We need to change our approach to right-wing violence. That starts with changing how we think and talk about it.
This edition of the newsletter has a companion podcast interview with Joan Braune
you can check out here. Subscribe to the podcast and never miss an episode.
Happy Monday after the attempted coup everyone! Hope you were able to get some sleep.
Coming back just a couple days after my last message because one of the scholars I referenced in that piece, Dr. Joan Braune, was kind enough to elaborate on her ideas here.
They are extremely, extremely important to ponder as we move into a post-Trump (as president) world.
As I said in my essay over the weekend: the time, energy and depth with which scholars like Dr. Braune dig into far-right groups and the efforts made to stop them goes far, far beyond even the most obsessive, compulsive doom-scroller (thinking of myself, here) and as a result they’re thinking several steps ahead of most pundits.
Braune, in particular, had piqued my interest with a social media post a couple weeks ago expressing concern about the way we talk about far right violence with blanket terms like “terrorism” and “extremism,” which are also used against the left. And so I invited her on the podcast last Tuesday. It was a wonderful, if slightly theoretical-feeling, conversation
Then came Wednesday.
Theory became reality and, like clockwork, the media slid into its comfortable old habits, even as Twitter uncovered some scary connections between the insurrectionists and the president’s closest allies.
Braune messaged me asking how quickly we could get the podcast up. I responded by asking if she wanted to write an essay to get her thoughts out there as quickly as possible. I told her I was working on my own.
We’ve been going back and forth with drafts all weekend and then, on Sunday morning, Spokane awoke to an article where Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich almost immediately tried to both-sides the issue, just as her essay warns.
Because of this ^ and a dozen other reasons, I feel incredibly fortunate that Dr. Braune had the time to write this essay for us on such short notice.
Read it. Ponder it. Take it to heart. Share it with your friends.
And look for the podcast later in the week.
It's time for a different strategy
Dr. Joan Braune
Categories like “terrorist” and “extremist” can be unhelpful ways of explaining the far-right—not because the terms do not fit the actions of those who entered the U.S. Capitol, but because these terms lump very different groups of people together in problematic ways under a single label, and because these terms have been used to facilitate Islamophobia and crackdowns on the left and activists of color.
A mere day before the riot at the Capitol, in fact, Trump issued an executive order requesting that antifa be labeled a “terrorist organization.” (Antifa is not even an organization. It is a broad commitment to confronting fascism, and anyone can claim its mantle.)
The riot at the Capitol occurred one day after my interview for RANGE, in which I expressed concern about the use of the terms “terrorist” and “extremist.” This concern seems more relevant than ever.
Now more than ever, we need careful specificity.
Those who took over the Capitol building were far-right and fascist insurgents. (Some were fascists—all were far-right, which is a broader category.) They were not, as some mainstream news agencies mistakenly reported, “anarchists.” (After all, they were fighting to maintain the state power of a democratically unseated president. Anarchists seek to abolish state power.) They were certainly not “antifa,” as some right-wing conspiracy theorists, including Congressional Representative Matt Gaetz, claimed.
But I won’t be calling the Capitol rioters “terrorists” and “extremists” either.
Calling for crackdowns or investigations into broad categories like “extremism” could give some in power an excuse to crack down on Black Lives Matter activists, Muslims, refugees, and antifascists.
These groups have already been surveilled and profiled with government funds devoted to “Countering Violent Extremism,” and we know that policing and surveillance are quite different when applied to Black Lives Matter protests and Muslim communities than to right-wing, predominantly white, crowds.
Pouring funding into initiatives designed to stop “terrorism,” or creating new government offices devoted to stopping “radicalization,” could easily empower fascist and white supremacist movements in the long run. Such programs can continue a legacy of attacks on the left which law enforcement and government agencies in the United States have long overseen (such as the suppression of labor organizing and radical politics in the Palmer Raids and the infiltration of left groups and assassinations of Black and indigenous activists under Cointelpro).
Many in the problematic “counter-terrorism industry” and in right-wing Islamophobic think tanks that claim to fight “extremism,” are no doubt licking their lips right now, hoping for a new influx of funding due to the events at the Capitol. The truth is we don’t need new criminal laws or a massive new influx of intelligence spending to counter white nationalist “terror.”
What is most needed right now is a mass social movement against fascism.
A social movement does more than demonstrate in the streets—it also educates, builds community and culture, and provides space to explore the philosophical and political questions of meaning and identity that alienated and angry youth and others sometimes turn to hate movements in an attempt to solve. The work of social change includes community forums; book clubs; art shows; mutual aid to support those facing eviction, incarceration, and deportation; and spaces for spiritual exploration and expression of collective rage and grief.
We need to confront the root structures of white supremacy and other structures of oppression, as well as economic exploitation, that continue to make fascist movements appear as a “live option” in the world today.
Doing that requires more than outnumbering and overwhelming fascists in the streets, doxxing them (exposing their identities), or deplatforming them (canceling their meeting spaces, kicking them off social media), though I support such actions – they can be very effective at slowing the spread of fascist and far-right movements. Lately many of us have been on the defensive, responding to one traumatizing crisis after another, but the left’s long legacy of emancipatory struggle remains. The Black Lives Matter movement in particular awakened a larger vision through its call for defunding the police.
It is time to start building alternatives (“dual power,” in the words of Antonio Gramsci) and constructing a new vision for the future.
To be clear, those who facilitated the rampage through the Capitol should be prosecuted, starting with Trump and his cronies, and including members of law enforcement who chose to let this happen, such as opening gates for the insurgents or taking selfies with them.
However, we don’t need new laws to do this.
We don’t need new methods of surveillance. We don’t need new terrorism classifications.
The far-right insurgents interrupted government processes and forced elected officials into hiding, stole and destroyed property, fought police, carried unpermitted weapons, made threats, and some even had explosives, including planting two bombs that were found before they could detonate. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems safe to assume these actions are already illegal.
Nor are a host of new government surveillance or investigative programs needed to ensure prevention. In fact, the January 6 coup attempt was planned in public for months. The rioters’ social media posts plainly stated their plans to storm the Capitol. Some of them livestreamed themselves or took selfies as they carried out these actions.
You could – and people did – follow the entire plan by logging onto Reddit or joining Parler. The organizers hid very little for a very simple reason: they felt they had permission from the President of the United States.
Prosecution of far-right insurgents and impeachment of Trump will not solve the problem we face, although I support both actions as a stopgap measure at time when a fascist coup for the presidency is still a viable possibility. (The next few weeks of national news, I’m sad to say, are likely to be pretty wild.)
The Republican Party is in internal upheaval, and if it does not maintain a Trumpist identity, it is likely that a new U.S. third party will emerge in the next few years representing something more overtly fascistic.
There have long been attempts of that type among fascists and the far-right in the U.S., but these are still small and do not represent a plausible political challenge, with the occasional exception of the Libertarian Party. That could change if disaffected Trumpist former Republicans choose to coalesce around one of the small fascist or far-right parties. Whatever new formations might emerge, one thing is clear: more overtly fascist politics lie in the U.S. political landscape’s future, spurred by the emergence of new leaders who are savvier and better spoken than Trump, more ideological, smarter, and just as hateful.
If you think Trump 2020 was bad, brace yourself for something like “Tucker Carlson 2024.”
More fascist and far-right insurgents will also embrace a violent accelerationist strategy like that of groups like Atomwaffen Division, seeking to create enough chaos inside and outside politics to spark a civil war or societal breakdown, out of which they hope to destroy and then rebuild the world in their image.
If the takeover of the Capitol was a clean victory for anyone, it was certainly a victory for fascist accelerationists, who have been celebrating on social media. This kind of apocalyptic catastrophism has long inspired far-right militia movements as well as Nazi ideology. The belief that history must be destroyed and remade is also a core belief of former White House advisor Steve Bannon and helped shape the Trump administration’s policies.
In these challenging times, it becomes even more necessary for the left to hold onto a message of radical hope and imagination, and to be engaged in building now the future we want later, rather than looking to worsening conditions as the only way to “wake people up.”
The outlook is not wholly bleak, though.
The shifting political landscape also opens up new opportunities for the left. As Luke and I discussed on RANGE, Cold War categories are beginning to break down. Far from history being over, there are new openings for historical change if we consider our current context and categories carefully.
Those who join fascist and far-right movements are responsible for their choices, both morally and (where relevant) legally. Nevertheless, the widespread pull of these movements, especially the massive attempts to recruit children and teens, is a reality that the left can counteract.
When angry, disaffected kids go in search of meaning in the midst of a global crisis, will the first thing they find be fascist ideologues on the internet trying to recruit them with promises of belonging and an outlet for their rage? Or will they find the presence of alternatives in their communities: groups of people fighting for each other; opportunities for mutual aid for our neighbors; a genuine compassion for everyone; and a movement dedicated to fighting for those exploited, oppressed, and alienated in our society every bit as ferociously as Donald Trump pretended to.
We can build a brighter future, but not through compromising our principles in the name of “healing” and “reconciliation,” nor by looking to law enforcement to protect us from fascism.
Instead, we must build a strong left movement against fascism and for social and racial justice, and permanently defeat the fascist threat.
Dr. Joan Braune teaches Philosophy and Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University. Her research stands at the intersection of Frankfurt School Critical Theory and Critical Hate Studies. She has published two books on Critical Theory and is currently writing a new book on current fascist movements and how to counter them.
In addition to her academic research, she is a community activist, and is a frequent invited speaker to help community organizations, educators, labor, and faith communities understand and respond to the threat of white supremacist groups.