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Last month, proto-fascists of every sort, included neo-Nazis and white nationalists, staged a rally in Charlottesville, VA, dubbed “Unite the Right.” Participants chanted provocative slogans, including “White lives matter!,” “Blood and soil!,” “Jews will not replace us!” and “Dylann Roof was a hero!” They were forcefully challenged by counter-protesters of every ideological persuasion, many “antifa” – anti-fascist – activists.
As the confrontation was winding down, a rally participant, James Alex Fields, Jr., a known Nazi enthusiast from Maumee, OH, drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians, including many counter-protesters, then reversed direction and plowed into a second group. A Charlottesville resident, Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 others were injured.
Much has been reported about what happened in Charlottesville — and much argued as to its significance within the nation’s fracturing political landscape. Symbolically, two statues of Confederate generals — Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson – were at the heart of this telling ideological confrontation. These iconic symbols are but two of many reminders of not simply the South’s war of secession against the United States, but the long history of slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism.
The Charlottesville showdown is among the most telling events during Donald Trump’s floundering presidency. How this confrontation between militant reactionaries and a forceful, insurgent “progressive” movement plays out over the short term – the next three-plus years — may set the course of America’s long-term future.
Few remember that in 1927, Pres. Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was arrested with six other racists at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Queens, NY. Senior Trump was a long-time racialist and, like his son, a real-estate conman. On Memorial Day 1927, supporters of Mussolini’s Italian fascism and Klansmen rioted in the Bronx, killing two Italian men. In Queens, 1,000 white-robed Klansmen marched through Trump’s Jamaica neighborhood and he was busted. The nationalist confronted 100 policemen and, as a local report claimed, “staged a free-for-all.”
According to press reports of the day, “Native-born Protestant Americans” gathered to protest being “assaulted by Roman Catholic police of New York City.” A flier distributed by the neo-fascists spelled-out their grievance: “Liberty and Democracy have been trampled upon when native-born Protestant Americans dare to organize to protect one flag, the American flag; one school, the public school; and one language, the English language.” Trump senior, 21 at the time, reportedly wore a Klan robe. While arrested, no charges were brought against him.
The events in Charlottesville, like those decades earlier in Queens, reveal a deep rage that dwells in the hearts of some – sadly, all-too-many — Americans. It is a rage that dates from the earliest colonialists who settled what became America and will likely be expressed in incidents yet to come. It is a rage rooted in the threat posed, whether real or imaged, by those perceived as a threat or represent a threatening difference. It’s a rage that find expression in the process of establishing hegemony and is exploited long process of maintaining power.
Capitalism is a dynamic if oppressive system, built on a belief in the maximization of inequality by what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” A century ago, it was Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford who destroyed – and, therefore, reinvented — capitalism; today, its Apple, Google and Goldman Sachs. Everything has changed; yet northing is different.
America’s “alt-right,” like earlier reactionary movements, needs a targeted enemy. It Charlottesville it was African Americans and Jews; in Queens and the Bronx in ’27, it was Catholics and Jews. Reactionaries target anyone who — actually or theoretically — challenges their rule and have repeatedly done so. Who will be targeted next?
The history of America is a story of political and social rage, of struggles fought by those with little or no power against those with both power and money, those who rule. And those who rule do so by implementing their rage, by enforcing social order, sometimes brutally.
It’s a struggle that’s been playing out since the first settlement in Jamestown to Gettysburg to Selma and to Charlottesville. Those targeted have included “suspect” individuals, ethnic/racial and religious groups, and political opponents. No one is above suspicion and (almost) everyone can be targeted.
David Macaray recently wrote about how three individuals – Nicole Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Mary Dyer – were targeted and suffered the worst fate of those who challenge the powers that be. His article commemorated the 90th anniversary of the execution of the two Italian anarchists convicted of trumped-up robbery and first-degree murder charges. Macaray reminded readers that Dyer was “the first woman ever to be executed in the American colonies.” She was a Quaker who, along with three fellow believers, was hung for challenging Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan religious orthodoxy.
Individuals who are singled-out often represent a graver – and popular — challenge to those in power. The trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti was an attempt to quell the working class’s growing assertiveness; their execution occurred the same year that Trump senior was busted for participating in a Klan rally. Dyer’s execution reflected a fundamental challenge to Puritan tyranny, a religious orthodoxy that would slowly erode but not before taking the lives of dozens accused of witchcraft and other sins.
Unfortunately, many others could be added to Macaray’s list of righteous martyrs. Three come to mind who illustrate the role of targeted executions in the effort to suppress dissidence. John Brown, a radical abolitionist, lead a raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, WV, in 1859, and was hung. In 1915, Utah executed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and songwriter Joe Hill. And in 1953, the U.S. government executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for alleged espionage.
They had to be killed to prove, reinforce, a bigger political point. The executions of Sacco and Vanzetti and Dyer suggest how anarchists, particularly immigrants, and Quakers, religious dissidents, were targeted. The proto-fascists who gathered in Charlottesville drew on two of the most notorious forms of social targeting, race and religion.
Slavery is America’s great shame. The Dutch introduced the first African slaves in James-Town in 1619 and slavery persisted for the next two-and-half-centuries until Southern secessionists were defeated in the Civil War. The Klan was formally established in 1866 and, during Reconstruction, began a systematic campaign against freed African Americans. During the long Jim-Crow era, an estimated 4,000 Americans, nearly all of whom were black, were lynched. (The Brooklyn Museum is staging a moving exhibition on lynching.) In the late-1910s, the Klan aligned with nativists, eugenicists and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) to not only promote temperance, but racialist and anti-immigrant policies.
The U.S. has not witnessed the mass targeting of a religious group comparable to that suffered by Jews in Europe during the era of the Nazis and their willing collaborators, 1933-1945. (Nazis also singled out the Roma, communists, homosexuals and the disabled.) However, in 1913 Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jewish businessman, was falsely charged and convicted of murdering a 13-year-old white Christian girl. Two years later, a Klan-led mob forcibly removed Frank from the state penitentiary and lynched him, fueling the Klan’s early-20th century renewal.
Other religious groups have not been immune from reactionary rage. Today Mormons are considered just another Christian denomination, like Lutherans, Pentecostals or Evangelicals. During the pre-Civil War era, true Christian righteous believers attacked Mormon communities and murdered Joseph Smith, the belief’s founder and leader.
At times in U.S. history, Catholics did not fare any better. Amidst WW-I hysteria, William Anderson, a New York Representative, expressed deep antipathy toward Catholics. He accused the Church of mounting an “assault on law and order,” of opposing Prohibition because it was promoted by Protestants and accusing it of engaging in “efforts to destroy [the Prohibition] victory and bring back the saloons.” Anti-Catholic rage contributed to the defeat of the country’s first Catholic nominee, Al Smith’s, in the 1928 presidential election. John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential election marked the end to anti-Catholic appeals in national elections. However, a century-or-so earlier, Catholics faced a far different America.
In pre-Civil War America, many Protestants felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigration, especially Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine.
They felt that Catholics, as followers of the Pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country. They formed the Know Nothing movement and, in 1844, movement militants engaged in a series of riots in Philadelphia targeting Catholics. Many people were killed and injured; two churches and other buildings burned. Know Nothing supporters formed the American Party that captured the Massachusetts legislature in 1854 and, in 1856, backed Millard Fillmore for president, securing nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast.
Ethnic/nationality minorities can also be targeted as threats. Trump targeted two groups – (i) Mexican and other undocumented Hispanic immigrants and (ii) Muslims coming to the U.S. from a host of “terrorist” countries. While Trump’s executive order barring Muslims has been halted in the courts, the administration’s current round-up and deportation program targeting Mexicans and other Hispanics is in high-gear.
USA Today reports, “Immigration arrests up 38% nationwide under Trump … In the 100 days since President Trump signed an executive order to enhance immigration … dangerous immigrants were a diversion from his goal: mass deportations. … Now, ICE agents are allowed to round up anybody they encounter and arrest them.” The Trump administration’s decision to rescind DACA only intensifies the war against immigrants.
Under the right conditions, almost any other ethnic/nationality group can be targeted. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pres. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and followed-up ordering the systematic destruction of the Japanese-American community. They were considered non-citizens, forced to sell their homes, their stores and other assets. Over 127,000 Japanese-Americans were selected for roundup. They were identified by administrative bureaucrats, arrested by local law-enforcement officers and imprisoned in ten interment – i.e., “concentration” — camps in remote areas of western states by security personnel. Those targeted were considered possible terrorist threats because of their Japanese ancestry. The U.S. had its “little Eichmann” ready to serve the state.
The systematic destruction of North America’s aboriginal people remains America’s greatest sin. From the earliest campaigns to colonize a new land, European settlers and their many-generations-later off-spring, including Pres. Trump, have waged a never-ending war to seized the land — and suppress the spirit – of Native people. From the first settlement in James-Town, to Andrew Jackson’s slaughter of the Creek people in 1813-14, to the Trail of Tears — the forced removal of Native people from their ancestral homelands in the southeast to west of the Mississippi River between 1839-1850 – and to the recent Dakota Access Pipeline as well as other ongoing battles and struggle yet to come. Like racism, the suppression of the aboriginal people defines the American character.
Looking back from tomorrow, the recent showdown in Charlottesville may be recalled in one of two ways — an example of a fascist movement in gestation or a mere rally where some rightwing white thugs let off steam. Time will tell. The forces of the “alt-right,” especially neo-Nazis and other militant racists, lost both the “military” confrontation and the ideological engagement. Nevertheless, it’s evident that a social crisis is brewing, made worse by Trump’s bully-boy leadership.
If the country was to face another major military defeat (like Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan and Iraq) or – even worse – a significant economic recession, those in political power might encourage the growing reactionary force to mobilized and challenge, contain, the mounting political challenges directed at Trump and his administration. It is essential for Americans of good will to mobilize against the incipient new-fascist movement. But be warned, the far right is armed and dangerous.
For all the glory the defines the American spirit, for all the truth in equality, opportunity and democracy, there is another aspect of the American character fraught by anger and rage. Americans can be a terrified people, fearful that whatever little they have will be too little to survive or, worst case, taken from them by market manipulators, government operatives or lower-wage immigrants. They know the system is rigged, corrupt, but they know no other way to make sense of their lived reality than to defend what little they have in false battle against those who allegedly threaten their survival.
The sad story of American history is that almost any “minority” can be targeted to suffer American rage. Those targeted have varied due to religious belief, ethnicity or race, political practice or sexual orientation. Today, the new categories of targeted minorities include immigrants, Muslims, transgender people and sex offenders. Who’s next?