ways that police and prisons are themselves active perpetrators of systemic violence against oppressed groups on a massive scale. This too, is reflected in the NCRI approach, which is largely geared toward bolstering law enforcement. The institute’s report on the Boogaloo meme, for example, urges law enforcement agencies to “develop large scale and data-driven approaches and central information-sharing capacity” to track and analyze Boogaloo-type threats—in other words, embrace the NCRI methodology as their own.

The NCRI’s use of the hate framework is particularly egregious because the institute applies it to the radical left as well as the far right. The NCRI’s report on “militant anarcho-socialist networks” repeatedly uses language that links and equates leftists with far rightists. For example, the report refers to anti-police slogans such as ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and FTP (Fuck the Police) as “hateful codewords and memes” —putting them in the same category as calls to gas the Jews. The report claims that leftists—like far rightists—demonize and dehumanize political opponents, promote “classic authoritarian narratives,” and advocate “violent insurgency.” A table summarizing their findings asserts that “Anarcho-Socialist extremists” have displayed all or nearly all the same characteristics as Jihadis and Boogaloo: expressing “apocalyptic beliefs,” “utopian legends/narratives,” and “martyr narratives”; using online propaganda and private or fringe internet forums; organizing armed militias; and carrying out “lone-wolf terror attacks.” The only one they’re unsure about is whether leftists have carried out “cell-like terror attacks.”

The equation of right-wing and left-wing violence is fundamentally dishonest for two reasons, as Kristian Williams has argued. First, rightists in the U.S. have carried out far more terrorist attacks than leftists, as the eminently non-leftist Center for Strategic and International Studies has documented. Second, in Williams’s words, whatever tactical or ethical disagreements we may have with leftist attacks, “there can be no equivalency between the violence of a slave revolt and the violence of a slave master, between the violence of anti-fascists and that of the Atomwaffen Division.” The NCRI report on anarcho-socialists doesn’t acknowledge any of that, but its authors do maintain a figleaf of deniability with a footnote cautioning that “This analysis does not suggest that violence from anarcho-socialist militants has yet become as widespread as an organized Jihadi group nor does it have the death toll or historical reach that right-leaning extremism has in the U.S. However, anarcho-socialist bloodshed has been historically substantial on other continents and Western countries.”

The same report also promotes the bogus claim, which has been made by both conservatives and some liberals, that the mass-based riots and violent anti-police activism that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020 were instigated by a few leftist agitators. The report asserts that small groups of activists such as the Portland Youth Liberation Front were able to “mobilize lawlessness and violence” through sophisticated use of online communication to call up a “network-enabled mob” in numerous cities simultaneously. In other words, a think tank that claims to be combating the spread of harmful conspiracy theories is itself replicating a classic conspiracist myth that has been used to demonize leftists for generations.

Toward a centrist anti-hate coalition

Although the NCRI is a relative newcomer to the extremist-monitoring field, its institutional credentials and impressive-sounding methodology have given it a prominent “expert” status for major media organs such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The NCRI describes itself as “a neutral and independent third party whose mission it is to track, expose, and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation, and hate across social media channels,” assuring us further that it has “no political agenda, profit motive, or university reporting obligations.” A more honest description—based on its list of staff and advisors—would be that NCRI represents a convergence of academia (mainly psychologists and artificial intelligence experts), big tech (notably Google’s director of research), and security agencies (with current or former people from the U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, New York City Police Department, and private firms).

In addition to Rutgers, the NCRI lists “affiliations” with three entities: the Anti-Defamation League, Open Society Foundations, and Charles Koch Foundation. The ADL is one of the most prominent watchdog groups monitoring the U.S. far right, but it’s no friend of the left. The organization has long misused the charge of antisemitism to attack Palestinians, Palestine solidarity activists, anti-racist activists, and others. In the 1990s, it was revealed that the ADL had spied on a wide range of progressive organizations for decades; as recently as 2017 it publicly urged the FBI to spy on antifa groups, a call it later retracted.

The combination of Open Society and Koch foundations is pivotal to the NCRI brand. Open Society (George Soros’s grant-giving network) figures in countless right-wing conspiracy theories while Koch is one of the most hated capitalist names on the left, so by listing the two together the NCRI declares that it transcends political divisions by bringing together staunch liberals and conservatives. Put slightly differently, the combination of Soros and Koch support evokes an attempt to foster a broad—but anti-Trump—coalition within the ruling class. (Contrary to what some leftists have claimed, the Koch network never supported Trump and rejected his positions on both immigration and trade.)

The NCRI’s approach dovetails with centrist efforts to woo hardline conservatives away from Trumpism, as witness the institute’s recruitment of former Republican Congressmember Denver Riggleman to its advisory team. In Congress Riggleman was a member of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, but he lost his 2020 re-election bid after officiating at a same-sex wedding. Last month the New York Times profiled Riggleman as a courageous opponent of conspiracy-mongering under the title “One Republican’s Lonely Fight Against a Flood of Disinformation.”

Complementing its recruitment of Riggleman, the NCRI has recruited former leftist Alexander Reid-Ross as a senior research fellow. He is the lead author on the NCRI’s COVID disinformation report and a contributing author on at least one other of the institute’s studies. Reid-Ross, who teaches geography at Portland State University and used to moderate the Earth First! Newswire, has had significant influence on many liberal and leftist antifascists with his 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep and numerous articles on related topics. Although he has raised important issues, such as collusion between sections of the left and fascists, his past work is a mixed bag; one 2017 review of Against the Fascist Creep rightly faulted Reid-Ross for using guilt by association, name dropping, and just plain bad writing. In any case, by signing on with NCRI he has repudiated the left, yet his background helps burnish the NCRI’s image as an inclusive home for anti-“hate” scholars of every persuasion.

Larger trends

The Network Contagion Research Institute’s rise reflects larger trends. One of these is the drive to apply big data analysis to the study of political propaganda and social media. There’s a growing body of academic articles based on such studies, most of which have been published in the past five years, and there are other outfits besides NCRI supporting comparable work, such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. In principle this approach could yield valuable insights, but its potential is radically compromised when it is based on an analytic framework that shields established systems of power and oppression from critique. Such political bias seems unlikely to change, given the technical and institutional infrastructure required to support big data analysis.

Another trend, in the wake of Trump’s downfall, is the drive by a resurgent centrist establishment to harness anti-bigotry and anti-fascism to its own ends. As Faramarz Farbod recently outlined, the resulting top-down “liberal/centrist anti-fascist discourse” poses a number of dangers: blaming Trump without explaining the conditions that made him popular, reproducing the myth that the United States is a democracy, ignoring the far right’s roots in U.S. society and the establishment’s own complicity in the rise of violent reactionary forces at home and abroad, and expanding the powers of the national security state. The NCRI is rooted firmly in this discourse.

The NCRI’s efforts to lump together far rightist and radical leftist politics into the same “hate” category embodies an important theme of centrist anti-fascism. We see a similar approach in a recent threat assessment report on “domestic violent extremism” by the U.S. director of national intelligence, which President Biden requested shortly after taking office. The DNI’s report divides “domestic violent extremists” into five categories: “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists,” “Animal Rights/Environmental Violent Extremists,” “Abortion-Related Violent Extremists,” “Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists” and all others. Kristian Williams comments:

“The most striking thing about this classification system...is its perverse refusal to divide between left and right, instead grouping opposing sides together under other categories. Right-wing militias, sovereign citizens and anarchists, for example, are all listed under ‘Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists.’ Racist and anti-racist violence is compressed into ‘Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists.’

“‘Abortion-Related Violent Extremists’ includes both those ‘in support of pro-life and pro-choice beliefs’—despite the fact that the FBI cannot point to any pro-choice violence that escalated above the level of online threats, while anti-abortion fanatics have murdered 11 people and attempted to kill 26 more since 1993.”

These categories don’t reflect intellectual sloppiness, but rather a deliberate distortion of reality to demonize leftists and protect the established order. It’s an analytic approach we need to expose and critique, along with the Network Contagion Research Institute’s pseudo-objective ideology and the state repression agenda it serves. 

Image credit:

A social network visualization, by brewbooks, 10 June 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Apr 18, 2021

Review of Failed Führers by Graham Macklin

Guest post by Spencer Sunshine

Graham Macklin, Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right (Routledge, 2020).
Review by Spencer Sunshine

Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers is a major new study of the British fascist movement, and will likely be the central reference point for scholars of that movement for the foreseeable future.

Before I review this text, however, readers should be warned that this is a tome. Weighing in at over 550 oversized pages and containing thousands of endnotes, it covers the careers of six British fascist leaders over a span of a hundred years. The second thing is that, full disclosure, Macklin is a friend. And not just over the internet—we once even met in person and had a curry and a couple beers. But long before we were acquainted, I developed a deep appreciation for his attention to the intricacies of the post-war fascist milieu’s ideological shifts. And he actually gets how these movements work, unlike many academics who, even when they have important things to say, are painfully tone-deaf.

Failed Führers is structured using “prosopography.” (After all, what’s a proper academic text without some words you have to look up.) In this case, it is a collective biography of six British fascist leaders of both the pre- and post-war periods. While this seems like an odd, if not downright antiquated, approach, it actually works quite well in helping Macklin cover a large amount of ground. The narrative arc doesn’t get turgid as it is frequently moving from one figure to the other. This structure also helps avoid a degeneration into a sectology illustrating how This Group begat That Group which splintered into Those Groups—although there is still plenty of that for the discerning sectologist!

Like many American scholars of the Far Right, my knowledge is exceedingly focused on domestic currents; it is super spotty even of other Anglophone countries. So while I only had scattered bits of knowledge about the British fascist tradition when I started the book, it was very useful in helping me tie them together.

The first figure featured in Failed Führers is Arnold Leese, who was active starting in the 1920s and became more and more focused on antisemitism as he pivoted his allegiances from Mussolini to Hitler. He continued his fascism career postwar, as did Oswald Mosley, the most famous of the six outside of Britain. The outline of Mosley’s prewar career is generally known, including his wartime detention, but I was fascinated to learn how extensive his work was postwar and how he was somehow rehabilitated into the mainstream, appearing, for example, on William Buckley’s Firing Line. The third figure, A.K. Chesterton (not to be confused with his relation G.K. Chesterton) also straddled the war. But he was best known for founding the League of Empire Loyalists—who, as the British empire crumbled, did what it said on the tin, albeit with a fascist core. The League wound up by fusing with other groups to become the National Front, the best known of the British fascist parties—at least to fans of 1970s punk rock and two-tone ska, as well as to watchers of the National-Anarchists. Fourth is Colin Jordan, who was mentored by Leese. Jordon was an openly neo-Nazi ideologue and organizer who was a cross between his contemporaries George Lincoln Rockwell and William Pierce. Fifth and sixth are John Tyndall and Nick Griffin; both of them overlapped in both the National Front and British National Party (BNP), which each led before being deposed (Tyndall from the BNP by Griffin, no less). Today, Griffin is the only living figure of the bunch.

I won’t summarize what the book says about the organizational and ideological history of these figures and their parties—after all, that’s why we all write these things down in books. But I will point out some of its more interesting angles, as well as the things that popped out to me personally.

Macklin shows in detail how attention to the ideological twists and turns of even small groups of radical activists is important in understanding these movements. Their ideas are often carried through in lean years by small sects, but these groups can expand very rapidly and take the national stage, as the National Front in the 1970s and BNP in the ’00s did. Macklin shows how internal debates among fascists over many decades produced a winning formula, even if it was quickly stolen by more mainstream conservatives who lacked their historical baggage.

Today, the polished product is on display across the globe by right-wing populist parties: bellicose nationalism, opposition to immigration, Islamophobia, conspiracy theories, and a socially conservative worldview—including of sexuality and national history. Right-wing nationalism trumps imperial racial visions, while anti-Zionism and open antisemitism are out.

"Britain's Hitler": Oswald Mosley
Macklin’s long view of this development is very illuminating. The central internal fascist debate he focuses on is how their racial vision plays out geographically. (Those who follow U.S. fascists will be familiar with the differences between the Pacific Northwest Territorial Imperative, Southern segregation, and pan-Aryanism. But historians of U.S. fascism almost always dismiss these as unimportant window dressing.) Failed Führers shows how divergent stances on this issue were crucial to the different fascist parties and activists, as well as to their successes and failures. Racial nationalism was popular (BNP, National Front), but at one point the National Front turned to a smaller ethno-regionalist approach. Internationally, there was imperial nostalgia (Chesterton), pan-Nordicism (Leese), pan-Europeanism (Mosley), and calls for a pan-Aryan Imperium (Jordan).

These differences were key to the splits between Mosley’s postwar “Europe-as-a-Nation” position versus Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists. It also pitted Jordan’s international and Tyndall’s national perspectives against each other. And Griffin had to overcome resistance in his party—and his own past views—to move the BNP from a British racial nationalism to something that looked, even if it was almost entirely on paper, like a right-wing populism (equivalent to what the Alt Right calls “civic nationalism”).

Just like fascists today, these positions also changed the groups’ relationship to the British state—which itself was morphing as its empire crumbled. Both Leese and Mosley were deeply unhappy when World War Two broke out, and both were interned but released before the war was over. Jordan, as a revolutionary neo-Nazi sect leader, espoused terrorism and constantly ran afoul of the law. Tyndall built up a public party that—despite containing illegal elements such as its skinhead base—championed positions that were ultimately mainstream enough to be absorbed by the Tory party. And Griffin’s ideological phases included being in the revolutionary, anti-system wing of the 1980s National Front, as well as later positioning the BNP as a legal, right-wing populist party.

Chesterton had the most pro-system approach, tho. He actually joined the British Army during the war and after it sought to stop decolonization. Of the six, his positions were the most like an ultra-conservatism as opposed to revolutionary fascism. This is quite different from neo-Nazis like James Mason and Tom Metzger, who for decades took pains to emphasize the difference between their own revolutionary National Socialism and what they called “right-wingism.”

A second, related question that Macklin shows is how a classic strategic question was dealt with: reform or revolution? Should fascists run for office? (It is far easier for radicals, of all stripes, to win office as a local “councillor” in Britain than it is to get elected to almost anything in the United States.) Alternately, should parties keep a National Socialist core while publicly portraying themselves as right-wing populists who are vehemently opposed to immigration? This latter tactic, particularly used by Griffin’s BNP, produced real returns.

In fact, many of these parties were wildly successful by U.S. standards, even when just looking at raw numbers and not accounting for the population disparity between the two countries. For example, Mosley’s party had 50,000 members in 1934, when fascism was still acceptable to the mainstream. But even postwar, the League of Empire Loyalists had 3,000 members in 1958. While Jordan’s National Socialist Movement was a classic tiny neo-Nazi sect, Tyndall’s National Front had up to 15,000 in 1979. Last, Griffin-era BNP, albeit a supposedly non-racialist organization by then, had 56 council seats in 2006. In 2009 it had over 12,000 members and elected two European Union MPs, including Griffin, and the next year received a half-million votes in the national elections.

Nick Griffin
Obviously, Macklin explores many other angles as well. One, common to the United States too, is the shifting role of antisemitism—including questions on the Far Right about whether Jews should be allowed in the parties, confined to Israel, or if Israel should be destroyed. The various attempts at fascist alliances with Arab, Muslim, and Islamist actors, including the infamous trip by National Front leaders to Libya in the 1980s, are highlighted. And the twist from pro-Islamist anti-Zionism to a pro-Israel Islamophobia, made in particular by Griffin, is clearly illustrated.

The relationship between the parties and subcultures gets some eyes on it. In particular is the National Front and the skinhead movement, although I learned that Mosley recruited Teddy Boys after their role in the 1958 Notting Hill riots. Antifascists also get their due in the story.

And Macklin has a special interest in the links between U.S. and British fascists. While WUNS (the World Union of National Socialists)—whose founders included Jordan and Rockwell—is well known, the extent of the international travel was eye-opening. Not just did the British fascists make links to U.S. segregationists, but the National States Rights Party (NSRP) had extended links to British fascists. While this is curious on the face, as the NSRP was a Klan-aligned group, it makes sense because they, like some of the British groups, had an obscured National Socialist core and a more populist exterior. Tyndall and Griffin’s U.S. tours have also received comparatively little attention.

Last, for me personally, I was happy to finally get a detailed account of how the Third Positionist tendency developed inside the National Front. This anti-capitalist, racial separatist, regionalist, and environmentalist trend was later exported to the United States and adopted by Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party.

The influence was copied more directly by Troy Southgate, a former National Front organizer who became the guru of the National-Anarchist Movement. (Macklin wrote a very important study of their predecessor group, “Co-opting the counter culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction.”) Southgate likes to present (or at least imply) that many of the ideas he promotes are his own—and claim that they symbolize his disconnection from the fascist movement. But almost all of his positions are derived from his previous party’s Political Soldier tendency. These range from regionalism to the praise of racial “villages” to Distributionism to his retroactive opposition to colonialism (for making global connections which ultimately made Britain less white). Fair warning, though, that I found the National Front twists and splits so complicated that I will need to read that section at least a couple more times before getting it all straight in my head.

In terms of its lessons for today’s activists who are organizing against the Far Right, Failed Führers does a good job outlining the different approaches that fascists have used. Familiarity with this should make it easier to see which of a limited set of approaches are available to fascists. The book also shows why small groups and splinter factions shouldn’t be ignored, as they have the possibilities to fuse into larger, more powerful organizations or expand rapidly in popularity. And just as the fascists organize transnationally, so should antifascists. We have seen how the U.S. Alt Right was influenced heavily by European trends, like Identitarianism, and have worked closely with their counterparts in Canada and elsewhere. The opposite should also be true.

I’ll stick a couple obligatory criticisms here at the end. Even though as an American I like to think of myself as familiar with British political dialogues, in number of places I had to look up terms. For example, I learned that a “ginger-group” is a faction that tries to influence a larger organization that it is part of. And in a number of places, the time of events were not clear and I had a hard time figuring out what year in the story I was.

Failed Führers was a good read that, for me, telescoped my understanding of the British fascist movement through the turn of the century, putting together a number of scattered puzzle pieces. Macklin is a nice stylist, but it is still a long and detailed history that requires a commitment to finish. But I think you will find it worth the investment.

Spencer Sunshine (www.spencersunshine.com) has researched, written about, and counter-organized against the U.S. Far Right for over fifteen years.

Images: 

Oswald Mosley on the cover of Time, 1931. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nick Griffin MEP speaks at a British National Party press conference in Manchester, 10 June 2009. Photo by BritishNationalism, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mar 21, 2021

Behind the Capitol Storming: Breaking Down the New Far Right (Part 1)

Signs: "Stop the 2020 Steal", "Off With Their Heads"; US Capitol in background
In this interview, Three Way Fight contributors Matthew Lyons and Xloi discuss the far right forces involved in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The interview was broadcast on Out-FM on WBAI radio on February 9, 2021. The interviewer was Bob Lederer. The original interview in both audio and video formats can be found here. Part 2 of the interview, which was broadcast on February 16, has not yet been transcribed but can be found here.

= = = = = = = =

John Riley: Welcome to Out-FM, New York City's progressive LGBTQI news, culture, and activist hour on WBAI, New York. I'm John Riley, tonight's host. For most of the rest of the hour, we'll be hearing Bob Lederer’s in-depth interview with researchers and writers who study the far right, Matthew Lyons and a colleague by the name of Xloi, on the insurrectionary right that took over the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Well, that action is over. Who were the forces that were there? And where will this right-wing movement that launched it go in the next year? Is this the same old group of far right activists or is there something new about the groups and their approach? We'll start with a clip from a right-wing cinema verité documentary called “The Siege on the United States Capitol” by the YouTube group Insurgence USA that produced it. It includes sounds from the shooting of a right-wing insurgent that climbed through the broken window of the Liberty Lobby that had been under siege by these insurgents for quite some time. The video has since been taken down.

Bob Lederer: And that was sound gathered during the assault on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 of this year. And you hear the crowd smashing the building’s windows and the police shooting a right-wing rioter, and this is an excerpt from a recording by the right-wing group Insurgence USA. The following interview has been co-produced by John Riley and myself, Bob Lederer. We’re members of the Out-FM collective at WBAI.

The violent storming of the Capitol building on January 6 by hundreds or perhaps thousands, which aimed to stop the certification of Joe Biden's election and left five people dead and scores injured, dramatically highlighted the growing strength of the far right. It's a movement that's been steadily building for decades. On this program, we're going to examine the politics, organizing strategy, and increasing violence of that sector. Analysis of the diversity of the movement reveals a frightening array of groups that shatter the mold of far right groups from even ten years ago. The January 6 action demonstrates an emboldened, self-consciously insurgent right-wing movement that brought together many sectors of the far right along with fervent Trump supporters and not organized into the far right, at least not yet. This included some splinters of the old white supremacist and neonazi right. But as we will learn in this interview, growing sectors of the far right have moved away from open blatant white supremacy as a central tenet of their organizing, even as they fight for a racist and, in many cases, Christian fundamentalist state. In fact, some of these far right groups have begun engaging in multiracial organizing, which is another new and disturbing development. Central to the politics of many of these groups, particularly the Christian theocratic ones, is an anti-woman and anti-queer ideology that should be particularly alarming to women, LGBTQ people, and our allies.

A longtime researcher of far right organizing, Spencer Sunshine, wrote on Truthout.org just days before the Capitol attack, “2020 was a record year for far right violence in the US.” Sunshine cites the rise of the Boogaloo movement which he calls “a new grouping of younger activists with militia-style politics,” and followers of QAnon, who as Sunshine puts it, “believe Trump is always about to arrest a cabal of liberal, deep state, satanic pedophiles.” He goes on, “aggressive street demonstrations led by the Proud Boys reached a fever pitch, inspired by comments from Donald Trump, and renewed opposition to the revived Black Lives Matter movement.” And he adds, “the Proud Boys became the undisputed far right street force of the year, and were even mentioned in the presidential debate, with Trump telling them to “stand back and stand by.”

In Portland, Oregon, where Black Lives Matter demonstrations had gone on for over 200 days, the Proud Boys held a series of violent demonstrations. There were a large number of murders and car attacks at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The most infamous of these were the murder of two demonstrators by a militia member in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Sunshine also notes the right wing-led and sometimes menacing demonstrations last year against the COVID-19 shutdown in various states, the most aggressive of which was last April when armed protesters pushed their way into the Michigan legislature. Several of these right-wingers were later charged with plotting to kidnap and even execute elected officials there.

To dissect the role of the far right in the capital assault and its implications for politics in the coming period, we're joined by two guests who have closely followed these groups for years, and have developed expert analyses of them in an effort to aid the work of left movements that are fighting against them and fighting for a new society. And so I want to welcome Matthew Lyons. He's been writing about right-wing politics for over 25 years. He's the author of the book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, that came out three years ago. And he's the co-author with Chip Berlet of the book Right-Wing Populism in America that came out in 2000. And he's also a regular contributor to the radical anti-fascist blog Three Way Fight. And Matthew is a white Jewish cis heterosexual man who's based in Pennsylvania. And our other guest is Xloi, who does investigative reporting and analysis on the far right and related issues. She's also a contributor to the Three Way Fight blog. Xloi is a white Jewish cis queer woman based in California. And thank you so much for joining us, Matthew and Xloi here on Out-FM.

Matthew Lyons: Thank you, Bob. Very happy to be here with you.

Xloi: Thanks for having us.

Bob: Okay. Let's start with some questions about the differing ideologies within the far right. Matthew, shortly after the assault on the Capitol, you published an essay that updated your 2018 book Insurgent Supremacists -- and that book was [completed] just after the Charlottesville white supremacist riot -- you wrote, “The far right hates the ruling class. It believes these elites are using multiculturalism, mass immigration and globalization to weaken and destroy white Christian America.” Matthew Lyons, can you define how you see the far right? And why you argue that the appropriate label is “far right,” rather than “extreme right” or “fascist right”?

Matthew: Sure. The kind of ideological diversity that you mentioned in your introduction is part of the reason why I take kind of a different approach to defining the far right. People tend to define the far right in terms of a particular ideology. My definition has two parts. I argue that when we're talking about the far right in the United States, and in this historical period, we're talking about political forces that, first of all, regard social inequality as either natural or inevitable or desirable. And also, that these forces reject the legitimacy of the existing political system.

I define the far right in this way to reflect a particular kind of historical development. If we're talking about white supremacist forces -- which are a major part of the far right, although not the whole thing -- fifty years ago, these were forces that embraced the kind of Jim Crow segregationism that had been integral to U.S. society for generations, along with other forms of explicit racist oppression and discrimination. Following the changes that took place in and around the 1960s, some organized white supremacists came to believe that they could no longer achieve their racial goals within the existing political framework. And therefore, they needed to either break away from the United States or overthrow the U.S. government. And there were similar kinds of political shifts within other right-wing forces, particularly right-wing Christian groups.

To tie it back in with the quote that you cited earlier about the far right attitude towards the ruling class, this notion of the existing political system being illegitimate is very much tied in with the sense that the political elites and economic and cultural elites have betrayed them. That the people who used to be defenders of traditional social hierarchies and systems of oppression, they're no longer doing that job in the way that the far right forces want them to do. As far as the use of the term “far right” versus “extreme right” or “fascist right,” extreme right is a term that often is used in a way that tends to equate the left and the right extremes -- the notion of extremism as a generic political phenomenon that is a danger to the moderate or rational center. And I very much reject the notion that we can equate the “extreme left” and “extreme right.” So that's why I tend to steer away from that particular term.

As for “fascist right,” I would say that the fascist right is a major part of the far right, as I've defined it. But there are some far right forces that I would not consider fully fascist, although they certainly have important elements of fascist politics. We may want to get into more of that later. But just in brief, to me, fascism implies not just right-wing authoritarianism, but a more systematic effort to transform society, the culture, all kinds of different institutions to conform to an overarching ideology. You can certainly find examples of that within the U.S. far right. But there are also far rightists who don't necessarily have that notion of an overall transformation of society.

Bob: I want to turn to our other guest, Xloi, and look at the comment that Matthew made in his essay and explained just now that the far right hates the ruling class. Now, Xloi, in an essay you published on January 13 of this year, you and B. Sandor write the following: “We cannot assume that the movement that stormed the Capitol on January 6 was at large anti-state or solely an insurgent movement from below, while elements of the movement were insurgent. This movement was egged on by Trump and other key people in his administration in Congress.” So Xloi, tell us how you see the interplay between these two forces, the anti-state and elements of the state, and what this might mean for the far right in the months ahead.

Xloi: That's such an interesting question. Well, one thing I think we need to bring into context here is that there are elements of the far right, that are anti-state, and even anti-capitalist, and even self consciously revolutionary. What B. Sandor and I were arguing is that the groups of people that came together to storm the Capitol that day, were really actually more of a mixed bag. Some of them were far right and have been organized since the Obama administration and definitely insurrectionary but others were really recently politicized under Trump, and definitely since Stop the Steal. And it was pretty evident at the Capitol that day that there was no actually coherent leadership. We both would argue, there was no coherent leadership that was actually attempting to fully overthrow the state, per se, or institute a new form of governance. I don't think they were even close to that organized. There are several significant things about this. The first is that many of them have been loyal to Trump. And while they are shifting, from regime-loyal to kind of questioning the regime or even being against the regime, particularly in terms of how they are responding to the police that day, I think it's significant that some of the movement are so loyal to Trump that we can't expect for them to continue to be part of the insurgent or revolutionary right. I think that what we saw specifically that day, was that some of the terrain was already shifting.

So for example, this shift was most prominent in how people were responding to the police. Many of the people who have been involved in Stop the Steal and even in the larger MAGA tent more broadly, have also been a part of Blue Lives Matter. Very pro-police. You started to see some of that shifting, even in the lead up to the Capitol takeover. And you really saw some of that consciousness shift, even that day where you had some demonstrators talking to the police, being close with them, being like, “We're on your side. Come on, get out of the way now.” But you also saw other demonstrators yelling at the police and saying, “Now, not only do black people hate you, white people hate you too,” and telling the police to get out of the way. So I think it's important to understand that there's a lot of shifts happening right now.

Bob: And if I could add, also physically attacking police.

Xloi: Right. And physically attacking the police. Yeah.

Bob: I'm sorry, continue.

Xloi: Oh, just that there's definitely shifts happening. But I think that versus a kind of self-conscious, revolutionary far right that is anti-state, this movement that stormed the Capitol that day is more mixed. There are a lot of possibilities of where elements of it can go from here. I'm imagining a lot of splits within that movement between anti-state and reformist elements after what happened at the Capitol.

Bob: Well, picking up on this theme, I want to quote a very significant section of that same essay that I cited earlier, written by our guest Matthew Lyons, which was just published last month in January, in which he wrote, “In persuading millions of his followers to reject the validity of the voting process, Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we've seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction. A huge chunk of the U.S. population has suddenly shifted, at least temporarily, from system-loyal politics to oppositional politics. The size of the U.S. far right increased by an order of magnitude.” I think this analysis and the one that Xloi just gave us is really important, and very unlike what we've been hearing from most of the corporate media, and even from a lot of the left media. So Matthew, what would you say is your evidence for this huge shift in the population? And what are its implications, both for mainstream politics and for the work that the left needs to engage in to build popular struggles?

Matthew: Very good question. I think that polls that were taken last month of people in the voting population showed that something upwards of 70% of Republican voters regarded the presidential election as fraudulent. And more than 40% of independents also felt this way. And in a political system that is founded on elections, is founded on the voting process, if you are saying that the election of the president is fraudulent is, is illegitimate, then you are, at least at this time, saying that the government is illegitimate, that the people who are in power should not be in power, that they have no right to be there. Going back to what I said earlier about the way that I defined the far right, you could also call it the oppositional right. It's this divide between those who believe that they can achieve their goals within the existing political framework, and those who believe that that isn't possible, that that's not an effective framework for what they want to do. And these may be people who share the same or similar goals. But they have very different notions of how they can be brought about.

It's a different side of the situation, a different way to put the emphasis than where Xloi was putting the emphasis a little while ago. I think Xloi is quite right to emphasize the complexity and the uncertainty and the instability of the situation. But another side of that is, this is a major shift. I mean, if we're talking upwards of 70% of Republicans and a large chunk of independents, we're talking certainly tens of millions of people. And if even a fraction of those people hold on to that kind of political stance, that's a huge change. That has implications in a lot of different ways. You asked about what it means for mainstream politics and people on the left. Well, for one thing it means a major crisis in the Republican Party. And we've seen that in terms of the kind of difficulties and tensions and struggles that have been going on within the Republican Party over how do they deal with Trump? How do they deal with this Stop the Steal politics? How do they deal with the impeachment? All these things. And I think it's not clear exactly how that's all gonna play out. But there are certainly tensions between those within more of the base of the party, who are pulling in a direction that is at least challenging the legitimacy of the system, versus more of an establishment wing of the party that is trying to rein them in, but also not wanting to do so too blatantly, because they don't want to alienate their base.

As far as what it means for the work of the left, it's a very difficult situation. It's not fundamentally new but it highlights and intensifies the fact that we face a double-edged challenge. On the one hand, we face the growing and increasingly militant forces of the far right, that have some really scary goals of what they want to do with society. And those are forces that pose an immediate danger to people in many communities as well as longer-term threats of various kinds. And so, we need to look at how do we combat those forces, and to what extent do we need to enter into coalitions to combat them. At the same time, there is the continuing reality that we live in a society that is deeply oppressive, that is deeply dehumanizing and alienating and disempowering for the vast majority of people to varying degrees. And it would be dangerous and self-defeating for leftists to simply ally with the center and the forces of the state and the forces of the current administration against the insurgent far right.

Bob: This is Bob Lederer, and I'm speaking with authors Matthew Lyons and Xloi on an analysis of the far right in the wake of the January 6 assaults on the Capitol and you're listening to Out-FM on WBAI.

Now I'd like to focus on the differences between far right groups that have been created or activated since Trump's election in 2016 and that joined the Capitol assault in January. Matthew in a recent essay, you write, “Explicit calls for all people of color, and usually all Jews, to be subordinated, excluded or killed are less common among U.S. far rightists than various forms of cultural racism, in which limited numbers of people of color are accepted as long as they conform to Eurocentric rules and don't challenge underlying disparities of power.” So let me ask both you, Matthew, and Xloi to talk more about the ideological differences within the far right concerning race, including the talk that's been increasing in recent months by groups like the Oath Keepers about their so called color-blindness. So what are the implications of this more undercover racism for the right’s recruitment of different sectors of white people, and also of small but growing numbers of people of color? So Xloi, you want to go first?

Xloi: Yeah, I think starting with the Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers were actually founded during the Obama administration. For the most part, they have never explicitly identified as a white supremacist or white nationalist organization. And usually when people accuse them of doing so they will say that's not how they see themselves. The Oath Keepers, along with a number of other organizations in the far right, like Patriot Prayer, and even Proud Boys, have done exactly what Matthew Lyons mentioned in his article, which is accepting some number of people of color in their ranks, while largely promoting white supremacist ideologies and actions. So they're pretty vehemently anti-immigrant. There's a really strong thread of anti-Muslim sentiment. They're oftentimes very anti-LGBTQ and have a strong sense that the identity of this country is Christian. They tend to uphold this idea of being a constitutionalist, which is a framework also used by white supremacists in the South who fought against voting rights for formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction.

So I think that there's both the historical legacy that a group like the Oath Keepers comes from, and also leans on in terms of how they identify themselves. The fact that there is a group of armed militia, many of whom have come out of the military and police forces as well, that truly saw Obama as a socialist, and rallied around trying to create a more local or sovereign society, because they thought Obama represented a federal government that was no longer representing them, you know, has such racial undertones. I think we need to tear apart a couple of things here, which is, it is important how groups see and define themselves. And then also, it's important for those who are fighting for a free society to also understand historically what groups like the Oath Keepers are fighting for. Because, if we're only looking at identity, for example, and we see a group like the Proud Boys have a leader who's a person of color, it can get a little bit confusing. So, Matthew, what do you think?

Matthew: I would just add a couple of things. One is just that the limited multiracial membership that Xloi described in terms of groups such as the Proud Boys is something that you also see on a larger scale within sectors of the Christian right, such as the New Apostolic Reformation movement, which is a very large Christian theocratic movement that has literally millions of followers. This is actually an international movement with very significant membership in Asia and Africa and Latin America, as well as in North America. And within North America, it includes significant membership by people of color, and similarly reflects or embodies this kind of colorblind ideology as opposed to an explicit white supremacist ideology.

The other thing I just want to add is that it would be a mistake to interpret this situation as simply a matter of hypocrisy, or that a group such as the Oath Keepers is just hiding their true views. I think they're sincere when they claim to be colorblind. There's an inherent kind of self-delusion in the whole ideology of colorblindness, but I don't think that they're lying when they say that this is what they believe. I think that it's a matter of there being different kinds of racist ideologies that are at work in the far right, as there are in U.S. society. And the fact that a significant portion of the far right embraces and promotes color-blind ideology reflects the fact that it's a form of racial ideology that is widely accepted among white people in the United States, in a way that explicit white supremacism is not. That gives them a kind of entrée to a much wider sector of the population than they would have if they were simply espousing a kind of traditional Klan-style or Nazi-style racism.

Bob: This is Bob Lederer, and I'm speaking with authors Matthew Lyons and Xloi on an analysis of the far right in the wake of the January 6, assault on the US Capitol. And you're listening to Out-FM on WBAI. Now, I want to ask you about the fact that there are other differences among far right groups, not only around the question of race, but also the questions of gender and sexuality. For instance, Matthew Lyons, one of our guests, writes, “There's a branch of the Christian right that wants to create a full-blown theocracy. And that vision centers not only on religion, but also on patriarchy, heterosexism, and enforced gender roles.” Now, many liberals and leftists don't see the Christian right as part of the far right, and generally not as part of the violent sector of the right. So let me ask you, Xloi, to talk about the interaction between these two sectors of the right and how the Christian right has targeted women and LGBTQ people, and in recent months has particularly escalated their attack on transgender rights.

Xloi: I think it's important to understand that there's a long history that goes back several decades of the more insurgent elements of the Christian right forming a close alliance with the racist right. And this goes back to a meeting that happened that led to the formation of the 1990s militia movement. Essentially, a form of the Christian right that goes by Christian Reconstructionism was really interested in trying to bring about a theocracy. They were interested in forming small models that would be erecting Christian theocracy at the local level. And they saw an alliance in the racist right to go about doing that. And if you fast forward until today, some of these sectors that seem like they're very separate -- militia groups like the Oath Keepers, for example, and others who are specifically fighting against abortion rights or against LGBTQ rights -- seem separate but if you do a bit of a deeper dive, you can actually see that there's many overlaps between these groups.

So for example, at some point, I started looking more deeply into a constellation of groups that understand themselves as abortion abolitionists. They've been on the fringe movement of the Christian right for quite a long time. They work with leaders that justified violence against abortion providers in the 90s. And if you look a bit deeper, you see that actually a number of the groups that were behind violent anti-abortion acts were actually literally a part of the 1990s militia movements. And today you see something very similar, which is that you have groups like the Oath Keepers, or even their contingency within law enforcement, which is called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Many of them are not just fighting for a white nation, they're actually fighting to maintain a Christian nation. They see that rights for women's reproductive health or rights for people to express their sexuality and gender are signs that the state has become secular, and abominations. Some of them are trying to fight by any means necessary to make sure that that doesn't happen.

Bob: In the same vein, many sectors of the far right, and our guest Xloi has just been referring to some examples, but I would cite in addition Proud Boys and QAnon, have made misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia important parts of their ideology and their targeting of oppressed people. So, Xloi, can you talk about these groups use this kind of attack to attract more supporters and to advance their violent agenda, and in particular the example of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who was recently elected to the U.S. House, who has openly embraced QAnon, and just had her wrists slapped by the House Democrats, who tossed her off the committee she sits on? How do you see these attacks as reinforcing the racist, anti-Jewish, and anti-woman attacks of these same movements? And also what are the key differences among the different far right groups on these questions of gender and sexuality?

Xloi: For someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, she really rose to fame in Georgia partially through her bold far right, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant stances. She herself identifies as Christian. Her talking points specifically reference the Christian right and also the Patriot movement. Early on, in one of her twitter feeds, for example, she’s talking about how the drag queens in the area are having a “drag queen reading group,” and how the reading group is a way that they’re trying to advance their neo-marxist agenda that’s, according to her, destroying the very fabric of the United States. And you can see how that type of quote goes viral and is liked by so many different people in her midst. Now that she has actually made it into Congress, she is already sponsoring a bill that would make it so that young trans and gender-queer athletes can’t compete in women’s sports in schools. It’s important to note how it’s both something that’s a central part of her politics but also something that I think actually allows her to speak to her base.

And I just want to say one thing, which is that if you do some kind of deeper reading of how they view the world, it’s a kind of conspiracy theory where neo-marxists, Black people, Islamo-fascists, queer people are all trying to come together and destroy the United States as we know it, and that she and these Patriot movement groups are the defenders of the true United States. It’s a kind of conspiracy theory that is obviously incredibly dangerous and leads to groups like Proud Boys and others actually violently harrassing and attacking trans and queer people, but it’s something that goes way back to these kind of Christian nationalist ideas that she panders to.

Bob: Okay, and the final question for this part of our discussion is that both of you have written about your very serious concern as to the political response to the assault on the Capitol from the establishment politicians. President Biden has said he’ll put forward a bill against domestic terrorism. Other centrists and even liberals are saying that we need legislation to increase police presence at protests, to adopt further measures to criminalize dissent. So Xloi wrote in a recent essay along with B. Sandor, “What is this political amnesia we have? Within a moment, the momentum and political consciousness gained after years of anti-police struggles that culminated in the mass movements against the murder of George Floyd seemingly went in reverse.” So as we close out this part, let me have you, Xloi, start and then Matthew talk about what are the risks of this type of legislation and this sort of consensus that this is of course needed to contain the dangerous right wing, and that even liberals and some leftists are getting on board that train.

Xloi: Yeah, I think that the liberal establishment, including the Democratic Party, would really want people, including progressives and radicals, to see them as our savior against the far right and to put our hope in their ability to build out more surveillance, more police responses to the far right as the ultimate enemy. And I think it’s important right now probably more than ever to have a three way fight analysis, where we understand that the multiracial neoliberalism that the Democratic Party represents right now is not the only way forward against the insurgent, violent far right, that indeed we need to actually have a liberatory alternative to both, and really believe that there is a possibility, building on the momentum of what happened over this summer, to chart a course that is actually about the emancipation and freedom of all people.

Bob: And I’ll give the last word to Matthew Lyons.

Matthew: Well, that was such a great word to end on, but I will just note that there’s a long history of antifascism being misused to bolster state repression, most blatantly during World War II, when it was used as a rationale for the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans as well as a number of other repressive measures. And in more recent decades, for example following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by neonazis, the Clinton administration used it as a rationale to push through repressive legislation that represented serious attacks on civil liberties and made it more difficult for people on death row to appeal their convictions. This is scary stuff. And so as Xloi said it’s important for us to chart an independent course for a liberatory political path that rejects state repression as a way to combat the far right. 

Photo credit: By Tyler Merbler, 6 January 2021 (CC-BY-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Feb 17, 2021

Theater to Imagine Futures

Theater to Imagine Futures: A Bright Room Called Day and the 2020 Election

Guest post by Taiga Christie

Tony Kushner’s play A Bright Room Called Day is about a group of five friends—artists and activists navigating Germany’s descent into fascism from 1932-1933. It follows Agnes, the least politically informed of the group, and the conversations among her friends in her apartment over the two years. While Agnes begins as a sympathetic character, her paralysis in the face of the Nazis’ rise to power complicates our feelings about her over the course of the play. During the second act, she watches as her friends and comrades flee Germany one by one to avoid persecution. Eventually she finds herself alone, still prey to the same inertia that bars her from meaningful action throughout the story.

Logo with text: "On the eve of the election Faultline presents a reading of Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day, a story of artists and activists surviving the rise of the Third Reich"
On October 30, 2020, my theater ensemble embarked on our first venture into virtual theater by staging a zoom reading of Bright Room. Faultline is usually about care work, performing in small, found spaces, mixing performers in with audiences, and intentionally sharing physical and emotional space. Our low-tech plays use salvaged materials to address themes of disaster, health justice, and leftist politics. In our work, we strive to help ourselves and our audiences find utopia in dystopia.

We had performed Bright Room once before, just days ahead of the 2016 election. We had used a small rehearsal studio over a converted warehouse in Portland, Oregon. Its brick walls, high windows and small, crowded feel made it fitting for a play that takes place entirely inside a single Berlin apartment. At the time, we were an ensemble of predominantly white artists in a liberal and relatively homogenous city. We saw this play as a cautionary tale. But most of us expected Trump to lose.

Instead, we all experienced the nightmare of the last four years. Kushner’s play—set in Nazi Germany, but written during the early years of the AIDS epidemic—has become a mirror to many aspects of our lives and our work. And so in anticipation of the 2020 election, we decided to revisit the play in order to learn from these brilliantly crafted, flawed characters and the ways they succeed and fail.

Virtual theater is not our normal. But what about 2020 was normal? The covid-19 pandemic forced us apart, made theater impossible. The coming election demanded we come together, made theater necessary. Our imperfect solution was an online performance, each actor alone in their home, imagining an audience, who would in turn imagine a shared stage.

The Reagan era and start of the AIDS crisis revealed one moment where swings to the right in the United States meant that we had lessons to learn from the history of Nazi Germany. The Trump administration combined with the covid-19 pandemic was another. There was something very fitting about performing a play during covid that takes place entirely within the walls of a single apartment. Like these characters, we’ve been living in isolation. Hannah Arendt, who is referenced in the play, argued that totalitarianism is driven in part by enforced loneliness. 

“Bertolt Brecht argued that catharsis is the enemy of political performance… Discomfort—the very lack of closure—is necessary to motivate action.”

Theater has a long history as a tool for liberation, but also for suppression. In some eras it’s been an art form of the elite, in others of the revolution. Theater of the Oppressed, queer theater, theater for health and development have all contributed to revolutionary movements. At its best, theater is a tool for showing that whose story is told is an inherently political question. But it doesn’t feel like enough, in this moment, to put on plays. Bertolt Brecht argued that catharsis is the enemy of political performance: when an audience is allowed to feel closure, any momentum to create change outside of the theater is lost. Discomfort—the very lack of closure—is necessary to motivate action.

Even Bright Room flirts with catharsis, giving Agnes some limited redemption at the end, when she shelters a fleeing communist. But I’d argue that the final scene—and its repeated refrain of “Now, before the sky and the ground slam shut, the borders are full of holes” (93)—is an antidote to the closure Brecht critiques. It urges its audiences to act. This is what brings me back to this play again and again over the years. (All pages references are to Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day [Broadway Play Publishing Inc., June 2015].)

Even Tony Kushner, in an updated version of Bright Room performed by The Public Theater in late 2019, transformed the story into one that is about Agnes’s personal survival, rather than the urgency of fighting the rising fascist movement. Watching this version a year ago, just before the pandemic began, I was horrified at how a story that speaks to me about collective responsibility had been twisted into a fixation on whether one relatively selfish character is able to save herself. If even the playwright can read this individualism into the play, how do we use theater as a tool for collective action? When is art able to change not just our emotional sense of responsibility, but our capacity to act?

Silhouette of guard towers, with cracks running across the image

Faultline’s partial answer to this question was to follow each act of Bright Room with a discussion with activists and scholars of contemporary fascist movements. In asking these panelists to discuss the play and the current political moment, we hoped to tie the emotions raised by the play to concrete thought and action. Our panelists—Robert Evans, Laura Jedeed, Kristian Williams, Shane Burley and others, facilitated by Katrina Enyeart—were chosen for their study of historical and contemporary fascist movements, their knowledge of white supremacy in the United States, and their ability to point out lessons from the play that are relevant today. They provided brilliant insight into the way characters in the play mirror our experiences today. Central to the discussion was the question of how these movements create appeal and recruit supporters. As Laura Jedeed said in discussion, “Fascism is a terrible solution to very real problems.”

If the play’s uneasy juggling of the audience’s sympathy and disgust has anything to teach us, I think it is that fascist movements grow in moments when basic human needs—from health to housing to community to social support—are broadly unmet. There are no Nazi characters in this play, not because they don’t exist, but because they aren’t the ones who need our attention. The people worth focusing on are the ones like Agnes, who react to their terror and the vast gaps of their unmet needs by waffling between feeble activism and silence. How do we reach each other when we fall into these patterns? How do we build counter-recruitment movements that prevent these characters from being pulled in by the right?

“Fascism is a terrible solution to very real problems.”

Another point of discussion, made by Robert Evans and echoed by others, was that fascism is a movement fixated on tearing down the current order to recover a mythologized past. It possesses no actual vision for the future, but instead relies, as Evans put it, on an “aesthetic of collapse.” We see this in fascist politics, but also in their art. The Futurist plays created during Mussolini’s regime display a fascination with machines, destruction of the current order, and a collapse of time to a state where the future is irrelevant.

Bright Room is also full of collapse—it is a brutally painted portrait of a movement, country, and generation collapsing under the weight of the Nazi regime. But in spite of this context, it manages to map a road to the future in the character of Annabella Gotchling. Gotchling is a working-class painter and activist who steadfastly refuses to give up her dedication to the antifascist movement. Her dialogue vacillates between jaded comments that “people are pigs” (27) and frustration with her friends’ wallowing in “this elegant despair” (39). But it is Gotchling, in the nightmare of 1933, who shows us the strongest vision of a possible future:

Pick any era in history, Agnes.
What is really beautiful about that era?
The way the rich lived?
No.
The way the poor lived?
No.
The dreams of the Left
are always beautiful.
The imagining of a better world,
the damnation of the present one.
This faith,
this luminescent anger,
these alone
are worthy of being called human.
These are the Beautiful
that an age produces.
As an artist I am struck to the heart
by these dreams. These visions.
We progress. But at great cost.
How can anyone stand to live
without understanding that much? (65-66)

Gotchling shows us the major difference that, at our best moments, separates the left from fascism. Even at a time when fascists and leftists are bent on tearing down the same state systems, the left must be motivated by visions of the future, in order to combat fascists’ fascination with the past. Like many characters in the play, today’s left often loses sight of the need to build towards a vision. But articulating a future is vital in building viable alternatives to fascism.

Augusto Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed movement, writes that theater is useless if you know the answer to a problem: if you know the answer, go enact it. Theater, he writes, is a tool for exploring problems you don’t yet know how to face. At its best, theater is a “rehearsal for life,” a chance to imagine the possible futures we could bring about, and what it takes to get there.

In a theater, or whatever donated space we find, Faultline can stage any vision of reality we choose—from post-earthquake Portland to 1930s Berlin. In doing so, we ask our audiences to try on this vision for themselves. Who would you be in this story? How would you respond? What would these circumstances bring out in you, and what does that show us about the systemic oppression at play? What future do we want, and what would it take to build it?

Towards the end of Bright Room, Gotchling persuades a reluctant Agnes to shelter a fugitive communist. In her desperation, Gotchling offers Agnes a deal:

If you say no to this, Agnes, you’re dead to me. And we both need desperately to keep at least some part of you alive. Say yes, and I promise to carry you with me, the part of you that’s dying now. I can do that, I’m stronger than you. Say yes, and I will take your heart and fold it up in mine, and protect it with my life. And someday I may be able to bring it back to you (87).

This is the left I identify with—the one that acknowledges the humanity, pain, and fear in the struggle for liberation. The one that creates a movement not out of fascination with decay, but out of small visions of connection and care that guide us through horror. Our ensemble of artists and health workers were drawn to Bright Room because, at its core, it is a play about building networks of care in the face of fascism. Choosing a vision of the future over a commitment to collapse. And pointing one another, even as the sky and the ground slam shut, to the places where the borders are full of holes.

Taiga Christie is a political theater director, street medic, rural health worker and founding member of Faultline Ensemble.

Image credits

Both image designs by Katrina Enyeart.

Feb 5, 2021

Review of "The Trouble With National Action" by Mark Hayes

Mark Hayes, The Trouble With National Action
London: Freedom Press, 2019
100 pp., £5.00, ISBN: 978-1-904491-34-7

Reviewer: Matthew N. Lyons

The following review is forthcoming in the journal Anarchist Studies and is posted here with their permission.

Cover of The Trouble WIth National Action by Mark Hayes
In 2016, National Action became the first far right organization to be banned by the British government since World War II. Formed in 2013 after the collapse of the British National Party, National Action (NA) never grew beyond a few hundred members at most, but they became notorious for openly glorifying Nazism and advocating violence, bucking the trend by many fascists to embrace a more respectable populist image and electoral strategy.

The Trouble With National Action, by Solent University senior lecturer and former Anti-Fascist Action member Mark Hayes, covers a lot of ground in a scant 18,000 words. The little book not only analyzes the neonazi group’s politics but also uses it as a vehicle to explore important questions about fascism’s relationship with the established economic and political order, state repression, and anti-fascist strategy. The result has its flaws but offers a lot of good and useful arguments.

As Hayes tells it, NA hewed to a fairly classic version of Nazi ideology, in which the white race must be saved from ruin by imposing authoritarian discipline and a sense of collective duty and ruthless struggle, and by purging all foreign and degenerate elements (immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, disabled people, communists, and above all Jews). NA combined these old school beliefs with a modern, youth-oriented style; an internal culture focused on combat; and a highly aggressive, emotion-driven approach to propaganda. Although rooted in domestic far right traditions of the British Union of Fascists and the National Front, NA also reflected wider fascist influences such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Louis Beam’s concept of leaderless resistance in the United States.

This profile of National Action serves as a useful introduction to neonazi beliefs and culture more generally. Despite a few unfortunate references to fascist activists as “lunatics” or “pathological misfits,” Hayes rightly emphasizes that fascist politics speaks to real needs and grievances, although in perverse ways. It offers a sense of purpose, an explanation for societal decay and deprivation, and a collective identity to counter neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism.

Hayes rejects the false equivalence that many liberals and some leftists have drawn between fascism and militant anti-fascism, arguing that violent confrontation and self-defense against fascists are both justified and necessary. He warns that it is dangerous to rely on the capitalist State to suppress fascist activism, in large part because it validates the growth of the State’s repressive apparatus, which represents a greater authoritarian threat than relatively marginal groups like National Action. Hayes also argues that the official ban on NA is counterproductive because the same fascists continue to organize under other names, and because “the suppression of public-facing activities has exacerbated a turn in the far right towards terrorism” (p. 84). These are all solid and important points.

My main disagreements with Hayes’s book concern fascism’s relationship with the established economic and political order. It’s quite true, as he argues, that fascism is rooted in the contradictions of capitalism, so if we want to truly eliminate the fascist threat we have to replace the capitalist system with one that meets human needs rationally and fairly. But Hayes gives only vague, passing mention to the serious conflicts that have arisen in practice between fascism and capitalist interests—most dramatically the Nazi State’s overriding pursuit of genocide even when it conflicted with the needs of the war economy. And it’s deeply misleading to portray fascism, as Hayes does, as “reactionary conservatism on steroids” (p. 54), because both Italian Fascism and German Nazism brought about profound cultural and political changes, and—in the case of the Nazis—dramatically restructured capitalism without abolishing it. The supremacist and exclusionary vision of contemporary fascist groups like National Action is the opposite of liberatory, but it also clashes with global capitalists’ neoliberal drive to tear down old borders so that they can be free to exploit workers wherever and however they want.

The Trouble With National Action closes with a call for British anti-fascism to “develop new competencies in research and monitoring” (p. 86) to help the movement understand its enemy and develop “a diversity of responses to the diversity of far-right groups it must oppose” (p. 88). I applaud this aim and ask only that it be extended to probe the diversity of contemporary fascists’ complex and contradictory relationships with mainstream politics and established institutions, rather than treat these relationships as one dimensional.

Matthew N. Lyons is the author of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2018) and lead contributor to the radical antifascist blog Three Way Fight.

Jan 25, 2021

Why Does the F-Word Matter So Much?

Guest post by Rebecca Hill

[Rebecca Hill explores recent scholarly debates around whether Trumpism is a form of fascism.] 

When I first wrote this, the United States was braced for political violence surrounding the transition of power from President Donald Trump to Joseph Biden. Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that defense officials feared an “inside attack” on the inauguration itself. The U.S. deployed over 20,000 National Guard troops to the U.S. Capitol and had to “vet” its members to ensure loyalty to the country. State Capitols are still surrounded by new fencing, and in some cases, razor wire. In at least one state, the roads near the statehouse were blocked with “complex, heavy equipment” to deter a possible domestic terrorist attack.

Outdoor crowd watching Trump on giant video screen
Donald Trump speaks to Stop the Steal rally on January 6 before the U.S. Capitol takeover

How did we get here? Many predicted that Trump would challenge the presidential election results and declare himself the winner. Commentators argued over whether a coup d’etat was imminent. When Trump did challenge the election results through lawsuits and then a seeming threat of individual legal action against the Georgia secretary of state, commentators debated whether Trump’s actions constituted a genuine threat to democracy. Then, on January 6th, following a rally called by Trump to directly challenge the certification of the votes by the U.S. Congress with a march to the Capitol, Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, breaching police lines and entering the building en masse in search of legislators. The activists had been discussing “the revolution,” “Civil War,” and “1776” coming on January 6th, and in the days immediately following the attack, it has become clear that members of the military, law-enforcement, and elected officials were part of the armed action. The insurrectionists brought zip-tie handcuffs, Molotov cocktails, guns, mace, and knives with them to the Capitol, erected gallows on Capitol grounds, and appeared in discussion forum logs and video discussing executing members of Congress and the vice president. They planted pipe bombs at the DNC and RNC headquarters.

The debate still churns among scholars and political commentators: “is this fascism?” Trump has ignited public interest in the decades-long and unresolved historical debate about the specific characteristics of fascism as compared to other forms of dictatorship. Such academic debates are not necessarily about whether Trump and Trumpism constitute an imminent danger to democracy in the United States. The academic debate about the meaning of fascism hinges on differences between different forms of authoritarian rule or ultranationalist mobilization—for while historians may agree that all fascisms are authoritarian and nationalist, few claim that all forms of authoritarianism and nationalism are fascist.

Robert Paxton, a leading scholar of comparative fascism, who describes fascism as a movement of “mobilizing passions” focused on “community decline, humiliation and victimhood,” that abandons all “ethical or legal restraints” for the goals of “internal cleansing and external expansion,” wrote that Trump’s “open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line.” For Paxton, it is now “necessary” to call Trump and his supporters “fascist,” and to take Trumpism seriously as a threat to the survival of “our republic,” comparing the actions of the Capitol insurrectionists to the French fascists who marched on their parliament in 1934.

In contrast, Richard Evans, a leading English-language historian of Nazi Germany, argues that Trump is not a fascist. He sees fascism’s core as a quest for a fully militarized, regimented society, and describes Trump as an isolationist who publicly disrespected the military and whose appeal is a “warped vision of personal freedom: a society in which people aren’t subject to government regulation or supervision, where anarchy and confusion reign.” But for Evans, the reason for rejecting the term fascism when analyzing Trump isn’t to be “complacent.” He argues that we may mistake the conditions of the present if we imagine that we are experiencing a “rerun” of events in the past. In their analysis, these two highly respected scholars indicate their own particular understandings of the word “fascism” as well as their understandings of Trump and his supporters as genuine threats to existing liberal democracy.

These comparisons center on the impact of fascist movements on the state, but much U.S. commentary on Trumpism as fascism points to the self-proclaimed organized white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who have remained part of Trump’s most vocal supporters from the beginning. Highly visible on January 6th, waving Confederate flags, and wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough) they appear to many observers as the primary evidence that “it can happen here.” This mix of symbols and messages also indicates the extent to which the U.S. far right today blends the legacy of 1776, slavery, the Confederacy, and mythology of the “Lost Cause” with later developments in far-right ideology. In this way, the U.S. version of fascism is no different from other national variants, which also draw from older national mythologies in building their narratives of great national rebirth. Trump’s presidency has brought this American fascism closer to the center of national political power than at any time since the 1960s, whether we see Trump himself as a fascist or not.

Since fascism first appeared under that name in Italy, U.S. observers have drawn parallels between European ultra-nationalists and the United States’ ongoing repression of labor and the left, identifying such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion as America’s own “native-born” fascisti. U.S. activists made analogies between U.S. race riots and lynching and European pogroms, and later, Nazi racial violence. Albert Toscano has helpfully surveyed a history of what Cedric Robinson describes as the “Black construction of fascism” drawing analogies between Nazi Germany and the experiences of both colonialism and “normal” U.S. democracy for Black people. Anti-lynching activism, which combined liberal and radical critiques of U.S racism also provided a central framework through which many in the U.S. first understood European fascism itself. That is, the original analog for understanding the Nazis was U.S. racism. For example, following the infamous “Kristallnacht” the U.S. press commentary included all the language hitherto used as part of progressive anti-lynching discourse of the early twentieth century, in one notable case describing the Nazi Government as showing “the morals of a lynching party.”

Recent arguments about whether we should understand Trumpism as “native” to the U.S. or similar to a particularly “European” fascism erase the historically transnational nature of both fascism and anti-fascism. Fascism itself, despite being ultra-nationalist, has never been bound by national borders. Hitler notoriously modeled the Nuremberg laws on U.S. Jim Crow. The U.S. far right has also been influenced by European fascist ideology since the days when U.S. advocates of law and order praised Mussolini. U.S. intelligence agents supporting “White Russians” after the Russian Revolution helped circulate anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The process of international circulation of fascist ideology has accelerated with, but did not originate from, the internet.

As experts and non-experts alike weigh in on social media and debate each other about whether the Trumpist attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was fascist or not, it is worth considering why determining whether or not “fascism” is the accurate term for what is currently happening has become important to so many people. Opposition to something called “fascism” represents one of the very few points of unity on both sides of the Cold War. Within the United States, liberals, the left, and conservatives—and even some fascists—claim to be anti-fascist. Fascism today is rhetorically “Democracy’s Other”—having replaced the monarchy as the political form against which democracy is defined. Like the monarchy, fascism is also understood to be a threat that can be morally met with force, whether by movements, individuals, or states. However, unlike the monarchy of the Ancien Regime, fascism’s character has varied widely from country to country, and even within fascist movements and parties, ideology has been inconsistent over time, making it hard to identify unifying features of fascism. To complicate matters further, much historical research on fascism has revealed the importance of non-ideological individuals who supported fascism through every day institutional practices or apathy.

Since fascist movements existed for some time before coming to power. It is hard to read about the rise of fascism in Europe without feeling acutely the danger of repeating the mistakes of those many intelligent people who seemed to fail to see what was happening even as it happened. One lesson we are taught about the rise of fascism is that it was able to succeed because it was underestimated and misrecognized when it was weak enough to defeat. Another lesson we have been taught, especially about German fascism is the proclamation “never again”—a moral imperative to fight fascism to avoid a repetition of the Holocaust. This understanding of fascism in moral terms calls on people to remain vigilant and to reject complacency about the stability of liberal democracy in the face of anti-democratic reaction.

These moral imperatives make the application of the word especially loaded, and much argument over the “f-word” is less informed by the history of fascism than by the political implications of its use. A group of left scholars informed by the history of Cold War liberal anti-totalitarianism that lumped fascism and communism together as equal dangers to democracy cautions against the use of the word “fascism” to explain Trump and Trumpism. For this group, including Corey Robin, Daniel Bessner, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Samuel Moyn, the use of the word “fascism” to describe Trump is a hyperbolic or even “melodramatic” representation of the threat posed by a weak president that places “constant pressure” on the socialist left to “deemphasize our own program” and form a coalition with neoliberals. In response, scholars Federico Finchelstein, Jason Stanley, and Richard Steigmann-Gall argue that this analysis repeats the very errors of those contemporary observers of the German Nazi Party. Those observers allowed fascism to grow because they saw fascists as weak and ridiculous, while something else—liberalism, communism, or social democracy—constituted the more immediate and serious threat. What is at stake is not so much defining a word, as taking the temperature of the present.

We should be wary of any approach that seems to bend the truth in the effort to “bend the stick.” While there are many facile equations of Trump and Hitler to criticize, for some, it has been a short step from mocking anti-fascist hyperbole to arguing for the “legitimate concerns” of QAnon. Evans’ caution against confusing the present with a re-run of the past in order to identify the current condition as dangerous is well taken; but we can develop a political strategy based on understanding of a “three-way fight” that doesn’t depend on minimizing the threat of an “anti-system right.” The left can do better than such domestic “campism,” a form of “beyond left and right” populism masquerading as Marxism. As we are living through a global far-right resurgence whose end we cannot know, we are all discovering that knowing history—or the proper definitions of words—provides no guarantee that we will be able to understand the present with the kind of clarity we wish for. We may not be condemned to repeat past mistakes, so much as to make new mistakes based on our incomplete understanding of a much-studied past that still remains beyond our reach.

Photo: Voice of America, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.