‘For once, the person that will be called a fascist is an actual fascist.’ In the manifesto disseminated before his murderous attack on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, Brenton Tarrant proclaims openly the political tradition to which he belongs. But what, precisely, does it mean to be an ‘actual fascist’ in the second decade of the twenty-first century? We might tease out an answer through a selection of recent books, most of which take as their key reference point the US presidential election of 2016.
The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright explains the genesis of her book Fascism: A Warning by noting that, in that year, readers searched for ‘fascism’ on the Merriam-Webster site more than any other word other than ‘surreal’. ‘If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed,’ she writes, ‘putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab.’
Now, in his document, Tarrant also discusses his relationship with Donald Trump, explaining his support for the president as ‘a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose’. Trump campaigned, after all, on banning Muslims from entering the US and building a wall to keep out Mexicans (whom he described as ‘rapists’ involved in ‘drugs’ and ‘crime’). He used slogans (such as ‘America First’) taken from historical far right movements. He boasted about sexually assaulting women, mocked disabled and female reporters, threatened to lock up his presidential opponent, and encouraged supporters to attack hecklers. He appointed Steve Bannon (a white nationalist) as the White House Chief Strategist and Sebastian Gorka (a supporter of the fascist Hungarian Guard) as his deputy assistant; he refused (at least initially) to condemn the racists and neo-Nazis who killed an anti-fascist at Charlottesville.
Indeed, in 2016 and 2017, a remarkable number of mainstream pundits (Matt Yglesias, Timothy Snyder, Jamelle Bouie, Chauncey DeVega and many, many others) described Trump as some sort of fascist. Albright’s book emerges from a similar place. She offers a list of fascism’s identifying features, presented, rather oddly, as the work of her graduate class at Georgetown (‘despite the complexity, my students were eager to have a go’). Fascism, Albright’s pupils collectively conclude, involves ‘a mentality of “us against them”’. It is ‘nationalist, authoritarian, undemocratic’; it is violent; it recruits people who ‘are under economic stress […] and feel they are being denied rewards to which they are entitled’; it is racist but presents itself as radical as well as conservative. Fascist leaders are charismatic and they ‘exploit the near-universal human desire to be part of a meaningful quest’, generally through militarism and expansionism.
Similar taxonomies circulate regularly on social media, while more sophisticated versions feature in the work of scholars like Robert Paxton and Umberto Eco. Yet inventories of traits can’t, in and of, themselves capture the dynamism of fascism.
The National Socialist German Workers Party, for instance, began as one of many völkisch groups recruiting war veterans with antisemitic nationalism. It grew, in conditions of economic and political crisis, into a street-fighting movement of the downwardly mobile petty bourgeoisie and then, after significant internal ructions, won the backing of German heavy industry to crush trade unions, socialists and parliamentary democracy. Nazism was, we might say, a process rather than a thing, with its mutability making identification via a checklist of attributes innately difficult – particularly when we consider that, in another historical or political context, development might proceed in a different fashion.
That doesn’t concern Albright. In fact, despite the labours of her students, she makes no real attempt to distinguish genuine fascism from other forms of far right politics.
Instead, after a cursory account of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, she presents an eclectic list of regimes (Serbia, North Korea, Turkey, Russia and so on), all of which she portrays as sort of, kind of, fascistic. What connects, say, Kim Jong-Un (‘a true fascist,’ says Albright) with Hugo Chavez (whom she judges on ‘the outskirts of fascism’)? Historically or doctrinally, nothing much at all – except that, like the other figures on her list, they came into conflict with Washington.
Albright presents American foreign policy since the 1940s as a crusade for freedom, first against the Nazis and then against the Soviet Union. Washington’s triumph in the Cold War meant the spread of liberty as, she explains, Argentina and Chile transitioned from military rule, the Philippines toppled the Marcos dictatorship and then Indonesia shed the Suharto regime.
She contrasts the US in the late eighties with its role today, where, thanks to Trump,
repressive governments from across the globe are learning from one another. If this is a college for despots, we could imagine the course names: How to Rig a Constitutional Referendum; How to intimidate the media; How to Destroy Political Rivals Through Phony Investigations and Fake News; How to Create a Human Rights Commission that Will Cover up Violations of Human Rights; How to Co-opt a Legislature and How to Divide, Repress and Demoralize Opponents so that No One Believes You Will Ever be Defeated.
This apparent reversal looks rather different if we recall that, back in those freedom-loving days of the eighties, the US operated a very real ‘college for despots’: the infamous School of Americas. The army used that institution (known throughout Latin America as the ‘School of Assassins’) to train militaries in counter-insurgency techniques. Declassified manuals from the school instructed soldiers in techniques such as torture, summary execution, kidnapping and the arrest of suspects’ relatives, methods intended to prevent the democratisation of countries like … Argentina, Chile, the Philippines and Indonesia. Those who learned from a curriculum far more vile than the one Albright imagines include Roberto D’Aubuisson (aka ‘Blowtorch Bob’), the death squad leader who killed and tortured thousands in El Salvador’s civil war, and at least 11 dictators (such as Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina, Hugo Suarez of Bolivia, Rios Montt of Guatemala and Raoul Cédras of Haiti).
Rather than examining Trump’s relationship to that violent imperial past, Albright structures her book through a simple binary: on the one side, a mainstream America presented as innately democracy; on the other, a fascism identifiable by its opposition to the US. For her, Trump’s apostasy lies, first and foremost, in his abandonment, at home and abroad, of what she calls ‘the vital centre’. Internationally, he backs the wrong regimes; domestically, he flouts the conventions of sensible centrism.
She prosecutes the charge of fascism primarily through insinuation. ‘Decades ago,’ she writes,
George Orwell suggested that the best one-word description of Fascist was “bully” and on the day of the Normandy invasion, Franklin Roosevelt prayed to the Almighty for a “peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men”. By contrast, President Trump’s eyes light up when strongmen steamroll opposition, brush aside legal constraints, ignore criticism and do whatever it takes to get their way.
Again, the historical implications of that comparison aren’t as obvious as Albright might think. After all, in 1942, the pious Roosevelt issued the notorious Executive Order 9066, condemning more than a hundred thousand people of Japanese descent (many of them US citizens) to detention without charge or trial.
Furthermore, Trump’s admiration for strongmen like Putin and Duterte doesn’t mean he’s one himself. On the contrary, as Corey Robin has repeatedly argued, Trump has so far proven a remarkably impotent figure, exercising considerably less authority than most American presidents. Brenton Tarrant praises Trump as a ‘symbol’ but he scornfully rejects him as a ‘policy maker and leader’ – a distinction also made by in recent months by the one-time Trump superfan Richard Spencer.
Albright concludes her account with a bizarre discussion of three ‘nightmares’: hypotheticals in which America might become fascist. Her first ‘nightmare’ describes reactionary billionaires funding a Trump-like President who gains ‘full authority to issue or revoke broadcasting licences, expand Guantanamo to include domestic criminal suspects and bar investigations of himself’. In another scenario, ‘a mesmerising young orator’ instigates a repressive state in response to multiple terror attacks by Muslim extremists.
The third ‘nightmare’ in this sequence best illustrates her project. In this scenario,
wealthy liberals from Hollywood and New York invest their money in favoured candidates who, when elected, conspire to enforce rigid standards of political correctness across all the major institutions of society – government, police, media, sports, theatre, universities and kindergarten classrooms. […] Gender-specific bathrooms are banned as discriminatory, and terrorists pour across our borders because to stop them would requite racial profiling. The Second Amendment is repealed, fossil fuels are prohibited, and an increasing number of citizens spend their entire lives within a Socialist echo chamber, learning only what Fascist liberals want them to know.
As a supporter of what she calls ‘the vital centre’, Albright opposes Trump … and then warns, in distinctly Trump-like fashion, against a ‘liberal fascism’ that exists only in the most hallucinatory segments on FOX news. It’s a bizarre ‘plague on both houses’ conclusion that tells us less about Trump than it does about the inability of conventional centrism to analyse – much less intervene in – an increasingly polarised world.
The philosopher Jason Stanley suffers from a similar problem in his How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, a book in which he explains that he uses the F-word to describe the ethnic, religious and cultural ultranationalism manifesting in many countries across the world. Stanley’s interested in what he calls ‘fascist politics’: an array of rhetorical techniques that include appeals to anti-intellectualism, invocations of a mythic past, the exploitation of sexual anxieties, and so on. Like Albright, he investigates Trumpism primarily by the juxtaposition of statements from Donald Trump and his allies next to similar passages from fascist leaders.
To take an example of this deeply unsatisfactory methodology, Stanley explains that fascist politics often involves an orientation to those living outside the big cities, with urban populations presented as parasitical upon the men and women of the soil. He cites academic research highlighting rural and agrarian support for Nazism – and says that, in the 2014 elections for the state legislature in Minnesota, a Democrat candidate was dubbed ‘Metro Jay’ by his Republican opponent.
What, precisely, does this prove? We can find mockery of metropolitan sophisticates dating back to the ancient world: consider Horace’s satire about the ‘country mouse in his poor home’ receiving a visit from ‘a mouse from Rome’. Besides, if we’re to judge the Minnesota Republicans advocates of fascist politics when they belittle a big city opponent, we might, equally, deem Donald Trump a staunch anti-fascist on the basis of his association with Manhattan. To be fair, Stanley acknowledges that the techniques he describes can be utilised by non-fascists and says that fascist politics don’t necessarily give rise to fascist regimes. But such qualifications strip of any real force the rhetorical comparisons on which his book rests.
It’s certainly true that, as Stanley explains elsewhere, fascists often target intellectuals, education and expertise. It’s also true that the Trump administration has supported campaigns against universities initiated by conservative activists like David Horowitz. But Horowitz, as Stanley notes, has been agitating against academics since the so-called education wars of the 1980s (which, incidentally, involved a far more sustained attack on universities than we’re seeing now). So was Ronald Reagan, who lambasted radical professors throughout his career, an advocate of fascist politics? George H.W. Bush launched the ‘political correctness gone mad’ hysteria in 1991, when he warned about a new totalitarianism stalking American campuses. Was he a fascist? What about all the other conservative culture warriors who, for decades now, have monetised scare stories about PC profs and campus censorship on radio, cable news and the internet?
To his credit, Stanley, unlike Albright, does see a relationship between the politics he describes and various historical trends in American history. His examples of fascist techniques come, in fact, as often from the old South as from Italy or Germany. In his discussion of rhetoric about corruption, for instance, he juxtaposes Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp’ with the phony campaign against graft used to justify the white backlash against Reconstruction. But because his historical comparisons focus largely on rhetoric, they obscure as much as they illuminate about the nature of fascism. The Nazis promised to restore a mythical national past – as did Reagan and Trump. Why should that surprise us?
As a nationalist movement, fascism draws upon traditions, vocabulary and symbolism widely referenced by conservatives – and it’s certainly important to draw out the key points of crossover. Tarrant calls his document ‘The Great Replacement’. He describes the supposed ‘crisis of mass immigration’ and low birth rates ‘as an assault on the European people that, if not combated, will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.’ This rhetoric of ‘replacement’ originated with the French writer Renaud Camus but now circulates widely on the right. In August 2018, for instance, Andrew Bolt published an article entitled ‘The Foreign Invasion’ in which he argued that ‘a tidal wave of immigrants [was sweeping] away what’s left of our national identity’. Immigration, he said, was ‘becoming colonisation’.
Tropes of that kind – ideas that cross over so sharply from the mainstream right to the fascist right – need to be monitored and exposed. But fascism distinguishes from other tendencies not primarily by its rhetoric but by its actions: specifically, its intention to resolve a social crisis by the physical extermination of leftists, liberals and minorities. Tarrant might agree with Bolt about how ‘colonising [as supposedly conducted by the Jews of Caulfield] will increasingly be our future as we gain a critical mass of born-overseas migrants.’ But his distinctive political orientation appears in the program he espouses: mass murder to physically remove ‘the invaders’ and to ‘create an atmosphere of fear and change in which drastic, powerful and revolutionary action can occur.’
In his conclusion, Stanley discusses the importance of preventing the normalisation of the unthinkable, in a time when politicians openly use rhetoric associated with the far right. That’s a laudable and important aim. But hyperbolic accusations of fascism don’t prevent normalisation. On the contrary, they can have a very different effect.
Many of the commentators who dubbed Trump ‘fascist’ during the 2016 election now, more than two years later, treat him pretty much as they would any other president. That seems the very definition of ‘normalisation’, almost calculated to dispel the moral odium associated with the word. It also hinders serious political analysis. Once you’ve declared that Trump incarnates fascism, what terminology do you use to analyse the very different threat represented by someone like Brenton Tarrant?
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, writers with some sympathy for Trumpism, understand better than many progressives that words matter. ‘These debates about labels are not just a scholarly game,’ they write in National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. ‘The term “fascism” sends a message that certain people are beyond the pale.’
Eatwell and Goodwin describe the political tradition exemplified by Trump in the USA, UKIP in Britain, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France as ‘national populism’. They attribute its rise with deep-rooted societal changes that they dub the ‘Four Ds’: first, distrust of politicians and institutions; second, destruction (or fears of a perceived destruction) of ‘the national group’s historic identity and established way of life’, particularly by immigration and ethnic change; third, a deprivation generated by neoliberal globalised economics; and fourth a de-alignment based on the weakening bonds between the traditional mainstream parties and the people.
These structural shifts give national populism more stability than many commentators imagine: it has, they say, ‘won over fairly loyal support from people who share coherent, deeply felt and in some cases legitimate concerns about how their nations and the West more generally are changing.’ Eatwell and Goodwin’s sense of the ‘legitimacy’ of these concerns relates to the distinction they make between national populism and fascism.
Fascists, they say, emphasise a closed, ethnically pure nationalism while national populists stress the expansion of democracy to the ‘plain people’. Fascists seek to create a ‘new man’ (often forged through violence or war) in place of the man-in-the-street valorised by populists. Fascists want a revolution to create an authoritarian regime; populists promise the replacement of a morally corrupt elite with leaders more in tune with everyday values.
Eatwell and Goodwin go further, rejecting any suggestion that national populist parties – which typically campaign against immigration, Islam and multiculturalism – embrace the racism so central to fascism. They do this by defining racism as a systemic ideology of discrimination based on supposedly innate characteristics, along the lines of nineteenth century ‘race science’. As a result, they’re able to claim that,
while Trump advocates discriminatory immigration policies and is deeply xenophobic, as evidenced in a host of provocative statements about Mexican “rapists”, Muslim “terrorists” and “shithole” countries, he does not fit the systematically racist mould.
Now, if, in our day-to-day lives, we encounter an angry man ranting about how Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists and immigrants come from ‘shithole countries’, most of us (particularly those of us who are Mexican, Muslim or immigrant) do not hesitate in identifying the fellow as a racist. The Eatwell and Goodwin defense of national populism rests, in other words, on a deeply counterintutive understanding of racism.
It’s worth teasing the point out in detail. Eatwell and Goodwin insist that the narrative espoused by Trumpism, the National Front, UKIP and similar tendencies focuses
on claims about national decline and destruction, which they link not only to immigration and ethnic change but also to what they see as culturally incompatible Muslims and refugees. This is blamed too on an established political class that is in cahoots with capitalists to put profits before the people, encouraging endless flows of low-skilled or unskilled workers to satisfy the neoliberal economic system and ‘betray’ the nation (in Eastern Europe more extreme movements link these changes to Jews).
Why, we might ask, is it ‘more extreme’ to blame the betrayal of the nation on Jews than it is to target, say, Muslims or refugees, two groups relentlessly targeted by national populists? The Holocaust – and the campaigns of the New Left – discredited old-fashioned, biological racism (especially antisemitism) so much so that the overt use of Jew-baiting generally signals a political tendency on the fringe. Yet contemporary Islamophobia replicates, almost exactly, the key tropes of pre-war antisemitism.
Islamophobes demonise The Muslim as a parasitical figure, innately alien to a Western society against which he or she conspires. Just like Jews in the mind of the antisemite, Muslims, in this discourse, wear peculiar clothing, pray to a barbarous god, eat odd foods, and display a propensity to both criminality and political extremism. Where the antisemite mutters about ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ or ‘Cultural Marxism’, the Islamophobe sees every Muslim as a jihadi.
Anti-Muslim bigots reject the charge of racism with the chant, ‘Islam is not a race’. But ‘Judaism’ isn’t a race, either. Nor is ‘Pakistani’ – or, for that matter, ‘black’. Biological races don’t exist. Or, rather, they don’t exist, other than as categories generated and enforced by racists. From that perspective, we can see that Islamophobia racialises ‘Islam’ in the same way antisemitism racialised ‘Judaism’, establishing a religious faith as a master explanation for the behaviour of billions of disparate individuals.
Tarrant’s writing provides a particularly clear demonstration. ‘It’s the birthrates,’ he writes. ‘If there is one thing I want you to remember from these writings, its [sic] that the birthrates must change.’ He goes on to argue that, ‘due to its high fertility rates, [Islam] will grow to replace other peoples and faiths’ – a claim that explicitly biologises Islam as an inheritable condition. Tarrant doesn’t even argue the point, simply assuming that his readers will understand ‘Muslim’ as a racial category.
Eatwell and Goodwin’s apologia for national populism also depends on distinguishing anti-immigrant sentiment and the defence of ‘national culture’ from racism. They agree, they say, with the philosopher David Miller that states should be able to ‘control their borders and exclude immigrants on the basis of community goals and preferences’. Yet, while a non-racial border control policy might be a theoretical possibility, campaigns to exclude immigrants invariably adopt racist tropes in practice, since those policing immigration must offer some basis on which outsiders constitute a threat.
Again, the Nazis provide a useful example of how refugee politics legitimises racism. The western democracies responded to the flow of people fleeing the Nazis with intensified border policing, infamously turning back boatloads of desperate Jewish families. When, in 1938, the leaders of the democratic world met at the Évian Conference to discuss the refugee crisis, Hitler taunted them as hypocrites. If they condemned Germany for its racism, he mocked, why didn’t they welcome refugees to their own countries? ‘I can only hope and expect,’ he said, ‘that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.’
The resolve of the ostensibly anti-racist democracies to, in Miller’s phrase, ‘control their borders and exclude immigrants on the basis of community goals and preferences’ thus became a powerful legitimator of Nazi racism. As Hannah Arendt argued, the Jews ‘whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth […] actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere.’
The same might be said today. Most politicians angrily disavow any suggestion that bigotry lurks behind their commitment to strong borders — but the news footage of brown bodies detained behind wire transmits a clear message about the value of non-whites. In short, while Eatwell and Goodwin’s conceptual distinction between national populism and fascism might be useful, racism clearly operates in both categories.
One way to explore that crossover is through Alexander Reid Ross’s notion of ‘fascist creep’. Fascism is often regarded, with some justification, as intellectually eclectic to the point of sterility. Liberals take refuge in the comforting illusion that fascists must be ignorant hicks. But that’s never been true: a New York Times data analysis of the Nazi site Stormfront in 2014, for instance, found ‘reading’ to be the hobby most commonly listed by members. Likewise, Tarrant’s manifesto clearly shows the influence of a wide range of intellectual influences.
In Against the Fascist Creep – essentially, a history of fascist doctrine – Reid Ross tracks a body of ideas that, if not precisely rich, could certainly be described as broad. He traces the development of fascism through the works Stirner, Nietzsche, Saint Simon, Sorel, Marinetti, Junger and a vast array of other thinkers, some familiar and others bafflingly obscure.
By way of illustrating the latter category, consider one James H. Madole, a supporter of a group called the National Renaissance Party in the United States in the 1980s. Madole, Reid Ross explains,
preached a syncretic occultism that combined Madame Blavatsky’s theosophist ideas with Aleister Crowley’s “magick”, developing a bond between Satanism and the fascist occult that scholar Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke notes “anticipated the pagan alliances of neo-Nazis and Satanists in the 1990s”.
The passage recalls Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (cf the soccer player and futurist Silvio Salvático who, during his short writing career, advocated ‘a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation’) – except that the folk musicians, self-published pamphleteers, unstable agitators and other cranks documented in Against the Fascist Creep are depressingly real.
Alongside these fringe figures, Reid Ross provides useful introductions to some genuinely influential thinkers. He writes, for instance, about Julius Evola, the Italian fascist lauded by Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon; Alain Benoist, the so-called ‘Gramsci of the right’; and Alexander Dugin, the ‘National Bolshevik’ theorist who helped cohere the European far right behind Putinism.
Reid Ross intends this archaeological excavation to highlight the tendency for fascist doctrine to insinuate its way into non-fascist spaces. The process takes place, most obviously, at ‘the porous borders between fascism and the radical right, through which fascism is able to “creep” into mainstream discourse.’ He accepts a distinction between genuine fascism (which he defines according to the work of Roger Griffin) and national populism (though he doesn’t use that term) – but argues that the relationship between the two matters as much as the differences, with each benefiting from the presence of the other. In the United States, the overlap between the two has created, he says, ‘protofascist conditions’.
Furthermore, Reid Ross sees the fascist creep taking place not just on the right but also – and, perhaps, in particular – at ‘the messy crossovers on the margins of left and right’. His book thus tracks ‘the ways that the left often unwittingly cedes the space for fascism to creep into the mainstream and radical subcultures’.
This is not a version of Albright’s ‘liberal fascism’ scenario. Nor can it be reduced to the familiar ‘horseshoe theory’: the old chestnut that holds the extremes of left and right to be more-or-less equivalent. Reid Ross identifies fascism as a fundamentally rightwing doctrine because of its innate opposition to human equality. Nevertheless, he says, its revolutionary rhetoric – and its hostility to both conservatism and liberalism – allow it to insinuate its way into the left.
For instance, Reid Ross notes the coinage of ‘ecology’ and ‘biocentrism’ by, respectively, Ernst Haeckel (‘who combined Darwinism and nationalism under the rubric of the supremacy of the “Nordic Race”’) and Ludwig Klages (a philosopher who claimed deforestation, species extinction and urban sprawl were ‘wrought by Jews through rationalism, urbanisation, spiritual oppression and consumerism.’ No-one would suggest environmentalism and fascism are one and the same. Nevertheless, you can track the relationship between, say, the neo-Malthusian concern about population levels common within the environmental movement and the rise of the Earth First! group, which, Reid Ross says, at one stage ‘advocated controversial opinions tied to white supremacist, anti-immigration and depopulation claims mixed in with the “deep ecology” of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess and copious references to pagan and Asatru beliefs’.
A very different example of ‘fascist creep’ involves Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’, a period in the sixties and the seventies when elements of both the radical right and the radical left embraced terrorism. Reid Ross describes how the Italian state employed fascist activists to carry out atrocities intended to justify a crackdown on the left. Some of those involved in these provocations later claimed to be leftists and said they were infiltrating networks connecting the police and the far right.
The problem for the Italian left, Reid Ross says, wasn’t simply the difficulty of unmasking these various cloak and dagger operations. Rather, in a period when both the left and the right had adopted urban guerrillaism, ‘the left’s crisis was how to clearly define left-wing ideology, strategy and tactics in contradistinction to not just fascism but to the qualities that have always linked fascism to some strains of the left: namely, elitism, illiberalism (that is, rejection of certain ideals as liberal, rather than on their own merits, or lack thereof as the case may be), and authoritarianism’. It’s an interesting argument – and one that, in our time, might be applied to the supposed ‘anti-imperialists’ whose defence of the Assad regime in Syria has culminated in an odd rapprochement with Assad’s alt-right supporters.
Nevertheless, various objections come to mind. Let’s take the New Atheist movement, which, on face value, offers a good example of the phenomenon Reid Ross describes. Atheism was, of course, traditionally associated with socialism and the organised left. But, in the 2000s many of the figureheads of New Atheism – particularly Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins – launched attacks on Muslims in terms indistinguishable from those used by the far right. Hitchens, in particular, evolved into a cheerleader for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, backing the military interventions with lurid, sometimes blood-curdling rhetoric. ‘The death toll is not nearly high enough…’ he complained at one point, ‘too many [jihadists] have escaped.’
Was that fascist creep? Certainly, for a time, New Atheism produced a strange synthesis of left and rightwing traditions, with its advocates hailing tolerance even as they denounced religious minorities. But, crucially, the creep didn’t lead to fascism so much as to more conventional forms of rightwing thought, with even Hitchens (despite his distinctive enthusiasm for military violence), ending his life as a neoconservative rather than a Nazi.
Phrased like that, the process doesn’t seem the consequence of something innate in fascism so much as the more familiar process by which a once radical intellectual current deforms under the pressure of changed social circumstances. The old, materialist atheism rested on the labour movement and socialist politics; the new, idealist atheism arose in the wake of the left’s collapse – and took its political colorisation from 9/11 and the Islamophobia that accompanied it.
After the Christchurch shooting, Reid Ross analysed Tarrant’s document and posted on Twitter: ‘It’s obvious here how fascists ally tropes from left and right to try and develop a violent, anti-liberal populist movement in opposition to the “great replacement,” which is what they call non-white people having kids. This sort of thing has to be countered and fast.’ Yet, as Reid Ross notes in the same thread, Tarrant’s relationship with the left seems fairly tenuous.
Tarrant claims, for instance, that his politics evolved from communism, to anarchism, to libertarianism and then to ‘eco-fascism’, a progression that some conservatives have seized upon as evidence that Tarrant should be described as a generic ‘extremist’ rather than a figure from the right. But the ‘environmentalism’ in the document – a glorification of Europe’s ‘forests, lakes, mountains and meadows’ – reads more like old-fashioned Nazi nature worship than rhetoric from the contemporary climate movement, so much so that Tarrant’s invocation of ‘eco-fascism’ seems more like trolling than a serious attempt to appeal to leftists.
It’s an impression exacerbated by the loathing with which Tarrant expresses for the left. In a section entitled ‘To Antifa/Marxists/Communists’, he explains:
I do not want to convert you, I do not want to come to an understanding.
Egalitarians and those that believe in heirachy [sic] will never come to terms. I don’t want you by my side or I don’t want share power.
I want you in my sights. I want your neck under my boot.
Virulent hostility to the left – a feature of fascism, rather than a bug – poses an obvious problem for ideological creepers. It’s difficulty to imagine someone like Tarrant winning support in, say, the generally left-leaning contemporary environmental movement, given his unabashed desire to exterminate ‘egalitarians’. In that respect, it might be more useful to think of the ‘fascist creep’ less in terms of recruitment at the intersection of the left and the right, and more in respect of the induction into the fascist right of online trolls and internet edgelords.
Some of the more striking parts of Tarrant’s manifesto relate to the online milieu in which he says his politics developed. His document incorporates numerous winks to troll culture: jokes about Fortnite, an obvious shitpost about Candace Owens, a copypasta meme about ‘secret raids on Al-Quaeda’, and so on. More shockingly, Tarrant referenced 8chan memes even as he began his actual murders, with his live broadcast commencing with a trollish reference to the Youtuber Pewdiepie.
In a style guide created for the Nazi site Daily Stormer, editor Andrew Anglin explains the use of such methods for online fascists. ‘Packing our message inside of … humour can be viewed as a delivery method. Something like adding cherry flavour to children’s medicine.’ The reader attracted by the apolitical thrill of transgression will, Anglin hopes, transition from sharing Hitler memes for lolz to sharing Hitler memes as an ideological commitment. He continues: ‘The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humour – I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.’
Tarrant makes precisely the same point. ‘Whilst we may use edgy humour and memes in the vanguard stage, and to attract a young audience, eventually we will need to show the reality of our thoughts and our more serious intents and wishes for the future.’ But Tarrant also recognises something that Reid Ross’s project, as a history of ideas, tends to obscure – namely, that fascism is not primarily an intellectual endeavour.
Fascism has always developed doctrine – but it has never recruited simply on that basis. By and large, the intellectuals attracted to fascism didn’t reason themselves into the movement. Rather they were won over by the movement’s dynamism and success, and then subsequently produced ideological justifications for their choice. In his Futurist Manifesto, the fascist ideologue Filippo Marinetti declared himself in favour of a literature based on ‘aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist’ – a passage that perfectly captures the appeal to would-be fascists of irrationalism, struggle, violence and excitement. Hence the importance for Tarrant of his live stream: he understood that raw violence mattered as much to his potential audience as his ruminations on conservativism and race theory.
It’s useful, then, to supplement Reid Ross’s book with Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, a text that discusses fascism less as a body of doctrine and more as an object of contestation in political struggle. ‘Fascism and Nazism,’ Bray writes,
emerged as emotional, antirational appeals grounded in masculine promises of renewed national vigor. While political argumentation is always important in appealing to the potential popular base of fascism, its sharpness is blunted when confronted with ideologies that reject the terms of rational debate. Rationality did not stop the Fascists or the Nazis. While reason is always necessary, it is unfortunately insufficient on its own from an anti-fascist perspective.
Bray explains how, after the militant demonstrations against Milo Yiannopoulos in early 2017, he was commissioned by a publisher to write a history – and a justification – of the post-war anti-fascist movement. ‘This book,’ he says, ‘takes seriously the transhistorical terror of fascism and the power of conjuring the dead when fighting back. It is an unabashedly partisan call to arms that aims to equip a new generation of anti-fascists with the history and theory necessary to defeat the resurgent far right.’
The real strength of Antifa lies in Bray’s documentation of the long, and – in the mainstream, at least – largely-unknown history of anti-fascist protest. Long before the Madeleine Albrights of the world showed any concern about the far right, large numbers of ordinary men and women mobilised, again and again, against various incarnations of fascism, often at considerable personal risk. They deserve commemoration, not simply on a moral basis, but because there’s much to learn from their efforts.
In Antifa, we read, of the 43 Crew, Jewish veterans disrupting meetings of Oswald Mosley’s fascists in post-war Britain; the Anti-Nazi League and its rallies to isolate the National Front; the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee; the Dutch kraakers (militant squatters) who battled against Nazi football hooligans; and many, many other groups and individuals. Though Bray writes on the resistance against Mussolini and Hitler, his real interest lies in the distinctive model of anti-fascism developed in the seventies and eighties, ‘a broad anti-fascist current that exists at the intersection of pan-socialist politics and direct-action strategy’.
The historical material in the book provides considerable evidence that activism makes a difference. Rather than (as some liberals say) providing fascists with beneficial publicity, demonstrations can isolate and defeat them. Indeed, since the Second World War, the collapse of various far right organisations can be attributed wholly or in part to the efforts of anti-fascist activists.
Objections to the ‘violence’ of anti-fascists are, Bray argues, deeply misguided. Violence lies at the core of fascism and so anyone demonstrating against it must be prepared to defend themselves or else become a victim. Equally defences of the supposed right to free speech of fascists overlook how that speech relates to action. ‘After Auschwitz and Treblinka,’ he says, ‘anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death the ability of organised Nazis to say anything.’
The book’s historical narrative culminates in the contemporary phenomenon of antifa, which, Bray says, can ‘variously be described as a kind of ideology, an identity, a tendency or milieu or an activity of self-defence.’ The ambiguity of that definition pertains to a deeper ambiguity in the text itself. For, as the passage above notes, the term ‘antifa’ refers to a certain political current within the broader historical movement of anti-fascism: a tendency associated with specific strategies and tactics. Activists using the antifa symbol (featured on Bray’s cover) generally (though not, of course, always) embrace deplatforming Nazis through physical confrontations. They regularly wear masks and are often associated with the ‘black bloc’ tactic, where an affinity group of disguised activists separates itself from other protesters to confront fascists and police.
Yet, because Bray’s book implicitly poses today’s ‘antifa’ as the culmination of a long history of anti-fascism (rather than one particular strand within it), it reinforces a predisposition, particularly in the American media, to describe as ‘antifa’ anyone who protests against the far right. A particular tendency within anti-fascism thus becomes synonymous with anti-fascism per se. Does this matter? Bray discusses the incident in which a protester punched Richard Spencer as an example of the kind of physical confrontations that anti-fascists seek. Now, Spencer possesses an eminently punchable face, and you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh when he was introduced (as per Marinetti) to ‘the slap and the blow with the fist’ – a precursor to the equally amusing episode when the teenage William Connolly acquainted Fraser Anning with an egg. But because the ensuing ‘Nazi punching debate’ pitted (anti-punching) liberals against (pro-punching) ‘antifa’, it tended to obscure a more significant historical dispute within anti-fascism itself.
The socialist tradition, while asserting a right to self-defence, generally distinguished between mass mobilisations against the far right and confrontations involving individuals or small groups. Large demonstrations shatter the morale of fascists by revealing their impotency in the face of the working class and its allies. More importantly, because they depend on solidarity, they force activists to make the anti-fascist case to ordinary people, winning them from racist ideas and persuading them to take to the streets.
By contrast, attacks by individuals on fascist cadre (no matter how morally justified) depend on the physical prowess of particular activists. As a strategy (as opposed to an off-the-cuff incident), ‘Nazi punching’ tends to valorises a culture in which (usually male) anti-fascist heroes, schooled in martial arts, take care of the Nazis while the rest of the population watches them. The ‘black bloc’ approach accentuates the problem since the image of masked and hooded protesters sends a message that only special folk can fight fascists and that there’s no place in the movement for anyone who isn’t part of the antifa subculture. In the book, a Danish antifa activist called ‘Ole’ makes precisely that point, explaining how, in the nineties, other leftists came to see antifa ‘as professionals who take care of the Nazis for the rest of us. We can’t be part of them, we just call them when the Nazis come.’
Understandably, Bray devotes considerable space to defending antifa’s strategies against the right. Yet he doesn’t really address arguments within the anti-fascist movement – even though his book contains many comments from those like Ole critiquing antifa from the left. In particular, several European activists suggest that the new incarnations of the far right (the groups that Eatwell and Goodwin would dub ‘national populists’) render the customary tactics of antifa increasingly ineffectual.
A German militant called ‘Dominic’, for instance, describes how the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany and the anti-Muslim PEGIDA affected the small group strategies on which German antifa had relied. ‘Traditional anti-fascism,’ he said, ‘[faced…] a crisis of not being confronted by a small radical minority but by a huge proportion of society that articulates itself in a racist way … [antifa] military tactics do not work if you face fifteen thousand people in Dresden or a party that can win 20 percent of the vote.’
In Denmark, ‘Preston’ articulates something similar:
In the past, with militant violent Nazi groups, the anti-fascist strategy was obvious. Make sure they don’t march, block them, be ready to fight them physically if necessary, stop them from organising. Now it is more difficult. With populist movements, it is hard to always justify militant strategies against them as public opinion is shifting, as the violence the far right advocates is not clear and apparent.
In his book The New Authoritarianism, David Renton presents a very similar perspective. ‘The reconstitution of the far right,’ he says, ‘provides a particular challenge to the far left, which in previous decades was able to take on and defeat mimetic fascist parties. In recent years, those tactics have been less effective.’ Renton’s book seeks to analyse a political landscape he sees as quite different to the past. The right, he insists, has changed, embracing ideas once associated with its fringes. Yet, unlike many other writers, he doesn’t see this ‘new and unprincipled alliance’ between the centre right and the far right as a turn to fascism.
On the contrary, Renton describes the fascist right as ‘a less important component of the far right than … 20 or 40 years ago’. His argument rests on a rigorous definition of fascism as a specific form of reactionary mass movement.
The specificity is fascism’s leadership cult, its party form, its ideology of anti-socialism and anti-liberalism. At its heart, fascism is reactionary; it desires to advance capitalist technology while restoring society to the class peace it wrongly associates with the years prior to 1789. Fascism does not want the advance of technology to be reversed. Rather, it sees the reforms that have developed under capitalism, the emergence of universal healthcare and other non-market rights. It seeks to extinguish them and to defeat for all time any possibility of capitalism’s replacement.
That counter-revolutionary project means that genuine fascists, unlike other far right parties, tend to develop militia or paramilitary forces to attack their opponents. As Renton notes, such street armies are now very rare – certainly, few of the new mass formations on the right maintain them.
In the past, he suggests, the historical proximity of the Second World War made Mussolini and Hitler obvious reference points for both the left and the right. Today, however, 9/11 carries more symbolic weight for rightwing activists. The events of 11 September 2001 – and the War on Terror that followed – helped ‘change the tone of right-wing politics, from a register of nostalgia into a new language of confident aggression and assumed public approval.’
In particular, he continues,
by involving millions of people in structures of repression, the War on Terror has served to racialise a wider set of people than just Muslims, making everyone ‘white’ or ‘black’, ‘Jewish’ or ‘Hindu’. It has trained mainstream journalists to see minority groups as united around political projects; and given the nod to essentialist views of white ethnicity, in which immigration, above all Muslim immigration, is a collective suicide in the face of a militant enemy.
Renton suggests that the relationship between different tendencies on the right can be imagined as a scale contained overlapping categories: conservatism, the far right and fascism. In the English-speaking world in the 1970s, conservatism constituted by far the largest portion of the scale – but, in the relatively tiny space remaining for extreme right-currents, fascism provided the largest coherent bloc.
Today, Renton says, the space occupied by explicitly fascist parties has shrunk. He cites the history of the Italian Social Movement, a group formed after the Second World War by supporters of Mussolini. In recent years, the MSI has explicitly disavowed its fascist roots, engaging in a wrenching internal reform process to become an explicitly electoral party. Something similar might be said about formations like the British National Party.
At the same time, the Islamophobia unleashed after 9/11 allowed more of the scale to be dominated by a non-fascist far right: what Renton calls a ‘a mass electoral politics … capable of sustaining itself between conservatism and fascism’. This tendency, he says,
… now contains not just former fascists but also groups of anti-Muslim street protesters who emerged outside fascism and have very little if any continuity in terms of ideas or personnel with the post-war fascist parties.
He offers UKIP as an example: a party born out of the Conservatives (rather than a British fascist tradition of groups like the National Front). UKIP concentrates on elections rather than controlling the streets; its anti-immigrant policies aren’t accompanied by any revolutionary rhetoric about the destruction of liberal democracy.
Renton sees this new tendency as an international phenomenon, noting, in particular, Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit. He stresses Trump’s reliance on the Republican Party, noting that, despite hostility from many of the party’s leaders, some ninety per cent of registered Republicans voted for him. ‘Trump is not outside normal politics,’ he says. ‘He was elected and has governed from the right.’ Which is not to whitewash his racism or sexism, so much as to note continuities that mainstream politicians like Albright prefer to ignore.
Trump certainly pandered to a racist constituency – but so too have many previous presidents. Renton points out that, in 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his campaign with a speech about ‘state’s rights’ (a well-chosen code phrase) delivered at the county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, a place previously best known for the murder of civil rights workers in 1964. Similarly, Bill Clinton made a point of ceasing electioneering in 1992 so as to facilitate the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an African American man so brain damaged that he barely knew what was being done to him. Trump’s racism should not, in other words, be downplayed – but nor should it be seen as alien to American political traditions.
And while Trump deploys a violent rhetoric against opponents and hecklers, he hasn’t attempted to construct the street army that the implementation of fascism in America would require. His campaign events remain meetings – they don’t culminate in the enlistment of attendees in a militia. In short, for Renton, Trumpism centres on the election of a racist president promising nationalist reforms. It doesn’t organise to annihilate progressive forces or reconstitute the democratic state.
What makes Trump different from his predecessors is his relationship with the far right, stretching back to his promotion of anti-Obama ‘Birther’ conspiracies in 2011. His use of the slogan ‘America First’ and his relationship to Steve Bannon’s Breitbart (at a time when Milo Yiannopoulos enjoyed considerable popularity among the angry young men of Gamergate) enabled him to pose as a ‘change candidate’, running against Hillary Clinton the quintessential representative of the status quo.
Renton depicts Trump, in the aftermath of his election, as resting politically within a triangle, with one point representing the Republican Party, another his own family and close associates, and the third marking the far right. The sacking of Steve Bannon might have severed the president’s most direct connection with the extreme right but that milieu remains important both for Trump and the Republican Party as a whole.
There is no reason to think that the radicalisation of US politics has reached its natural end. Instead, hard-line right-wing politics have now been entrenched. ‘Trump-ism,’ Tucker Carlson predicts, ‘some soft form of nationalism, will become what the Republican party stands for … it’s what the majority of Republican voters want.’ If, in future, Republicans continue to believe that their best hopes is in an alliance between conservatism and the far right then others will follow the same road, further and more furiously even than Trump himself.
Renton’s analysis possesses the great advantage of starting from what Brecht might call the ‘bad new days’: the situation as it is today rather than how we might be more comfortable in discussing it. He makes the point that, in the seventies, labelling far right movements ‘fascist’ discomforted new members since such people couldn’t deny the presence of cadre given to wearing swastikas or saluting Hitler. Groups such as the National Front clearly relied on individuals committed to historical fascism. Today, however, the accusation possesses much less potency. Recruits to the new mass parties of the right generally encounter a post-9/11 iconography devoid of references to Nazi Germany. As a result, they find accusations of fascism from the left genuinely baffling.
‘When today the left cries fascist at people who are at a different point of the political spectrum,’ he says, ‘we waste an opportunity to challenge them. We make ourselves appear to be the ones who are fixated on the past.’ The point might seem somewhat overstated, particularly if the focus shifts from Europe to the United States or Australia. After all, when Buzzfeed published a data trove leaked from Breitbart, some emails did, in fact, reveal definite connections between Bannon’s team and the fascist right: not merely Bannon’s own enthusiasm for the antisemitic Julius Evola but also Yiannopoulos’ relationship with writers associated with the Daily Stormer. In Australia, the Reclaim Australia project – an attempt to build a local equivalent of the European Islamophobic movements – fell apart at least in part due to revelations about the neo-Nazis active within it.
In any case, despite the decline of the older fascist groups, genuine fascism probably reaches more people now than it did in the seventies, simply because the internet – and social media in particular – allows Nazi ideologues to proselytise in a way never previously possible.
In his document, Tarrant poses a rhetorical question about where he researched and developed his beliefs and then answers, ‘The internet, of course. You will not find the truth anywhere else.’ Symptomatically, before he launched his attacks, he took very careful precautions to ensure his manifesto, social media posts and live streamed video attracted enough attention to ensure they’d be available for other potential fascists to find.
Tarrant is the latest in a spate of ‘lone wolf’ fascists launching their own terror campaigns against minorities and the left, with, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, 71 per cent of ‘extremist related fatalities’ in the US committed by white supremacists and supporters of the far right. Yet that uptick in violence can be read as confirmation of Renton’s central thesis, since, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the recourse to terror by individual Nazis probably correlates with the failure of any of the US fascist groups to grow.
As a strategy, terrorism emerges from frustration and failure – and, since Charlottesville, the fascists have suffered one setback after another. Most of the leaders associated with the Unite the Right protest have lost their platforms or are in hiding and many of them are feuding with each other. Vanguard America suffered a major split, as did the Traditionalist Worker Party, while numerous members of the Rise Above Movement have been arrested. Mike Enoch of the Right Stuff podcast became embroiled in a controversy about his marriage to a Jewish woman; the Daily Stormer still struggles to maintain a regular webhost.
Most importantly, attempts to recreate the Unite the Right rally have proved a dismal failure. No other fascist event in the US has drawn anywhere near the numbers of the Charlottesville protest and no fascist organisation has established any real political presence.
Tarrant’s manifesto also begins from an explicit sense of defeat. He explains his dismay at the 2017 elections in France and the victory of ‘the internationalist, globalist, anti-white, ex-banker’ Emmanuel Macron. ‘My despair set in,’ he writes. ‘My belief in a democratic solution vanished.’ He says he decided to commit atrocities himself because he’d given up hope in anyone else taking action. In response to co-thinkers who object that murders would alienate the public from the far right, Tarrant replies that no fascist movement or fascist organisations exist – and then adds that the public are already alienated.
‘[F]ascism remains a despised tradition,’ Renton insists, ‘and … the most successful recent movements on the right have been those which have acknowledged fascism’s unpopularity and based their politics on more recent events: on 9/11 rather than Hitler or Mussolini.’ If he’s right, what conclusions follow for the left?
Renton says that, while Trump’s not a fascist, he is a racist – and should be identified as such. Defeating the new right mean, then, challenging the various forms of bigotry on which it depends. He suggests that the alliance between the centre right and the far right remains unstable and thus susceptible to fracture. Conventional conservatives must be held accountable for the company they now keep. Demonstrations remain important, particularly in splitting the ‘street’ right from their respectable allies.
Most of all, though, the left must provide a genuine alternative, in a context in which social democracy is rapidly losing its base.The left must be equally serious about speaking to an audience of tens and hundreds of thousands of people, to the unpolitical and the newly politicised. When the right presents itself as the champions of the dispossessed, its enemies cannot cede that ground by arguing that the workers are, in the terms used by Cinzia Arruzza, ‘racist and misogynistic uneducated losers’. Rather, what the left needs to do is expose the bizarre idea that only a group of millionaire right-wing politicians and property speculators can speak for workers and for the victims of welfare cuts.
Will that kind of political response prevent the emergence of another Breivik or Tarrant? In the short term, probably not. The anonymity of individual fascist terrorists, emerging from the online milieu into the real world, makes atrocities like those Christchurch very difficult to counter immediately. As has now become horrifyingly apparent, automatic weapons allow even an isolated misfit to cause tremendous damage.
But in the medium to long term, a resurgent left might, to borrow a phrase, drain the swamp from which men like Tarrant emerge. As anyone who has browsed 4chan, 8chan or similar platforms knows, the troll culture of the fascist right incubates in an atmosphere of nihilistic despair– hence the importance of the left making optimism a viable political alternative.
The construction of radical hope becomes particularly important given that, as Renton repeatedly stresses, the current conjuncture remains deeply unstable. At the present, post-9/11 Islamophobia is more politically palatable than old-school fascism. But the situation might rapidly change. ‘[A]nti-Muslim racism,’ he says, ‘is an ideology which kicks down, which condemns migrants and the racialised poor of the inner cities.’ By contrast, the insurrectionary program of pre-war National Socialism targeted ‘Jewish bankers’ as well as ‘ghetto Jews’, enabling a (phony) plebian rhetoric that facilitated mass support for the fascist cause.
In the years to come, as the far right struggles to consolidate its success, traditional fascism – with its hard rhetoric, revolutionary fervour and clear-cut goals – might become more attractive. Near the end of his manifesto, Tarrant includes a quotation from a man he describes as his biggest influence, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. ‘It will come,’ says Mosley, discussing the fascist revolution, ‘in one way and one way alone … It will come in a great wave of popularity, in a great awakening of the European soul.’
At present, that ‘great wave’ of enthusiasm for fascism seems a long way off. On the day that Tarrant embarked on his massacre, hundreds of thousands of young people marched all over the world in a global protest against climate change. Tarrant and his co-thinkers could only dream of marshalling similar support. Yet, as Renton notes, anyone who thinks back to the political events of 2016 and 2017 will remember ‘a widespread feeling that the victories of the far right were not simply the success of one party in a particular country, but the signs of epochal shift from one way of doing politics to another.’
The particular political shift that brought us into the epoch of Trump doesn’t preclude the possibility of an even more dangerous shift in the future.