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.

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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.

Jan 23, 2021

"Insurgent Supremacists" study guide available

Hands holding open a copy of the book Insurgent Supremacists by a box full of copies of the book.
Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, now has a study guide. The section-by-section series of discussion questions is designed for use by study groups or solo readers. The questions are below and a PDF version is available for download here.

Special thanks to Hilary Moore, who came up with the idea for the study guide and wrote most of the questions. Hilary is the author of Burning Earth, Changing Europe: How the Racist Right Exploits the Climate Crisis—And What We Can Do About It and co-author with James Tracy of No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements

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Insurgent Supremacists:
The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire

By Matthew N. Lyons

Study Guide

INTRODUCTION

  1. Lyons uses precise terms in defining the U.S. far right—a commitment to human inequality and rejecting the political legitimacy of the established political system, which is followed by a six core premises as well as discussion of the complexity of right-wing populism and fascism. This definition quickly challenges the popular concept of the “extreme doctrine,” where ideas, people, actions are categorized as extreme and outside the core of society. What does Lyons’ approach offer to anti-racist and anti-fascist movements today?

  2. Which of the core premises Lyons articulates stands out to you? What does it shift or change in your thinking about the U.S. far right?

PART ONE: IDEOLOGICAL CURRENTS

  1. Lyons argues that the U.S. far right is best defined not by one specific ideology, but rather by its withdrawal of loyalty to the state. At the same time, the U.S. far right is made up of very different currents with varied commitments to human inequality. Which currents were you familiar with? Which were new?

  2. Race, religion, gender, and elitism are key points that animate different far right currents that are not loyal to the state. This premise expands general ideas of what constitutes the far right. Where do these currents show up in your work and context?

  3. Lyons discusses key points—ideological as well as events in history—where disparate far right movements come together. What are they? What are key points of difference or conflict?

PART TWO: NEGLECTED THEMES

  1. Lyons prioritizes three themes he believes are most often neglected in understanding the far right—gender and sexual identity, imperialism, and “decentralism,” meaning opposition to centralized political power. Why do you think he chose these three? Who neglects them?

  2. What are different kinds of attacks on feminism and how do you see them show up in your work?

  3. Right-wing anti-imperialism is a recurrent theme in U.S. history. What arguments animate differ anti-imperialism rooted in a far right ideology? What are some of the dangers for leftists in relating to this set of politics?

  4. Lyons argues that a shift from strong state ideology to decentralism has been one of the biggest themes of the U.S. far right’s development over the past half century, and that this shift cuts across multiple ideological currents. Why do you think that is?

PART THREE: PARTNERS, RIVALS, OPPONENTS

  1. Is the following quote important; why or why not? If so, what are the implications for social justice movements today?
    “To the extent that leftists have addressed security forces’ relations with armed right-wing groups, they have mainly focused on the lenient treatment such groups have often received—as well as instances when the government has collaborated with them directly. These are important realities, but they are not the whole story. Federal agencies have sometimes tolerated or even supported rightists vigilantes when doing so has aligned with their goals, but at other times they have regarded them as a threat—or a useful scapegoat.”
  2. How can antifascism, at times, serve as a rationale for increasing repression?

  3. Lyons discusses three different ways leftists have dealt with the topic of fascism—from deploying a dramatic effect, to highlighting the dangers of a new political turn. Within this, he warns that “it’s equally important to be able to make distinctions between different kinds of right-wing threats.” What are the costs of not making these distinctions? What kinds of distinctions of different right-wing threats happening now feel useful to articulate?

  4. Lyons writes, “President Trump, while building on the work of his predecessors, has intensified the U.S. government’s white supremacist and authoritarian tendencies beyond what any conventional conservative would have done. But Trump’s ability to effect change has been limited by his lack of organizational and political skills coupled with conventional conservatism’s entrenched power. The early result, as I described it in August 2017, has been ‘a harsher, more repressive, more chaotic version of neoliberalism with some America First elements.’” This assessment was written a few months after Trump took office. Looking back from today, how well does it describe his presidency after that?

CONCLUSION: DISLOYALTY IN MOTION

  1. Lyons points to key themes in understanding the far right. Which themes feel useful to investigate further in your social justice work?

    1. The far right is constantly in motion, and its political fortunes and activities may look very different from one moment to the next.

    2. The far right encompasses multiple currents, which sometimes but not always share common positions.

    3. Centrist pro-establishment forces are threatened by autonomous, militant antifascism at least as much as they are by fascists killing people in the streets.

APPENDIX: TWO WAYS OF LOOKING AT FASCISM

  1. Lyons defines fascism as a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy. What does this definition of fascism point to that is distinct from capitalist authoritarianism?

  2. Does fascism always include white supremacy and colonialism?

  3. Lyons poses the idea of a “three way fight” between fascism, conventional global capitalism, and (at least potentially) leftist revolution. Do you agree? Why or why not? What does this shift or change, if anything, in your political work?

Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right's Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, can be ordered directly from the publishers: PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing.

More information about Insurgent Supremacists, including excerpts, interviews, and reviews, can be found here.

Jan 21, 2021

“Insurgent Supremacists” and the evolution of Trumpism

Introduction—An analysis for this moment

I finished the manuscript of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire in September 2017, a few weeks following the murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now, as Donald Trump leaves the White House two weeks after his followers’ assault on the U.S. Capitol and failed bid to overturn the 2020 election by force, the approach and analysis I presented over two years ago are more relevant than ever. In this essay I want to use Insurgent Supremacists as a framework to help make sense of how we got to this moment in U.S. politics and the threats and possibilities that lie ahead. I’ll summarize some of the main elements of the book’s analysis, then offer skeletal comments on the shifting character of Donald Trump’s political project and its relationship with far right politics.

Both the beginning and end of Donald Trump’s presidency marked unprecedented moments in U.S. history. In the run-up to his upset 2016 victory, Trump received significant help from alt-rightists who advocated a white ethnostate, and he boosted and validated parts of their message in return, making his campaign more closely intertwined with far right politics than that of any previous major party candidate for president. Since his 2020 re-election defeat, Trump has led millions of his followers and a major section of the Republican Party in militantly rejecting the results of the vote—something that no other defeated U.S. president has ever done or even hinted at doing. The recent scenes of Patriot activists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists assaulting the houses of Congress and staging armed protests at state houses across the country give new meaning to the term “insurgent supremacists.”

The recent scenes of Patriot activists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists assaulting the Congress and staging armed protests at state houses across the country give new meaning to the term “insurgent supremacists.”

I - Key themes for understanding the far right

The book Insurgent Supremacists tells the story of how the major far right currents have taken shape in the United States over the past half century, and their relationships with the Trump campaign and early presidential administration. But more than that, the book offers an approach and a set of tools for analyzing far right politics and its role in U.S. society. Many of these themes can be summarized as follows:

The far right includes multiple supremacist ideologies. White supremacist ideology has always been a core element and driving engine of the U.S. far right. But social oppression and inequality are structured in many different ways, and not all far rightists put race at the center of their politics. 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. Many Patriot movement activists, meanwhile, champion an absolutist doctrine of individual property rights, a kind of hyper-capitalism. In addition, 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. Leading Patriot groups such as the Oath Keepers, for example, promote the ideology of color-blindness (which bolsters racial oppression by denying that it exists) coupled with demonization of Muslims and immigrants.

Disloyalty to the United States is a key element of far right politics. Instead of focusing on just one specific doctrine, I define the U.S. far right to mean political forces that (1) promote human inequality as natural, desirable, or inevitable, and (2) reject the legitimacy of the established U.S. political system. Rightists have traditionally defended the established order. But the U.S. far right of today emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when a significant minority of rightists withdrew their loyalty from the U.S. government, because they believed they could no longer achieve their supremacist goals within the existing political framework. Far rightists (or oppositional rightists) are distinct from but interconnected with system-loyal rightists. They may clash with each other or work together, and people can move from system-loyalty to oppositional politics or vice versa, the same way that leftists can move between reformism and a revolutionary stance.

The far right grows out of an oppressive social system. Many liberals and conservatives describe the far right as an extremist threat to democracy, but the U.S. is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a shifting mix of pluralism and repression. Popular struggles have won real political space that you wouldn’t find under a dictatorship, but still a tiny capitalist elite holds most political and economic power, and multiple lines of oppression shape most social relations. This system encourages both far right and mainstream political forces to demonize and scapegoat oppressed and marginalized people. But when people in privileged social groups believe that their privilege is under threat and that the existing political system does not protect their privilege effectively, some of them will find far right politics appealing.

The far right hates the ruling class. If it’s a mistake to gloss over the deep connections between far right politics and mainstream institutions, some leftists make the opposite mistake, which is to treat far rightists simply as tools of the ruling class. It’s certainly true that white supremacists and right-wing vigilantes have traditionally helped economic and political elites by attacking the left and organized labor and communities of color. But the U.S. far right as it is constituted today believes that economic and political elites have betrayed them. It believes these elites are using multiculturalism, mass immigration, and globalization to weaken and destroy white Christian America. This belief feeds on fear of losing privilege, but it also feeds on people’s sense of disempowerment, people’s sense of being beaten down. The far right draws on rebellious anger and transmutes it into poison. That’s why the far right sometimes sounds like a twisted version of the left, denouncing global elites or U.S. military interventions—not in the name of justice or human liberation, but in the name of racial purity or patriarchal religion. Hatred of elites has sometimes led some far rightists to take up arms against the federal government, in hopes of inspiring a right-wing revolution.

The far right’s growth reflects structural and cultural changes in society. Broadly speaking, the modern U.S. far right emerged after the 1960s as part of a backlash among many middle- and working-class whites to defend traditional social hierarchies against challenges from below, coupled with a rightward shift within the business community. In a more complicated way, far right politics have also developed in reaction against neoliberalism—the version of capitalist politics that has dominated both major political parties since the 1980s. Neoliberalism pushes deregulation of business, free trade, relatively unrestricted immigration, reduction or privatization of social services, and expansion of police, prisons, and mass surveillance.

Far right politics don’t stand still. Contrary to stereotypes about being stuck in the past, far rightists have repeatedly worked to develop new doctrines, arguments, strategies, and forms of organization. As an example, many opponents assume that far rightists are still oriented to classical fascism’s vision of a strong state and a disciplined, top-down political organization. In reality, huge swaths of the far right have embraced various forms of political decentralism, such as the neonazi-based “leaderless resistance” strategy, Patriot movement distrust of law enforcement above the county level, and some Christian rightists’ vision of a locally based theocracy enforced through small-scale institutions of church and family. The past forty years have seen a series of far right upsurges, in which different currents have converged and redefined themselves in response to changing circumstances.

Militant rightists have had a complicated and shifting relationship with the repressive state apparatus. The U.S. has a long history of right-wing vigilantes serving as major enforcers of social hierarchy and political obedience. Even oppositional rightists have usually been spared the kind of state violence meted out to people of color and leftists, but they have often been subjected to covert operations and sometimes to physical repression. In the 1980s, for example, security forces systematically imprisoned or killed members of the neonazi underground that had declared war on the U.S. government. And while people sometimes treat any kind of political repression as a step towards fascism, antifascism itself has repeatedly served as a rationale for repression. During World War II, antifascism was used to justify the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, along with strike-breaking and expanded FBI surveillance. In more recent decades, “defending democracy” against the far right has repeatedly been used to justify expansion of the state security apparatus, which ends up primarily hurting oppressed people and activists on the left.

II - The trajectory of Trump’s presidency

The last chapter of Insurgent Supremacists examines “Trump’s Presidency and the Far Right.” Written less than one year after Trump took office, its assessment of the new administration is tentative, yet much of its analysis has been born out by later events.

“Trump ran for president in 2015–2016 as a right-wing populist with authoritarian tendencies. He advocated the harshest anti-immigrant measures of any major party presidential candidate in generations, such as barring all Muslim newcomers and rounding up and deporting all eleven million undocumented immigrants. He endorsed the use of torture, encouraged his supporters to use violence against political opponents, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and promoted a cult of personality around himself” (196).

At the same time, Trump ridiculed and vilified the conservative establishment in the Republican Party, and took “liberal” positions on issues such as protecting Social Security and calling for universal access to health care. Echoing Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s, Trump rejected Washington’s two-party consensus behind free trade policies and interventionist military alliances, in the name of an “America First” nationalism.

“Yet because he lacked an organizational base of his own, Trump was immediately forced not only to work with establishment figures in the Republican Party but also to bring them into his own administration. As a result, from the beginning Trump’s presidency rested on an unstable coalition of right-wing factions both opposed to and aligned with conventional conservatism. The neoliberal consensus was starting to break down, but populist nationalism was not strong enough or developed enough to supplant it clearly” (p. 200).

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“From early on, America Firsters clashed with neoliberals and establishment figures in the administration and in Congress on issues such as trade policy, which [together with Trump’s own personality] contributed to an unusual degree of chaos and lack of clear direction. The issues on which the different factions agreed, and on which the Trump administration moved forward most effectively, basically represented a hard-line version of neoliberalism’s domestic agenda: dismantle environmental regulations and consumer protection rules, open up public lands to corporate exploitation, reform’ the tax system to further redistribute wealth from low- and middle-income people to the rich, make the judicial system more punitive, and speed up militarization of the police. To a large extent, the result seemed to be policies that benefited narrow capitalist interests, such as military contractors, private prison operators, and energy companies, as well as the Trump family’s own businesses, more than a coherent unified program” (204).

Over time, however, the administration also took significant steps representing America First nationalism, including aggressive protectionist measures not only against China but also targeting traditional allies Europe and Canada. Above all, President Trump implemented an extraordinarily repressive, cruel, and largely illegal set of policies toward undocumented immigrants and refugees.

After Insurgent Supremacists was completed, new documentation emerged showing that Trump’s support within the big business community was—for any president and especially a Republican one—unusually limited, fragmented, and unstable. Trump certainly had staunch capitalist supporters such as Peter Thiel, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer. Yet his capitalist opponents included not just liberals and centrists such as Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg but also the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who were notorious backers of right-wing causes but also vocal critics of Trump’s positions on immigration and trade. These conflicts belied claims by some liberals and leftists that the administration represented a ruling class consensus-based drive to implement “neoliberal fascism.”

Organized far rightists, too, were conflicted about Trump. In Insurgent Supremacists I detail debates about Trump’s campaign and early presidency among alt-rightists and other white nationalists, Patriot activists, and the theocratic wing of the Christian right. I summarized these debates as reflecting

“a political dilemma that will be familiar to many people on the radical left: To what extent and under what circumstances should you support a system-loyal politician who shares many of your politics? How do you balance the importance of holding fast to political principles against the value of expanded visibility, legitimacy, and influence?” (215)

In broad terms, among President Trump’s initial far right supporters, most Patriot groups and Christian theocrats (notably the massive New Apostolic Reformation movement) continued to back him, while alt-rightists became increasingly disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s capitulation to the conservative establishment. This growing rift hinged largely on disagreements over foreign policy, with most alt-rightists bitterly opposing Trump’s 2017 missile attacks against Syria, for example. Trump’s 2019 assassination of Iranian General Soleimani exposed broader conflicts among his supporters between aggressive militarists and right-wing anti-interventionists.

Two big crises in 2020 affected Trump’s political relationships in complex ways. The COVID-19 pandemic widened the divide between Trump and establishment forces by highlighting his administration’s corruption, mendacity, and managerial incompetence. By contrast, the Black-led multiracial protests and uprisings that followed George Floyd’s murder accentuated Trump’s unity with conventional conservatives around defense of racial oppression and police violence. But both crises sharpened the militant character of Trump’s mass support and fed into conspiracist narratives of an embattled leader championing the people against sinister elites, dangerous subversives, and malevolent foreigners.

In this context, Trump’s symbiotic relationship with far right forces continued, but the focus and character of the relationship changed significantly, as I detailed in a September 2020 post on Three Way Fight. In 2016, Trump’s relationship with the far right centered on the alt-right, which skillfully used social media to attack Trump’s opponents both in the primaries and the general election. After the election, even as they became increasingly frustrated with Trump, alt-rightists tried to forge a broader coalition of right-wing street-fighters, but that effort fell apart after Charlottesville. In late 2017 the alt-right suffered a political collapse, brought on by antifascist countermobilizations, media deplatforming, and internal conflicts. So far it has not recovered.

Over the following years, initiative within the far right shifted to other forces, notably the Patriot movement, which was much more solidly pro-Trump than the alt-right. In 2020, Patriot activists played a major role in the wave of right-wing attacks on and killings of Black Lives Matter protesters—a campaign of vigilante repression that gave physical expression to Trump’s call for extraordinary measures to combat lawlessness.

“If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016 [I wrote in September 2020], physical violence and harassment play that role today.... Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power.”

Although the Patriot movement has been largely based on delegitimizing state authority, and some Patriot activists had killed police in the past, I argued that Trump had co-opted them “into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” Yet this system-loyalty was unstable and conditional, and it “could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump or he leaves office.”

The November 2020 election defeated Trump in the polls, but it also demonstrated his continued ability to attract mass support. Despite his administration’s disastrous responses to the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, despite opposition from many Republicans and a majority of capitalists, despite his blatant use of public office for personal gain and self-promotion, Trump came within about a hundred thousand votes of winning. Not only did he receive more votes than in 2016; his support increased among every major demographic except white men—including white women, Black and Latino voters, LGBTQ voters, and Muslims. Although racism and misogyny remained central to his appeal, his appeal could not be reduced to them.

In the weeks leading up to November 3rd, I and many others warned of the danger that Trump might try to sabotage the election to stay in office. Our worst fears were not realized, as Trump did not successfully disrupt mail-in voting, deploy federal agents to seize control of polling places or vote-counting centers, or discredit the electoral process for any but his own committed supporters. However, he refused to accept that he had lost, doubling down on his false claims of widespread voter fraud and galvanizing a movement to “Stop the Steal.” This culminated in the January 6th Capitol takeover.

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.

Insurgent Supremacists helps us measure the significance of these developments. Up until the 2020 election, despite a blatantly authoritarian approach and repeated abuses of power, Trump worked within the established political system and did not significantly challenge its legitimacy. That began to change during the campaign and broke dramatically after his defeat became clear. In persuading millions of his followers and a large section of the Republican Party to reject the validity of the voting process—a foundation stone of the entire U.S. system of government—Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we’ve seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction one-and-a-half centuries ago. 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—as defined in Insurgent Supremacists—has increased by an order of magnitude.

This sudden shift, which will likely fuel an upsurge of far right violence, raises lots of questions about how the newly expanded oppositional right will develop in the months and years ahead. Some of the issues I’m interested in are:

  • Leadership – Will Trump (who can galvanize a rally and use social media skillfully but is a wretched organizer) remain the movement’s central figure? Will someone else with a different skill set emerge to take his place?
  • Ideology – Given the Stop the Steal movement’s eclectic mix of ideologies (America First, white nationalism, QAnon conspiracism, theocratic Christianity, etc.), will Trump’s style of “deniable” supremacism remain central within the movement? Will something more explicitly racial, or more explicitly religious, gain ground? Will we see more “leftist” themes, such as more substantive welfare state proposals or more emphasis on anti-war politics?
  • Organization – Will the movement remain organizationally fragmented? Will it achieve greater unity, and if so, what forms will that take?
  • Relationship with forces within the state – Trump became popular with sections of the federal security apparatus (notably Homeland Security) and local police from many cities joined or supported the Capitol takeover and related actions. How will connections between state forces and oppositional politics play out in future?
  • Relationship with sections of the ruling class – This includes questions of political funding, but much more. Given pro-Trump capitalists’ lack of clearly defined and shared interests, I want to see whether a significant anti-neoliberal faction of capital emerges, and whether it can join up with a mass base (for example around hatred of China, perhaps).

Trump’s shift also calls for revisiting the question of his relationship with fascism. I have argued since 2015 that, although Trump has promoted fascistic politics and policies in various ways, key elements of fascism as an overall project were missing. These included (a) a rejection of the existing political system, (b) an organized mass mobilization outside and against the established order, and (c) a totalizing effort to transform society according to an ideological vision. Now, however, Trump has embraced the first two of these elements. And although it’s doubtful he is able to put any goal before his own self-advancement, there are many people ready and eager to give overall ideological direction to the movement he has helped unleash. Trumpism might not represent full-blown fascism yet, but it is rushing in that direction.

Closing thoughts

These comments on Trumpism’s evolving political character point to something else I tried to do in writing Insurgent Supremacists. I wanted to avoid lumping all right-wing or anti-liberatory forces together, but I also wanted to avoid a sterile taxonomy of ideological differences and organizational divisions. In analyzing the U.S. far right, or any political movement, we need an approach that is dynamic, that explores both divisions and interactions, that applies political categories thoughtfully while recognizing that the scope and content of those categories will change over time. Not just so we can understand our enemies, but so we can fight them more effectively.

Even as we monitor and respond to the growing and increasingly militant forces of the far right, it’s critically important that we combat efforts by conservatives, liberals, and the security apparatus to expand repression. Fear of political “extremism” coupled with faith in the capitalist state is a poisonous mix. As in the past, we are seeing reactions to far right violence being channeled into measures that would put new restrictions on political expression and activism, such as Joe Biden’s call for a new law against domestic terrorism. As in the past, we should expect that state repression against the right will rebound more heavily against the left and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Embracing centrist repression over far right insurgency is a false choice—and ultimately a self-defeating one, because it’s the violence and dehumanization of the established order that fuels supremacist rebellion in the first place. What’s needed instead is to build a liberatory, antifascist challenge to both. We need broad coalitions to defeat the far right, but we also need radical initiatives and movements that target established systems of power and the two major political parties that protect them.

Portions of this essay are adapted from my 2018 address to the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right's Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, can be ordered directly from the publishers: PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing.

More information about Insurgent Supremacists, including excerpts, interviews, reviews, and a study guide, can be found here.