by Mike Isaacson
NEO-NAZIS AND OTHER HATE GROUPS are taking to the streets, yet establishment Democrats and centrist think tanks are taking aim at the only force offering any material opposition: antifa. Politicians like Democratic Mayor Jesse Arreguin and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi have fallen in line with their fascist counterparts, calling for law enforcement to crack down on antifa. Centrist civil rights organization the Anti-Defamation League also called for police infiltration and surveillance of antifa actions before quickly retracting that statement the same day.
Even with all the attention, many still don’t know what antifa is. Antifa is a decentralized, informal network of individuals and organizations committed to opposing fascism. It exposes influential fascist individuals and groups who attempt to operate in secret, and prevents them from spreading their hateful ideologies by shutting down their public events. When fascists come to town, antifascists – those who identify with antifa – build relationships with local communities to counter Nazis directly. In Charlottesville, where a nazi killed one antifascist and injured 19 others using his car as a weapon, antifascists, clergy, and other community organizations came together to oppose a far-right rally providing shelter, medical care, food, and legal support to the community and its allies as Solidarity Cville.
While prominent Zionist organizations ensure that we “never forget” the holocaust, they don’t seem to understand antifa’s importance in ensuring “never again.” After Charlottesville, ADL President Jonathan Greenblatt joined President Trump in comparing antifascists, including slain activist Heather Heyer, to our fascist opponents tweeting, “whether by #AltRight or #Antifa, no excuses for violence.” Zionist Organization of America President Morton A. Klein released a similar statement. Writing for Jewish Daily Forward, Bethany Mandel suggested last week that Jews are better off befriending nazis, offering little in the way of instruction on how to do so.
COMPARING ANTIFA TO NAZIS and imploring people to befriend them demonstrates an ignorance of the foundation of fascist ideologies, the danger fascists present, and the community-based organizing necessary to combat them. Fighting fascism as an ideology requires a broad community-based strategy. This strategy must not be oriented toward individual moral absolution, but rather toward building community structures that make fascist ideology unappealing and fascist political organizing impossible. It requires confrontation of fascists, counter-recruitment and other tactics, none of which are “befriending.”
Having been a part of the antifascist movement for the past six years, I have spent a fair amount of time researching, counter-protesting, and even rhetorically engaging Nazis. My activities have included organizing a community response to a march of the now-defunct Aryan Nations in 2012 as well as drawing swarms of angry internet trolls in my attempt to shut down a 2015 conference for Richard Spencer’s think tank.
Despite what I was told at the time and am still occasionally told now, fascism isn’t fringe. According to a recent Washington Post poll, nine percent of Americans find neo-nazi views “acceptable.” Though it may come as a shock to most people that 29,000,000 Americans passively approve of nazism, to antifascists who research fascist individuals, movements, and ideologies this is unsurprising.
This large number is partially explained by the fact that our present economic system conditions all of us to embrace fascist ideology. Nazism, a category of fascism, is actually not centered around the bigotries or conspiracy theories it’s known for, but emerges from the individual will to dominate in the abstract. These ideologies extend the conditioning of our present economic system — individualism, competition, and accumulation — into social forms of organizing.
Rather than resisting the economic system, fascists seek apparently immutable social groupings to ally themselves with, usually falling along the lines of existing social identity categories (e.g, nationality, race). As Richard Spencer put it in a Texas A & M speech, “Our enemy can define who we are, whether we want to define ourselves as such or not. We are white, so that is the foundation of identity.”
From here, the ideology becomes an anti-rational (they actually call it that!) quest to justify the conquest of one’s identity group over others. This usually involves dismissing information inconvenient to their worldview on the basis of authorship and spinning conspiracies about a plot against their identity group.
THE MOTIVATIONS for embracing a fascist ideology are varied. Described by scholars as a “political religion”, fascism draws people in because it explains their position in life, especially a position that cannot otherwise be explained by capitalism’s myth of meritocracy. On the one hand, victims of abuse and poverty may come to fascism because it explains that their plight is a result of a lack of the will or ability to dominate others. The Southern Poverty Law Center cites severe PTSD as one reason Nathan Damigo, founder of white nationalist organization Identity Evropa, was drawn to fascism. In a series of blog posts and YouTube videos, many of which have been taken down, neo-nazi Tila Tequila explained her “awakening” to embracing Hitler as part of her escape from the entertainment industry. On the other, those born into privilege may be drawn to fascism because it justifies their unwarranted social position on the basis of a destiny to dominate others. Matthew Heimbach, leader of Traditionalist Worker Party, was raised in a rich Maryland suburb. Richard Spencer, prominent white nationalist, was born into the multimillion dollar wealth of subsidized cotton farms.
Fascism takes the sense of alienation and isolation felt as a result of our economic system and embraces that feeling as a moral virtue and organizing principle. In so doing, the fascist defines themselves as adversaries of out-groups, denying both their rights as people as well as the truth of anything they might argue.
Antifascism opposes this indoctrination by any means necessary. If we’re going to act as Jews in solidarity with the whole of humanity, we must strategically consider how to make tough moral choices in the face of a fascist movement able to draw hundreds wielding torches to attack peaceful protestors unprovoked as happened in Charlottesville the night before the car attack. In a time where police passively abet fascist violence if they aren’t actively supporting it, what does it mean to, as Hillel put it, be for ourselves?
Certainly, it would be absurd to suggest that physical confrontation is the ultimate solution to the threat of fascism. It is no more possible to punch every nazi than it is to befriend all of them. The mere act of befriending nazis is simply not enough to disabuse them of this deeply entrenched ideology. For the most part, being contradicted only further entrenches their worldview, and they take kindness as an opportunity to manipulate others into accepting their ideology. At the same time, giving them the latitude to spout their worldview unchallenged further emboldens them to try “red pill” people to recruit others into their ideology.
COUNTER-RECRUITING NAZIS REQUIRES CHALLENGING their confrontational style of engagement which is usually fraught with frequent subject changes, disingenuousness, and racial slurs. In my experience researching fascists, observing nazis’ interactions, and occasionally engaging with them myself, I find that this is actually the most difficult part to get past. (I have written a guide on techniques to counter nazi rhetoric here.)
However, attempting engagement at a protest is ludicrous. No one attends a nazi rally because they are still unconvinced. For this reason, antifascists prefer to physically confront nazis when they assemble in public on behalf of their ideology. This form of confronting fascism often overshadows the other work antifascists do including community outreach, public service projects, and counter-recruiting.
Where counter-recruiting resembles befriending, it is fundamentally different in a few respects. First, counter-recruiting means meeting potential fascists, and that requires a consideration of one’s personal safety as well as the safety of their friends. Second, one must understand the spectrum of fascist ideologies in order to judge what sorts of interventions would be most effective. Third, one must be aware of the various styles of fascist recruitment strategies so as not to fall prey to them. Counter-recruitment is not the mutual relationship of trust building that is friendship and is effective precisely because nazis do not engage with people on such terms.
Fascists do not seek compromise, but willingly accept it from others. They do not seek reasoned debate, but will gladly set its terms. They do not respect cultural or political freedom, but they will happily embrace its benefits. Fascism insidiously takes the tools of civil society to attain political power in order to destroy it. Similarly, they will take any instance of social acceptability as a platform for recruiting. It might be noble to want to befriend and “save” fascists, but a successful antifascism cannot prioritize individual moral absolution over collective community defense.
As previously mentioned, fascist ideology builds upon and extends the social conditioning of our present political and economic system which is founded largely on adversarial values. As such, it is fairly common for someone to embrace fascist ideologies long before they admit their alignment with nazis.
You most likely already know someone who is on this path. They generally lack pity, particularly around political struggles of the oppressed. They take as virtuous the unequal and unfair outcomes of the present political and economic system except when it affects them personally. Their general response to the hardship, pain, or grief of others is to tell them to toughen up. If the Washington Post poll is right, then one out of eleven people in our country are at least open to fascist viewpoints. It’s time to get together with nine of your friends to talk about that tenth one.