You don’t need to look for #MAGAbomber Cesar Sayoc’s inspiration. Spend some time online, and the sources for his explosive campaign against George Soros, Hillary Clinton and CNN will find you. You can’t escape versions of the memes he plastered all over his van, manifesting in tweets from angry Twitter eggs, in viral articles from Infowars and Breitbart, in Fox News clips and in, of course, speeches by Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.
At first glance, Robert Bowers, last week’s Pittsburgh shooter, seems different. Where Sayoc’s obsession with Clinton runs throughout the American right (think of the ‘Lock her UP’ chants at every Trump rally) you won’t hear Bowers’ cry of ‘All Jews must die’ on Fox.
Nevertheless, his preoccupations still mirror widely circulating internet theories.
‘HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,’ Bowers posted, before launching his attack. ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.’
By HIAS, he meant the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organisation connected to the synagogue he shot up. As the Times of Israel reported early in 2017, HIAS receives online abuse both from traditional white supremacists and from Islamophobic ultra-Zionists like Pamela Geller, both convinced that its support for Syrian migrants constitutes a demographic assault on white America.
A similar notion – immigrants as the unwitting tools of America’s enemies – underpins the current hysteria about the so-called ‘migrant caravan’ approaching the US-Mexican border, blamed by Donald Trump himself (on the basis of nothing whatsoever) for harbouring terrorists.
As Trump promised to deploy the US army on the border, Fox News described the migrants as an ‘invasion’ no less than 60 times in October (and Fox Business, more than 75 times), mainstream politicians and pundits speculated about who exactly might be behind the caravan. The Atlantic reported:
Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida wondered whether George Soros—the wealthy Jewish philanthropist whom Trump and several members of the U.S. Senate blamed for the protests against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and who was recently targeted with a bomb—was behind the migrant caravan. NRATV, the propaganda organ of the National Rifle Association, linked two Republican obsessions, voter fraud and immigration. Chuck Holton told NRATV’s viewers that Soros was sending the caravan to the United States so the migrants could vote: “It’s telling that a bevy of left-wing groups are partnering with a Hungarian-born billionaire and the Venezuelan government to try to influence the 2018 midterms by sending Honduran migrants north in the thousands.” On CNN, the conservative commentator Matt Schlapp pointedly asked the anchor Alisyn Camerota, “Who’s paying for the caravan? Alisyn, who’s paying for the caravan?,” before later answering his own question: “Because of the liberal judges and other people that intercede, including George Soros, we have too much chaos at our southern border.” On Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, one guest said, “These individuals are not immigrants—these are people that are invading our country,” as another guest asserted they were seeking “the destruction of American society and culture.”
Those invocations of Soros as a string-pulling mastermind drew, fairly obviously, on old-fashioned antisemitic tropes. Now, Bowers’ reference to ‘optics’ pertains to a long-running strategic dispute on the online right about the extent to which Nazi ideas should be masked. In other words, in that final post, he explained to his cothinkers that while he shared their theories about the migrants’ origins, he was no longer going to accept euphemisms. He didn’t blame Soros, he blamed Jews – and he acted accordingly.
In the mid-2000s, journalist David Neiwert warned against those he called ‘the eliminationists’: media figures who identified enemies on the left not as political opponents to be defeated but as existential threats to be destroyed. At that time, eliminationism generally arose from the war on terror, with the right portraying pusillanimous liberals as a fifth column cheering on bin Laden as they white-anted America in universities and the press.
In the years since then, a distinctly fascistic rhetoric has spread and mutated, its growth facilitated by the breakdown of a common public sphere and the rise of social media. As enthusiasm for mainstream political parties waned, particularly after the Global Financial Crisis, the right realised that a certain constituency indifferent (or even hostile) to free market policies could be enthused by a more insurrectionary language. Billionaire ideologues like the Koch brothers spent millions astroturfing a Tea Party movement mobilised by culture war, on the basis that, on election day, its middle-class membership would return Republican candidates. Media organisations like Fox News – and, eventually, Infowars and Breitbart – adopted a similar orientation, partly as a business strategy and partly for political reasons.
In the Trump era, that discourse has become far more free floating, increasingly untethered to the conventional Republican agenda. The QAnon theory, for instance, weaves a complex, almost unfathomable, narrative about the Clinton Foundation running a child trafficking ring – and yet gets promoted by Alex Jones (896,000 followers, prior to his ban from Twitter), Roseanne Barr (920,000 followers), ex-baseball star Curt Schilling (240,000) and President Trump himself (55 million).
With utterly unhinged arguments from the far right reaching audiences on this scale, no-one should be surprised when a Sayoc or a Bowers steps forward to translates those ideas into action.
At the same time, the uptick in rightwing terrorism shouldn’t be understood as simply reflecting the growth of fascism in the United States. More exactly, it represents a strange combination of fascist success and fascist failure.
For, despite the genuinely frightening reach of hateful rhetoric in the digital realm, far right ideologues have so far proved remarkably unsuccessful in constructing a real world fascist movement in America.
In August 2017, white supremacists staged the symptomatically titled Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, partly, as Cas Mudde argued, ‘to show the country that the alt-right is not just a social media phenomenon’. The ensuing rally, mobilising perhaps a thousand people, culminated in the brutal murder of Heather Heyer.
In retrospect, the event represented the high water mark of the attempts to turn online hate into real world politics – and, by and large, it proved a bust.
At the most obvious level, Charlottesville did not unite the racist right. On the contrary, the organisations that mobilised for that event subsequently became embroiled in vicious internal squabbles. Many of the most prominent groups active for Unite the Right have now either disbanded or declined markedly. The Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party fell apart over personal and political squabbles between its leaders. The vile Daily Stormer exists only on the Dark Web; Identity Evropa seems to be in crisis. As for the movement leaders, the Daily Beast explains, ‘Some have turned federal informant. Others are facing prison time. More are named in looming lawsuits. All of them are fighting.’
In part, the Charlottesville coalition collapsed because of the determined counter-protests that it encountered at that event and all its subsequent attempts to rally.
But the fascists also discovered that the mainstream institutions and media organisations on which their online growth depended were not particularly interested in backing a real world, street presence.
The Kochs poured serious money into the Tea Party (as well as a wide array of think tanks and publications) because they saw right-wing populism as useful for corralling votes to the free market candidates they favoured. But why would they provide the same support for the head-cracking thugs of the fascist right?
The classical fascism of the twenties and the thirties centred on paramilitary style organisations given to street battles with socialists and trade unionists. In Italy and Germany, it received tacit (and eventually overt) support from industrialists convinced that the fascist gangs represented the best option for smashing industrial militancy in a period of rising class tensions. That backing from big capital allowed the fascists to transition into a serious force.
Even during the much smaller outbreak of fascist organising in Britain in the 1970s, left-wing activists stressed the ultimate reliance of the National Front on sections of capital. In a pamphlet from those days, the influential International Marxist Group explained, ‘we can see that the fascists in Europe today while not being on the verge of taking power play a role in the class struggle … which has little to do with their numbers and a lot to do with their social location and ability to carry on physical struggle. They perform a variety of services for the capitalists today.’
In essence, the IMG saw the National Front as ingratiating itself to big business as a kind of brutal street enforcer, in the context of the sharp class conflicts of the mid seventies.
That’s not the situation in twenty-first century America.
On the contrary, the online popularity of far right and fascist ideas coincides with a historically low level of union activism, with the employers waging a very successful class struggle and not encountering much in the way of resistance.
As a result, even the most rabid representatives of big business don’t see any particular need for a fascist-style street army. On the contrary, they’re likely to worry that, rather than clearing the streets of the left, an organisation of goose-stepping thugs would provide a locus for a progressive revival, as activists threw themselves behind anti-fascist protests. It’s one thing for Fox to provide a platform for far right ideas. It’s quite another to back the kind of noisy, violent marches the fascist right favours, and by so doing risk re-establishing a dangerous (for the ruling class) tradition of plebeian politics.
Online, the fascists enjoy considerable institutional support from the more respectable right and its publications. Offline, matters are different. As a result, they’ve struggled to build any durable parties or publications. They haven’t created a viable electoral vehicle of their own and the various cliques of street thugs (Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, etc) remain marginal and isolated. Symptomatically, many of the most visible far right ideologues now seem more interested in commerce than politics, desperately trying to leverage their notoriety into speaking tours.
You can see the problems facing the fascist right expressed in its growing disenchantment with Donald Trump.
In November 2016, the alt-right leader Richard Spencer infamously called on his followers to hail the new president’s victory. Today, however, Spencer’s twitter feed consists of more-or-less constant sniping at Trump and those who still back him.
Trump might have brought nationalist ideas into the mainstream but he hasn’t constructed the regime that many alt-right ideologues hoped he would deliver. To take the most obvious example, while the president still rails at immigrants, his Great Big Beautiful Wall remains unbuilt. Trump might circulate alt-right memes but, on most matters of substance, he governs as a traditional big business Republican, focusing on tax cuts for the super rich rather than building a cadre of white nationalist street warriors.
Trump’s dangerous, of course, with, for instance, his withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty re-opening a Cold War-style nuclear arms race with Russia. Yet that issue illustrates the dangers of understanding Trump purely as an expression of the alt-right, since his foreign policy agenda now shows the influence of the arch neocon John Bolton far more than the American First populism associated with Steve Bannon.
None of this should be taken as understating the fascist danger in America.
Indeed, in some ways, the current conjuncture represents almost a perfect storm for right-wing violence, precisely because of the contradiction between the virtual and real audience for far right ideas.
‘We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet,’ wrote Dylann Roof before he massacred nine African American churchgoers in Charleston. ‘Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.’
Roof’s manifesto expressed a sentiment very close to that articulated by Bowers in his ‘I’m going in’ post: frustration at an inability to translate ‘talking on the internet’ into real world politics eventually building to a murderous rage.
As a strategy, terrorism – particularly individual terrorism – usually emerges from a political stalemate. The lone bomber or gunman doesn’t envision the atrocity he unleashes as part of a sequence culminating in victory. He presses the button or pulls the trigger not because he thinks he will win but because he doesn’t know how to stop losing.
Not everyone who sits in front of a computer muttering about cultural Marxism turns into a terrorist. But we need only recall Anders Breivik to recognise how deadly the toxic cauldron of online hate can become.
So how can we respond?
It’s useful to compare the strategies outlined by anti-fascists in the seventies with the current reality in the US (and, to a lesser extent, Australia). In the aforementioned pamphlet, the IMG stresses the importance of preventing National Front marches or meetings since, back then, the fascists could only build by establishing a foothold in the street. In the pre-internet era, rallies were a necessary precursor to the far right’s growth, allowing progressives to nip would-be fuhrers in the bud in a way.
That’s clearly not the case today. In 2018, the fascists first build support on social media and other platforms and only then venture, somewhat gingerly, into the real world.
In some respects, that makes preventing their mobilisations more important than ever. Quite clearly, if Unite the Right had taken place without opposition, Charlottesville might have represented the turning point that its organisers hoped, instead of becoming the graveyard of their ambitions.
Yet the ability of the far right to grow online means that fascism cannot be nipped in the bud by street militancy as might have been possible in the seventies. The failure of Unite the Right destroyed the fascists’ organisations but it didn’t curtail the ongoing spread of fascist ideas, proliferating and mutating across platforms.
To put it another way, physical confrontations might still be necessary to fight fascism but they’re no longer sufficient (if they ever were) since they don’t touch the far right’s online base.
Furthermore, the older strategies do not translate into the online space in any simple way. Most anti-fascists would agree on the necessity to disperse, say, a group of skinheads distributing antisemitic literature on a street corner. How, though, does one shut down the meme factories proliferating in the darkest crevices of the internet? Sure, you can lobby Facebook or Twitter not to host fascist accounts (in much the same way you might urge a hardware store not to supply tiki torches to a racist mob heading for Charlottesville) but the size of the social media giants provides a certain immunity to such pressure – and, in any case, they’re just as likely to de-list progressives in a hamfisted attempt to maintain civility. More importantly, the diffusion of the internet pretty much dooms to failure efforts to digitally deplatform fascists – they will always find somewhere else to congregate.
That’s why the struggle against online hate must still take place in the physical world.
The far right grows from political desperation. German National Socialism built its base from a middle class that saw no way out of the ruination engendered by the Great Depression. Today, ecological crisis merges with economic stagnation to foster an overwhelming and debilitating pessimism, a prevailing fog of misery that gives fascist nihilism its power.
Anyone who’s spent any time reading alt-right sites knows exactly what that’s like. In his important essay on 4chan, Dale Beran discusses the emergence of Pepe the Frog not simply as an emblem of the racist right but as an avatar of self-conscious despair.
The grotesque, frowning, sleepy eyed, out of shape, swamp dweller, peeing with his pants pulled down because-it-feels-good-man frog is an ideology, one which steers into the skid of its own patheticness. Pepe symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it. That is to say, it is what all the millions of forum-goers of 4chan met to commune about. It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing “the system is rigged”. But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you’re trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate.
If you believe, deep in your bones, that the world’s beyond salvation, there’s an appeal in revelling in your own damnation – and a certain pleasure in dragging others down with you. That sentiment played an important role in classical fascism. The combat veteran Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, later an important Brownshirt, explained how he and his proto-Nazi comrades reacted to being told that the First World War was over.
‘That was a laugh,’ he said. ‘We ourselves are the war; its flame burns strongly in us. It envelops our whole being and fascinates us with the enticing urge to destroy.’
If you believe peace impossible, why not become the war?
Compare a recent piece by Matt Taibbi drawing attention to the overt bleakness of Trump’s election campaign in 2016.
‘Obese and rotting,’ he wrote, ‘close enough to the physical end himself (and long ago spiritually dead), Trump essentially told his frustrated, pessimistic crowds that America was doomed anyway, so we might as well stop worrying and floor it to the end. […] As crazy as it is, it’s a seductive message for a country steeped in hate and pessimism.’
That’s why liberalism and the so-called sensible centre cannot defeat the far right. In the twenty-first century, political moderation means the leaders who led the world into its current state, the people who respond with platitudes when scientists warn about planetary devastation. Everyone grasps the rottenness of the status quo, and so a politics based on its defence will not counter those enticed by the urge to destroy.
The far right will continue to grow online – and, eventually, on the street – until and unless we can re-establish a political future.
When progressives offer real and practical solutions to the world’s manifold crises, the rhetoric of online fascism sheds its glamour. Nihilism stems from despair; nihilism depends on despair. As soon as real alternatives appear, an embrace of loserdom becomes perverse, even pathetic. The alternative to a culture of hopelessness begins with hope.
That might sound platitudinous – and, in some ways, it is. It certainly doesn’t offer an immediate defence against whatever new Sayocs and Bowers lurk in the shadows waiting to emerge.
But we are where we are, in a time and a place in which no easy solutions present themselves. This is the epoch in which socialism and barbarism contend – and until the former becomes a realistic option, the latter will continue to loom.
Image: Patrick Feller / flickr