A highlight of the Trump inauguration in January 2017 was when an anti-fascist’s fist connected exquisitely with the jaw of alt-right neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. Video footage of the punch went instantly viral, inspiring a whole genre of left-wing memes and popularizing the ethical question, “Is it okay to punch a Nazi?”
We’ll get back to that question. First let’s be clear that Richard Spencer is in fact a Nazi by any reasonable definition. His white nationalist think-tank, the National Policy Institute, openly pushes a political message of white genetic and cultural superiority. Their ultimate goal is the creation of a “white ethno-state” through radical anti-immigration policies. They’re anti-feminist and homophobic, calling for a return to “traditional” gender roles. And like fascist movements of the 20’s and 30’s, they invoke anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to argue for a supposed “third position” between capitalism and socialism.
Spencer and his cronies have positioned themselves as a kind of intellectual vanguard of the alt-right, which differs in style but not in substance from traditional neo-Nazi boneheads.
The term ‘alt-right’ was coined by Spencer around 2010, but initially failed to gain much traction in popular consciousness. This changed when white nationalists were joined by the woman-hating internet trolls of the “manosphere” in supporting the Trump candidacy. They spread their message initially on online forums like 4Chan, using memes and slang to vilify women, racial minorities, socially progressive liberals, and even mainstream conservatives. These forces are flanked by Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Workers’ Party, an openly Nazi formation which is attempting to build a rank-and-file base to white nationalism.
These tendencies have coalesced into a perfect storm of organized bigotry and reactionary, cop-loving politics centered around the Trump Administration. With its authoritarian tone and racist pronouncements against Latinxs, Black people, and Muslims, Trump and his supporters have emboldened racist extremism, resulting in spike in hate crimes. Trump’s top advisor and National Security chief Steve Bannon is a crypto-white nationalist who has bragged that Breitbart, a far-right media outlet that he used to run, acted as a ‘gateway’ for the alt-right to the mainstream.
With the executive branch of the world’s most powerful nation state lending its ear, these alt-nazis present an existential threat to racialized people and threaten to turn back historic gains of women. On the surface they appear to offer white sections of the working class easy answers to very real anxieties – deindustrialization, declining wages, and global instability. But they merely misdirect anger against scapegoats, rather than dealing with the root causes of these problems. For most white people, this re-heated fascism merely offers a little “less” state-capitalist repression in return for slavish obedience.
And this rightward turn in the US is matched in recent years by far-right parties across Europe, bolstered by bigoted reactions to the “refugee crisis”. Humanity once again faces the very real prospect of a global ascendancy of fascism, armed this time with enough warheads to destroy civilization several times over.
For now, the cutting edge of the fascist right occupies its biggest presence online, where it has parlayed discontent with the excesses of political correctness into a hip, irreverent bigotry, replete with viral memes and web-savvy slang. Their biggest threat for on-the-ground organizing is on university campuses. Alt-right figures consistently draw large crowds to their campus tours, and cynically accuse opponents who protest them of violating their free-speech rights.
Many liberals for their part remain steadfast to the dogma of free speech, arguing that if we allow fascists to have their say in the marketplace of ideas, they will expose themselves as buffoons, and reason will prevail among the citizenry. Absurdly, some liberals even argue that by stopping fascists with force, we become “just like them,” simplistically boiling fascism down to “violence”.
Militant anti-fascists have long demolished these naive claims, and continue to assemble to physically stop fascists from spreading their poison. The stated intent of alt-nazis is the segregation of the world into ethnically cleansed enclaves, a feat that cannot be accomplished without a massive application of state violence. They are in a position to draw support from Trump’s most loyal minions – the police, border guards, and functionaries of other repressive state apparatuses. They are immune to the shame-based call-outs of campus liberals, and are openly cultivating their own brand of white, male identity politics. Their influence will continue to incite racist violence. With their Nietzchean “master morality”, they only speak one language: force.
Militant anti-fascists are not seeking to use the state to criminalize the speech acts of fascists. Such state repression can be just as easily used against us. But would-be fascist leaders must be denied a platform to organize and build bases of power. As one anti-fascist writer put it, “people are free to have any ideas they want, but we are also free to mobilize to stop violence and oppression from becoming an unstoppable wave in our community.” In a world marred by deep power lines of class, race, and gender, free speech is not something that presently exists, but a revolutionary goal to be attained.
So yes, it is okay to punch a Nazi, but it is not enough. Defeating far-right reactionary politics requires that we out-organize them on the ground, to deny them a base. This will entail a sustained effort by fascism’s various targets and their allies to build self-defense responses – neighbourhood organizing against deportations for example. It also entails organizing with white and racialized sections of the working class around their common material interests, while countering sexism, homophobia, and white racist impulse with a message of working class unity.