How’s that for a title, huh? The new Trump administration in the US is making it very clear that the US is up against a (proto)fascist regime 1, as its very first actions have teed up a conflict between the judicial and executive branches, with Customs and Border Control going rogue in favour of the President, ignoring legitimate court orders based on internal instructions to comply with the President’s agenda, and mass protests assembling at airports in solidarity with immigrants who, in many cases, just want to return to their lives in the the US, or escape persecution.
The only time you get to ignore a court order in a well-constituted democracy is when a higher court contradicts it, so anyone at the US CBP who’s refusing to follow those court orders after being informed of them is actually breaking the law. The ACLU is going through heroic efforts to try and legally represent anyone impacted by this new executive order, however many are being illegally denied access to counsel. This is not the sort of story you expect to hear from a democratic nation, and of course, it’s made even worse by Trump firing his acting Attorney-General, a rare holdover from the Obama administration who took the logical step of advising the justice department not to defend the executive order, as it wasn’t legally defensible and its resources were better spent elsewhere. This of course put her in the nearly unprecedented position of publicly disagreeing with the White House, so her dismissal is understandable if wrong.
In the middle of this mess, we still have some well-intentioned conservatives, moderates, and even left-wing advocates of non-violence objecting to punching a Nazi, a debate which is at best, a distraction. Let’s get it over with so we can move on to things that matter.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not my preferred tactic to punch anyone. But people are forgetting the extreme measures we went to in the Entnazifizierung (eng: denazification, usually of Germany) and that resistance against a regime employing the tactics of fascism might require several different approaches, some of which are distasteful concessions to the weaknesses inherent in a democratic system2. I maintain my stance that non-violent action is effective, ethical, and normally sufficient, and that if illegal action is required in protest it should be with the intention of getting arrested. However, there are reasons for violent action that go beyond appealing to moderates, which is largely what modern democratic protest is about. If I was given a definite choice between punching a Nazi in the face and facing a new fascist regime, you can bet I would be masking up and punching me a Nazi. (naturally, the real world is a little more complicated than that, and I have no immediate intention to go off punching anyone, as I don’t actually know that it’s necessary or sufficient to stop fascism, and fortunately, it looks not to be on the export into New Zealand just yet) The person who did punch Richard Spencer no doubt had legitimate objectives that have arguably been met by doing so: to intimidate neo-fascists, to motivate people opposed to them, to send the message that their policies of deportation aren’t viewed universally as non-violent, to act as a symbol of resistance, and so on. There is an argument that those type of tactics may be necessary against people setting up actual fascist regimes like Trump.
While I wouldn’t do it myself, I can’t condemn someone for punching a Nazi, and I think it’s an astounding display of lack of perspective as to the how much of a threat even muted whisperings of forced relocation (merely a more mild form of eliminationism, an ideology that has never met a genocide it didn’t like) that are going on within the new white nationalist wing of the Republican Party. Add to that influential advisors in the new administration such as Bannon and Sessions having close ties to white nationalism, and I’m frankly shocked that people don’t view punching nazis as an under-reaction, and for those who are still outraged at the idea of violence against Nazis, I hope you’re very regretful about World War 2, and pretty much any movies set between 1920 and 1945.
Let’s rewind back to post-war Germany, which was occupied in four zones by the UK, US, Soviets, and French. Freedom of association in post-war Germany was gone. The Nazi party was disassembled, and people were questioned about their support of the party, and put on trial based on its membership list once it was recovered. Imagine for a moment that the Republican Party were banned in the USA and understand what a cultural shock that would be and an enormous task it was. Merely being a member of the party prior to Hitler’s rise to power automatically made you a a suspect. Imagine if voting for Trump in the US primaries were a crime for a second, and compare the scale of that to punching one alt-right neo nazi in the face.The task was so big that in the American zone, young people as a category were exempted under the rationale that they had been indoctrinated. The French didn’t bring people to court because they essentially considered the entire country guilty anyway, so they focused on specific high crimes, but they still had to fire a huge numbers of teachers due to their role in indoctrinating young people, so many they had to let some back on probation to cover all the vacancies.
Denazification was considered so necessary that it went on even in countries occupied by the Germans, not just Germany itself.
Even after denazification ended, (it was viewed as an overreaction by the new West German government composed of the non-soviet zones) several people were banned from working for the government in the future, and the new German constitution in place today gives the ability to ban political parties to their federal constitutional court. Imagine for a moment if the next President of the US had to amend the US constitution to allow the Supreme Court to ban political parties because nazis undermined democracy that much in the US. That is the level of threat they are legitimately facing right now.
I don’t say this in support of these measures, but rather to give us context: One person punching another in the face over this will be us getting off easy. Fascist regimes have ended up much worse, and while I’m heartened by the existing non-violent acts of resistance, I would not be surprised if violence ends up being viewed by Americans as necessary to prevent the worst of what Trump may have in store for the US. And of course that’s regrettable because assault is a crime. But it may have been the morally correct thing to do. Or the politically necessary thing. So we should stop wasting time having an actual debate about whether minor acts of violence to prevent genocide is morally excusable, because of course they are. Preventing fascism by opposing confirmed nazis is pretty much a moral duty, and it’s difficult to over-react to an imperative like that.
I honestly can’t say for sure whether violence will be necessary to stop American fascism. I know there are non-violent ways to do it. I don’t know how effective they will be. (In an ideal world, non-violent activism can solve any political problem. However, the US has in many ways been trending away from those ideals that empower non-violence, and it will be a matter of effective messaging and resistance to make progress. I will be thrilled, of course, if they can resist fascism without hurting anyone) But I do know hand-wringing over vigorous opposition to fascism is stupid.
1 To be clear, don’t go looking for jackbooted thugs just yet. That’s not how an authoritarian regime starts off, in fact usually they focus on populist policy at first while they consolidate their power. Beyond that, it looks much like what we’re currenting seeing in the US, with the gaslighting of the media, the war against independence of the courts, the deference to the will of a strong authority figure, the propaganda about the crimes of the chosen scapegoats, (in this case, Muslims in particular and immigration in general- Trump literally wants to release information about crimes committed by refugees) and the intertwining of: religion with patriotism, and business interests with government, and militarism with heroism. Although to be fair, those last three were already in place. If you go looking for the most obvious trappings of previous fascist and authoritarian regimes, (military police, curfews, patriotism parades, leader-worship, indoctrination rather than education, funny salutes) you’ll miss the actual warning signs that the US is in one, as a lot of the worst things don’t happen until power is already consolidated.
2 Yes, democracy has weaknesses. The old Winston Churchill quote applies:
…it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Democracy is vulnerable to deceptiveness by political leaders. It’s vulnerable to the dark side of populism and cults of personality. *cough* John Key *cough*. It’s vulnerable to erosion of the media landscape. It’s vulnerable to influence through private funding of political parties, in systems without state funding. (and in state funding systems, it’s vulnerable to unfair rules being set by the government of the day, or state capture of whoever runs the funding system) It’s vulnerable to two-party oligopoly.
The whole point of democracy is that the media and its citizens are supposed to be invested in it and defend those systems. The US is suffering this protofascism precisely because it has a disengaged voter base who didn’t feel like their democracy was benefitting them. Let this be a lesson to any democracy where all major parties think it’s okay to ignore the will of the voters: you are opening yourselves up to populist revolution, and if you’re lucky it will be from the left and of a more democratic variety.
Fascists know these vulnerabilities and are not afraid to ruthlessly exploit them. The upside is, after WW2, those who study their history also know the fascist playbook, and can aggressively oppose it.