What strategies will stop the far right?

July 3, 2017

The left's power to confront the surge of the far right since Trump's election lies in mass mobilization in defense of democracy and justice, writes Eric Ruder.

IN THE months since the election of Donald Trump, the far right in the U.S. has become more confident, aggressive and violent than at any time in the last quarter century or more.

Hate crimes targeting Muslims, Jews, African Americans and LGBT people are spiking across the country--in urban areas with a liberal reputation, as well as red states and rural areas.

The contrast with the weeks right after Trump's election and inauguration is stark. In the first flush of outrage, there were spontaneous outpourings of resistance and the largest single day of protest in U.S. history with the Women's Marches held the day after Trump's inauguration.

But this initial response has not been sustained. In some ways, this was inevitable--after the largest day of protest in U.S. history, those that followed were likely to be smaller. Then there is the question of organization and vision--the only way to sustain a longer-term struggle is through an organized commitment to what our side is fighting for.

Unlike the right, the left requires independent political organization for its successes, because left-wing movements must provide participants with the ideological tools to stand up to the prevailing ideas in society that justify the status quo and, if unchallenged, eat away at the confidence to keep fighting.

On the march in Oakland, California
On the march in Oakland, California (Annette Bernhardt)

As Australian socialist Corey Oakley explained in a recent article "LePen and the global far right threat":

Right-wing populism, by contrast, is precisely the kind of thing that can emerge semi-organically, absent other factors. Why? Because, however "anti-system" they sound, far-right ideas are based on the "common sense" and inherent prejudices of the existing order. National pride. Fear of the outsider. Flag waving. Tradition. All of these are simultaneously the ethos that justifies the existing order, and the banner under which the right revolts against it.

In other words, the far right picks up where Trump leaves off.

Trump inveighs against political correctness, the corrupt elites of the political establishment, "criminal immigrants" and terrorists, the scourge of free trade agreements and declining opportunities for white Americans. And the far right adds: "We won't just talk about what's wrong, we're going to do something about it."

Those already seething with racial hatred have been inspired by the rhetoric of Trump and the far right to commit acts of violence they weren't confident enough to carry out before--for example, the stabbing in Portland, Oregon, of three men defending two Muslim teens from harassment by a white supremacist; and the murder of Richard Collins III at the University of Maryland by a white supremacist.

SOME OF the shrewder leaders of the far right are avoiding the open embrace of white supremacy and Nazism--even if they themselves and their supporters hold those beliefs.

In a speech at a neo-Nazi rally on June 4 in Portland, Kyle Chapman--who gained notoriety on the hard right for striking an anti-racist demonstrator on the head with a stick during a street fight in Berkeley, California--explicitly rejected a place for Nazis and white supremacists in the "alt-right" movement.

On the other side, the hard-right elements of the Republican Party are also looking to tap into these political currents.

James Buchal, chair of the Republican Party in Portland's Multnomah County, called for Republicans to use militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters--which had a high profile in the right-wing Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation last year--for security.

And Buchal told Britain's Guardian newspaper that he attended the far right rally in Portland on July 4 to find new recruits...for the Multnomah County Republicans.

While more openly Nazi elements, such as the Traditionalist Workers' Party and its founder Matthew Heimbach, sometimes lead with their racism and Hitler worship, they also know when to emphasize issues that are designed to connect with the specific grievances of working people facing economic anxiety.

According to a Guardian feature about a neo-Nazi mobilization in eastern Kentucky:

Heimbach's public speech was heavy on the socialism and light on conspiracy theories, denouncing corporate interests and environmental degradation, endorsing worker unions and "nationalization of key industries."

"The Republicans and the Democrats support Wall Street, they support more wars, they support your blood being spilled for their sake," Heimbach said. "We are here to tell you: you don't have to choose the lesser of two evils. You can choose people that are actually on your side. Because we are you. We are the people you go to church with, you see in the grocery story, you work with."

At one point, the men gave the Nazi salute and chanted for at least a minute: "Heil Heimbach! Heil Heimbach! Heil Heimbach!"

ONE OF the hard right's most effective strategies takes advantage of a key weakness of today's left: the backsliding in standing up for democratic principles such as the right to free speech.

When the left calls on the state or other institutions such as universities to ban right-wing speakers, rather than mobilizing to confront them, it gives the right the perfect opportunity to pose as persecuted victims of a left-wing attack.

The controversy that follows is a win-win for the right: If they are denied a platform, it fulfills their claims to be persecuted victims. If they get to speak, they do so to a larger audience stirred up by the controversy.

In either case, the right can claim the high ground of "defending free speech"-- when historically, it's the left that has been subjected to the most smothering denials of its rights and which has fought to defend them from repression.

What's more, calls to restrict free speech become calls to restrict the right to protest--and invariably get directed at the left more systematically than the right.

This explains why Portland's mayor privately asked activists to cancel their planned counterprotest of the far right's June 4 rally--which was followed by Jesse Jackson's public call to do the same.

The liberal argument against counterprotesting is that this gives the right the attention they seek. But this is misguided. The right prefers to hold its rallies unopposed, especially as it seeks to re-legitimize itself and build up a base. Mass mobilizations by the left demonstrate to the right's potential new recruits that they face intense opposition throughout society.

Portland's social justice community did the left everywhere a great service by refusing to buckle in the face of calls to demobilize. It showed that the far right won't go unopposed, even if city officials prefer that outcome, by creating a space for people to make their voices heard, despite the understandable fear many felt in the white supremacist's stabbing spree.

That fear can be compounded by the tactics pursued by some on the left--known as "Antifa" or Black Bloc--who seek to engage in street fighting with the neo-Nazis.

Though this approach appears to contrast with the liberal case for not protesting or protesting away from the far right, the outcome can be the same--namely, undermining the basis for a mass mobilization against the far right by people who can and should be organized to confront the fascists.

THE LIBERAL and Antifa position bear another resemblance: their superficial explanations about where the far right comes from and how to fight it.

If the standard liberal explanation for the hard right is the false stereotype of "rednecks" or "ignorant American workers," the Antifa have the same view, but conclude that the best response is to bash their heads in.

The problem is that street-fighting tactics aren't sufficient to stop the far right.

Its rise isn't the result of some special American backwardness or tendency for racism. What we are seeing in the U.S. is part of an international phenomenon, also present in Greece, Britain, Germany and France. In the Philippines, a Trump-like figure--Rodrigo Duterte--has recently been elected president.

The growth of the right is the consequence of an economic crisis that has driven down working-class living standards while making the rich wealthier than ever. The political establishment, whether its center-left or center-right wing, has no answer for this crisis.

The left must seek, therefore, to educate a new generation about the need to challenge the far right through mass mobilization. This has to include education about struggles of the past, such as fighting fascism in Germany, as well as debates and discussions about strategy and tactics in the here and now.

And of course, it means attempting to mobilize the largest possible response anywhere and everywhere the far right tries to mobilize.

The far right wants to control the streets through intimidation and fear, and with Trump in the White House, they have a spokesperson who continually gives voice to their agenda.

Our side must prepare for a period of months and even years during which the far right will present a continuing threat.

Ultimately, building a credible political alternative to rising inequality, austerity and despair is essential. A struggle based on multiracial working-class unity can blunt the sense of despair that the hard right feeds on--and it can direct people's legitimate bitterness at the real enemies: Corporate America and the politicians who seek scapegoats instead of actual solutions.

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