Recently, on a cold, gray Monday afternoon in East Lansing, Michigan, about 500 militant anti-fascists gathered in a parking lot with the intention of stopping Richard Spencer, the high-profile white nationalist, from speaking at Michigan State University. Spencer had not been asked to come by any student group on campus, but had instead invited himself; after the university denied his initial request to speak, Spencer sued. As part of the settlement agreement, the white nationalist agreed to speak in the middle of spring break at the MSU Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, a venue more than a mile away from the main campus.
There in the parking lot, the anti-fascists kept each other warm, dancing to hardcore and hip-hop played over a wheeled-in guitar amplifier and sharing cigarettes and news from elsewhere. Some people talked about the leaked chat logs of the fascist gang Patriot Front, members of which were on their way to campus that very moment; others about the arraignment of one of Spencer’s followers the evening prior on weapons charges after he pulled a gun on protesters. About 40 police officers in riot gear huddled at the far end of the parking lot. Bike cops on patrol swirled like gusts of wind.
Now and then, organizers affiliated with Stop Spencer at MSU, a coalition that included the MSU chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Redneck Revolt, and Solidarity and Defense (SnD), addressed the crowd.
“Spencer is here because the MSU administration allows him to be here,” Bob Day, a graying anarchist in town with SnD’s Detroit chapter, said. “Spencer is here because the state of Michigan pays all these fucking cops to come out and protect the fascists. The same MSU administration and the same government that’s allowing Spencer to come in here and is allowing fascists to attack our communities and is protecting those fascists, that’s the same administration and the same government that protected Larry Nassar for 20 years, and refused to listen when women said they’d been attacked.”
The day wore on and the light grew harsher. Rumors surged that police planned to deploy a water cannon in the freezing weather. Armored trucks, implacable, idled at the edge of our attention. A caravan of cars and trucks crawled up the road, stopping at a police barricade before inching back around whence it came. Minutes later, a band of about 50 fascists came marching in a tight column led by neo-Nazi and Traditionalist Worker Party chairman Matthew Heimbach—his tall, heavyset figure recognizable from a distance—and Spencer’s right-hand man, Gregory Conte. They were here.
There was a brief pause as the column came up against the amassed anti-fascists, who swarmed past the barricades to meet it. Fists clenched and snarling, the leftists and the fascists goaded each other into throwing the first punch. Scuffles broke out, and then a brawl. Spencer was nowhere to be seen. Feet away from me, Conte was in handcuffs, screaming at the police. I asked him for a statement. Where was Spencer? Was this all going according to plan? “Their plan, maybe,” he said with a glare. It was unclear whether he was talking about the anti-fascists or TWP.
Police intervened sporadically, mostly at the periphery, pulling combatants off those who fell. Intermittently, a line of bike cops cut across the melee, which would reconverge elsewhere. I don’t know how many times this process repeated itself. In moments, I felt the whole affair take the shape of an absurd pantomime—a symptom of having watched this exact scene play out on YouTube and Twitter so many times over the past two years, most likely. The sense of absurdity receded as soon as I looked into the fascists’ eyes, dull with hatred and fear, or listened to the racial slurs and sieg heils spat like poison, or when I saw, amid it all, Matthew Heimbach’s delighted smile—you could read in it all the smug arrogance of a man who believes himself untouchable, his victory inevitable, and history his judge—only faltering once, at the sight of some brass knuckles heading his way.
When I first met Heimbach, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, he told me he was there to meet with Trump delegates, though of course Heimbach declined to tell me which ones. He never fails to mention his connections to the European fascist parties, several of which have recently established themselves in parliamentary bodies. In Everything You Love Will Burn, journalist Vegas Tenold reveals that Heimbach was trained at the Leadership Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose alumni include Mitch McConnell, Grover Norquist, and James O’Keefe; that Heimbach is hugely influenced by Pat Buchanan; and that, on Inauguration Day, Heimbach was introduced to a room full of GOP strategists and state legislators at the Capitol Hill Club, directly across from the Capitol building. “A few years ago the GOP wouldn’t be able to even sit in the same room as you, but things have changed, and now we need each other,” Heimbach’s Republican contact told him, as quoted by Tenold. “This is a big day.”
For most of Barack Obama’s presidency, right-wing extremist organizing outside of the Republican Party proper took place in the world of militias and sovereign citizens, culminating in the standoff at the Bundy ranch in April and May 2014 and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January and February 2016. Referred to broadly as the “Patriot movement,” groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percent Security Force, and the Minuteman Project were marked by many of the same racist and misogynistic pathologies that course through the far right today, and many members would become staunch Donald Trump supporters during his presidential campaign. While the GOP has traditionally sought to maintain a certain plausible deniability in its relationship to the fringe right, the Trump campaign threw open Pandora’s box, welcoming the avowed white supremacists, anti-Semites, and fascists who stalked the ideological fringes of American politics.
Over the past two years, groups across the far-right spectrum, whether those growing out of the internet-based men’s rights or Gamergate movements or the lingering remnants of the neo-Nazi movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s—the base of what now calls itself the “alt-right”—began publicly and semi-publicly organizing under their own distinct banners. Political and ideological differences aside, groups like the Proud Boys, the Traditionalist Worker Party, Identity Evropa, and Patriot Front have aggressively and self-consciously sought to stake out their own aesthetics, uniforms, rituals, and identity markers. In the process of trying to build an autonomous political force, amid the factional jostling and the infighting and the violence and the failure, the so-called “alt-right,” to the extent that such a thing exists outside of mainstream and social media at all, has revealed its true nature: It is not a political movement conventionally understood, with a platform or a set of demands, or even a recognizable ideological perspective, but a constantly shifting network of personality cults, animated by misogyny, racism, and a libidinal desire for violence.
Recent attempts to bring the various feuding factions together—the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last summer was just one example—have almost all failed, often thanks to the American investment in the mythology of individual heroes. Relatively cohesive fascist groups are frequently undermined by the actions of beefy Trump loyalists showing up in hockey pads and Greek warrior helms (echoing the neo-Classical imagery Identity Evropa uses in allusion to the shared glorious past of Western civilization) to fight black-clad demonstrators, or indeed by their own putative members. Seven months after the disaster that was Unite the Right, and a little over a year into Trump’s presidency, the spheres of influence on the “alt-right” have cohered as much as they are going to, coalescing around a handful of relatively high-profile individuals—Heimbach, Spencer, and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer. Now, a virulent dispute over “optics” has become a proxy debate for power and influence over what the “alt-right” is and how it should go about fulfilling its fascistic vision for the future.
For as long as he has been an open white supremacist, Heimbach has striven to bring the various sects, cults, cells, vanity think tanks, and independent publishers that compose the far right into alignment. “We’re trying to break our people from radical individualism, which is really the component of right wing thought in America over the past couple generations,” he said on a recent episode of his podcast with Tony Hovater, the New York Times’ Nazi next door. “We want to be thinking as a collective, thinking as a team. We are all in this together.”
Heimbach is himself both erudite and vicious, a street-fighting racist and anti-Semite who grounds his bloodthirsty vision for the world in the global history and scholarship of fascism. In mid-2016, he and Jeff Schoep of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) formed the Nationalist Front, a coalition of white supremacist political organizations that included older groups like the neo-Confederate League of the South as well as newer, internet-inflected formations like the fascist Vanguard America, united in the singular purpose of creating a white ethno-state.
“When I got involved with the white nationalist movement seven years ago, everything was constitutions, American flags, and bald eagles. It was about who could be the most American and what are states’ rights. George Wallace tried this in ‘68 and ‘72. This has been tried and it doesn’t work. It always unravels, because it’s insincere,” he told me. “If someone is willing to put down the American flag, put down the Constitution, put aside democracy and republican forms of government, and instead work towards the creation of an independent nation that’s built for us and by us, I don’t think they’re going to be sidelined too much by an odal rune.” (The NSM uses the odal rune, adopted from a proto-Germanic runic alphabet and imbued with mystical meaning, as its insignia, following the SS Race and Settlement Main Office, which policed the brutal paramilitary Nazi organization’s racial purity.)
The Traditionalist Worker Party blends racial and ethnic resentment with an economic appeal—the promise of a white, national socialist utopia, cut from the decaying fabric of the United States. “We don’t want to save America,” Heimbach said. “We simply want to opt out.” In other words, TWP wants to secede and create an apartheid state with strong social welfare programs for white people.
Jews, for example, would not be permitted to participate in his white utopia. (“They have their own country.”) Gay people or transgender people would not be welcome either, incompatible as they would be with traditional gender roles and sexual identities. (“We could provide compassionate care for them to be able to overcome this anti-social behavior.”) People of color would be denied citizenship, obviously, as would some white people. (“Those that are engaged in anti-social behaviors or are diametrically opposed to our nation state would not be welcomed within that. Following traditional European norms for behavior and fitting in as part of the people’s community is necessary.”) Alluding to an essay by David Lane, most famous for coining the Fourteen Words, a white supremacist slogan, Heimbach offered a motto for his envisioned ethno-state: “Look white, act white, fight white.”
A week after the battle of East Lansing, however, Heimbach put the future of the Traditionalist Worker Party into doubt: He was arrested on domestic violence charges after allegedly assaulting his wife, Brooke Heimbach, and her step-father, Matt Parrott, who until this incident served as a party spokesman and strategist. According to the police report, Matt Heimbach, and Parrott’s wife, Jessica, who is not Brooke’s mother, had been carrying on a three-month-long affair, which Parrott and his step-daughter, Heimbach’s wife Brooke, had recently discovered.
Matt Heimbach has not responded to subsequent questions about whether violence against women qualifies as anti-social behavior.
Here are some statistics:
Police have killed almost 1,000 people in the United States in each of the past three years: 987 in 2017; 963 in 2016; and 995 in 2015. One in three people killed by a stranger in the United States is killed by a cop; black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by a cop.
Jihadists have killed 95 people in the United States since September 11, 2001.
Cities that hosted Trump campaign rallies reportedly saw an average of 2.3 more assaults reported on the day of the event than usual.
Right-wing extremists have killed at least 274 people since 2008, accounting for almost three-quarters of all murders committed by domestic extremists in that time.
In 2017, fascists and other white supremacists in the United States killed at least 22 people. Their names are Heather Heyer; Taliesin Namkai Meche and Ricky Best; Richard Collins III; Timothy Caughman; Srinivas Kuchibhotla; Buckley Kuhn-Fricker and Scott Fricker; Casey Marquez and Francisco Fernandez; Charles Davis; Martin Gonzales; John Byler; corrections officers Christopher Monica and Curtis Billue; Deputy Sheriff Mason Moore; Randy Gene Baker; Jorge Slaughter; Cord Colgrove; and Jeremy Himmelman and Andrew Oneschuk, themselves neo-Nazis, and Frank Ancona, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 set the frame within which political violence is experienced in contemporary America. The televised murder of thousands of people provoked not only fear but specific political action. It is the fixed point in an unending line that traces, among other things, the untold expansion of the surveillance state and clandestine imperialist wars, both of which have long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and both of which have already begun coming home. (One only has to look as far as Ferguson or Standing Rock.) The contemporary right, as understood in the broadest sense—from the center-right neoliberals of the Democratic Party to the plutocratic racists of the Republican Party to the neo-Nazi charged with Blaze Bernstein’s murder—understands not only the power of violence as spectacle but how to deploy both the act itself and its representations to provoke specific political outcomes. Never is this more apparent than when they are subject to violence themselves: Richard Spencer’s immediate fear after getting punched in the face on Inauguration Day wasn’t that it would initiate a deluge of physical assaults against fascists but that the footage would become “the meme to end all memes.”
What a year of street violence has shown us about the American far right is that it embodies and benefits from a set of contradictions. Its adherents are not only easily dismissed as, but actually are, cosplaying jamokes; they are also a deadly menace, internet recluses who actually kill people. Matt Heimbach is a jackbooted clown, LARPing Munich in 1923, bombastic to the point of ludicrousness; he is also violent in both public and private, toward his political enemies and to his family. Heimbach and his ilk don’t actually have the capacity, willingness, or ability to create anything like an independent, self-sustaining political infrastructure, but what is more difficult to reckon with is the possibility that they don’t actually have to create such an infrastructure: The tactical application of violence by non-state actors for political ends (a reasonable definition of terrorism) can obviously have an immense, direct, and disproportionate impact on politics and the national psyche. Just as obviously, “alt-right” figureheads have been smart enough to recognize the emergence of conditions that allow them to pursue their ends, using such tactics essentially with impunity.
Before his arrest, Heimbach appeared to have at least temporarily resolved his differences with Spencer, entering into a tentative alliance between the “boots” and “suits,” as Vegas Tenold puts it. Anglin, having built a significant platform and following in the Daily Stormer and its readership, has failed to use them, shrinking away from confrontation or even significant material gain; his current campaign of disparagement against the TWP is a transparent effort to sideline Heimbach. “We are in no way ready to ‘take to the streets,’” he wrote after Heimbach’s arrest. “We have absolutely zero infrastructure. We do not have a huge pool of reliable, competent people. We do not have any stable organizations […] We do not really have much of anything at all.”
That desperation is pushing the Daily Stormer closer to open calls for racist and political violence. Remarking late last year on the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, Robert “Azzmador” Ray pointed to his cultivation of so-called Daily Stormer Book Clubs as a right-wing counterweight to the growing anti-capitalist left. “We don’t intend for this to be a political party,” he wrote on Gab. “Think of them as an ideological special forces unit in every city.”
“We should also try going to where they are and stomping the living shit out of them,” Ray mused. “The possibilities are endless.” Chat logs obtained by Unicorn Riot show Ray educating a newcomer about the so-called Book Clubs: “Think boots, not books.”
Frequently, Anglin-inspired critics of the Traditionalist Worker Party’s aesthetic—all black, largely inspired by the (pan-Scandinavian, neo-Nazi) Nordic Resistance Movement—accuse Heimbach of LARPing 1920-30s Germany. The accusation is a way of expressing skepticism about their seriousness of political purpose—an ironic rhetorical development, given how much cultural DNA the “alt-right” shares with gaming culture’s lunatic fringe—which in Heimbach’s case at least is misguided. He is a true believer in the deadly necessity of the white ethno-state, a necessity that stems from, in his analysis, the Jewish conspiracy at the center of all suffering.
The anxiety of the “alt-right” over LARPing has a precedent and parallel in the wider right-wing obsession with “stolen valor,” which is ostensibly motivated by a concern with appropriately honoring the agents of the police state (any distinction between the military and law enforcement having become marginal to the point of irrelevance) but which is equally motivated by the need to guard who has access to political violence. Right-wing militias like the Oath Keepers, open only to veterans of military service or former law enforcement officers, strive to attain that access by aligning themselves with the state, positioning themselves as guardians of law and order while pursuing extralegal political violence: working alongside local police departments to suppress left-wing dissidents at demonstrations, as private security for GOP officials, or in conjunction with Customs and Border Protection officials, themselves agents of gratuitous cruelty, to detain migrants and refugees crossing the border with Mexico.
When militia members, Proud Boys, or crypto-fascists self-deputize, however, they reveal something deeper about the nature of political violence: After decades of neoliberal austerity, the state, having privatized everything else, now puts violence on the market as well. “States, governing at a distance, no longer have a monopoly on force; that, too, has been outsourced,” Liz Fekete writes in Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, creating a situation in which those same states find themselves “attempting to resolve the crisis in their legitimacy by reaching towards new models of authoritarianism.” Thus private prisons and detention centers, armed teachers and mercenary armies.
“We view fascism as an expression of the decay and disintegration of the capitalist economy and as a symptom of the bourgeois state’s dissolution,” Clara Zetkin, a German Marxist, wrote in August 1923. “Fascism is rooted, indeed, in the dissolution of the capitalist economy and the bourgeois state.”
“If you are going to legally, socially, and through other means interrupt the formation of white nationalist communities, you can expect vigilante outbursts to increase,” Mike Peinovich, aka Mike Enoch, an ally of Heimbach and Spencer’s, said on an episode of his podcast, “The Daily Shoah,” while discussing a report published by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “If you deny people the ability to form communities, what do you expect them to do?”
In the week following Spencer’s speech in East Lansing, which he was only able to give after having slunk into the livestock pavilion through a backdoor, escorted by police, both leftists and the “alt-right” claimed the day as a victory. Members of the Stop Spencer at MSU coalition pointed to the fact that they turned away the bulk of the “alt-right” fighting force, while the fascists gleefully shared photographs of themselves beating on antifa and holding each other up. An AltRight.com contributor who writes under the pseudonym “Ahab” celebrated the day’s events, wherein the mannered bigotry of the National Policy Institute was united with the streetfighting bloodlust of the TWP, as a momentous occasion in the development of American fascism.
“It is that moment of class unity, for the sake of our common race and identity as white Americans, and our determination to exist and not be wiped out from the pages of history, which is the deepest mission and purpose of the Alt-Right,” he wrote in a disquisition on an image of a tattooed TWP organizer, Johan Carollo, pulling NPI’s clean-cut director of operations, Greg Conte, away from a police line. “Not class conflict, which is organized and inflamed by the neoliberal enemy, but class reconciliation based on kindred blood and kindred destiny.”
The necessity of racial solidarity across class lines is one of fascism’s deepest myths. Even if the figureheads of European fascism in the 1920s and ’30s at times deployed anti-capitalist (and anti-Semitic) rhetoric as Heimbach and Spencer do, these are not movements driven by working-class people but by the disgruntled petit bourgeoisie: once in power, the European fascist movements of the early 20th century posed no significant threat to the capitalist class. In fact, as Leon Trotsky wrote in 1934, “The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”
After initially giving Heimbach space to write and a podcast to host on the Daily Stormer, Anglin has grown increasingly critical of, and is now openly hostile toward, the Traditionalist Worker Party.
“I am 100% sure that the majority of people from The Daily Stormer and The Right Stuff do not want to go in the direction of goony armed Neo-Nazi street-fighting grievance marches and burning swastikas in fields,” he complained in October, after a TWP-sponsored “White Lives Matter” rally in Shelbyville, Tennessee. (Traditionalist Worker Party members assaulted an interracial couple at a restaurant after the rally.) “Please note that the actual German National Socialists made a point of being hip and sexy,” Anglin added.
This critique of the TWP, the organization that most adamantly defends the ostensible political content of national socialism—and, crucially, the organization that has made the most consistent and sustained effort to direct Trumpist populism toward national socialism—is on some level about its failure to appear cool or attractive to people who are not already committed fascists. As Anglin would have it, if the “alt-right” just gets the right look down, everything else will fall into place.
This barely veiled contempt for a more working-class—though still racialized—aesthetic is neither surprising, coming as it does from a déclassé child of the upper-middle-class suburbs, nor unprecedented; if anything it plays out as a parody of century-old disputes, tragedy as farce. The leadership of both the Italian National Fascist Party and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had uneasy relationships with their more vulgar adherents: Mussolini had his squadristi (the blackshirts); Hitler had his Sturmabteilung, or SA (the brownshirts), who were purged in the Night of the Long Knives.
What animates these internal debates and drives them to such acerbic heights is the understanding that the imagery of violence—and the implicit threat contained therein—carries much more epistemic weight than the violence that actually happens. The state, having deregulated its monopoly on violence at the behest of a Republican Party controlled by reactionary billionaires, has opened up the space for “alt-right” militias and vigilantes to take up arms on their own, engaging in violence, conjuring up the spectacle that plays out over a hundred thousand GIFs and YouTube videos.
Few far-right formations have embraced street violence as directly as the Traditionalist Worker Party. “TradWorker has, more than any other nationalist organization, perhaps more than the rest of them combined, battled the hard left in the streets,” Matt Parrott, Heimbach’s father-in-law, wrote two days before the Michigan State event. “Our conviction is that a political movement which fails to occupy public space, which lacks the strength to stand its ground in public, is stillborn. That fight isn’t optional, and its not one we could or should forfeit on account of ‘optics,’” he argued. “The optics of strength are paramount, and it’s TradWorker that the leftist youths actually fear. That’s the future of this struggle, not whatever the neoliberal and neocon boomers are carrying on about. We’re not opposed to influencing conventional politics, but we’re laying the groundwork for what’s coming, not necessarily what’s here right now.”
Every major “alt-right” group prioritizes youth recruitment—Identity Evropa and Patriot Front recruit on college campuses; Anglin claims that minors are the Daily Stormer’s target audience; and according to Heimbach, the average Traditionalist Worker Party member is 22 years old—and perhaps for good reason: The PRRI/MTV 2017 National Youth Survey found that nearly half of young white men believe efforts to increase diversity will harm white people. More than half believe that racism is more of a problem for “other generations.”
“We are betting that Generation Zyklon will be more alienated, more radical, and less tied to Americana themes,” Parrott continued, using the “alt-right” slang for the post-Millennial Generation Z, a reference to Zyklon B, the cyanide-based gas used in Nazi death camps. “They will face economic conditions which will bring many issues which currently lie dormant to the fore. Our platform speaks to that audience, an audience which barely exists yet.”
As it turned out, Parrott was right, though not in the way that he meant to be. The optics of strength, for fascists and fence walkers, are indeed paramount, and TWP’s violent reputation preceded them; the response of Michigan’s leftist youth, in a multiracial, many-gendered coalition of students and workers, however, was not to cower, but to occupy the same space as Heimbach and his friends and to repel them, crushing the spirits of the “alt-right’s” petit bourgeois figureheads in the process.
Days after the skirmish and before Heimbach’s arrest, Spencer himself balked at the prospect of more violent confrontations between the “alt-right” and an increasingly militant left, whining in a bleary-eyed video that law enforcement was not sufficiently clamping down on anti-fascist protesters—an absurd claim, given that two dozen anti-fascists were arrested in East Lansing, 13 of whom face felony charges. “Antifa is winning to the extent that they are willing to go further than anyone else, they will do things—violence, intimidation, general nastiness—that no one else is willing to do,” Spencer said, worrying that he won’t be able to do any more public events. He may have been able to give his speech, but was run out of town the next day after walking into a coffee shop full of militant leftists; his lawyer, Kyle Bristow, whose nonprofit, the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, saw its budget double in the last year and was hosting the weekends’ events, announced his intention to “withdraw from politics” after searing media coverage. “The fact is that until this situation changes we’re up a creek without a paddle,” Spencer concluded.
(Bristow, it seems, could dish it out—but could not take it. “Seems strange to me that you’d think I’d need to utilize the services of the Lügenpresse in order to educate the public about something,” he wrote in response to my request for a press pass, using a Nazi slur meaning ‘lying press.’ “You and your ilk have zero rights at FMI’s events, and you will have even less rights in the forthcoming ethno-state. What I mean by this is the worst thing imagineable, and what this is I will leave to your imagination.” A month later he resigned from FMI.)
Matt Parrott, before he discovered his wife’s alleged affair with Heimbach and quit the party, echoed the sentiment. “The antifa have actually pretty much succeeded in achieving what the progressive left cannot, which is fully and finally deplatforming the hard right. That’s no small victory,” he wrote a day after the MSU demonstration. “They demoralized and disabled the majority of the altright, driving most of them off of the streets and public square.”
Within a week Parrott would withdraw from organizing. “I’m done. I’m out,” he told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Matt Parrott is out of the game. Y’all have a nice life.”
Fascism in America is whiteness under siege. It flourishes in the vacuum between the atomized masses, gathering in their misery, finding unity in paranoia and fear. It is the decomposing myth of Manifest Destiny, the shining city on a hill, revived in the spectacular context of Facebook and YouTube and mass media as the “white ethno-state.”
The mixture of basement-dwelling social ineptitude and legitimate murderousness that has come to define the contemporary far right is the product not only of white male resentment festering online but also of the fundamental contradictions of representational democracy, ostensibly committed to the equality of all citizens before the law, under racial capitalism, wherein the ruling class has poured money into a political and legal regime that reinforces their power in increasingly brutal—and, almost as importantly, increasingly visible—ways.
“The threat to representative democracies from authoritarianism and fascism does not start or end with the extreme and ultra-right,” Fekete writes in Europe’s Fault Lines. The center right, she argues, has interwoven illiberal economic theories like laissez-faire, neoliberalism, and austerity with latent nationalist threads to attack liberal values: “Deficit reduction may pose as a fiscal necessity, but it is much more than mere economics: it is the fiscal means towards a political end. Thus, the undermining of redistributive policies in the economic sphere has been accompanied by the rolling back of progressive gains in the social sphere. Under cover of austerity, the right has deepened its aggressive raid on post-war egalitarian and inclusive social policies.” Fekete continues: “If order and authority are to be maintained in the face of the erosion of the social safety net—and without even the dream of social mobility to mitigate the hardships—then the state must become more coercive, the exercise of state power more brutal.”
Already we have in the United States whole swathes of residents and citizens who are denied their rights, either through mass incarceration or structural marginalization. Recently, the Census Bureau announced that it will continue its practice of counting incarcerated people, who cannot vote, where they are serving their time—usually in remote, rural areas—rather than where they are from, thus boosting the population numbers in rural voting districts without actually changing representatives’ constituencies; the residence criteria also applies to immigration detention facilities. The Trump administration’s first pick to run the Census Bureau was a lawyer who helped design North Carolina’s unconstitutional gerrymander.
The paranoid fear of “white genocide” underlies both the proliferation of fascist bands and legalistic tactics like racist gerrymandering. The latter is demonstrably untenable in a constitutional democracy, thereby necessitating the former’s extralegal assistance to enforce the regime. This very dynamic puts the lie to the notion that demographics are destiny, contrary to both fascist and liberal talking points. Reactionary paranoia about hordes of immigrants securing the inevitability of a white majority-minority population and thereafter subjugating white people to their will is ludicrous on its face, but the liberal fantasy that such a demographic shift will ensure the victory of progressive politics is both cynical, to the extent that it erases immediate suffering in the here and now, and idealistic, to the extent that it misapprehends the political commitments of the forces of reaction, who will gladly eschew democracy for authoritarianism should the choice be necessary.
Successful fascist movements have historically taken power not in coups d’état, but in coalitions—namely, historian Robert Paxton has shown, in coalition with weakening center-right liberals and conservatives seeking allies against a rising left. This way lies power for the American fascist, though without an organized street movement behind him he is little more than a particularly ambitious racist. As Zetkin, the German Marxist, wrote of the “alt-right’s” forebearers: “The fascist program is exhausted by the phrase, ‘Beat up the Jews.’”
With Heimbach sidelined by domestic violence charges and Spencer eschewing public appearances, Andrew Anglin fancies himself the de facto leader of the American fascist movement; in reality, he is but one garish facet in the kaleidoscope of blood, interpolated and subsumed by the fractious spectacle: the nuclear death cult of Atomwaffen Division; the swastikas etched into Nicolas Cruz’s rifle magazine; mail bombs detonating all over the city of Austin.
Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign revealed that the conditions for a fascist America exist, but his election does not, of course, mean that America is now a fascist state. On the contrary, the question that the “alt-right”—as well as the nascent anti-capitalist left in the United States—now struggles with is what to do with a Trump administration that seems increasingly unlikely to fulfill the candidate’s most bombastic and terrifying promises, which nevertheless continue to resonate in the dark and empty spaces beneath the cracking, crumbling foundation of bourgeois democracy. Even when a particular instance of direct, anti-fascist action works (as it surely did in East Lansing), the conditions that give rise to fascism—the contradictions from which the fascist emerges, like a kaiju from the submarine maw—remain.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” Bob Day, the Solidarity and Defense organizer from Detroit, told me. “The election of Trump and the blatant expression of white supremacy, hatred of women, and anti-immigrant bigotry—I mean hell, I lived through Nixon and George Wallace and Reagan, and this is different. He’s speaking to a base. There’s a real base for fascism in this country. So we got our work cut out for us.”
One largely untold story of the past two years—as the political media’s focus has been on Trump, the “alt-right,” and the daily crises of DC politics dictated by unhinged reactionaries and inept grifters—is the quiet, complicated, but steady rise of an explicitly and unapologetically antiracist and anticapitalist left in American politics, gathering in parking lots to fight fascists where they show their faces and returning, a day later, to the less glamorous work of building a better world.
Solidarity and Defense, for example, began with two chapters just after the 2016 election, in Detroit and Lansing, and now has chapters in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Grand Rapids, and it’s getting ready to expand into Ohio, Tennessee, and Indiana. “An important part of what we’re doing is trying to break out of isolation,” Day told me. “We want people new to the struggle, young people, people on campuses, people from unions, community organizing.” He added: “That West Virginia teachers’ strike sure as hell has given me a kick in the butt, as it has for a lot of people.”
The hundreds of demonstrators who gathered in that parking lot in East Lansing didn’t do so because they were looking forward to taking a steel-toed boot to the ribs or getting pepper sprayed by the police, but because that was what solidarity and a commitment to each others’ struggles demanded. “This is the fight of our lives,” Day said into a megaphone, addressing the crowd. “When we fight the fascists, we’ve also got to fight the state. When we fight the fascists, we’ve also got to fight the attacks on women, we’ve got to fight the attacks on the black community, we’ve got to fight the police who killed Damon Grimes in the streets of Detroit, we’ve got to fight ICE, which is attacking and kidnapping people from our communities.” Grimes, a 15-year-old boy, crashed his ATV and died after being shot with a Taser by police last year. Former Michigan State Police trooper Mark Bessner has been charged with murder in Grimes’ death; a month earlier, two men assaulted an undocumented immigrant in East Lansing, beating him to the ground before stapling a note reading “Go back to Mexico, wetback,” to his stomach.
“As a transgender woman, every day is a day that has a thread of fear for my own personal safety,” Charin Davenport, a special lecturer at Oakland University, who introduced herself as a “badass bitch,” told me. “The transgender community, especially transgender women of color, in this country, is under attack. And nobody really knows it.” She continued: “But I cannot stand alone. The trans community cannot stand alone. We have to stand here, because this is our ground too. We stand with the water protectors, we stand with immigrant rights, we support DACA.”
Brandon, a student at the university, told me that Spencer and the rest simply weren’t welcome. “White nationalism is inherently violence,” he said. “You just shouldn’t be speaking that shit. There’s too much history to just be nonchalantly calling for ethnic cleansing in this country.”
Dan Scheid, an Episcopal priest from a parish in Flint, wore a stole bearing a clenched, raised fist on the day of the demonstration. “The message that Richard Spencer and his kind are promoting is hate, is separation, it’s white supremacy, it’s fascism, and I believe there’s no room for that in civil discourse. Certainly my faith calls me to stand against it,” he told me. “Biblical justice is not a partisan proposition, though it is definitely political. It stands with people who are oppressed. It stands against the oppressor.” He continued: “I embrace nonviolent confrontation, but there are folks who don’t. I’ll let folks do what they’re comfortable with, and I’ll do what I’m comfortable with.”
The paradox of the neoliberal dynamic, whereby the state abdicates its authority, opening up space for corporations and fascists to move with impunity, is that it also offers working people the chance to realize the power they hold to shape their own worlds.
“What people are seeing is that trying to wait on Democrats or union bureaucrats is a losing proposition,” Day told me. “Whatever’s gonna get done we’re gonna have to do it ourselves, we’re gonna have to rely on ourselves, so in these fights like in West Virginia, or against the fascists, or against ICE, or against police violence, it’s coming from the bottom. That’s where the fight’s gonna come from. If we can do something to fight this system, it’s gonna be ordinary people getting together to do it. And it’s gonna be ordinary people that’s gonna have an alternative.”