The violence that accompanied recent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia is merely the opening salvo in a larger conflict between those advocating fascism and those committed to human decency, equality, and democracy. And with white nationalist fascists planning more rallies to come, it’s a foregone conclusion that the violence in Charlottesville will continue. Considering this trajectory, I thought it fitting to promote a dialogue regarding specifically what “the left” in the U.S. stands for, and should seek to accomplish, moving forward.
To be perfectly clear, I abhor violence, and that includes organized violence employed by any group, be it Klan’s men, Nazis, and other fascists on the right, or “Antifa” or “Redneck Revolt” violence on the left. My resistance is principled; it has nothing to do with knee-jerk fear of violence and is not coming from a weak pacifist unfamiliar with the “real world” of violence that we face. As a scholar, I professionally study war and how wars are communicated to the public via political propaganda. My research also examines mounting public opposition to war at a time when most Americans view war as fundamentally immoral and destructive. I am also no stranger to violence in my personal life; I’ve had far more experience with it than most Americans. I hold a black belt in Shorei Ryu Karate, and practiced the discipline for more than a decade and a half, regularly engaging in controlled violence against others. I would probably still be practicing it now, if it were not for numerous back injuries and other bodily damage I wreaked on my own body via martial arts and extreme sports. I am also no stranger to guns. As a youth, I had plenty of experience with target shooting, firing hand guns, rifles, and assault weapons.
My bias here is clear. Although trained in the art of violence, the first thing I learned in the martial arts is that violence is never something one should actively seek out. Rather, it’s a last act of self-defense when your life is in danger and there are no alternatives. If there is one life-lesson I learned in Karate, it is that violence is almost never the answer to one’s problems. If someone is threatening you physically, you walk away (if you can). If someone pulls a weapon and it is possible to escape without engaging them and without risking your life, evasion is far superior to confrontation. But I was also trained to employ various techniques that would severely maim, or even kill others, in cases where my life was in danger. THAT is the only time when violence is warranted. Having said that, I would never condemn individual citizens for using violence to protect their lives in the face of physical assault, and that goes for all protesters who defend themselves or others against fascist attacks. Additionally, it is the law of the land that individuals can carry concealed weapons, so even if I would never carry a gun myself, I can’t legally fault others for carrying them for self-protection.
But saying that I endorse violence as a last-resort and as a means of preserving life is different from endorsing groups that proactively plan to engage in violence, such as Antifa or Redneck Revolt. I can respect the commitment of these groups to protecting the lives of others, but to the extent that members of these groups advocate planned mass violence, they are going beyond simple self-defense. They are actively seeking confrontation with police and far-right protesters. I strongly agree with Antifa and Redneck Revolt that right-wing reactionary movements need to be discredited and defeated. But the means through which that occurs is another question entirely.
Much of the contemporary debate over recent events is complicated by the fact that fascist groups seek to fuse demonstrations – which are legally protected under the First Amendment – with violence against counter-protesters – which is obviously illegal and deplorable. Whatever some on the left think about it, fascists are guaranteed freedom of speech and assembly under the law. But it would also be foolish to expect that fascist rallies aren’t going to devolve into violence and terrorism, considering that fascist belief systems idealize the use of violence as a means of attaining political goals.
Free speech debates aside, we should be perfectly clear: there is a very real danger in the Trump administration’s flirting with fascism via threats to criminalize journalists, his support for physical assault against leftist protesters, and his providing of cover to violent right-wing militants in Charlottesville. Considering Trump’s latent fascist tendencies, the emergence of a full-blown fascist state is something we can no longer afford to ignore.
Trump’s rhetoric in the last week is dangerous. His initial condemnation of violence “on many sides” suggested a willful ignorance to what happened in Charlottesville. One side seeks the extermination of non-whites and the ethnic cleansing of the continent via genocidal violence, and they use violence to try and achieve these goals. The other side, including Antifa and Redneck Revolt, offer a principled stand against fascism, seeking to eliminate the threat of fascist violence. Even if I disagree wholeheartedly with their methods, I can see that their violence is a response to an increasingly militarized far-right in America that has committed itself to coercion, terrorism, and genocide.
In his interaction with reporters, Trump fixated on “the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” This statement is incredible, revealing Trump’s obvious effort to demonize leftists with the “alt-left” pejorative, while implying that the “alt right” term is too critical of a description for reactionary fascists. In contrast, some intellectuals believe the opposite, that “alt-right” is an Orwellian euphemism meant to soften up the public to the alleged virtues of far-right racism and fascism.
Trump’s not so-subtle signaling to right-wing fascists has provided a green light for more of their violence. While first claiming to deplore right-wing violence, Trump reversed himself in a discussion with reporters, humanizing reactionary protesters: “not all of those people were neo-Nazis…Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.” This framing revealed willful blindness to a rally that was, at its core, motivated by extreme hate, as seen in the mass chants of “blood and soil” (a reference to historic Nazi rhetoric seeking to create a right to land for “indigenous” whites only), by protesters wielding torches and yelling “Jews will not replace us!”, and engaging in mass violence against counter-protesters. For anyone who hasn’t yet, I strongly encourage you to watch the chilling Vice/HBO mini-documentary on the events in Charlottesville. The video will disavow you of any notion that right-wing protesters were simply freedom loving hooligans who got a little bit out of hand.
Trump further signaled right-wingers to the alleged virtues of their cause when he compared Southern Confederate General Robert E. Lee to George Washington, and lamented the tearing down of “our beautiful statues and monuments” – Trump speak for many statues created during the 20th century to commemorate slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. Trump wondered “where does it stop?” with regard to pulling down the statues, a clear wink to the fascist right he continues to court. Trump is not so ignorant to fail to comprehend the power of race to incite conflict. The race divide in America was the one issue powerful enough to tear the nation apart, provoking a Civil War, and Trump wields it shamelessly in his efforts to stoke greater racial tensions. His comments on the confederacy, and his attempts to provide cover for far-right fascist and Nazi violence must be understood within that context, as a brazen attempt to empower reactionaries via an emerging race war. And his comments are already being interpreted within this context. Following the events in Charlottesville, and Trump’s positive vibes toward the right, numerous white nationalists and fascist groups are stepping forward celebrating Trump’s commitment to their cause.
The stakes involved in this conflict cannot be understated. There are two nightmare scenarios which I can see that threaten to emerge from the events that transpired in Charlottesville. One, is that we see the rise of vigilantism in the streets across many American cities, with the president rationalizing violence on the right. This appears increasingly likely with right-wing reactionaries announcing plans for more marches. There is little indication that this president will stand in their way. His Department of Justice is run by a man – Jeff Sessions – known for his cavorting with the KKK in his youth, whose only reported problem with the group was that they smoked pot. The administration has also cut funding for groups dedicated to spotlighting and fighting white supremacy. Considering Trump’s previous celebration of attacks against left-wing anti-Trump protesters, his recent efforts to spy on those visiting anti-Trump websites, and his covering for fascist groups in Charlottesville, it is highly unlikely that any serious federal investigation of the hate groups involved in Charlottesville will take place.
This should all make Americans deeply uneasy. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of far-right militia members across the country, and more than 900 individual groups. Reflecting on the rise of armed insurrections by Cliven and Ammon Bundy and their supporters, in addition to the dozens of acts of right-wing terrorism that have occurred in recent years, and considering the events in Charlottesville, it is clear that the far right is willing to use extreme methods to pursue their political goals.
It is within this context that we need to assess the dangers of what groups like Antifa and Redneck Revolt are trying to accomplish. Neither group appears to have much grasp on how their violence is being used as a weapon to justify the country’s reactionary political turn. There is little chance, considering how lop-sided the conflict is, that these groups will prevail. Their decimation is already predetermined. “The left” in the U.S. is a shadow of what it once was, organizationally speaking, with the decline of public intellectualism in higher education and the collapse of unionism. The left is far too fragmented and unorganized to come together in support of a mass violent insurrection that is capable of defeating, or even withstanding a joint attack by far-right militia groups, random white supremacists running through the streets (a la Charlottesville), increasingly militarized local police forces, state national guards (should they be called in to suppress militant leftist groups), the FBI (which has a long history of targeting left-wing groups, even peaceful ones), and the Department of Justice and Trump administration itself.
Antifa and Redneck Revolt will not succeed against this threat. Rather, what will happen if the violence continues is that the U.S. simply deteriorates into vigilantism, as left-wing and right-wing protesters duke it out in the streets in the face of intensifying suppression of leftist groups. Trump has already shown he’s willing to provide cover for these right-wing groups and their causes by emphasizing the danger of the “alt-left.” To put it simply, left-wing militants are making this far too easy for reactionaries on the right set on establishing a fascist America via civil war.
There is a second, even more ominous nightmare scenario that may play out – that the Trump administration may seize on recent and future events to establish emergency rule and martial law. There would be little at that point, short of public resistance, to stop him from a massive suppression campaign against his political critics. Essentially, the United States of America becomes the fascist state of Donald Trump. Detractors will argue that this scenario is unlikely and far-fetched. I sincerely hope they’re right. But I also believe we are quickly reaching the point of escalation in which it’s foolish to not start thinking about worst-case scenarios. It’s scary to think about, but worth pondering a simple question: have we considered that Trump’s legitimization of fascist protesters plays into a larger agenda? What’s to stop the introduction of emergency rule and the suspension of Constitutional rights if the violence between left-wing and reactionary groups continues and even escalates? It’s not much of a stretch to think the “law and order” president will use this as a pretext to justify a power grab. Trump undeniably has an authoritarian personality. He’s never tried to hide it, and it’s grown more severe in his limited time in office. His viciousness in demonizing progressives and “the left” provides little reason to think he will not exploit, in one way or another, the rise of the reactionary right for his own political purposes.
With his approval rating lower at this point in his presidency than any other president in modern history, Trump must understand his chances of re-election are increasingly slim, especially with the rise of mass protest against him. Imposition of emergency rule, in the case of growing domestic terrorism or terrorism on U.S. soil committed by foreign actors, will provide this president all the justification he needs to consolidate his power and crack down on his critics.
To avoid both of these nightmare scenarios, the “alt-left” as Trump calls them, should do all in its power right now to de-escalate this emerging conflict. Left-wing organizations and groups should actively disavow violence, except in cases where individual people are threatened with severe harm and death and they are legally entitled to defend themselves. Pro-active advocacy of planned violence by entire left groups only escalates the dangers of vigilantism in the streets, civil war, or the imposition of emergency rule. The left has one potent weapon at its disposal – mass public revulsion at the Trump administration and far-right Nazism and fascism. A recent NPR/PBS/Maris poll finds that most Americans believe Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville was not “strong enough,” and only a tiny fraction of the public is sympathetic to the “alt-right” and its politics. We should use the weapon of public opinion to cultivate mass pressure on local police forces, states, and Congress to crack down on far-right fascist violence. But mass support for action may quickly evaporate with the ascendance of far-right false equivalence narratives that frame “both sides” as equally responsible for violence. If we choose to forfeit the moral high ground (non-violence in the face of fascism), we are playing into the hands of a political system under Trump that increasingly embraces reactionary, right-wing violence.
There is previous precedent for non-violent resistance. The civil rights movement demonstrated that progressives could win over public opinion in the face of violent repression and right-wing, white supremacist terrorism. There is no reason that this strategy can’t work again. But that will require discipline and sacrifice on the part of the American left, and the public more generally, in the face of reactionary repression. As with the civil rights movement, images broadcast into households of rabid right-wing bigots violently suppressing peaceful progressive activists will mobilize the country to pressure government to intervene on the side of sanity, and against fascism. We can choose to be a nation of democratic principles that embraces equality and the rule of law, or we can escalate the current conflict in favor of greater violence, and war in the streets. The choice is between barbarism and humanity. We can’t have both.