For too long, our country and our communities have been in denial about the rise of far-right authoritarianism and the enabling of fascism. For how many months and years have anti-fascist researchers and activists been warning that an attempted coup against democracy would happen, in some form? How many times have we seen eyes glaze over, hearing only condemnations of “both sides,” or dismissive comments minimizing serious fascists as merely “patriot conservatives,” cosplay “clowns,” or stupid “rednecks”? We heard it when Trump was elected, we heard it the next year when far-right militants and death threats besieged our college, and last year when three far-right paramilitaries roamed and held rallies in Olympia.
Our own police and city leaders hyped the threat of antiracist protesters, and turned a blind eye to three paramilitaries armed with semi-automatic rifles, bear spray, and zip ties, even rewarding a cop who had her photo taken with them. There was less government and media reaction to two far-right shootings in December than to earlier Black Lives Matter protests. There were clear cases of a biased double standard, in both Washingtons, and we saw the results last week.
"If four years ago, our country leapt from the frying pan of neoliberal corporate rule into the fire of enabling fascism, on January 20 we’re leaping back from the fire into the same old frying pan. Unless we see deeper changes, we’ll be back in the fire before long."
As Olympia city council member Renata Rollins just said, “Locally we’ve had a collective delusion that the violent alt right would go away if the racial justice protestors would just tone it down … It was convenient to believe that right-wing violence was coming from a desire for 'law and order.' That if we didn’t say anything, at least maybe they’d leave us alone.” In other words, if we ignore them, and decide not to counterprotest, they won’t go away.
What we're now seeing is the consequences of years of “Fascism Denial” by conservatives, liberals, and many progressives. As I wrote after the 2018 Pittsburgh Massacre: “Just as climate change has gradually crept into our lives, and we notice it only when a major storm, drought, or flood dramatically announces its presence, fascism has gradually crept out from under its racist rocks that have long been embedded in our society, and we only notice when it erupts in violence. We try to deny the crisis, or explain it away as part of some other, more easily grasped issue, rather than facing the realities head on....”
In 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that far-rightists carried out 67% of the year’s domestic terror attacks, and that in the previous decade far-rightists had killed 117 people. Only one was killed by an anti-fascist, who then became an American assassinated on American soil, next door to Olympia.
There’s a long historical pattern of western powers downplaying the rise of fascist movements, focusing their wrath instead on leftist movements. In the 1930s Depression, they mainly feared socialist revolutions and union strikers, and they enabled a fascist rebellion to overthrow a leftist democratic republic in Spain. Leftists from around the world, who had warned their own countries about fascism, volunteered to fight in Spain, but were defeated, paving the way for World War II. In effect, the western powers left the gates of civilization unlocked, for the fascists to take over. Only when Pearl Harbor was attacked did the U.S. finally wake up that fascism was the real global threat. Even then, the leftists who had fought in Spain were officially persecuted as “premature antifascists.”
Now the liberals and conservatives are so damned surprised by last week’s far-right “Pearl Harbor.” The police literally left the gates to the U.S. Capitol and Governor’s Mansion unlocked and open to the fascists, and were unprepared and slow to deploy forces, in contrast to their advance overreactions to many BLM protests. The D.C. mob was so unused to police pepper spray that they used water to wash it out of their eyes, which BLM protesters know not to do.
Our leaders may finally wake up far-right paramilitaries and QAnon cultists are a literal threat to democracy, and there’s no “dialogue” or “conversation” possible with their leaders. Even then will they continue to ignore those of us who repeatedly warned them, and dismiss us as “premature antifascists”? Or will they start to listen to the fact that without deep, systemic social and economic change, the fascist cancer will continue to metastasize? It is not just enabled by Trump in the U.S., but is in the global context of the rise of right-populist authoritarianism, from Hungary and Turkey to Brazil and the Philippines. Fascism shouldn’t just be a label we put on meanies we don’t like, but represents a specific violent ideology, and a reaction of deep-seated local nationalisms against the impersonal placelessness of corporate globalization.
Our wars abroad and the wars at home mirror and reinforce each other. In our foreign policy, the Pentagon and CIA under both parties have backed coups of far-right dictators and death squads, to maintain elite rule and corporate profits. In many parts of the world, this is who we are. They called any dissent from below an “insurgency” or “insurrection” that has to be put down, one of the reasons I don’t use those terms to describe the attempted coup from above in D.C. Americans think that coups have to always involve soldiers and shooting. But there have been right-wing political coups against leftist governments, like in Honduras in 2009 and Bolivia in 2019, more successful versions of Trump’s failed attempt to steal the election. On 1/6, just like on 9/11, U.S. leaders were so shocked when the goons that they backed to stop their enemies carried out a violent blowback against democracy, biting the hand that fed them.
Not your grandparents’ fascists
If the rise of fascism is a global pandemic, then white nationalism is the main U.S. variant of the virus. But today’s American fascists don’t fit the old simple stereotype of Nazis and Klansmen. Their organizers often hook recruits first with legitimate grievances such as opposing corporate trade deals and Big Tech, Pentagon militarism, and even sex trafficking and pollution, and only later reveal their true agendas. Far-right conspiracy theories are not just influencing Trumpian rednecks, but our own friends and families. Most of the groups are mainly motivated by white nationalism, but others are motivated by Christian nationalism (against Muslim or Jews), so-called “libertarian” reactions to gun rights, health measures, and public lands, so-called “Patriot” opposition to immigration and Indigenous rights, or cis het supremacy and misogyny.
Northwest far-right groups (such as Patriot Prayer) recruit token people of color through these other ideologies, and love to showcase them, or even use pro-gay rhetoric to oppose Muslim immigration. Not all fascists are white supremacists (remember that Japan was an Axis Power), and more importantly, not all white supremacists are fascists. So we can’t fool ourselves that defeating far-right shock troops is all we have to do to confront the much larger and pervasive, deeply rooted institutional power of white supremacy.
I’d caution anyone who assumes last week’s violence will discredit and demoralize the far-right. I did notice that they took the stickers off many of their vehicles parked near the January 10 Capitol protest in Olympia. I remember when the so-called militias declined dramatically after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and it took them some years to recover. But there wasn’t the QAnon cult or social media back then, so I think they’ll step up their irrationality and regroup more quickly this time.
We might also assume that the far-right and Republicans dividing or splintering from each other will make things safer. But our experience in the Midwest was the opposite--the far-right is even more dangerous when they're down to the hard core, and remember that in the Mideast, ISIS was formed in a split away from Al Qaeda, whom they saw as softies. So smaller crowds does not necessarily mean the far-right is less of a threat in the short term, but it does mean they have less of a social base to persevere in the long term (much like ISIS). The good news is that rightists usually hate and fight each other even more than leftists do.
Some of us might also assume that the far-right threat will decline with Trump leaving office. That may be the case, but losing power could also unleash them untethered to any restraints, as we’ve seen in Michigan. We cannot assume Biden will adequately meet the challenge. If we simply try to “return to normal,” we forget that the normality of social and economic inequalities is what gave us Trump in the first place.
If four years ago, our country leapt from the frying pan of neoliberal corporate rule into the fire of enabling fascism, on January 20 we’re leaping back from the fire into the same old frying pan. Unless we see deeper changes, we’ll be back in the fire before long.
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Instead of effectively meeting the challenge of far-right militancy, proposed federal legislation against "domestic terrorism" or "extremism” is so vague and broad that I fear it will be used against dissenters who are practicing and defending democracy (like Black Lives Matter protesters and water protectors blocking oil pipelines), rather than against those trying to impede and shut down democracy.
What can we do at this point in our history, on a more local scale where we can make a difference?
We can hold socially distanced rallies for a peaceful transition, as one is being held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Olympia, to make clear that the opposition to anti-democratic forces is broad-based in our communities, not just among highly politicized leftists.
There is now state legislation against openly carrying arms at demonstrations, Senate Bill 5038. In Olympia for the past six years, it’s almost exclusively right-wing demonstrators who have carried these weapons. I hope the bill covers not only the immediate area but also armed harassment or visible snipers farther away. There are also existing state laws against unauthorized militias and brandishing weapons to intimidate that have not been enforced.
Many Pacific Northwest county sheriffs have been refusing to enforce mask laws or gun laws, and Oregon sheriffs enabled rural militia checkpoints to find ghost Antifa arsonists during the wildfires. Law enforcement is racist enough, and now we have to worry that they could de facto deputize armed paramilitaries. After the attempted coup, we have to build a firewall to “separate Cult and State.”
Instead of being intimidated by the recent crises, we can be encouraged by the longer-term trends in U.S. society. The future looks bright, it's just the present that sucks. In a temporal demographic shift, the U.S. is becoming more racially diverse, and younger voters back social equality and environmental sustainability. We’ve also seen a spatial shift of progressive rallies emerging in smaller cities and towns, in red and purple counties, where the battle for American hearts and minds is really taking place.
The Georgia election could be a tipping point both in time and space, starting a rollback of Nixon/Reagan’s racist “Southern Strategy” that solidified Republican rule in the South, so may portend deeper changes than the presidential election. We may look back on Trump and his coup as the last gasp of the dinosaurs, trying to hold back inevitable change, and the upsurge of social movements as the comet that wiped them out.
In the longer term, white people can take responsibility to support counterrecruitment of middle and high school students who may be drawn to far-right messages, or work with fellow soldiers and veterans, or in our work and social circles. By writing off large swaths of the country as cultural-political wastelands, we’re leaving a vacuum that the far-right has filled.
Community organizers have done some amazing work in rolling back far-right harassment and violence in red and purple counties, such as the Rural Organizing Project in Oregon, Love Lives Here and Not In Our Town in Montana, the Hate Free Schools Coalition in North Carolina, and many more. Research groups such as the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in Seattle, Political Research Associates, Three Way Fight and Southern Poverty Law Center have provided valuable information on the far-right.
Widening our circles
No matter what our personal opinions, we spend too much time talking with people we feel are right for the right reasons, and railing against people who are wrong for the wrong reasons. We need to enlarge our discussions, that’s where new connections can be made and crises can be reframed.
There are lots of people who are wrong for the right reasons. Their hearts in the right place but they’ve been attracted to false propaganda. As I stated in my book, "Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands," some white fishers who scapegoated Native treaty fishers for declining fish stocks, started working with the tribes to protect the fish from habitat destruction.
If you have friends really concerned about sex trafficking of kids, but are taken in by false conspiracy QAnon theories about Hollywood Satanists drinking kids’ blood, tell them about the real factual crisis of trafficking, such as the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
There are also people who are right for the wrong reasons, such as opposing billionaires like George Soros or Bill Gates, but because they supposedly want to overwhelm the West with immigrants or track us through vaccines. We can redirect some of these people toward the plenty of other reasons to dislike billionaires.
Similarly, some people dislike Big Tech for its censorship, but only objected when Trump’s Twitter was shut down. There are plenty of problems we can identify with Big Tech shaping opinion, in fact facebook abetted the rise of the far right. When our friends or family have a poor information diet, we can start to fill that vacuum with more factual, nutritious information, but more importantly by connecting to their emotions of anger and hope.
Like in facing the climate crisis and the pandemic, confronting the threat of fascism cannot be based on passively waiting for government action from above, or the results of the next election, but starting to form a patchwork of models from below, at the local, grassroots level. Learning the inconvenient truths about fascism, like learning about the climate and health crises, could lead us to actually shift our beliefs and lives, in order for democracy to survive, recover, and grow.