“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
What Is Antifa? The Truth Behind the Tweets
Donald Trump clearly hates antifa. But what actually is antifa and why does it matter?
If you've watched Fox News recently, you have almost certainly heard the term "antifa" uttered with an air of sinister mystery and more than a hint of contempt, but what actually is it?
Antifa, pronounced "AN-tee-fuh," is short for antifascists. Antifa is not really an organization, as they have no leader, no hierarchy, and no regular meetings or gatherings. It is instead a left-wing political ideology that aims to eradicate fascism and white nationalism through the use of both nonviolent and violent direct action rather than policy reform. Essentially, they are a group characterized entirely by opposition to one thing: fascism.
Webster's Dictionary defines fascism as "a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts a nation and often a race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition." Most American's agree that fascism is a bad thing. It's regularly associated with bigotry and authoritarian dictators like Hitler. So why are we mad about anti-fascists? To understand that, we have to look at their history.
The History of antifa
The history of anti-fascism begins around the same time as the history of fascism. In 1932 Germany, a group called "Antifaschistische Aktion" formed in opposition to the rising Nazi party. It was a militant anti-fascist organization in the Weimar Republic started by members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and it only existed from 1932 to 1933. Antifaschistische Aktion used their militant approach to develop a self-defense network for communities targeted by the Nazis. The group engaged in a series of direct actions meant to challenge the Nazis, including street brawls, but they were forcibly dissolved after Hitler's rise to power.
Around the same time, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a Nazi-like political party, was gaining political power in the UK. But when the BUF attempted to lead a march through London in 1936, thousands of Jews and left-wing activists attacked the fascists and their police escorts, raining homemade bombs and rocks down on the parade. The BUF forces retreated and the anti-fascists celebrated victory in "the Battle of Cable Street." The event is still cited by antifa activists today.
The modern antifa movement finds its roots in London's Anti-Fascist Action (AFA). Founded in the UK in 1985 by a wide range of anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations, the AFA was a militant anti-fascist group. It was active in fighting far-right organizations, particularly the National Front and British National Party. They were particularly active in the punk scene, where they would often violently throw neo-Nazis out of punk shows.
A similar organization called Anti-Racist Action (ARA), also connected to the punk music scene, formed in America in the 80's. In the late 1980s and 1990s, ARA activists toured with popular punk rock bands in order to prevent white supremacists from recruiting at their shows. They would remove any neo-Nazi materials and forcibly remove anyone espousing neo-Nazi philosophies.
What does antifa look like today?
Photo by: Nayani Teixeira / Unsplash
Antifa is not an organization; it's an ideology, and as such, it is highly decentralized and localized. There are some specific local organizations, like Portland's Rose City Antifa, which was founded in 2007, but there's no national umbrella leadership or hierarchy. There is no uniform course of action for antifa, but they do tend to operate on one principle: Stopping fascism by any means necessary.
In The Antifascist Handbook, antifa historian Mark Bray writes, "The job of the anti-fascist is to make [fascists] too afraid to act publicly and to act as volunteer targets for their hate and attacks which might keep them from thinking about burning down the mosque in their neighborhood."
In order to intimidate "fascists," antifa uses a variety of tactics. Online, they use a technique called doxxing. They identify white supremacists and fascists and expose them online in an attempt to get them fired from their jobs and evicted from their apartments. Antifa also uses no-platforming or deplatforming, which involves denying fascists the opportunity to speak out in public by obstructing their events.
The tactic that makes most people nervous about antifa is their use of violence. Antifa generally seeks out fascists and racists and disrupts any and all rallies through violent confrontations. Antifa has been known to use sticks, fists, and projectiles, though they are almost never associated with guns.
In general, Antifa appear as counter-protesters, not protesters themselves. They look to events in history like the Battle of Cable Street, and claim that fascism can only be stopped by using violence. You can recognize antifa at a protest either from their logo—a red flag over a black flag—or sometimes from their use of black bloc strategy. The black bloc is where people dress in black and cover their faces in order to thwart surveillance and create a sense of equality among participants. Sometimes antifa members using this method try to operate as a "security force" for protesters.
Since Trump was elected in 2016, anti-fascist counter-protesters have become much more mainstream. Thousands of people protested at Donald Trump's inauguration, including some self-proclaimed anti-fascists. Memorably, after the inauguration, white-supremacist Richard Spencer was punched in the face by a black-clad protestor—and after the incident went viral on social media, Richard Spencer blamed it on antifa.
A few months later in August 2017, Antifa counter-protesters showed up at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and violently clashed with alt-right protesters. During the rally a neo-Nazi plowed into a crowd of counter protester, injuring dozens and killing one woman, Heather Heyer.
In March 2018, Richard Spencer canceled the remaining stops on his college speaking tour, releasing a tearful video in which he declared that "antifa is winning."
Coverage of antifa has gone up significantly during the recent racial justice protests. This summer, between May 24th and August 22nd, ACLED recorded more than 10,600 protests in all 50 states and Washington, DC. Most of the protests were about police brutality, and around 10,130 of them were peaceful. However the media has spent a lot of time on the approximately 570 protests that involved some form of violence. Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed the violence at protests on antifa, which has given the movement significant media attention.
Trump and his supporters have designated antifa as public enemy #1. He has mentioned antifa in 41 tweets and has credited antifa with all of the violence and looting of the Black Lives Matter protests, and even accused the 75-year-old man who was pushed over on camera by the police in Buffalo of being an "antifa provocateur."
Trump also declared via Twitter that he would designate antifa as a terrorist organization, despite the fact that he legally cannot declare any domestic group as a terrorist organization. Overall, he has given antifa a lot of attention without presenting any actual evidence of antifa involvement.
Are antifa responsible for protest violence?
Photo by: Nicole Baster / Unsplash
Any group that believes that the ends justify the means should be viewed as a threat. That being said, so far there is no evidence that the violence at the racial justice protests is caused by antifa or even that it has been coordinated at all. Thousands have been arrested at the protests, but most are for misdemeanor charges such as breaking curfew. The few more serious offenses, including murder and throwing molotov cocktails at police vehicles, have resulted in federal charges. According to the Washington Post, there are roughly 80 federal charges stemming from the protests, but thus far there are no mentions of antifa in any of the court documents. However, the far-right "boogaloo" movement is tied to 4 of the offenders.
Seth Jones, an expert on terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes, "My conversations with law enforcement and intelligence officials in multiple US cities suggest that [though] antifa played a minor role in violence, the vast majority of looting appeared to come from local opportunists with no affiliation and no political objectives. Most were common criminals."
A May 31 memo from the FBI's Washington field office reported "no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence" in DC protests. The Associated Press analyzed court records, employment histories, social media posts and other sources of information concerning the 217 people arrested May 29-31 in Minneapolis and DC, and found that almost all were local residents, and very few had any connection to any extremist organizations.
Even the Department of Homeland Security admits that most of the violence seems to be caused by local "violent opportunists" rather than extremists, despite the fact that a recent whistleblower claimed that DHS officials were directed to play up the threat presented by antifa to match the president's rhetoric.
Antifa has existed in some form in the United States since the 1980s, and they have never posed much of a domestic terror threat. In fact, the only known death caused by an antifa supporter happened a week ago, by a man who stated on Instagram that he was "100% antifa" but was not actually affiliated with any antifa group.
According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Right-wing terrorist (Boogaloo, Sovereign Citizens, white supremacists, incels, etc.) attacks caused 335 deaths, while left-wing (extreme environmentalists, animal rights extremists, anti-capitalists, anarchists, etc.) attacks caused 22 deaths. Most importantly, antifa caused no known deaths.
Why Trump's antifa rhetoric should scare you.
Antifa is not responsible for the level of violence Trump claims, but it is a real extremist ideology that does use violence as a tactic. This fact has led Trump and his supporters to use it as a catch-all term for leftists in order to scare people on the right.
This is concerning for a number of reasons, and is somewhat—dare I say it—fascist. A defining feature of fascism is forcible suppression of the opposition and Trump is trying to use antifa to do exactly that.
Antifa doesn't have official membership, which gives Trump and his supporters a lot of leeway to dictate who is in "antifa" and who it isn't. If antifa includes anyone who is against fascism, it would likely include most Americans.
Trump's misapplication of the label "antifa" to include all left-leaning activists rather than limiting it to those who proactively seek physical confrontations has resulted in dangerous generalizations. He continues to paint a picture of this summer's protesters as a monolithic leftist group who desire nothing more than chaos.
In reality, racial justice protesters are very diverse. According to Pew Research, 59% are over 30, 42% live in the suburbs, and 17% lean Republican. The protesters are people from every walk of life who genuinely feel that police brutality and racial injustice are serious problems.
As long as antifa is a shadowy, amorphous group, it will continue to be used as a punching bag for the right. The lack of information about antifa has already given rise to various conspiracy theories regarding it. Some claim it is being funded by George Soros, who is somehow also a Nazi. Some even claim that Soros is sending out buses marked "Soros riot Dance Squad" full of antifa members intending to start riots.
Others falsely claim that the Democratic party is funding antifa and hiring paid agitators. These claims are quite obviously false, yet they spread like wildfire. One of the most concerning disinformation campaigns about antifa in recent memory was the twitter account @antifa_us, which encouraged violence at protests. The account was removed by twitter after it turned out to actually be operated by Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group.
By playing up the scale of the antifa threat, Trump has made antifa seem just as bad, if not worse, than other extremist groups. However, the statistics show us that this is simply not the case.
The anti-defamation league warns that "it is important to reject attempts to claim equivalence between the antifa and the white supremacist groups they oppose." They add that, "Right-wing extremists have been one of the largest and most consistent sources of domestic terror incidents in the United States for many years; they have murdered hundreds of people in this country over the last ten years alone. To date, there have not been any known antifa-related murders."
Antifa is extreme, and we should all condemn their use of violence—however rare it may be. But perhaps their cause is a worthy one. After all, it does seem awfully fascist to declare anti-fascists terrorists.
For more well-researched, unbiased information on today's biggest issues, follow Alexandra's Instagram account The Factivists.
Climate Change and the Death of Hope in 2020
What does hope look like if our society is incapable of facing reality?
A 2020 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that polar ice sheets are melting in line with "worst-case scenario" climate models.
In Antarctica and Greenland, melting ice sheets have been dumping hundreds of billions of tons of fresh water into the ocean each year, at a rate up to three times as fast as in recent decades.
This process not only raises water levels—causing dramatic increases in catastrophic storm surges—it alters the salinity, current dynamics, and acidity of the oceans in ways that have dire ecological and meteorological impacts. It is guaranteed to produce both predictable crises and unforeseen catastrophes. And nobody cares.
Why would they? We're in the midst of a global pandemic that is triggering an unprecedented economic crisis. It has caused food insecurity to affect millions more families than were already struggling, and may soon result in tens of millions of Americans losing their homes.
On top of that, California has faced another devastating wildfire season (including another "gender-reveal" gone wrong) amid a record-breaking heatwave and the now-familiar drought conditions, all while a tumultuous hurricane season in the Atlantic is producing powerful storms at a faster rate than in any year since we started keeping track.
The world—and the US in particular—has more pressing concerns than melting ice in 2020, don't we? Well, considering the fact that the "worst-case scenario" for climate change could bring about the collapse of civilization within 30 years, no we really don't.
We can't make the changes to avoid that scenario overnight. It will take years of change that will need to be done sooner, rather than later. Oh, and now scientists are advising the need for a new model of a worse worst-case scenario...
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked unforeseen havoc on our society, but it's really just a snapshot of the kind of devastation that climate change will inevitably bring about without the kind of transformational action that is beginning to seem impossible.
Congress can't agree to help people keep their homes during an unprecedented unemployment crisis. What chance do we have that they will stand up to lobbyists and big-business donors to restructure our economy into a sustainable model? Does it even matter how big the threat is? Does it matter that everything we're facing is only going to get worse?
Because not only will hurricanes, droughts, floods, heat waves, food shortages, wildfires, gradually get worse and worse as a result of climate change—until the crises of 2020 become a fond memory—but infectious diseases are likely to reach epidemic and pandemic levels more frequently.
With traditional food sources destroyed by weather events and the changing oceans—along with animals migrating due to deforestation—people will be exposed to more exotic animals, and non-human viruses will have more opportunity to make the leap.
With more and more heat waves reaching and exceeding body temperature for days at a time, microbes that can't currently survive inside our bodies will begin adapting into dangerous pathogens.
And with tens of millions of people being displaced by catastrophic weather events and conflicts arising from scarce resources—most of them forced into crowded conditions—infectious diseases new and old will spread more rapidly.
We will perpetually be dealing with some new epidemic. Some urgent disaster is always going to occupy our attention and energy while we continue to ignore the underlying, apocalyptic cause. And all of these problems will only make it easier for the rising strain of global fascism to demonize outsiders, and further isolate nations from the kind of international cooperation we so desperately need.
At what point are we expecting to have fewer "pressing concerns" than we have right now? In what idyllic future will we have the peace and security to start focusing on addressing the hazy, foundational threat that is likely to destabilize everything we know?
As a pandemic rages, America's two-parties continue to be incapable of cooperating to help the American people—of making the other side look good. Our aging, wealthy ruling class doesn't take threats facing younger generations and the working class seriously. And this familiar rot of a two-party stalemate is even more evident in the challenge of forming a consensus behind pragmatic, necessary action like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's Green New Deal.
Instead of backing it, and favoring the long-term habitability of our only planet, people prefer to scoff at an imagined plan to steal their hamburgers. And corporate-owned media empires are happy to serve up the team-sports drama of it all while the end of everything we know rushes toward us. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is preparing for global societal destabilization.
The dynamics of American "democracy" under capitalism seem to be wholly incapable of saving us, and the structure of the military industrial complex will no doubt view the crises that arise from displaced people and global unrest as a series of nails to be handled by their ever-more-sophisticated hammers.
There is a famous quote of uncertain attribution that says that, within our system, "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism." It's becoming increasingly easy to see that end to the world looming, while the armor protecting the forces of for-profit ecological ruination show no signs of weakening.
In astrophysics there is a concept known as the Fermi Paradox that questions why—if the conditions for producing intelligent life are not exceedingly rare—we do not see any evidence of other civilizations spread across the vastness of space.
The Fermi Paradox II — Solutions and Ideas – Where Are All The Aliens?www.youtube.com
There are various responses that may explain that observation, but among the most popular is the idea that civilizations just don't last. The forces of progress that allow creatures to develop technology like radio transmitters and spacecraft may lead inevitably to world-ending weapons or climate collapse.
Whether that's true throughout the universe, it seems increasingly to be the case for the only confirmed civilization in the Milky Way. For all our amazing advances, we remain stupid apes,—incapable of planning beyond next month, and constantly discovering new and clever ways to kill ourselves.
It's customary—in an article this dark—to end on a hopeful note. That makes sense. It's generally considered rude to actively ruin a stranger's day. But isn't it also rude to lie? Because I'm not convinced that there is any real hope for our civilization—not in the long run.
Sure, we can find some ways to delay and mitigate the damage. Pointing to 2050 as the likely end is probably overly pessimistic. If we do a surprisingly good job of adapting, legislating, and cooperating—and also get very lucky—we may have a couple good generations left.
In that case, most of the people reading this are likely to be dead of all the familiar causes before the total collapse of world order. Only our children or grandchildren—and however many generations after—will be forced to face the immense suffering of a new dark age.
That is the sad shade of fate that we should all be fighting for with desperate passion—because it's a hair shy of pure black void. Better than that, at this point, seems to be in the realm of fantasy.
We've already done so much irreversible harm. And the path we're on is so resistant to change. It would be wonderful—joyous—to be proven wrong, but the society and the way of life we know can't last. And there's no indication we'll be able to replace it in time.
Maybe our only realistic hope is to drastically lower our expectations. Short of saving the world as we know it, maybe we can keep portions of the planet habitable—maybe an enclave in the region around Colorado and another in the Mongolian steppe will hang onto less-than-hellish conditions. Maybe we need to start planning for the post-apocalypse.
With preparation, little pockets around the world could maintain a lifestyle that's worth living for some sizable remainder of humankind—even if they have to do without most of the luxuries afforded by global stability—the electronics, transportation, medicines, supply chains, entertainment, and communication we take for granted.
A return to something closer to pre-industrial conditions is likely for survivors of the collapse, but maybe—for some fraction of the population—life won't become a living hell.
And maybe, somewhere out in the universe, there is an some alien species that has managed to survive the pitfalls of progress and achieve a sustainable, equitable, idyllic life. Maybe they're watching us, waiting to see how we handle ourselves—to see if we learn our lesson from this impending apocalypse—before they swoop in and share their utopia.
If we peer far enough into distant uncertainty, it's possible to conceive of something better after the end of Western Civilization—after likely billions of deaths and immeasurable suffering.
Does that count as hope? Is that enough to spit up the black pill of despair?
Contextless Nostalgia and the Neo-Fascist Urge
In the wake of the Tree of Life shooting we're left wondering: how did we get here?
Is Robert Bowers a Fascist?
If Umberto Eco is to be taken at face value when he describes his Ur-fascist as "impatient for death,"¹ the question we're left with in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting is this: Why now, in 21st century America, has this distinctly 20th century urge, this death drive, suddenly rematerialized? The other questions–ones concerning motive, logistics, and cultural response–while meaningful in their own right, only explain the symptoms, not the disease.
Fascism in its truest sense is a type of suicide, one committed not by an individual but by an entire society. Still, the important conversation (as with an individual suicide) doesn't concern method. When a man takes his own life, the why is a far more incisive question than the how. If we're to extrapolate this metaphor, to argue about gun control, anti-semitism, and President Trump's brusque response to this tragedy is tantamount to debating the meaning of using rope over a straight razor. In the interest of being thorough, however, let's briefly explore these symptoms:
Immediately following the attack, Robert Bowers' social media posts went loud, his comments regarding Jewish conspiracies sitting somewhere between Alex Jones' InfoWars and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "Jews are the children of satan," he shouted into the Internet void. What the public was given were echoes, reverberations after the fact. The shooter's motive was never in question.
The issue then splintered, its fragments taking familiar trajectories. Pragmatists argued for tighter gun control, in this case perhaps an antihistamine, but one that could at least theoretically prevent another maniac from gunning down a room full of unarmed civilians. Others blamed the increasingly volatile rhetoric of the Trump regime for galvanizing a new generation of angry white men. When looking at the recent rise of extremist provocateurs,² this second point can feel the more crucial (though it goes without saying that these views are far from mutually exclusive), but in reality, it's closer to a half truth. Barack Obama's assessment of Trump (and by extension his rhetoric and the hate it inspires) as the "symptom not cause" of our present spiritual crisis mirrors this opinion, whether he meant it to or not. Still, we're left wondering: if Trump, Bowers, Cesar Sayoc, Richard Spencer, the alt-right, et al. are symptoms, what's the cause?
It's been stated time and time again that we're becoming increasingly obsessed with nostalgia, cripplingly so. Whether or not it's true, again, is not so important. The why, however, remains.
Nostalgia, in the classic sense, is a wistful remembrance, a pained recalling of a time where things were better. It's a belief, however erroneous, that the past contains more happiness than the present. A fitting example of nostalgic art is Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, a film so nostalgic it feels documental, produced for the former rebels/present yuppies of Gen X as a glimmering look at their past, a reassurance that they were indeed once cool. Saccharine or not (depends on who you ask), the film certainly comports to this traditional definition.
Today's televisual/cinematic nostalgia, if one can really call it that, has a distinctly different flavor. Instead of being a monument to the past, a shared generational experience, nostalgia has been co-opted as an aesthetic, a mood. Stranger Things, a show decidedly millennial in both content and attitude, is a perfect example of this. The outfits, the lingo, the references, and the sets all feel nostalgic, but a look at the show's viewership demographics quickly reveal this feeling doesn't fit nostalgia's true definition. 18-39 year-olds aren't old enough to have memories from the early 80s.
The television producer's argument that Stranger Things and other period dramas give a younger audience access to the past (which is new to them) while also capturing an older demographic who experienced the events on the show first hand doesn't hold water, especially when you consider that the Duffer Brothers are only 34-years-old. The nostalgia they're capturing isn't genuine. It's a fractal cobbling of present day ideals and past aesthetics–not nostalgia, but mutation, a rehashing and reliving of history with no frame of reference. It's time travel to a non-existent past.
One look around–bell bottom jeans, Mad Men, 90s-inspired music videos, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin songs playing on truck commercials–and it's impossible not to see this frantic pawing as the defining mark of our culture. It's not the end of history; it's a fraught and dizzying attempt to reimagine it and a cultural impetus to live in the mangled architecture of this imagined past.
Nostalgia for Stakes
To return to Eco for a moment, the Ur-Fascist is also marked by the fact that he's "deprived of a clear social identity." Eco goes on to say that fascism takes this lack of identity and fills the void with nationalism. While this is certainly true, from average Trump supporters all the way down to Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers, Eco never identifies the cause of this deprivation.³ The contextless nostalgia of our present offers an entrée into diagnosis–Bowers and others like him, while certainly insane, aren't so far removed from society as to be immune to its mores.
This new form of nostalgia, this amalgam of distorted realities, functions as both an escape hatch from our present existential void–a void of unmeaning, a loss of stakes–and one of its root causes. This new, fundamentally false, cultural memory is a product of our present zeitgeist. It's born of an influx of information and static confusion, one created by a society so materially comfortable that it's primarily concerned with artistic and aesthetic trends, with manufacturing meaning. The loss of stakes, however, can be traced back to the 1970s.
Following the Vietnam War and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the U.S. found itself in a peculiar position. After nearly 40 years of perpetual war, we lacked an enemy to align ourselves against. A malaise set in, one that would typify the 1970s. Then, in 1983, Ronald Reagan offered the American people a respite from having to define themselves by anything other than what they are not. He declared the Soviet Union an "evil empire," rekindling Cold War rhetoric which had long since burnt out. Announcing this a few years after signing a non-proliferation treaty with the Soviets probably felt strange to anyone paying attention, but it didn't matter. We had an enemy again.
But was the Soviet Union truly our enemy or one recreated by spiritual necessity? Manufactured animosity and organic threats converged at a single point. For Reagan's part, all he did was stir up past resentments, but his demagoguery wasn't feeding some Weimar-esque yearning for a return to greatness, but a nostalgia for dire consequences. Because the method and end result are similar—a monolith enemy is created onto which a society can project its fears—this distinction can feel unimportant. But, this marked a significant change.
America's enemies were no longer an existential threat. They were created as convenient scapegoats for economic and political turmoil. The recession of 1973, the OPEC oil embargo, and the 1979 energy crisis, while not unserious, paled in comparison to the socio-economic climates that spawned the original iterations of fascism. The U.S. economy was down, sure, but there was no question as to where the seat of global power resided. Still, at the quotidian level, lines at the pump and the rapid decrease in factory jobs were panic-inducing. If we take this moment to be the birth of American fascism, the moment in which we became "constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of [our enemies],"⁴ then it represents a reversal of what happened in the Weimar Republic. Instead of a fascism born out of economic powerlessness and spiritual fervor, ours is the result of a spiritual drought created by material excess.
On an individual level, it's hard to even differentiate Robert Bowers from the likes of Steven Paddock. Sure, Bowers is racist and anti-Semitic, but this is just a variation on the theme of the deranged lone gunman. If one steps back and looks at the furor in the stands at Donald Trump's rallies or at the violence in Charlottesville last year, however, it becomes impossible to miss this creeping trend, conservatism fading in the rearview as our society pushes ever rightward. But why?
If an individual suicide is an escape from life, an assertion that death is preferable to the anguish of everyday existence, then fascism, the societal suicide, must be an escape of the same order. At this point, it's clear that our sprint towards authoritarianism comes from our society's collective yearning for stakes, for meaning. There's no great existential threat, so we look to our leaders to manufacture one. But fascism is European. Its great figures have been dead for nearly a century. It's foreign, an anachronism. It doesn't make sense until one considers our present infatuation with nostalgia. Not nostalgia as feeling but as concept, as aesthetic. American neo-fascism is the point at which nostalgia for stakes and loss of context converge. Today's fascist is one who rifles through an ephemeral past, one he never really experienced, searching for an enemy that he's not only ill-equipped to assess, but that doesn't exist in any meaningful sense.
For those who feel disenfranchised by the end of history (or late capitalism or neoliberalism, whichever buzzword one assigns it), the options are limited. For reasonable people, it's a choice between participating in society or being forced to its margins. The neo-fascist avoids both options entirely, shirking nihilism and resignation. Instead, he dives head first into the shallow pool of contextless nostalgia, attempting to plumb the depths of history without realizing he's splashing around in a puddle. It's a frenetic and palsied search for a transgressive idea with which to define his world and by extension, himself. Robert Bowers is insane, yes. But the massacre he committed is simply a fringe response to a mainstream problem.
Donald Trump and the Fascist Urge
If Robert Bowers is a fascist, then what do we make of Donald Trump, whose rallies and policies embolden Bowers and those like him? This question has been on the tip of the media's tongue for three years, a veritable op-ed monsoon raging on both sides of the political aisle. It's here where Jean Baudrillard's idea of media as Möbius strip⁵ becomes relevant. Is Donald Trump a fascist? In this age of constant transmission, of signs and symbols ad infinitum, the answer and question morph into one. The answer is yes because we're asking. The harder pill to swallow is that we're asking because we want it to be true.
If a contextless nostalgia for stakes is the spiritual issue of our time, then it's preposterous to assume that it only affects the 42% of Americans who support Donald Trump. The other 58%, (liberals, socialists, some civility-obsessed conservatives) just manifest their yearning in a different way. The media frenzy surrounding Trump's campaign–the comparisons to Hitler, the endless, dizzying video coverage of his rallies and speeches–serves this latent desire. The mainstream media's posturing against Trump, their denouncing him as fascist, served only to legitimize him as such.
The #Resistance, the anti-fascists, the op-eds from supposed Trump staffers quietly opposing him from inside the White House, all work in service of the neo-fascistic lunge. The liberal outrage at Trump simply fulfills the desire for stakes in reverse. Instead of supporting Trump and accepting a manufactured enemy (immigrants, Jews, whomever), the anti-fascist (even linguistically the term anti-fascist, by virtue of its existence, seeks to build Trump into that enemy) wills him into being that thing by virtue of the anti-fascist's constitutional need for something to define himself against. Thus, simultaneity is achieved. Trump is a fascist not because of his racism or demonstrative hand gestures, but because both his supporters and detractors alike have willed him into the role.
Unfortunately, we're rapidly approaching a time in which the hows and whys lose their importance. Acts of terror, like Robert Bowers' attack, cut through the mediated blur and give us an honest glimpse at the stakes we're clamoring for, that we claim, by virtue of our actions, to need. In those moments the romance of crisis fades. With the rise of a Neo-American Bund, the regularity of racist and xenophobic sentiments and policy decisions, and the attempted suppression of the press, this once contextless urge is transformed into a frightening reality. Still, considering the The Tree of Life massacre already feels old, tired, like a relic of the past, it seems unlikely that this, or any one moment, will be enough to snap us from our nostalgic impulse and back into the present. It feels as though we're stuck in circumlocution, doomed to grasp for stakes until we conjure them in some perverse alchemical procedure.
1. While a more accurate representation of Eco's point would include in it the idea of "heroic death," it feels safe to call this a death drive nonetheless. Suicidal ideation, however sublimated, is still suicidal ideation.
2. One that immediately comes to mind is Gavin McInnes, the leader of the Proud Boys, a far right group that was recently videotaped mercilessly beating protesters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
3. He also never attempts to. His piece on Ur fascism was written in 1995 and would have had to have been incredibly prescient to stay entirely relevant today.
4. Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco, 1995
5. The Möbius strip, while constantly turning over itself, only has one side. In Baudrillard's view it's a perfect metaphor for binary or dichotomy (of ideals, information what have you), of which he believes(ed) no longer exist in modern society. It's a means of illustrating how information is constantly conflated.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. He currently serves as Lead Editor for Gramercy Media. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff