The white supremacist forces arrayed in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend — the largest gathering of its sort in at least a generation — represented a new incarnation of the white supremacy movement. Old-guard groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and the Nazi skinheads, which had long stood at the center of racist politics in America, were largely absent.
Instead, the ranks of the young men who drove to Charlottesville with clubs, shields, pepper spray and guns included many college-educated people who have left the political mainstream in favor of extremist ideologies over the past few years. A large number have adopted a very clean cut, frat-boyish look designed to appeal to the average white guy in a way that KKK robes or skinhead regalia never could. Interviews show that at least some of these leaders have spent time in the U.S. armed forces.
Many belong to new organizations like Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Workers Party and True Cascadia, which have seen their numbers expand dramatically in the past year. Most of these groups view themselves as part of a broader “alt-right” movement that represents the extreme edge of right-wing politics in the U.S.
These organizations exhibited unprecedented organization and tactical savvy. Hundreds of racist activists converged on a park on Friday night, striding through the darkness in groups of five to 20 people. A handful of leaders with headsets and handheld radios gave orders as a pickup truck full of torches pulled up nearby. Within minutes, their numbers had swelled well into the hundreds. They quickly and efficiently formed a lengthy procession and begun marching, torches alight, through the campus of the University of Virginia.
Despite intense interest from the media, police and local anti-racists, the white supremacists kept the location of their intimidating nighttime march secret until the last moment.
The next day, the far-right forces — likely numbering between 1,000 and 1,500 — marched to Emancipation Park. Once again, they arrived in small blocs under military-style command. The racist groups were at least as organized and disciplined as the police, who appeared to have no clear plan for what to do when the violence escalated. The racist groups stood their ground at the park and were not dislodged for many hours.
For many of them, this will be seen as victory. “Every rally we’re going to be more organized, we’re going to have more people, and it’s going to be harder and harder for them to shut us down,” said a spokesman for Vanguard America, a fascist group, who gave his name as “Thomas.” “White people are pretty good at getting organized.”
And though police arrested James Fields Jr., a 20-year-old Ohio man, for allegedly driving a Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding many others, the white supremacists generally avoided arrests.
They also outmaneuvered their anti-racist opponents. On Saturday, a multifaith group met at the historic First Baptist Church for a sunrise prayer ceremony featuring academic Cornel West and pastor Traci Blackmon. The anti-racists, many of them clergy members, walked quietly to Emancipation Park, where they were vastly outnumbered by the white supremacists.
Later, a band of more aggressive counter-protesters showed up at the park, chanting “Appalachia coming at ya. Nazi punks we’re gonna smash ya!” These militant “antifa,” or antifascists, were also repelled by the white supremacists.
Given the scale of the protests, the far-right groups suffered few injuries. That was particularly notable given the fact that multiple people near the protests were armed. Throughout the weekend, right-wing and left-wing militias equipped with assault rifles, pistols and body armor patrolled the streets of Charlottesville. (Virginia is an “open carry” state, so gun owners are legally allowed to tote around firearms.)
State police and National Guardsmen watched passively for hours as self-proclaimed Nazis engaged in street battles with counter-protesters.
Many of the armed men viewed their role as maintaining a modicum of order. A “Three Percenter” militia out of New York state posted itself near Emancipation Park with the intention of keeping anti-racists from disrupting the rally. The group says it disapproves of racism but is dedicated to defending the free speech rights of all.
Blocks away, Redneck Revolt, a leftist militia from North Carolina, watched over the perimeter of a park where anti-racists had gathered, committed to preventing violent attacks by the white supremacist groups.
The presence of heavily armed citizens may have played a role in the decision of authorities to largely stay out of the violent skirmishes between the white supremacists and their opponents.
Those who actually marched included many new to the right-wing cause. The victory of Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election has energized a whole wave of young people who were previously apathetic or apolitical, rally organizer Eli Mosley told ProPublica. The president has served as “megaphone” for far-right ideas, he said.
Mosley and his comrades are seeking to draw in as many of these newly politicized young people as possible. “We’re winning,” he said. “We’re targeting the youth and making a movement that appeals to the youth.”
Some of those who’ve gravitated to the extreme right milieu are former liberals — like Mosley’s fellow rally organizer Jason Kessler — and supporters of Bernie Sanders. Many are ex-Libertarians.
“I was a libertarian,” said Mosley, as white supremacists chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” in the background. “I looked around and noticed that most Libertarians were white men. I decided that the left was winning with identity politics, so I wanted to play identity politics too. I’m fascinated by leftist tactics, I read Saul Alinsky, Martin Luther King … This is our ’60s movement.”
A.C. Thompson is a staff reporter with ProPublica.
Even before the demonstration in Virginia began last weekend, the police there knew they weren’t going to be able to handle what was coming.
Charlottesville police officers, including Sgt. Jake Via of the investigations bureau, had been contacting organizers and scanning social media to figure out how many demonstrators were headed their way and whether they would be armed.
“The number each group was saying was just building and building,” Via said. “We saw it coming. … Looking at this, I said, ‘This is going to be bad.’”
The protesters’ numbers were too large and the downtown park too small. City officials tried to get the demonstration moved to another, more spacious location, but lost in court after the rally’s organizer, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged his freedom of speech was being infringed.
The protests, of course, ended tragically. Local law enforcement was widely blamed for losing control of the event and standing back even as people were attacked.
Via maintains that nothing the police did could have stopped the violence between the two sides. “No hours and hours and hours or even months of planning is going to stop the radicals from both sides wanting to go at it,” he said.
With more demonstrations planned in cities across the country, ProPublica interviewed law enforcement experts in the United States and Europe to ask what more can be done to prevent bloodshed at protests where people are spoiling for a fight. The consensus was that additional steps can be taken.
But many of the tactics come at a price. Some could be viewed as impinging on civil liberties and the constitutionally enshrined rights to free assembly and protest. Others require funding and coordination that is difficult to achieve within the fragmented framework of American policing. A few are as simple as strategically placed blockades that keep the two sides separate. Here are some of the top approaches and how they might — or might not — be deployed in the U.S.
Drones, Anti-Mask Laws and Open-Carry Restrictions
Local police forces will increasingly institutionalize the use of drones at mass demonstrations. That’s the prediction of Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Cameras in the air with real-time feeds transmitted to officers on the ground would allow police to cover more terrain and in some cases, identify potential conflicts before they erupt.
“Demonstrations spread, and these violent confrontations can take place in disparate areas,” said Levin. “It’s like when a hammer hits mercury.”
Drones can also be safer than helicopters. In Charlottesville, a helicopter monitoring the demonstration went down, killing two state troopers aboard.
But police drone use has been met with opposition from civil liberties groups. Drones donated to the Los Angeles Police Department have gone unused for years amid privacy concerns. Activists have argued that access to the devices, which make surveillance cheaper and more efficient, will lead police to more routinely surveil private citizens.
Earlier this month, LA’s police commission gathered to discuss relaunching the program only to be met by chanting activists who shut down the conversation twice. Similar stories have played out in Seattle and elsewhere.
Another tool cities and states (including Virginia) have used is anti-mask laws, which bar groups of people from disguising themselves in public. Violent demonstrators will sometimes arrive in ski masks or scarves wrapped around their faces. New York City has a ban, with exceptions including for Halloween. So does Alabama, a rule it instituted in 1949 to unmask the Ku Klux Klan. A similar restriction in California, though, was struck down after Iranian Americans hoping to safely (and non-violently) protest the post-revolutionary regime back home sued on First Amendment grounds.
State police and National Guardsmen watched passively for hours as self-proclaimed Nazis engaged in street battles with counter-protesters. Read the story.
Another challenge in Charlottesville was the number of demonstrators who came with guns, and were allowed to do so lawfully, because of Virginia’s open-carry laws.
Even in states with such statutes, the authorities have some options. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, said the Supreme Court has upheld the right to have guns at home, but not necessarily in public. “Think of curfews. The government has the ability to take steps to protect public safety,” Chemerinsky said. “The more evidence there is that it’s a threat to public safety, the more sympathetic the courts would be.”
The evidence could consist of past rallies that broke out into violence, or intelligence that an armed group is planning to employ force in the future.
Still, attempts to temporarily restrict gun rights have floundered in the past. Before the most recent Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the head of Cleveland’s largest police union and others called for the state’s open-carry laws to be tightened during the convention. Gov. John Kasich refused, saying “Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights.”
A more radical approach comes from Philip Zelikow, a history professor at the University of Virginia and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission. In 1981, he worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit, to ask a federal judge to shut down a group called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which was showing up armed and in Army-style clothing on the Texas Gulf Coast to harass Vietnamese fishermen.
With the support of the Texas attorney general, Zelikow and his team invoked a 19th-century law that forbids “military companies” not authorized by the governor. They argued that the Klan qualified because it was not government-regulated but had “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.” The lawyers prevailed, and the Klan was forced to leave its weapons at home.
A similar argument also succeeded soon after in North Carolina, and Zelikow said groups like those in Charlottesville that are mixing weaponry and political activism could be subject to similar legal challenges. “These problems haven’t come up much in recent decades,” Zelikow said. “The issue subsided and memory fades but here we are again.”
Most states have restrictions on private military-like groups. Zelikow was contacted by lawyers from Oklahoma this week, asking if their state had such a law on the books. “It took me about five minutes to find,” he said. Zelikow is now trying to form a team of lawyers to bring a case in Virginia.
Thousands of people, divided into two opposing sides, squaring off in public. Some come armed, looking to damage property and wreak havoc. Many filter in from out of town, complicating efforts by police to negotiate peace in advance.
It’s a scenario European authorities know well, though with a different kind of group: soccer hooligans.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former supervisor in the Israel National Police, said cops in the Netherlands use a “situation-oriented” model to keep violent rival soccer fans under control.
That framework trains officers in perceptual skills, helping them develop the emotional intelligence to read members of crowds and make sound judgments about which situations are truly dangerous. Officers are put through simulations in which they can achieve positive, nonfatal outcomes. Trainings are handled in groups, not individually, so that in the field, officers are less likely to misinterpret any of their colleagues’ motions or actions.
“European police forces are light years ahead of us in terms of training.” Haberfeld said. “It’s not something you can train police officers to do in half an hour. It’s a serious commitment.”
Reaching that level of training may not be feasible in the U.S., where local municipalities set their own academy protocols. (And demonstrations are less frequent than soccer matches.) The training in the U.S. typically lasts just a few months, compared to the couple of years that European police cadets get.
In Germany, police forces commonly have specialized units assigned to each side of a potentially violent protest. Officers meet with the groups’ leaders in advance and discuss plans for the protest in detail, including symbols that are forbidden for display by the government.
Protest leaders can be denied permits to demonstrate because of criminal records, forcing them to turn leadership of the event over to another member of the group. They’re also asked to assign deputies from within their organization who can help the group’s leader keep things under control. Those assistants also have their records vetted by the police before being approved.
Once at the event, the specialized police units show up in distinctive yellow vests, and without riot gear, so they can mix in with the demonstrators less threateningly. When officers see someone with a banned weapon, they sometimes will only film the demonstrator and make an arrest later.
“It is important for us, is not to have a negative solidarity spillover effect. … If we disarm a person or act against a small group of potentially violent protestors, other people around solidarize with them against the police,” said Elke Heilig, head of the anti-conflict team in Pforzheim, Germany. “This leads towards escalation.”
Keeping Peaceful Protesters Away
Social media gives hate groups a new megaphone for getting the word out about their rallies, opening up communication with many previously fragmented niche groups and helping lead to larger gatherings, experts said. A big crowd is inherently harder to police, but what makes the scenario even more vexing for law enforcement is that they’re now dealing with not just one or two groups, but many, along with unaffiliated individuals.
“People are coming in from disparate places and disparate groups who don’t answer to any single authority. A Klan leader can tell his folks to stand down,” said Levin, a former NYPD officer. “Social media has been a magnet not only for haters but for unstable haters.”
Some municipalities are responding by using social media tools to dissuade some activists from showing up. City officials in Berkeley, California, have experimented with discouraging peaceful protesters from attending demonstrations they expect to be violent.
In March, fights broke out between supporters and opponents of the president at a demonstration near the Berkeley campus. Some of the unruly counter-protesters were believed to be affiliated with black bloc, an anarchist group whose members are known to wear black and mask their faces. Mayhem ensued. In one case, a man wearing a “Trump is My President” shirt had his face bloodied.
“There are people who come intent on committing violence and they look for ways to subvert whatever you set up,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. “There are people who use peaceful protesters as shields. They blend into crowds after they commit their acts.”
In April, before another planned demonstration, the city launched a messaging campaign suggesting peaceful protesters keep their distance. “Consider whether the approach others advertise is the style and venue for you,” one alert read, warning of violent protesters. “Reaching out to organizations or individuals in need is an alternative to conflict. When people at an event act in a way that compromises your values and goals, separate yourself.”
The number of peaceful protesters dropped significantly, Chakko said, and the city is taking a similar approach with an unpermitted, white nationalist demonstration expected later this month. The alert the city sent out Wednesday was direct: “The best response for those seeking to safeguard our community is to stay away.”
Barriers and Chain-Link Fences
Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on police reform efforts in Los Angeles, said the most fundamental strategy for dueling demonstrations is keeping the two sides separate, with physical obstacles and police in between. “Create a human barrier so the flash points are reduced as quickly as possible,” she said.
Law enforcement will sometimes quarantine protesting hate groups inside concentric chain link fences, creating a large empty space between opposing groups. Those entering the inner ring are sent through metal detectors.
A group that included many people who were college-educated or ex-military displayed effective planning. “White people are pretty good at getting organized,” said one. Read the story.
At an anti-Sharia protest in San Bernardino, California earlier this year, the two groups were kept on opposite sides of the street, with horse-mounted cops there to prevent protesters from crossing over.
The lack of space to separate the factions was a widely noted problem in Charlottesville. The massive demonstration was allowed to take place inside a small downtown park, making it more difficult for police to insert themselves and separate the two sides. “The two groups are both trying to occupy the same area and this doesn’t give police a lot of maneuverability,” said John Kleinig, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Demonstrators ended up spilling out beyond the park, and one counter-protester was killed when an Ohio man allegedly plowed his car into a crowd a few blocks away from the park.
Demonstrations can in some ways be easier to control in concentrated urban areas, where police use tall buildings with little or no space in between them as barriers. And smaller city police forces generally have less training in large crowd control.
“I’m former NYPD,” Levin said. “We had grid patterns and streets we could block off, put a wedge in when we had an unruly crowds. … You have people hemmed in by structures and street grid patterns. In smaller places, people can spread out in all different directions.”
Since the weekend, amid criticism of their handling of the demonstration, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas acknowledged that crowd’s spread led to problems.
“We had to actually send out forces to multiple locations to deal with a number of disturbances,” he said. “It was certainly a challenge. We were spread thin once the groups dispersed.”
Special correspondent Pia Dangelmayer in Germany contributed to this story.
The neo-Nazis with whom Donald Trump openly sympathizes fit a psychological profile for the most part, according to two psychologists who just released a survey on the subject. Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily, researchers from the University of Arkansas and Northwestern University respectively, compiled their findings into a working paper titled “A Psychological Profile of the Alt-Right.” To arrive at their conclusions, they polled 447 neo-Nazis who self-identify as members of the “alt-right,” and compared their answers with 382 non-group affiliated survey subjects.
Writing at Vox, Brian Resnick highlights Forscher and Kteily’s most salient conclusions. The two researchers found that much of what seems obvious about the neo-Nazis of the alt-right — their racist outlook, their dehumanization of others — holds true when members are questioned about their beliefs. Especially because the respondents were so forthcoming, as Resnick notes. The era of the loud and proud white racist is upon us, from Charlottesville to the White House.
Forscher and Kteily also found a slight schism among the self-identified alt-right respondents, with some skewing more extremist than others. They labeled the less extreme alt-right members “populists,” while more extreme members were clustered into a subgroup they called “supremacists.” They note that the difference might be a matter of indoctrination level. “It is possible, for example, that the clusters represent two stages in a developmental trajectory of alt-right identification, with people starting in the populist cluster and then moving into the supremacist cluster as they acquire more alt-right friends — a possibility consistent with our finding that those in the supremacist cluster were relatively ideologically embedded among fellow alt-righters. Becoming more embedded within alt-right social networks may further motivate people to express prejudice, both for value-based and normative reasons, causing more dehumanization and aggression.”
Forscher and Kteily hope that examining the thinking of alt-righties may contribute to changing their beliefs. “If we can change the motivation to express prejudice,” they suggested to Resnick, “maybe that gives us a way to prevent aggression.”
Here are seven things to know about the mindset of the alt-right.
1. They’re not lone wolves.
Every time some white guy gets into major trouble, especially if it involves violence against others, someone brings up how quiet he was, what an unassuming loner he seemed to be. We’ve seen this a bunch of times before, from Dylann Roof to Adam Lanza, and now in the case of James Alex Field Jr., who viciously killed Heather Heyer with his car on Saturday. The New York Times cited sources who alternately described Field as a “very quiet little boy” who “had some trouble in school making friends” and “kept to himself a lot.” No one describes him as “no angel” — that kind of talk is reserved for unarmed black kids who are killed by cops — but it should be implied by the crime.
In any case, this inherently sympathetic idea doesn’t hold up here. The researchers write that “compared to the non-alt-right sample, the alt-right reported relatively similar levels of closeness . . . to their friends.” Sure, that doesn’t discount the idea that maybe some of these guys are archetypal loners who found community in the alt-right. But that never seems to engender much sympathy for gang members when they commit crimes, so not sure there’s much difference here.
2. It’s not the economy, stupid.
Producing articles about the economic anxiety that plagues Trump’s base has become a virtual cottage industry at certain media outlets. (I see you, New York Times.) That’s a good way of ginning up sympathy for Trump’s most fervent supporters — including the alt-right — but a bad way of getting to the truth of what truly motivates them. The short answer to that question is, racism and bigotry.
Forscher and Kteily had alt-right respondents “assess each of their personal economic” situations and “rate whether they expected their personal and the national economic situations to get worse or improve.” Not only did respondents not report any uniquely high worries about the economy, researchers write that “the alt-right expected more improvement in the state of the economy relative to the non-alt-right sample.”
3. They think other groups are less human.
Unsurprisingly, alt-right adherents saw other racial and religious groups as less human and evolved than white people, who were rated, of course, as the most fully human of all.
Using a scale of 1 to 100, respondents rated white people’s humanity at 91.8, Jews at 73.09, Mexicans at 67.75, black people at 64.72, Arabs at 58.77, and Muslims at 55.4. The respondents scored men’s humanness at 88.47 and women’s at 83.12, while feminists’ humanity ranked far below at 57.22. Weirdly, at the very bottom of the list was Hillary Clinton, whose humanity they placed at 54.83.
Dehumanization is at the heart of every campaign of genocide and system of oppression. Dehumanization yields a justice system that criminalizes, over-polices and over-incarcerates entire groups, which is horrifying enough. When you continue the trend of describing people as not fully human, it becomes a lot easier to put them in gas chambers and internment camps; render them as chattel property; or kill off the native people of countries you’ve colonized.
4. They’re pretty open about their anti-black racism.
Vox notes that alt-righties co-signed statements including “I avoid interactions with black people,” “My beliefs motivate me to express negative feelings about black people,” and, “I minimize my contact with black people.” The outlet goes on to note:
Forscher explains it like this. When he runs these questions on samples of college students, he usually sees average scores around 2 (out of 9, meaning people largely don’t agree with these questions). “In the alt-right samples, I’m seeing numbers around 3 or 4, relatively close to the midpoint. In all the samples I’ve worked with, I haven’t seen means at that level.” In other words, members of the alt-right are unabashed in declaring their prejudices.
Why would you worry about expressing your prejudices when they’re shared with people like the president? No wonder they’ve taken off the sheets and masks.
5. They score highly in ‘dark triad’ traits.
The alt-right grew out of trollism, a culture that festered and grew in the bowels of 4chan and Reddit. Studies of trolls have found they score highly in “dark triad” personality traits, a trio that includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Turns out that the apple doesn’t far fall from the rotting tree. Alt-right adherents have higher than normal levels of these traits. Forscher and Kteily emphasize that these personality traits are “associated with callous, manipulative behavior.”
6. They are unashamedly aggressive.
Researchers looked into “the self-reported frequency of online and offline name-calling, physical threats, harassment, and making statements because others find them offensive” as well as doxxing “and sharing memes intended to offend others.” Alt-right respondents were much more likely to report engaging in those behaviors than non-members of the alt-right. Those who researchers identified as supremacists were most likely to admit having perpetrated those acts.
7. They believe in collective action for whites, and no one else.
An actual majority of white Americans believes anti-black racism is over, and a significant number believe whites experience more racism than blacks. So it’s not that surprising that members of the overwhelmingly white alt-right think like most of their white American counterparts. Guess that makes that thinking not so “fringe,” huh? These are the beliefs, by and large, of many white Americans.
Where alt-righties scored higher than other people is in their support for “collective action on behalf of white people.” In large part, they agreed with the statement, “I think there are good reasons to have organizations that look out for the interests of whites.” There’s a circularity here that seems self-evident: if you see yourself as a victim of some imaginary multicultural takeover and think groups that are focused on white power — like the alt-right or the Trump coalition — are doing the right thing, you’re likely to join those groups. The more indoctrinated you are as a member of those groups, the more likely you are to believe in their necessity, however much observable reality and peer-reviewed studies prove that thinking wrong.
For the record, despite the alt-right’s insistence that everyone should be proud and fight for their own rights, alt-right members were less keen on the idea in practice. They were particularly likely to register opposition to Black Lives Matter, and to agree with the statement, “I think [BLM] has been very harmful to our country.” (BLM has been bad for the U.S., by this logic, but the Klan hasn’t. Absolutely stunning how these people will twist rational thought to fit an agenda.) It’s worth noting that both the alt-right populists and white supremacists gave high levels of support to these ideas.
Donald Trump’s remarks on Tuesday defending violent Nazi and white supremacist demonstrators have torn the already threadbare mask from the face of American capitalism. The president of the United States stood before the media to give his support to the “very fine people” involved in the rally in Charlottesville this past weekend, while attacking supposedly “violent” left-wing protesters.
The response of the president to the violence in Charlottesville cannot but have the most far-reaching consequences internationally and within the United States. World War II, which established US hegemony over the world capitalist system, was presented as a war against fascism. Every war over the past quarter-century, justified with the rhetoric of “democracy” and “human rights,” was supposedly waged to overthrow one or another head of state described as the modern incarnation of Hitler. Now, the supposed leader of the “free world” has revealed his fascist sympathies.
Within the United States, Trump’s comments will fuel growing social and political anger. Millions of people already view the state and its institutions with hostility and contempt. While Trump and pro-Nazi advisers such as Stephen Bannon seek to exploit political confusion and alienation to develop an extra-parliamentary far-right movement, there is not yet a mass constituency for fascism. The mobilization of neo-Nazis from across the country to Charlottesville drew only a few hundred people, compared to the hundreds of thousands who turned out to protest Trump’s inauguration.
Nevertheless, the events in Charlottesville and the response of the White House must be taken by the working class both in the United States and internationally as a sharp warning. In the absence of a mass independent movement of the working class against both parties and the entire political establishment, there is a real danger of a growth of fascism in America.
The exposure of the authoritarian outlook not only of Trump, but of the financial oligarchy he personifies, is at the center of the political crisis within the ruling class. A growing list of CEOs announced their resignation from Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum and his Manufacturing Council, prompting the president to disband both panels yesterday afternoon. Leading congressmen, Democratic and Republican, have condemned the president and his remarks. Former presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, as well as four members of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued statements opposing racism.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who helped implement torture programs and NSA spying, called Trump’s comments a “national disgrace” that will put “our national security and our collective futures at grave risk.”
The actions and statements of these representatives of the ruling class constitute an exercise in hypocrisy and cover-up. As if the fascistic proclivities of Trump were not clearly established! According to many reports, Trump vented his pro-fascist views to his top aides on many occasions. This means they were known throughout Washington and in the media, which sought to conceal them from the public.
An article by Mark Landler posted on the New York Times website on Wednesday (“Trump Refuses to Set a Moral Standard, Abandoning a Tradition”) lays out the real concerns motivating the ruling class. Landler complains that Trump has “abdicated what presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan have regarded as a cardinal duty of their job: to set a moral course for the nation.”
As examples of the “moral standard” set by previous presidents, Landler cites Reagan’s farewell address in 1989, George W. Bush’s address to Congress following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and Barack Obama’s appeal “to the best in Americans through a heartbreaking succession of police shootings and racially motivated killings.” Other presidents had “moral shortcomings,” Landler concludes, “but until now no president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership.”
According to this conception, all the problems of American society and politics stem from the individual failings of Trump. As the New York Times put it succinctly and crudely in its editorial on Wednesday: “The root of the problem is not the personnel; it is the man at the top.”
But Trump, for all his disgusting personal traits, is the outcome of a long political evolution. The past half-century has seen a staggering process of political decay and degeneration, overseen by the “moral guardians” cited by the Times.
Nixon was brought down by the Watergate scandal, amid revelations of the criminal activities of American imperialism all over the world. Carter launched the US proxy war in Afghanistan that led to the creation of Al Qaeda. Reagan initiated a social counterrevolution while presiding over an illegal and secret war of subversion in Nicaragua run from the basement of the White House. George H. W. Bush invaded Panama and carried out the first invasion of Iraq. Clinton repeatedly bombed Iraq and imposed brutal sanctions that killed thousands of Iraqis. He followed this up with the air war against Serbia. George W. Bush, who came to power through the theft of an election, initiated wars that killed more than a million people and sanctioned torture as an instrument of policy. Obama, the candidate of “hope” and “change,” institutionalized drone assassinations and domestic spying, while handing out hundreds of billions of dollars to Wall Street.
The Times and the political and media establishment prefer that the criminal policies of the ruling elite be clothed in democratic phrases about human rights and brotherly love.
The election of Trump was a turning point. He is attempting to incite and legitimize the development of a fascist movement that appeals to the growing desperation and alienation of broad sections of the population. But his defense of Nazi violence reflects not simply the backward and reactionary outlook of one individual. With Trump, all the crimes of the financial aristocracy that runs the United States have erupted onto the surface of political life for all the world to see.
The media presents the statements of CEOs and military and intelligence officials such as Brennan as if they are the political antidote to the virus of Trump. In fact, the ever-greater political influence of the military and intelligence agencies—to which the Democrats have directed their entire appeal since the election of Trump—is another form of the breakup of American democracy. It is one more symptom of the same disease.
The fight against Trump must be developed from below—through a movement of the working class—not through the methods of palace coup.
The working class must intervene with its own socialist and revolutionary program. It cannot allow the fight against the Trump administration to be subordinated to any faction of the ruling class. Opposition to authoritarianism and fascism must be connected to opposition to war, social inequality, unemployment, poverty and the attack on health care and public education. The vast wealth of the financial oligarchy must be seized and the giant banks and corporations that exercise a dictatorship over social and economic life turned into public utilities.
The diseased government of oligarchs and generals, the cockpit of conspiracies to wage war and impose dictatorship, must be replaced by a genuinely democratic workers’ government.
“This was our Beer Hall Putsch. This was the beginning of our revolution.”
Thus concluded a post on the Daily Stormer, a popular American neo-Nazi website in which the author, Andrew Anglin, recapped the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend.
The original “Beer Hall Putsch” was the first Nazi spectacle in 1923. It was modeled explicitly after Mussolini’s March on Rome. The putsch was an attempt by Hitler, the leader of the nascent Nazi Party, to seize power from the German government by marching to the center of Munich, alongside 2,000 fellow Nazis.
The putsch failed, amounting to little more than a crazed mob. Hitler was arrested and charged with treason. But the event became central to Hitler’s rise, as he used the subsequent trial to perform fiery speeches that were printed and reprinted in German newspapers.
On Sunday, I reached out to Timothy Snyder, a professor of European history at Yale University. Snyder has made a career of studying the history of 20th century fascism, and earlier this year released a book titled On Tyranny, a tightly argued warning about the dangers of encroaching American fascism.
I wanted to know what he thought about the events this weekend in Charlottesville, about the fact that the self-described alt-right protesters were shouting chants like “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” (the latter a direct reference to Nazi ideology), and about President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to condemn white supremacy in clear terms.
“There are moments,” he told me, “when there isn’t a gray zone, when there isn’t really room for nuance, where if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking.” Saturday was one such moment, and Trump’s insistence that the violence is “on many sides” was a missed opportunity to take a stand against an emergent threat.
You can read our full conversation below.
What was your reaction, as a historian of fascism and a citizen, to what you saw yesterday?
Well, my very first reaction has to do with the codependence of the American far right and Islamic terrorism. This is an administration that depends, for its legitimacy, on the threat of Islamic terrorism. And it makes policy which would seem to make Muslim terrorism more likely (i.e., the Muslim ban).
And then, at the same time, you have this incident in Charlottesville, where an American right-wing terrorist tried to take the lives of people by driving his car into a crowd of citizens, which I immediately recognized as a copycat attack modeled on the last several Muslim terrorist events in Europe, in Nice and England in particular.
That was the very first thing that struck me, that American white nationalist terrorists are copying the very people they say they abhor, that they claim to be defending us from.
Obviously, there’s nothing new about white nationalists or neo-Nazis in America, but did yesterday strike you as a flash point event that might trigger more organized violence?
As your question indicates, this really depends on us. It depends on how local government reacts, how state government reacts. It depends on people keeping their heads. It depends upon law enforcement enforcing a law. In a normal situation, I would say that it depends upon how the federal government reacts. But we know that we’re not in a normal situation. What’s most striking, if you want to try to link what happened yesterday to our own history, is that we now have a president who doesn’t regard Nazis as a symbol of evil.
That’s the really striking thing. His reaction to this event is to say that everyone is at fault, and we should all hold together. That’s not the reaction that one would expect from the president of the United States. But it is consistent with what I’ve been trying to get across for the past few months. It’s consistent with Trump and Steven Bannon’s attempt to do away with the part of the American story that celebrates entering and winning the Second World War. It’s consistent with their attempt to do away with the part of the American identity that has to do with being anti-fascist, or anti-Nazi. It’s consistent with their botching the Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. It’s consistent with the utterly bizarre way that Sean Spicer talked about the Holocaust, when he said Hitler didn’t kill his own people. It’s consistent with Trump being the first major American politician in recent memory to skip visiting the Ghetto Memorial when he came to Warsaw in August.
And above all, it’s consistent with his “America First” slogan. This is what America First means. America First means an America where a Nazi Germany was not the enemy. So that’s the broad historical circle. We have an administration which has “America First.” What “America First” meant when it was used during the WWII era was that we should not resist Nazi Germany. Mr. Trump’s remarks on Saturday are totally consistent with that.
This is who and what the administration has been from the very beginning.
It’s also consistent with Trump’s conspicuous unwillingness to offend or alienate white nationalists, on whom he apparently depends for votes.
With Mr. Trump, there are two questions. There’s a question of his own convictions, and there’s the question of what he sees as politically useful. In terms of his own convictions, well before he became a politician, he was doing quite dubious things. For example, publishing that ad in 1989 in New York in which he prematurely called for the death penalty for those five African Americans falsely accused of rape. I just don’t think he would have done that if those people had not been African Americans.
I find it very striking that basically everybody on the alt-right sees Trump as part of their story. They all think that Trump is a stepping stone toward where America should be going. The white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, for example, talked about Trump as John the Baptist, which means he thinks Trump is clearing the way for the world Spencer wants to create, which is this white supremacist America.
When the stakes are this high, when we’re confronting this kind of violence, the difference between actively enabling and refusing to condemn is negligible.
There are moments, there are times, when there isn’t a gray zone, when there isn’t really room for nuance, where, if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking.And if you’re the president of the United States, you’re literally the last person in the country who has the right to indulge in nuance, who has the right to stay in some of kind gray zone at this time.
In other words, Mr. Trump’s failure is the greatest failure that one can imagine in this situation. There are things he could do that are worse, of course. He could actually endorse National Socialism in so many words. But short of that, not recognizing that these events, in their moral and historical seriousness, is just about the worst thing that a chief executive can do.
When you look at what’s happening right now, do you see echoes of 20th century European fascism? And by echoes I don’t simply mean parallels — those are obvious enough. I mean, do you see reasons to be seriously alarmed?
Okay, let me try to break that down and answer it in a calm way. First of all, it’s of course true that America has a history of the extreme right. We have a history of fascism, and even National Socialism. In 1939, you could get 20,000 people to Madison Square Garden to listen to a pro-Nazi speech. The tamer view of America First, that the Nazis are basically our allies in the civilizational struggle, that view attracted much, much more support than that. And, in general, the America of the ’20s and ’30s was not so different from the Central and East European societies that we now tend to criticize for their historical anti-Semitism.
Is there an increase in this racism, in this anti-Semitism? Yes. Everybody who measures this sort of thing says that there has been since the end of last year. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that there’s been an increase in incidents of the threats and violence under the Trump administration. Are we at a point where we should say that this is a threat to the system of the society as such? No, we’re not at that point yet.
But when the Daily Stormer writes today that “This was our Beer Hall Putsch,” they’re referring to the history of the German National Socialist Party. So in order to see the phenomenon for what it is, we have to have some sense of the history. The neo-Nazis are well aware of their own history, as it were. And we have to recognize what’s in front of us.
You stress constantly the importance of language. Terms like “fascist” and “Nazi” have been emptied of meaning over the years due to overuse or misuse. But they absolutely apply here, and the people about whom we’re talking happily embrace them. So how do you think we should talk about these groups, how should we engage them? What sort of language is necessary?
I think you make a good point that the terms suffer from erosion. And I think the only way to react is to always use terms with precision oneself. So when one refers to Richard Spencer as a leading American white supremacist, that’s exactly what he is. That’s how he describes himself. When one uses the word “fascist,” that’s a word that almost no one uses to describe themselves. So one has to have some definition of what a fascist is.
For example, a fascist is someone who believes in will over reason, whose politics begins with separating the outsider from the insider. A fascist is someone who believes that the main issue with global politics is a conspiracy against one’s own group. Given all that, it’s safe to call the kinds of people we’re talking about “fascist.”
The second thing, I think, one has to do is to build context around the people that we’re talking about. So if the language they use or the symbols they employ or the torches they carry are conscious references to Nazi Germany, which they are, then we have to fill in the context, we have to thicken those references, so that people remember all that is involved, in what they’re talking about.
And I think the final thing one has to do is to remember that history is there so that we can see the present, not so that we can dismiss the present. People often say, “Well, this is not exactly like 1933. Therefore, it’s not a big deal.” That misses the point. The point is to use the past to recognize the present, to see what’s actually going on in the present.
If we fail to do this, if we fail to see what’s happening in front of our faces, we will not be prepared for what comes next.
Two days late, Donald Trump has finally condemned violent white supremacists. He was pushed into it by a storm of outrage at his initial failure to do so in the wake of deadly violence to Charlottesville, Virginia.
But it’s too little, too late. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce hateful violence has been part of his political strategy from the start.
Weeks after he began his campaign by alleging that Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists, two brothers in Boston beat up and urinated on a 58-year-old homeless Mexican national, subsequently telling police “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”
Instead of condemning the brutality, Trump excused it by saying “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”
During campaign rallies Trump repeatedly excused brutality toward protesters. “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
After white supporters punched and attempted to choke a Black Lives Matter protester, Trump said “maybe he should have been roughed up.”
Trump was even reluctant to distance himself from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.
Since becoming president, Trump’s instigations have continued. As Representative Mark Sanford, a Republican from South Carolina, told the Washington Post, “the president has unearthed some demons.”
In May, Trump congratulated body-slamming businessman Greg Gianforte on his special election win in Montana, making no mention of the victor’s attack on a reporter the night before.
Weeks ago Trump even tweeted a video clip of himself in a WWE professional wrestling match slamming a CNN avatar to the ground and pounding him with punches and elbows to the head.
Hateful violence is hardly new to America. But never before has a president licensed it as a political strategy or considered haters part of his political base.
In his second week as president, Trump called Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association to the White House.
Soon thereafter, LaPierre told gun owners they should fear “leftists” and the “national media machine” that were “an enemy utterly dedicated to destroy not just our country, but also Western civilization.”
Since then the NRA has run ads with the same theme, concluding “the only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth.”
It’s almost as if someone had declared a new civil war. But who? And for what purpose?
One clue came earlier last week in a memo from Rich Higgins, who had been director for strategic planning in Trump’s National Security Council.
Entitled “POTUS & Political Warfare,” Higgins wrote the seven-page document in May, which was recently leaked to Foreign Policy Magazine.
In it Higgins charges that a cabal of leftist “deep state” government workers, “globalists,” bankers, adherents to Islamic fundamentalism and establishment Republicans want to impose cultural Marxism in the United States. “Recognizing in candidate Trump an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative, those that benefit recognize the threat he poses and seek his destruction.”
There you have it. Trump’s goal has never been to promote guns or white supremacy or to fuel attacks on the press and the left. These may be means, but the goal has been to build and fortify his power. And keep him in power even if it’s found that he colluded with Russia to get power.
Trump and his consigliere Steve Bannon have been quietly encouraging a civil war between Trump’s base of support – mostly white and worried – and everyone who’s not.
It’s built on economic stresses and racial resentments. It’s fueled by paranoia. And it’s conveyed by Trump’s winks and nods haters, and his deafening silence in the face of their violence.
A smaller version of the civil war extends even into the White House, where Bannon and his protégés are doing battle with leveler heads.
National security advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster fired Higgins. Reportedly, Trump was furious at the firing.
McMaster was quick to term the Charlottesville violence “terrorism.” Ivanka Trump denounced “racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.” Reportedly, chief of staff John Kelly pushed Trump to condemn the haters who descended on Charlottesville.
Let’s hope the leveler heads win the civil war in the White House. Let’s pray the leveler heads in our society prevent the civil war Trump and Bannon want to instigate in America.
Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. His latest book is “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.” His website is www.robertreich.org.
The eruption of Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend has come as a shock to millions of people in the United States and around the world. The images of pro-Nazi white supremacists assaulting counter-protesters and the brutal murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer have exposed the socially and politically rancid state of American society. Nazi thugs rampaged through a university town and terrorized students and other residents while smirking policemen stood by and winked their encouragement to the attackers. The country that presumes to preach morality to the world and holds itself up as the beacon of law and democratic stability is breaking apart at the seams.
There is a vast difference between the deep-felt anger of millions of ordinary people over the events in Charlottesville and the formal hand-wringing and hypocritical condemnations of violence by politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties and the corporate media. Their statements reek of insincerity. Their pro forma denunciations of the violence in Charlottesville are devoid of any serious examination of the underlying social and political conditions out of which it arose.
Typical was Monday’s editorial (“The Hate He Dares Not Speak Of”) in the New York Times, which speaks for the Democratic Party. The editors criticized Trump for not condemning the white supremacist groups responsible for the violence. They declared that Trump “is alone in modern presidential history in his willingness to summon demons of bigotry and intolerance in service to himself.” The president is clinging to white supremacists, the editors added, “in his desperation to rescue his failing presidency.”
Were it not for Trump, the Times implies, the streets of America would resound with hymns of brotherly love. But the “Evil Trump” interpretation of history explains nothing. The swaggering thug in the White House is, like the violence in Charlottesville, a symptom of a deep and intractable crisis.
As a political and social phenomenon, fascism is a product of capitalism in extreme crisis. Analyzing the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany in 1932, Trotsky explained that the ruling class turns to fascism “at the moment when the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium… Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat—all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” (“What Next? Vital Question for the German Proletariat”)
Fascism is not yet a mass movement in the United States. The national mobilization of far-right organizations to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee drew only several hundred people.
Notwithstanding their limited support among the broad mass of the population, however, these reactionary elements enjoy the backing of powerful sections of the state, including the White House itself. They have the financial support of billionaire backers (Stephen Bannon, Trump’s fascistic chief strategist, has developed close ties to hedge fund executive Robert Mercer). And they have the active sympathy of significant sections of the police and military apparatus.
Throughout his campaign and his first seven months in office, Trump and his fascistic advisors have pursued a definite political strategy, based on the belief that they can exploit widespread social anger and political disorientation to develop an extra-parliamentary movement to violently suppress any popular opposition to a policy of extreme militarism and social reaction.
However, Trump is less the creator than the outcome of protracted economic, social and political processes. His administration, composed of oligarchs and generals, arises out of a quarter-century of unending war, four decades of social counterrevolution and the increasingly authoritarian character of American politics. Torture, drone assassinations, wars of aggression, police murder—overseen by both Democrats and Republicans—form the backdrop to the events in Charlottesville.
Trump’s greatest asset has been the character and orientation of his political opponents within the ruling class. He defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election because the Democrats ran as the party of the status quo, the embodiment of complacency and self-satisfaction. Since the election, their opposition to Trump has been oriented entirely to the intelligence agencies and the military, where fascist elements flourish, on the basis of demands for a more aggressive policy against Russia. They are unable and unwilling to advance a program that can command any significant popular support since they represent an alliance of Wall Street and privileged layers of the upper-middle class.
Trump has been able to win a certain base in regions of the country that have been devastated by deindustrialization, profiting from the reactionary role of the trade unions, which long ago abandoned any opposition to the demands of the corporations, promoting instead the poisonous ideology of economic nationalism. The “American first” agenda of the Trump administration has found fertile ground among the privileged and thoroughly corrupt trade union executives.
An additional ideological factor has served to fuel the rise of white nationalist organizations: the legitimization of explicitly racialist politics by the Democratic Party. While the Democrats and their media affiliates have denounced the openly racist actions of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the fact remains that the white nationalists have been aided and abetted by the relentless promotion by the Democratic Party and its allies of race as the primary category of social and political analysis.
Endless columns and articles have appeared in the pages of the New YorkTimes and other publications promoting the concept of “whiteness” and “white privilege.” It was Times columnist Charles Blow who, in a June 2016 column denouncing the film Free State of Jones, attacked “the white liberal insistence that race is merely a subordinate construction of class.” As the World Socialist Web Site commented at the time, Blow “is not a fascist, but he thinks very much like one.”
The obsessive fixation on racial politics, from the Democratic Party and the fraternity of pseudo-left organizations that operate in its orbit, reached a peak in the election campaign of Hillary Clinton, which was organized on the principal that all social problems are reducible to race and racism, and that the grievances of workers who are white are the product not of unemployment and poverty, but of racism and privilege.
The racialist interpretation of politics, culture and society by the Democrats was politically convenient in that it served to divert attention from the issues of social inequality and war, while blaming white workers—not the capitalist system and the ruling class—for the election of Trump.
As the Trump administration was intensifying its cultivation of fascistic forces over the past several months, Google—in alliance with those sections of the state particularly associated with the Democratic Party—was implementing a program of censorship targeting left-wing and progressive websites, above all, the World Socialist Web Site. The response of all factions of the ruling class to the social and political crisis that has produced Trump is to seek to block and suppress any challenge to the capitalist system.
Long historical experience has demonstrated that fascism can be fought only through the mobilization of the working class on a socialist and revolutionary program. The fight against the extreme right must be developed through the unification of all sections of the working class, of all races, genders and nationalities. Opposition to fascism must be connected to the fight against war, social inequality, unemployment, low wages, police violence and all the social ills produced by capitalism.
So long as the interests of the working class are not articulated and advanced by taking on an independent political form, it is the forces of the extreme right that will benefit. The urgent task is to build a revolutionary leadership in the working class.