The Highland Park Shooting and American Fascism Now

Fireplug and Coneflowers in the Author’s Garden, Highland Park, Illinois, 2013. Photo: The Author.

Highland Park Memoirs

I heard about it from my daughter, Sarah, in Chicago.

“Dad, did you hear about Highland Park?” That was an ominous beginning. She continued: “There was a shooting during the 4th of July Parade. A bunch of people were killed.”

My heart sank. I lived in Highland Park for almost 15 years, from 2001-2015. Sarah too. I had been there just a few weeks ago to visit my dear neighbors Hannah and Joe, and to meet up with Sarah.

“You ok, sweetie?”

“Yeah, but it’s really bad.”

“Let me hang up and find out more.”

I looked at the NYTimes and Guardian and texted Hannah – she and her husband were out of town and ok. I told my wife Harriet, who was out pulling weeds in the garden. I was tearful; she consoled me. Though I hadn’t lived there in a while, Highland Park was a big part of my life. It was where I bought a house with my former wife in late 2001; where I ran hundreds of miles in the beautiful forest reserves; where I taught my dog Echo how to catch a frisbee; where I wrote three books; where I recovered from injuries after a bad car crash; where Sarah went through a very challenging (for all of us) adolescence; where I started a new life after my divorce; and where Harriet and I were married by a rabbi, with Echo as our witness, in 2014.

I never made many friends there, but I didn’t care about that. I had friends enough in Chicago and L.A. And then there was the gift of Hannah – a brilliant and funny art historian (U. of Illinois, Chicago), and her kind businessman husband, Joe Reinstein. Joe and I didn’t have that much in common except for being Jewish, enjoying gardening and liking to make jokes. He sounds a little bit like Jack Benny. Many of you, dear readers, won’t have a clue as to who that is, so please look him up on YouTube.

Highland Park, a city of 30,000, is about one-third Jewish. When my former wife (Catholic) and I moved up to there in 2001, some of our Northwestern University colleagues were surprised that we relocated to such a bourgeois suburb. To quiet the teasing, I told them that we moved there so I could “be among my people.” That shut everybody up. Then as now, identity politics ends discussion. In truth, though I am a cultural Jew, I haven’t stepped inside a synagogue since my bar mitzvah in 1969, not including other people’s bar mitzvahs and weddings.

Now, after the shooting, Highland Park was going to become one more of those names on a list that includes Parkland, Sandy Hook, Buffalo, and Uvalde. The grim consolation is that the list is now so long – and growing longer every day — that Highland Park will soon be displaced in memory by another mass casualty event. In a few years, it will be a footnote. But not for the people whose family members were killed or wounded; not for the town’s other residents who will remember that infamous day, and not for a north Florida transplant who remembers the place with fondness.

Outline of a critique of fascist violence

In time, we’ll find out much more about the confessed killer, Bobby Crimo. But my friend Sue Coe nailed the profile in an email she sent me before he was identified: “He will be a 20-something white male, who hunts, goes online in his bedroom, and over excites himself.  His mother/grandmother/caretaker, who he hates, does his laundry, and cooks his food.  He won’t have many friends; past fellow students will say he was a loner. Maybe there’s a manifesto, posted online, ripped off from some other moron.” She forgot to mention that he will be a Trump supporter, rare for someone his age, and rarer still in Democratic Highland Park or nearby Highwood where the killer lived with his father and uncle. Sue is clever but not clairvoyant – she described what has recently become the typical profile of the mass shooter.

Crimo may have a diagnosable psychotic illness such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or delusional disorder. Alternatively, he might suffer from a less totalizing, but still debilitating mental illness such as borderline personality disorder or depression. He apparently attempted suicide in 2019. In online raps (or rants), he claimed to be compelled to kill. But whether there is a plausible diagnosis or not, the question will be the same: Why did this 21 y.o. kid decide to buy an assault weapon and kill or injure dozens of people he didn’t even know? Answers won’t be found in the DSM but in the convergence of fascism and Republican Party politics.

Fascism is a well-understood political formation, but easier to recognize in hindsight than foresight. It cannot be defined, as some have tried to do, by a delimited set of attributes, for example: 1) militarism and a culture of violence, 2) the leadership (Fuhrer) principle, 3) antagonism to democracy, 4) deferral to the authority of elites, 5) racism, 6) strict control of both gender expression and sexual reproduction, 7) denigration of science, 8) the ubiquity of lies and conspiracy theories, and 9) the bringing of government and civil society to heel in order to enforce one-party rule. The problem with this list or any other, is that it establishes an ideal type that exists nowhere except the mind of the investigator.

Then what use are the words fascist and fascism today? They serve as a warning, enabling us to recognize especially toxic political speech and behavior, and prepare ourselves for the behemoth lying in wait. Does the rampant racism, violence, corruption, and electoral fraud of the last president and current Republican Party mark a fascist turning point in the United States? Does Republican debasement of the Supreme Court – marked by its denial of women’s autonomy, endorsement of gun culture, refusal to accept EPA authority to prevent a climate catastrophe, and endorsement of a theocratic state — indicate the rise of fascism?

To be sure, U.S. capitalist democracy was deranged from the start by slavery and genocide. When those practices were ended or curbed, it was still marked by racial oppression, gross inequality, and environmental degradation. Despite that, U.S. politics has been self-correcting to a surprising degree, staving off fascism when it seemed imminent. The first Ku Klux Klan (1865-1900) was stymied by Progressive Era legislation and policing, and the second (1915-1940) by the Great Northern Migration (which depleted the Black population of the South) and by the democratic solidarity that arose after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S. Fascism in other words, has frequently been incipient, but countervailing tendencies were always stronger. However, that pattern – a glide to the right matched by a lurch back to the center — may be changing.

During the last three decades or so, neo-liberal capitalism has sustained a highly productive collaboration with Christian nationalism and other versions of far-right, populist extremism. They are strange bedfellows. The goal of the first is to ensure the highest possible profits for the longest possible time, regardless of the human or environmental consequences. The climate crisis has made this stance existential. Continued economic growth and increasing profits – the lifeblood of large business enterprises — is simply incompatible with environmental responsibility. For that reason, fossil capital, along with its confederates in the weapons, aerospace, steel, and home building industries, is waging a war against the coming era of environmental regulation and economic planning that must inevitably curb growth. That’s what the recent Supreme Court decision, West Virginia vs EPA, was all about. It was a big win for capital against the environmental movement and American labor. Working people, especially the non-white sector, are the first victims of climate change. In addition, the Court’s ruling will be used to attack workplace health and safety laws.

The goal of the second group, the far-right Christian nationalists, anti-abortionists, militias, and self-proclaimed fascists, is to establish a new nation of white Christian, Aryan, or “legacy” Americans who will reclaim the power they believe was taken from them by the Jews, Blacks, feminists, and queers who sought to “replace” them. Their cultism (QAnon, Stop the Steal, anti-Vax, etc), gun-rights militancy and religious enthusiasm has little in common with the secularism and public reserve of the corporate heads, lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and advertising executives who comprise the neoliberal faction of U.S. conservatism, but they share one fundamental principle: that the only salient economic and political unit is the individual and the family. The neoliberal faction adds a proviso — codified by the Supreme Court in Citizens United — that corporations have many of the same rights as people.

For neoliberal capital, this means that state or federal programs to regulate production, improve social welfare, and protect the environment are both non-sensical and counterproductive; they are based on the mistaken premise that societies exist and have collective interests that need to be safeguarded. For the far right — Christian nationalist, militia, anti-abortion, and the rest — exclusive focus on individuals and families means that any concatenation of social groupings that opposes their apocalyptic vision must be cast aside if not eliminated. Social movements of feminists, queers, Blacks, or any others, are anathema.

This mixture of neo-liberal and far right-populist extremism is highly volatile. It is also the basis of MAGA and Republican Party identity. When that world view is offered up by the former president and his congressional and mass-media followers and apologists, the consequences can be catastrophic: Witness the January 6 coup attempt, and the earlier, far right killings in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Poway, Buffalo, Uvalde…and now Highland Park.

MAGA triggers and the alien within

When I lived in Highland Park, I never locked my door. I know that’s a cliché about small-town life, but it was true. That doesn’t mean the practice is wise. Our house was broken into once, but instead of walking through the unlocked front door, the would-be thieves broke through a locked, glass side door. They didn’t manage to steal anything and hastily exited the front door, likely chased by Echo – notably nippy with strangers — who would not have passed up the chance to licitly bite a burglar. The police came five minutes after we called them and had great sport playing detective – dusting for fingerprints, checking for signs of forced entry, looking for shoe prints in the wet soil outside. They never caught the guys.

The idea that the Highland Park Police would ever have to deal with a murder, much less a mass murder was unimaginable to me. From 2000 to 2020, there hadn’t been a single killing in town. But everyone was aware of the threat guns posed, especially after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December 2012. In June 2013, Highland Park’s City Council and Mayor Nancy Rotering introduced a measure banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines. I spoke in favor of the it at the June meeting dedicated to the subject, as did many others. However, there were a few who spoke up in opposition, repeating the standard NRA line that people, not guns kill people. One older woman waved a coffee mug and said it could be used as a lethal weapon – a wag near her dared her to try. Another speaker invoked the second amendment with the reverential awe usually reserved for the second commandment – people sniggered. The ban passed easily. It was unsuccessfully challenged in multiple courts, and ultimately survived a Supreme Court review – I doubt it would today.

I now wonder if the confessed killer’s father, Robert Crimo II attended that City Council meeting. He’s a gun lover and Trump supporter who helped his son obtain the rifle used in the shooting. He also ran for mayor of Highland Park in 2019 against the incumbent Mayor Rotering, losing by a margin of 2-1. In April that year, police visited the Crimo home after a report that Robert III (Bobby) had attempted suicide. No action was taken after his parents gave assurances that mental health professionals would be contacted. In September, the police again came to the Crimo household after receiving a call that Bobby had threatened to kill his family. They searched his room and found in his closet 16 knives, a dagger, and a sword. His father later that day claimed they were his, and the weapons were returned. The Highland Park Police promptly reported to the Illinois State Police that Bobby was a “clear and present danger” to himself and others. Despite that, in December 2019, the 19-year-old – who eight months earlier attempted suicide — applied for and was issued a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card (FOID). Because he was underage, the application was co-signed by his father.

The FOID application should have been denied because under state law, no gun permit can be issued to someone “whose mental condition is of such a nature that it poses a clear and present danger to the applicant, or any other person or the community.” In addition, a FOID must be denied to anyone who “has been a patient at a mental health facility in the last five years.” If Bobby’s parents had in fact contacted mental health professionals after the boy’s attempted suicide, they would have had to take him to “a mental health facility,” most likely Northshore Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center in Highland Park, just half a mile from where they lived. Apparently, both the Illinois State Police and the physician or psychologist who treated Bobby, failed to send notification to the Illinois Department of Health Services FOID reporting system.

A few days after being granted his FOID, and then again between June 2020 and September 2021, Crimo bought at least five guns, including two rifles, one of which was the semi-automatic Smith & Wesson M&P15 used in the killings. That’s similar to the guns used by the young, far-right killers in Buffalo and Uvalde. In late September 2020, Bobby attended a Trump rally in Northbook, Illinois. On January 2, 2021, four days before the capital insurrection, Crimo joined other Trump supporters to greet the soon-to-be- ex-president at an unidentified airport. On June 27, 2021, he posted a video of himself draped and dancing in a Trump flag. Sometime later, he had the number “47” tattooed on his face and painted on the side of his car. If Trump is re-elected in 2014, he will be the 47th president, though if the numbers are transposed — 7/4 – they represent the date of the Highland Park shootings.

We know less about Crimo’s actions in the weeks before the shooting, though more information may soon emerge. We know that in some of his most recent YouTube and other postings, he revealed his identification with soldiers, spies, assassins (Lee Harvey Oswald) and warriors — especially with the German SS. After the massacre in Highland Park, he drove up to another, famously Democratic Party stronghold, Madison, Wisconsin, with the intention of shooting up their July 5 parade too. Fortunately, he abandoned that plan when he got there and returned, more or less to the scene of the crime, where he was captured. Was the ongoing Trump saga – the former president’s unrelenting “stop the steal” rhetoric, claims of persecution, exhortations to “take our country back,” endorsement of the NRA, and invitations to violence – a trigger for Crimo? But if they were, why did Crimo attack innocent people at a patriotic parade? There is no obvious answer.

In Male Fantasies (1987), Klaus Theweleit described the transformation of de-commissioned German soldiers after World War I into mercenary militias called Freikorps. Those bands were responsible for political assassinations and the brutal repression of protesting German workers, communists, feminists, and social democrats. By the late ‘20s, they became the stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung) that enabled Hitler’s rise to power. Some became prominent Nazis, like Rudolf Höss, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration and death camps.

Many of the men studied by Theweleit were subjected to stern discipline as children – part of a normally pathological Prussian upbringing — and then further brutalized as soldiers in wartime trenches. Consequently, they developed a sense that they had been hollowed out, or that they had been overcome by an “alien within.” This foreign being was hungry and dangerous, and could find relief only in violence, especially against a crowd. While the solider was stern, bounded, firm and resolute, the crowd was vivid, thriving, shapeless, feminine, social, communal, and sexual – everything he was not, and it had to be destroyed.

Theweleit’s two volume book is widely cited – too widely – in studies of male sexual violence and the psychology of Nazism. There is no easy way to map a wide-ranging study of the literature the psychopathology of World War I veterans onto the mind and behavior of young, mass shooters today. But the preoccupations of the Highland Park killer – assassinations, school shootings, the SS, spies, guns, knives, and militias – suggests comparison with the young fascists in Male Fantasies who emerged in inter-war Europe, scarred and deadly dangerous, who hated crowds, and were ready to follow the orders of a charismatic leader.

Fascism, unlike Covid, can’t be diagnosed with a nose swab; but its symptoms are unmistakable and sometimes fatal. It’s fair to say it killed seven people in Highland Park and injured 30 others. It was also deadly in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Uvalde. Urgent action is needed to stop the proliferation of assault weapons and guns with large magazines. But this essay is not about the need for gun control, or “gun safety”, essential as that is. It’s about the violence that again struck a U.S. community last week, and the need to resist the Republican far-right – both its corporate and Christian nationalist wings. Until their assault upon our health, safety, bodily autonomy, religious (or irreligious) freedom, and environmental future is stopped, the killing will continue.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.